Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Mill Creek Bushwhack--The Low Road and the High Road

 Cream Wake Robin Trillium 

Mill Creek Bushwhack--The Low Road and the High Road

Kenny & Dana Koogler 

6.5 mi. RT approx. 

Saturday April 2, 2016

Pictures are here beginning with frame 54

Mill Creek Pix

**Before the ever present "Where?" question can be asked  .. before I even type up the report.. Here is a link to directions including way points.  Use them at your own peril. 
I will leave them as a link on the main page for awhile.  I will take them down when it suits me. 
Instead of the usual keep it to myself .. I encourage others who travel off trail to make  this trip.
It is beautiful and worthwhile. The route is being lost because it is not being traveled much.  The Smoky Mountain Hiking Club is supposed to go this September , and you do not have to be a member to go. You DO have to be vetted by the hike leaders though. It is a difficult trek and a navigation challenge.   **

Taking the Low Road 

    Kenny & I first made the trip to visit Mill Creek Falls with Slowalk and Fastwalk in the lead.
I remember Tom Lundberg, his friend Suzanne, Steve Hinch, Dave Landreth, were along. Others may have gone along, but those are the ones I remember now.  It was Fall of the year and we had a fun time.   It is a trip worth taking because not only do you get to see a huge waterfall, but massive trees!
Since then we have taken friends and family back. We have also made the trek just us.
The two trips previous to this were unsuccessful.  The first failure came about after my illness with 
Miller Fisher syndrome. It was horrifying to learn that while my body and eyes were well .. I had several pages of amnesia. I had lost a big chunk of the trip to Mill Creek. Explicit memory where you remember remembering......... and muscle memory....... that is just automatic were wiped out. 
Kenny could not remember the route real well either, and I decided we'd best turn around. 
The second failure was going with a group of friends ,and having to sweep someone back out
because they were not up to the bushwhack.  

             Two unsuccessful attempts was enough to light a fire under me.  I was determined to make it.   I prayed about it. I told Kenny ,and he said "Yes ma'am! We will go! I will make sure you get there."  True to his word he did!   We got up Saturday morning in time to get an early start for it is a long
trek.   We parked the jeep at the back of Cades Cove and away we went.  


This is the start of the path. Can you see it?

   The walk starts out pretty easy over terrain without much grade.   It doesn't take long until
the obstacles like saplings and downed trees, tree laps, briars begin to mount.  We made it through the first portion, and I wanted to turn and go up the hill to a second old road that Ken had used. It makes it easier since the bottom land is now a briary snarl.  Kenny insisted we go the usual way right across the bottomland.   We still picked up the second road which is a crucial junction in the trip.  
It is also a part I had amnesia about, but the memory had begun to return on the second unsuccessful trip.   Today it was easy to recall and that felt wonderful to me.  More blow downs to crawl over and under. The old road winds round the slopes of a ridge eventually depositing you beside the first creek crossing at the bottom of a hill.   

      Crossing here is almost always a wet foot, over the top of the boot wade.  There are two logs up and down stream you can use if you want to crawl the log.  Kenny used the log. I took the long way round. I donned my water shoes and waded.  It is a gravelly shoal where I waded. I found an easy place to get out of the creek.   The original route of this bushwhack had between six and eight creek crossings with a couple of them being particularly deep.  I remember some of them being bridged by 
fallen trees that were like bridges you could walk.  Many of those are gone now or the bark is slipping making them dangerous to cross.  Once across and with my boots back on... we had a short wiggle through the rhodo until we came to what would have been the next creek crossing and a huge snarl of rhodo.  We went up the ridge and around it.   

This is what the route looks like at the first creek crossing.


A subsequent creek crossing used to be made using that fallen tree. Now the bark is slipping and crossing it might throw you in the creek head first.  I am standing in the middle of the creek here to take this photo.  
Next we made our most major screw up of the day.  We went through a flat after the ridge and when we came to the next place the terrain pinched us off forcing us to cross we floundered.  The rhodo was the worst ever in this spot.  The creek was deep and the banks didn't provide an easy way down.
Once across we realized we had frigged up and were going to have to strong arm our way thru the rhodo or get back in the creek.  We had to cross yet again in order to get back on the route.  We were foolishly trying to recreate the old route. Kenny had remarked long before this he felt we were not doing it the way Gretchen & Paul first showed us.  That had more crossings, but he felt it accessed more of the flat, open terrain before this point.  He may be right, but I really can't recall.  
All I knew was that we were struggling in the brush.  Finally we got to a ridge we went up over and I knew when we came back down on the other side the worst was about to be over!  We were nearing the last wet foot creek crossings and the junction with The Narrows.   Kenny did some sidehill while I yet again donned my water shoes and climbed down in the creek. I had to cross two creeks side by side so at least I could just leave the water shoes on.  It is very time consuming changing shoes so many times.  A look back down the bank at the crossing was very telling. A debris mat several feet thick and several feet high was squashed against the bank.   I thought of what it must look like to be in that area when the water level is that high!  

         Once that was behind us we sat down on a log for me to change back into my boots.   I was getting hungry.  I asked Kenny when he wanted to stop and eat lunch? He said he wanted to put a little more distance behind us before we ate.  The woods were way more open here and the going was easier.  The terrain was gradual uphill.  The stream here is one of my favorite spots along the trip.
It begins to take on that white satin ribbon look. It reminds me of a ribbon stretched across a green velvet background.  The woods over here on this side were polluted with dead hemlocks. They were brown and dead in most places.   On the other side of the stream just a short distance up from here the woods were green and coming alive! Quite a contrast.  


            No path now, but the woods are open.  See how dead and brown everything still looks?


The creek now is so pretty and the rocks are growing more mossy the higher into the drainage we go.

    We worked our way up through flat, open areas that had piles of rocks. These were cleared farm fields long ago and home sites.    A little bit of purple phlox bloomed here.  We went a bit further, and I told Kenny he was doing exactly what I'd asked him not to do. He was turning the trip into a 
Bataan Death March. I was tired. I was now HANGRY.  I sat my ass down on a log to eat lunch. 
Kenny apologized for pushing so hard. He agreed he was hungry too and we needed to stop.  
Sitting there he finished eating first and got out the GPS and turned it on for the first time during the trip.   He said something about wondering how far we had left. I told him I bet we were 0.75 miles from the falls. Once he got a signal on the GPS he did a distance measure and exclaimed "You're almost dead on it!  0.73"  We had the worst behind us and now would just have to steadily climb toward the falls.  There is one more spot where you have to be careful not to turn and go up Sugar Cove Branch.   We did fine from there on out.  It is still not easy, but the scenery was growing prettier and more interesting. 

       We came to a tight spot on the left where we had to walk one of the few log bridges left.
It was by a pretty cascade and right above it I saw my first white trilliums of the trip. They were freshly opened and beautiful.  This was a creek crossing, but a fairly straight forward rock hop.

Log Bridge #2 of the day was good and useable.  It is punk wood and only the thickness of the log allowed us to walk it safely, but it is close to the ground.  


Trillium grandiflora freshly opened.

        We passed through another snarl of rhodo and that was the last one on the way in.  It was very short patch of it.  No worries.  The terrain was turning greener and moister and more steep.

One of many smaller, pretty cascades along the way. I think this one is on Sugar Cove Branch.
We began seeing more and more wildflowers!  This really is an excellent area for wildflowers, but what you have to go through to get back to where they are is a real bitch.  The Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage made the trip back here several years back. I believe that was two trips for them. First and LAST!   

Wildflowers grew on everything back here. The trunks of trees, atop rocks, in creeks on tiny clumps of earth, in the spring branch, and these are growing in a hollowed out log!   Windflowers blooming in there. 

   Stuff started to be covered more heavily by moss.  The headwaters area as we drew nearer the falls got steeper and the path about four inches wide in places, but you could still see where others had trod.   Either a person or animal was walking it.    Water flowed down in rivulets from spring branches.  We saw purple wakerobin, cream wake robin, sweet white trillium, great white trillium, catesby's trillium, windflower, hepaticas, violets of white, yellow and purple, spring beauties, trout lilies, dwarf ginseng, dutchmans britches in great quantities, squirrel corn, blue cohosh a plenty. 
I saw some hybrid trilliums that have been there on another Spring time trek to that spot.  We were making our way through the land of the Ents now.  Huge trees grow in these woods having been spared the loggers axe.  


One example of massive trees back in the cove. 
The slopes across the stream are covered in great white trilliums. 
One of my favorite cascades along the route. It is very picturesque.  The slopes across from this were coated in trilliums!

       We were making our way up through a boulder field.  One of those areas where the rock you step on may roll out from under your feet or slide down the slope.  It is also a place to watch where you step and test it with a hiking pole before you put your weight there.   Sometimes these rocks are covered with lacy green layers of moss and you can't tell if what you're stepping on is rock or a hole covered with a moss doily!  We stuck to the tiny path on the sidehill that wound along the slope.
The soil here is loamy, rich and black as pitch. It gives easily.  Below us was a scene that had my heart leaping for joy.  The long white satin ribbon of  Mill Creek crashed down the mountain for hundreds of feet over the green velvet moss in endless cascades.  I was really here. I was really going to stand before Mill Creek Cascade again just as before.   I was elated and so was Kenny.  

         Once we were there by the falls Kenny turned to me and said "Honey, I promised I'd get you back here and I love you. I kept my word to you."  I smiled and thanked him and got a kiss and a hug.
He then grinned ear to ear and the words "I'll never come back here again. This is my last trip." became " I will so come back again. It was worth it. It is so pretty."   I agree except pretty doesn't begin to describe it.  Mill Creek Falls bv 1
Mill Creek Falls.. the main body of the falls .  There is more above it, but I have yet to make it that far.  There is supposed to be a gravity arch up there too.  

   I sat down and said a prayer of thanks for our safety and for finally making it back here.
I told Kenny I believe I am like Jacob when he wrestled God.  The Lord touched Jacob's hip and dislocated it so he walked the rest of his life with a limp as a humbling reminder.  I believe God has healed me, but will not permit me to get 100% well. He has left me with a 1% deficit as a reminder of lessons learned so that I don't repeat them.  It is worth it to put up with if I can keep from repeating
the same mistakes.    

            I took plenty of time to soak up the scene. I enjoyed my photography of the falls and the rest of the scene before me.  I sat down once I was done taking pictures and video to just absorb it all.
I ate an apple and drank some water. I gave Kenny some bites of my apple.  


Behind me .. Kenny stands on the steep slopes to the south. More than a mile and a half up from here is Russell Field.   The skies were brilliant blue with puffy clouds and plenty of gorgeous sunshine.
The slopes are steep indeed and covered in every shade of green growing thing along with flowers like polka dots.  Rocky crags are above us also.  

Kenny ahead of me . He has flagged our route with neon orange survey tape.  We are now less than quarter mile from the falls.   
What was at my feet when I photographed the falls. Cream trilliums, blue cohosh, sweet white trillium.  

To my left side.. the steep slope and blue sky.
Dutchmans britches grew all over that mountain side.

  Here is a video of the trip. It starts with one of the creek crossings and ends at the main falls. 

Taking the High Road 

   All we had to do now was make it back out of here.  I had said on the way in that perhaps on the way out we would not make as many mistakes. Usually one can avoid at least a few pitfalls. 
We trucked along back in the direction of the jeep at Forge Creek Road.   We came to the first place
we made the route better. Before we got too serious about climbing back out I wanted a break in that nice flat area.  I ate a few M&M's and drank some water.   I used that as a potty break rather than have to stop again later.    I took a look at the very gradual slope of Cobb Ridge. I was determined as was Kenny we would go up and over that instead of fording twice.  It was fun and easy.  Back down in the flat we were tickled at having avoided one snare.   We came to the second spot and boys howdy... what a difference that made. Kenny said he wanted to go up the ridge and stay on it instead of the bad rhodo and creek crossings we endured mid trip.   I was in favor of it.  Following a ridge can be trickier than following a creek.  It is easier to get fouled up and go to far or come down off there and be unsure where you are.  I didn't much care if if avoided all that rhododendron.

            We climbed up to the ridgeline and once up there .. no more elevation gain.  It was level.
It was apparent it is being traveled by people and animals.  We found a chunk of airplane fuselage.
A cookie sheet sized chunk of white aluminum that had the fuel hatch on it.  I don't know how it works, but I began to get a sense of where I was and where this ridge was going to come out. 
Below us to our left was the creek. Finally to our right was a deep holler.  I had the feeling we'd come out at the point that leads up from the first creek crossing. I told Kenny I had the way point for the first creek crossing on the GPS. He turned it on to check our position and sure enough we were headed right for it. Closing the loop of our trip.  We stood up there atop that ridge and hooted and hollered our lungs out for joy!  He and I both said Hell yeah we WILL come back! This is so much better!  It was unreal!  It ended up cutting our time by 1 hr 20 min.  

           Atop the ridge Kenny put a way point on the ridge line we would need to aim for in the future.
Down off the point we came trotting.  It was awesome!   We had to cross the creek only one more time and we'd soon be back on the easier part of the route.. the old road.  He helped me cross on the log this time and it was not bad.  We never had to put our water shoes on a time for the return trip.
Taking the high road was the way!  

    I shared the route improvement with Ken Wise once we got home. He already knew about it, but was tickled I finally made it back there. He knew how much it meant to me.  He also was pleased we found one of his ways he uses to reach the falls. He  said a lot of folks don't like to go up there, but like us, he found it easier.    I should have known I couldn't learn anything that would surprise him or help him,, but I wanted to make certain to share any assistance with a fine friend.

Ken Wise has blessed my life and Kenny's with his writing and willingness to share the off trail areas of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.   Thanks my friend for your work and your goodness.
I won't forget it.

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