Photo of the Month: Ol' Gator Mouth

Photo of the Month: Ol' Gator Mouth

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Exploring Gone Wrong, Very Very Wrong

First stream where I caught a few

My recent urge to explore finally got me into trouble. I've had my eye on a remote tributary stream somewhere in East Tennessee that is hard to get to and finally got around to looking for it. When I say "looking for it," that is because there is no trail to the stream making the job much harder (at least, not by the most direct route). There's a very good reason for that however. There are two options for a trail, up and over a towering mountain (that's what it seemed like anyway) or along a steep sidehill where falling means ending up in a lake. Yeah, that's the hint of the day by the way but trust me, you don't want to go to this stream even if you figure out where it is.

I wandered the backroads to where I was planning to start hiking and parked the car. Another stream had already been visited and I was still in my wading attire. That was mistake #1, and #2 followed closely behind as I didn't switch to hiking shoes. Then again, I had yet to learn what I was getting myself into. As most of you are undoubtedly aware of, steep hills and felt wading boots don't mix well, especially when those hills are covered in leaves and pine needles.

My cheerful hike was soon in progress and I was making good time for about 100 feet when I made mistake #3. It stands to reason that it would be easier to just follow the contours instead of hustling up and over the ridge right? Wrong...and boy did I pay for it. Things started out pretty well as I found myself walking gingerly along a game trail that angled down towards the water's edge but then it just faded out. Of course, I knew better than to trust a "trail" like that, but hey, hope springs eternal.

Things began deteriorating a bit more rapidly from this point on. The sidehill got worse and worse and I was reduced to falling on my butt every 5-10 steps or so, sometimes much more. This continued for about a half a mile as I more and more cautiously worked my way around the mountain looming above me, always towards the promised land of fish that have never seen a fly. "It can't get any worse," I kept telling myself. It should be obvious by now that this was mistake #4 and things did indeed get worse.

About this time I realized that the extreme exertion it was taking to make any headway at all had resulted in an extreme case of thirst. I just knew that death from a lack of water (which I should have brought with me) was now stalking me if I didn't fall off the side of the mountain into the lake and drown first. This was mistake #5 and almost #6. Yet another game trail had presented itself and I was creeping along a mere 10-15 feet above the water which was quite deep at this point. Falling in would have resulted in swimming and probably for a long ways. Wearing waders and my vest meant this would be a huge problem. The goal then was clearly to NOT fall in. Did I mention mistake #5? The game trail literally shrank down to about 1 inch wide for a few feet before regaining the 4-5 inches that allowed slow progress. I was pretty sure I could make it because the other side was so close. Just one step on dangerous sidehill and then my other foot would be across and gaining traction on solid ground. I made the lunge and my foot flew out from under me.

As I tossed my fly rod up the hill away from danger, I glanced down and was reminded that there was NOTHING below me to stop me from falling into the water ...just a nice drop into oblivion. I flung my hand towards my last remaining hope and found myself hanging over the precipice by one arm and wondering how in the world I got myself into this predicament. The tree I was hanging onto was only about 2 inches in diameter, and I was hoping that it wouldn't pull out of the hill. With my other hand, I reached up and pushed my fly rod farther up the hill to avoid having it fall in the lake. Next, I put my rock climbing skills to good use, slowly and painfully pulling myself back up to my starting point. And I kept going... I was done inching along over the lake with every step taken in danger of falling in. Onward, ever onward I climbed until I found the remains of an old trail part way up the hill and foolishly pressed on towards my goal. This was mistake #6. I was exhausted and every step seemed to take the last bit of energy I had left. Nevertheless I pressed on until I found myself staring down towards my goal far below me. When I saw that the deep water continued on back even further and to reach the actual stream, I would have to climb down (and of course back up) an extremely steep hill, I decided that enough is enough. Disillusioned, I turned away and faced the mountain that was now between me and my car.

Incredibly I began to climb up, higher and higher until I felt completely exhausted. My thirst had reached an all new high and I felt the beginnings of heat exhaustain setting in. I started to feel naseauted and realized that I had to take a rest. Sitting down never felt so good and then I just reclined against the side of the mountain, glad to have a moment of peace in this torturous journey. After about 20 minutes, I felt able to keep moving and began inching on up the side of the mountain. Never in my life has reaching the top of a mountain felt so good. While I wasn't back to my car, I knew the worst part of the ordeal was over. If you're going downhill, at least you can just enter a half-crouch and slide down when the going gets too steep. When I stumbled back onto the road where I had left my car, I used my little remaining energy to unlock my car and latch onto a Nalgene that was full of life-giving water. Several minutes and a liter of water later, things were looking up and already I was plotting how to return. That will most likely be mistake #7 but on the other hand, I could find a hidden jewel of a trout stream.

This trek into the untamed wilds of Tennessee was the worst part of the day but it literally added insult AND injury TO injury. While fishing the previous stream that I had actually made it to, I stepped on a large flat rock that looked solid. It was covered with leaves and was basically level leading me into the dangerously incorrect assumption that it was fine to walk on. What I didn't notice was the spring on the upper end of the rock which had soaked the whole rock under the leaves and several steps into crossing, the whole mass of leaves decided to slide at once and I took The Fall. The resulting crash probably registered as an earthquake on one of the USGS seismographs and left me sore all over.

Rock where I took "The Fall"

Closeup of the slide zone from The Fall. Where you now see bare rock used to be completely covered in a blanket of leaves before I took the tumble...

And then the journey of agony happened, first around the mountain and almost into the lake and then back over the mountain...

When I woke up today, I felt like I had been hit by a freight train which is probably what it feels like to be a professional football player. This was one thing I never expected from the quiet sport... Yet, I still plan on going back...hopefully it will be worth my time!!!


  1. Anonymous8:12 AM

    It's good to see that you are working for your fish.

  2. Anonymous10:46 PM

    I've always treated fishing as a contact sport...I've done a lot of the same things, only I had the advantage of flat, swampy terrain; takes away the height risk, but then there's a whole other set of potential problems (snakes, gators, quicksand, etc). When I was in your position (in college), I used to explore a lot, looking for places where the bass had never seen a lure, and I found a few that were worth the risk. Funny thing is, here I am 20 years later, with three kids in tow, and I still have the itch to find places off the beaten path. There's a few places in the park that I want to check out - I might have to leave the kids at home for them.