Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Kayak & Bushwhack to Panther Creek Falls

Sunshine over the ridge along Panther Creek


Kayak & Bushwhack to Panther Creek Falls 

Dana & Kenny Koogler
Sat. Nov. 10, 2012
28th Wedding Anniversary

Hike distance 6 mi approx
Kayak distance 1 mi. approx

**Another blog entry damaged by using
Flickr free photo account. I am repairing this blog entry
and will not delete it, but I may have lost some of
the photos for good.  If I have lost my pictures of
Panther Creek Falls it will be an excuse to borrow Andy's canoe

and re-do this trip. **


     Kenny and I decided to spend our anniversary tackling an off trail adventure we'd attempted about several years ago and did not complete.   We wanted to find Panther Creek Falls in the far back country of the western side of the Smokies.   We packed our gear including kayaks and set out Saturday morning.  It was a rather impromptu trip so we got a late start.   

     We enjoyed the drive down Foothills Parkway west from the house. The Autumn colors were still peak there!  The views were lovely.   We soon arrived at the put in point for the kayak portion of our journey at the mouth of Abrams Creek.  It joins Chilhowee Lake here.  We put in and paddled upstream.  We saw two men ahead of us who were also kayaking.  I could not help hoping they did not have the same plans as us?  I did not have to wonder long.  They continued ahead up Abrams Creek while we hung a right and paddled back Panther Creek.  The lake looked black and glassy and mirrored the stunning Autumn leaves and the sky today.  It was a perfect day for this trip.  It was supposed to be clear and sunny and warm up to about sixty nine degrees.  The water smelled fresh and clean and the lake was very quiet.    The sun was up but the bottoms of the hollers we paddled and walked today spend much of the time in deepest gloom because of the forest cover and high cliffs.  It can create a sense of foreboding. 


Dark as a Jericho Mile down in them hollers!

      We beached our kayaks on the beginnings of an old road bed that was used in the past for slate mining and logging.   We'd have to pass the slate mines on our trip today.  Lots of history in this part of the park that is far less visited than some others.   The stream was quiet and pretty. Some of the trees had shed their leaves, but the beech trees and sourwood trees and maples still sported bright gold, copper and orange leaves.  We donned our backpacks and trekking poles and set out on foot from this point.   We did not have to go far until we met with our first creek ford.  It was a rock hop. We could not recall if this trip had many creek crossings? We gambled on doing with one trekking pole each and left our water shoes in the truck.  Recreational kayaks don't fit lots of gear with the paddler.
We hoped we would not deeply regret our choice, but we figured we'd manage.




Approaching the old road bed that leads up Panther Creek

     Panther Creek is very scenic most of the way.  Kenny and I both remarked we had forgotten just how pretty it was.   It is a series of cascades, deep clear pools of blue-green, pot holes and jumbled boulders.  We had not gone far when we could hear the roar of Garner Falls. It is a small waterfall and hard to get a shot of.  It clings to the far right hand of the rock it cascades over. The terrain around it makes it difficult to view from the trail.
The plunge pool is more dramatic than the falls.  It is deep and would make a good swimming hole.  I expect from our past experience with it any season warm enough to enjoy swimming would find it clogged with snakes.   We were here in March last time and found a couple snakes near this falls even as cool as it was!

     We kept moving since we had a lot of territory to cover.  We made our way upstream
and it was surprising how many things came back to mind from the previous trip.  We could find exactly the spot where the wild hogs got after us.  I had remarked that as many mud holes as I was seeing it was a wonder we had not run into any hogs.  About that time here came a whole passel of shoats!  I went to hollering "Pigs! Where's the mama? Where's the mama?"  I just knew we'd get eaten up by a sow!  But they were big enough to be on their own.  We forded a couple more times. I looked up and saw some rusty metal artifacts.  A closer look showed we had arrived at the halfway point in our trip today. Before us lay lots of rusty metal and slate blocks.  They used this old rail line and cars to haul the slate out.  The blocks were used to build some of the structures in the National Park including Park Headquarters at Sugarlands.


Getting out of the kayaks and getting read to hike from here


Old rail car used to haul slate blocks out from the mine site.

    We were following the old road bed used for mining in the past as we made our way further into the back country.   It was often filled with so much downfall and rhododendron it disappeared outright or was impassable.  Many years of off trail hiking have smartened us up a little.  Keep the old trace in sight but go around it.  You have to be careful to avoid giving in too much to the "urge to go around" when off trail hiking.
The new Garmin GPS today was invaluable in helping us at least know which general direction to head.  It delights me beyond measure to see how we've both gotten really good at orienting topo maps with the real lay of the land. It feels great to be able to say "Ok, this is the big ridge coming in from the left".  It is rather surreal to me.
At some point on our hike this day I had a feeling of "finding treasure" envelope me.
I knew that I was living a recurring dream I have from time to time. I had felt the dream was not of a real place, but today I recognized it!   Here was a photo from that moment.


      

Panther Creek viewed from above on the old manway.
Photos don't capture the emotional tone of such moments of joy.

     One of my favorite trails in the Smokies is Goshen Prong.  It is flat and follows
along above the stream with vistas like the one shown above.  The rock forms are dramatic.  Panther Creek Manway is like that only after the tornado it is in far better
condition than Goshen Prong which is supposed to be a maintained trail.  Before I get too gushy I will remind myself there were ugly parts of rhododendron swimming and butts hanging out in space over cliffs whilst we clung to fallen trees in order to proceed.

**Photo lost here**


Trail? What trail?  This is actually not that bad.  The bad parts are to the point I can't get the camera out.


     We came to one creek ford that was marked with two rock cairns.  There was another ford beyond that unmarked, but a no brainer. The cliff on the left was sheer! We later saw some old cable and metal in the woods.  We saw one more rail from the abandoned dinky line.

   We got across the creek and pushed higher into the steepening drainage.   We had not gone much further when I could hear the falls!  Kenny called me down to where he stood and we could get a glimpse of it.   Getting down to it from here was going to be rough.
The falls was surrounded on all sides by thick rhododendron and rocky cliffs.  I could see the way down, but Kenny did not want to follow me.  He finally came to the conclusion it was the only way which it was.  We got in the drainage where a spring seep flowed down to join Panther Creek.  It was slick and mossy and rocky.  I finally just sat down and scooted.  Better muddy, wet and dirty than injured.  The only thing hurt today might be my pride.  I also gave up on the idea of staying dry.  I just got IN the creek and waded.
I was up to my knees in water.  I made my way up to the falls this way.  Kenny managed to cling to the rhodo and go through it in places.

Before us was Panther Creek Falls at last!  
  

Panther Creek Falls Video As I have lost the photos of it. :-(

The terrain above the falls flattened out, but in order to reach it you'd have to get in and swim across the plunge pool.  The walls on the sides are rocky and crowded with rhododendron and other vegetation.  There may be more cascades above here, but we'll have to explore that another trip with an early start and a longer day!

While this falls is certainly not the largest we've ever visited or even the prettiest it was one of the more rewarding trips.  Finding it was a challenge. We had to work together!
We're a good team.  Its something we both enjoyed very much.  We did not linger here much since we had about 2 hours of daylight left to get back out.

    We made it out in far less time.  We got out in 1 hour and 40 minutes.
We even had time to sit down on some logs near the kayaks and eat a leisurely snack.
Kenny was foot sore and glad to be back in the kayaks and off his poor feet.
We paddled out taking our time since now we should have no problem getting back to the truck before dark.   We did encounter a couple boats on the way out. The first was a man and his son fishing. They stopped and waited for us to pass to avoid capsizing us with their wake.  The second boat was SAR and they were flying by.  Kenny yelled for me to turn the kayak INTO their wake.  Timely advice for it probably kept me from turning over.  Once that was done I had time to relax and caught a few photos of the setting sun and fiery leaves as we neared the take out point. What a wonderful day! 

Fiery red leaves in the setting sun on Abrams Creek



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