Saturday, August 9, 2014

On Sunday, I spent the night in the woods with two men I met on the Internet.

I can't help but laugh when I read this, but it's the truth. In what has been a year that will be tough to top, I prepared for what would be my first overnight camping trip with two of the administrators of The Waterfalls of Tennessee Facebook page. Ronnie Phipps and Barry Cole have the arduous task of monitoring a collection of unruly yayhoos and lollygaggers as they fight over anything from photoshop techniques to tree branch relocation programs. I've been a member of the page since it's meager beginnings to it's recent surge of new members and eager hikers. I've always enjoyed the playful banter and how upset some people get over Barry's never ending quest to collect dues. Through it all, it's brought a great joy to my life and my wife can always tell when I'm on the page because I'm usually laughing and typing a clever response of my own. When Ronnie first mentioned that they would be interested in doing a northeast Tennessee trip and asked if I would join them I jumped at the opportunity. I was honored they would ask me, and excited to see if they were as fun to be around in the real world.
Off trail adventure. Photo courtesy of Ronnie Phipps.

The guys at Lilybeth Falls. Photo courtesy of Ronnie Phipps.

I made an event link on the page and Facebook decided to take care of the invites for me. Suprisingly I received immediate responses from two other hikers who also happen to be coworkers. Ken "LOL" Woody was first to respond and has took to hiking like a duck to water. He also has one of the more miraculous stories as well, losing half his original body weight by following a strict diet and becoming a mall walking maniac. He's now so skinny when he met us at the trail head Sunday, you would swear he was there having his wish granted through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Justin "Tennessee" Hopkins was next with southeren drawl and love for all things hunting and fishing. Justin and I have hiked together in the past and his pace is similiar to my own making him a welcome member to the party. During the week leading up to our trip, another waterfall page member asked to join our clan and I gladly accepeted. I've always followed Joshua Rhea's work through the site and have been anticipating meeting him on a trail. He had to bargain with his pregnant wife to get final permission and the night before we were to meet up, he said she had signed off on all the waivers!
Another angle of Lilybeth Falls. Photo courtesy of Barry Cole.
Joshua Rhea with "The Brick". Photo courtesy of Barry Cole.

The final member of my Northeast Tennessee clan was John Forbes, an all go, no quit, up for anything hiker. I've become good friends with John this year and had invited him prior to creating the invites, his enthusiasm and knowledge add so much to any trip and having him along, in my opinion, was a must.

I met Ronnie and Barry at the Gray exit off of Interstate 26 early Sunday morning. Justin joined me there as well and we had breakfast before they made it into town. When they arrived, I was at eating on the tailgate of my truck. Barry was quick to jump out to greet me and Ronnie followed behind. I had told myself I was going to be on my best behavior on the trip considering Ronnie was the pastor at his church...but the day was young.

After a 30 minute ride to Erwin, we were turning on Clark's Creek Road heading into the Cherokee National Forest. There are campsites along the road as it winds into the mountain and lucky for us, I found one just a short curve from the Longarm Branch Trail. I had Ronnie park his truck and claim our spot while I rode up to retrieve the rest of our crew at the trail. John, Ken, and Josh were standing there ready to hike when I rolled in and after Forbes gave me a little grief for being late, everyone was excited and already getting along. I had scouted the area on Thursday for conditions and had already warned them the water would be low, but no one seemed to care, we were in the woods and on our way to certain adventure.

Hiking up Longarm is a short trip before Devil's Fork enters on the left side of the trail and soon we were at the base of Pine Ridge Falls, our first waterfall of the trip. Pine Ridge is a beautiful waterfall despite the lack of water and to see all the photographers spread out looking for just the right angle brought a smile to my face. I perched myself on a large rock downstream and it was nice not having to lug a lot of camera gear and getting to watch everyone else take in what I have seen many times. After a few minutes of dancing around trading locations we were ready to climb over the waterfall and follow the creek upstream to two of the lesser visited waterfalls in the area. Everyone handled the tricky climb and we were on our way to Josiah Falls. The trail is faint and overgrown and Friday's snake encounter was fresh in my mind. I kept my feet on the ground and led the pack through some hidden "ninja trails" (thanks, Randy) to a steep slide down to a creek crossing. As we wound through large boulders covered in mushrooms, I could see the trickle that was the waterfall. I've liked Josiah from the time I laid eyes on it and with the way everyone was rushing to set up tripods it appeared that everyone else did too. It was here that I got my first glimpse of "the brick" which is Josh Rhea's 1960ish film camera. It looks similar to one of those large pay for view binocular contraptions you see at tourist attractions on a smaller scale. Josh seemed happy I took notice and offered to let me look through the lens. The image appears reversed and I would be lost if I even attempted to shoot with it! Everyone's spirits remained high and smiles were everywhere, at least until I pointed out the trail to Lilybeth It's a straight up scramble with nothing to hold onto. Barry let out a sadistic laugh and was first to start up the bank, I followed close behind pointing out the best route to swing around the rock cliffs that surround Josiah. The group labored up steep grade and we all took a rest near the fork in the creek and the small falls we named Rat Falls in honor of local waterfall legend, Randy Tarpley. The trail is slightly more tame here and Barry let his guard down long enough to take a pretty hilarious fall. He was quick to his feet and proclaimed, "Hey, that was slick!" Another bear crawl, cliff scramble, log avoiding route later, and we emerged at Lilybeth Falls. The flow seemed better than what I saw at Josiah although I know it couldn't be and I felt a big relief that we hadn't encountered any snakes. As the photographers were doing their thing, John, Justin, and I set off to a large pine tree on a cliff high above the falls. I've always told myself I would climb up there and today was the day. John was first since he's part billy goat. He makes climbing look easy and Justin and me kind of lumbered up the cliff breaking any branch that got in our way. Soon we were perched high above the others even dangling our feet off the sloped cliff edge. We took a few pictures with the gopro before climbing down to be with the rest of the group. Everyone was stoked to have three quality waterfalls under our belts early in the day and we started down the trail buzzing with conversation. At a steep section on the return, I was behind Justin who was trying to use laurel to safely get down. Over my shoulder, I heard Ronnie say, "this looks fun" and before I could fully turn Ronnie shot by me riding on his butt with his hands in the air. Poor Justin was so startled he almost fell getting out of the way thinking I was barreling down on him! Ronnie jumped to his feet laughing and with a large stain on the behind of his gray hiking shorts that would be there through the rest of our trip. Conversation wasn't the only thing buzzing on our way out, as Barry and I were hiking together above Pine Ridge Falls I heard a distant scream followed by another! I turned to see Justin barreling through the woods right for us, Barry had a puzzled look but I knew what was happening and was determined to put some trail between me and whatever was stinging Justin. Before I knew it, I was way ahead of the group and Justin had stopped to inspect his wounds. He got a sting on the back and leg from yellow jackets and there was some immediate swelling. He claimed to be allergic so I stepped my pace up and kept the others moving in case Justin started feeling worse. When we arrived back at camp, Ronnie had some benadryl and Barry gave him some after bite insect wipes and he seemed to improve a little before we loaded up for the commute to Greene County and Margarette Falls.
John Forbes takes the high ground for this shot of Margarette Falls. Photo courtesy of John Forbes.

When I say the parking lot at Margarette Falls was packed, I mean IT WAS PACKED! I counted 19 cars and as we started up the trail I was already dreading what we would find when we got to the waterfall. Along the hike, we passed several groups hiking out, and also caught several groups hiking in. My pace reeled in slower hikers and I was expecting them to show some courtesy and step aside. One lady in particular drew my ire, hiking with two dogs she refused to budge and slowed my pace to a crawl. I asked her if she minded if I passed and she gave me a death glare I've received from many women before her. Unfazed I hiked on catching yet another group of Sunday hikers. I don't know if the old man couldn't hear me or didn't care but I stayed on his heels the final half mile to the base of Margarette Falls.At the falls, the crowd wasn't as bad as I had anticipated but there were still plenty of challenges, among them was my friend, the dog lady. She emerged just in time to play fetch with her dogs in front of where Ronnie had set up his tripod. Ronnie is truly a man of God, simply shrugging it off and moved over to another angle of the falls. John took off straight for the top and the solitude it provided. I could tell he was annoyed with the crowd as well and he stayed hidden in the bush along the falls. After some patience and some cloud cover, again I think Ronnie had a hand in, we had the falls to ourselves. Everyone got the pictures they wanted and we started the tough climb up and around to Bailey Falls. The trail meets a rock wall roughly 12ft high and although there are cracks in it and a few roots to grab it's not the sort of thing to be taken lightly. Each of us took turns climbing over and we stopped to make sure the next person didn't need help, it was a real team effort getting everyone safely over but we did it. The trails stays level and zig zags back and forth across the creek. Near a crossing with a dead stump I felt a burning in my ankle I looked down to see a hornet latched on. I jumped the creek and warned the others to be looking for a nest. Most of the group dropped down to the creek to avoid the trail and wade upstream to keep from getting stung. We entered the canyon that contains both Bailey Falls. There are plenty of places to turn an ankle or break a leg and some large boulders have to be negotiated before seeing the waterfall. I could tell by the newbies reactions, Bailey was a hit. Josh in particular was thrilled. The brick was out and in action in no time. He had labored hard to get there and at last he had good lighting and no one to photo bomb his images. Barry and Josh stayed together at the lower falls with Ken while Justin, Ronnie, John and myself took the steep rock trail above to the upper falls. The upper waterfall is my favorite in Northeast Tennessee and Ronnie agreed with me. Almost in a trance, he waded over close to the falls staring with his mouth open. The walls are lined with green moss and within minutes he had the best picture I've ever seen from there. Ronnie's playful side once again showed itself, and he climbed the slick ledge above the falls and was gone from sight. He reemerged on the ledge at the drop of the falls and posed for pictures since I've never seen anyone up there! Justin had recovered enough from his dizziness from the sting to rejoin our conversation and decided he would take the dip by laying in the waterfall. It was good to see him feeling good again and from the shrill screams he let out, the water must have been cold. John and I wedged ourselves against the canyon walls taking pictures with my gopro and Ronnie had to have my help getting down from the upper ledge, as I bear hugged him down to safety, I was surprised at how much he smelled like grape bubble gum (inside joke) We all rejoined the others and began the hike out with growling stomachs. As we approached the hornets nest I saw Ken closing in on the creek crossing right before the stump. I yelled to get his attention and told him to stay in the creek and wade downstream. He stared at me blankly before climbing the bank by the stump, getting stung, and dropping his hiking stick and standing there! I once again, was forced to run to avoid the angry swarm. Apparently losing a lot of weight, can affect your hearing as well! When we got back to our vehicles at the trail head. Josh decided he needed to head home to his wife. We all said goodbye and by the smile on his face as he pulled away, I would say he will join us again.
Josh's haul of film shots from the great waterfall hunt of 2014. Photo courtesy of Joshua Rhea.
Lower Bailey Falls. Photo courtesy of Barry Cole.
A top view from Bailey Falls with my Gopro.
Upper Bailey Falls. Photo courtesy of Ronnie Phipps.

Our next stop was for refueling purposes, everyone was hungry, tired, wet, and injured in some way, other than Ronnie. Clarence's Drive-In in downtown Erwin is one of the finest dining secrets in the area. If you are a fan of country fried steak and macaroni and cheese bites, go there! My wife had decided to meet us there to eat and when we pulled in, I was surprised to find out my mom and dad were also there eating. Our rowdy group brought a lot of life to the quiet diner and our waitress kept Barry's personal pitcher of sweet tea filled through out dinner. I went over and visited with my parents and they even noted how happy all of us were. I was still feeling frisky and after dinner suggested visiting Red Fork Falls since it was so close. Everyone agreed and we rode over 107 to the parking off Unaka Mountain Road. When we got close to the top of the waterfall I warned everyone to tread lightly since several people have fell to their deaths. Ken chose to stay up top already feeling some knee pain from the earlier hikes. The rest of us scrambled down to the base using the trail that hugs the side of the falls. Barry and Ronnie LOVED the view and were both blurs shooting wildly. Ronnie wanted to shoot a small chute of water below the waterfall and Amber, Justin, John, and I hiked down the slick trail with him. We continued on down the trail to a nice 30ft lower falls and I led the way. There's a large sloped rock that you climb out on to cross the creek here, and it's covered in spray and a thin layer of algae. I could feel my foot slide and warned the others to watch their step when I heard a strange "whoooooooop" noise. When I turned Justin was already airborne in a horizontal position. (imagine laying on a couch, without the couch) He remained in this same position as his body slammed the rock causing a groan that made me even flinch. He began writhing in pain on the rock and I was afraid he was seriously hurt, before he finally squeezed out the words "I'm ok" I joined Amber, Ronnie, and John on the other side of the creek and kept an eye on Justin rocking back and forth on the rock. By the time Ronnie finished shooting, Justin was to his feet and only complaining of a hurt wrist and some knee pain. We hiked up to Barry still shooting the upper falls. Justin began telling Barry of his fall when a sudden surprised look went across his face. It's a look I'll never forget, and then he said, "Oh my God, my tooth is gone!" Somehow during his fall, a tooth had blew out of his head! The bizarre look made me erupt with laughter. I doubled over having to let the others hike on without me. I felt bad for him but his expression and the weirdness of it all was too much for me. John made me laugh harder by saying, "you could tell the exact moment when something you've had for your whole life is gone" Justin, I'm sure, didn't find it as amusing as us but he was a good sport and a tough dude for being able to continue on despite several setbacks throughout the day.
Red Fork Falls. Photo courtesy of Barry Cole.
The chute below Red Fork Falls. Photo courtesy of Barry Cole.
Selfie time! Photo courtesy of Barry Cole.

By the time we made it back to camp, I had almost stopped laughing and it was already dark. John was busy unrolling tents and Ken was gathering firewood. Amber came back to camp delivering us some cookies and cupcakes and to hear our many crazy stories as we gathered around a warm fire. I didn't own a tent so John brought me one and a sleep mat. Several hours and laughs went by before we all retreated to our tents for the night. I was a little snug inside of mine but I was tired and after letting the pressure off of some Clarence's leftover's I was fast asleep...for about five minutes. Justin opted to sleep in his truck and when he was attempting to get comfortable he laid on the horn for a lengthy and startling blow. After my heart reentered my chest, I dozed off only waking up occasionally to get comfortable again. Around 6am I heard a tent unzip and decided to get up myself. John and Ken were wandering around camp and beginning to brew coffee and Ken's trademark green tea. John shared with me one of the stiffest cups of coffee I've ever had but it hit the spot and got me going for day two of our trip. Justin had vowed to get up early and catch our breakfast fishing but as 7am passed he finally emerged from his truck to join us around the fire. He walked like a man who had fell on a hard rock the day before and soon the call of the wild was striking each of our stomachs. One by one we took turns behind various trees creating a virtual minefield. As Justin vanished over the creek bank to file his paperwork, another visitor approached camp from the opposite direction. A mother bear and two cubs were coming through the forest on the other side of the creek. I saw them and said, "hey there's a bear" but John and Ronnie thought I was kidding and kept talking, again I said "A BEAR!" She was within 50 yards of camp when they both leaped to their feet grabbing for cameras. I ran to my tent and circled over to the road knowing she was crossing with them there. I got a few pics of them before they disappeared into the woods once again! It was an exciting start to our second day and made breaking down and packing up a little easier.
Base Camp with Amber, Jon, Ronnie, and Barry. Photo courtesy of Barry Cole.
My cell phone shot of the fleeing bears.

Our first stop of day two was Sill Branch Falls which is just down the road. Normally a beautiful 60ft waterfall it was slowed to a trickle and we spent very little time with photography there. The most striking part of the morning was how well everyone got along. It seemed that each person took turns hiking together and we all were talking non stop. Unless I didn't hear it, I don't think anyone exchanged an angry word the whole trip. After a few pit stops, we were on our way to the Blue Hole in Elizabethton. The Blue Hole is a series of four waterfalls and a deep swimming hole and we were lucky enough to get there early enough to have some time to ourselves there. Ken, Justin, and John took the scenic route missing the turn and heading all the way to the Johnson County line 10 miles away. As we were leaving, they caught up to us and we caravaned over to Laurel Falls in Denis Cove and our final stop of the trip. Justin said his farewells as the itch to fish was more than he could bear and he took off to Watagua Lake.  Laurel Falls is really popular as well and the trail head was already jammed with cars. Everyone was aware this was our final stop and we really savored hiking in taking our time and telling stories. The large rock staircase that lowers into the gorge had both Ronnie and Barry a little intimidated but they handled it like men when it came time to hike out.
Ronnie and I at the Blue Hole. Photo courtesy of Barry Cole.
Parting shot from Laurel Falls. Photo courtesy of Ronnie Phipps.

When we reached the parking lot, I felt a little sadness that our trip was coming to an end. Ronnie and Barry took turns saying goodbye to each of us and we started talking about dates later in the year for another group outing. I wished them the best and vowed to join them in future hikes and I was on the road home for a date with a hot shower and long nap. My first ever camping trip and guiding gig had been successful. No one was seriously injured in the two days we were in the wilderness, but if you happen to be hiking along the trail at Red Fork Falls and see a tooth laying amongst the forest floor, could you please return it, Justin would like to have it back. Until next time, happy trails!

No comments:

Post a Comment