Tuesday, January 20, 2015

There's a lot of mystique surrounding Buckeye Falls. From its height to its elusiveness, many people find themselves staggering out of the woods empty handed. Located deep in the Sampson Mountain Wilderness which is said to have the second highest black bear population in Tennessee, the falls are some five miles and twenty some creek crossings away from anything. If that doesn't seem difficult enough, throw in a march straight up the creek itself at a nearly vertical climb the final half mile to the base of the waterfall.
Crossing Clarks Creek shortly after starting the hike. Over 20 creek crossings like this are along the way.
Preparing for launch! photo by John Forbes.
Calmer waters trail side.
Sallie and Bob waiting on everyone to catch up!

Most people are hard to convince to do anything on an off day from their daily grind, so imagine my shock when a wave of pictures of Buckeye Falls generated a social media frenzy and nine other people agreed to hike to the rugged remote waterfall with me at the next available opportunity!
John heading up the single track hiking past the camp site.
Shane with Kinlee and Cade.
Old Man Winter and Dozer. Photo by Thomas Mabry.

The Buckeye fever reached its climax when Larry Jarrett shared an imagine depicting the majority of the 700ft monster on The Waterfalls of Tennessee Facebook page. Constant banter ensued, from this ridge to that ridge to what angle or zoom was used, the conversation continued. The whole hiking community of northeast Tennessee seemed to be involved in the thread, and I knew there would be many people marching through Clarks Creek in an attempt to find Buckeye Falls sooner rather than later. My introduction came to Buckeye in a similar fashion some three years earlier. A blog known as Appalachian Treks featured a single picture of four men standing at its base with a seemingly endless waterfall behind them. Included with the picture was a breakdown of step by step directions to the falls and in February of 2012, my friend, Kip and I found ourselves standing in that very same spot. Two additional return trips to the base would happen before Buckeye left my mind and two whole years of hiking went by.
Thomas coming up the area of trail I call the lumber yard.
Hugo climbing down one of the harder creek crossings. Photo by John Forbes.
Thomas, John, and Halley finding a way up the opposite side.

It seems that on days of the actual hike one or two of the members of the party fails to show so I never expected to see five cars and 10 people at the dead end parking area on Clarks Creek Road Sunday morning. Even more impressive was the collection of hikers assembled for the assault on Buckeye. The North Carolina representatives were Halley Burleson, Candi Fox, and Hugo Zaitsev by way of Brazil. I've hiked with all three so there were no doubts how they would handle the nearly 12 mile trip ahead of us. The Flat Creek Falls Foursome were reunited as well with John Forbes, Shane Estep, Thomas Mabry, and myself being back in action after taking down North Fork Stony Creek Falls a week earlier. Shane had brought two of his children along for the trip, 10 year old Kinlee and Cade whose age is unknown but I suspect around age fifteen. It seems that the hiking community is thinning year after year so to have two young members in our party was a welcome addition. Finally, Jeff Forrester was able to sneak away from work long enough to round out our crew of youth and experience. Everyone was eager to hit the trail but none more so than John Forbes who had been in the area at least ten times before but never finding the waterfall, with his hiking and outdoor expertise it just goes to show that it's downright hard getting to Buckeye Falls.

After everyone felt comfortable they had everything they needed for the trip we left the parking area and were greeted with the first obstacle of the day, a wide creek crossing of Clarks Creek. My spirits were lifted when we found it difficult to find a way across without getting our feet wet. If you are to see any water at all on Buckeye Falls, the creek crossings need to be hard right out of the parking lot. After some stalking back and forth on the creek banks we all made it across with only a few wet toes. It's important to keep your feet dry for many reasons but most of all the cold weather. Adding to difficulty of the hike itself, a lot of planning is involved just catching the waterfall in a state worth visiting. In the summer it dries up completely and in the winter months you battle the cold and the creek, so we were off to a decent start.

The hike up Clarks Creek is wide and easy to follow over the first two miles. Many horseback riders use the trail so watching your step is important even when not crossing the creek. John led the pack the first mile setting a blistering pace as I hiked with different members of our crew. I tried to include the children in conversation and they seemed to enjoy the challenge of each new creek crossing, even displaying some impressive jumping skills from rock to rock. The miles passed quickly and the hike is scenic well in advance of the main attraction. After two miles the main trail ends at a campsite and we all took a break for some snacks and water. The two trail dogs for the day, Sallie Gator, and Candi's dog, Bob ran back and forth hoping that someone would be kind enough to share a bite. The sun started emerging from behind some thick cloud cover and everyone started discarding layers as temperatures began to rise.
"Hey Jason, my kids hate you!" photo by John Forbes.
The trails end. It's all just following the creek from here.

The trail narrows to more of a single file hiking path and we were still over 2.5 miles from the waterfall. Soon downed trees slowed our progress and the path started to rise high above the creek. One of the trickier creek crossings was in this area as it requires a steep bank scramble and a climb up a rock wall on the other side. John noted that one of his previous attempts had been thwarted by missing this turn. I was a little concerned how everyone would do with the first true challenge, but in a few minutes, 10 strong were marching on upstream. The moss becomes thick on everything during this section of the hike indicating very few people see this part of the trail. Several nice cascades are on the stream as the creek narrows through rock chutes and then widens to a calm flat spread. I was really savoring the hike, on my previous trips I was so worried about finding the waterfall that I paid very little attention to anything other than keeping with the trail. I could already tell in the two years since I had been there enough people had made it this far that the trail was easily found, even for the nine others who had never been there. I started noticing as we approached creek crossings in mile three that tied on the branches were pieces of bright orange flagging tape. Someone else had brought a machete and knocked chunks out of the tree bark at random spots making a more primitive trail blaze.
Hugo below the rock upheaval  steam side.
A rare Candi sighting during the hike. Photo by John Forbes.
The Buckeye Base Gang. From Left to Right, Jeff, Shane, Hugo, Cade, Kinlee, Thomas, Halley, me, Candi, and John.

Somewhere around mile four the trail vanishes completely. The creek splits and forms small islands so the path of least resistance is the preferred way of travel. I came back to the front of the pack to guide us through the maze of fallen timber and slick rock creek crossings. Hot on my heels was Hugo, I found myself wondering what it must be like for him being from so far away and hiking in the one of the oldest mountain chains in the world. Even more staggering than the distance from Brazil to Erwin, Tennessee was the fact that he was able to hike comfortably in a t-shirt in 40 degree weather. He had told me at the trail head that the temperature in his town back in Brazil that same day was around 100 degrees! Together we navigated the steam beautifully and as I stepped onto one of the few flat sections of trail I looked up to see the top portion of Buckeye Falls frozen high on the mountain over a mile away! I pointed it out to the others but Shane said, "Yeah, Kinlee showed us a few minutes ago when she saw it!" Halley's eyes widened when she realized how far away it still was and said, "we're going up there?"
The Badger telling stories to an attentive audience. This is also the left turn to head up the drainage to Buckeye Falls.
Halley busting through the fallen tree and grapevines.
Thomas and Jeff climbing up the gorge. Photo by John Forbes.
The Buckeye Barrier. Large tree wedged in the creek.
Hugo and Candi climbing by the tree. Yes, it's that big! Photo by John Forbes.
Halley, Kinlee, Shane, Thomas, and John closing in on the falls.
The first appearance of the ice chunks...
And they are huge! Photo by Shane Estep.
Shane and his children. They are smiling because they see the waterfall behind me.

I found new energy once I saw the icy waterfall and pushed on arriving at the infamous left turn up to the base. We all took a final break and snack session as I had warned them the hike to the base was one of the more difficult stretches of trail they would ever attempt. Jeff never left his feet during the rest break instead he leaned on his hiking stick, more waiting, than resting. I call him Old Man Winter, but there's few hikers out there that has his determination. Thomas was entertaining the group with his many "badgerisms" and had even the children laughing, an impressive feat considering the age difference of 50 years. (Sorry Thomas) After a few minutes, everyone's anxiety got the better of them and we were up the drainage heading to the base. A large tree has fell sometime over the last two years taking with it a tangle of laurel and grapevine, fighting through that was almost maddening. Shane used the challenge to motivate Kinlee saying, "now this is the part of the hike where you normally start wanting to punch Jason in the face, but it will pass." Through the initial blow down, I climbed straight up the creek, there's enough rock that keeping your feet dry it's relatively easy. Halley emerged as second in line and she giggled at the ruggedness as the creek grew steeper and ice began to accumulate along it's banks. Around halfway up the drainage, a large tree rests firmly planted in the middle of the creek. Once we worked our way past it I could see the lowest portions of the frozen waterfall. I waited for the majority of the others and their faces were frozen as well from awe of the huge rock wall rising in front of them. Everyone was snapping away with cellphones and Shane caught up to me while I was looking for a perfect angle to capture the steepness. It was in this area we first noticed large round chunks of ice bigger than basketballs. They had once been frozen somewhere high on the waterfall and were now some 300 yards downstream. Getting hit with one of them would most likely kill you falling from hundreds of feet above. Halley took the lead and in almost a passing of the guard type moment, I saw Kinlee and Cade pass by still moving with  ease as the rest of us were panting heavily for breath to keep climbing. At another large fallen tree around 100 yards from the base I found one of the craziest scenes I've ever found while hiking. The large ice chunks had piled high behind the tree making a sea of loose ice, I stepped across the log and was thigh deep in the massive chunks. I stood there staring straight up with still no hope of seeing the top of the falls but coming to my senses and deciding I need to move out of the area as small chunks of ice were still breaking from the falls and sliding into the pit where I was standing. I warned the others as they approached to keep an eye out and we all made it to the right side of the base of Buckeye Falls safely.
Thomas and I resting for the final push. Photo by Shane Estep.
Buckeye Falls! The log pictured here is also the ice dam that has the big chunks of ice held back.
Jeff. Photo by John Forbes.
Thomas climbing high above the ice pit.
Buck(ice) Falls. Photo by Thomas Mabry.
Hugo climbing up to the base.
To give you an idea of how steep this is. Pictured below is John and Thomas. I have my foot wedged on the tree with my back against the bank above me to take the picture.

The vegetation I remembered from previous trips was long since stripped bare. The climb to the rock wall and a perfectly wedged log would require every bit of strength I had and using all fours to get there. Halley was first up the slope making it look easier than any of us would find possible. I climbed the same route but my weight caused the foot holds she used to slide away underneath me in the loose shale rock. I literally had to stick my fingers into the ground to keep climbing! After an exhausting effort, I joined her on the log turning to see Hugo and Shane approaching us like ants on the steep grade below. Soon Thomas was in route as well and chose a path closer to the icy falls eventually climbing his way to a ledge a short distance below us but unable to climb any higher. Hugo, Shane, and John all joined us on the log and I retrieved some rope from John's pack that Hugo tied off and lowered to Thomas to help him on the final push to the base. Cade decided he wouldn't be left out of the fun and scrambled up the slope with an admirable effort making it, Halley, me, Shane, Hugo, John, Thomas, and Cade all high on the log right next to the rock wall buckeye cascades down! We posed for pictures and all savored the moment being perhaps the largest group gathering in the shadow of the 700ft waterfall! Looking down the gorge where Jeff, Kinlee, and Candi had opted to stay they were nothing more than colorful dots on the rugged landscape. I stared across at the adjacent ridge plotting a return trip to shoot from a unique angle but found nothing of interest but laurel and knotty pine trees covering the ridge.
Thomas preparing to scale the unforgiving grade up to the log with the rest of us.
Thomas stretching for the top. Photo by John Forbes.
Shane to the rescue! This is why I love our hiking crew so much, everyone watches each others backs!
Thomas was rewarded with being included in the Shameless Selfie from the wall of Buckeye Falls.

The Trio! Look at the steepness behind us! I'm glad the tree branches held! Photo by Shane Estep.
Now we have to go down! Photo by John Forbes.
Cade taking advantage of the grapevine just above the ice pit. You can see me below being photographed by Halley. Photo by Shane Estep.
Shane on ice.
Buckeye triumph! Shot with my Gopro.
Awesome panoramic shot by Jeff Forrester. The tiny orange dot on far right of picture is a person!

As tempting as it was to stay on the log the rest of the day, we had to get back down the slope which was even harder than coming up. I stayed low to the ground trying to hug the rock as best I could and ready to dig in if I were to start sliding. If I started falling I would slide out on the ice of the falls and ride it several hundred yards to the ice chunk pit or beyond. I heard a rumbling above me and Shane came sliding by on his feet almost surfing the shale before jogging off the pile of rock beneath his feet to the safety of one of the only trees were the others were resting. Although my decent was less graceful, it was equally effective and I turned to watch John and Thomas make the final scoot back to safety. As we took the last few pictures of the waterfall the group slowly funneled back out of the narrow gorge. Thomas, Shane, John, and I stopped at the ice pit and posed for some more pictures since none of us had ever seen anything like it in person. I found myself alone for a few minutes in the ice pit and made a short video and took a few shots with my gopro, it's hard to describe the peace I felt. I caught up to John and we hiked together down the gorge talking of future hikes and the competitive nature of our hiking counterparts. Lost in our conversation, I missed a step and rolled my right ankle pretty bad. I stopped and emptied my boot of all the sticks and gravel and re-laced it tighter to keep it from rolling again. We caught the remainder of our crew back at the left turn and intersection with Clarks Creek. Although we had four miles to go the most difficult of our hike was behind us.
Being the last one of the group to leave the base of the falls it was nice to have John waiting on me to capture this moment. Can you see me? The terrain is as steep as it looks in this picture if not worse. Around five minutes after this picture I would sprain my ankle and still have a 4.5 mile hike back to safety. Believe me, I felt every step.

The hike back was a fast paced one aided by conversation between our hiking party. We had all snacked at various times on the trip but the thoughts of a hot meal at Clarence's kept our legs churning out the miles until soon we were crossing over to the parking lot and the safety of our cars.
Remember to always have your friends back! Thomas got a little dirty climbing down from the wall of Buckeye! Photo by John Forbes.
Mission accomplished! Dinner at Clarence's in Erwin! Photo by John Forbes.

My fourth trip to Buckeye was as special as my first. No matter how many people stand at its base, there never will be any less feeling of satisfaction or accomplishment for me. From 10 years old to sixty, there's nothing like seeing a person's eyes when they first stare up at the wonder that is Buckeye Falls. As I write this, my ankle is blue, black, and badly swollen. Some precautionary x-rays in the morning have me restless and anxious tonight. I love being able to hike to these remote locations and share the trips with whoever takes the time to read these blogs. Hopefully, it's a sprain and I will be back in the woods in a couple of weeks, either way I know I've been blessed beyond what I deserve to this point. Until next time, happy trails!

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