Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Citico Creek

There is the occasional experience in our lives where we have labored towards a  goal and suddenly, unexpectedly, we are thrown into a situation where all of that hard work is called upon. Regardless, if you are ready for the test or not, the universe has conspired against you. Inaction or hesitation will surely mean failure and there is no choice but to rise to the occasion. Rarely are we presented with such great opportunities to prove ourselves or to come to grips with the reality of the person we really are. On my most recent trip I found myself in one of these predicaments.

Recently, I have been giving deeper thought to the subject of Professional Outdoorsmanship compared to Recreational Outdoorsmanship. Over the past two months, since I returned from the West, I have been working for one of New Orleans' only two active outdoor guide company: "Canoe and Trail Adventures". My fellow guides (Chad, Byron, and Tom) have allowed me the opportunity to gain valuable experience in Outdoor Leadership. It is not hard for me to state that the company as a whole has started to instill in myself a number of values that reflect professionalism as opposed to being a recreational enthusiast. 

The professional outdoor leader and the recreational enthusiast have to master many of the same skills but it appears one major differentiation in the two comes directly from the way each approach the subject of "Leisure". The professional and recreational all need to understand outdoor nutrition, navigation, logistics, and express a command on a number of outdoor skills and a host of other common subjects. When you consider motivation, however, the professional is chiefly concerned with the safety of those they are guiding, the clients or party, while the recreational outdoorsman is exclusively out for leisure.

The professional may experience satisfaction and thoroughly enjoy the outdoor experience but it is not the chief reason they have elected to go out into the wild, it is their job. As a weekend warrior or even someone training for a great challenge in the outdoors the recreational outdoorsman is actively perusing a personal goal that will give them satisfaction. I have learned a great deal about being a strong leader and have begun to understand the concept of professionalism in the outdoors, I just don't know if I was ready to put it all into practice last week.

09/24/13 - White Whiskey

For this trip out into the wilds I had the companionship of my bicycle mechanic, Ryan. This trip had been a brain child of Ryan that he slowly began to manifest. When I caught wind of the trip I had to ask if I could come and assist to ensure his goals were accomplished and everything went smoothly. Ryan is a marathoner and wanted to get some quality trail running in for his training. Although I am not a big runner I obliged and said I could try. Over the course of a month we planed the trip around our mutual goals and today we set out on the road at 5am. The gear was all check-listed and only one small bag was forgotten to be loaded (my tea cup and tea).

cell phone pics...
The drive was fairly easy, as easy as a 10hr drive can be, but once we reached Tennessee we had to reckon with a major problem. I have stopped bringing my alcohol on the drive just in case I get in trouble for "crossing state lines" with the fire water. The county we found ourselves in was a dry county. A quick search on the phone revealed the nearest liquor store at about 25 miles out of our way. From the traditional standpoint of the pioneers on the frontier any good expedition needs some whiskey. We made it to the trail head for Citico Creek in Cherokee National forest just before sunset.

*photo from a different day

In an attempt to maximize the remaining daylight, I hurriedly pack my gear up and set us out on the trail that headed south from the parking area. The trail had no signage or markers but I knew the trail I wanted was due south. We hiked about 1/4 of a mile and found a great site next to the river for camp. Quickly Ryan and myself begin to set up camp. Hastily I build a modest fire and prepare dinner. By the time we settle in the stars are already out.

Everything happened very fast. Eventually, after cleaning the cookware and filtering the nights water, we began to have the opportunity to let our minds wander. For Ryan this was not exactly a good thing. The excitement of rushing against nightfall had distracted  Ryan and he began to realize we were alone and far away from other people, in a small mountain river valley. Both of us, to a degree, had become disoriented. We may have been only 1/4 of a mile from the car but fear began to set in. When I explained how I needed to go back to the parking lot in the morning to check what trail we were on Ryan began to think we were lost. Fear turned to paranoia.

One trait of good leadership is being able to identify problems with the people you are leading and provide effective solutions. These problems might be physical, emotional or psychological. I pull out the map and describe what we saw as we hiked in the twilight while comparing it to the information we gathered on the map. Only one spot on the map in our area meets what we saw and I pinpointed out exact location for Ryan.

I try to engage Ryan's psyche and free him from the fear by attempting to display control over the situation and gain his confidence. A short lecture on the nature of these mountain streams and their hydrology, along with building a sizable larger fire (the oldest comforter of man), all worked to allow Ryan to regain his composure and confidence. Ryan affectionately referred to this state later as "pulling a whitey". I am still not quite sure the background or origin of this term but it did provide some amusement.

09/25/13 - Achilles Fights the River

Over night it began to rain. The rain was consistent and light. Upon waking it is very apparent that it may rain all day and I did not want us to be cooped up in the small two man tent all day reading books. I had packed an extra, large tarp just in case this happened. In the matter of minuets I have a simple shelter built in our site with just a few tent steaks, my trekking poles and para chord. The shelter provided an area to recreate and cook our meals while staying dry and out of that muggy tent.

The sustained rain begins to weigh on both of us as we spend the day under our humble shelter discussing philosophy and literature. In the course of our conversation Ryan begins to express concern over the threat of a flash flood due to our proximity to the river. I try to quell this fairly quickly by expanding on what I explained last night about the Hydrology of this area.

A short walk out to the river allows us to set a marker to check river rise; but this is not enough to ensure Ryan that we are safe. I take him around the river bank and I look for "catches", places where debris (leaves, sticks, wood etc..) can get lodged in narrow rock fractures or tree roots in high water events. We find a few and I explain that when you no longer see these signs of a flood event you can roughly determine the historical high water mark. We were well above this point. It is a necessity that a leader knows as much as possible about their area for their given task to be carried out properly.

The rain lets up by mid afternoon and we take the chance to return to the parking area to, beyond a doubt, find our exact location. As it happens, we were exactly where I wanted us to be.  Ryan began to feel very confident in our situation now and even made the suggestion to hike a short section of the trail he wanted to run. Recognizing this would further build his confidence and understanding of the area I do not hesitate to follow through on this plan.

Over the short hike we take in the sylvan landscape and its denizens:

The rain began to pick back up as we returned to our camp. I decided that for enjoyment we should build a small fire under the tarp. To me this seemed pertinent so that we did not have the chance of fear in the darkness again. The actual building of the fire was a bit of a challenge though considering it had been raining all day. In time we built up a nice fire built for heat and minimal light. I took some time to explain to Ryan how you can build fires for different purposes weather it be heat, light,  or smoke. We retired fairly early in the hopes of waking early for a morning run on the river road.

09/26/13 - The Big Sh*tStack

Ryan's prowess for running is very impressive. He was up and ready to run just after sunrise and full of the energy needed. We were to run the dirt river road for 15min down river then turn around back upriver for 15min. This was the "warm up run" for the run latter in the day up a small mountain... The road was well maintained and was absolutely gorgeous. During the run the dreary grey sky began to break and the deep azure blue of the sky was visible once again.

I drop out the run early and begin walking back, Ryan continues on. A little later he comes running past mentioning something about a mile marker that said he ran 3 miles out from camp. So he ran six miles in total for a warm up when I died at just over three.

Back at camp we eat a recovery meal and rest for about an hour. Ryan then says he is ready to run up the mountain. What mountain you may ask? A modest little peak at 4,200' called "Big Fodderstack" which in the end I roughly translate as "the big shitstack". I agree to carry our food and water while I speed hike as fast as I can behind him.

It was 3.6miles and just around 2,500' of gain to the top. Ryan must have made it in about an hour while I took around 80min to reach the top.

It was a classic day in the Great Southern Mountains as the low hanging Stratus Clouds gently rose and cleared the sky. We returned to camp, and began the evening rituals. Ryan's confidence seemed to be very high so we planned a short three day two night backpacking loop. By the end of the night our supply of whiskey had been exhausted and we agreed on a full day of rest tomorrow with a drive to town to resupply. A man who has a cabin in the mountains only comes down for one thing: more whiskey.

09/27/13 - Smugglers

Ryan awoke early for another morning run much to my dismay on our "rest day". I tagged along for a moment and quickly fell back to walking. Ryan ran his six mile route. A whiskey run to the next town and then back into our dry county took little time. It was followed by a good meal at a local burger joint the "Tellico Beach". To my amazement Ryan ordered two massive burgers and ate them all. The kid is 120pds to my 150! I guess I have a "baby stomach". It was located just outside the National Forest and off the Cherohala Skyway on the Tellico river. While sitting outside watching the river while we ate I noticed a group of people in the river wearing wetsuits, using snorkels and nets. I can only assume they were from the hatchery located on the river and were counting trout.

09/28/13 - The Brush Mountain Maze

Ryan had informed me that he did have a slight fear of water and the trail I wanted to take on the backpacking loop had numerous river crossings. I nixed that plan and chose a route to better suit Ryan's confidence and ability: Brush Mountain Trail. It started off with one river crossing and then straight uphill. Ryan crossed like a pro.

We rested and got dry from the crossing on the other side when we encountered two hikers coming down brush. Like the heralds of legends past they told of the danger ahead. This couple had apparently gotten lost. They informed us that the trail was heavily overgrown and not marked in many places. In the course of route finding the previous afternoon they had lost too much time and as night fell they set up for their cold night. I asked a few general questions about the trail, hazards, landmarks, and other questions on water sources. The couple did have a GPS system and the same map as myself. I found it very perplexing they had gotten lost.  In their defense, though, the trail was very very rough but straightforward.

To ensure Ryan we were safe I went over the concept of the route with the map. We would follow a stream to its lead, and up to the ridge line. Follow the ridge line east to the main ridge and take the southern route on the main ridge. In the event of failure, the Jeep and parking area were located on the main Citico Creek that all the streams lead into on our side of the main ridge line. It was a very simple watershed. I wanted Ryan to be confident that on this difficult trail I could get us there and back.

The trail was marked with the occasional orange tape from a tree branch. The route was worked in the soil but frequent stream crossings and places where other hikers had gone the wrong way made it difficult to discern the actual trail. I would often leave Ryan at the last known section of trail and hike outward looking for the next indication of the trail's continuation. Ryan acted as my way marker.  We eventually found ourselves in a great "hall of vines" and the sun coming through the trees was very idyllic.

Eventually the trail disappeared. I couldn't find it so I began to hike up the river. As I went up I began to notice parallel logs laid perpendicular to the watercourse. Upon looking deeper they had been cut. The trail was the creek. I followed if up and eventually came to one of the orange flags. I got Ryan together and we hiked up the stream.

it was dark under the tree canopy, sorry about the poor quality.

After a hard day of route finding we make it to the flat area at the top of Brush Mountain. I chose this site as part of a classic three day summit plan. Brush was the intermediate point that we hiked out to so that we could manage the climb up to the area high point: Stratton Bald at 5,260' the following day and on the third day descend back to the parking area. All together we climbed 2,500' feet today and would make our climb of Stratton tomorrow.

09/29/13 - Stratton Bald

The hike had started at sunrise so that way we ensured we had enough time to complete the 13 mile loop there and back to our site on Brush. Our route from camp to Stratton eventually would meet up with a few trail intersections. Ryan had been concerned about getting turned around at these crossings so I made a point to pull out the map and take a compass bearing every time we encountered them. Both of us confident we were on the right path made haste for Stratton.

The weather was poor on the way up and very overcast. Occasionally the clouds would break and reveal the mountains. Ryan is fairly enamored with the concept of "void". At a break we sat and I posed to Ryan the concept that as the mountains in the distance emerged from the rising clouds they were being created from the void. The concept was flipped around; that from the perspective of the other mountain we were being created from the void.

Once we had taken the main ridge to Stratton we began to encounter a sign I have never, and thankfully, encountered:

Again low light and cheap cameras...
At the summit of Stratton we were not given the luxury of a view. The cloud ceiling was far too low and we were content to watch as the "fog" moved in and out in sheets. A group of hikers were packing up and getting out. I took their fires embers before it could go out and quickly started a new fire for our lunch on the summit. There were a number of wild flowers blooming: salvia, coleus, and what looked like some mallow.

It was only about mid afternoon that we had reached camp again and in our exhaustion from our 13 mile trip we actually walked right past camp by 200 meters before I realized we were past the site. We had an early dinner in the attempt to get to sleep early and calm our exhaustion.

Around the fire, Ryan and myself begin to talk philosophy. He begins to explain to me how important weakness is. I am almost disgusted by the idea that weakness is a good thing. But, Ryan expands on the subject by saying humanity as a whole needs weakness so that strength has value. Like fear, every human feels weakness, it is a unifying emotion that teaches us the importance and respect of, in this case, strength. The whole trip I felt I had been teaching Ryan about the outdoors and now the roles reversed. Ryan had taught me something I had not considered and changed my perspective.

My great contribution to the deep fireside discourse was my recent acceptance that drinking milk in public is almost a social taboo. People mostly drink milk at breakfast or late before bed; in a private setting. Milk get associated with these activities and if you should see someone, say, drinking a pint of milk at 2pm walking down the street, it will probably be a very odd experience and cause you to question that persons actions. I thought about this because I often drink milk in public at odd hours and get some really weird looks.

09/30/13 - Compounding Complications: A Return Home

The rhythm of waking at the light of the sun had finally become ingrained in us after the week out. Breakfast was light and camp was packed up fast. Ryan quickly noticed that his right knee was not feeling well. Downhill is not a place for a hurt knee and we had 2,500' to descend. I told him to take it easy and slow, that the technical sections over rock should be approached with control of his footing and ease. Cautiously we labored down the mountain.

At the first water source I began to filter our water for the hike. My filter immediately broke. The pump handle snapped off and I was only able to use it with the aid of my pliers on my leatherman. Descending the mountain I began to grow increasingly frustrated with the lack of the trail and slowly became homesick. At the river crossing I tried to rush it without removing my footwear and almost promptly fell in and got my pants soaked but managed to save my pack and gear from the moisture. After we had crossed and dried out we discussed geting out. Ryan was hurt and my morale was quickly fading. I called the audible and we went back to Tellico Beach for lunch and then the long drive home.

* * *

Ryan presented me with an opportunity to engage the skills I have been becoming exposed to in my work life guiding. Although it was a challenging trip to get accomplished, it was highly rewarding. I am happy Ryan afforded me the ability to test myself. Ryan started the trip with heavy concern and left with great confidence. There were a few points where I feel I failed to be a good leader and maintain myself but, I'm still learning after all. 

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