Friday, March 27, 2015

In early March of 1993 I was a 13 year old living at home in Hiltons, Virginia with my mom and dad. A late winter storm was brewing and with it forecasts for record snowfalls had everyone rushing to the store to stock up and be prepared for the worst. As it turns out, the worst is exactly what we got. Over two feet of snow fell at my home during the storm. The winds with the snow caused wild drifts to form some measuring five feet or more. To this day, I still vividly remember snow above the door knob leading onto our back deck. we didn't go to school for two weeks and a week of that was without power. Needless to say, my brother and I were ecstatic. Twenty two years would pass before anything would come close to even touching it.

Now 35 years old and working in a grocery store as an assistant manager my love for snow storms has greatly diminished. With the mere mention of snow it's a mad dash and crazed shoppers rip the shelves of bread and milk. This winter has seen it's share of snow scares and actual snows. a couple of the storm systems lined themselves up on back to back days creating a nightmare scenario of over a foot of snow. Despite my dread for what was to come my mind went back to snow tunnels built on my uncles farm and riding the tractor through those huge drifts during the Blizzard of 93.

The bulk of the snow only grazed the Tricities with still respectable amounts of up to 10 inches or more that I received at my house in Gray, Tennessee. The storm instead stayed compact dumping the majority of the snow on Eastern Kentucky and Southwest Virginia or as I call it, home. When the dust finally settled enough at work for an off day I decided I would head to the hills of Virginia to visit one of my favorite waterfalls with some of my friends, but none of us were prepared for what we would find when we got there.
Buried car roadside in Dungannon, Virginia.

Amber, Halley, and I left from Gray and as it had been a few days since it snowed last the roads were clear and patches of grass could be seen throughout the neighborhood. As we crossed Bays Mountain with very little snow I was beginning to think it might be a total bust, but the closer we got to Virginia the more snow began to pile along the edges of the road. We met John at the Food City in Weber City and huge snow mounds were all over the parking lot some of them nearly 12ft high or more. I couldn't believe the difference in snowfall amounts within a thirty minute drive! Elsewhere Shane was traveling to meet us at the trail head at Hanging Rock in Dungannon, Va from his home in Abingdon.

Highway 72 to Fort Blackmore was clear of snow but some of it was piled so deep it was even with the bottom of the truck windows. The road beyond Mann Farms in Fort Blackmore started showing patches of ice and lingering snow deepening the further we drove along the road. However the first true sign we were in for something that I hadn't seen in years happened as we went through downtown Dungannon. I seen a large mound in the snow near the road. As we got closer I could see the side mirror of a car sticking out, it was a car that was completely buried! I stopped in the middle of the road so we could take a few pictures and I began to wonder how we would even pull off the road to park at Hanging Rock.

Almost an hour earlier Shane had arrived at the trail head at Hanging Rock finding that the snow was over two feet deep and there wasn't a way to get off the road. Thankfully he was prepared with a snow shovel and while he waited on us to arrive he dug out two parking places! I can't tell you my surprise when I rounded the corner and seen Shane in a t-shirt digging snow in a trench hitting him above the knee! He pulled his truck out into the road revealing room for one more vehicle just in front of where he was parked. Everyone was stunned at how much he had shoveled JUST so we could pull off the road! What could we expect further up the mountain?
Shane at the trail head.
The START of our day! Crazy deep snow at the start of Hanging Rock Recreation Area.
Amber ready to tackle Little Stony.

As everyone jumped out of the truck we all sunk in snow of varying depths based on our heights. I had a clear advantage only having snow below my knees but John and Amber were already in snow hitting them up on the thighs. We set our sights on the Falls of Little Stony but not being able to even drive to the gated road inside Hanging Rock we now added even more walking in deep snow on top of a 2.6 mile hike. Marching through the snow added an element of extreme hiking I've never attempted. I had to lift my legs high to keep moving and in a short distance my legs were burning. Everyone was having fun though, and we played in the snow like children, pushing each other into drifts, and throwing snow balls. It's probably only a few tenths of a mile to the forest sign that starts the Little Stony National Recreation Trail but it felt like I had walked a mile or more as I was already sweating through my many layers of clothes. Little Stony was as wild as I'd seen it with the snow melt it was muddy and large chunks of ice churned downstream as we walked by. Despite his size disadvantage John took the lead as we approached Hanging Rock. The drifts between the boulders were hitting us above the belt line and it made for some dream photo ops. John scrambled up and under the Hanging Rock and we all joined him. Large icicles draped from the cliffs and I found a small ice cave where icicles had reached the ground and you could crawl behind them. Despite the cold and deep snow we were all smiles and even Amber was living it up in our winter playground.
When the snow is this deep on me, you know it's extreme! Photo by John Forbes.
John coming up what is usually a paved road.
First attempt at catching a snowball in flight...SUCCESS. Halley enjoying the stroll up to the trail head.
Trudging toward the trail head, Halley and Shane making a trail.
Drifts on the boulders near Hanging Rock.
Little Stony from Hanging Rock.
No tracks.
The snow around Hanging Rock.
I was there and it still seems unreal at how deep the snow is. Photo by John Forbes.
Amber and Halley at Hanging Rock.
Icicles from Hanging Rock.

Leaving Hanging Rock the trail was non existent and with the creek being out of banks we had to be careful where we stepped or we would end up with wet feet and a trip back to the truck. The blazes on the trees were the only thing that kept us on course. When we arrived at the first bridge crossing of the creek. The true depth of the snow was obvious. The stairs were completely buried and snow was delicately balanced on the rails up to a foot deep! I made a short video of Amber plowing through the snow giving us all a good laugh watching her high step across. Normally there are small streams that can be easily stepped across but with the raging waters we had to find ways off trail to jump the newly formed creeks. Shane saved the hike for me by convincing Amber to cross one of the wider streams, I still owe him for keeping me out of trouble! Shane and I found our stride across the stream and distanced ourselves from John, Halley, and Amber. We seemed to be in constant bewilderment as snow drifts continued to grow in size. Shane eventually stopped in his tracks saying he couldn't find a way to continue. I could see a blaze on a tree ahead but the snow was piled up chest high now. I told him we would have to dig through and we took to using sticks and our hands clearing the trail so that we could continue. On the opposite side of the drift we had to crawl under some fallen trees and I couldn't help but think of crawling through snow tunnels twenty two years earlier. Shane and I arrived at the second bridge and the first significant waterfall and decided to wait for everyone to catch up. Across the gorge a side stream fell around fifty feet making a large ice cone at it's base and I couldn't wait to get over for a closer inspection. As I watched the trail for signs of anyone coming our way I could see Amber was next to catch us! I was so proud of her for pushing through what had to be misery in places and still smiling when she saw Shane and I waiting on her. When John and Halley caught up they told us of seeing a small mouse sitting in the trail in one of our tracks and John had grabbed a few pictures. Amber elected to stay on the bridge while we explored the rocky wall and waterfall across the creek.
Amber, Shane, and John coming up the trail.
Halley being a bully as usual. Amber looking usual.
Sweet revenge! Photo by John Forbes.
Amber on the first bridge across Little Stony.
Ice build up along the banks of the creek.
Snow covered boulders along the creek.
Waist deep snow as the trail narrows around some cliffs. Photo by John Forbes.
Snow wading! Photo by John Forbes.
Shane with that look of "seriously?"
Amber's arrival at the second bridge.
Shane crawling through the snow under some fallen trees.
This is the look of pride...well at least from me.
Shane's rock paddle.
The trio under the waterfall along Little Stony Creek. Photo by Shane Estep.
a close up of the ice cone.
Shane next to the ice cone.
Krypton attempt #2. Photo by John Forbes.
From the lost Halley Burleson collection. Shane, John, and I behind the waterfall.
Thigh deep snow..on ME!
Amber making her way back.
High above Little Stony.
Our trail we blazed, what a day!

Climbing the steep bank wasn't an easy task but I plowed through making foot holds for Shane, Halley, and John. It was a welcome rest for my legs once I got under the cliffs and out of the snow. I paced up to the waterfall to inspect the ice cone. Large fragments of ice had broke free from a week of warming temperatures and they were piled around where I stepped. An idea struck me and I had Shane film me as I threw one into the ice cone in attempt to resurrect the lost planet of Krypton, a continuing just for fun series we had started on an icy trip to Rowland Creek Falls. Halley rested under the cliffs while John joined Shane and I playing under the waterfall. We took a few more pictures before deciding to hike back to Amber on the bridge. Shane needed to get back for some afternoon obligations and my feet were frozen with my boots being full  of snow, so we started hiking back not making it to the upper falls.  Normally I would be disappointed but I had seen and experienced things that some people go a lifetime without. Having Amber along for one of the more extreme trips made me feel validated as well, I often tell her the stories and show her pictures when I get home usually getting no more than a shrug or a "that's nice honey" but watching her churn through the snow made me smile knowing she would remember this one. In fact, she's the reason I've jumped a trip or two ahead to bring you this story, she just couldn't wait to relive the unforgettable day on Little Snowy...err Stony. Until next time, happy trails!
Little Stony Snow Waders. Gopro shot from the first bridge over Little Stony.

Friday, March 20, 2015

After striking the ice jackpot at Raven Rock Falls everyone was feeling the excitement, including Carmen, and once we were safely off the mountain and back on clear roads the day held a lot of promise. Thomas wasn't through with his brainstorming and suggested another stop that wasn't on my makeshift itinerary.
Silver Run Falls.
Hiding under some laurel trying to knock the sun off my camera at Silver Run Falls.

Silver Run Falls is just a short drive off of highway 64 and an even shorter hike. Surprisingly no one was at the trail head but single digit temperatures tend to tame even the most hardcore hikers and photographers. We arrived at the base of the falls to find them flowing but with ice framing both sides of the falls and the splash pool starting to freeze up with wild swirl patterns in the ice. The sun had to play spoiler as it often does and was directly overhead causing us to be creative in our shots. Ironically, Carmen captured one of the best shots with her cell phone by climbing onto a large rock and peering through some branches to take the picture. After we posed for another gopro group shot we were back at the car waiting on Thomas to emerge from the bush. Steve decided to turn around while we waited and drove down the road and when we came back Thomas had reappeared and was pretending to hitchhike. I took another pic to post online and claimed the stranger from the airport had somehow followed us further adding to the story developing some two hours away.
Our friend from the airport found us and wanted another lift!

After a pit stop for some snacks, we headed into the town of Highland to see Glen Falls. When we found the road leading to the trail head covered in deep snow we took a vote and common sense won out, we would instead enter the Cullasaja River Gorge.
Bridal Veil Falls.
Standing behind Bridal Veil Falls. I have no idea how this ice hung on.
Beware of Badger! Standing at the barricade at Bridal Veil Falls.

When I first planned on visiting North Carolina in search iced over waterfalls one in particular stood out in my mind. Dry Falls is about as touristy of a hike I can stand. Public restrooms, paved walking path complete with fencing all away around the falls, and a big gate to lock you out in bad weather, well you get the idea, but it also has some of the best opportunities to get up close and personal with some huge icicles. On the drive into the gorge the road passes Bridal Veil Falls. The waterfall is unique because they have paved the road behind it allowing you to drive behind the falls. With all the ice and snow the park service had barricaded the road but we still stopped and took pictures of the icicles hanging all over the falls. During this stop I really felt how cold it was that day as wind was ripping through the gorge and cutting through my layers of clothes. Carmen retreated back to the car while Steve, Thomas, and I walked behind the falls for a few pictures.

As we approached the parking area for Dry Falls I fully expected several cars when we arrived despite the temperature but even if it's lot was empty as the only car there was pulling away when we arrived. I believe I got out of the car before it stopped moving I was so excited. The paved path leaves the parking area winding downhill until the falls come into view. The steps were coated in ice but I didn't let it slow me down. When the falls came into view my trip had been worth it, some of the largest icicles I'd ever seen completely engulfed the outer edges of the roaring waterfall. Of course the gate near the main drop of the waterfall was locked but I was able to hop across and walk behind the falls. The ice behind the waterfall was equally impressive and nearly touched the ground. I had to crawl on my hands and knees to go to the opposite side. When I finally came out of my daze of excitement, I looked to see Thomas coming down the trail to join me with a man in a brown jacket in hot pursuit. For a minute, I assumed it was a ranger coming to bust me for trespassing but as he hopped the gate and joined me I realized it was fellow hiker Scott Burns!
Dry Falls. On most days you can walk behind it and stay dry.
Ice like I've never seen.
Walking behind the falls.
This was cool...literally and figuratively.

Thomas had been texting with Scott keeping him posted on whereabouts and he decided to join us for a couple of stops! Scott was like any other hiker I've met, easy to get along with and easy to talk to, and he too was stunned by the huge ice at Dry Falls. Steve and Carmen caught up to us behind the falls and we made the waterfall our personal playground. The icicles were strange looking appearing more like cotton candy than ice, it was the first time I'd seen any like them. Scott, Thomas, and I hiked to the furtherest point on the opposite side of the falls while Steve and Carmen began hiking back to the car with his still soaked tennis shoe. Seeing them on the other side of the gorge really illustrated how large the waterfall and gorge is. I made a few videos as I paced back toward the waterfall to rejoin them that I've watched several times since that day and it still seems unbelievable.
Steve under the ice while Badger captures the moment.
Looking back at Scott Burns.
Looking up as I crawl under the ice.
Scott inside the ice at Dry Falls.
Dry Falls from the far side of the gorge.
Steve and Carmen at Dry Falls.

A short drive further down the gorge brought us to our final stop in the area and one of the more scarier stretches of road I've traveled on. Highway 64 gets pinched tight as it swings around the cliffs above the 200ft Cullasaja Falls. The paint along the guardrails and rock walls on the opposite side are evident the entire length of its narrow pass. The parking for Cullasaja Falls is yet another problem with only room for two cars in a small pullout. Luckily we arrived to find it empty we were out of the cars looking down on the icy monster. Everyone took pictures standing on or around the guardrail and ice coated the majority of the falls. Scott asked if we would like to hike to the base and both Thomas and I jumped at the opportunity. Steve elected to stay in the car with Carmen still trying to warm his foot from the dip he took at Raven Rock Falls.
Scott at the base of Cullasaja Falls.
Cullasaja Falls.
Gopro style at Cullasaja Falls. You can see the guard rail and road at the top left of picture.

Scott led us over the guardrail and down a steep decent into the gorge. The trail wasn't terrible but there were spots were water had ran across the rocks and froze so we still had to pay attention. The steepness reminded me of Compression Falls Trail in Carter County, TN but was a much shorter trip to the bottom. We arrived at the creek downstream from the falls and worked our way around large rocks lining the creek until we reached the base. I'll have to say, it was an impressive sight to stand in the shadow of the 200ft waterfall. I looked up to the road high above us and just the thought of going over that guard rail was terrifying. Thomas played along the banks of the creek while Scott and I took various positions to try to include the majority of the falls in our pictures. I lined us up a shot with the gopro and we were back on the trail and the uphill grind to the top. Scott absolutely crushed the return trip up to the car and I started thinking of how exhausting it would be to keep up with him all day! Sadly he had other obligations that day and we said our goodbyes as we left the Cullasaja Gorge in search of some food and bathrooms.

After a pit stop at Wendy's in Cashiers we decided to stop off on NC 281 to hit a few falls before heading home. The snow storm had hit this area much lighter but instead they had received mainly ice, the only thing not coated in ice was the road! Our first stop was the 400ft Whitewater Falls, also a tourist trap, we elected to run out to snag a picture just to say we had been there. We traveled back out 281 to an unsigned parking area for John's Jump Falls. I'm not sure how many people drive right by the nice 30ft waterfall every day unaware of it's existence as it's hidden just under the road bank. It requires a steep scramble on a makeshift path and with the coating of ice it made it downright treacherous. Steve found out by falling flat on his back above me on the trail and sliding past as I caught him by his crotch with my leg. It probably wasn't the best rescue but it kept him from sliding into a large tree just off the trail. When we reached the falls, I regretted not bringing my tripod out of the car. The lighting and ice made for a beautiful scene. Thomas Scrambled out into the middle of the creek shooting from a small rock while Steve and I waited for him to finish. Carmen had elected to stay in the car as the temperatures were starting to plunge in the afternoon hours. Amazingly we hiked out without incident and Carmen decided she would drive us the rest of the way forcing Steve into the backseat with the Badger. Our final stop of the day was White Owl Falls, another small roadside beauty. Carmen decided to go with us since it was the final stop but she turned back when Steve fell again on ice trying to get down a tricky section of trail. I brought my tripod and camera for the final stop to have a few images to use for my quest for 500 trail miles Facebook page. We found the waterfall to be beautiful and very frozen with ice literally on everything we touched. While packing up my camera gear I got to take a fall myself and nearly slid into the creek! When I caught Steve and Thomas near the car I told them I had put a nice dent in the ground near the falls causing them to laugh out loud.
John's Jump Falls.
White Owl Falls.
A shot of White Owl Falls with the Canon Rebel.

Our appetites couldn't wait on anymore waterfall hikes so we headed toward home making a pit stop at Twin Dragons Buffet in Brevard. After dinner we dropped Thomas off at his car and sped toward home. Carmen napped in the back seat while Steve and I relived our day. We had 10 waterfalls under our belts and plenty of good memories. I got to meet Scott, who I've been friends with on Facebook for several months and hike with the Badger. It was awesome to have Steve back on the trail with me after so many epic trips in the past and the addition of Carmen added beauty and humor to our trip. Hopefully we can share many more trail days together in the coming months, in warmer temperatures of course!

Our trip wouldn't be complete without a collage!
When I came staggering up the steps that night at home, Amber told me about her friend calling her at work asking what Jason was thinking picking up strangers to hike with! The next day at work a coworker approached and said his wife called him saying I'd picked up a stranger and he was following us around North Carolina hitchhiking from place to place. Thomas and I had inadvertently caused quite the stir as we often do, but it made for some good laughs in the following days as people tried to solve the mystery of the man in the orange shirt. Until next time, happy trails!