“Welcome to Bear Country” that’s what the sign at the trailhead said. Along with copious warnings about bear/human encounters, and proper instructions for hanging a bear bag, the rangers in this area seemed to be implying that there was a black bear infestation in the Cohuttas. Undaunted by such warnings my hiking partner and I set out on an overnight hike to get away from the stresses of corporate America, relax, and enjoy nature. A bear encounter would be a welcome adventure compared to the mind numbing tedium of tending to the health of computers on a daily basis.
This adventure got started last week I got a call from my buddy Matt wanting to know when we could go backpacking. I had been complaining to my wife that I needed to get away so his call came at just the right time. With school out last week, and my weekends booked for the next month we decided to drive to the trailhead after I got off work Saturday night. We’d camp Saturday night, hike in Sunday, and hike out Monday. While this wasn’t an ideal trip, two days in the woods can do wonders for my emotional well being.
We were planning up until the very last minute. While I was working Saturday Matt was still trying to convince me that we should hike the Jack’s River Trail in the Cohutta Wilderness. This particular trail is 17 miles long and involves fording the Jack’s River 42 times. (A magic number to be sure) but certainly not an easy feat in two days. Maybe if we were both in excellent shape, but as you will see from the photos of the trip. Neither Matt, nor I are in what one might call ‘peak form’ (pun intended). It had also been more than a year since I’d done any backpacking. The closest I get most of the time is hauling my laptop across campus a couple of times a week. Nevertheless, Matt was determined to see Jack’s River Falls. I told him to keep looking and he eventually came across Beech Bottom Trail, a 4 mile hike, rated easy to moderate that culminates at Jack’s River Falls, and is the only trail in the cohutta that can get you to the falls without ever having to ford Jack’s River. Our plans were now set, this was the trail for us.
We drove to the trailhead Saturday night. This was an adventure in itself, because Matt decided to navigate with his new GPS. Unfortunately, while the GPS did give us a fairly direct route, it was along windy mountain roads and took us 4.5 hours. This would have taken us 2.5 hours on the less direct route that traverses the Interstate Highways in Georgia, rather than back roads. Because it was so late, and raining, when we got the trailhead we opted to sleep there. We tossed a tarp over the bed of my truck and slept there for the night.
The next morning we were eager to hit the trail. We packed up all our rain soaked gear and pulled on our packs. After becoming intimately familiar with the aforementioned bear advisories, we made short order of the trail, hiking the four miles to the confluence of Beech Creek and Jack’s River in just a couple of hours. The trail was easy, as advertised, and mostly level with only a few short, steep up- or down-hill grades. One of the nice things about hiking an easy trail, with a light pack, is that you spend more time walking upright, able to look around and observe. On more strenuous trails, especially when you’re out of shape, you tend to hunch over and stare at your feet. Our upright posture, though, gave us ample opportunity to enjoy the scenery. We even had plenty of time for a couple of stops to photograph blooming mountain laurel, and what we believe to be wild azalea. And while the bear warnings were constantly in the back of our minds, we did not see any signs of bears on this trail.
Just upstream of Jack’s River Falls, we found a nice flat spot that we thought would be a good place to camp. The area was obviously well traveled. In an obvious affront to the natural beauty, the rest of the area was littered with trash, including a wheeled suitcase which contained used propane bottles. The kind that run Coleman lanterns or stoves. I can’t imagine why anyone would carry so much stuff so far. Perhaps they expected to use the high powered lights as a bear deterrent, or they thought by scattering enough food around the area, that any hungry bears would get full before ever reaching their camp. Either way, they seemed to feel that the equipment had served it’s purpose and abandoned it. I imagine they made a choice between carrying a cooler full of beer or hauling the suitcase back to their car, the beer won out.
It was also evident that someone who had camped here recently had packed in a hatchet or ax and had recently felled several small trees. Their intention was to use these trees for firewood, but the discarded branches around the large stone altar that served as a fire ring told a story of disappointment in that regard. Clearly these cretins had never learned that green wood doesn’t burn very well.
We found a place that was relatively unpolluted and ditched our packs. Then continued the short walk to the falls.
This was one incredible waterfall! There are two cascades, the upper cascade spills someone smoothly into an emerald green pool cut into a rock shelf. From here the water plunges over the shelf to another pool at the bottom of the canyon below. The roar of the falls as you stand over them is deafening. I had to be within three feet of my hiking partner in order to hear him.
We spent at least an hour soaking in the splendor of the falls. I took over 100 photos. Unfortunately, I didn’t have it in me to carry the added weight of a tripod, so only about three of the photos were worth showing. (Once I’ve finished processing them, I will make them available for viewing). We might have stayed longer, but it started raining, and we had left our rain gear back in our packs. So we scrambled back to our packs and setup a tarp to provide a community shelter, and hang out under, while it rained.
With nothing else to do we decided to cook a hot lunch, and fired up the stove. When backpacking food is fuel. When you’ve hiked all morning and it’s now cool and rainy a hot meal can really stoke the furnace. It’s usually nothing special. At home I can barely choke down some of the freeze dried meals that I devour handily on the trail. This was no different, but provided just the boost I needed to compensate for the rough nights sleep in the back of a pickup.
After lunch the rain slowed to a trickle. I setup my hammock, and while testing it found a nice nap inside. Upon waking, I crawled out of my hammock and slipped on my boots again, and nearly fell over. Apparently I had strained, sprained, or pulled something in my ankle and could barely walk. My first aid kit always contains a compression bandage for just such occaisions. I have never needed one before, but was glad that I had never removed it to shave a few more ounces. I wrapped my foot with the bandage, and hobbled around camp the rest of the afternoon and evening. I was fine as long as I wasn’t putting any weight on it, but that wasn’t going work for the hike out.
The on and off rain made it difficult to do much of anything while in camp. We tried to make a fire, but the wood was so wet that it wouldn’t catch no mater what we tried, though we did manage to burn a lot of the paper trash that we found scattered around the area.
Around dark, I decided to crawl back in bed. I didn’t sleep very well the previous two nights, so I went to bed early in hopes of recharging and maybe healing my ankle. However, the ominous signs at the trail head about numerous bear encounters made for light sleep. Every little twig crack and rumble of thunder sounded like a scavenging bear. One of the things that black bears have learned is that food is often hung in trees low enough to the ground that they can usually reach it. Matt and I had properly hung all of our food, but I was sleeping in a nylon hammock and couldn’t suppress the recurring thought that I might resemble a poorly hung bear bag to a hungry bruin.
Despite these pervading thoughts I managed to sleep most of the night, unmolested by bears. Waking early in the morning to a cold breakfast of granola bars and Tang. My ankle wasn’t any better and I dreaded having to walk out knowing that every step was going to be painful. We packed up camp, I rewrapped my foot and took some Advil, and we headed out. The first half mile was excruciating, with shooting stabbing pain every time my boot hit the trail. At some point I became numb to the pain, and the rest of the trail passed in a pain educed blur.
As we neared the trailhead we passed a young couple that stopped to chat for a moment. They told us that this tail was going to be closed to camping as of June 1. We had seen the signs indicating this on our way in, and having seen the devastation that campers wreak on this area, it is no wonder why. The couple was also very interested to know whether we had seen any bears. The girl seemed quite relieved when we told her, regrettably (for us), we had not.