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.

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