Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Exploring the Cumberland Plateau--Rocky River

 Some sort of yellow asters along the road.
Possibly Camphorweed

Rocky River Ride
Sunday Sept. 14, 2014
14 miles total
Dana & Kenny Koogler 

Pictures are here: Rocky River Pix

     Two years ago we took a Spring camping trip to Fall Creek Falls.  It was beautiful!
We were seeing waterfalls, caves, wildflowers, and having a great time.   I have mentioned
before something calls to me leading me to various places.  Even on a trip that should
have totally occupied my mind and time ---- I could hear that call.
I felt that pull to follow it. I spoke to Kenny about it and one day we followed it.  It lead me to
Rocky River which lies in a largely forgotten corner of Tennessee.  The experience that time
was strange to put it mildly.  The area is beyond rural.  It is a place of Desolation Angels.
What we found that trip was not what I expected at all.  What I felt was even less desirable.
       Rocky River on our first visit. Flowing clear and deep and fast.. with trees in it!

   The drive out there on the initial visit was beautiful.  It was through scenes of pastoral life.
We began seeing the occasional old house rotting down.  No big deal.  It is a frequent sight
in rural areas to see old houses.  We got to the road we were looking for that provided access to
Rocky River itself.   Around it were an even greater concentration of empty, burned out, abandoned houses.  What was stranger was here in a spot would stand one empty old house.
Beside it would be the newer house built to replace the rotting down old house.  The new house and the old house stood side by side abandoned and rotting down.  You don't see that every day.
Later in the day we found the survey of the entire county to be largely empty.  A four lane highway
with scarcely a vehicle on it except  us.    A fancy subdivision with a  stone fountain at the entry way that cost thousands of dollars, empty, unplugged, unused.  Abandoned.
No houses in the subdivision.  More houses burned down, rotting down, or left in apparently fine condition but empty.   The land was mostly pine plantations, wildlife and lots of nothing.
 What is calling me down this road? First sight of the access at Rocky River on Visit #1
What I felt upon getting close was a sense of foreboding.   Desolation.
Empty.  Decay.  Dark.  The river itself was filled with trees and running fast with lots of sparkling clear water.  I knew the river was undercut with caves and flowed underground part of the year.
The trees grow up in it when they can take root.   The feeling that hung over the entire area was post apocalyptic.   We did a little exploring along the river, but the truck could only make it so far.
I knew we would be back.  I did not want to come back, but something wanted me to come back.
What I wanted then was to leave.  Kenny wanted to leave also, and so we did.  We headed back to the campground after Visit number one and resumed our camping trip.  I tried to shake the feeling and  put it out of my mind.  

        Finally we did return today and I was prayed up before we arrived. 
The good news? The bad feeling was gone.   Whatever that was had lifted and been replaced
by a quietness and peace.  I was cautiously optimistic.  Today the sun shone and the river flowed only in spots.  Today was one of the last days of Summer.  Tall wildflowers of purple and gold
waved in the breeze under a blue sky.   The leaves had begun to crumple and fall.   The waning 
pale yellow cast of late September was on the world around us.   The old houses still stood, but
care was being taken to some of them.  Yards being mowed.  Demolition under way.  
Signs of life and care in this place are good.  
Season of purple and gold on a bright sunny day.  Sets a better tone for visit #2

Where we parked on visit #2. Same access, but the old house is being torn down.
The grass is being cut.  The other vehicle was the one that hauled in the lawn mower.
Never did see the person all day. 

  I have told you a little about the difference in the spirit of place for both visits.
Now let me tell you a little about Rocky River itself.   It has an interesting geology and 
history. I believe both may play a part in what I felt on visit #1.   

    Rocky River arises as a spring just north of Jakes Mountain. It flows northward.
It is impounded at Studer Lake briefly running through an area of old surface mines.
It continues flowing either above ground or underground . It winds for a time through
a steep narrow gorge and continues north until at last it becomes a slack water
where the Great Falls Dam has been constructed impounding Center Hill Lake.
It has other springs and side streams contribute to it further north like the Boyd Spring
and Norton Spring.    It forms the boundary between Warren County to the west and Van Buren County to the east for a fair amount of its 31 mile length.    In the White Hill community
during much of the year the river is dried up to holes.     Now let me give you something to ponder:

    The infamous Trail of Tears comes right through here.  The Rocky River crossing was part of that ordeal.  I knew this, but when I hear Rocky River Crossing the first thing that comes to mind is the difficulty of all those poor souls on their forced march having to cross a cold, fast moving river.   It was a lot more terrible than that.   Imagine arriving at the dry rocks of Rocky River with thousands of the Cherokee people, soldiers, and horses. They did not find adequate water.  
It was just another event to underscore inhumanity of the whole ordeal for the Cherokee Nation.
Not the drama of a tough, dangerous river crossing. That would have been more merciful. 
It was the slow, grinding, drawn out suffering and death for so many.  I cannot help but wonder 
if that was part of what I felt on the first visit? No way to tell, but it is heart wrenching 
to contemplate.  Here Chief Junaluska and a group of the Cherokees made an attempt to escape.
They did for a time, but were later recaptured.

           Today we planned to satisfy our curiosity about this area.  We had researched it.
We had checked it out on Google Earth.  It looked to have a rideable trail along a good 
portion of it.   We set off with the RZR and hoped for the best. The  access road was grown up
with tall, end of Summer wildflowers and weeds.  The first glimpse we had of the river was dry rocks.  We passed the area where the trees grew in the river.  How different it now looked 
with just a rare hole of muddy water.  Back in Spring it would have been a very tricky, wet
crossing of the stream.  It had rained the night before and the lane was muddy. Even after
a good rain the river bed was dry!

Dry river bed at Rocky River near the start. 

    Green frog sitting in one of many mud holes along the lane. What  a contrast!

Muddy lane. Mud is part of the reason for four-wheelin!

 Hearts a bustin... shrub overhanging the trail.  

   We came to a place where we could suddenly hear water.  The trail became wetter all at once.
We were heading uphill and found a spot where the water was actually flowing down the trail.
We followed it and found a small, strong spring flowing out of the bank and flowing down the road.
We considered it a good sign and hoped that heading upstream along the river we'd eventually see
some pretty scenery and water in the river.  We were not disappointed.  We took a little bit of time to knock the spiders off us and off the RZR.   Neither of us had ever seen or eaten as many spider webs as we saw today.  They were riding with us. They were crawling all over.  It be done got the the pernt now where everthang dat touch me have me jumping, flogging and swatting. 

Here is the first place along Rocky River where we saw actual flowing water.  It is tranquil and green and pretty.  The scene here is that season between seasons for me.  September. That perfect blending of the two times.  The anticipation of the cooler weather, pretty colors, the lingering warmth and the enjoyment of the last Summer flowers.

 We got out to enjoy the sight of the river.  It was beautiful, but it was also different!
Not a normal flowing river.  We could tell by the sound something was special.  The river flowed into a big pretty pool and then disappeared completely underground again! Not unique out here in the Cumberland Plateau, but I never tire of seeing it.  We'd found a swallet where the water is consumed by the earth. 

Above is a short video that documents the Rocky River Swallet at this point. It shows it much better
than a mere photo ever could.  

The photo above shows the dry ground of river bottom soil beyond the swallet at Rocky River.
It also illustrates the special kind of crazy you become after so many spider and spiderweb encounters.
Kenny is swatting and brushing them off him now just for good measure! It took about a week to get right
after this!

Pink turtleheads growing below the swallet.  We also saw greenheaded coneflowers and
bright red cardinal flower. We saw lots of great blue lobelia.

      We continued up the trail a short distance. We were now in the depths of a hemlock forest.
It was dark green and beautiful.  Moss covered the rocks and logs around us.   The river continued murmuring past on our left.  Its waters sparkling clear and showing just a little of that aquamarine color found on the plateau.   Sycamore trees hung low over the stream.

Above: Healthy hemlock forest
Below: Rocky River flows beneath the sycamore trees.

       We stopped again to enjoy the sight of the river.  It had lots of massive boulders in it and one pretty cascade after another in this portion.   We pressed up the trail and found that it was trending upward and away from the river.   We followed it because it was the only way we could go in the RZR or on foot.
We saw draws coming down from the sides that looked like something from a nightmare.  Mammoth boulders and rock piles that would crush you if they ever gave way. It makes me wonder how they stay put?
The trail finally played out. We were in the tight squeeze we could see on the map. Though Google Earth
showed the trail continuing.. a reality check for us here and now... said otherwise.  We were at an end.
We got out on foot and walked a ways.  The brush, rocks and weeds and briars were thick.  We decided
not to chance an ankle sprain or a snake bite by venturing much further.  We were at the top of a high bluff with no safe way down to the river far below.

       We turned around and at last started back toward the truck.   We'd only gotten to ride about five miles.
What a bummer, but on the other hand... we satisfied our curiousity about this place. We did find it to be pretty, but it became impossible to go further with the RZR and difficult to impossible to check out this portion of the river on foot.  We took our time and went back and I had a moment of clarity on the way back where I picked up on the spirit of the place today.  I stopped and listened.  I smiled.
I got the message. It was like a wink and a nudge saying "Don't be afraid to come here.  Keep your eyes and ears open and come see me. Court me. Let me show you the secrets a little at a time." I can do that.

     We eased back to the truck and tried a side path that added about another two miles to the trip today.
In all we ended up riding fourteen miles.  Green frogs hopped every which way as we left.  The mud flew and splattered.   Tall spires of pale pink Joe Pye weed swayed in the breeze.  In the wildflower world.. I love Joe Pye weed.  It is like a tall gangly woman wearing an out of season color for her dress!  "Its heading to Autumn, but I don't give a darn. I like pale pink and that is what I'm going to wear!" she says.
I caught a flash of black and some movement out of the corner of my eye.  Kenny backed up quickly and we rolled out to hunt for him.  Yes! It was a snake.  I knew I'd see a black snake.  I went over and squatted down to take pictures and talk to him a bit.  He was enjoying the warm sunshine and was docile as a lamb.

End of Summer with Mr. Black Snake.  He's cute sunning himself.

We crossed at what appeared to be another trail and here the river was dry again save for one hole of water. It was murky and a few feet deep. It contained chubs swimming in it.  Across the river we found a campsite.
The trail did not continue far. It ended at the far side of the camp.  We ate lunch here and enjoyed the
beauty of the large trees.  We saw one massive poplar, shag bark hickory, buckeye, and some massive beech trees.   Why must people be so ignorant and carve their names into trees? I'd like to carve my initials
into the hides of some of these dumbasses!  

Two photos of the big poplar.

Below : Kenny by the big poplar for scale.

    We made our way back to the truck and had about half a day left.
We tried to located Boyd Spring unsuccessfully. We did locate Norton Spring but it was not much to see.
What was neat, but was on private land was the river as it got into the vicinity of Norton Spring.
Down a steep bluff and too far to see well through the trees we got a glimpse of this
I would like to visit it up close if I can find out who to ask permission from!

River merges with the waters from Norton Spring

     We decided to finish our day by satisfying another area of curiosity for us.  We'd seen people unloading
four-wheelers on many trips we'd made to Lost Creek Falls.  I'd been told there was some good riding back in there.  Today we'd head to check it out ourselves and see!?!  The next episode for today? Big Bottoms.
Yes.. that's the real name. :-)

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