Posts Tagged ‘Hiking’


It’s a sunny Saturday in July in the Northeast Georgia mountains, sometime in the late 1980s. I am day-hiking the Jack’s Knob Trail, heading up the southern slope of Brasstown Bald.

Moments earlier, I reached Chattahoochee Gap, the junction with the Appalachian Trail. The Gap also is the source of several seeps and springs that constitute the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River.

I fill my water bottle from one of the crystal-clear pools, drink deeply, spread out my lunch on a shaded boulder, and think to myself, this is the life.

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In my last post, I wrote about my visits to Chattooga River country starting in the early 1990s and my special fondness for the territory along Section IV of the river.

I wrote about a regular destination, a sandy beach near the river’s confluence with Camp Creek, and my frustration over the lack of trails along the river — as if the Forest Service owes me a trail for every whim.

My specific gripe: just downstream from the beach are the crown jewels of the Chattooga, the famous Five Falls — five major rapids in less than 1/4 mile of river.

This graphic shows the five rapids: Entrance, Corkscrew, Crack-in-the-Rock, Jawbone, and Sock ’em Dog. All are rated Class IV or Class IV+.

Five Falls 2-1

Here they are in person.

Five Falls 2-2

The flat water below Sock ’em Dog goes by the ominous name of Deadman’s Pool. The unmarked trail I learned about in Clayton ends there.

Once you know the trail exists, it’s obvious and easy to follow. My dog Kelly and I reached Deadman’s Pool in about 30 minutes and emerged onto these rocks:

Five Falls 2-3

We were alone, but within a few minutes, kayakers appeared in the distance, working their way through the rapids.

I took this photo as one of them ran Sock ’em Dog.

Five Falls 2-4

Kelly and I spent the next hour exploring the river bank, pausing to watch when boaters came along. Our vantage point on the rocks gave us a good view of Jawbone and Sock ’em Dog.

Kelly was off-leash that day. I always carried a leash in case it was needed, but, especially in such a remote location, she was unrestrained. That was routine on our hikes. When we encountered people on the trail, I would call her back to get hooked up. Kelly was a well-mannered and cooperative lady.

It was a fine, warm day. We had lunch, explored, and exchanged pleasantries with the rafters and kayakers who paused at the pool after running the rapids.

All was peachy — until Kelly ventured onto wet rock, slipped, and tumbled into the river.

She fell about six feet and — kerplunk — went under and out of sight. By the time the situation registered in my brain, she bobbed to the surface, wild-eyed, dog-paddling furiously.

The river current was negligible, so she was in no real danger of being swept away. But she was panicked and disoriented, going in circles. I kept calling to her, trying unsuccessfully to get her attention.

But luck was with us. Three kayakers had just exited Sock ’em Dog and entered Deadman’s Pool. They paddled to her, and one grabbed her collar. Instantly, she relaxed and regained her focus.

While the kayaker held Kelly by the collar, his friends pushed him toward the shore. I hoisted her to safety, babbling my gratitude.

After all that excitement, remaining at the pool any longer seemed anti-climactic. The three kayakers continued downstream. Kelly and I hiked back to the beach and up the trail to the car.

Over the next few years, I went back to Deadman’s Pool with Kelly twice, with my two sons once, and a fourth time with Paco. Nobody else ended up in the river involuntarily.

I probably owe Jake a trip sometime soon.

Five Falls 2-5

My best girl Kelly in the early 1990s. She was a fine lady.


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In 2009, I posted a story about being confronted by two armed local dudes while hiking to the Chattooga River in Northeast Georgia. It happened in 2002. The memory still gives me the willies.

That post focused on the incident itself, not the river or the experience of being there. That, I see in retrospect, was a serious omission.

I hope to fix that with the following story.


The Chattooga River, the inspiration for the novel and film Deliverance, begins in North Carolina and flows south as the state line between Georgia and South Carolina. It passes through terrain that is mountainous, dense, fertile, and humid. The region gets the most rainfall in Georgia.

The Chattooga is designated a National Wild and Scenic River and thus is under federal protection. No development is allowed within 1/4 mile of either bank. The river corridor is pristine and spectacular — clean, green, peaceful, natural, invigorating. A balm for the spirit.

Chattooga country is a premier destination for whitewater rafting, kayaking, fishing, hiking, backpacking, and camping. For boaters, the upper sections of the river* are relatively tame and forgiving, with exceptions here and there. But Sections III and IV at the lower end feature multiple rapids that will test your skills.

Section III consists mostly of Class II and Class III rapids, ending with Bull Sluice, a Class IV+. Section IV takes it up a notch with 10 rapids rated Class IV or higher.

The Chattooga abruptly fizzles out at Lake Tugaloo, the first of a series of reservoirs inflicted upon the Savannah River, which the Chattooga becomes downstream, as it flows to the Atlantic.

For me, kayaking Sections III and IV is out of the question, but I’ve rafted both several times commercially. Raft trips with the local outfitters are reasonably priced, reasonably safe, and great fun.

Over the years, however, most of my visits to the Chattooga have been to go hiking, and occasionally camping, in the magnificent mountain setting. My dog Kelly, and later her successor Paco, helped me explore numerous trails that lead down to and along the river.

Five Falls 1-1

Kelly in 2000, ready for the day’s adventures.

From the headwaters down through Section III, Chattooga country has numerous dirt roads and trails, and you have good access to the river and the surrounding forest.

For example, the Chattooga River Trail follows the river corridor for 19 miles from GA 28 in the north (where Section II begins) to US 76 in the south (where Section IV begins).

But along Section IV, only a few roads access the river. And the handful of trails at river level are short and primitive.

For me, this always presented a problem. The upper Chattooga is terrific, and I’ve been there often. But it’s more crowded than Section IV. And the rapids aren’t as imposing as those on Section IV. And the terrain isn’t as steep and scenic as on Section IV.

I’m simply a bigger fan of Section IV.

On the map below, Section IV begins at point #1 and ends at the takeout on Lake Tugaloo, point #25. Note that only a few roads access the river in this 8-mile stretch.

Five Falls 1-2

Sometime in the late 1990s, by asking around and exploring the roads myself, I learned that the easiest route to the river on the Georgia side is via Camp Creek Road and Water Gauge Road, ending at Point #19 on the map.

(Point #22 at the end of Camp Creek Road is where I was confronted by the previously-mentioned armed local dudes. I decided not to go there again.)

At the end of Water Gauge Road, an abandoned dirt road serves as a trail down to the river, arriving at a spot just north of the confluence with Camp Creek. The river there is straight and calm and features a rare sandy beach.

I took the photos below in 2004 when I took Paco there to introduce him to the river.

Five Falls 1-3

Five Falls 1-4

Paco liked it fine, as long as his feet could touch bottom.

A few years earlier, Kelly and I had visited that spot several times to go swimming. But each time we went, I had the same nagging complaint: just downstream, literally around the next bend, are the biggest and best-known rapids on the Chattooga: the Five Falls.

And there is no trail along the river to get you there.

Five Falls 1-5

Five Falls — just around that bend to the left.

True, you are free to bushwhack downstream, climbing over rocks and wading where necessary. But trails were invented as a sensible alternative to that.

Then I got lucky. Someone at the visitor center in Clayton told me about a primitive trail that begins near the beach, climbs away from the river, crosses the adjoining hill, and drops back down to the river just below Five Falls.

The next weekend, Kelly and I went back, found the trail, and had an eventful day at Five Falls.

Details in my next post.

* From north to south, the Chattooga consists of six sections: 00, 0, I, II, III, and IV.


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When I get the urge to go hiking, I have plenty of options close to home. The Chattahoochee National Forest, which takes up a big chunk of North Georgia, is loaded with great trails.

Notable among them is the mighty Appalachian Trail. The AT begins at Springer Mountain, 60 miles from my doorstep, and proceeds northeast up the spine of the Appalachian chain for 2,200 miles.

The Georgia section of the AT is 79 miles long, and over that stretch, five roads intersect it. That breaks the trail into convenient segments that are easily accessible. Very nice for a day-hiker.

At one of those five crossings, U.S. Highway 129 at Neels Gap, stands the famous Walasi-Yi Interpretive Center. It was first built of wood 100 years ago by a logging company, then, in the 1930s, rebuilt of stone by the Civilian Conservation Corps.


For a long time, the building was an inn and restaurant. It was abandoned in 1965, and, by the mid-1970s, was scheduled for demolition.

But a group of local conservationists protested, and began lobbying, and in 1977, the building was given the protection of the National Register of Historic Places.

The word “Walasi-Yi” is a serious mouthful. It’s pronounced Wa La See Yee, which in Cherokee means “place of the great frog.”

There are other froggy tie-ins. Frogtown Creek flows nearby, and Neels Gap itself originally was known as Frogtown Gap.

So, the Walasi-Yi Center is a certified historic place. It’s famous for three reasons.

First, a few years after the building was saved, it was reborn as Mountain Crossings at Walasi-Yi, a full-service, high-quality outdoor gear retailer that is still in operation today. The store (which includes a hiker hostel) provides clothing, packs, boots, stoves, food, maps, souvenirs, and expert advice.

The store is especially important for hikers making the long journey north to Maine. Located 30 trail miles from Springer Mountain, it’s the first chance for through-hikers to make adjustments to their gear and supplies. All the staff members at Mountain Crossings are seasoned backpackers and experts on all things AT.

The second reason Walasi-Yi is famous: the AT itself passes through a breezeway on the side of the building, making it the only place on the entire trail where hikers pass under a roof. Bridges and railroad trestles don’t count.


Third, there are the boots. All those dangling boots.

When you walk into the store and look up, this is what you see:


Hanging from the rafters throughout the store are hundreds of pairs of used hiking boots, proudly donated over the years by veteran hikers who have walked at least 500 miles of the AT.

Usually, the boots arrive by mail. A note will identify the owner and the dates of the hike and will ask that the boots be added to the lofty collection. Many hikers describe their experience at length and express great pride in the achievement.

But wait, there’s more. Another collection of boots dangles from the trees outside the building.


Whereas the boots inside the store are celebratory, the boots in the trees tell tales of disillusionment, disappointment, and blisters.

Looking up, you can see that the boots range from well-worn to brand new.

Some of them didn’t fit properly. Some blew out due to a manufacturing defect. Some belonged to hikers who, a few days into the journey, decided that hiking the AT was not their thing after all.

Sometimes, the hikers purchased new boots and continued northward. Sometimes, they went home. Either way, the collection of boots in the trees is growing steadily.

As for the boots inside the store, the 500-mile rule is arbitrary. And, when a pair of boots arrives in the mail, the staff admits they have no way to determine the veracity of the hiker’s claim.

But they don’t question it. There is no erring on the side of caution. The boots are hung from the rafters anyway.




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In the eyes of family and friends, I am that fellow who is obsessed with going hiking. The one who, for years, has spent most of his weekends and vacations on a trail somewhere, either locally or on the other side of the country. The guy who has been to Grand Canyon 23 times, for Pete’s sake.

To them, I am an eccentric — slightly unbalanced, but in a harmless way. The family reputation is in no real jeopardy.

That’s how they think of me. What they probably don’t think about is how I came to be the fanatic that I am — how the obsession started.

I know exactly how and when it started.

In the summer of 1979, frustrated by boss problems at work, I quit my job in Fort Lauderdale. We sold the house, packed up the family, and moved back to Georgia. I was 36, married with two kids.

For two months, the four of us lived in my parents’ basement in the little town of Suwanee, population 400, located 35 miles northeast of Atlanta. As happens in a decent economy, things quickly fell into place. I found a job, and we bought a house, and life settled into a routine again.

One Saturday morning during that two months in the basement, I woke up with an urge I didn’t experience often: the desire to go for a solitary walk in the woods. The woods, in that place and time, went for miles in every direction.

The morning was sunny and pleasant, and job-hunting wasn’t done on Saturdays, so I announced to the household my intentions to disappear for a while and go for a stroll. I would follow one of the old dirt roads that meandered through the piney woods, just to see where it went.

No one seemed to care one way or the other. I got comments like, “Well, that’s nice” and “You have fun” and “Be careful” and stuff like that.

Fortunately, nobody wanted to go with me. That meant I could get away alone and have time to think my own thoughts.

The towns in that part of Georgia — Norcross, Duluth, Suwanee, Buford — grew up along the Seaboard Coast Line railroad, which runs through Atlanta and northeast into South Carolina and points beyond.

(Each town had a small railway station, but the trains rarely stopped. They did, however, deliver the U.S. Mail. That was accomplished when the stationmaster put out “the hook” each day to snag the mail pouch as the train zoomed through. I know this because my grandfather was the Suwanee Postmaster. As a kid, I never tired of watching that ritual.)

The main road in those parts was, and still is, Buford Highway, which runs parallel to the railroad tracks. The few other roads in the area were small county roads, some paved and some dirt, dotted with occasional houses like Mom and Dad’s.

For the most part, it was blips of civilization surrounded by undeveloped woods. Between Mom and Dad’s house, on the edge of Suwanee, and Duluth, five miles south, there was little but oak and pine forest and a few small creeks.

That changed in a hurry. Starting in the 1980s, land developers descended on Gwinnett County. All that territory was turned into housing subdivisions, industrial parks, and shopping centers. Here is a Google Earth map of the area today:

Suwanee to Duluth

The red dot at the top shows where Mom and Dad lived on the outskirts of Suwanee, on a bluff near the Chattahoochee River (the green line). The north edge of Duluth is at lower left. The black line is the railroad, and the single yellow line on the right side is Buford Highway.

In 1979, nothing was between the river and the railroad tracks except forest. No divided four-lane highway, no subdivisions, no nothing.

Where I intended to go that morning, I didn’t know. I took a bottle of water, a package of cheese crackers, my shades, and a bandana. I wore a baseball cap and ordinary tennis shoes. Back then, I didn’t own hiking boots.

For a time, I walked south, following an abandoned dirt road that was cut off from civilization and probably hadn’t seen a vehicle since the horse and buggy days.

The area was former farmland. I passed the ruins of a few old homesteads that had collapsed into piles of rotted boards. In most cases, the pine trees, undergrowth, and kudzu had grown up and swallowed them, covering everything except the chimneys.

Sometimes, the road disappeared, and I had to make my way across a field. But progress was easy. I kept going in the same southerly direction with no destination in mind.

I encountered a lot of wildlife that morning. Deer, rabbits, and quail were everywhere. They weren’t accustomed to seeing people in so remote a spot.

The deer and rabbits were startled to see me, but the quail always gave ME a scare. They have a way of waiting until you’re within three feet of their hiding place, then taking flight in a mad frenzy.

Eventually, the old road intersected the right-of-way of a row of mammoth electrical power lines and disappeared for good. I continued south, following the power lines.

Then I reached the edge of a large swamp formed by Brushy Creek, which flows west into the Chattahoochee River. I faced an impassable bog from horizon to horizon.

Well, not completely impassable. Crossing the swamp near the transmission lines was a pipeline — carrying water, natural gas, or whatever — elevated on six-foot pilings.

The pipe was huge, about three or four feet in diameter, painted an unpleasant shade of milky turquoise green. The pipe emerged from the ground, crossed the swamp on the pilings, and went back underground again.

I hopped onto the pipe, walked across the swamp, and resumed my journey.

A short time later, I spotted the railroad tracks in the distance and abandoned the power lines. I began walking south along the tracks. For the first time, I had a goal: going all the way to Duluth.

At that point, I figured I was about halfway there. I had progressed a couple of miles in a couple of hours. Shortly before noon, I sat down on a crosstie and ate the cheese crackers for lunch.

I also picked up and placed in my back pocket a memento of the hike: a rusty railroad spike that I found discarded next to the tracks.

Walking along the tracks was easy. I crossed Suwanee Creek, a fairly large stream, via railroad trestle. I crossed a second creek by trestle, and then I was back in civilization again — houses and traffic at the edge of Duluth.

Almost immediately, I attracted the attention of some local dogs. It was time to turn around and go home.

Late that afternoon, having retraced my steps and arrived back at Mom and Dad’s house at last, I walked into a hornet’s nest.

My lovely wife was furious.

How could you just disappear like that and leave us wondering whether you were alive or dead?

Do you realize we were on the verge of calling the police? Nobody knew what happened to you! Do you understand how worried we all were, how inconsiderate it was to do that to us?

My dad was indignant.

Son, your mother was worried sick. You were gone way too long. She thought you might be hurt or something. I’m really disappointed. You should know better.

Mom didn’t say much, which meant she was angry, too.

That was, quite literally, my first formal hike. And, yes, I did learn a valuable lesson vis-à-vis loved ones waiting back home.

However, except for the unpleasantness that ensued in the aftermath, I enjoyed the experience thoroughly. I decided I would do it more often.

Since then, I have hit the trail hundreds of times. How many hundreds, I don’t know, because for years, I kept no record of my hikes. At some point, I began to document them — by date, location, distance hiked, and the dog, if any, who accompanied me.

These days, I don’t go hiking as often as before, and I don’t hike as far as I once did. But Paco and I are still at it. I still have a blast, still love the whole experience.

It’s true, I’m a fanatic. Obsessed, even.

Eccentric, but in a harmless way.



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Here in Jefferson, the kids started back to school on August 1, which means they had a measly two-month summer vacation. That’s cruel.

By all rights, summer vacation should be three months long, like it was in olden times when I was in school. True, today’s little darlings don’t know the difference, but I feel bad for them.

But, as usual, I digress. A few days before school started, my ex Deanna and I took our two youngest granddaughters, Maddie and Sarah, ages 10 and seven, up to the North Georgia mountains for the day. It was one last chance to spend time with them, one last summer fling.

We kept it simple. In the morning, we hiked a short trail to Panther Falls, a pretty spot in the Chattahoochee National Forest.


For lunch, we went to Henry’s Restaurant in Clayton, Henry’s being one of the culinary gems of Northeast Georgia.

After that, we drove over to the Chattooga River and sat on a rock overlooking Bull Sluice Rapid, watching the rafts flip.

It was a most satisfying day. The weather was idyllic — cool and bracing. The girls kept the squabbling relatively in check. The food was superb. And, for Maddie and Sarah, seeing the whitewater and the boats was a new and enlightening experience.

Here are a few recollections…


Ten minutes down the trail to Panther Falls, we reached a spot where you cross the creek on a series of stepping stones. At that point, the creek is a small, clear, babbling brook about six inches deep.

I hopped across the stepping stones first, and Maddie followed. While Deanna was preparing to help Sarah across, Sarah calmly waded into and across the creek, bypassing the stepping stones, soaking her shoes in the process.

“Sarah!” said her grandmother in surprise.

“Wow, the water’s cold,” Sarah observed as she emerged on the opposite bank. “My socks are all squishy.”

I asked Sarah if she wanted to take off her shoes and wring out her socks.

“No, I’m fine. They’ll dry pretty soon. Let’s go!”

“You are such a knucklehead,” said Maddie.


We had the trail to ourselves. At Panther Falls, the girls waded in the pool at the base of the falls (shoeless) while Deanna and I took photos.


On the way back to the trailhead, we encountered a young couple heading toward the waterfall. Toddling along on a leash in front of them was a Lhasa Apso puppy.

Lhasas can be beautiful when their coats are long and well-groomed. This one was shaved bald and, at least in my view, singularly homely. In fact, it looked a bit crazed, like a blunt-nosed, goggly-eyed Chihuahua with an overbite.

Our two parties greeted each other cordially. The couple pulled their goofy little dog aside to let us pass.

Sarah, apparently watching the dog instead of her footing, tripped on a rock and did a spectacular faceplant in front of the entire group.

Gasps went up from everyone. Deanna and I simultaneously rushed forward to Sarah’s aid.

“Well,” Sarah intoned, still sprawled face down on the trail, “THAT worked!”


Sarah was okay, except for a tiny scratch on her leg, but she soon realized she could get some mileage from it. As we continued toward the trailhead, she began to groan and hobble.

“Don’t be such a baby,” Maddie barked. “That hardly qualifies as a scratch.”

“You don’t know how much it hurts!” Sarah pouted, limping in apparent agony.

“Okay, you two,” the grandparents ordered in unison. “Knock it off.”

Back at the parking lot, Maddie held her cell phone aloft and whooped, “Hey, I got a signal! I’m gonna call Mom!”

Which she did, bringing Leslie up to date about the events of the morning, including Sarah’s pratfall in front of six witnesses, if you count the dog.

“Yeah, Mom, Sarah fell on her face in the middle of the trail a while ago, but she’s fine now.”

“I am NOT ‘FINE’!”  Sarah bellowed.


Henry’s Restaurant is a North Georgia institution. The food — country cookin’ served buffet style — is as good today as it was 30 years ago, when Henry himself ran the place.

Sadly, Henry is gone now. His daughter Lynn is in charge, assisted by a crew of siblings, children, aunts, uncles, cousins, and in-laws.

While we were feasting, the kitchen door burst open, and Lynn’s oldest son emerged carrying a tray of piping hot glazed donuts. He wandered among the tables, offering the diners complimentary donuts for dessert.


Sarah’s eyes were as large and as glazed as the donuts. She waved eagerly to flag down the donut boy, and he approached our table.

Deanna reminded Sarah that donuts are for dessert, after one finishes one’s meal.

“Don’t worry, we have plenty,” donut boy told her. Sarah resumed eating with new purpose.

Maddie’s reaction to the donuts was different.

“Did you see those things?” she said. “Nothing but sugar! That’s sickening! No way could I eat one!”

Sarah allowed as how she could eat one just fine. Probably two.

“Yuck,” said Maddie.

A few minutes later, the donut boy returned with Sarah’s prize. While Maddie looked away in mock disgust, Sarah consumed it with speed, efficiency, and no ill effects.


If you leave Henry’s Restaurant and drive 10 miles east on U.S. 76, you reach a large parking area on the Chattooga River near Bull Sluice Rapid. This is the take-out point for boat trips down Section III of the river, and it’s the put-in point for trips continuing downstream on Section IV.


It’s also a popular picnicking and swimming spot where the locals go to watch the rafters and kayakers run Bull Sluice Rapid, the grand finale of Section III.

Maddie and Sarah were enthralled by everything — the river, the whitewater, the scenery, the eddies full of swimmers, the crowds of spectators, the colorful rafts and kayaks, the spectacular flips.

For a long time, the girls sat quietly on a rock and watched the activity. They could see that the kayaking requires skill, but they weren’t sure about rafting.

“Rocky, are rafts hard to paddle?” Sarah asked.

“Not really,” I said. “They float downstream by themselves. The guide in the back is doing the work — using his paddle like a rudder to steer. When a raft flips, it’s usually because the guide made a mistake, like entering a rapid crooked.”

“What about the passengers?” asked Maddie. “They’re all paddling like crazy.”

“Well, most of the time, it doesn’t matter what they do. Especially in a big rapid like this. Either the guide nails the entry, or he doesn’t.”

As if to illustrate the point, a raft approached Bull Sluice, and the passengers brought their paddles into the raft and held them vertically. The guide carefully lined up the raft in the chute at the top of the rapid, and they shot smoothly through.

“Cool,” said Maddie.

“Rocky, I want to come back here sometime and go swimming,” said Sarah.

“No problem,” I said. “But you guys will be back in school in a couple of days. We’ll have to do it on a Saturday.”

They had no problem with that.


Back at home that evening, I got an email from my son Dustin imploring me NOT to get the girls interested in whitewater boating.

I can’t figure out why he was so concerned.


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In March 2007, I hiked the dusty eight-mile trail to the village of Supai, Arizona, located in western Grand Canyon, truly in the middle of nowhere.

Supai is the home of the Havasupai tribe. The village is located in Havasu Canyon, which leads down to the Colorado River and is famous for the spectacular waterfalls along Havasu Creek.

It’s also famous for being isolated and  remote. No roads lead to Supai. You get there by foot, mule, or helicopter. You visit by reservation only.

The trailhead and the helipad are at Hualapai Hilltop, a desolate parking area 60 miles from the nearest town. No services are at the trailhead — only a few trailers and a couple of tribal officials who check permits.

For a fee of $85, you can helicopter down to Supai. For another $85, you can helicopter back out. Otherwise, you hit the trail, which winds down to the village on the floor of the canyon. Park Service campgrounds are located two miles beyond Supai along Havasu Creek.

For my trip in 2007, in order to avoid the weight of camping gear, I made reservations at the tribal motel in the village. The motel is a small, bare-bones place, but clean and adequate.

The trip was a blast. The weather was ideal, the scenery astounding. I got plenty of good photos — although I discovered that the season was wrong for photography; in the spring, when you face the waterfalls, you’re facing the sun.

In 2009, I twice wrote about that trip on this blog.

One story was about the tribe’s long struggle to maintain its homeland and identity.

The other focused on something I didn’t expect to find down there: a healthy population of mongrel dogs living at large in the village.

But neither story got around to documenting one of the most indelible memories of that trip: the harrowing finale, when a sobering realization brought everything to a proverbial screeching halt.

Let me begin at the beginning.

After flying into Las Vegas, I picked up my rental car at the Budget office, drove east into Arizona, and stopped for the night in Kingman. The next morning, I got up early and drove the 100-odd miles to Hualapai Hilltop.

Bird's-eye view of Hualapai Hilltop. The trail to Supai drops into the canyon in the upper left.

Bird’s-eye view of Hualapai Hilltop. The trail to Supai drops into the canyon in the upper left.

The state-of-the-art helipad at Hualapai Hilltop.

The state-of-the-art helipad at Hualapai Hilltop.

On arrival, I parked, got out my gear, locked the car, obtained my entry permit from the tribal guy, and set off down the trail.

For the next two days, I explored the village and the waterfalls at my leisure. Meals were at the Supai Cafe, the only place in town that serves hot food.

How was the food? Expensive and awful. The cheeseburgers were served on sandwich bread. The lettuce was wilted, the tomatoes overripe. Tater tots came with everything. The breakfast burritos were frozen.

Some of the tourists were unhappy and vocal about it. My attitude: you shouldn’t go to a place like Supai expecting an Outback Steakhouse.

On the third morning, in a heartbeat, my trip unraveled.

I awoke, showered, and dressed. My plan was to grab a bad breakfast and hike down to the waterfalls for more photos.

Then, as I puttered around the motel room, a strange sensation came over me. A voice inside my head spoke to me.

It asked if I had seen the keys to my rental car lately.

Hmmm… Let me think… After I locked the car, I undoubtedly put the keys in my waist pack. Actually, I haven’t seen the keys lately, but what of it?

Well, you carry all your personal stuff in the waist pack — wallet, loose change, penknife. You empty the contents onto the dresser every night. Where are the keys?

Where, indeed. After calmly checking the waist pack, I calmly searched the motel room. Then I calmly went through all my clothes and possessions thoroughly. Twice. The keys were not there.

My blood ran cold as I realized the implications of that turn of events.

The keys could be anywhere. I could have dropped them during the initial hike. Or at the waterfalls. Or somewhere in the village. At that very moment, one of the town mutts could be gnawing on the transponder.

Fighting back the panic, I methodically covered all the appropriate bases. I asked the motel manager if anyone had turned in a set of car keys. I did the same at the restaurant, the general store, the post office, and the tribal office. No luck.

Back at the motel, I made the decision to call the car rental office in Las Vegas. Surely, they would know what to do about lost car keys.

Supai had no cell phone service then, and probably still doesn’t. But several places had land-line phones. They’re for official use, of course, but the motel manager graciously allowed me to call the Budget office in Las Vegas.

The Budget lady seemed a bit surprised about my situation, but was quite sympathetic. She gave me the phone number of a locksmith in Kingman and said to call him. He could meet me at Hualapai Hilltop and set me up with a duplicate key.

I asked what sort of spectacular bill his service call might incur. She couldn’t say.

I sat there for a few minutes, weighing my options and bemoaning my situation. Just as I was concluding that calling the locksmith was my only solution, the motel manager spoke up.

“Did anyone call Hualapai Hilltop?” she asked. “Somebody could have turned in the keys up there.”

I was incredulous. Call Hualapai Hilltop? Hualapai Hilltop has phone service?

Well, sort of. As the manager explained, the people on duty at Hualapai Hilltop carry two-way radios.

The manager called the tribal office. Minutes later, the tribal office called back. Yes, my keys had been turned in at Hualapai Hilltop.

I was so delirious with joy, I nearly swooned.

To celebrate, and to get my hands on those keys as soon as possible, I promptly checked out of the motel, gave the manager a lavish tip, and treated myself to an $85 helicopter ride out of Supai.

When I climbed out of the helicopter at the trailhead, a Havasupai man was standing nearby, smiling and dangling my keys.

Two hikers, a man and a woman, had turned in the keys earlier that morning. They found them on the ground next to my locked car. Apparently, when I dropped the keys into the zipper pocket of my waist pack, I missed.

“You were lucky those two were honest,” the man told me. “They could have taken your car. Some folks would do that.”

So, my trip ended happily, not in utter disaster. I drove back to civilization and spent the next week at Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, slowly calming down from the experience.

How sweet it is to dodge a bullet thanks to the kindness of strangers.

Incomparable Havasu Falls.

Incomparable Havasu Falls.


The village of Supai.

The village of Supai.


The mail arrives by mule, not helicopter.

The mail arrives by mule, not helicopter.


Village mutts lounging outside the cafe.

Village mutts lounging outside the cafe.


Havasupai Lodge.

Havasupai Lodge.




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The two best American nature writers in my lifetime are Craig Childs and David Quammen.

Both men write as passionately as Edward Abbey, but are more articulate. More insightful. More willing to edit their stuff.

The website of Craig Childs describes him thusly:

“Childs is an Arizona native, and he grew up back and forth between there and Colorado, son of a mother hooked on outdoor adventure, and a dad who liked whiskey, guns, and Thoreau. He has worked as a gas station attendant, wilderness guide, professional musician, and a beer bottler, though now he is primarily a writer. He lives off the grid with his wife and two young sons at the foot of the West Elk Mountains in Colorado.”

You would expect such a man to hike into Grand Canyon in January, during a storm, to experience and reflect upon “the full weight of winter.”

Those reflections became a superb essay in the January issue of Arizona Highways Magazine. Here is a small excerpt.


The winds this morning are of a different nature. They are winter-storm winds, built of turbulence from a large system dragging itself over the Canyon. Vortices are set up behind cliff faces, great swirling eddies inscribed in the clouds. I stop at one of the long points of land under the Coconino. I’ve seen ravens here in better weather. I’ve sat on this point in the fall and watched them play in the rising air, banking and swimming around one another. Now, I stop and look into the bottomless Canyon, wondering where ravens go. This peninsula of Hermit formation just hangs here. I feel as if I’m being held out for sacrifice and that the Grand Canyon is this gulping infinity beneath my feet. No sign of solid ground anywhere. Occasionally, I will see something, some tip of land suspended out there. Then it is gone.

Now I see the ravens. They rise out of the abyss, taking form where there should be nothing. Two of them look like black shreds of fabric hurled against the storm. They spin up, pausing over my head to take account of this figure standing in the clouds. This close, I can see the curve of their armored toes, tucked under as if holding a marble or a stone. (Damn ravens, coming here without parkas or backpacks or extra food. Swirling through this storm as if it were a playground.) I have to protect my eyes with a hand. The wind takes snow down my neck, against my skin. Once the ravens get a good look at me, they continue up and are absorbed. And I’m standing here alone.

I turn back down the trail. Within a couple of minutes, I see someone coming up. He moves slowly, working his boots through the snow. Head down. Shoulders humped forward. He must have started walking from the desert during the night, or slept in the snow, which is not too uncomfortable if a person has the right gear and the proper mind-set. As he approaches, I can see he looks like he’s just been rolled from a Dumpster. Plastic garbage bags cover his body. He’s torn a hole in the bottom of one in order to breathe and see ahead. The clothes underneath are insufficient. Maybe he’s got a sweater and a coat. In both hands are walking sticks, their tops splintered as if they were hastily broken for this purpose.

He doesn’t notice me until I am about 4 feet away. When he sees my legs in the snow, he inches his head up a notch. His face looks like the result of a trying night. Dull, vacant eyes. He can’t hold eye contact. Late 20s, maybe 30s. “Be careful down there,” he says, with more of a groan than an actual voice.

Down there. As if he had just climbed out of a monster’s stomach — the empty space that gave birth to the ravens. I ask whether he needs help. In the same ponderous tone, with a touch of anger, he says, “That Canyon almost killed me.”

As he passes, I turn and ask again, offering food or water. He does not stop, does not ask how far to the rim. In fact, his pace has not altered at all. “I’ll make it,” he says. I look for a limp or some sign of injury. There seems to be nothing but fatigue. He’s close enough to the top that he’ll be out within an hour. Like the ravens, he is taken in by the storm above me. Is he delirious? Has he fallen? I imagine him sledding down, arms flailing, and catching a piñon trunk just at the edge of a chasm, snow spraying all around him. His comment about the Canyon made it sound as if it were malevolent down there, as if he had narrowly escaped and the Canyon still had his hair in its teeth.

So I follow his tracks. They keep to the trail down to Cedar Ridge, a clearing of hitching posts for mules and three outhouses. The outhouses are sturdy structures with a deck and solid wood doors. His tracks begin here. I open the middle door and am confronted with a nest. My first thought is that some large animal burrowed here. It look like a mouse nest on a huge scale. Wood chips, used for the composting toilets, are a foot deep all over the floor. Food wrappers lie unfolded. A bag of bread. A candy bar. A flashlight is propped on the toilet-paper dispenser. He slept here, using the chips as insulation. A locked storage closet joins the back of one of the toilets. Its door hangs off its hinges, ripped from the wall. He had found the plastic bags and wood chips in there, as well as the broom handle he’d busted for walking sticks. A box of screws and various small tools he had examined and rejected.

I would later discover that he had hiked to Phantom Ranch, down at the river, with the intention of returning to the rim that night. It was a day hike. Backpackers had tried to talk him into staying. He had refused, mentioning that he needed to catch  a plane. He accepted their offerings of a flashlight, bread and candy, setting off for the South Rim in the late afternoon. When he reached the only emergency phone on the trail — at some outhouses 2,000 feet below here — he was desperate. Night had come. A storm has set in, bringing rain and wind. He had no idea that it would turn to snow above him. He made a call to the Ranger at Phantom Ranch, and he sounded panicked. He wasn’t asking for anything, just wanted to hear a human voice, said he had to catch a plane. The ranger patched him through to someone closer, but in the transfer, he dropped the phone and continued up the Canyon. The phone dangled off the hook, draining its solar battery.

He arrived at Cedar Ridge in a blizzard. Ice had formed on his clothing, and he probably was suffering from hypothermia. When he found these outhouses, he found plastic bags and wood chips, enough to keep him alive. If he had not reached Cedar Ridge, I probably would have come across his body below O’Neill Butte, curled in the mud in one of the sheltered alcoves. No one at the Canyon knew his name or ever saw him again. There are only a few trails with outhouses and emergency phones. He was lucky.

The Grand Canyon is not the thing that almost killed him, as he had said. The Canyon is here, with its winds and sunshine at random intervals. There is no pretense. The rocks do not bear ill will, nor will they offer to save you. The personalities of storms deal with updrafts, moisture content and temperature, not with grudges or malice. A person must learn how to move inside of this place. Like the ravens. I close the door and continue into the Canyon.

Winter hiking at Grand Canyon.

Winter hiking at Grand Canyon.

Refuge -- the composting toilets at Cedar Ridge.

Refuge — the composting toilets at Cedar Ridge.


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Testing My Volunteer Spirit

After my chat with the boy on the hillside, Paco and I continued north along the new section of the Swimming Deer Trail.

About 50 yards beyond the houses, the trail ends at a graded area that slopes down to one of the branches of Sandy Creek. In the wetlands, Sandy Creek has multiple channels.

Ahead was a long row of red marker flags. They stretched in a long curve across the graded area, over a branch of the creek, across a narrow sandbar, over another branch of the creek, up a hillside, and out of sight.

I studied the scene for several minutes, trying to picture the boardwalk following the curve of the flags. Then we turned around and headed back toward the car.

All was quiet when we passed behind the row of houses on the bluff. The boy was gone.

A long time later, about 10 minutes from the trailhead, I heard voices ahead on the trail. I got out Paco’s leash and hooked him up.

(The park requires dogs to be leashed at all times, but that’s a silly rule.)

Soon, four hikers came into view, chattering happily. The group consisted of two 30-something women, a 30-something man, and in the lead, a wiry older gentleman. It was Walt Cook.

I’ve encountered Walt four or five times over the years. We’ve met on local trails a time or two and chatted briefly. A few years ago, we spent a morning working together on a trail maintenance crew.

Walt is a pleasant, friendly fellow, and I always recognize him. But he never remembers me. Or Paco, for that matter.

Each time, when he introduces himself anew, I take no offense. I find it sort of amusing, even endearing. After all, Walt is busy, important, and 80-plus years old.

“Hello,” said Walt when the four hikers reached us. He smiled and extended a hand. “I’m Walt Cook.”

In his other hand was a bundle of red marker flags. I smiled and shook his hand. “I’m Rocky Smith. This is Paco.”

Paco, tail wagging, had assumed his self-taught, belly-to-the-ground position. One of the women cooed and petted him.

The second woman backed away slightly. While being scratched and petted, Paco looked up at the second woman with a Border Collie stare.

Paco has a very intense stare, but it’s benign. The woman didn’t know that.

Standing back as far as the narrow trail allowed, she observed, “Why do they always focus on the person who’s afraid of dogs?”

“Mr. Cook,” I said, “This trail is a whole lot longer than it used to be.”

Walt allowed as how that was true. He said they were on their way to the boardwalk site to place the final marker flags.

Wow, I thought, they’re hiking the trail instead of driving to the neighborhood on the bluff and walking 30 yards. I was impressed.

Walt spoke earnestly, but as usual, showed no sign of recognition. He took his turn petting Paco, but didn’t seem to remember him, either.

A few minutes later, Walt and his friends had continued north, and Paco and I were almost back to the car.

Both of us were tired. In the past, patrolling the Swimming Deer Trail required an out-and-back hike of six miles. From now on, the out-and-back is going to be almost nine miles.

Walt and the parks people are sorely testing my volunteer spirit.

Paco leads the way on the Swimming Deer Trail.

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Not Enough Black

In my last post, I introduced Walt Cook, retired University of Georgia forestry professor, greenspace advocate, and trail-builder extraordinaire.

For decades, Walt has designed and built high-quality hiking trails throughout the region. Athens is Walt’s home, so trailwise, Athens gets a lot of his attention.

Last year, Sandy Creek Park was in the news because of talk about building a boardwalk across the wetlands where Sandy Creek flows into Lake Chapman. The project had been going nowhere because of the high cost.

Then an anonymous donor (anonymous to the public, but probably not to the insiders) offered to pay half the cost of building the boardwalk — half being about $160,000.

Being rational people, the mayor and the council moved quickly to accept the offer before the donor reconsidered.

However, the parks department people politely tried to slow the project down. They favored a boardwalk along the shore of the lake instead of inland through the wetlands.

The free money, however, was contingent on building a wetlands trail.

In a last feeble attempt, the parks people noted at a public hearing that extending the Swimming Deer Trail through the forest to the location of the boardwalk would cost $40,000.

Walt Cook, the trail-building man, now in his 80s, but sound as an oak, stood up. He announced that he had already marked the best route for the trail, and he offered to complete the construction at no cost.

The parks people gave up. The council approved a trail and boardwalk through the wetlands.

Late one morning about two weeks ago, Paco and I drove to Sandy Creek Park to do our monthly duty and patrol the Swimming Deer Trail. We parked at the trailhead, and for the next hour, proceeded up the trail. It was a weekday. We had the trail to ourselves.

Three miles out, when we reached the customary end of the trail, I could see that Walt and his crew had been busy. The trail no longer ends there, but continues down a long slope into a ravine, up the other side, and out of sight.

I wasn’t sure how far the new trail went or how long the hike would take us. But no way could I resist finding out.

The new stretch of trail, I discovered, not only continues all the way to the site of the future boardwalk, but except for blazing, is completely finished and ready for foot traffic.

The trail is level and dry, winding easily around the hillsides and staying 10 feet or so above the wetlands. The area is under a canopy of hardwoods. Several small streams flow down to the lake. Fingers of the lake reach inland here and there. Truly a beautiful setting.

Eventually, we came to an area I knew about, but had never seen: a small residential neighborhood deep in the woods that backs up to the park property.

The homes there were built years ago at the end of a remote rural road on a bluff above Sandy Creek. Nowadays, from their back porches along the bluff, the homeowners look down at park property and a new hiking trail.

In several back yards, shiny new NO TRESPASSING signs faced the trail. No one was in sight. Quietly, we continued past the houses.

Then from the hillside above me, a kid’s voice said, “Hey, mister, what kind of dog is that?”

I looked up to see a boy, about age 10, looking down at me. He was sitting cross-legged under a large tree in his back yard. He had the familiar accent of a local fella.

“Mostly Border Collie,” I answered. “He herds like a Border Collie.”

“He don’t look like no Border Collie.”

“I got him from Animal Control. He may be a mix.”

“He’s too white. Not enough black in his coat.”

“Well, Border Collies come in all patterns and colors,” I said. “Even red.”

“I never heard of no red Border Collie.”

I decided to change the subject. “You got a dog?”

“She’s in the house.”

“What kind of dog is she?”

“We don’t know.”

“What’s her name?”

“Maggie. She’s old. Older’n me.”

“His name is Paco,” I said. “He’s getting old, too.”

The boy went silent. The conversation was over. Paco and I continued down Walt’s new trail.

More about the Swimming Deer Trail and Walt Cook in my next post.


Google Earth image of the wetlands above Lake Chapman.

Section of boardwalk on Cook’s Trail.

Paco (mostly white, mostly Border Collie) on the Swimming Deer Trail.


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