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!

1 comment:

  1. Do you have a copy of the map that you used. I would be interested in seeing it.Thank you so much!
    Adam Hill