When the hiking club was still moving forward, several years ago, there used to be a colleague in the club who would sometimes preface his comments with the phrase “I’m not whinin’, but…” right before he would pronounce his thoughts on some steep, rocky, 5-mile hill-climb. There were no such things as ‘easy hikes’ back then, whether it was on the Appalachian Trail, or in the backcountry wilderness hikes.
Some of them were quite grueling, like the 17-miler from Horse Creek to Allen Gap—the last 5 miles in the dark. As I recall, ‘Rat Patrol’ had ditched his new boots because his feet hurt so badly, and walked sock-footed at least 5 or 6 miles. Then, there was the unexplainable sound of ’cowbells’ somewhere out on that dark mountain; it was a bit spooky. Even so, our eyes must have adapted to the darkness, or perhaps ‘the trail’ was taking care of us, since the trail corridor seemed to glow and we didn’t have any more problems…until all 7 of us tried to get in the hot, airless little car that was waiting to take us back to Horse Creek. If not for the small crack in the window letting in a trace of cool air for me to put my nose near, I believe I would have suffocated—but that’s another story. Anyway, I sort of feel like the Sill Branch Overlook Hike Report should have a similar preface: I’m not whinin’, but this is what happened…
Actually, everything started out quite well; ‘Rat Patrol‘ was in town and was available for a loop hike. We got a fairly early start on a Saturday. Our plan was to climb up the backside of the cliff ridge that forms the northern border of the Sill Branch Valley and make our way out onto the ‘Monkey Head Rocks‘, the massive boulder-cliffs that jut out of the cliff ridge overlooking the Sill Branch Valley, which can be seen from many miles away.
For over 20 years I have looked over at the distinctive cliff faces, the ‘monkey head rocks’, thinking how remarkable it would be to actually stand on top of them one day. Rat had never been out to the overlook either. Recently, however, after much scouting and map study, I had found an easy passage to the top of the cliff ridge with the ‘bony knuckle knobs’. To our surprise, we were at the cliffs in about an hour. Stepping out onto the ‘Monkey Head Rock’ for the first time was like stepping on the moon!
The view was incredible, even better than either of us had imagined. Mesmerized and getting sunburned, I could barely talk, apparently. We took several photos of the view–Rat even took a video– and it is a good representation if you can imagine the enormous size of Sampson Mountain and the Sill Branch Valley. The turkey-buzzards hovered and circled above us, seemingly un-amused by our having discovered their cliff-haunt.
[To see video click the pic or link below! (worth the wait)
I suppose we should have just climbed back down the cliffs and then possibly hiked up to the waterfalls from there, but since we were already on top of the ridge, we decided to stay on top and follow the ridgeline, descending somewhere above the falls, and loop around instead of having to back-track anywhere. The plan itself was not bad–the trail, however, was well overgrown with trees and shrubbery. There were also areas where the pine trees have all died and fallen upon each other on the ground, making it more difficult to navigate a path through. I am told that the pine bark beetles migrated from Georgia to East Tennessee about 10 years ago and have killed unknown millions of pines.
Even with all the obstacles, we managed to maneuver our way to an old log road just above the spring that feeds the northern most part of Sill Branch. We had gotten rather roughed up that last mile or so, having been tattooed by the mountain, and all the trees and branches, and were quite glad to find an open trail. It was mid-afternoon; we were tired and beat up, but on schedule. I had already drunk all my water and was re-filling my bottle at the spring when Rat realized he no longer had his pack. We surveyed the immediate area, but to our collective surprise, we could not find it. It was a disappointing end to an otherwise awesome hike.
Perhaps another preface is in order here, but to make a long story short, we climbed back up to the ridge and searched further on down the trail, but still couldn’t find ‘stealth pack’. ‘Rat Patrol’ can no doubt tell the story better than I can, since he lived it, and he is welcome to comment, if he likes. Anyway, what I remember…after climbing down and back up that twisted ‘meat-grinder ridge’, I was bruised, bloodied, and over-heating–and ‘stealth pack’ was still lost. Rat searched the ridge one more time and I started to get concerned because it was beginning to get late. Going over the ‘meat-grinder ridge’ two or three times was just too much, and that would be a really bad place to be lost. But he eventually made it back to the spring, seemingly in shock at having lost his backpack. Indeed, I couldn’t believe it either, but blamed it all on the pine bark beetles—those bastards!
Exhausted, we finally gave up and limped down off the mountain before it turned dark. However, when we reached the car, we still were not done because the car keys were in ‘stealth pack’, so we had to walk another 3 miles to the paved road in the dark in an attempt to borrow a phone, since Rat’s cell phone was also in his pack. I began to regret carpooling to the Sill Branch. However, we were lucky and found a phone, and also lucky my brother was at his house and had time to haul us back to town.
It would not be right to end the story just there, although I felt like it many times as I tried to heal from the 12-miler we inadvertently had trekked–so much for an ‘easy hike over the ridge’. The fact is there were two more excursions to ‘meat-grinder ridge’ in search for Rat’s pack; the first one was just 4 days later, and I still didn’t have any energy–not enough to tackle that beast of a ridge, anyway. Rat and his son Tyler were also up there searching, but we were all unsuccessful–‘stealth pack’ was still lost.
Another week went by, but I was determined to try again. I walked back up to the spring on the north fork of Sill Branch. I had gotten an early start, and taking my time, I made a trail through the ‘meat-grinder‘. As it turns out, that is a very tricky place on the ridge, as the gap isn’t in line with the ridge point, but instead twisted so that one must descend steeply before turning off of the ridge-point sharply to the right to find the elusive gap where I eventually found ‘stealth pack’.
Yes, there it was, ‘stealth pack’, standing right in the middle of ‘the trail’. I could hardly believe it. I felt like picking it up and kissing it. Jubilant, like a young native walking back to camp with a couple of wild turkeys, I carried it, and my own pack, back out and down by all the cascades and waterfalls on the north fork of Sill Branch, stopping on the middle ridge to look over and admire the awesome ‘Monkey Head Rocks‘ overlooking the valley. It was a great relief finding the pack, and there was a ‘bright side’ to the otherwise disappointing journey. It reminds me of the Appalachian Trail ‘thru-hiker’ named ‘Hans’ from Holland who once said: “’spect easy?”
In the end, it wasn’t disappointing; in fact, I look forward to going back there ‘someday’.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Boulderman 4/23/2009