Sunday, November 29, 2015

Early this year I made my first trip to the Talus Fields on Unaka Mountain. The remote off trail hike had haunted me for some time and despite the fact there was some snow the previous night it didn't keep me and a few of my friends off the mountain. What we encountered that day was some of the most difficult terrain in terrible conditions but somehow we successfully found the fields with me taking an epic fall and still came back unscathed. I remember thinking as we left that day how lucky we were and how I would probably never return to such a dangerous place.
Sallie ready for another adventure!
Halley through the Laurel tunnels.

I didn't even make it a year before my desires overwhelmed me for a return trip. With much better weather and the autumn foliage nearing it's peak, a blue sky October day was perfect for some Talus tackling. My friend Halley joined me on the first hike to the fields and spent most of the day with wet feet and freezing from the snow soaking our clothes. She used the hike as a scale of difficulty for all the hikes that followed and vowed to never ever go again. So when I shot her a message about my plans I was a little surprised when she responded, "pick me up in Erwin."
Tree split from lightning.
Signs of the past.
Sallie by the abandoned still.

I met Halley and her dog Sallie Gator at our usual meeting spot near North Indian Creek Campground for the ride up the forest roads to get us close to the Talus Fields. Close isn't really a good word for it since it's still a 2.5 mile hike off trail before reaching the first of the Talus. Halley didn't seem herself and when she spoke she could barely make a sound! She had bailed on hiking over the weekend saying she was sick but she obviously wasn't any better. For once, I felt sorry for her. Sallie was quick to run and jump in the truck with me while Halley rummaged through her belongings for the day on the mountain. After making sure we had all the lenses and filters we needed we were back on the road.
Some of the former cliffs still intact.
Sallie and Halley in the small fields.
The spider tree in the first field.

An immediate ford of North Indian Creek put us on the old forest road that leads toward Dick Creek Valley and the bumpy ride is always a lot of fun for me. Several other roads branch off and picking the right on to the Talus Fields is tricky without studying a map. I was quite proud of my accomplishment of finding the route from our first trip by tracing Straight Creek into the Talus and finding a side forest road that gets fairly close to the base of the first Talus Field. What topo maps and Google Earth doesn't show you is the side road is nearly impassable even with a four wheel drive.

Halley and I didn't mind the extra walking since the weather was nice and the laurel wasn't draped over with cold wet snow. Following the old road was easy for the first part but soon the laurel was so thick I had to walk bent over for long stretches as it had formed a tunnel over the road. It's hard to judge distance off trail but I had my GPS app tracking our movement and after a mile we arrived at the creek crossing of Straight Creek. On the other side and well hidden along the steep banks is an abandoned moonshine still. We paused to take a few pictures before proceeding up the steady uphill grade. The forest is pretty well open on the left side of the stream and I tried to stay within earshot of the creek as I continued on. During our first hike we wanted to see the creek bubbling to life from under the Talus and took a more difficult approach but this time I just wanted to get to the fields with the least amount of resistance. Eventually the roar of the creek grew quieter and I knew we were getting close to the large trees that mark the entrance to the main attraction. I kept telling Halley I thought we were a little high on our approach and continued to feel that way as I passed some unfamiliar rock formations.
Jason's Rock.
Had to break out the camera for this scene.

After weaving through some rock towers I popped out into a very small Talus Field that we didn't visit the last time. In the center of the field was an old gnarled tree with branches spreading along the ground like a spider. I can't recall ever seeing one like it. We rested here for a while letting Sallie play in the branches while Halley tried to catch her breath. I could tell she felt awful but she wouldn't miss a hike and there's a lot to be said for that. Around the clearing of the small field the forest was thick and I couldn't tell exactly where we were at in relation to the main fields. We climbed high away from the field and were tangled in a mix of laurel and thorns that were pretty painful on my exposed legs. I saw a rocky cliff above us and made my way to it and on top where I found a stunning fall scene unfold before me. It was clear that no one had been here before so I called it Jason's Rock. Halley joined me on the rock and I could see the Talus Fields on the opposite ridge and determined we were above the main fields on our side of the mountain. We worked our way through the obstacle course of trees again and lowered deeper into the valley when I finally saw the main Talus Field we had been looking for. Stepping out onto the loose boulders was no less impressive from the first time and the afternoon sun had the rocks rather warm as we started across the field. We found a large boulder to rest on and take some pictures from and Halley decided she didn't want to go any further. I felt of her forehead and she seemed to be running a pretty high fever. I told her it wasn't too hard to get into the bigger field on the opposite side of the ridge and since we were so close it would be a shame not to see it. She rolled her eyes but rose to her feet and we continued on exiting the first field into the woods on the opposite side.
Halley and Sallie taking a break.
Finally, the first Talus Field.
Crossing the first Talus Field.
Halley and Sallie in the first field.
Sallie waiting on me, she's such a good hiking buddy.
The second field.
Halley may be sick but she's a trooper. Sitting in the second Talus Field on Unaka Mountain.

The climb up into the second fields is steep and the rocks are even more impressive and more unstable. I passed several widow makers that I could have pushed from there rest with my finger. I waded out into the middle of the massive field and waited for Halley to join me. We paused for more pictures before I made the call to head out and find Halley some soup. On the way back we both remarked that the hike no matter the weather was really difficult. The boulders require so much respect and patience, just working through them wears you out. The previous weekend had been cold with back to back nights of frost so snakes were the least of my concern. As we were nearing the edge of the first Talus Field I was telling Halley how I had broken one of my fingers playing basketball and turned to show her how crooked it was from the injury. It was the first time all day I hadn't looked where my feet were hitting and suddenly I was airborne! I landed in a seated position and rode the small boulders on my tail downhill for a few feet. Aside from a scuff on my wrist I felt fine. Halley looked shocked but I could tell she wanted to laugh and told her to go ahead that I was....but before I could finish my sentence I heard it! A large rattlesnake was within striking range of where I was seated and was mad that I had disturbed it. I yelled for Halley to grab Sallie and I somehow got to my feet without using my hands to help me! I stepped back to join them and told them both to stand perfectly still until I could look for more snakes. I changed lenses on my camera and attempted to get lined up for a picture of the beast but it retreated beneath the field out of sight but still rattling it's tail. The rest of the hike was so stressful knowing that there could be a snake literally anywhere and we had her dog with us. I couldn't imagine being responsible for getting either of them hurt.
So happy to be back on the Talus Fields.
Halley is already off the field and in the woods here. I just found it hard to leave.
Halley's view of me. See that tiny orange dot?
Halley and Sallie in a panoramic view of the Talus Fields.

When we reached the truck I think we both breathed a big sigh of relief and switched our focus to what we were going to eat at Clarence's Drive-In for lunch. The Talus Fields were as spectacular as I remember and just as dangerous, I was pleased with my pictures and the day spent with one of my good friends but I hope the next time I decide to go, it's a little less stressful. Until next time, happy trails.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Closing in on my 500 mile goal for the year I wanted to make sure I still pushed myself and not back over the finish line so to speak, so I lined up some hikes that I've been wanting to knock off for a while.
At the top of the list was Buzzard Rock in the heart of Rocky Fork State Park. The park itself is still in its infancy but the flagging tape and signs popping up are an indicator of things to come. I've grown fond of the park and it's many hiking opportunities both on trail and off trail and hate to see it developed any further than its current state, so hiking the trails before it's overrun with visitors kept Buzzard Rock on my mind.

The allure of the Buzzard Rock is it's a long way no matter how you approach it. My original plan was to come up from Lower Higgins Creek via Birchfield Camp Branch and the Hidden Lake but I knew the two mile climb there was pretty rough and I didn't want to be exhausted with around six miles left to hike. I had read there's an approach out of Horse Creek Park that's the shortest route but unreliable directions made me settle on hiking in from the main gate at Rocky Fork with a roughly 15 mile round trip hike with all but two miles of the trip being new to me.
And were off. The trail is an old forest road that winds through some great fall scenery.

I've tried to avoid hiking alone since my Linville Gorge scare but it's hard to sell someone on a long hike that will eat up the majority of the day. Thankfully I received a message earlier in the year from a childhood friend who offered to hike with me if I would like the company. For over 30 years, I've been friends with Amy Hall and her family. Her brother Adam and I were best friends through school and we've played our share of cruel pranks on Amy throughout the years.
The hike turned out to be much easier as I was anticipating as we swung around ridges on a level road.
Looking back down the road as we gradually climb.

Earlier this year, I asked Amy to join me on a hike through the Roan Highlands. The hike from Carvers Gap to 19e is around 15 miles and I was impressed with how easily she handled the long day and the grueling climbs up Yellow and Hump Mountain. We spent the hike catching up and reliving some of my finer moments in pranking history. She lamented that it's difficult for her to find friends willing to do hikes of long distances as well, and suddenly our friendship was rekindled.
Fog rolling over the ridges.
I just kept taking pictures of the fog.
Amy even slowed down for some pictures.

She was the first person I thought of when I started the planning for Buzzard Rock. The day of the hike I met her in Gray and drove us the rest of the way to the trail head. Parking is pretty limited at the main gate and there were already two cars in the lot when we arrived around 10am. The weather was nice as some of the low hanging fog we had seen on the drive down was starting to lift and a hint of fall was in the air. I was hoping for some nice color but most of the lower elevations were still clinging to the green of summer and we started our hike up past the gate following along Rocky Fork Creek. The first part of the hike is level and shadows the creek and a short distance in we passed Triple Falls, a small but photogenic falls down a steep bank. I pointed out my route up to Flint Mountain Cliffs and Amy seemed to be enjoying herself as I gave her the grand tour. The next point of interest is the trail to Whitehouse Mountain Cliffs. I've hiked there several times and told Amy we would come back to explore them once some of the snakes went in for the year. My two previous hikes to Rocky Fork were cut short after encountering Copperheads and having a friend's dog with us made it too dangerous to continue.
yellow tints starting show up.
Broke out the DSLR for some shots of this area of the trail.

Past the Whitehouse Trail I was in completely new territory and as we arrived at a fork in the road I glanced at a screenshot on my phone of the only Rocky Fork trail map I could find. The road to the left continued on to the Flint Creek battle site and the road to our right climbed away from the creek and toward our destination. The first half mile away from the creek climbed rather steeply and both Amy and I struggled finding our trail legs. When the trail finally came to a switchback and leveled off somewhat we both were relieved. I noticed the cliffs from Whitehouse Mountain through a small window in the trees. I was excited to finally be heading to the rock I had viewed from the cliffs but new there was still a long to go. I was thankful that the trail stayed level and every mile that passed would be just as easy coming back. Our pace quickened as our legs stretched out and we started catching the fog as it continued to rise off the mountain. With the change of elevation we started seeing the fall color along both sides of the trail and with the combination of the fog I found myself stopping often for pictures.
One of my favorites of the day. Approaching a wall of fog.
Even looking up was beautiful.

The trail has several side trails that branch off from time to time but I checked the map and felt good about our progress as we continued to gradually climb. I recognized the forest road that split off up to the Hidden Lake and we swung around the ridge to the left and into another creek drainage. Arriving at the first creek crossing I was dismayed to see there wasn't a way across without getting my feet wet. I plodded into the cold water and was on the other side in time to watch Amy do a graceful but humorous run on the water in attempt to keep her feet as dry as possible. It didn't work.
My makeshift tripod.
The result of my rocky tripod.

Just a few minutes later we were at another crossing and this time we encountered three other people that were using makeshift fishing rods to trout fish a deep pool just above the crossing. The father of the two other hikers seemed happy to see other people and told us they had camped just up the trail the previous night. I told him we were on the way to Buzzard Rock and he seemed like we had bit off more than we could chew but it did little to dampen our spirits as we said our goodbyes and splashed through their fishing hole. Near mile four another person wandered out of the brush along the creek bank with his fishing rod and greeted us. He was older and looked to know what he was doing. I was just impressed that someone would hike that far to fish. He asked where we were heading and I told him Buzzard Rock. His face grew a grin and he said, "I've been there, and it's kinda tricky to find." He spent the next few minutes giving us directions of turns and landmarks from his memory. Later we would discover he was spot on with every turn and I didn't have it in me to tell him I had a map in my pocket. Amy and I continued to marvel at the changing leaves and the great weather as we passed mile five and then six. Somewhere around mile seven the trail started to gain elevation in a hurry. We intersected the High Country Trail and enjoyed views off the mountain as fog continued to roll over the ridge.
Fern covered rocks nearing Buzzard Rock.
Final stretch to Buzzard Rock.

The final push to Buzzard Rock is a tough mile and winds around the ridge almost in a circle as it climbs. We arrived at another forest gate and it confused me a little since the map nor the old man had mentioned it. Past the red gate the trail stays straight heading toward the skyline. I knew the climbing was coming to the end whether we found the rock or not. Suddenly there is a sharp right turn and the faintest of trails heading off through some laurel. I remember reading someone had camped at the rock and found a small fire ring in the trail. Off to my right I could see a large opening through the laurel and I stepped out onto Buzzard Rock.
My first view from Buzzard Rock.
Wide angle snot as the clouds close in quickly.

When you accomplish something you've had on your mind for so long I can't really tell you in words what does that feeling justice. The scene was beautiful but with the fog sweeping over the ridges and into the valleys below it felt like I was on another planet. Luckily, I had my camera ready and snapped a few pictures before a massive cloud swept over us from either direction and the views were gone. It was only 1pm so I told Amy we would wait there for up to an hour since I knew the hike back would be a breeze for us. She started unpacking her food and suddenly my crackers and beef jerky didn't look so appetizing. She brought an impressive spread that included boiled eggs, butterkaise cheese, apples, and two cinnamon raisin bagels cut into sandwiches and loaded with peanut butter. When she offered me a bagel I quickly snatched it and had half of it ate before thinking she could have put rat poison in it for all the mean tricks I had played on her over the years. As it turned out, she truly was a forgiving person and we enjoyed each others company as we scarfed down one of the best lunches I've had on the trail. Our patience was rewarded with occasional views through the clouds of vivid fall colors on the distant ridges. I told her I thought we would be able to see Whitehouse Mountain Cliffs and no sooner than I said it, the clouds parted just long enough for a clear view of the cliffs and Interstate 26 miles away. It was clear we weren't the only ones that had enjoyed the views recently as I found an empty Jack Daniels bottle wedged in the rock and we both wondered why someone would go through the trouble of carrying it all the way there while it was full and being too lazy to take the trash with them.
The clouds overtake us on the rock.
Fall color popping through.

When I'm at work, an hour seems like such a long time. On the trail, the lunch hour vanished in seemingly twenty minutes. After sitting on a slab of rock for an hour I was a little stiff and stood to stretch as clouds swirled between Amy and I as we packed up. I couldn't help but think of her mom and how proud she would be that we had maintained a friendship even though she was no longer with us. Amy's mother practically helped raise me. I stayed at their house as much as my own and was no stranger to the contents of their refrigerator on my frequent visits. Brenda called me her dwarf child and always encouraged me to be proud of being tall and always told me I was just Jason to her no matter how big I got. When she passed away on vacation one year it was a shock that left a void for not only her immediate family but a group of misfit friends that included me. I've never forgot the way she made me feel and how good she always treated me. Hopefully, she enjoys the views as much as we do.
My delicious bagel.
Amy and I on the rock.

Back on the trail, Amy and I were on cloud nine after dining in cloud nine. The hike back was filled with stories and laughs from our childhood up to our efforts of being respectable members of society. I have recently started using a GPS app on my phone and I noticed our mileage would be close to 16 miles for the day but just a few tenths shy. I told Amy we should hike out to the Flint Mill battle site to get us up to the even number and she happily agreed. As we started picking back up some of the headwaters of the roaring creeks below I took a few shots with my DSLR camera building a makeshift tripod out of rocks from the stream. In just around two hours we were back at the intersection of the Flint Creek site and the level walking went by quickly. I noticed a large piece of caution tape strung across the trail with a white sign that read "deadly tree ahead." Amy and I both got a laugh out of the sign and ducked under the tape only to see another string of it at a creek crossing ahead with yet another rope of it just across the stream. Again the warning label read, "caution deadly tree." We passed by the warnings and came to a small pond with a large dead hemlock next to it's shore. I'm assuming it was the deadly tree from the signs but Amy said it could be a way of keeping us from a moonshine operation or even some kind of drug activity. I decided we were close enough to 16 miles and turned us back to the main trail and away from the weird signs of Flint Creek.
Amy told me to just leave her here.
Could this be it?

Just past the main gate of Rocky Fork my GPS rolled over to mile 16 marking the longest mileage day I've had and the fact that I still felt good was even more encouraging. Amy gave me a high five and we unloaded our packs for the ride home. The hike had been everything I could have hoped for and getting to spend another day in the mountains with Amy made it even better. Who knew my arch nemesis from camping trips with her family as a kid would turn out to be such a good hiker and even better person. Thankfully she's matured a lot over the years, or perhaps I have, or maybe we'll never know. Until next time, happy trails.