Thursday, May 24, 2012

Pink Knob

It was forever ago that I did this. The memory has nearly faded. I hope I remember it correctly.

Life has been that way lately. Either I've got nothing to do or I've got more work than I can get done. Throw in bad weather and illness and it's enough to drive a person crazy.

I guess it was about two weekends ago that we got bad weather and I ran around lower Bear Creek and drove around in The Great Unknown to the east of there. The following Monday I didn't want to do anything but drive back up there and do it again. Monday, I had too much to do. On Tuesday though, I was blocked, waiting for input, and I did what any good nerd would do: a context switch - to the Pink Knob area.

I parked off of Zion Hill Road, way up at the top, at the gate of an old defunct FS road and started walking north.

The last time, I'd driven to the very end, where I was blocked by private property ahead. The old road continued left but it didn't look inviting in the rain.

Turns out I made the right call. Rain aside, I wouldn't have gotten far if I'd turned left.

 Old East Mountaintown Creek Road

I've seen roads that are further below grade than that, but not many.

Further up, the situation improved somewhat and there was even an old FS-looking pipe gate.

 Old East Mountaintown Creek Road Gate

The gate was flanked with comforting red stripes as well.

It's always nice to be assured that you're on public land. There had been signs and fences to my right and it seemed clear where it was ok to be, but you never know. Just because it's not fenced in or signed doesn't mean it's public land. Per Georgia law, it's not strictly illegal to cross private land unless you know you're not supposed to, but landowners seem to do what they feel justified in doing on their land and whether that falls in line with the law or not is more a matter of chance than choice.

The USGS map showed two roads, one leading around some now-defunct lakes and another leading further up into the unknown. In fact though, there was a bit of a maze back there. There was plenty of evidence that people frequented these parts...


...but it wasn't immediately clear which ways they usually went.

I'd hoped to take the road off into the unknown, and it could have been any of the half dozen overgrown spurs to the left but the route most travelled seemed to lead more northeast than that and I divined my way forward, following what seemed to be the way people tended to go.

Eventually I figured it all out.

Zion Hill Road (or Old East Mountaintown Creek Road) more or less followed the creek and there was a circle off of it to the west with several spurs off of that. People, it seemed, tended to follow the main road and occasionally camped off of the circle.

The main road ahead was wide, clear, not terribly well worn, recently at least, but worn in well enough to follow.

It alternated between perfect, bench cut sidehill...
 Nicer Trail

...and the ugliest ridge runs of all time.

 A Little Below Grade

It looked like they only cut sidehill when the ridge got too steep to follow directly though. That's old school.

Man, how old is this road?

It looked like a significant road. In several places it had gotten braided as old routes were abandoned and rerouted, several times. It was so below grade in some places that it had to have been bulldozed, over and over. The surrounding forest was wide open with huge trees and little brush. It might have been as easy to walk through the open woods as along the trail. I always wonder about old roads like this. Was it really just an old logging road or was it a turnpike connecting communities or regions? There was certainly a logging network lower down, but if the upper reaches had ever been logged, it was a very long time ago.

I've occasionally wondered what would happen if a road that had become too deeply trenched to navigate was just abandoned in place. Would it continue to erode forever? Would it ever heal? I've seen only short little examples of such abandoned roads before so I could never be sure that they were representative.

I had plenty of research opportunities that day though. The road had every problem I've ever seen, in bulk, and it had clearly been abandoned for a very long time.

So it looks like the road does keep eroding, but without traffic to clear the duff, leaves eventually build up and trap the sediment. This game of give and take must go on for years before it reaches an equilibrium. In some spots, bare rock is eventually exposed. In others, even the chunkiest ruts get filled in. In the end, all that's left is the a big, smooth, rounded U, easily mistaken for a dry prong by the casual observer. In fact, I'd bet that the process that obscures a dried up creekbed is very similar.

Trail science aside though, I saw several more interesting things.

A black racer:

 Black Racer

A can of red paint:

 Paint Can

I think this was the can of paint used to mark trees along the NF border. It looked like somebody realized they were running out of paint too and tried to use it all up because The marks got larger and closer together until, right before I found the can, literally every other tree was marked for several hundred yards.

There was also a fire newt;

 Fire Newt

It's been a while since I've seen one of those. They never look real to me.

I also saw several deer which acted weird, running away one at a time, with several seconds in between them rather than all at once.

Somewhere in there I was approaching an old culvert and a gigantic snake fled into it. I didn't recognize it at all. It was glossy, brownish grey and probably an inch and a half in diameter. I immediately thought of a worm snake but this would be the biggest worm snake of all time. Probably not a smooth earth snake for the same reason. It could have been a red bellied water snake, as it was in water, and in the right size range, but I couldn't see its head or belly and I wasn't brave enough to try to dig it out.

I think I saw more pileated woodpeckers than ever before in my life too. They were everywhere. It's the only bird I remember seeing and I saw them all day.

Up near the top there was a ton of Mountain Laurel:

 Mountain Laurel

I knew I was nearing the top, but I wasn't exactly sure what it was the top of, exactly? Surely the ridge of Pink Knob, but where along that ridge? Which gap? The likeliest candidate was Sassafrass as it was the only named gap up there and I hadn't seen any spurs, other than braiding, since I'd gotten up out of the habitated zone. Plus it sort-of seemed like that's where I'd been headed. I wanted to be sure though.

As I approached the actual top, it got very overgrown all of a sudden and I couldn't see anything. I knew I was in the right place though because someone had tied a small ribbon around a branch, marking the way.

The road continued downhill from there though and eventually I got to a spot where I could sort-of see Flat Top through the trees. It took a while to be sure but, yeah, I'd come through Sassafrass and I was headed somewhat northeast, probably down towards Jack's River.

There was another old road to the right but the one I was on continued straight and I followed it. Unfortunately I think the other was is the direction people usually go. The direction I went cleared occasionally but not to the extent that I wouldn't classify the trail, in general, as overgrown. It might be less so in the winter, but it was mostly hemlock and rhodo, so probably not all that much. As I got further down off the mountain a logging network materialized. Near the very bottom the road joined a creek and didn't diverge for another 100 yards. Not 100 yards after that though, it teed into a gloriously clean trail.

Could this be the fabled Jack's River Road?

 Jacks River Trail

I say fabled because I'd heard word of it from several equestrians and the USGS maps show a road leading up along Jack's River, but I'd never seen it myself.

It was certainly in the right place to be Jack's River Road. I followed it downstream and indeed, it soon became a road.

 Jacks River Road

The trail part was very interesting though, and it points out something that we've been talking about lately in the CoTrails group....

The National Forest is shot through with trails that aren't part of any authorized trail system, so many that they will eventually need to be mapped and assessed. A small few were intentionally created but the vast majority probably formed the same way the authorized trails did - people just continued to use old roadbeds on foot or horse (and later on bikes) long after they were decommissioned as roads. Why they were never integrated or formally closed has been lost to history.

With a few notable exceptions, the vast majority of the trails that I've found have fairly clear corridors and appear to get some amount of traffic, but don't appear to be causing an unacceptable level of environmental impact. I say "an unacceptable level" rather than "any" because all forest use has some impact. A bear walking through the woods has _some_ impact. The very existence of the trail might count as _some_ impact. Still though, the impact of most of these trails is really low.

However, for the most part, these trails are protected by their obscurity alone. Many lie in the least sustainable locations - along a ridge, up a fall line, on an old trenched out roadbed, etc. If they got materially more traffic they would degrade, but as they are, whatever traffic they're getting doesn't present a problem.

Such was the case with Jack's River Road. At first glance, it looked like a hiking trail, or maybe more like upper Mountaintown Creek Trail - open and travelled, but still pretty wild. Later though, in the one soft spot, I noticed hoof prints. So, this trail gets some amount of horse traffic. Given it's proximity to Jacks River Campground, and the fact that I heard about it from a couple of different equestrians, this didn't surprise me. But the condition, compared to what I'm used to seeing from a horse trail, was very surprising.

What should the USFS do about this trail? From an impact perspective, at least from what I saw, there's no reason to close it. There's no good punitive reason to close it either as it wasn't user-created per se, any more than any of the system trails were, and the people who use it aren't breaking any law except possibly trimming brush and deadfall, which I could understand would be an issue if one were attempting to establish a new trail, but not on an already established trail. If it were incorporated into the system though, it would need work to support the increased level of traffic it would get, possibly destroying the wild character of the trail. I could probably name dozens of trails in this same situation. I'd say that the majority of non-system trails are like that. What to do? What to do?

What to do?

So I'd heard about the road, but further up I discovered something I hadn't ever heard about.

 Mt. Gillead Church Pavillion

 Jacks River School Monument

 Jacks River School Cross

There was a school here!

That means there was a community here! With kids! Enough kids to need a school! The school had to be close enough for them to walk to.

Jeez, I'll bet the South Fork Trail was just part of Jacks River Road once and there was a community stretched out along the South Fork between the river and the road. I wonder if it stretched all the way to Bethlehem. Heck, it could have gone even further. I wonder if any old chimneys remain. Man, I wonder.

In all that excitement, I'd kind of lost track of time. I don't remember now what time it was, but I remember that when I checked, I knew that I had to make some decisions. I remember sitting down on a rock across from where Jacks River Road and FS64 meet and thinking about it.

I still wanted to find that old road that led from Zion Hill over Alaculsy Gap, down into the general Mountaintown Creek area. On the Zion Hill side, if it was one of the spurs I'd seen, it was really overgrown. Who knows what it would be like on the other side. The forest surrounding Mountaintown is fairly clear though, I remembered that.

An ambitious plan was coming together.

If it existed, I had a decent chance of finding the road on the Mountaintown side and it had a good chance of being somewhat clear. If I didn't find it, I'd descend to Dyer Creek and try to find the old road that should lead northeast from there. Worst case, I'd have an extended bushwhack over the ridge but it should put me back almost directly at my truck. Absolute worst case it would get dark but I'm not incompetent in the dark. Though this is bear country...

I remember thinking: "I'd better march."

And I did.

Past the inviting-looking Jack's River Campground where Norma and Johnny and I camped during the TNGA...
 Jacks River Campground

...past a pipe that I'd never noticed before (I'll have to tell the TNGA'ers about that one)...

 Water Source

...past a Ringneck Snake playing dead in the road.

 Ringneck Snake

It was lying on its back and after studying it a minute, I flipped it back over to see what it was. It looked unharmed, and it was moving! It slowly flipped itself back upside down. Ha! I'd heard that Hognose snakes do that but not ringnecks. Awesome!

"I am dead."

"No you're not, you're moving."

"Yes, but see, I'm upside down again, and therefore dead."

"Ahh, I see sir, I was mistaken, you are in fact dead. I guess I'll leave you alone then, for there is no value except in a living snake."

Such is the mental dialogue between this snake and something that might eat it. I don't know offhand what eats a snake. I know a Honey Badger eats a Cobra. What eats a ringneck? A Hawk? I don't know.

I was making really good time and I was about to cut off over a mile of walking. A side road led to a food plot which led to a trail running down the ridge on the east side of Buddy Cove which eventually led to what at first appeared to be nothing more than a game trail. I had to crouch to follow it but it was clearly a trail.

Eventually I discovered evidence that it had probably once been something more significant.


Every 20 yards or so a tree lay across the trail. The surrounding woods was extremely scrubby. Somebody had logged out the ridge and left these trees behind for some reason. Maybe they didn't totally clear cut it and dropped these trees to close this end of the old road. I could imagine them doing that, as the hillside had started to get precipitously steeper and steeper there. Then, suddenly the whole character of the forest changed. Small trees with dense scrub between them gave way to big, fat trees on wide centers with rocks and dirt and a whole lot of nothing between them. If that part of the woods had ever been logged, it was a lot longer ago than the part I'd just been through.

And then I saw it, lying right there ahead of me - the Mountaintown Creek Trail.

 Mountaintown Creek Trail

The most highly contested piece of National Forest real estate in Georgia. "Destroyed by mountain bikers!" "Completely blown out, top to bottom!" as clearly evidenced in this photo. Actually, there are a few bad sections but nothing _that_ bad.

The road at the bottom is private so you have to ride or hike it as an out-and-back, and it's a strenuous climb on a bike. The USFS has been trying to figure out what to do about it for years. Rumor was that Sorba asked folks not to ride the trail until the decision was made but that was back in 2009. I last rode it in 2008. The trail is great but I haven't been sufficiently motivated to climb it yet. I hope somebody makes a decision soon, I'm kind of antsy to ride it again now.

If I walked 100 feet down the trail it would have been a lot. I was looking for a side trail leading up the first cove on my left and I found one almost immediately.

It looked like I wasn't the only one who'd found it though.

 Pants and Shoes

Those are neoprene shoe covers and pants used for standing in freezing cold water all day whilst fly fishing.

I guess the guy was hiking out and they fell off his backpack or something. Man, can you imagine getting back and realizing you lost them? That would suck. I imagine that's what happened. They didn't look like they were in the kind of shape that they would have been abandoned on purpose, although something did appear to have gnawed on the neoprene after the fact.

It goes without saying that I found a mylar balloon.

 Blue Balloon

They are more common in the forest than deer.

The trail kind of more-or-less went the way I thought it should. Up, on the left of the creek, sort of east. But before long it didn't look right. I hadn't checked the map or the compass or the GPS in a while and I wasn't going the right way. Without any points of reference, the average person will end up walking in circles in the woods. Apparently I will too, even with plenty of points of reference and a map and a compass and a GPS. I ended up at Crenshaw Gap on FS64, right where I'd been a half hour earlier. I'd walked up Crenshaw Branch. I needed to be one more cove south of where I was. How'd I miss that? Well, at least I got to explore that trail too.

I was really behind schedule now though and I sure hoped the trail I was looking for existed.

The drop back to Mountaintown was quick. It always seems shorter the second time, especially when it's downhill. The trail I wanted actually should tie in at Crenshaw Branch, just south of it, not north, and it should bend around and lead up a different cove, to Brushy Gap. I looked carefully where I thought it should intersect but I didn't see anything. I mean, nothing even vaguely old-road-like. But then a little further south I saw the road, notched into the hillside, to my left. I backtracked again and used my imagination. If I wanted to get up on that road and there was no brush here, how would I do it, in a vehicle. Nothing. It didn't make any sense, but that was the road I needed to be on so I took it. It led both directions. To the north it appeared to bend around and lead up into Crenshaw Cove, without intersecting Mountaintown at all. What?

It also looked somewhat clear and travelled. Light traffic, but there was a clear trail on the old roadbed.

 Alaculsey Gap Trail

I headed south. A little while later I spied a chunky, rutted connector leading down to Mountaintown. So apparently back when they were roads, they used to connect to each other, but it was an afterthought. Neither spurred directly off of the other. Strange.

This strangeness baked my noodle. I wished I had time to see where it went to the north but I had no time for this. I marched south, with a purpose.

I watched the compass more carefully though and once again the trail appeared to diverge from the direction I expected it to take. Fortunately, this time it was still going where I hoped it would. I need to get the MyTopo layer working again on my trails site though because the Google terrain layer can be a little confusing. I arrived at Brushy Gap, thinking I was on a little spur thing north of it and briefly took a wrong turn before discovering my folly. I guess I can't be totally faulted though, as the line on the USGS maps is wrong and I wasn't sure exactly where I'd diverged from it.

Back on track, I crossed a couple of creeks, found another balloon...

 Silver Balloon

And again diverged, though less confusingly this time, from the USGS line. When I arrived at Alaculsy Gap I realized where I was and the trail ahead was as clear as ever.

In fact, it looked like a while ago, the trail had been maintained to some extent.

 Maintained for Foot Traffic
It looked like a long time ago though.

From Alaculsy Gap the road led straight down the ridge. It was largely below grade and had at least two reroutes but it followed the path exactly described on the USGS and there was a clear, well defined trail on the old road until the very bottom. Within 100 feet or so of the end, the trail became substantially more overgrown and it was weird because I only saw one side trail higher up and definitely didn't see a more well defined route leading off that way.

At the end, it teed into a somewhat complex set of side trails before dumping me out on the circle off of Old East Mountaintown Creek Road.

This made so little sense to me that I'm still wondering about it. This was as significant trail, over two miles long, with very few spurs, joining two significant valleys but at the bottom end it lay overgrown and anonymous, off of a spur of a spur of a circle of what used to be the main road up East Mountaintown Creek, and on the other, only a rough connector tied it in to the main road up Mountaintown Creek. It would be like if the only way to get on Hwy 400 from I-85 in Atlanta was to drive through the back of an old housing project.

Maybe I'm missing something, but it seemed a little unusual.

Haha! Success though. I made it out of the woods and back to my car with daylight to spare.

On the way down the mountain I passed a black bear mother and cub. I first mistook them for dogs. The property just south of where I parked is home to two gigantic rottweilers that chase you along their fenceline as you drive by. I thought maybe they'd gotten out, but no, it was bears. I really scored on the wildlife.
I can't even remember what I ate or the rest of the evening at all. All I remember is that between then and now I've had to work a punishing amount and contracted a not-terrible-but-still-not-enjoyable stomach virus, and between the two have barely slept for a week and a half.

It's no good. I hope next week will be better.

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