BMT 2020: Day 9, Big Lost Creek to Loss Creek

A most impressive mountain river

Before John Muir became a famous naturalist and advocate for the preservation of wilderness, he embarked on a walk of about 1,000 miles. He didn't call it a thru-hike, but it certainly could have qualified as one.

Muir was 29 years old when he started his walk from Kentucky in 1867. At the time, he didn't have a particular destination in mind.

"My plan was simply to push on in a general southward direction by the wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find, promising the greatest extent of virgin forest," he later wrote in his retelling of the walk, A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf.

Muir had a few misadventures along the way and sometimes spoke dismissively about the people he met. By his assessment, one town he walked through was a "poor, rickety, thrice-dead village" and another was "a very filthy village in a beautiful situation."

Soon after he crossed into Tennessee, a young man with a horse attempted to rob him but found that none of Muir's meager possessions were worth the effort.

As he continued south, Muir made notes about the foliage and geology of the region.

DateSaturday, October 31, 2020
WeatherMostly cloudy and cold in the morning with temperatures in the mid-30s, gradually becoming clearing and warming to near 60
Trail ConditionsNearly flat trail for most of the day with some road walking, later more challenging trail conditions with steep sections, rocky sections, stream crossings, and blowdowns; some poorly marked sections
Today's Miles14.0
Trip Miles121.6

On September 19, Muir arrived on the banks of the Hiwassee River, in the same area as the Benton MacKaye Trail would take us today. He had a special admiration of the river. In his description, he painted a picture of "its surface broken to a thousand sparkling gems, and its forest walls vine-draped and flowery as Eden. And how fine the songs it sings!"

Clearly, Muir had more admiration for the qualities of the river than he had for most Southerners.

Our night down near the banks of Big Lost Creek had been chilly. The temperature continued that way as we prepared to leave camp this morning. We were a little slow to start hiking and didn't begin walking until nearly 9 a.m.

Polecat was the first to leave. He claimed he needed a headstart so he could keep up with us. But as we were soon to find out, he had no trouble at all.

The trail followed a deep limestone gorge cut by the creek. The path was a former railroad bed, which was constructed in the early 1900s when logging operations cleared the forest.

After the forest was cleared, the rails were removed and the route became a road. Gates now block the way, so today, it's only a footpath.

Erosion had narrowed the trail in a few spots to where it was no longer wide enough for a full-sized vehicle.

I enjoyed passing a few cascades and small waterfalls along the way as the sun gradually began to warm the narrow canyon.

A few spots along the way required us to ford either Big Lost Creek or a small stream that fed into it. In one case, I attempted to keep my shoes dry by stepping on rocks and logs. I almost made it across successfully until I slipped at the very end and got my shoes wet.

A couple of the other fords had no way to avoid getting my feet wet, but I had brought along a pair of water shoes for this purpose. The crossings were shallow enough that I had no difficulties, other than the water was extremely cold.

At one of the crossings, Tengo and I didn't discover until too late we had crossed the creek one-too-many times. We failed to see that the trail remained on the same side of the creek. We assumed it crossed because we only saw the old road on the other side.

After realizing we had missed where the trail turned, I checked my navigation app and saw we could follow some train tracks to where it would reconnect us with the trail.

This was near the site of the now-abandoned town of Probst. The population in 1911 was said to be 200, but we saw no evidence of it today.

The tracks were once part of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad (the L&N), which after the Civil War grew to become one of the largest rail lines in the southeast. Construction of this section of track, which ran between Etowah, Tennessee, and Marietta, Georgia, was completed around 1890.

The rail line was integral to the shipment of copper and sulphuric acid from Copper Basin, the area I discussed yesterday.

Although CSX, the last company to own these tracks, attempted to abandon them in 2001, a group of railroad enthusiasts acquired the tracks for tourist excursion rides. You can take a 4.5-hour roundtrip ride today along the lower Hiwassee River. The trip includes the Hiwassee Loop, where the tracks take a corkscrew route up a mountain.

Leaving the train tracks, we picked up the trail again. A short distance farther was Hiwassee Outfitters. No one was around, and the business appeared to be closed for the season.

I have been here many times when it was filled with kayakers and rafters. The Hiwassee, an easy and enjoyable class II route, was one of my favorite rivers when whitewater kayaking was one of my hobbies.

Tengo and I followed the BMT on Ellis Road to State Route 30. About a mile past the site of Probst we found Hiwassee Meeting Hall. Several people were in the building and on the porch, most likely to attend a wedding, which looked like a COVID super-spreader event in the making.

The meeting hall was one of four or five that are still standing from the turn of the 20th century when the community of Reliance was prosperous. The meeting hall was built around 1899 and served two purposes. The first floor was used by the Hiwassee Union Missionary Baptist Church for services, and the second floor was a Masonic lodge meeting hall. For a time, it was also used as a school.

One notable feature of the building was how river rocks were stacked without mortar to elevate it off the ground. This must have been done to avoid the risk of flood damage.

Reliance is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Webb Brothers was a short distance farther down the road. One of the few remaining businesses in Reliance and the oldest one, it opened as a general store in 1936. After one of the brothers was appointed postmaster for Reliance, part of the store became the town's post office.

Today, Webb Brothers provides rafting and kayaking services for outdoor enthusiasts.

Immediately past Webb Brothers, the trail made a right-hand turn and crossed the Hiwassee River on a highway bridge. We caught up with Polecat on the other side of the river.

Our road walking continued for another half mile past the bridge, where the trail left the road at Childers Creek and joined the John Muir National Recreation Trail.

Obviously, this wasn't the same JMT that I hiked while on the Pacific Crest Trail in California, though they both honor the same man. Tennessee's 21-mile JMT follows part of the route he took in 1867, where he walked along the meandering river.

The JMT stayed along the river bank for most of the next 4.7 miles. The sun-filled sky made the walk warm and pleasant.

The water glistened as sunlight bounced off whitewater rapids. Most of my memories of this river are from paddling downstream and finishing at Hiwassee Outfitters. Walking upstream along the riverbank was a different and enjoyable perspective. I tried to pick out spots I remembered from my paddling trips.

The Hiwassee's flow is regulated by the Apalachia Dam, another of the dams operated by TVA. It appeared that the dam was releasing as much water as it could because of Tropical Storm Zeta. This time of year, releases are normally infrequent. The river is usually kept at just enough flow to avoid impacting the fish in the river.

There was one section of the trail that was less-than-enjoyable, however. High water required extra effort to walk. The flooding was probably caused by the storm that passed through yesterday and the day before.

The effects of river erosion and severe flooding from before the dam was constructed could be seen in several spots.

Polecat has a degree in geology. He made frequent stops to examine rock formations. I was used to this because he did the same thing when he hiked with me on the AT and PCT.

The views and sounds of the water were a continuous presence along the trail.

Because we were walking in an upstream direction, the trail's elevation gradually climbed, though the change was hardly noticeable. From where we began following the river to where the trail later turned away from the river, the ascent was only 160 feet.

The sky was the clearest it had been since we began our hike on Springer Mountain. There were only a few brief intervals of clouds during the day. This made the temperature feel warmer than it really was. I thought it had risen to near 70°F when it was actually about 10 degrees cooler than that.

More fond memories of paddling this river came to me when I saw kayakers on the river. The Hiwassee has some fun whitewater, not-too-difficult rapids, and I never had a bad day on it.

We stopped for a late lunch at one of the picnic areas near the river, where we could relax at a picnic table.

Around mid-afternoon, the trail left the riverbank and crossed the road. From there, it made a short but steep climb that included a few switchbacks.

For the next 2.4 miles, the trail didn't follow the riverbank. If it had, the powerhouse for Apalachia Dam would have been visible on the other side of the river.

Like the Ocoee No. 3 powerhouse we passed on Day 7 and Day 8, this one is located several miles from the dam. Water is sent 8.3 miles downriver from the dam through pipelines and tunnels to two turbines in the powerhouse, where electricity is generated.

You may have noticed a "p" is missing from the name of the dam, but that is the correct spelling. The name comes from a small community in North Carolina called Apalachia, which was nearby but no longer exists. No one knows why "Apalachia" is spelled that way, not even TVA.

Near the top of the climb, the river came into view again. Then the trail turned, and it wouldn't be seen nor heard until the trail dropped again to the river.

At 1,508 feet in elevation, this was the highest point of the day. I was surprised to find cell service here, so I stopped to download a couple of podcasts. When I continued hiking, I found Polecat had also stopped to take a break. We walked together for the rest of the way to our campsite.

We didn't have any more streams to ford, but at one small creek, a fallen log was needed to cross without getting our feet wet.

Despite Polecat's claim this morning that he needed an early start because he didn't want to fall behind the rest of us, he appeared to have plenty of energy this afternoon. When he saw a cave on a ledge several feet above the trail, he dropped his pack and scrambled up to the cave to check it out.

We arrived at our campsite near Loss Creek at 5:45. I was more tired than I had expected to be, but I doubted Polecat felt the same way.

His energy seemed limitless. Later, when Tengo got his bear bag rope tangled in a tree, Polecat climbed the tree to get the rope unstuck.

This was much like an evening on the AT when Polecat got his trail name. He climbed a pole to unhook a stuck bear bag.

As the evening cooled and we finished our dinner, we took some time to relax and appreciate our splendid day along the river.

At first, we became excited when we realized tonight was the end of daylight saving time. We thought we would get an extra hour of sleep. Then we remembered the time change would mean sunrise now came an hour earlier. We still needed to get up before sunrise, just as we had been doing, to make full use of daylight during these shorter days.

My path all to-day led me along the leafy banks of the Hiwassee, a most impressive mountain river. Its channel is very rough, as it crosses the edges of upturned rock strata, some of them standing at right angles, or glancing off obliquely to right and left. Thus a multitude of short, resounding cataracts are produced, and the river is restrained from the headlong speed due to its volume and the inclination of its bed.

All the larger streams of uncultivated countries are mysteriously charming and beautiful, whether flowing in mountains or through swamps and plains. Their channels are interestingly sculptured, far more so than the grandest architectural works of man. The finest of the forests are usually found along their banks, and in the multitude of falls and rapids the wilderness finds a voice. Such a river is the Hiwassee, with its surface broken to a thousand sparkling gems, and its forest walls vine-draped and flowery as Eden. And how fine the songs it sings!

From "A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf" by John Muir

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