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.

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