I return to Noland Creek to walk south to Fontana Lake. At Bryson City’s edge just before entering Lakeview Drive proper, a small billboard perches on a steep slope bearing a brightly colored message:
THE ROAD TO NO-WHERE
A BROKEN PROMISE!
1943 – ?
NO MORE WILDERNESS
In pristine condition amid closely cropped vegetation, this sign represents the still vivid feelings some local residents have over the original intent of Lakeview Drive and the change of plans that left this intent unfulfilled. To learn the story, see my blog post “Lakeshore, Goldmine, and Tunnel Bypass Trails, Aug. 8, 2012” in the Archive for September, 2012.
At the Noland Creek trailhead below Lakeview Drive, turn left to follow the old gravel road until it literally peters out at the water’s edge. The road’s grade change during this one-mile course is imperceptible, yet Noland Creek flows heartily. This trail section sticks close to the creek and crosses it four times on sturdy wooden bridges. These bright bridged openings contrast with the dim forested shade in between.
Nearing the lake, the road narrows, becomes grassy, and sidles next to the creek’s bank. A thin curtain of foliage separates mountain forest from impounded river. Parting that curtain, reveals different scenes at different times of year. In the fullness of summer, you would be met with lake water lapping at your feet. In winter, when the lake is in its drawdown mode, Noland Creek stretches itself a bit further downstream and the raw, muddy, rocky underbelly of a dammed river becomes exposed in glaring display on either side.
In late May, the lake is not yet full. A vertical slash of bedrock forms a stark linear border between the gray-brown water and lush green trees on the steep far side of Noland Creek. The trail side has something of a “beach” profile, sloping gently for several yards toward an abrupt bank climbing back into forest. This dirt beach is scoured clean annually with rising lake levels, leaving bare soil, open canopy, and little competition in winter and spring. Robust stands of a few herbaceous plants take early advantage before advancing water drowns their ambitions.
A slim footpath of dirt extends down the beach. Apparently, many people walk this way when the water level is low. Burned stubs of wood indicate an illegal campfire. Just upslope from the beach is a legitimate campsite, #66, accessible only by boat….in summer anyway. I see neither an obvious approach from the water nor a sign post, though these may be further down shore. Climbing the hillside, I find a rock fire ring and bear cables on sloping ground with a small opening through the trees to view the lake. When water levels are high, it might be a picturesque place to camp. Not so today, though someone must be here, as a full pack hangs from the cables. There are no other signs of habitation.
Back on the beach, there are scattered but dense stands of a plant 2-4 feet tall with alternate, narrowly lanceolate, toothed leaves. It has the gestalt of a goldenrod, but I honestly don’t know what it is. In between these stands, the ground is liberally sprinkled with a prolific annual, Canada Toadflax (Nuttallanthus canadensis). From a rosette of short leafy stems that splay on the ground, the sturdy flowering stems grow 20 inches and bear a raceme of tiny light blue flowers.
The lake level must have been lower a short time ago, as flowering stems emerge from the water, their leafy rosettes several inches below the surface, circled by tadpoles. Despite this location, Canada Toadflax is not a wetland species. I find a flowering stem protruding from a crack in the asphalt on Lakeview Drive 650 feet above the lake. It appears to be one tough, opportunistic cookie capable of tolerating a wide variety of conditions.
A small cascade marks the point where Noland Creek officially enters the lake. All semblance of its bubbly personality fades quickly. Within 50 yards, no flow is apparent, the surface smooth and quiet. An unmoving raft of woody debris and trash floats like a pall marking the death of this beautiful mountain stream.
Exiting the beach area, a sign faces the lake, nearly obscured in that veil of foliage, announcing the start of Noland Creek Trail and its divide destination 10 miles away. The creek’s waters dance and sing upon passing, unaware of the ignominious fate ahead.
The National Geographic map (Clingmans Dome/Cataloochee) notes a Quiet Walkway on Lakeview Drive a little more than a mile from Noland Creek on the way back to Bryson City. I looked for it when driving to Noland Creek and am scanning the roadside as I leave. There is a pull off and overlook in the general vicinity but no trail that I can find. It is either an error or the trail has been removed. All I find is that Canada Toadflax demonstrating a determination that bodes well for its continued success in a natural world increasingly muddled by humans.