Monday, January 20, 2014

Upper Chattahoochee

Dangit, everything didn't go as planned yesterday. I was hoping to go explore the far reaches of the Upper Chattahoochee with Clark and Suzy but the two of them had both come down with something the night before and couldn't make it.

No good!

In the end, it was probably just as well though. The Adventure turned out to be a little anticlimactic. They didn't miss all that much. I had an OK time and found some interesting things but nothing that would have been worth pushing through illness to experience.

When I got off of the phone with Clark I debated whether or not to just go meet my brother in Douglasville for some laps around Clinton. I've been exploring a lot lately and riding on the road during the week, but I could really use some solid miles on the mountain bike. I actually sat there thinking about it for a while. In the end, I'd gotten myself excited about running around in the "real woods" and decided it would disappointing if I didn't actually do that.

So, that's what I did.

The last time I was in the mountains-proper the weather was terrible. Today it was beautiful and as I made my way north I could even see the Blue Ridge in the distance.

Mountains in the Distance

Just seeing it like that made me smile.

I parked at the "No Camping Here" campground at the corner of FS44 and Martin Branch Road (whatever number that is), kitted up, jumped on the bike and headed north...


...along the scenic upper Chattahoochee River.

Upper Chattahoochee

It was fairly cold outside. Mid 30's. Not terrible, but cold enough for stalactice to be hanging off of the rocks on the side of the road.


They were dripping furiously though. I wondered if they would still be there when I rode back through later.

Just north of there the forest started to look really foreign. A tornado had ripped through either last year or the year before and so completely covered the road with downed trees that it took weeks to open back up. Apparently I hadn't been up that way since and man, was it apparent. In the past, the forest really felt like it was closing in on you. Like you were riding in a deep, green tunnel. Not any more. From a bend in the road above the game check station, I could actually see the river, not to mention the game check station itself.

Game Check Station Amid Tornado Damage

The damage was impressive. Trees were just splintered everywhere. I can only imagine what it must have looked like right after. I guess there is a silver lining though: beautiful views. I've never been able to see so far before. As devastating as a tornado can be, I guess that one wasn't without some small reward.

At Low Gap Creek I stayed straight, rode through the campground, forded the creek itself...

Low Gap Creek Ford

...and began the day's first Adventure.

If you google "Low Gap Creek" you'll eventually find a link to The Riverkeepers Guide to the Chattahoochee, a reference to Low Gap Creek Falls and a description of how to find it. I'd never heard of Low Gap Creek Falls before but I intended to follow the directions and discover this semi-obscure natural wonder for myself.

FS44A bends to the left at the start of the trail to the falls, and there's a giant pile of strange old concrete barriers (or strange old concrete something) at the bend...

Old Concrete Barriers

...and a few more highway-style barriers to the right.

Downstream a few of the highway-style barriers line the edge of the creek, presumably to help stabilize it. I'm not sure what these were used for but they don't appear to be stabilizing anything. In fact, they don't appear to have been used at all for a long time.

I shouldered the bike, proceeded around the barriers and followed the the trail beyond.

There was a campsite just upstream but whoever built the last fire there needs to go to campfire school or something.

Incorrect Campfire

Generally people burn wood. I imagined them sitting around the fire, swearing in frustration. "It's so cold but nothing will burn! It won't burn! Why won't it burn!" Heh. All joking aside though, I'll bet that alcohol was involved in the decision-making process that led to piling the metal frame of a pop-up tent and a full bottle of detergent onto the fire.

I stashed the bike just past the campsite and continued upstream.

Bike Stash

The trail quickly became a "trail" and if the description in the riverkeepers guide hadn't mentioned that it involved a steep scramble though some rhododendron, I'd have thought that the trail ended right there. I really had to use my imagination to decide how to proceed, but my imagination paid off, and when it flattened out again, I could see the trail, plain as day. I followed it further, through the remnants of an older, long-abandoned campground and ultimately along an old roadbed which was a little confusing. Given the steep backslope I'd just scrambled along, how could there be a road beyond it?

At the confluence with England Camp Branch, the directions said I should cross the creek. In fact, there was a newish-looking pink ribbon hanging from a tree in the distance. Perhaps I should cross there.

The creek was deep and really rushing. It was also about 35 degrees outside. I was comfortable though, wearing warmish clothes - my Reality kit, a sleeveless base layer, arm and knee warmers... But I really didn't want to soak my feet and ride around with frozen toes for the rest of the day.

But wait!


I'd discovered last year, and confirmed running around Gunby Creek the day before, that even if it's really-freaking cold, those barefoot running shoes I have drain so well that they can get totally soaked and then be warm and dry-ish minutes later. Since they're so light, I'd long considered bringing them with me on bike rides rather than tromping around in my bike shoes, and yesterday I'd done just that! Ha! Planning!

Crossing the creek was easy and as expected, minutes later my feet were comfortable despite the cold.

Wet Feet


I'm going to have to do that more often.

Whoever put that pink ribbon up either didn't put it up to mark the place to cross the creek, or put it up to fool people into having a hard time crossing the creek.

On the other side, it appeared that somebody had recently tromped around trying to figure out where to go and given up, but there was no indication of a path upstream.

There was, of course, as there always is in the deepest recesses of the forest, a mylar balloon.

Mylar Balloon

And there was also this weird bent-up iron rod, of unknown purpose and origin, sticking out of the ground.

Weird Bent Iron Rod

I noodled over that rod for a while. It was heavy and driven into the ground, but only loosely. Was it some primitive tent stake from eons ago? Was it somehow related to logging? Hmmm...

The directions in the Riverkeepers guide say to follow the east bank of Low Gap Creek, so pink-ribbon-be-damned, I crossed over to that side, and voila, a clear trail on an old roadbed, which, as it appeared, once forded the creek just downstream from the confluence. If I hadn't been distracted by the ribbon, I'd have probably noticed it.

It appeared that my adventuring skills were as rusty as my bike-handling skills.

I quickly discovered the first cascade.

Low Gap Creek Falls Cascade 1

The trail appeared to end there but I imagined that I saw a scramble leading on, benched into the backslope, about the width of one shoe. I followed it and the further I went, the more apparent it was. The second cascade would have taken a lot of work to get much closer to than this.

Low Gap Creek Falls Cascade 2

The scramble appeared to end just downstream from the third cascade.

Low Gap Creek Falls Cascade 3

No amount of imagination revealed a path leading further.

That said though, looking back at it now, the description of the falls implied that it was larger than that first cascade that I saw, and there are a few videos on youtube and vimeo of the falls and it doesn't look like any of my photos. Maybe there is a larger cascade further upstream. Maybe that second cascade that I didn't bother to get too close to is the main cascade. Maybe my adventuring skills are just rustier than I thought.

At the time, I was satisfied though and made my way back downstream. This time, to get back to my bike, I made an effort to follow the old roadbed rather than the trail. The old road crossed the creek twice more and deposited me right at the bend in FS44A where I'd started.

For the record, it is infinitely easier to get to the falls by following the old road, rather than following the trail. Infinitely. You have to get your feet wet either way. You might as well just cross the creek 3 times than divine your way through the rhododendron.

Oh yeah, on the way back, I saw more gnarly ice-formations.

Cool Icicles

Weird. You don't see that every day.

Annnd... Fortune delivered me the potential origin of that weird bent iron rod.

Possible Source of Weird Bent Iron Rod

It looked identical to the rods projecting from either end of the concrete barriers. They're supposed to be eyelets but they get bent all to hell. I'm pretty sure the one I found was once embedded in one of these barriers. The next question, of course, is how did it get way upstream? Maybe that old roadbed isn't as old as it looks, or maybe these barriers are a lot older.

Who knows? Who cares? Probably only me. Moving on...

I retrieved my bike, dried off my feet with my handy little camp towel (which I'd also had the foresight to bring), changed shoes and headed on up the road to my next destination, the old apple orchard.

Old Apple Orchard

Old hand-drawn WMA maps refer to that food plot as an apple orchard.

There are no apples there now, nor have there been for as long as anyone can remember, but there is something else interesting up there, or at least something that was interesting to me yesterday.

Like 10 years ago or more I heard tale of a mountain biker who'd grown up near Helen, left in the early '90's and then moved back 10 or 15 years later to find the singletrack section of the loop that he used to ride still semi-ridable but inundated with downed trees to the extent that he gave up and rode elsewhere. He was soliciting opinions on what might have happened to the trails and how likely they were to be re-opened. His description was a little difficult to follow but having been all the way up 44C myself, sounded familiar and implied that a trail system continued on beyond the old apple orchard. The rest of the discussion involved warning the guy that the land back there had been declared Wilderness sometime in the '90's and that he would be ill advised to ride a bike there, not to mention cutting out deadfall, but that some other old-timers had ridden or hiked those trails way back and that they eventually came out on Jasus Creek.

This piqued my interest and in 2011 or 2012 (I can't remember which now) I found the old roadbed leading away from the food plot. Looking at the map, I could imagine it sidehilling below the ridge and joining right up with the road that leads to the northwestern-most food plot off of Jasus Creek, several miles away. At the time though, I had no interest in walking what looked like 6 miles or more out and back in bike shoes.

Fast-forward to yesterday, running shoes in tow, I was more than ready to walk 6 miles out and back in them.


Instead of sidehilling below the ridge like I'd expected, the trail dove straight down to some creek, then went straight back uphill to a ridge, only to dive down off of it too, cross Low Gap Creek confusingly and eventually emerge at a different food plot off of Jasus Creek than the one I thought it would. It wasn't just one trail either, it was really a combination of several. I can't imagine it would have ever been all that much fun to ride. Challenging maybe - brutal climbing with short, steep descents that you can't keep any speed from into the next climb - but not fun by today's standards. It wasn't all that much fun to hike even.

The one interesting thing though... Down on Low Gap Creek there was a broken old moonshine jug and evidence that vehicles had once driven down there and pulled off to the side. Further up the road, it was clear that people used to drive around the Kelly Humps blocking the road and more had to be built to stop them. It would have been a good place for a still. Secluded and obscure but still accessible, and right down on a clean stream fed from the wilderness. Who knows though? I could just have a vivid imagination.

So it wasn't 6 miles out-and-back. More like 2, and I unexpectedly still had the bulk of the day ahead of me. I changed shoes, got back on the bike, spun around Jasus Creek, rode out to the food plot that I'd expected that other trail to tee into, changed shoes again and walked all over the place up there.

It would seem to be my destiny to eventually discover all lost balloons.

Another Mylar Balloon

Heading back I caught a glimpse of Mount Yonah in the distance.

Yonah in the Distance

The second half of Jasus Creek was a lot of fun. Being mostly downhill, I was able to get nice and comfortable tear-assing on gravel again.

Tornado damage abounded up that way too, with the same unexpectedly beautiful side effect as below.

Yonah Closer But Still in the Distance

It looked like a bit of logging had been done up there recently too. There were several new-looking food plots.

After a short climb on 44, I was able to do even more tear-assing on gravel, almost all the way back to the car.

So the Adventure was a mixed bag...

I got to see a new waterfall, but I'm not sure it was really the waterfall proper that I saw. I'll have to look into that. Maybe there's fuel there for future exploration.

The trails up above the old apple orchard weren't as interesting as I'd hoped, especially given the effort and complexity involved in exploring them.

Bringing the barefoot shoes along was a tremendous success though. Stash the bike and walk around in comfort for hours. Soak your feet in freezing water! Who cares, it doesn't matter! Dry off and change back into the bike shoes later. Woohoo! The only thing that was a little disappointing with the shoes... They don't grip super-well. They're "running shoes" but not "trail shoes" so I slipped a bit when it was really steep and leafy. Somehow I hadn't noticed that before yesterday. Maybe it had never been as steep or leafy before.

Ripping gravel roads isn't the same as ripping singletrack but it's a good step and it was a lot of fun to take.

I did see some wildlife... Lots of turkeys. Actually, I saw a bunch in the woods and then even more on the drive home. I saw endless deer on the way home too, including two that crossed the road IN Helen, right by the Hofbrauhaus. Deer everywhere. I didn't see a bear though, despite being in a part of the forest with a particularly high concentration of them. So that was a little disappointing.

All-in-all, I'd give this Adventure a C. Maybe a C+. It was, OK. Definitely worth having done, but not something you'd be too upset to have missed.

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