Monday, April 10, 2017

Chasin' Waterfalls

I was tangled up in one of those moments when you find yourself somewhere you're not sure you should even be.  Every limb was moored to the earth by cable-tough rhododendron.  My eyes stung from sweat.  Abrasions on my face stung from sweat.  My legs were drained hollow from hours of bushwhacking through the thickest backcountry the Red River Gorge could muster.  And I knew...deep in my bones I knew, in the forefront of my brain I knew, and in the sweat-stinging weak-legs exhausted- mind reality I inhabited at that moment...knew I had to keep moving.  The only other option was to sit down and die. 
That sounds like melodrama--and for the purposes of this post it is--but it was the truth.  Only under my own power was I going to get out of the predicament I had bushwhacked myself into.  If I stopped where I was the likelihood that anyone would find me before I expired was pretty slim.  Nigh as can be to impossible.
There was only one direction to go as well--forward. I'd had the help of gravity to get me into the snarled and chaotic pit of deadfall hell I'd found myself in.  To turn back would be to climb up through maybe a quarter of a mile of the worst of it.  The blind determination of youth had driven me down off of Osborne Bend looking for a shortcut back to the car.  I'd chosen a likely drainage and committed.  I'd failed once again to reach the magnificent promontory I'd seen overtowering Gladie Creek and was in retreat.  In the end I would not be able to reach the place I had come to refer to in my head as "Valhalla" by hiking out the featureless ridges from the Douglas Trail.  In the end I had to tackle it head on in a vertical two hundred foot bushwhack.  But that victory was still months hence.
As I sagged into the rhodo, chest heaving, eyes burning, limbs limp, I felt doubly defeated.  I laughed at my predicament; never for a second considering I wouldn't make it out of the woods whole and happy.  And as my breathing returned to normal I heard a sound: waterfall.
I gathered the shattered remnants of my ego and body out of the undergrowth and crawled forward, downstream, toward the growing sound.  Ahead of me I saw the stream disappear into space, and I stood erect, moved out to the edge of a small cliff and looked down.  It was a fifteen foot cascade down a mini-amphitheater.  I looked for a good way down and past this new obstacle but there was just more rhodo and deadfall all around.  My only choice was to continue surfing the undergrowth around and down past the fall.  And so I set about making my slow and incremental progress toward civilization. 
Looking back at the waterfall from below I was impressed but exhausted.  I stood in the ankle deep water, chest still heaving, body growing ever more weary, and my mind not even able to motivate the arms to drag out the cheap point-and-shoot camera to capture the scene.  With slumped shoulders I turned and began walking downstream.  As the sound of the waterfall behind me faded another sound began to grow.  It was deeper.  It was heavier.  And after a few more steps I realized I was coming upon the top of another waterfall.  It was definitely bigger.
As the lip came into view I saw nothing but an empty space in the forest beyond.  Water rushed over bare sandstone toward the precipice before disappearing into the void below.  I inched forward; mindful of my footing on the wet rock as I neared the edge.
A long way below my feet I saw an emerald green pool of water, a sand beach, and I felt the empty air under me.  I was standing on the lip of a deep rockhouse and the waterfall tumbled forty? fifty? a hundred feet? to the pool below.  I didn’t think it was a hundred.  Later I would look at the topo map and the contours indicated a forty foot vertical change in that location.  I figure its somewhere between fifty and sixty in reality.  But as I stood on the lip of the falls looking down I was both eager to find a way past the obstacle to see it in its full glory and also despondent that perhaps I had found my dead end for the day and the reality of backtracking through rhododendron hell was settling into my bones where it burned like poison. 
I decided all there was to it was to pick a side and walk the cliff until I found a weakness.  Somehow I did and then backtracked through more rhodo to the stunning cove where the waterfall plunged into its picturesque pool.  It was worth expending a little energy to drag out the camera and try to capture the dim late day scene. 
I lingered as long as my bedazzled mind would allow before the needs of my depleted body drove me toward the road, my car, and a waiting cheeseburger or three at Dairy Queen in Stanton.  The two mile hike down the creek was still an obstacle course of deadfall, rhododendron, numerous creek crossings, and boulder hopping.  Finally, after a long and grueling journey I returned to the car and drove out of the Red River Gorge toward the comforts of civilization.  I could not wait to go back and revisit that waterfall.  From below the next time though!  Over the next few years I would revisit Copperas Creek Falls a handful of times and bemoaned each new bit of evidence proving that people were finding the waterfall. 

Soon after my first visit I returned with one of my cousins who was into hiking and shared it with him.  I finally got some decent photos that day, and as I turned from my camera and tripod I looked up to see him carving his name in the stone at the back of the deep rockhouse.  Throwing off my normal aversion to confrontation I called him out, angrily asking what the hell he was doing.  He just grinned sheepishly but had no real explanation for what he'd done.

I made a pact with myself to never again take someone unworthy to visit the site.  And to my word as far as I can remember I only took one other friend and then later my girlfriend Mandy who later became my wife. 
This past Sunday afternoon Mandy and I took the kids to Copperas Creek Falls.  The trail is well worn now.  The first half looks like a trail from a national park to some iconic overlook or vista.  We passed numerous hiking parties.  Most were large groups with dogs, kids, and smoking cigarettes or talking loudly.  When we finally reached the waterfall the couple hiking in front of us parked themselves on a boulder right next to the base of the waterfall and stayed there for a long time.  I just wanted one unspoiled photo…sigh.  Being patient paid off and I got my shot, but within a few minutes after the place was crowded with people frolicking in the icy cold water and their raised voices echoing off of the surrounding stalwart sandstone walls.
Writing about these experiences is bittersweet.  On one hand I love to share these kinds of places with the world.  This is my reality.  This is where I grew up and the insides of my soul are shaped like the canyons and ridges of the Red River Gorge.  It’s left a deep impression upon on my spirit.  But then I see that this place has become a token experience for so many.  The hike is not trivial, but the tramp of so many feet has made it accessible.  The lure was cast on the internet with so many photos of the place and exact descriptions of the route to get there.  Too many now know about this special place for it to be special like it once was.  I’ve seen this happen with so many places in the Gorge: Indian Staircase, Cloudsplitter, Hanson’s Point, and so many arches and overlooks throughout. 
The Gorge was never my personal playground.  But it felt much more personal before the internet-spawned hordes, before detailed maps, and online forums where people could feed their uncertainty until they just absolutely knew where to go before setting out. 
I have to admit as we rode home I felt despair.  It feels like the Gorge has changed and continues to change and won’t go back to the way it was.  I tried to gently correct someone on social media a while back who was applying a known climbing crag name to a place in a different part of the Gorge.  I finally got to the point where I was being somewhat of a dick and implying: I know what I’m talking about, stop arguing with me!  
And so as we hiked up and down Copperas Creek passing the groups: with and without with dogs on leashes, hipsters, rednecks, Trump supporters, treehuggers, college kids, and SAR wanna-bes along the way.  I question why I would want to bring more people to the area.  I question if building mountain bike trails in the Gorge is a good idea.  Should I be putting on an event to draw more people to this place I love?  Should I be writing about it?  Or should I accept change as a normal part of life and accept it?
I did note that despite an increase in traffic I saw little garbage on the way to the waterfall.  While there are two big campsites that have been worn down that weren’t there the last time Mandy and I bushwhacked up Copperas Creek they don’t look like the denuded sites along Pinch Em Tight or Auxier Ridge.  But how long will it take before they do?
What I take away from this post myself (and rarely do I feel so differently at the end than when I sit down to write) is that maybe it’s time for solutions, and maybe I am in a unique position to be a part of that solution.  I don’t know just how yet.  I have some ideas.  I know some things are coming down the pipeline, but I think it is time to work harder to educate the masses and try to get ahead of future impacts.  I’m not in any way discrediting ongoing or past efforts.  I’m simply saying I want to be part of the solution and not just pine for yon lost days and become a curmudgeon.  There should be a viable future for this area, and as more and more feet tramp around the Gorge it’s going to take a more proactive approach from those who care most about it.

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