Stranded in the Wild: A true tale, Part One

17 01 2011

The following entry is Part One of a Four Part Series describing in greater detail than ever before the true story of how two experienced outdoor enthusiasts found themselves “turned around” and stranded unexpectedly near the Shining Rock Wilderness Area in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

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It was going to be an adventure. We were hiking into a small valley and the next day we’d be bush-whacking it over to a stream that had no trails. No trails at all. Not  into or out of the valley where the creek flowed, nor up and down the length of it’s course. We had no idea whether the creek would be large enough to even hold fish, having seen it only on our topo maps and in our dreams. There was only one way to find out, and that was to bush-whack our way over the ridge, and straight down into the steep gorge and see for ourselves.

I’ve learned many lessons since that weekend and I learned many lessons during that weekend. However, this is the story of what I didn’t do right, and how I came to realize two important things on opposite ends of the life-lesson spectrum. One, that I could do far more than I thought I could when the situation demanded it, and two – that I was no longer the “mountain goat” I was in my early 20’s and actually did have my limitations now in the great outdoors.

 

Base Camp along Base Camp Creek...

 

The day of our arrival, we unloaded Milliam’s hatchback, donned our packs and  hiked first down into the near valley and then upstream alongside the creek that would serve as our base-camp. It was a cool but clear late spring day, and the small (sometimes thorny) brush and stunted trees that reached out for our bare legs were beginning to turn the a somewhat olive shade of green. The processes of spring were still barely touching this high-country meadow, and the blueberry bushes were months away from producing their delicious fruit. The trail was, as it usually is in late spring, absolutely full of other hikers who come for the easy access and three waterfalls along our base-camp creek. No matter, the fishing would be good today on this creek and tomorrow when we crossed the ridge and dropped down into the far valley there would be no one around for miles. Hopefully, the creek would be big enough to fish, and would be home to native Appalachian brook trout for it’s entire length. Since there was no access other than by “side-hopping” 30 minutes down the unstable, nearly soil-less  mountainside, we were sure we’d have the whole creek to ourselves. We could hardly wait to find the solitude and bigger fish(we hoped) that “Death Prong” would provide, but had to settle with fishing the easier stream the first afternoon. We caught so many 4-6 inch brook trout that we nearly grew bored with them, I suppose. They would easily come to a big, bushy dry fly in the clear water and they were as brilliant and beautiful as any trout you can find in the Southern Blue Ridge. Dark green backs with pale yellow-white worm-like markings, bright orange fins and white leading edges, red spots with brilliant blue halos. These fish were made to be invisible in the stream, but I can’t also help bit wonder if they weren’t also made to be admired by fly fishers. There were no other fisherman this day, but plenty of hikers, and people with dogs and kids running around catching mayflies and caddis. A few young boys were trying to skip rocks across the creek. A bird of some sort chirped loudly and flew acrobatically away through the tangled tree limbs as we approached the creek to fish.

After settling in to the rhythm of fishing we heard a small ruckus behind us. A helpful young Cub Scout(with his whole pack in tow it seemed) was walking the banks with a giant net that looked as if it had seen better days in someone’s crappie or catfish boat. He assured me that there were “lots of little fish” just upstream and that he could “catch them with his net, if I wanted.”  I told him thanks, but we were doing ok and we skipped a couple of runs to move upstream of them. The kid was trying to help us out, but we were more than capable of finding and catching our share of 4 inch trout that day, and we proved it for four or five wonderful hours.

 

Milliam stalking brookies on the base-camp creek...

We had walked downstream and fished our way back to camp, catching dozens of plump little 4 inch brook trout that often rushed the fly like hungry wolves in packs of three or four.  These are high-altitude fish, in a high-altitude stream and their choices for lunch and dinner are unusually meager, even by Blue Ridge standards. They would probably swipe at a regulation sized golf ball floating downstream if they were presented with the chance. We fished our way back to camp, where the creek was barely a foot across. Our arms tired from lugging around those massive fish, we propped our rods against a tree and began preparing dinner. To be honest with you, I don’t remember what we ate. I do know that at least part of our meal consisted of the usual:  some outstanding back-strap from a deer my buddy Milliam took in the fall the year before. He is a great fishing pal, a great hunter of the whitetail deer, and an equally great dinner pal who always brings me the best deer meat I get to eat all year – even if it is the only deer meat I get to eat all year. We filled our bellies, sat around the fire until midnight or later and then engaged in a rousing game of “…hey, let’s snore until first light” which I undoubtedly won in a land-slide victory, although I have yet to receive my trophy for the effort.

The next day we geared up for the creek we have come to call ” Death Prong.” And here is where I apparently thought, somewhere back in the very deepest recesses of my sub-conscience that I was still a strapping young buck in my early 20’s. I packed up my fly rod, sunscreen, two breakfast bars, one small ziploc bag (quart size, half full) of trail-mix which was made up at home of M&M’s, raisens, chex mix and cheese crackers; an emergency blanket as almost an afterthought, three fly boxes, one pair of sunglasses and exactly one and a half bottles of Kroger-brand filtered bottled water. Milliam (whose misplaced “M” was an early message board accident that stuck) had a new-fangled UV filter bottle thing that I did not trust, no food, his fishing gear packed in his Cabela’s chest pack ( we both use the same fishing pack ) and probably at least a couple of knives. Milliam always has knives. We had no map and no compass, but he did have his hand-held GPS that had only failed us once before on a trip to find the “Secret Pond” whereby we bushwhacked for two hours through a thick Georgia forest, only to find that the “Secret Pond” had a road leading to it that also led back to the road we’d parked the truck on. SO…………….what could possibly go wrong? You know the answer to that is coming, right?

So, off we went. Talking and laughing and remembering past trips aloud; back through the trails that got us to our base-camp and then over more trails leading to the top of the ridge where we’d make our descent into the unknown. Through the still brittle blueberry bushes and other assorted scrub, the stunted little trees, and soggy carpet of the valley floor. Over a few small hills, where there were larger trees, some were even full sized specimens. I don’t know my trees, but Milliam does and he pointed out a few and told me their names, which of course I forgot within three minutes. I always find that there are more things in these wild places than my poor old brain can absorb, and I once again think along that trail that I need to take something with me so that I can write down so much of what I experience out there.  The sun is up now, fairly high in the sky and it’s clear that today is going to be much warmer than yesterday. We reach the top of the highest ridge and stop for a rest. Milliam looks like he needs it…I’m sure I saw at least two beads of sweat on his forehead at this point and I can almost hear him breathing a little every now and then, in-between my own desperate gasps for air. Once, he almost put his hand on a tree when stretching. I’m sure he’s exhausted, since obviously I’m a “little winded” myself. After this ten minute break which I insisted we take – for his sake, naturally – I finish off the first bottle of water that was only half full and put the empty bottle back into my pack. I don’t give it a passing thought. I’ve got fish-on-the-brain and no time to worry about anything but getting to the water. The trail goes north and south here, and according to his GPS, the two fools on a mission should veer off to the north-east across a sea of emerald green and very “pointy” looking knee high grass. Here, the small trees are spaced 5-10 feet apart and it looks like some sort of tiny and abandoned neighborhood park. There are deep shadows under each tree, whose small canopies are nearly touching, making for a sun-lit mosaic on the grass.  The grass looks sharp, but isn’t sharp at all and we push forward, my verbalized prayer ahead of each step: ” Go away snakes….no snakes today. Noooooooooooo snakes. No snakes today, please….” Luckily, we didn’t run across any snakes going through the high grass, which in a few dozen yards disappeared and gave way to the first steep drop toward the valley floor where we hoped a “Death Prong” big enough to handle two anglers at a time would be waiting for us.

Drought years were still going strong, as you can see...

As it turned out, this first “steep” drop wasn’t steep at all. Compared to what was to come, it was nothing. We didn’t even have to put our fly rods in our mouths, or hold onto small trees and grab handfuls of dirt and rocks on our way down at this point. We soon came to a narrow, flat area that was about a foot wide and decided to follow it’s gradual descent along the face of the mountain and it led us to a strange and mysterious find. It was a full-sized shooting table! In the proverbial and quite literal “middle of nowhere!” It was complete with old sandbags, a gasoline container, spent rounds, and a couple of small plastic bags. I think there was also maybe a short section or two of rope, but it’s hard for me to remember exactly what was there. I do remember stopping and having a discussion about what it would take to have hauled in that much treated lumber, nails and other things in order to build, on the spot, a shooting table of this quality. It was absolutely astounding in that it was nearly 2 miles from the nearest road, and built on the side of this mountain, a full 30 minutes from even the closest trail. Across from the table was a sheer rock face. Probably 400-500 yards from the table and it would be the perfect spot – the only spot in these mountains – where you could shoot that far and see where the shot landed. Still, we wondered why someone would build a table that solid and nice ( it a manner of speaking) so far from the road. ( It wasn’t the first mystery we’d encounter – on our second trop to Death Prong a year later, we’d find a hide-out that Eric Rudolph could be proud of…)

Deciding we’d stopped for long enough to ponder the history of this shooting table, we turned straight down into the valley a few feet later. Milliam’s GPS was saying the creek was pretty close now, but as I said the table was already 30 minutes from the trail where we’d left it and the mountain was dropping off steeper than before. We soon ended up “side-stepping” down the mountain, holding on to trees when we could, rocks and small bushes when there were no trees. Rocks turned under our feet, and several times the very thin carpet of dirt and moss under our feet would give way and we’d slide two, three and four feet down the mountain until we could grab another branch or bush or rock to stop the slide. Outdoor wilderness shows were not on television back then, but had they been, I’m sure we could have given them a run for their money if we’d been filming this trip! All down the mountain, we were careful where we put our hands and feet. It looked like the perfect habitat for the rattlesnakes that live in our mountains, with large and small rocks piled up here and there, and dead logs lying criss-crossed everywhere, blocking our path every 30 or 40 feet. It would be easy to twist an ankle here, or worse – to step over a log onto a suddenly startled serpent.  It was slow going for the next half-mile into the valley.

A very open, but shallow "Death Prong"...

Finally though, we heard the sound of rushing water rumbling in the distance like a soft, low whisper. As is always the case, one of us had stopped, stood upright and cupped a had over the back of an ear.

” What’s that?”

” Is that it?”

” Sounds big enough.”

 

“Is that a falls, or just a riffle?”

” It’s not a falls.”

“Let’s go…move it.”

The sound had come well before we’d reached any of the rhododendron that choke the banks and ceilings of our small streams, so we knew it was at least big enough to hold a few trout. We were tired from the tension and danger of getting down the mountain, but after stopping to listen to the sound of the creek our pace quickened. We were eager to get out of the thick woods and into the creek-bed.

Then, at last – there was the thick wall of  dark green and shiny “rhodo” we were waiting to see. We ducked down, walking more slowly now, trying not to get a limb to the face or get our rods caught on them. After 5 minutes of trying to find a way through the tangled mess of limbs, we saw a glimpse of  the clear, green-white creek shimmering in the noon sun. We broke through the rhododendron and dog hobble’s last lines of defense and with a satisfying “ker-plunk!” we popped out into the creek.

It was open enough to see the sky in places, dotted with mayflies and other insect life and nearly 12 feet wide. Just up-steam of our entry was a wide, deep pool that was twice that width and we smiled and laughed and talked about how a little blue line on a map could be this wonderful in real life. It had taken us a full hour and a half to get into the creek – not the thirty short minutes we’d planned. But now, finally… we would fish where few had ever walked, and see just what this creek – this “Death Prong” had in store for us…

I named this one the "Eden Pool"

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Part Two coming soon!

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11 responses

17 01 2011
Clif

Bring out part two!

17 01 2011
Tweets that mention Stranded in the Wild: A true tale, Part One « Fly Fishing the Southern Blue Ridge -- Topsy.com

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Justin Morell. Justin Morell said: RT @owljones: Stranded in the Wild: A true tale, Part One http://goo.gl/fb/FtMCf […]

17 01 2011
Howard (cofisher)

Your English teacher would be proud. Some very fine writing here and I’m with Clif, bring on part two.

17 01 2011
Owl Jones

Thanks guys!!!!!

17 01 2011
The River Damsel

NOOOOOO SNAKES!!! Ha. I can hear riffles one mile away… : )
Part Deux please…

18 01 2011
Ty

Nice! Don’t make us wait too long for Part 2.

18 01 2011
Jay

The “Eden Pool” looks really nice. I can’t wait to hear how it fished.
Funny, when I started taking in the bit about the shooting table so far off the beaten path, I immediately thought about Rudolph. Maybe he was its maker… can’t wait to hear about the hideout you found too.

19 01 2011
Mark

I wish I had known you were headed in there to “Death Prong”, it and the next prong down river are fairly easily accessible if you know how to get in there. Of course you might mention something to that effect in part 2. I have never seen the shooting table or the hide-out, very interesting.

19 01 2011
Owl Jones

There are three prongs, only the outer two have trails. You can access “death prong” by coming in at the mouth, but then…well, that’s in Part Two. Let’s let the folks savor Part One a bit longer. 😉

By the way, stay outta my fishin hole. 😉 LOL ( Actually, you can HAVE it. 😉 )

19 01 2011
Mark

I frequent that area down in there and it can be tough. There are a few deeeeeeeep holes on the main “fork” where you could come mighty close to catching that 15 inch brookie, and that’s no joke. Would you settle for a 14?

19 01 2011
Owl Jones

I would. 14 would be great. I once caught a 12 between fall #2 and #3 and I was shocked to find him where I did. If you know the area, wait until you read part 2 and 3. 🙂 LOL

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