With our time left in Tennessee dwindling down, we are beginning to veer away from parts of our lives that make us...well, us. It is tough to leave behind the Tennessee spring and summer that this time last year had us falling in love. The trail calls. The trail calls Ethan back and calls me for the first time...at least for the first time that I have heard. As different hobbies get packed away in plastic boxes, we ventured out to the water once more. We cannot express enough how much this day meant to us. Completely disconnected once again, we took to the drift, to the rod, and to throwing out our worries each time we laid out line on the water. Read about our day as told by David Perry, Southeastern Fly, below.
In Tennessee, all creeks seem to lead to the Cumberland River, but it is when you leave these mosaicked waters and head deep into the rhododendron wrapped forests that you find the true mightiness and potential of water. Once a seabed hundreds of million years ago and now sitting 2000 feet above sea level, the Cumberland Plateau is a mecca for the most beautifully unique, yet perfectly carved rock formations this side of the Mississippi. Shaped by time's erosion and the persistence of water cutting through the sandstone, you would think the hand tools of man carved out each wrinkle, smoothed out each slab, and painted the rocks using the most beautiful palettes of purples, oranges, reds, and greens. However, the greatness of these rocks do not overshadow the other features of the land. A crystal creek flows over, around, and under glistening stones as the old growth frames the serpentine path, yet there is so much vastness. It is a rather delicate creek home to rather delicate creatures, yet here they flourish. Each bend in the trail leads to a furrow of rock herding us back into the gorge. In one corner of the rock wall, runs just enough water to create two tiers of falling water yet not enough to roar and rip through the canyon. Everything is coated with moss and beads of water, even the humidity captures rays of daylight giving this particular area a foggy glow. It immediately feels like we are in a far away rainforest, far away from human influence, and far away from the Tennessee we call home. Yet, home we are.
Hiking trips that we plan seem to synthesize themselves in the same manner. They begin from overhearing some small comment about a beautiful place near us, or by glancing over a map and a small name or geological feature quickly catches our attention. From this initial occurrence, the place begins manifesting itself in different ways, whether it be through photographs, conversations or even dreams. Before it can become forgotten, it begins to take over all thoughts and cannot be avoided. The only thing that can satisfy it's continuous begging is to purchase a map, do a little research, and set out to find this place. In some cases even after wondering through the lands we intended on conquering, it continues to call us back. This is when we know it is an extremely special place. This was exactly the case for our trip to the Big South Fork National River.
A few hours after leaving Nashville we found ourselves pulling onto an oil and chip road, overlooking the white capped Crab Orchard Mountains, that soon turned into a gravel pullout with a small kiosk. We got our day packs out of the trunk, put Milo's harness on, and started towards the trail. The ground was freshly coated in a light dusting of snow and the naked trees enameled in a thin layer of prismatic ice. Each step we took crushed the crystalized ground beneath our feet, although we took care not to step on any of the delicate frost flowers. It was evident that we were the only few creatures to pass through this area within the past few days. Within the first few hundred feet we had already realized that this day had already exceeded any dream or idea we had envisioned in the previous weeks of looking at maps. We inhaled the cool crisp air and felt alive.
The trail began to descend down a relatively steep trail before leveling out and paralleling a spring fed brook. All around us, small rock outcrops and cascades invited us to stop and observe their beauty. From within their porous sandstone, water seeped onto the moss and leaves below, encapsulating them with a thick shell. The brook gurgled alongside the trail widening into a stream and fanning out over smooth boulders. How many millennia had it taken for this stream to carve out the side of this plateau? How did we have this paradise completely to ourselves?
We took care not to fall on the thick sheet of ice that had accumulated on the trail under the edge of each rock house. Soon after we descended down a slick rock by holding on to a twenty foot piece of fixed rope and made our way through towering boulders. We rounded a bend in the trail, passed a small waterfall and were once again stopped in our tracks at the sight of a towering escarpment. This wall towered high above any rock face we had climbed in the Southeast, and it was clean. No bolts, no pin scars, no chalk, just pure Tennessee sandstone. Although we both enjoy climbing and even imagined routes up the beautiful face, we knew that some rocks were better left unscathed. That even with the most extreme care to leave a minimal impact, any influx of climbers would destroy the delicate micro ecosystems existing in each crack and crevice. Despite the cold air that nudged us to keep moving, we stood and stared towards the icicles hanging from the roof and followed them as they broke off and fell hundreds of feet to the ground.
It's so refreshing to have this slight element of danger. Although hiking is relatively safe, the possibility of having to dodge icicles, getting stung by a bee, twisting an ankle or being steps away from a thousand foot drop is a nice change of pace from the monotony of everyday life (unless you are a professional alligator wrestler, then most things are probably pretty bland). People sometimes forget that the most memorable moments are usually the times that involved an element of fear or discomfort. It is usually a lot easier to recall a hike that took place in a snow storm than it is a hike on a sunny day. As we walked, we thought about this. Despite a few moments when we thought Milo would slide down an icy slope into a creek in subfreezing weather, we were thankful to have such a unique winter day.
We ventured closer and closer towards the muddy Big South Fork of the Cumberland River at the base of the plateau. At the lowest point in the trail, we began heading due west. This was when the trail began to feel less like a trail and more like a jungle gym. The next two miles would consist of boulder hoping, ladder climbing, exploring rock houses, and navigating a winding trail that crossed back and forth over an icy creek. The people that designed and built this trail should be put into the trail builder's hall of fame. Waterfall after waterfall and boulder after boulder, we carefully danced up the trail holding Milo as we jumped across gaps too wide for him to muster up the courage to jump himself. Pulling ourselves up steep rocks by the frozen knobs of ice that had accumulated over them we could not keep the smiles off our faces. We felt like we were kids again. This trail had rekindled the feeling of childlike exploration, void of fear and absent of time. A giant rock house with a wooden ladder into its mouth called for us to come closer. Even Milo tried to climb the ladder out of curiosity of what existed inside the cave. In the middle of this wild expanse we decided to sit down for a few moments and eat a couple trail bars and split a Snickers.
Shortly after eating, we allowed no time to rest our legs out of the sheer excitement of what the trail had to bring. The trail led us along the ridge overlooking the valley we had just been walking through. We came to a waterfall tucked twenty feet inside of a small cave created by multiple house sized boulders. We hopped across stepping stones and climbed a few rocks to get to the other side of the falls. All of the sudden, Milo stopped in his tracks and started growling in a deep defensive growl. We looked ahead and saw something sitting on top of a mossy boulder. He would not stop growling in this uncharacteristic manner. Walking closer we realized it was just a sleeping bag in its stuff sack. Naturally, we called out to the owner of this bag. After five to ten minutes of searching and calling and no response, we started reeling through a list of possibilities for the strangely placed bag. Was someone setting up camp here and just left the bag to save weight while they wondered, had someone camped here the night before and simply forgotten to pack a large five pound sleeping bag, or had someone gotten lost or hurt on their way to filter water? After examining the bag closer, we realized that ice crystals had accumulated on the inside of the bag, leading us to believe that it had been there for at least a couple days. We did not want to leave someone stranded without their sleeping bag if they were still out hiking, but due to its condition and our proximity to the trailhead, we decided to pack it out to the trailhead.
For some reason this strange encounter left a strange taste in our mouths. Nevertheless, the trail called back our attention with a small bridge and a few more waterfalls. One bigger than any of the others we had seen all day, with a deep pool below it, which we added to our list of swimming holes for the upcoming summer. The trail climbed away from the creek and we said our goodbyes to one of the most magical places in Tennessee.
A mile or so later, we approached the trailhead and got cell signal again. We called the ranger station and made sure there were not any missing persons at the time. He confirmed no one had been reported lost and told us he would be by in a couple hours to pick up the bag. He grilled us about anything suspicious we saw on the trail, such as a smoldering campfire or empty beer cans, but we had not seen either. We got in the car and headed back towards Nashville, leaving behind a wonderland.
Just as our trips come together in a similar way, they usually end with silent reflection due to a lack of words to describe the joy that comes from a day spent outside exploring. Originally drawn to what looked liked the smallest trail on the map led us to what became one of our favorite places in Tennessee. A place that might not look like much topographically can become so much more once you actually are surrounded by the boulders, the rivers, and the unique flora and fauna that the area has to offer. As the sun lowered in the sky, our day came to a very happy end.
For more photos of our trip to Big South Fork, give us a follow on instagram at @ourtrailingthought.
On October 21, we packed our bags, loaded our boards on top of the car, and kissed Milo adieu. Our spirits were high as we headed east down I-24 towards Chattanooga. We were Chattajack bound, and there was nothing that would get in our way. We talked strategy. We discussed preparations. We shared last minute advice. We thought about all the training we completed, and all the training we did not quite complete. Every mile we paddled and race we raced this past summer had these moments in mind and the 31 (actually 32) mile race that laid before us. We were closer than we had been all year. We arrived downtown at Riverfront where we were greeted by the long, winding registration line and familiar faces from paddles past. We checked our boards in, received the race course map and tape with bacon on it (to let future drafters know we were 14’), and tucked our boards in for the night.
Once arriving at the house where we were going to spend the weekend, we quickly dropped our gear and bags and ran outside to the backyard. Invisible to us on the drive up but clear as day once inside the house was a large boulder field out the back window, and we had to go play around on them.
The rest of the evening’s activities resided in preparing our hydration bladders with water so that we just had to add Tailwind Nutrition endurance mix in the morning, and separating out all the Shot Blocks and Tahoe Trail bars. With our vest packs filled and race bibs laid out it was time to sleep. Falling asleep came easily, and that night dreams of paddling paddled through our heads.
Race morning came all too quick. The sun had not even woken up yet and we were putting on our clothes like we were about to go into battle. Little did we know, battle was right.
It was cold, dark, and people were anxious. Our spirits were high still, anxious but high. During the race meeting, it was mentioned how difficult the day was going to be on the water. No one in that moment truly knew the understatement of that announcement. The sun was beginning to rise, the bagpipes started to play, and next thing we know we were loading on to the water, boards in hand, shoes and extra layers left behind on the grass.
We paddled up river to the start line in between the bridges. Trying to stay still once we got there became difficult with all the chop created from the 400+ boards in the water. The final words were said by the race officials. We stood on our boards, bent over, paddle stretching out towards the nose of the board, we were ready to dig. The horn rang across the river awakening each and every paddler to a new reality, and we dug the blade of our paddles deep into the water.
The rest of the day was kind of a blur. Well, not exactly, but no one will truly understand what it was like out there that day on the water, other than our fellow paddlers. Rising temperatures felt good as the sun began to shine. Mile 1 completed. Mile 2, 3, 4, 5 easy. Mile 6, 7 and 8 went by quickly, we were averaging a solid pace. Mile 9 was when the wind started. Mile 32 would be when it would stop. Sure we had some pockets of stillness and even 2 record breaking minutes of a tailwind. The rest was the most grueling headwind we had ever experienced. No amount of training could have prepare us for the mental game that paddling your hardest but getting nowhere entails. Mile 10, 11, 12, and 13 were completed despite the energy we burned trying to get past mile 9. Mile 14 and 15 gave us a bit of a break from the wind.
At mile 16, we were able to stop and refuel, packed up our shed layers and grabbed a much desired Tahoe Trail Bar. Mile 17 came and went, marking uncharted territory as the longest miles paddled thus far during a single paddle. Our average speed was back up way beyond what we had trained for, and we were thrilled. Mile 18 felt great, we were cruising. At mile 19, we watched our average speed go from 6+ mph to 4 mph to 3 mph and *boom* before we knew it we were only averaging 2.5 mph. Mile 19 was no joke, the headwind was back in full force with no magical pockets of calm. We were no longer able to stop for anything. If you stopped you would harassingly get pushed backwards up river and farther away from Hales Bar, the infamous finish line. The most ironic part of it all was all we could do was laugh and keep paddling. So we paddled and paddled. We paddled through mile 20 and 21, where we thought to ourselves that the wind had to slow down eventually. Mile 22 came and went. At mile 23, we were sure we would get away from the wind. Every turn of the river that should have , by every law of the universe, provided us with a different wind scenario was just another, if not greater, constant headwind, 2 to 3 foot swells and tough paddling. Mile 24. Mile 25... 26. At mile 27, we thought that we would be stuck in that particular stretch of river for the rest of our young lives, progress came slow almost unnoticeable. At mile 28 we were told that we were 4 miles behind where we thought we were. At mile 29, we celebrated the inaccuracy of mile 28’s given information. The 20 mph consistent headwinds with 30 mph gusts sprinkled in like pineapple sprinkled on a delicious pizza, but this wind was significantly less delicious than the hypothetical pizza we were dreaming about as we paddled. Mile 30, there was no way we had made it to 30 but on our little screens of our SpeedCoaches staring back at us was that beautiful number 30. Having never paddled the gorge before, we did not have the familiarity of landmarks along the way. We would later decide that we were grateful for this because if we had any more of a reminder how slow we were averaging miles once the wind kicked in we might have just laid down on our boards and rode them back up river to the aquarium.
We came around what would be the final bend and there she was Hales Bar and what has earned its name of the hardest 1.5 miles of the Chattajack. We were warned not to look at the marina because it never got any closer, and damn it, that was the truest statement from the entire day. It did not, it never got closer. Our friend the headwind decided to change to a crosswind leaving us to solely rely on our left side just to stay somewhat straight, but we kept paddling. Bodies wrecked we tried not to question how our paddles continued to meet the water. Sometimes, we, as humans, forget how strong we are; some even take our strength for granted. That day on the water was a reminder for some and a realization for others of how immense this strength is. As we paddled closer to the marina and closer to the finish line, we did not let our energy waver, but instead paddled harder- faster. Each stroke pulling our boards that much farther through the water defying that much more of the push from the wind. We heard cheering; we heard our names being yelled out; we heard screams of absolute joy from our teammates who had been cheering us on the entire time as well as strangers thrilled to see another paddler finish the incredibly tough race. We paddled the final stretch, the final 50 feet, as our friends and family ran the length of the dock beside us. Passing over the finish line was a feeling that we will never forget- a feeling that can only be described as victory.
The day after the Chattajack we decided to treat ourselves to a hike and the Tennessee Aquarium.
This past Friday we woke up at 5:30 AM, loaded up the car with all of our backpacking gear and Milo, and drove east through the frigid Tennessee countryside. Only two and a half hours later we were transported from the Nashville basin to the towering mountains of Frozen Head State Park. After a few glances at the map, we were off walking on frozen trail through seemingly untouched land.
As we wound around the mountain, switchback after switchback, we climbed in and out of the morning sun up the primarily oak forest of the Chimney Top trail. As we moved into the sunlight, sounds of distant birds and squirrels were constant, as the trail switched back into the shadows it became eerily quiet and the only noises we heard were our footsteps and Milo’s breathing. It quickly became apparent that we had the entire park to ourselves apart from the workers in the valley below. M.E. noticed in the shade there were thousands of hexagonal ice crystals lining the trail just underneath the top layer of leaves. A thick layer of crystals had formed underneath the dirt pebbles on the trail and gave the appearance that we were walking on floating rocks. It was magical. We were not necessarily happy that the park was empty, but excited that we got this incredible mountain all to ourselves for the cold December day.
After a period of time we followed the trail the the top of Rough Ridge where we stopped to look at the small sandstone capstones that littered the top of the ridge. For a brief moment we were unsure if we had reached the top of our climb, but as we looked towards the east we noticed a peak at least a thousand feet taller than where we were standing. Then the trail began downwards. One of the things learned after thousands of miles of hiking is that trail builders usually do things for a reason. It seemed that the only reason we would be descending off of a ridgeline was that there was a water source at the bottom of the valley. About fifteen minutes of descending later, the prediction stood to be true as we crossed over Rocky Fork Branch and then immediately began ascending again.
There are things in the eastern United States that unfortunately are uncommon; the beautifully colored darters, the high towering American chestnuts and Hemlocks. While we did not get to see any of these, we did get to walk through a very old growth oak and hickory forest as we reached the top of the mountain. The trees towered high above our heads and appeared to be well pruned upwards of seventy feet. Even though we see trees everyday in Nashville, and even big trees when we hike in Percy Warner Park, the size and multitude of these trees stopped us in our tracks. Eastern Tennessee’s rich history of logging and mining extracted most of the large timbers in the state to use for large buildings, structure for coal mine shafts, fuel to melt iron ore and removed trees to clear land for agriculture (link below). At that time, resources seemed inexhaustible and there was not much care taken to preserve the trees. One hundred year old pictures of the American chestnuts show trees rivaling the redwoods of the west. Trees that are now nearly extinct in our region. To walk through a forest of massive trees that had to have preceded this time is a very powerful thing.
Soon we arrived on top of a steep ridgeline and decided to go ahead and eat a couple snickers and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (Milo had dog food and a few treats of course). Even on a short hike, maintaining energy to continue is crucial for an enjoyable day. Although it is possible to hike a long distance with little food, hills that would normally seem easy become more and more difficult. A few hundred feet later and we came to the fifteen to twenty foot tall sandstone capstones of Chimney Top. Icicles hung over a small overhang in the rock that appeared to create a perfect campsite. To the south a small trail led up to the top of the rocks where a sign read “Chimney Top Elev. 3120.” This prominent overlook felt massive compared to the elevation of Nashville (~500 ft) only a couple hours away. The Crab Orchard mountains appear to form out of nowhere from the surrounding farmland, making them feel even taller.
After hanging out at the top for awhile, we decided to head back to the ranger station before the trails closed. We talked and laughed about the amazing day on our way down the mountain, filled with the happiness and joy that only comes from spending the day outside. We had not even been phased by the sub freezing weather and gusts of wind due to the excitement of the beautiful hike. There is something to be said about this feeling. What causes it? The fresh air, the solitude, the physical exertion, the silence, or even just the visual stimulation. No matter what the exact reason is, these are all reasons that we are hiking the Continental Divide this summer. Just the opportunity to prolong that feeling is refreshing to think about. That feeling drives both of us everyday.
Below the ridge, our car became visible again and we had completed another beautiful hike in a beautiful park. A park that is not as well travelled as some of the others in the state and does need donations to continue to maintain and protect its beautiful trails. To donate to Frozen Head State Park or to just find out more information, visit the park or click the link below.