A few words about ‘Bastard Bears’…
‘Bastard Bear’ is a descriptive adjective (that can reasonably be confused as being a noun) I use to describe a particularly steep, or difficult hill-climb, or anything formidable and tough to manage, really, and has now recently been associated with a ‘low trail gear’ for climbing even. I remember the first time I ever heard the phrase being used; it was Dave (‘Nurse Without A Purse’) Bigard in May of 1991, while hiking the Georgia and Southern North Carolina section of the Appalachian Trail.
Some background information: ‘Rat Patrol’ and I met Dave near Stover Creek Shelter on our 1st day of 12 out on the trail. He went on to Hawk Mountain Shelter that afternoon, while we camped in the soft pine needles next to the creek (before the big flood that swamped our tents). We accidentally caught up to him again the next evening after we had hiked 16 miles, mostly in the cold, pouring rain, the last 2 miles in the dark. Anyway, it was at the Gooch Gap Shelter that we became friends with the ‘Nurse Without A purse’ (‘NWAP’ for short) and another cool hiker/adventurer named ‘Dr. Faustus.’ While the shelter had been full the night before, and Rat and I camped out in the rain again…the next morning I woke up with a pond inside my tent, and we both were still exhausted from the 16 miles the day before, so we decided to take an entire day off, trying to recuperate and dry out somewhat, watching it rain the entire day and night from inside the shelter. Dave and Gwen (‘Dr. Faustus’) had decided to stay at the shelter, also, and we soon became ‘the gnarly family’, hiking the rest of the way to ‘Rainbow Springs’, NC, together. There are many stories I could tell you about that trip through Georgia, like how Dave carried ‘a bear horn’ and fired it off every night before retiring to his sleeping bag, or how I had 30 pounds of trail mix, or even how Dr. Faustus kept us all entertained and inspired; every day was a new adventure, but to make a very long story a bit shorter, I will get back to the ‘Bastard Bear’ part of the story.
I don’t remember exactly where we were, perhaps we were climbing up ‘Little Bald Knob’, or ‘Timber Ridge’ out of ‘Coleman Gap’ on our way to ‘Carter Gap’ (where we camped that night), taking advantage of the short break in the rain, when we met up with a ‘troubled youth group’ (‘The Cherokees’) and their counselors, while they were taking a break on the steep hillside. My feet were covered in blisters, so it was difficult for me to hike, but somehow I had kept up with Gwen and witnessed Rat and Dave climbing the hill…as Dave approached the group of kids, he exclaimed something to the effect that ‘This hill is a Bastard Bear! My ***hole is pouched out so far, you could cut lock washers!’ Several of the youth group broke out into laughter, of course, and one or two of them were laughing so hard that they fell over and were rolling around on the ground in the rocks and dirt on the trail. I probably would have fallen over, too, but that would have required effort, and I was in too much pain, apparently, and couldn’t afford the extra energy it would have taken to get back up. Anyway, it was really funny, as you can imagine. I can still see the image of that boy rolling around on the ground laughing so hard he could barely breathe; it is so vivid in my mind that is somewhat surreal. Anyway, that is how the phrase ‘Bastard Bear’ became a descriptive adjective.
Whitehouse Mountain Cliffs…
The latest adventure in the Rocky Fork area, to Whitehouse Mountain, was very exhilarating and spectacular, and even contained a few epic ‘bastard bear’ elements and ‘extreme hiking’ moments. Participating in the incredible hike, besides myself, were ‘Rat Patrol’, Melissa, and ‘Dan-o’. We met up on a chilly Saturday morning and began our hike at the gate in the Rocky Fork Recreation Area. Mel and Dan had never been there before, apparently, and were reasonably fascinated by the beautiful cascades on the creek and the inspiring views of the Flint Mountain Cliffs that are visible on your left as you walk the creek trail up into the impressive network of ridges and valleys. The stream was moving quite briskly this day, and there was snow and ice along the banks of the stream and on the trail.
Walking beside the Rocky Fork Creek is scenic and easy; the trail is smooth and wide, but we soon turned off this valley trail, and began our hike up the unmaintained trail that leads up and around ‘Whitehouse Mountain’ (I have no idea why it is named this, or even if this is the correct name, since there isn’t any definition or designation for this knob on the topography maps…) to the gap behind the large knob. Rat and I had already scouted out this trail about a month ago when the autumn leaves were in ‘bloom’, and had also already found the primitive trail that leads to the red-blazed ridge-top. This was steep and slippery, and we had to negotiate both snow and briers to get to the ridge-trail. The trail up to the top of the ‘Whitehouse’ knob is just as steep, if not steeper, and rockier, and Rat climbed slowly in what he called his ‘granny gear’, but we soon learned that there is a gear even lower than granny gear, whereas ‘granny gear’ supposedly incorporates both feet and a slow steady climbing technique for maximum traction, ‘Bastard Bear Gear’ combines both feet, both hands, both butt-cheeks, or any other body part that will assist in getting you up (or down) a snowy, steep hill.
The views from the top were incredible, perhaps even better than the last time we were there, since all the trees had by now lost their leaves. As I said before, in the last blog, it is amazing just how much one can see from the top of the knob.
After taking a break and enjoying the mountain scenery, we decided to climb down off the top of the knob to what Melissa described as ‘the abyss’, where we found the tops of the amazing cliffs that overlook the Rocky Fork. Having descended the mountain perhaps 3 1/2 10ths of a mile, and having negotiated pathless boulder-piles with scrub-trees and more briers, eventually ‘stair-stepping’ down in giant steps to the end of the world, basically–at least as far as Whitehouse Mountain is concerned. It was very inspiring and breathtaking, perhaps even spiritual, walking out to the edge of the cliffs for the first time ever; not just the feeling of ‘vertigo’ or ‘humility’, but an indescribable, ephemeral feeling that made me take a few moments to contemplate my existence.
Directly across from where we stood were the cliffs on Flint Mountain (that we had walked under earlier) and wayyy down below, after a sheer drop of a few hundred feet was the Rocky Fork Creek in the bottom of the valley.
Rat had nicknamed these giant pillars of fractured rock ‘Stonehenge’ many years ago, perhaps when we first began exploring the Rocky Fork with the hiking club in 1988. The name indeed seems appropriate for these fascinating cliffs; while they are not only a ‘phenomenon’, like the British Island ‘Stonehenge’, but are a ‘natural phenomenon’ as well. To give the name even more meaning, a couple of weeks earlier, while hiking back from ‘Long Branch Falls’ in the late afternoon/early evening, the Sun was setting in the Flint Gap, and I could see the tops of the ‘Stonehenge’–giant pillars of rock—glowing in the sunlight. It was a privilege for me to stand upon the fragile cliff-tops, and judging by their expression and amusement, I think that Rat, Dan-o and Melissa felt rather privileged, as well. It was the first time that I had hiked anywhere with Mel and Dan, and while it is difficult to imagine a better adventure, it was nice to have had them along, and look forward to hiking with them again sometime.
The hike back up the Whitehouse Knob was ‘extreme’, and there were a couple more ‘bastard bear’ moments (without the ‘lock washers, thankfully), both ascending and descending the secluded, snow covered, slippery knob. I am quite sure that I wasn’t the only one to receive deep scratches or bruises–what Melissa calls ‘merit badges’—but for me, it was well worth a few cuts and abrasions, and I hope to return to the phenomenal cliffs someday.
If the finding, and standing upon, the ‘Sill Branch Overlook/Cliffs’ was like ‘walking on the moon’, standing on ‘Stonehenge’ was somewhat similar, if not even more-so, since they are even taller, and there are even more cliffs across the valley to admire, as well. There is something primordial about these majestic giant pillars of fractured stone–beyond words and my ability to describe them, except, perhaps, to say ‘…what a bastard bear’.
On a late November morning, I met up with my trail-hiking buddy, ‘Rat Patrol’, and his waterfall-seeking friend, Dave Aldridge. We met Dave and one of his friends last January when Rat, Tyler, and I were hiking to the ‘Dick Creek Falls‘ by way of the Rock Creek Recreation Area on Unaka Mountain (perhaps I mentioned this in a previous blog). Dave and his friend, Lou, were actually on their way back from these secluded waterfalls, which he found using his GPS device, and although we had a good idea where to find them, it was much easier just to simply follow Dave’s ‘star pattern’ boot-tread through the snow. We actually bumped into Dave and Lou again about a week later on our way to ‘Rock Creek Falls‘–again they were on their way back, while we were on our way in to see them. Anyway, meeting Dave was very lucky, indeed, since he has been an avid waterfall hunter for quite some time now, visiting and photographing waterfalls around the world. While ‘Rat Patrol’ has been very enthusiastic about photographing waterfalls for his website, Rattreks.com, Dave’s association has helped fuel that compulsion, and inspire Rat into new waterfall territories, even, and they have been on several waterfall-hunting trips together. However, I dare to say, that the association has been somewhat mutual, since Rat and myself know of many waterfalls that Dave (or darn near anyone) has yet to find. In fact, on this particular day, we took Dave to some ‘unchartered’ waterfalls in the Sampson Wilderness Area that relatively no one even knows about, much less visits.
Before we took him to these secluded 150′ waterfalls, we walked up the ‘Longarm Creek Trail‘ to show him the upper Longarm Falls, which he had never seen before. I have been visiting these falls almost as long as I have lived in Tennessee. The day we were there, however, there wasn’t very much water flowing off the top, so it is difficult to fully appreciate their splendor, although we could respect their rugged appearance and significance, as they are at least 60-feet tall. Having seen these falls in flood stage several years ago, when they more resembled a river, and large rocks were being ejected from the top (I saw one rock kick off the falls, collide with a boulder at the base of the falls and split in two) I realize their potential, and respect and admire that latent power, regardless, but they do appear more impressive when larger amounts of water are flowing off the top, but that could be said for any waterfall.
The weather was unseasonably warm, and the trail was somewhat steep and rocky, but no one was in a hurry; we stopped occasionally to admire some of the attractive cascades on the Longarm Branch, or take a photo, perhaps.
On the way back from the upper Longarm Branch Falls, we decided to take Dave to some waterfalls I accidentally found a few years ago. I had walked by that particular hollow with the waterfalls in it for 20 years, or more, perhaps, suspecting but never realizing that there was anything in that hollow worth looking at. The ‘trail’ to the falls is quite primitive, and is essentially non-existent when you get close to the base of the largest waterfall—the one I had nicknamed the ‘Wilderness Falls’ over a year ago (since they didn’t already have a name). Anyway, although the trail was rough, we did eventually pass the respectable lower falls and then climbed the steep hillside to view the enormous cliff face with the creek descending off the top. Again, there wasn’t much water flowing that afternoon—in fact , in the 7 or 8 times that I have visited these substantial waterfalls, that is the least amount of water I have ever seen dropping over the cliff’s edge—but nevertheless it was an impressive sight. Despite the extremely steep and formidable landscape (there isn’t really a trail beyond the lower part of the falls) Dave seemed to enjoy the extraordinary falls, and thanked us for sharing them with him. While we were there, we had Dave (a retired engineer) get a GPS reading from the base of the falls. With this reading, he submitted the information to the Forest Service, and now ‘Wilderness Falls’ is on the Tennessee Landforms waterfall map. It is the first time that I have gotten to name a waterfall, so I am pretty excited about that.
Devil’s Fork Gap/Divide Mountain Hike…
I decided to go out for a Sunday afternoon hike in mid-November. I wasn’t sure where to go, but I eventually ended up hiking north out of Devil’s Fork Gap. It had been several years since I had hiked through Sugarloaf Branch, and I noticed a few ‘new to me’ trail re-locations and switchbacks that I suppose made it somewhat easier. I actually almost missed a turn in the trail as I ascended up the hill because I am so accustomed to following the creek draw up to the gap at the top of the ridge. As it turns out, it really wouldn’t have made very much difference, since the trail still goes through the gap, but I was interested in seeing what the ‘new’ trail was like.
After ascending the branch trail (with the new switchbacks) to the Sugarloaf Gap, I made my way out to the northern end of Divide Mountain, skirting around below the ridge-top to the large, interesting boulder with the small spring that originates just above it. I have heard someone call this seemingly misplaced boulder the ‘fish rock’, and I suppose if you look upon it from just the right angle, perhaps it does somewhat resemble a large fish, but to me it looks more like a large fish with its head cut off. Regardless, it is nice to have names for such unusual, perhaps unique, boulders and such, because it can improve communication along the trail by giving names to otherwise inanimate places.
Anyway, I studied the trail map through this area, and noticed some inaccuracy as to where the Appalachian Trail goes through that area, which was surprising. Also, apparently much of what I had hiked over is technically called ‘Divide Mountain’, even though ‘Sugarloaf Mountain’ is right in there as well, which I find rather confusing, and I am not even sure what to call that one ridge-line I hiked over. Anyway, I did go just a bit further around the point of the ridge, and got a view of Big Bald in the distance—understandably, Big Bald, elevation 5516’, is visible from darn near anywhere in this region. It was getting late in the afternoon, and I began hiking back toward Devil’s Fork Gap. The Sun began to set as I was trekking back down the Sugarloaf Branch part of the trail, and I was provided with some good views over toward Flint Mountain, since the softening sunlight helped with the quality of visibility.
I encountered a family, a mother and 3 children, on the last hill-climb of the day for me; they were walking down the hill toward the ‘Boone Cove Road’ that I had just crossed a few minutes before, and I suppose that they must live there somewhere. Although it is somewhat unusual to see such young children on the trail (one of them was only an infant and was being carried ‘papoose style’ by the mother), what was really unique was the ‘russian-blue’ cat that was walking with them, and ran down the trail toward me, as if in ‘attack mode’. At first I thought it was a small dog, in fact, and I was a bit shocked when I realized that it was actually a cat. You just don’t see hiking guard-cats like that very often.
Anyway, by the time I reached the top of the last ridge (another part of the elusive, transient ‘Divide Mountain’), the full moon was coming up over the ridges in the east, and from where I was, I was looking down to see it rising up above the mountains, which was astonishing in itself, but also, the Sun setting on the other side of the ridge, in the southwest was very scenic—I mean it was incredible, especially when Viking Mountain is serving as a backdrop to such beauty.
Long Branch Falls…
There was yet another hike in the Rocky Fork Recreation Area–a waterfall seeking journey on the ‘Long Branch’ creek. It was a cool morning, but overall, the weather was really nice, and I met up with ‘Rat Patrol’ and his son ‘Tyler’ to find the falls. As many times as I have walked up the ‘high road’ in the Rocky Fork, I had never adventured into the ‘Long Branch’, but passed it by many a time saying to myself, ‘I wonder what’s up in there?’ As it turns out, there are some pretty nice waterfalls and cascades in that long valley. The water levels were pretty low on the day we hiked up through there, but I still enjoyed being out in the woods, exploring new trails, and climbing new (to me) waterfalls.
The falls themselves, as I said, are quite ‘nice’, in fact on the day we hiked up there, all they really needed to be ‘super-nice’ was a lot more water flowing off the tops. The largest waterfall was also the furthest away waterfall, and the most difficult to get to, as well. Again, these falls would have been impressive with a bit of rain, but looked more like a large (30-foot tall), wet rock, with a bit of water trickling off the top. We found an old road bed, now overgrown in small pine trees, and after getting stung by a yellow jacket or two (Tyler got stung, also), followed that old road bed back down toward the larger trail we had left to find the upper Long Branch Falls. We had to drop down off of this overgrown trail at a ridge-point, and found another old road bed below that one that led us out of the narrow draw that the falls are situated in.
Despite being a bit disoriented and unbalanced because of the bee sting, and perhaps the antihistamine that I took to combat the effects, we made it out of the Long Branch without any problems, and hiked back through the Rocky Fork creek trail. I mentioned this before, in the ‘Whitehouse Mountain’ part of the blog, but I was very fascinated by the Sun setting in Flint Gap, and the way it illuminated the amazing ‘Stonehenge’ cliffs. It was an impressive solar–cliff alignment, to say the least.
There is only one other hike to mention, the steep ‘bastard bear-like’ hill-climb up the northern end of Longarm Ridge. This is a particularly desolate part of the world, and judging by the complete lack of a trail on top of the narrow ridge-top, I don’t even think the animals travel over this part of the ridge, except maybe a few birds. While, I am always intrigued by the cumulative sound of the roaring Devil’s Fork creeks, which can be heard quite clearly while climbing the northern end of Longarm Ridge, this ‘trail’ is basically just a ‘bushwhack’. The only reason to be up on top of this end of the Longarm Ridge, that I can think of, is to study the surrounding landscapes, particularly the ‘Big Pine Ridge and Devil’s Fork Valleys’ part of Rich Mountain. One can also get a good view of the ridges of Sampson Mountain from there, as well.
More adventures later…………….Boulderman 12-16-2010