Wednesday, February 25, 2015

As February draws to a close it's hard to believe this year is passing by so quickly and it's even more surprising at how much I've accomplished toward my goal of reaching 500 miles on the trails this year. From Charlie's Bunion in the Smokies to standing behind frozen North Carolina waterfalls, I've been a busy man.

However, one of the more rewarding hikes occurred a little closer to home. Just outside the town of Erwin, Tennessee are the Talus Fields of Unaka Mountain. Passing motorists on Interstate 26 probably notice the large boulder fields strung out across the side of the mountain but few venture up for a closer inspection and with good reason too as I would come to find out.
A cold start to the day and the last sign of the truck for the next six hours.
Heading up the forest road.
The corkscrew tree.

When my invitation to hike to the Talus Fields the first time was lost in the mail and knowing the access road that gets you close enough to hike in from the top near Unaka Mountain Road was gated and locked for the winter months, I didn't let it discourage me. I instead poured myself into map studies and online reference tools looking for a bottom up approach. Imagine my excitement when I found a map labeled with old forest roads and one road that crossed a creek that happened to run smack into the middle of the first Talus Field!
Low clearance for someone my size. Photo by Halley.
Me with John and Shane heading up the logging road. Photo by Halley.

Now I bet your wondering, what is a Talus Field? Nearly everyone I've mentioned the hike to has said, "the what fields?" Talus or Scree are boulders that once stood as cliffs that have over time being taken down by various forces of nature leaving broken stones from the size of basketballs to cars. Typically Talus is used to describe larger boulders while Scree is for smaller fragments of rock, Unaka Mountain definitely has Talus.
John following the spine next to Straight Branch.
Snowy Scene near the mouth of Straight Branch.

I wanted to share the experience with my crew of rowdy adventurers so I sent out the signal and before I knew it Shane, John, and Halley were ready to tackle Unaka Mountain. Shane and I had messaged back and forth over the maps and our route that day and although John had hiked in front the top we couldn't find any info on another soul attempting our same trek, we were going into the hike with only my ability to read a map!

We met near North Indian Creek Campground and carpooled in the Tundra since we would be driving across creeks and using old forest roads. The Talus Fields almost taunted us as I could see them high on the mountain above us with a fresh coat of snow from the night before. The snow was not part our plan nor the forecast but it happened and I certainly wasnt going to delay our trip. Adding to my own excitement was the fact that I hadn't hiked in a week after suffering an ankle injury hiking back from Buckeye Falls.

Armed with a hiking stick, a nice $80 ankle brace, and a car load of enthusiasm, we tore through North Indian Creek at full tilt even though the water was above normal levels. The ride on the forest road was bumpy and we all became better acquainted as we were threw around the cab of the truck. I took the turn taking us up the creek that would eventually lead us into the Talus Fields and found it to be nearly impassible. After driving for a mile I found a spot to ditch the truck just off the road where hopefully I could later turn around. We set out on foot and the snow created a beautiful but difficult scene to hike in. Weighing down the laurel branches that lined the roads, I had to walk stooped over and raked snow freely onto my clothing. I immediately thought of my nice waterproof jacket hanging  in the closet at home. Halley had only wore her tennis shoes and her feet were cold just a short distance in as the snow was soaking her shoes. Despite our poor prep work, we were knocking out trail quickly. Shane and John stayed close as Halley led the way up the road. John told us to be looking for a unique tree as a signal to cross the stream and head uphill. I estimate we walked close to a mile when we found the tree which reminded me of a wine opener. The trunk was hollow and twisted but the tree was still very much alive. Also nearby we found a busted plastic chair which seemed strange this far up the mountain.
First sign of the cliffs near the Talus Fields.
John inspecting the small cave. Photo by Shane.

After rock hopping across the stream, we soon found out why the chair was there. Hidden on the steep banks next to the creek was the remains of an abandoned moonshine still, the chair had belonged to whoever had stood guard during production! The forest was relatively open and we found a nice spine to follow upstream that kept us from fighting the laurel. We found some large cat tracks that we followed until they cut across a fallen tree and over to the opposite side or the creek. I couldn't help but think what an awesome picture that would have been. John spotted some large rocks up to our left and ran up to find a small cave and most likely animal den. As usual, this didn't slow him down and soon all that could be seen was his feet sticking out from the entrance to the cave. Luckily nothing emerged from the cave other than John and we were back on the hunt for our next point of interest, the Hillbilly Oasis.
Entering the madness in search of the Hillbilly Oasis.
Shane and Halley embracing the suffering.
Swallowed up in the snowy laurel.
This was hard! Photo by Halley.
Steep climbing around Straight Branch. Photo by Halley.
John loving the conditions.
Beginning to wonder if we will make it to the mouth of Straight Branch. Photo by Shane.

John named the spot where Straight Branch exits from UNDER the Talus Fields the Hillbilly Oasis on his first trip there. The creeks seems to seep out of everything and becomes a substansal stream right before your eyes. We exited our nice stroll on the spine of the ridge and ducked into heavy laurel in search of John's paradise but it was slow going. I was getting soaked with the heavy wet snow and with the slight breeze I was cold. Halley at some point on every hiking trip strings together a few colorful words at her displeasure with me. During this stretch of misery, she really let it go. Shane and John both enjoyed it too as they snickered while I trudged on trying to stay warm. We zigzagged up the stream but there were no easy passes. John kept searching for some trees he said that were significantly larger than those around them in the forest. He claimed they 'guarded' the entrance to the Talus Fields. I spotted some tops of trees rising high above the canopy of the forest, were we getting close? John seen a tree he remembered and after a few more laurel to fight with we stepped onto the scene at the Hillbilly Oasis. Straight Branch roared to life and the bright green moss covered rocks were everywhere along it's banks. The large trees towered over us and through the brush just upstream, I could see Talus!
Arrival at the Hillbilly Oasis. Photo by Halley.
The first Talus Field on Unaka Mountain.
Looking back into Erwin, TN.

Halley celebrating reaching the Talus Fields.

I stayed behind at the mouth of Straight Branch and took some pictures so I was the last one to step onto the open Talus Fields. For over 100 yards they stretched across the mountain side and although they were covered in snow, the footing on them didn't seem bad. We all were tired from the hike in and we spread out on the boulder field to take it in and have a snack. Not only was the field wide it continued high on the mountain above us, a little unnerving considering we didn't know which stones could move if we stepped on them! As we crossed the first field, Halley opted to stay behind and let her shoes dry out on the rocks as the sun was beginning to come out and burn some of the snow off. Shane, John, and I set out across the Talus carefully picking our route and checking each rock before putting our full weight on it. The process was tedious but we made decent timing and soon Halley was out of sight as we entered the forest on the opposite side of the fields. Looking back I couldn't help but stop for some pictures looking into the town of Erwin, TN as it was perfectly framed in the valley.

Shane crossing the first field.
John, Shane, and Halley playing in Talus.

The next Talus Field is across the valley on the opposite ridge and is equally impressive. Shane found a large rock balanced dangerously close to the edge of falling from it's perch above us and posed for a few pictures with it. I don't think the true danger we were in had entered any of our minds we were having such a good time. I was thankful my ankle had held up nicely and my balance was the only thing struggling to catch up in the healing. Having a hiking stick carved by Uncle Jim made the day special for me and was beneficial in keeping me upright wobbling through Talus. John stayed high of us and we staggered our bodies walking so that if a rock came loose we would have a chance to avoid being crushed as it tumbled down the mountain.
Looking above me in the Talus Fields.
Heading across the second Talus Field.

Having crossed the second field, we made a slow march toward a tree line that shielded our view of the largest Talus Fields. Once we made it to the trees, John took us to some small remains of a cliff and pointed out how precariously stacked the rocks were. I could see the water had ran between the rocks and froze causing some of them to jut out further than others reminiscent of a wobbly Jenga tower. Although there isn't a definitive cause of the Unaka Mountain Talus Fields, water expansion during freezing is a likely suspect. The vast expanse of the largest field was humbling. Easily a quarter of a mile wide and covering the entire side of the mountain, we were mere ants crawling from rock to rock. We found a large boulder the size of the car wedged near the base of the Talus to take some group shots and soak in our accomplishment.
A clue to the past. Still standing cliffs near the largest Talus Field.
Near the bottom of the largest Talus Field on Unaka Mountain.
A long view across Talus into Erwin, TN.
Remains of the cliffs in the largest Talus Field.

Meeting the goal of finding a route up to the Talus Fields was something to be proud of but we couldn't lose focus before finding our way safely back. As we crossed the second field hiking out, I was following close behind John watching his boot prints and mirroring each step. I tried to step across a wide chasm in the boulders when my hiking stick slide between the rocks throwing my balance onto my still tender ankle. From what I remember I slide around facing uphill before both feet were airborne and I was falling backward off the Talus Fields! There's a lot of articles that talk about seeing your life flash before your eyes before you die or lights at the end of the tunnel type scenarios, but I felt completely at peace as I stared back toward Erwin and the Valley Beautiful. My impact was awkward and I ended up bouncing off the rocks and landing face down in Talus about 15ft below where my fall began. While staring down through the rock, I realized I was alive and I could hear Shane and John yelling for me to be still. Apparently they yelled as I fell too, but I heard nothing else. Even stranger yet, I felt fine after bouncing twice on nothing but jagged rocks. Shane was first to my side and the look on his face alone was enough for me to realize I was fortunate enough to be able to stand and dust myself off. John is even harder to rattle and never lets on that anyone dodged a bullet but he said that the fact I got back up was a miracle. He pointed out that as I fell my head flung back and as it approached a rock that would "bust it like a pumpkin" I raised up enough to dodge it. Keep in mind, none of my fall was choreographed so someone was looking out for me!
Shane climbing down the largest Talus Field.
Wide angle camera shows how tiny we were in the Talus Fields. See Shane in center of picture?
Gopro from the Talus Fields of Unaka Mountain!

We were all so stunned with my fall that we hiked back almost in a daze to the last fields and I felt a sense of relief when I spotted Halley across the Talus waiting on us. None of us were wanting to take on the laurel that we fought so hard coming in so Shane decided we should stay high on the same side of the stream with the Talus Fields and look for familiar landmarks to know when to drop back down closer to the creek. Shane's plan turned out to be brilliant as we blazed down the mountain and found our spine to hike back to the creek crossing. We stopped by the abandoned moonshine still for some photos and as we sat there I though of the outlaws who had came before us wondering if they even were aware of the Talus Fields existence.
It's hard not to smile after seeing the Talus Fields in person!
It was almost beyond his self control not to push this rock off.
Big and Little strike again! Photo by Halley.
My last look at the Talus Filelds. You can see the upper larger fields on right of picture, also note how much snow had melted while we were there.

Halley kicked in the hiking afterburners after crossing the creek and John, Shane, and I hiked back at a slower pace already reliving our grand adventure. Despite snow, cold, and me trying to become a permanent fixture in the Talus Fields, the trip was a huge success. No one had successfully came in from the bottom of the mountain to cross the Talus and the lack of a trail made it even more satisfying. It was another first for me made better by my friends who came along for the trip. Until next time,  happy trails!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

With as much hiking as I do, I monitor the weather fairly close. As much as it pains me to say this, a lot of time it dictates my destination and changes it sometimes as late as when I start driving down the road. A basic rule I've developed is waterfalls on cloudy days and mountain tops in the sun. A few weeks ago winter finally showed up and gave us a stretch of single digit temperature nights in a row. My mind instantly started thinking of iced over waterfalls and I knew exactly where I wanted to go.
Appalachian Trail crossing the open fields looking over Shady Valley.
Badger crossing one of the hiker gates.

A couple months ago I laid eyes on North Fork Stony Creek Falls for the first time and instantly fell in love with the ruggedness of the hike and the beauty of the falls. Hidden deep in the mountains of Carter County very few people are even aware of it's existence. Luckily I married into a family of native Carter County residents and with their word of mouth directions and a hand sketched map from my friend, Larry Jarrett I joined the exclusive list of people who have walked behind the rocky walls that surround the 30ft waterfall. As I stood there I knew that if the weather would be cold enough a person could stand behind a frozen waterfall there very easily.
Leading our crew down the drainage.
The way. Unfortunately.
Thomas and Shane coming down the cliffs above Craig Falls.

With weather conditions lined up perfectly I rounded up a group of familiar faces to make the return trip to see the falls. With a few cancellations and a no show our group was trimmed to Shane Estep, John Forbes, and Thomas Mabry...the Flat Creek Foursome. On a brisk Sunday morning we met at the intersection of Cross Mountain Road and Highway 91 at the Johnson/Carter County line. As I stepped out of the truck it was even more brisk than I was expecting and although I was chilled I knew the exertion of hiking would warm us quickly. Everyone carefully packed their gear for the day and we were off on the Appalachian Trail on the opposite side of Highway 91 for the three mile trip over to our off trail portion of hiking. The AT follows the top of the mountain through some pasture fields and views can be had deep into Shady Valley. When we approached one of the first hiker gates on the trail Thomas was perplexed. He said, "What the hell is this?" as he fiddled with the seemingly impossible mechanism. I showed him how the metal ring would lift up allowing the gate to open, its a genius design and I would love to have footage of others when they see it for the first time! From there we crossed several wooden step gates over fencing as the trail continued across open fields. Soon we entered the woods and began the winding journey upward.
Through the mini Talus Fields short of the base of the falls.
Craig Falls.
Thomas and John taking in the views at Craig Falls.

As predicted the climbing soon had us all looking to lose some layers and I chose to leave my pullover hung in a tree just a few feet off the trail. There wasn't anyone parked at the trail head when we arrived and I decided I would pick it up on the hike out. The Appalachian Trail has been rerouted in many states over the years for a variety of reasons and the stretch we were on was no different. As the trail took a sharp right on another uphill stretch as it approaches Double Springs Shelter we took a left onto a former section of AT that is now mainly used by hunters and is somewhat overgrown. On my map I knew we needed to follow the ridge line further until it started a downhill turn and catch a drainage that would lead down to below the falls but it would bypass the upper waterfalls so we left the old trail at the first opportunity to pick up a hidden creek that doesn't appear until half way down the mountain. The existence of a trail vanishes and we hiked down the open forest on a steep grade. Everyone was excited for the ice but the further down the mountain we went I didn't see any sign of the key ingredient of ice....WATER! My first trip had been after heavy rains had the water already dried up since then? I had everyone stop hiking so I could listen for the creek but was greeted by silence and when we arrived at the maze of laurel I saw the creek bed dried and empty! I didn't want to show my disappointment so I hiked faster and even crawled in a few spots to extend my lead over the group but each time I looked back Shane was right on my heels dodging swinging laurel branches in my wake. Suddenly I saw why I couldn't hear any water the upper portions of the right fork of the creek were frozen over completely, we were going to have some spectacular ice!
The upper portion of frozen Craig Falls.
Shane at the base of the icicles.
Looking behind the ice.
Climbing up the ice to get a closer look. Photo by John Forbes.
John at the base of Craig Falls.

When I reached the first creek crossing above Craig Falls I could see the whole falls was draped in ice with some major icicles on the opposite side of the stream. I waited for everyone to catch up with me and their smiles were my reward. It's nice to see a seldom seen waterfall but to catch it frozen solid is downright magical. We had to find a way around the cliffs but I remembered my route from my first trip and led them through a mini talus field of broken boulders and down to the base. Cameras were out and firing away and John spotted a route up the left of the falls that gave us a birds eye view of the thick ice. We all followed along and Shane said he could get across the stream and down the steep bank to see behind the icicles high on the falls. While we looked on someone that looked like Shane walked across the icy creek at the brink of the 30ft waterfall around a narrow cliff ledge and slid down a vertical gorge to the opposite stream. I say it's someone that looks like Shane because the Shane we knew a few months ago would never attempted that, his transformation was complete! He coaxed the rest of us over to join him and after seeing the descent to the creek from the top I was shocked he made it look so easy. Luckily a few trees have fallen and I was able to use them to scale down. We each took turns looking behind the icicles and were off to head downstream to the main waterfall. As I was climbing back down the waterfall to retrieve my pack, John realized one of his cameras had went missing. We searched for a while finding no trace of it and we continued on following the frozen creek as best as we could.
Small cascade near NFSCF.
Shane balanced on a log over a frozen North Fork Stony.
Gopro shot over North Fork Stony.

The laurel are unrelenting and fighting through them expends a lot of energy. I continued to lead the group but each of us would pick a different approach to entering the tangled mess. Several nice falls are found as the creek loses elevation and the banks along the stream grow increasingly steeper. I found what appeared to be an old logging road and Shane and I hiked together as Thomas and John entered the creek at the top of the second large waterfall named Justice Falls for some photos. They caught up with us at a photogenic but mostly frozen cascade that we had slid down the bank to photograph. Somewhere in the short run of creek John had been robbed of another camera! I was afraid his misfortune would ruin the trip for him but he continued to enjoy himself even thought the main attraction was yet to come! A lot of trees had fallen over the creek and Shane worked his way across the frozen water to a seat on one of them in the middle of the creek! For me finding these neat photo opportunities add so much to a trip and Thomas and John must have agreed as they soon joined us and I set the Gopro for our first group shot of the day as we all balanced ourselves on the log. After a few shots we continued on downstream and Shane moved into the lead as we approached the top of the main waterfall. I couldn't see his reaction but hearing his voice cut through the laurel I knew I was in for something spectacular! My first glimpse was of the gigantic icicles hanging from the cliffs, one of which was well oer 20ft long! John and Thomas caught me on the trip down to the base and we all climbed out onto the thick ice using some of the fallen trees downstream to scramble across to achieve our dream of walking behind a frozen waterfall. Thomas stopped in the creek and rested on some logs. The three previous days of hiking had caught up to his legs so Shane, John, and I climbed under the icicles to the safety of the rock wall behind the waterfall. Shane and John inched as close as they could to the free falling flow of the unfrozen portion of the falls while I was busy photographing the icicles. I waited for John and Shane to finish with their pictures and took a few videos before we all settled in on the rocks behind the waterfall. As I was making one of the videos a icicle fell from next to me almost crushing my skull. Having the moment captured on video makes it a little more believable for those in doubt.
John and Shane at North Fork Stony Creek Falls.
John, Shane and I behind North Fork Stony Creek Falls. Photo by Thomas Mabry.
Me trying to avoid being impaled. Photo by John Forbes.
I was way too proud of this icicle. Photo by John Forbes.
Chilling behind North Fork Stony Creek Falls. Photo by Thomas Mabry.
Thomas Mabry illustrates the size of the area around NFSCF.
The large icicle dwarfs the waterfall.
The widow maker of the icicle world.

Although the waterfall wasn't completely frozen the icy scene was still stellar. As we were exiting from behind the rock wall, John spotted a narrow ledge parallel to the falls and went to investigate. He and Shane posed for pictures and when they climbed down I went up for a look. The ice cascaded down coating the ledge but my long legs paid off as I was able to step over it onto a clearing and shoot some pictures. We called it the ledge of death because if you were to fall you would either be dead or wish you were dead. The potential for killing yourself for a photo was more than the Badger could bear and soon Thomas was scaling the rock wall for a few pictures of his own on the ledge of death. As we scrambled back down to the creek we walked our log bridge again and stopped long enough for a group shot with the gopro before tackling the long hike out. Hiking back we searched for John's cameras with no luck. All we could figure was they were picked clean from his pack by the laurel somewhere along the way.
Playing with the gopro behind the waterfall. Photo by John Forbes.
Gopro shot of us next to the waterfall.
Thomas on the ledge of death with John and Shane in the foreground.
Standing on the ledge prepping the Canon for some shots of the waterfall. Photo by John Forbes.
John Forbes on the ledge of death.
Shane next to the falls. Photo by Thomas Mabry.

John and Shane next to the icy wall at North Fork Stony.

Hiking out was tough!

Resting with the Badger.

Almost out....
It was slow climbing up the drainage and we took several rest breaks but enjoyed the stories of the Badger in between his labored breathing. When we finally reached the Appalachian Trail again we made quick work of the hike out, and when we reached the spot where I had left my coat it too was gone! Shane picked up his pace and was determined to catch the thieves but when we popped out of the woods into the clear fields there was no one to be seen. In my sick mind, I see a bear wandering the hills of Carter County with a 3xl hoodie on with a camera in each pocket. Until next time, happy trails.
The North Fork Stony Creek explorers.