Sunday, September 19, 2010

Walking Back In Time

My whole life I have been intrigued with the concept of ‘time travel’. Movies and books such as H.G. Wells, ‘The Time Machine, and Richard Matheson’s ‘Somewhere in Time’, are just a couple of examples that captured my interests at an early age. I did thirty five years of research about my family’s ancestors and was captivated by the emotions I felt as I mentally traveled in time to the lives of many generations past. I once again was given the opportunity to not only experience an unforgettable backpacking experience of six days, but was also proffered the chance to travel and walk the trails of a century past.

Rick Harding, Tom Harding and myself hiked thirty five miles in some of the most rugged North Carolina Mountains, retracing old logging roads, camping at old homesteads, stumbling upon old cemeteries long forgotten and left for the wilderness to recapture with its forests. Rock chimneys, appearing as monuments to the families that once called it home, still stood in plots of land, terraced by river rock stones to make the terrain easier to farm. Now the only vegetation was huge Poplar trees, fir and spruce, the wilderness now taking ownership, swallowing the evidence of the past.

The journey would take us down the steep slopes of Clingman’s Dome, following Forney Creek, one of the many major tributaries of Fontana Lake. Other major creeks that cascade down the steep slopes that feed Fontana Lake are, Chamber’s Creek, Eagle Creek, Noland’s Creek, Pilkey Creek, Hazel Creek and many other smaller streams, some unnamed. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s there were small mountain communities that sprung up along the northern slopes of the Little Tennessee River, which carved it’s way through some of the most rugged and isolated mountains in North America. Rocky, dirt roads, although sparse and difficult to navigate, connected the small communities and the small homesteads that strategically placed themselves along many of these streams using the creek’s currents to power grist mills and provide water for their families.

After the Civil War, the demand for lumber skyrocketed and the logging companies began to look at the virgin forests of the southern Appalachians to log. It wasn’t until the early 1900’s that technology, such as the band saw, and innovations in logging railroads, allowed the loggers to begin to log this area effectively. Logging operations such as the Norwood Lumber Company and W.M. Ritter Lumber Company, logged the slopes heavily between 1907 and 1930, removing as much as two-thirds of the timber from the very slopes we would be walking down. Eighty years later, the forest has recovered. Tall stands of Poplar, Oak, Yellow Birch, Hemlock and Fir has reclaimed the steep slopes, with only traces of the operations in years past.

We began our journey at Clingman’s Dome, and at 6,643 feet, it is the highest peak along the Appalachian Trail. One can stand and gaze 360 degrees, looking down on towns, rivers, and miles of mountains in all directions, making one feel small and insignificant to the vastness of what lay below. It was a beautiful day, cloudless and a cool sixty degrees as we shouldered our packs and began the steep descent down Forney Ridge heading east down the steep and rocky slopes of Clingman’s Dome. We descended rapidly, carving our way through stands of Eastern hemlocks mixed with red spruce, the trail rocky and unforgiving to our feet and knees. Occasionally on the upper part of the trail we would see evidence of logging. Scars along the mountainside, caused by ball-hooting, which is when loggers cut trees high above the nearest roadbed, they then cleared a swath and shot or rolled the logs down the slope. The Norwood Lumber Company logged this area in the early 1900’s taking as much as 40,000 board feet of timber per day from this valley alone.

A little over three miles into the hike we came across our first sights of metal culverts and stonework left from the loggers in years past. There were steel cables partially buried in the rocky forest floor. These cables at one time were undoubtedly used to haul the heavy logs to a nearby roadbed where the loggers would load them on wagons to send them further down the mountainside toward the lumber mills located in Proctor. Forney Creek, even this far up the mountain was a tumultuous creek, spawning nice waterfalls (Rock Slab Falls) and deep pools. Evidence of an old boiler which once was used to power the steam engines that operated the cables and winches that moved the heavy timber, lay above the falls, almost hidden by rhododendron.

The trail became less steep as we began to follow an old roadbed toward our first campsite at Huggin’s Creek. Ten foot high stone walls, made from river rock, kept the roadbed at a manageable descent using a series of multiple switchbacks to descend the steep slopes of Clingman’s Dome. I could imagine the barren hillsides, with deep erosion gullies, caused by the heavy logging. I contemplated the dangers the men faced logging, the hardships the men and their families endured as they logged and carved a life for themselves and their families during the early 1900’s. At mile five, we had our first major creek crossing of Forney Creek. Fortunately there were good stepping stones to maneuver across the tumbling rapids.

Seven miles into the hike we came to the area where Huggin’s Creek and Forney Creek merge, forming an even more formidable Forney Creek. Here we decided to camp in a flat area between the two creeks, amongst Poplar, Beech and Maple trees.

The weather forecast predicted clear skies for the first several days but we also knew that this first evening was to be the coldest. I was a little concerned by the fact that I chose only to bring my 45 degree sleeping bag, forfeiting the warmth of a bigger bag for the weight and size advantage of the smaller 45 degree bag. I figured that I could stand one cold night and felt sure that the next several nights would be much warmer due to our lower elevation and the forecast predicting warmer days and nights.

We had a nice campfire and the three of us enjoyed the camaraderie, discussing our day’s journey and the sites that we had witnessed. We studied the maps and trail descriptions of our next day’s journey and was pleased to realize it was going to be a short hike (about five miles) the following day. We also noted that we had several Forney Creek crossings, which in the trail guide was described as difficult, challenging and even going so far as to say after rainy weather, choose another trail. This we discussed but we were not over concerned. We should have been!

7:00am the next morning and the sun crept over Forney Ridge to our east, casting rays of sunlight through the canopy above as we ate our oatmeal and drank our coffee and began packing our gear into our packs for the day’s hike. We all were feeling the efforts of our previous day’s hike. Our feet, knees and hips were aching, responding to nature’s way of the constant pounding and twisting that a steep, rocky trail effects. The three of us were in good spirits as we donned our packs and set off down the trail looking forward to our next day’s adventure.

There were cast iron machine parts and pieces of rail along the trail, almost hidden by the Buffalo-nut shrub, poison ivy, and rosebay rhododendron, that flanked the trail. Only a third of a mile brought us to our first difficult Forney Creek crossing. The trail dumped us at the creek’s edge and we stared in disbelief at the width, the depth and the impossibility that lay before us.
We walked twenty and thirty yards up and down the creek’s edge searching for a possible way to cross. We of course would like to stay dry, although if all we had to do was take off our boots and wade across, that would have been what we chose but the rapid current, the depth of hidden pools, and rocks the size of cars some slick as ice which blocked almost any path, prevented this from being an option. We would need to find an area, shallower that offered enough stepping stones to navigate across this foreboding creek.

I led as we began to cross, carefully testing the depth of the pools surrounding the jagged rocks as I leaped from one to the next, my forty five pound pack shifting on my back causing lack of balance and near disaster at every step. At times I would spot a relative flat rock beneath the surface, allowing me to step ever so gingerly on to it’s slick surface only to find the rock shifting beneath my weight causing me to grapple for a more solid surface before I fell headfirst into the frigid waters cracking my skull against other jagged rocks which littered my path. Half way across I stopped to rest, sweat pouring off me from the bundle of nerves that were in a frenzy as I willed myself to a point of no return. My legs and hands were shaking, spasms of fear and tension, as I studied what lay ahead and my next few steps. I did not dare look back across my shoulder, fearing that it would cause me to become unbalanced, and I instead yelled to my buddies to be careful, trying to describe to them which rocks to be careful with and they would respond with their on advice, the voices laced with the tension and fear which I also felt. Twenty minutes later I had navigated across the creek, only twenty yards, but it felt as if it had been twenty miles. I watched as Rick and Tom followed in my footsteps, each making it to the creek’s edge with no mishap. Once safely to the far side, we huddled together on solid ground shaking our heads, laughing at the danger in an attempt to make it appear as less dangerous.

We continued down the trail only to discover we had to cross the difficult Forney Creek two more times, each as difficult as the last. The second crossing was the most difficult. Rick and I chose to cross twenty to thirty yards upstream and after we finally navigated across safely, we found ourselves in a Rhododendron thicket that was so dense we had to get on our hands and knees and squirm through the twisted branches the twenty to thirty yards back to the trail. It was in this thicket where Rick and I both disturbed a nest of yellow jackets, resulting in several stings to the both of us.

We did eventually cross Forney Creek several more times, but there were some that were bridged or else there were easy stepping stones across.
We had hiked a total of about two miles for the day when we reached the trail junction of Jonas Creek Trail. There is another campsite here which lies between Jonas Creek and Forney Creek, but we planned to camp three more miles farther down the mountain at the bottom of Forney Creek where it empties into Fontana Lake. At the campsite at Jonas Creek there was evidence of both a tub mill and a custom mill. The Woody family had operated this grist mill during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Many families during this time operated water-powered tubmills, which had two legs in the water and two legs on a high bank, to grind corn into cornmeal. The larger custom mills were probably for community use. An old hunting camp made of bark slabs was farther up the creek.

We continued down the trail, passing an open area that may have been a logging camp. The trail climbed a small ridge before plunging down to yet another campsite, a horse camp. This campsite used to be the location of the Bee Gum Civilian Conservation Corp camp. A large two-story chimney with brick fireplace centers the area. The building that once enclosed the area has long gone, but remnants of the foundation and the fireplace still stand, reminding us that once this was home to workers that helped work the area making this land viable, livable, and accessible to others.

As we walked into the clearing, which was easily half the size of a football field, we smelled the smoke of a campfire, and after glancing around the area we noticed two men, standing around their smoldering fire, apparently having camped there the previous night. They had apparently come in on horseback, their horses tethered to some trees beside their shelter, which consisted of a lean-to-tarp stretched between a few trees. Their bed rolls and supplies stored beneath. I wandered this large area as we rested; taking pictures and imagining what it may have been like seventy years past.

The Civilian Conservation Corp came into existence as a work relief program not long after the Great Depression It was an attempt by President F.D. Roosevelt to provide work for the unemployed men from the ages of 18 and 24, while at the same time improving the country’s public lands by planting trees, building roads, and improving water sheds. This program worked the lands from 1933 to 1942.

I wandered the area, studying the piles of rock that once was the foundation of a building that housed the two story chimney. It was no doubt the building that was probably used as a mess hall for the young men that had come to work. I imagined hundreds of canvas tents, surrounding the building, home for these young men for months as they worked, improving the land. I wandered, dreaming, imagining, the hardships these young men must have faced, having to endure the unforgiving elements of the environment, while at the same time, doing hard manual labor. Forney Creek roared beside the clearing, and I could almost see the young men filling water canteens at it’s banks.

My buddy Rick yelled across the spacious clearing, “Hey Jeff, you want a deer burger?”
I looked his way, realizing he was talking to one of the guys that had come in on horseback. At first I was unsure what he had asked, but after a quick evaluation, I understood what he had said and I could not pass up the opportunity to jokingly respond, “A beer and a burger. Sure!”
I strolled their way, immediately accepting the offer, realizing the stranger and his friend, who had come in on horseback and had camped the previous night, had offered to share some of their food. I have learned to accept such offers, unconditionally, realizing that some day this may come back to haunt me, but the immediate benefits, the friendships, the conversations, the understanding of such people are worth the risk.

“Sure, I’m starving….. you said deer meat?”

I walked over to where they had camped, their fire still smoldering, their camp appearing to be in transition of packing to leave. Their horses still tethered to the trees alongside the clearing. We introduced ourselves, both Rick and Tom cautious, staring at me in amazement as I knelt and spooned a large portion of the sizzingly deer meat and onions wrapped in aluminum foil onto two slices of white bread.

As I introduced myself to the two guys, I could not help but think about the 1970’s movie ‘Deliverance’. The two guys, named Clifford and Billy Ray, looked like the two characters that made Ned Beatty ‘squeal like a pig’. They spoke in the language of the southern Appalachians, slow and with a twang, every statement ending as if it was a question. They turned out to be Native American Indians, Cherokee specifically; at least that is what they claimed, although they did not appear to be native American Indians to me. Billy was short and very skinny, constantly pulling at his jeans to keep them on his hips. Cowboy boots protected his feet, although they did not appear to have much more life in their soles, nor did they appear to have ever been cleaned, except by a rain shower that he may have been caught in at some time or other. Clifford was a little heavier, a heavy beard and long black hair, black as a leopard. He was less talkative than Billy but would occasionally make a statement and then look at Billy to see if he approved. They appeared to be good friends and in their early thirties. They spoke with a Tennessee, backwoods, redneck, accent. “Where youuu...enz from?” Billy directed his question to me, tilting his head in such a way that made me think he was trying to look beneath a ledge or an arch, to better be able to see my response (although there was nothing in his line of view).

“Georgia, Roswell Georgia. Up here doing some hiking. Where Ya’ll from?”

“Cherokee, born and raised… do’in some ridin’ enjoy’n git’n ‘way from the ol’ lady… you know?” Help youuu..enz self to more of that dar’ deer meat…it’s good, we had some beer a bit’ go but we drank it for breakfast.”

“Thanks, this is good. Backpacking we don’t get no good food.” I began to lapse into my second language of southeastern redneck. Billy, Clifford and I talked as I ate the deer meat. Rick and Tom seemed to wait, watching as I ate my deer burger, apparently waiting to see if I would kill over from food poisoning or immediately grab my stomach with gut wrenching pain. I continued to eat with no ill effect and only then did Rick and Tom jump in and helped themselves to the aluminum foil wrapped deer meat as Billy and I conversed in what seemed to be a foreign language to Rick and Tom.

Clifford talked about the number of black baarrr he and Billy had seen and warned us that they had heard from other backpeckkkers that had seen some huge cat prints, probably mountain linees (mountain lions) on the trail below us. I could not help but think they were just trying to scare us a little, reveling in the fact that us being city boys, would not have any experience with the wildlife in the area.

They had three horses tethered and I questioned Billy Ray, “I seez’ youuu…enz got three horses thar. Is one of um a packhorse?”

Billy Ray nodded to the horses, tilting his head slightly, again as if he was looking under an obstruction, “yep…the one with no tail is my peck horse. Everyone gits a kick out of seeing a horse with no tail.

I again could not help myself and said, “Was it the baaar or the mountain lion that bit it off?”

Both Billy Ray and Clifford got the joke and chuckled, although I could feel the tenseness in both Rick and Tom as I began to test the two hillbillies.

“Nah….his’n tail was broke as a young’un. Kep gittin ‘fected so we cut it off.” Billy Ray said as he began to try to sound more professional.

“Did he squeal like a pig?” I asked, again not being able to help myself, and I thought Rick and Tom were going to slap me.

Fortunately, neither Clifford nor Billy Ray understood my statement and simply answered,

“Nah…just one quick chop..took car’ of the prob’lm. Poor thing git’s mad as hell when he can’t swish flies away from his ass though.”

Clifford, the bigger of the two offered some of his Canadian Mist Whiskey, which I did not accept, because as he took a swig, I realized he had a big chew of tobacco lodged in his right cheek, and I could only imagine the ‘back wash’ that may lay as residue in the bottom of the bottle. I instead explained that I preciate’d the offer but I was strictly a Makers Mark man and offered him a swig of mine, which he graciously refused, but took a big swig of his Canadian Mist, spitting a glob of who knows what at his feet, smiling and toasting, seemingly all at the same time.

Billy Ray told us that they had offered some of their deer meat (they did not want it to go to waste) to some backpeckkkers who had camped there the previous night, but they had refused. Billy Ray could not believe someone would refuse such an offer. “You know, my momma always to’ld me that it was unsoc’ble to refuse an offer to eat.”

“I would ne’vr …..besi’dz I is hungry. Maybe they we’rnt.” I offered as a possible reason for the previous backpacker’s unsociable behavior.

“Yeah…. Yu prob’ly rite….they were kind-a thick.” Billy said as he was deep in thought.

Rick and Tom continued to eat their deer meat burgers, standing in amazement at my ability to speak in such a foreign and exotic language, savoring the food but more so the moment, the experience that just seemed to happen in the middle of nowhere, a time past.

We said our good byes, thanking them for the food and headed further down the trail toward the end of Forney Creek and Fontana Lake.

The last mile or so was relatively easy, following an old road bed, which was once the only way between Bryson City to the East and to where now stands Fontana Dam. Small mountain communities and a major lumber mill located in Proctor were only accessible by traveling this treacherous, narrow, dirt road. This road was the only link to the outside for many of the mountain families that carved a living from the rugged terrain. Old, rusted car bodies, from the early 1900’s can be seen laying as scrap next to the road, as if the car, a hundred years earlier just quit working and the owner just left it where it was, letting the forest claim it as it’s own. Old wash tubs, rusted from a hundred years of unforgiving weather are found here and there, scattered along the forest floor, evidence of lives that once attempted to scratch out an existence.

The next three to four days would find us on the 41.9 mile Lakeshore trail which basically follows the shoreline of Fontana Lake from Bryson City to Fontana Dam.

We had planned to hike the next twenty-one miles, over the next three days, to the old ghost town of Proctor. It was at Proctor that W.M. Ritter set up a massive lumbering operation around 1907. The small settlement of Proctor grew rapidly, boasting a hotel, school, several churches and a company mercantile store, becoming home to hundreds of families, only to be displaced by the construction of Fontana Dam which was completed around 1944 and flooded most of the valley.

Many of the small towns surrounding the Little Tennessee River in the valley, such as Fontana, Forney, Bushnell and Judson that had sprung up in the early 1900’s were flooded with the completion of the Dam and now lie at the bottom of Fontana Lake, erased from the face of the earth forever.

The trail would rise and fall as it followed the shoreline, climbing the finger like ridges that projected into the lake, then descending once again to yet another valley, channeling many of the streams that feed Fontana Lake.

We camped at designated campsites that were once homesteads. The stone chimneys still standing, giving witness to the lives that once tried to scratch a living from the unforgiving terrain. Stone walls, built from river rock, still existed, giving evidence of the past families attempt to terrace their land, an attempt to make their meager plots easier to farm. The stone walls still standing in rows, being swallowed by the bog hemp, round leafed greenbriar, and dodders, crumbling, surrendering to the elements and to mother time.

During the next three days we would stumble upon small cemeteries. The plots, usually located on high ridges above the homesteads would be the final resting place for several generations of a particular family, a family that worked hard to try to make a life for itself on the slopes below. The tombstones giving witness to the hard lives the people endured. Forty years old or older was rare, being more common to see children under ten and young adults in their twenties being buried in these forgotten plots. Rick, Tom and I would wander the cemeteries, each lost in his own thoughts, trying to imagine the souls, the love and sorrow, which these families had to endure. We drank water from the same springs and creeks, walked the same trails that these past souls had in years past and we could not help but feel the emotion of the experience.

Over the last few days of the hike, we would see a total of four Black Bear, proving the two hillbillies, Billy Ray and Clifford to be true with their warning and we began to wonder about the huge cat prints they had described. Could it be?

The last day brought us to Proctor. Some of the buildings still standing, giving witness to what was once a thriving community. Several cemeteries dot the area, each resembling those we had passed earlier, again testifying to the short, hard lives they had endured.

It was a great five days of hiking, with two of my best friends, enjoying the peace, the solace and the beauty the wilderness so graciously provided, but what moved me the most was witnessing the evidence of the past, the past souls seemingly to still linger amongst the ruins; souls that seemed to drift on the light mountain breezes, gently stirring the leaves of the canopies above, whispering, “I was here.”

I had a constant sensation that as I walked back in time, they were watching.