Wednesday, July 31, 2013

My Usual After Work Hike: Lookout Mountain

Cravens House to Sunset Rock
(Photos taken July 12, 2013)

One of the benefits of living and working in the Chattanooga area is the abundance of outdoor opportunities. I grew up outdoors and after finally finishing my college degrees at 28, I got back into outdoor sports and specifically moved to Chattanooga to take advantage of this. Working downtown allows me access to hiking and mountain biking within just minutes of the end of the business day. My favorite after work hike is a roughly 4 mile out-and-back from Cravens House to Sunset Point on Lookout Mountain.

The view adjacent to the Cravens House (which I didn't think to take a picture of). Below is Chattanooga, Tennessee. As you can see, there was some fighting here during the U.S. Civil War, resulting in the rebels being driven from the mountain.
The hiking trails on Lookout Mountain above Chattanooga are maintained by the National Park Service as part of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. They are very heavily used but still beautiful and are a welcome relief from the "rat race" of working downtown. There are several trails interconnected but my favorite is the Cravens House Trail that goes fairly steeply up the mountain and connects into the Bluff Trail, that curves around the mountain just below the rock bluffs that ring the mountain near the top. Lookout Mountain is a flat topped mountain that would be called a "mesa" if it was in the Western United States. I follow the bluff trail for a short distance before coming to a connector trail that leads up to Sunset Rock, a popular rock climbing location with sweeping views of the Tennessee River Valley, Lookout Valley, and various mountains of the Cumberland Plateau Region, including Raccoon Mountain and Sand Mountain, both very similar flat topped mountains.

The view down Lookout Valley from Sunset Rock. In the distance is Georgia and Alabama, including Sand Mountain.
The main point of Sunset Rock with National Park Service signage. In the distance is Raccoon Mountain, a favorite place of mine for mountain biking.
A view along the shoulder of Lookout Mountain over Moccasin Bend on the Tennessee River. On the left is Elder Mountain. On the right is Chattanooga and the North Chattanooga neighborhood is in the low range of hills known as Stringers Ridge roughly in the middle.
The climb is a few hundred feet from Cravens House but the hike is not more than intermediate at worse. I'd recommend it for anyone in the Chattanooga area. I can get to the trailhead about 10 minutes after I pull out of the parking garage. Yes, it's amazing to have this type of opportunity for an after work adventure!

USGS bench mark at Sunset Rock - 1936 feet above sea level. The Tennessee River is normally at 639 feet above sea level (although it was flooding on the day I took this) so it's roughly 1300 feet above the river.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Trip Report: Coosawattee River

Coosawattee River
July 20, 2013
Level ~800 cfs

The author James Dickey constructed the novel Deliverance from his experiences canoeing whitewater around the Southeast, but the particular story of meeting up with violent moonshiners is said to have occurred on the Coosawattee River in Georgia. If you've read the novel or seen the movie, you know the trip ends when the river flows into an area where a new reservoir is being constructed, soon to flood out the free flowing stream. This part of the story also refers to the Coosawattee and the construction of Carters Lake, although is applicable to any number of other rivers in the region. Dickey changed the name of the river to the fictional "Cahoolawassee" so he could take creative license as he saw fit, but you can still experience a float on the real Coosawattee above the lake when there is enough flow.

We've had an unusually wet and cool summer in the Southern Appalachians this year but strangely I haven't gotten out much on free flowing whitewater. Some of this was due to various commitments, and some was due to a lack of commitment to paddling on my part. About the only float trips that really interest me lately are those where I get to run a river completely new to me, or get to meet and paddle with people that are new to me. Such an opportunity was presented to me through some friends for Saturday, July 20. With the levels up, I would be able to explore the remaining parts of the Coosawattee that I had never run before.

Previously I'd enjoyed a trip down a lower tributary of the Coosawattee, Mountaintown Creek in 2006. It was a delightful, small, swift stream, only then being encroached upon by development. Mountaintown flows into the river only shortly before the lake, so there remained an approximately 8 or 9 mile section of the river upstream that I had not paddled before, from a public park in Ellijay, Georgia down to the Mountaintown confluence. I was fairly excited and a little nervous to get on the new run.

I had not realized the trip was going to be a club trip, but I ended up signing a waiver for the Georgia Canoeing Association. This was accompanied by the usual mob on a large canoe club trip! The very patient organizer of the trip was Vincent Payne, someone I'd heard of from listservs but had never met. Friendly guy and I'm grateful for the opportunity to join his trip!

Half the Georgia Canoeing Association showed up for the trip, friendly as usual.

The level was approaching 800 cfs, apparently considered to be slightly higher than optimal, but perfectly safe due to the light gradient of the river. The water was a muddy brown and looked like a pastoral flatland stream in the middle of Ellijay where we launched. The Coosawattee actually forms just a short distance upstream of the put-in by the confluence of the Cartecay River and the Ellijay River so we launched nearly at the beginning of the free flowing section of the river.

Turtles in the more placid section of the river. I saw several pairs of turtles sunning themselves like this and a few alone but never more than two at once. Note the muddy water due to weeks of summer rain.

At this slightly elevated water level, there are not many rapids in the first couple of miles, and those rapids that we did see were just riffles, nothing beyond class I or I+. We also saw a couple of campgrounds which looked like comfortable places in moderate weather, along with many houses, cabins, and small mansions along the river. It's apparent that the Coosawattee suffers from proximity to the population and wealth of Atlanta and is doomed to be lined with development at some point. We've seen the same thing on so many other streams of the Georgia Mountains: the Cartecay and Toccoa, Mountaintown Creek and Talking Rock Creek, and many other streams.

We continued stroking downstream, at first at a furious pace but I soon realized that Vincent was hanging back and maintaining a more moderate pace and I decided that I was not going to make it for the full 13 miles of the trip, including a 3 to 4 mile lake paddle at the end, if I did not also slow down a little. Soon I was back into my more casual mode of paddle, taking time to converse and check out the homes and wildlife of the riverbanks.

Eventually I saw a more significant horizon line and heard the roar of a rapid, and wandered up closer to the front of the group. A couple of paddlers had already dropped the first proper class II, a nice rapid with multiple lines and some boulders. I eddy hopped right to left and pulled in to take some pics of the rest of the group.

Jamie Higgins in the first class II of the day.

After this, the rapids came with increasing frequency, although I still characterized the river not as pool-and-drop, but as pool-and-pool-and-pool-and-drop. It's a flatter river than I expected, though Vincent said this was somewhat due to the water level washing out some of the rapids.

We stopped at one point at a small park in one of the many gated communities along the river for a break and snacks. It seemed to be a public place and was not marked with "No Trespassing" signs and it was next to a takeout that was being used for commercial inner tubing. I had not realized there were any outfitters on the Coosawattee but we saw a couple.

Pretty cool looking private bridge just downstream of the outfitter takeout. It appears to be located in a private community but I saw some guys that looked like "civilian" fishermen to me that definitely did not look like they belonged in a gated community, but perhaps I should not judge a book by the cover. Also the outfitter buses surprised me. I'm not sure of the access issues there. I still assume it is private property.

The rest and food improved my energy level and we eventually came upon some more class II, the largest of which was possibly a II+ ledge that drops 4 to 6 feet all told, with a single drop of 3 or 4 feet on the right. I did not like the blindness of the horizon line so I opted to maneuver around the visible left line, which was fast and technical. Having scouted the rapid from the bottom, I would run it on the big drop next time. Several chose to run that line, including those who had run the river before and no one had trouble with it. Kelly Harbac informed me that it is called "Fluffy Bunny."

Fluffy Bunny - it's a little bigger than it looks in this photo but still not difficult.

The closer you get to the confluence with Mountaintown Creek, the more the action picks up, until it reaches almost continuous class II. Even though it had been several years since I had been there, I immediately recognized it and a smile came across my face as I remembered that wonderful trip from back when I was younger, fitter, and filled with enthusiasm for whitewater. I crossed the eddy line and made sure to paddle up into the waters of the creek to reminisce. It's been a while since I've felt so much pleasure at the simple sight of a flowing creek. It was a good feeling.

The mouth of Mountaintown Creek. I had such a good feeling when I saw it that I had to paddle up in there and take a look.
The river really widens after the confluence with Mountaintown Creek and there are many possible play spots.
There are some exceptionally tall pine trees along the lower reaches of the river shortly before the lake.

The Coosawattee had been considerably higher when I ran Mountaintown so many years ago and I did not entirely recognize the run. First of all, there were many more rapids, and the rapids were certainly more technical. I remember the entire thing being a big wave train for some undefined distance. I know it was over quickly the first time, but the more moderate water level meant that the paddle down to the lake was prolonged, and in some ways was more fun. Again I looked on the towering pines along the banks of the river with admiration. Finally we splashed down into Carters Lake with disappointment. We knew we had a very long lake paddle ahead of us.

Looking back upstream at the last rapid. Note the teenagers sunning themselves on the right. I have no idea how they got there. There are no trails visible. The only thing I can think of is that they were dropped off from a motorboat.

I brought a longer kayak this time than before, but nonetheless the paddle wore me down to the nub. Age and the sport have taken their toll. I'm also suffering from a lack of cross training. I was 30 pounds lighter and much, much fitter the first time. I recall I paddled a "spud" playboat back in 2006 yet I remember being tired but untroubled by the lake paddle. We had frolicked, practiced our rolls, and played Frisbee all the way down the lake. This time it seemed like an eternity of epic exertion, with only the diversion of a side falls early in the paddle, and a beaver slapping its tail on the water a couple of times. At one point I said, "I think I just got my second wind - unfortunately it's a headwind." Finally we pulled around a point and into the Ridgeway Park area where the vehicles were parked. I took a swim to cool off and get rid of the sweat and then dragged my boat up the very steep boat ramp.

A lovely side waterfall. It was running nicely and the little mini-ravine I paddled up into was flowing with cool, refreshing air on a hot July afternoon.

Carters Lake. There is no such thing as a following wind when you are trying to plow a whitewater kayak that you are too heavy for across several miles of lake. It's all headwinds, baby.

Another new run crossed off my list. It is one of just a few remaining in the Southeast that I am capable of running and interested in running. I do not have much interest in class IV-V so I've done most things within a 200 mile radius of my home that I'm interested in. Soon I will have to branch out much farther if I want to keep knocking off new runs. I always enjoy a new run, and this was a good one, if long. It was a very good choice to hit the Coosawattee given the rare chance in the summer when the days are long. It's a very, very long paddle, with few good options to pull off the river if something goes wrong so I'm glad I got the opportunity, and I'm glad I took it.


Sunday, July 14, 2013

In Search of the Epic, Unrideable, East Coast Hike-a-Bike

Chilhowee Mountain Trail System
Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee
June 16, 2013

I've ridden Chilhowee Mountain several times, but the only time I enjoyed a good day on the trail I drove to the top and started from a parking lot already "at elevation."  I've also started at the bottom a couple of times and my right knee (and self-esteem) were damaged by the time I got to the top. To any self-respecting mountain biker, this is unacceptable. The right knee damage can be avoided by adjusting the bike fit properly, but the self esteem can only be satisfied by climbing the mountain without feeling like you are ready to die by the time you get to the top. I decided I had to test myself again.

Ibuprofen is the friend of adventure. I made certain I'd taken plenty. Then I parked the truck on Highway 64 where it would be less likely to be broken into, filled the CamelBak, made sure the bike was 100%, headed up Highway 30 to the trailhead, and thence up the mountain. Every time I've ridden the Clemmer Trail to the top of the mountain, it's gotten easier. This time, just when I thought I was going to die, I made it. After I was certain the trail had leveled off, I stopped to rest, drink some water out of the CamelBak, and then continued. One of the differences between being in shape and out of shape is recovery time. I was amazed at how quickly and how well I recovered and in no time was cruising along the relatively level trails on top of Chilhowee and thoroughly enjoying myself.

A sample of the narrow views available from the Clemmer Trail and Clear Creek Trail. Sorry, I didn't bring my camera again so this was taken with an iPhone 4.

I visited the lake in the recreation area. Then I visited the kiosk with a detailed trail map posted to select some possible routes. I had not planned ahead, since my previous climbs of Chilhowee had left me in such a terrible state that by the time I got to the lake I just wanted to ride back down to my vehicle. This time I felt ready for some more mileage.

I used my iPhone to take a snapshot of the map and selected an easy route on top of the mountain that would give me a more advanced option for the descent. I thoroughly enjoyed the easy riding on the Azalea Trail and the Arbutus Trail, adding over two miles to the ride. Then when the option presented itself, the Clear Creek Trail, I decided to take it. I had recently heard about the Clear Creek Trail on the one of the internet discussion boards I frequent described as the "true East Coast epic Hike-a-bike." Even though that sounds terrible it's the kind of thing I have trouble resisting. I went for it.

The first couple of miles of the Clear Creek Trail are wonderful and consist of pretty easy riding, albeit on an increasingly narrow trail. This lulls the unsuspecting riders into a sense of security. I was travelling quickly, and making pretty gradual progress down the mountain. Then things started to get more technical. I had a minor crash riding over some rocky ground. Nothing too bad, only a little bit of blood. Then things started to get out of hand.

The trail ran steeply down the mountain. It was an old school mountain bike or hiking trail that was designed with not much thought given to erosion. As a consequence, it was heavily rutted out by water flow. It was also covered with very large gravel of a type that is particularly hazardous to mountain bikes. Eventually, much to my surprise, I ended up doing significant climbing up similarly eroded trail, having to stop at one point (much to my annoyance) due to simply not being able to keep the line and riding off into the trees. I jumped off the bike, cussed and got back on. I chose to walk much of the screaming downhill, although it was within my ability, just because I was by myself. I felt the risk was too great.

I could have ridden this but decided it was too risky. Also, it's a lot steeper than it looks in the photo - isn't that always the case?
An opposing slope of Chilhowee Mountain. This view came somewhere just uphill of the really rugged section of the Clear Creek Trail.

After this section of the trail, I hit the true hike-a-bike, things that I would not even consider riding even if I was in a good strong group (to call the ambulance). This consisted of super-chunky rock gardens and narrow path right next to steep mountain slopes. I remember laughing at it and actually having to carry my bike a few times. Even pushing the bike was impossible. I had found it, the elusive true East Coast Epic Hike-a-Bike.

The true unrideable, at least for us mortals.

Finally the trail leveled off, even as it began to disappear. I finally came upon a place where I could choose between two overgrown options. The straight option led by the shortest path to Highway 30, the right option promised over a mile back to the Clemmer Trailhead. Since I wasn't parked at the Clemmer Trailhead but on Highway 64, I elected to take the straight option. It quickly became severely overgrown and passed through a tangle of blackberry and greenbriar. It was an outright thicket. I pushed on still further, walking the bike as necessary to push my way past branches and thickets. I forgot to mention the stream crossings. There were a couple.

Stream crossing. This was possibly rideable but I had no interest in doing that so more hiking ensued.

Just when I began to doubt I was still on the trail, I finally reached Highway 30. Much to my surprise, I realized I was nowhere near Highway 64 where my pickup was parked. Oh, well, I thought, I was seeking adventure. Honestly riding on Highway 30 made me more nervous than anything on the trail due to the high speed at which the locals travel on it and the abundance of tourists unfamiliar with the road and possibly unfamiliar with mountains entirely. It's a very narrow, windy mountain highway and the approximately one mile or mile and a half back to my truck worried more than any obstacle I encountered on the trail.

Well it was an epic ride, and one of the better adventures I've enjoyed since I started mountain biking. I can't recommend it for general audiences but if you like adventure and you like to mountain bike, then the Clear Creek Trail might be for you. I forgot to start any of my devices recording the ride but feel quite confident it amounted to at least 13 miles of riding and I'm sure 1000 feet or more of climbing. It was a good ride. I got back just in time to avoid the afternoon thunderstorms.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Rain Hiking the Pinhoti at Snake Creek Gap

Having endured my third day of rainy weather in a row right in the middle of my vacation, I endeavored to leave the house and go hiking even though it was essentially a 100% chance of rain for the fourth. The fourth day of rain in a row that is, as well as the fourth of July, the Independence Day holiday in these parts. I really had wanted to take a day of my vacation to do some hiking or biking in the high mountains, above 5000 feet of altitude and had been training to that end for the last couple of months, but I knew with the rain it would not have been worth the drive time and fuel. Instead I selected a place I've been meaning to explore for several years: the Pinhoti Trail at Snake Creek Gap.
Wet trailhead on the south side of Highway 136.

I should explain at this point, that in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, a gap is what would be called a "pass" in the Western United States or Canada, or a "notch" in New Hampshire, or a "col" in much of Europe. In this case Snake Creek Gap provides a passage for Georgia Highway 136 through one of the barriers in the Appalachian Ridge and Valley region. It has historical significance to the U.S. Civil War in that the U.S. Army got around the Confederate lines of defense by unexpectedly sending troops through the gap and forcing a Confederate retreat towards Atlanta.

An extremely ironic warning of a planned prescribed burn (considering the endless days of heavy rain).

I've previously mountain biked on the other side of the mountain a couple of times at the Pilcher's Pond area of Chattahoochee National Forest and had scouted the trailheads up at the Gap. As I've mentioned in a previous blog post, it's a nice looking gap which has much of the look of a proper mountain pass despite the mountains being pretty low really. As the trail has a reputation for steepness, my plan was to hike rather than mountain bike, with the initial goal of reaching the summit of the mountains both to the north and south of the Gap. I started out southward towards the summit of Horn Mountain first.

Fortunately the soil is so rocky and gravelly that the trail surface is firm and intact even in heavy rain. I daresay it's one of the few places in the Southeast that could be ridden by mountain bike in almost any weather. That said, I do not like riding in even minimal mud so I was not sorry to be hiking rather than riding.

A peculiar field of almost luminescent mossy boulders on the slopes of Horn Mountain.

I kept hoping for sweeping views of Northwest Georgia but there were no large breaks in the trees and the few glimpses I got between the branches mostly revealed only grey clouds and occasionally mist-shrouded opposing slopes, the greens dulled by the wet atmosphere. Finally I got to what I presume to be the crest of the Pinhoti where it reaches the top of Horn Mountain because there was a medium sized rock cairn. I wonder if there is a geo-cache in there somewhere or nearby?

Cairn at the crest of the mountain. Note the lack of a view between the trees. I occasionally spotted some mountains through the mist but basically the entire hike was clouded.

I felt I had climbed several hundred feet and gone perhaps as much as two miles so I decided it was time to turn back. Unfortunately I had forgotten to pickup some more moleskin so both my ankles were getting medium-rare by the time I got back to the car. I decided to skip climbing from Snake Creek Gap up the mountain on the other side: Mill Creek Mountain. I'll save that for some other day. I think I hiked about 4 miles round trip which is some decent exercise. It's a nice hike, although without any significant views, especially in the rain.

Not sure if this is a toad or a frog. This little guy/girl is only a little over an inch long.