Monday, September 8, 2014

Earlier today I finally stopped laughing over Justin losing his tooth on our camping trip a few weeks ago. There's a perfectly good reason they call it the wilderness, wild things seem to always happen. It's instances like what happened to him that also got me to thinking of how dangerous it really is out on the trails. There's plenty of pitfalls to befall the casual hiker. Bees, bears, ticks, poison ivy, and stinging nettle to name a few. Snakes, breaks, twists, ands sprains all await with one wrong move. Take all those things in to consideration before heading out and don't forget to check the weather too.  Sadly, there's always a press release that emerges each year where someone got too close to the edge of a cliff or is swept over a waterfall when they lose their footing. How do you avoid becoming that person, or worse than that (according to John Forbes) be the one that survives and takes a rescue ride in the basket below a helicopter? Why risk it? Why put your neck on the line when you could sit at home and look at everyone elses adventures through the safety of your computer screen or television? Because no matter how wonderful someone else can capture a moment, there's nothing like living in it. Pushing the envelope, taking it to the next level, call it whatever you want, but it's that aspect that I find most enjoyable, especially on my recent outings.
Above the clouds near the Devil's Courthouse off of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Lower waterfall on Sam's Branch. The steel cable on the left of picture is from the railway that used to run through the area that now serves as the trail.
Steve at the brink of the lower waterfall.
One of the first waterfalls we reached above the lower falls. This one was nice being around 20ft high.

Last Thursday, I had the good fortune of hiking with my friend Steve. It was one of the few times we've had the opportunity to hike together this year and he wanted to go somewhere that provided a little danger, some adventure, and plenty of fun. I researched my hiking bible, Kevin Adam's North Carolina Waterfall Guide Book, and became fixated on a creek off the Blue Ridge Parkway outside of Brevard called Sam's Branch. Sam's Branch flows off the steep slopes of the mountain above Waynesville and forms plenty of waterfalls along the journey. The most intriguing part for me was the difficulty involved in accessing the waterfalls upstream from the trail that intersects the lower waterfall on Sam's Branch and leads on to the falls on Wash Hollow. I have been to the falls there several times and never thought to hike upstream or really had the time considering I've often been on one of my marathon waterfall days. Remember the 23 waterfalls in one day entry? I told Steve of the potential to see waterfalls that only a handful of people have ever seen and he was immediately convinced as well, we were off to Sam's Branch.
Heading upstream. This was took above one of the waterfalls looking downstream.
This little cascade was very photogenic.
Putting some distance on civilization.
Not much of a trail. Just keep moving upstream. That was our motto.
This picture does little to represent how tough of a climb this was. I had to crawl on my knees here up the crack of the rock to get any traction.
The route we took is somewhere down in the lower portion of the picture. This was our first full view of the cliff on the opposite side of the creek.

The two hour drive to North Carolina is never bothersome as our conversation kept my mind off the miles. We arrived at the trail head off of NC 215 shortly after 10am and began the climb up the bank to meet the old railroad bed that serves as the trail. It had rained the night before and every tree limb I brushed dropped cold water down my back. I brought all my camera gear including the gopro and my tripod. Adam's description warned of climbing and needing your hands free to negotiate the terrain but I figured we could toss the equipment to one another as we made our way up the mountain. Steve was stoked and had me almost in a run as we curved around the ridge toward the roar of water. The rain had also gave us some prime flow for the normally peaceful creek. I took us down a small side path that gave me my first view of the lower waterfall from it's base. Sam's Branch stair steps up the mountain for as far as you can see and I started taking pictures right away, taking advantage of the overcast sky and good lighting. Steve turned over any rock he could budge in search of snakes or salamanders waiting patiently for me to finish. We climbed back to the main trail and a short distance later it arrives at the midpoint of the lower waterfall.
This is the best kind of hiking.
This waterfall was close to 25ft high and was also very photogenic.
This large waterfall made our efforts seem worthwhile. I wanted to swim here but I knew we were pressed for time so we had to hike back into the woods. There wasn't a safe way to climb over this one at creek level.

From our vantage point we could see downstream to the base and upstream to more and more drops of the falls. As promised in the description, we found the sloped rock on the opposite side and began our climb beside the waterfall. The trail is immediately steep and overgrown as many people don't go upstream. It was slick as well, with water running over exposed rock faces, we were forced to grab onto anything we could to keep going upward. Steve had to climb with one hand because the other was carrying the gopro and tripod but we soon found a trail above us higher on the bank and bushwhacked up to meet it and keep a little distance from the slick bedrock along the waterfall. The trail soon leveled and so did the creek. We worked our way back down toward the top of the falls and met the creek there. A large boulder hangs over the creek at the brink and a deep pool lies beneath it. Upstream was about a 20ft sliding waterfall and more smaller falls as I could see a good distance past it. Most of the rocks were covered in bright green moss and already you could get the feeling that this area wasn't visited very often. In the guidebook, it suggests crossing to the right of the creek and making your way upstream as best you can. I seen what appeared to be a disturbance in the leaves along the bank and suggested we should take that route since it looked like the beginnings of were someone or something else had walked. Climbing up the rock was difficult but once we got in the woods there was plenty of laurel to hold onto. The laurel were so thick that we had to crawl and twist our bodies to get through and keep trying to follow what we now determined was a small game path. I grew frustrated quickly and retreated back to the creek and waded and rock hopped along more small waterfalls. I took time to take some pics of a few that were over 10ft high and Steve joined me in the water to keep heading onward looking for the largest waterfall on the creek. I had downloaded a picture on my phone of the only image I could find from the base of the upper waterfall so I had an idea of what we were looking for. Continuing up the creek I started noticing a large rock cliff hanging over the left side of the creek. I could already tell we were gaining elevation and although it was slow going there was so much to see I couldn't wait to turn the next corner.
Crawling through the woods is hard on your laundry.
Standing on top of another waterfall.
Steve pondering our next move. Look how deep that water is! This was about waterfall number six or seven.

Soon we were above the shade of the massive cliff and I could see the top of the rock looking downstream. What a view it must be to sit up there! We arrived at another waterfall, this one being around 25ft high and hidden by large rocks above and below it. We rested there while I took some pictures and as I packed my camera back up, the rain began to fall. The last three hikes we've been on it's rained, so we weren't concerned and tried to reenter the woods to have a little shelter. The climbing was horrendous with laurel and rock walls cutting us off and we were having to back track and try new routes. We found the best way to continue on was to crawl to miss much of the laurel branches and it wasn't long before I could hear another waterfall. Steve went down to the creek first and called for me to come see for myself. I came out of the brush to see a 50ft waterfall with lots of small cascades and a long deep pool at it's base. Even more surprising was there was no mention in the book or photo of any of the waterfalls that we had seen so far. There was no sign of human intervention either. No trail, no trash, no disturbances of any kind. I carefully surveyed both sides of the creek bank but not a single leaf was turned over.  I just didn't see any way someone had been there before. I mentioned it to Steve and he agreed, the rocks we were sitting on had moss as thick as a couch cushion on them. The rain had let up for the time being and we could see the skies were full of threatening clouds but we now both were soaked so our hike continued on.
As I rounded the corner, The massive upper waterfall of Sam's Branch came into view. This is only half of the waterfall.
The upper portions of the waterfall. There's still a long way to the top. I had crawled up a sloped slick rock for this view. The rock drops sharply on the opposite side of this hiding more cascading water.

Steve never complains when we go out, but the constant crawling and ducking under obstacles was starting to hurt his back. I brought some water and trail mix and at the base of another falls along the way we rested and started doubting we would find what we were after. Steve needed to be home around 6pm and it was now past 130pm and he seemed more and more hesitant to head further up the mountain. The forest closed around the creek making it almost dark with the rain clouds and above the falls it leveled out heading out of our sight. Had we somehow passed the upper waterfall? I told him we would hike up around the level area to see what was there. I stayed in the creek and put a good distance between us rounding the corner to find just more of the same. I could see that the creek took a sharp turn to the left on upstream and I told myself that if I didn't see anything past that point we would head home.

I rounded the corner and was greeted with a decent size waterfall and lots of boulders on either side of the creek. I climbed on top of one and could see that the lower waterfall was only a portion of a roughly 100ft high waterfall! WE HAD FOUND IT! I grabbed my phone to take some pictures and looked at the saved image of the upper waterfall. At first it seemed that it wasn't the right place but I noticed a distinct rock that separated the stream at the upper drop and knew we had succeeded. Eventually my elation and heart rate settled and I started taking pictures. The boulders kept me from seeing the whole waterfall unobstructed and the rain had started falling again. Steve joined me at the base and used his foot as a step to let me climb over more rocks and see the drops hidden behind each rock. For more than a mile we had seen no sign of any other humans and now we were crawling over slick rocks taking pictures in the rain. Once I was satisfied I had enough pictures to tell the story the reality of the danger set in.
The upper waterfall on Sam's Branch. Only the second photo I've ever seen of it. The person who hiked here before us had stayed in the woods passing much of what we saw along the creek up the mountain and explaining why there wasn't a trail or any disturbances of any kind. I was standing on a rock that had stinging nettle growing on it to take this picture. I would estimate a little over a mile separates the lower and upper falls but it's some tough no trail hiking!

Only half of our hike was complete. We now had to get off the mountain in the rain, around the cliffs, and through the laurel. There are so many obstacles that separated us from dry clothes and a ride home it was a little discouraging. Many times I've took vicious falls on the way back due to not paying attention. We didn't have the luxury of getting hurt because I knew no one could get to us any time soon so we agreed to take our time and work together and started back to the truck. Although we had twisted all over the creek and mountain on the way up we followed our tracks back rather easily. I opted to stay in the creek for as long as I could and when we would arrive at a brink of a falls we would crawl back through the laurel and slide down to the base and continue on down the creek. A couple of hours later and we were safely back at the truck.

On the ride home, Steve and I talked about the danger involved in what we do and the lines that seem to get pushed further and further by an ever growing hiking community The Sam's Branch hike had lived up to the hype. It was everything I could ask for with at least seven waterfalls that I had never seen pictures of. That being said, it's not a hike for everyone. There's no trails or signs of any kind, so if you get hurt or lost, you're on your own. I consider myself very fortunate to be healthy enough and experienced enough to get out and do the things I do, but I know that all it takes it was one wrong step and I could end up being one of those press releases. It keeps me honest and hungry for more adventure, hopefully, for years to come! Until next time, happy trails!

No comments:

Post a Comment