Sunday, May 25, 2014

Jacks River Trail

This campaign,
year, after year,
season, after season.

Through forest and swamp,
through hill and dale,
through mountain and canyon.

In all the places I have fought,
what rewards were given,
what rewards were sought?

through the snow,
through the rain,
through the burning sand.

In times of heat,
in times of cold.

This time,
this battle,
a river.

Flowing she was.
Gently at times,
violently at times.

I trekked on,
step after step,
crossing after crossing.

After while the boots were removed from my feet.
Bare flesh intimately upon the earth.
With the mosses and the leaf litter beneath me.

She pushed hard,
I pushed harder.

Through the blackberry bramble,
through the laurel,
through the ivy.

Until I found myself,
at length upon my reward.

A great waterfall,
brilliant the cascade was.

And from there I found myself
walking in a great circle.


That hopeful exit,
that vehicle of my return.

A return to civilization.
Where the mass of men carry on,
working, slaving.

Their misunderstood lives,
their misunderstood desires.

On their backs are carried the burdens of distinguished men.
The great ones being far and few between.
How they seek to be them.

But here in the wilderness,
one can be everything,
and nothing,
all at once.


Monday, May 19, 2014

Big Frog Mountain

Every day we drive to the river I can see this mountain watching over Parksville lake. It looms over all the others. Sometimes it is covered in the classic mist that is ever so recognizable in these southern mountains; the summit only known in imagination. Other times it takes the namesake of its home range, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and is paled to an azure color of the sky. It took me less than a week to find out it was Big Frog Mountain at 4,200' of glory. Before I knew her name, I desired to be on its peak.

My maps revealed that it was located in the Big Frog Wilderness, part of Cherokee National Forest. The other bit of information that I became privy to was that a trail went directly to the summit. That trail: The Benton MacKaye. A classic, shorter thru-hiker trail, a small section would prove my route.

The hike would take me up one of the forks of Rough Creek. I smiled when I saw the name "rough creek". Cartographers were highly creative back in the day. I have seen at least three other "rough creeks" in the Southern Appalachian.

I made my camp for the night at the start of the climb up the main ridge to Big Frog. It was gently situated near the creek and I continued with my current trend of tentless camping.

The following day's hike up the ridge was rather easy going. I would attribute this to my week of hard work and conditioning. My hike up Cheoha the previous week had been a smoker and really pushed my green legs. On this day I was strong, gaining over 1000 vertical feet an hour. The goddess Diana would bless me as I was fortunate to witness a black bear foraging on my ascent. The first I have seen in these mountains. Once back at the guide camp it was revealed to me that this wilderness area was a prime relocation spot for bears that had disrupted human activity in the past. I can neither fully confirm or deny this rumor at this point.

Once I had gained the main ridge it became a knife edge. Very narrow and rocky. At points I would have been unable to lay across it with all 6'1" of myself. I began to notice, much to my dismay, that I was forming a blister on my left heel. I never get blisters. In my entire hiking career I never had one. This day was different. I was wearing a new pair of boots, stiff boots and admittedly a size too small. I thought it would be fine but it wasn't. After applying moleskin and putting on two pairs of socks to cushion my overwhelming desire to summit pushed me on.

It was a classic experience in these hills. Even though I was precipitously placed high above the world I was enclosed in a dense hardwood forest and was given few opportunities to view the surrounding landscape. One spot, listed on the map as the "Chimney Tops" did have a decent rock outcropping that opened up to some reward. This, beyond finally reaching the summit, was the only reward given on that day.

The summit was equally unforgiving. If there had been a frog on the top of that heap of dirt, rocks and trees, it would have surely been huge due to the unfathomable quantity of black fly, house fly and myriad of other flying pests that called that place home. Promptly upon arrival I left. I spent a second to try to locate a USGS marker but deemed it not worth it. The confirmation of the trail intersection and my altimeter was enough to prove it was indeed the summit.

I possessed enough food, time and the ability to spent another night in the wilderness area but my blister had become quite poignant. I decided to rush the estimated 12-14 miles down and back to my Jeep. This proved a tiring endeavor. Once I reached my Jeep, the Endeavor, I was elated and comforted. But what was even more comforting was knowing that a hot meal and warm bed was only a 20 min drive away back to our guide encampment, and not 9 1/2 hrs back to New Orleans.


Saturday, May 17, 2014

Saturday Night Movie: Call of the River

So I have been on this quest to document the history of paddling. I found this gem the other day. Many of the people interviewed in this one have been friends of some of my current teachers who I am studying under. It is so cool to come to understand that I am playing a part in this story. My fellow raft guides and myself are the next generation. We carry this torch; this is our inherited legacy. I am also lucky enough to have met and paddled with a few of the people in here.  Uh? Stoke?

COTR 67 WIDE 2014-Large 540p from Kent Ford on Vimeo.


Friday, May 16, 2014


(The Author)
In case you haven't noticed over the course of my posts, I am fascinated by the microcosm. It is absolutely amazing what you can find if you get on your hands and knees and look at a patch of earth. There is so much going on. Sometimes it is hard to comprehend.

Hope spiders don't creep you out because I love them. And I love to get CLOSE to them....


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

In Bloom: A Hike Up Cheoah Bald

Last Monday the entire staff of N.O.C. had their seasonal orientation at the main campus in Wesser on the Nantahala River. It was a mild affair. We took a complementary trip down the Nanty with some of the founders of the company and this was the true highlight. Most of these guys had been on these southern rivers for over 40 years. The wisdom and insight they had was deep and fantastic. I hope to spend some time in the near future getting some interviews for my "history of southern paddling" post. ( I do feel that may be a long time coming)

Following the exhaustive second day of orientation, filled with talks about policy and behavior, I decided to hike north bound on the Appalachian trail for 8.1 miles to Cheoah Bald. That was a good decision.

I hit the trail by 1:30pm and reached the summit by 6:30. It was a pitiful hike on my part. This was my first hike with any major elevation gain (3200ft of gain) in months so I couldn't be too upset with my physical ability. I spent the night on the summit at 5200' with only three other hikers and descended in the morning. Sunset was fantastic and so was sunrise. I highly recommend this summit should you ever get the chance and time while visiting North Carolina.

The best thing about the hike though was all the wild flowers. Many were in bloom and as I gained elevation what was in bloom and wasn't changed.

Of all the flowers the most spectacular, and classic, was the Flame Azaleas. In the 1700's William Bartram (whom the Bartram trail in these very mountains is named after) stated:

"The epithet fiery I annex to this most celebrated species of azalea, as being expressive of the appearance of its flowers; which are in general of the color of the finest red-lead, orange, and bright gold, as well as yellow and cream color. These various splendid colors are not only in separate plants, but frequently all the varieties and shades are seen in separate branches on the same plant; and the clusters of the blossoms cover the shrubs in such incredible profusion on the hillsides that, suddenly opening to view from dark shades, we are alarmed with apprehension of the woods being set on fire. This is certainly the most gay and brilliant flowering shrub yet known." 

I could say it no better if I tried.


Thursday, May 8, 2014

Workin' in a Copper Mine, Goin' Down, Down, Down

On Easter Sunday I received a call from the Nantahala Outdoor Center. They had accepted my application and wanted me to come and work as a river guide on the Ocoee River. I was asked to start training for May 1st. Of course, I graciously said yes. Now I have been here for a week and my river education is flowing. This post though, is not about life here on the river, the famous Whitewater Center that hosted the 1996 Olympic events or even the power of the class IV rapids that are kicking my butt. The historian in me needed to be satiated on the story of this small part of the country's past, and that is our topic of interest today. After all I did get my degree in History.

In the great story of the development of our nation one of the major overreaching themes that can be interjected in countless places is the tale of Industrialization. Communities across this country were built, advanced and doomed by the process. The area around the Ocoee River in the South East portion of Tennessee was no exception. Her industry: Copper.

Polk County, in this section of Tennessee, has been dubbed by history the "Copper Basin". The knowledge of copper, in the hills of this quite section of the Southern Appalachians, predates settlement by white westerners. The Native Americans who took these lands as their ancestral home were aware of the mineral deposits but could not fathom how rich they truly were. That wealth would only become known and exploited by American and European prospectors in the following decades. They built an industry that would effect the area for over 150 years. A period spanning the growth of American Industrialization, the Civil War, the Second World War and even into modern times.

The ability for the native Cherokee Indians to utilize the valuable resource was minor and artifacts are rare. Their use of the bits of copper was limited to that which was on the surface of the hills and washed out into the creeks and rivers in the area. It was, however, still a valuable commodity for the native peoples.

It had been falsely reported early on that gold was in the hills. The Treaty of New Echota in 1835, which ceded Cherokee lands in the southeast to the United States and their subsequent removal by means of the infamous Trail of Tears, opened the area to prospecting for westerners. As early as 1831 the first geologist of the state of Tennessee had noted the presence of "hydroxide of iron" or "gossan" near the area of modern Ducktown around Coker Creek. It was not until 1843 that the deposits containing copper and iron were fully confirmed with the discovery of the ore by a gold prospector near Potato Creek. Originally the prospector believed his find to be gold but a through examination revealed reddish crystals indicating copper. Shortly after the discovery it was believed that the area contained one of the largest deposits of copper ever found.

By 1847 a small foundry was built on Potato Creek by B.C. Duggar to extract iron. The foundry exploited only the surface ore that was of poor quality and eventually the venture failed due to high copper content. In that same year A.J. Weaver successfully produced the first shipment of copper ore from the basin. That first shipment was 31,000lbs of ore and yielded only about 25% pure copper. The ore was transported by mule carts over the mountains to Dalton GA where the nearest railroad was. The lack of a transportation network severely hurt the ability to take advantage of the resource. It was not until the 1850's that the area would truly develop a semblance of infrastructure capable of utilizing the richness of the deposit.

The 1850's saw a boom in the industry and the creation of the town of Hiwassee (modern Ducktown) along with the construction of the Copper Road connecting Cleveland TN to Hiwassee via the Ocoee River Gorge. The road was completed in 1851 and opened up new economic opportunity for the growing community. The ore was transported via mule carts along this 40 mile route. The trip took haulers two days each way and they overnighted each way at a "Halfway House". Today, along U.S. Hwy 64 there is a state historical marker commemorating the spot. The forest service still maintains part of the road as a public hiking trail for historical and recreational purposes. The wagoneers would transport goods and supplies back to the developing mining operation and towns in the area from Cleveland. At the middle of the decade over 14 companies were mining and using the road that is now Hwy 64. Around the end of the decade the companies had consolidated into three: Union Consolidated, Burra Burra, and Ducktown Copper. (Burra Burra was headquartered in good ole' New Orleans as it happens) Eventually most mining operations would merge near the end of the century to create the Tennessee Copper Company that would remain active through the 1950's.

Copper Road through Ocoee Gorge.
Of the "Copper Haulers" a man by the name of G.B. Barnes has made his mark on history. Reportedly he was the last man to use the road for transportation of copper before other means of transportation supplanted the traditional route. His claim to fame, however, was his ability to play the fiddle and give some degree of entertainment to his fellow wagoneers. In a clearly fictional story about Barnes it is reported that his mules became so familiar with is repertoire that on one occasion while bogged down in mud they noticed him removing his fiddle to pass the time. Upon noticing this the mules quickly stepped up to the challenge and promptly drew the wagon out of the muck and pushed onto Cleveland.

Like so many other places in the south the Civil War in 1861 saw drastic change for the Copper Basin. There was a halt in mining operations, which, oddly enough, were mostly owned by wealthy northern industrialists. The Confederacy regained control of the mines in 1863 and then promptly sold them off to southerners. Eventually the mines were retaken by Union forces who in turn devastated the area by destroying facilities and equipment.

Following the war production in the mines slowly resumed as the infrastructure was rebuilt, however most of the ore on the surface had been depleted. The solution was deep shaft mining. By 1877 the area was operating the only deep shaft mines east of the Mississippi. Some of these mines would reach depths of over 3,000 feet in their years of operation. Highly dangerous, deep shaft mining required drilling and explosives that exposed miners to risks much greater than surface production.

Towards the turn of the century production became limited due to lack of a rail network. It was this need that prompted the development of the famous Bald Mountain rail line (still operational to this day and open for tourism) by architect T.A. Aber. The rail line circled around the peak 1 1/2 times to overcome the 426 foot elevation difference from one rim to the other in the Hiwassee Gorge.

The later parts of the 19th century saw a major change in the industry via the production of Sulfuric Acid. As the ore was smelt it released sulfuric acid into the atmosphere and consequently created acid rain.  From the 1890's and into the 1900's a number of major injunctions were filed against the mining companies by local land owners for the devastation. Eventually a solution was devised to collect the sulfuric acid to make fertilizer and products for sale that furthered new industry. By the 1920's methods of extraction via "flotation plants" had devised means to facilitate other products such as zinc, sulfur dioxide, and iron sulfate creating even greater markets.

The story of the Copper Basin the middle to late 20th century saw a change in concern for the environment. In terms of ecological impact, the smelting of the ore required huge quantities of wood to fuel the furnaces. The wood came from the forests in the neighboring hills. The closer to the mines the better. In time the areas surrounding the mines were denuded and removed of their vegetation creating a "moonscape" appearance The area had been devastated by the removal of local flora and the chemicals that had run off into the local waterways began to prove toxic. In the new deal era the C.C.C planted trees in the area in an attempt to reforest the landscape and a clean up of water sources. The years between 1920 and 1950 thousands of acres of land were revitalized with pine and local species of trees.

Deforested area around the mines. HWY64 runs the right side of the photo.
Area reforested today. You can see the pit mine and Gossan ruts still visible.
The area saw a complete cease in iron production in the 1980's but the industry of the area was still very active. The chemical plants that had once harvested the byproducts of the smelting process began to import raw materials from other parts of the country and continued to produce numerous chemical compounds for national and international markets.

Today chemical production continues in the area but a major part of the economy has been replaced by tourism through the numerous companies operating outdoor adventure activities around the Ocoee River. With the creation of the Ocoee dam system consistent water is available for the Ocoee river. Through this the Ocoee river, which was once a dead ecosystem due to the mining operations in its watershed, has become a premiere destination for whitewater enthusiasts. In peak season over 8,000 visitors a day will raft the river. The economic impact of this industry has begun to change the character of the area and for most visitors the effects of mining are distant, only to be noted if one seeks it out.

A special thanks to the Ducktown Basin Museum for providing the resources needed to complete this essay.

If you enjoyed my brief history of the area I am already researching two more similar essays. One essay detailing the development of the three dams on the Ocoee River and the role of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The third essay, and the one proving to be the hardest to gather sources, on the history and development of whitewater paddling in the Southeast.