I ignore the 6:00 a.m. watch alarm. It’s raining steadily. Still raining at 7:00. By 8:00, I’m getting antsy, and at 8:30 I can’t stand it anymore. I’ve been in this green tomb for 13 hours. My sleeping bag is damp all over; the sleeping pad is wet too. There are small puddles of water in both ends of the tent. The mesh sides are encrusted with splattered sand eight inches up. Grains of sand grind in the tent flap’s zipper and the rainfly’s too. The wet is bad enough, but the sand is maddening — all the pain of a beach vacation without any of the fun.
My plans were to day hike up Cooper Road to Gold Mine and Cane Creek Trails, both of which end at the park boundary, and return totaling 12 miles. Cane Creek has unbridged creek crossings that require wading if the water is high. There’s no doubt the water will be up. Internally debating the prudent action, I finally decide to go for it. If I make it, fine; if I don’t, oh well; but I’m not sitting here all day. I suit up in full rain gear (coat and pants) and wear water shoes. My trekking poles, lunch, and water are the only other essentials, and my camera and voice recorder are safely dry in my pack. I don’t bother with an umbrella. All of these choices would prove perfect.
I start at 9:45, and immediately encounter the results of nonstop rain for 14 hours. Cooper Road is under water for a good 50 yards past the trail sign. I step up on the grassy bank and carefully work my way to the dry road in the distance. Further up, Kingfisher Creek runs along Cooper Road, crossing it three times. Yesterday, I had one dry rock hop. Today, torrents 15 to 20 yards across gush and swirl at each location. I stop and debate some more.
Park advice on rain-swollen creek crossings is clear, don’t endanger yourself. However, water this high isn’t going to recede by tomorrow when I’ll have to hike out this way, especially if the rain continues today. I should at least try — take it one step at a time and see how it goes. If it feels the slightest bit risky, I’ll back off, but at least I’ll have an idea of what I’m facing. Hoisting my pants to mid-thigh, I plunge in. The water isn’t very cold. It is just over my knees, and the flow is swift but not dangerous. I make it to the other side with no problem. There are two more crossings ahead, and by the last one, I walk right through without pause.
Several turkeys are milling about on Cooper Road. They look at me in alarm and trot up the trail disappearing over a rise. When I reach the rise, they are all looking back to see if ‘it’ (me) is still coming. ‘It’ is, and they streak off into the woods. Within an hour, I’ve reached the Gold Mine Trail junction 2.5 miles from the campground. A light rain continues to fall.
Gold Mine is a short, 0.8 mile trail heading northwest then looping north to the park boundary. It climbs 300 feet in elevation and is not taxing at all. The trails book mentions short steep rocky sections, but this seems a bit of a stretch to me. The scattered rocks aren’t much bigger than fist size. The book also mentions a large patch of Galax, which is still there. The round, glossy evergreen leaves give off a skunky odor that is particularly strong on this wet day. I also see Bracken Fern, Devil’s Grandmother, and Downy Lobelia.
The soil on this trail is very interesting. It is nearly white, a pale creamy tone marbled with orange streaks. Geologically, this small section of the park — from Abrams Creek Campground to the boundary end of Cane Creek Trail northwest of Cooper Road — is part of the Chilhowee Group, characterized by sandstones, siltstones, shale, limestone, and dolomite. A fault line (Miller Cove Fault) carves this small piece from the rest of the park. I cannot identify a soil type whose description fits this unique coloration, but I notice the same marbled cream soil along Cooper Road as well.
Returning to Cooper Road, I turn left and head downhill a half mile to the Cane Creek junction. The rain has stopped, at least half of my day’s plan has been salvaged, so I may as well try for the other half. Will the creek crossings be too dangerous? I’m about to find out.
Cane Creek (2.1 miles) is all downhill and two-thirds of the 300-foot elevation drop comes in the first half mile to Campsite #2. The rest of the trail is a nearly flat, straight amble northeast through the creek valley’s lowlands to the park boundary. There are several creek crossings, but only three of them require caution. The water level is just above my knees, and the flow is much swifter on two of these crossings. I am hesitant at the first one and take it very slow, ready to back out if things get too dicey. As long as I carefully plant my trekking poles and my feet one at a time, I can readily resist the tug of the water. Lift both poles or a pole and a foot, and the force of the water throws me off balance.
About three-quarters of a mile from the end is Buchanan Cemetery, a small parcel of land sitting slightly above the rest of the valley floor. Many colorful flowers adorn the graves, particularly one belonging to Nora Lee. I cannot make out her last name, nor the dates with certainty, but I think she died as a young girl. Several sprays of plastic flowers, including a plastic butterfly, crowd the front of her stone. In their midst, is a real flower. A blue aster adds its fragile and fleeting beauty.
A small White Oak and Sourwood have fallen across the trail but present no real impediment. The trails guide mentions some neat mushrooms. None are noted today, but a few weeks ago, it was probably a very different story. Reaching the park boundary, I eat lunch, remove my rain gear, and photograph Hearts-a-bustin’ fruit. At 1:20 p.m. I head back, taking it slow through the swift creek and fast on the trail, prompted by a darkening sky and a reprise of light sprinkles. On Cooper Road, the rushing water of Kingfisher Branch doesn’t appear as intimidating. The swamped trailhead has drained quite a bit too with large, but patchy pockets of standing water when I arrive at 3:30.
Not long after my return it begins to rain again. Darn it. I slip in my damp, sandy tent and discover I am not alone. There is a huge wasp-looking insect crawling on the mesh wall. Using my camera holster, I gently trap it and attempt to release it outside. It is remarkably calm, walking around on the holster, then moving to my shoe, foot, and ankle. I stay calm and try to photograph it, finally moving it to my tent rainfly. I think it is a Cicada Killer, so I’m not afraid. However, I have since identified it as a female European Wasp (Vespa crabro), generally (and fortunately) a much less aggressive species that nonetheless can administer a sharp sting when provoked. People commonly mistake this large wasp for a Cicada Killer. They are carnivorous, eating other insect species, and love fruits, such as apples. It is endangered in parts of Europe.
The rain finally stops for good. I eat dinner and prepare for my hike out tomorrow. I’m looking forward to a little sunshine.