Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Old Fort, North Carolina isn't a place many folks bother to visit. By the time you've come this far west, the Blue Ridge Mountains have been in view for the better part of a half an hour. Why stop at the bottom of the hill when you're so close to the final destination? Unless you're desperate for gas, there's little reason to get off Interstate 40 to explore this sleepy little town of barely 1,000 - or is there?
When we were looking for a place to live, Sue and I had a high opinion of Old Fort and the rest of McDowell County. While convenient to the cultural amenities of Asheville, the area is pastoral, with rolling hills and fields of hay. It reminded us more of the place we left than the sharp topography of the mountains just beyond. In fact, we seriously considered bidding on a house just outside Old Fort, and that was before we knew it would be where our grass-fed beef, pork and chickens come from (click here to see Foothills Family Farms) or where we'd find the trail head for Catawba Falls.
The fact that I'd never heard of Catawba Falls until yesterday morning is a bit of an embarrassment. Our friends, Sean and Sarah, were going for the first time and asked if we'd care to join them and their small posse of children for an exploratory hike. Sue was at work, but I had nothing going on (imagine that), so I got in the truck and rolled down the eastern slope of the Eastern Continental Divide like a bobsled driver. (Note: The 4-mile stretch between Black Mountain and Old Fort boasts a 1,200-foot drop in elevation and a 55 mph speed limit. With some previous experience, it is a shared goal of local drivers to go from the top to the bottom without touching the brake pedal. Visiting motorists can be identified by the distinct aroma of burning brake pads emanating from the backs of their vehicles.) But before I left, I did a quick online search to learn what I could about the falls (click here).
In a nutshell, the falls begin in the headwaters of the Catawba River - a watershed of significant importance around these parts. Though the falls themselves have been protected within the Pisgah National Forest since 1989, public access was not available until this past spring, when Foothills Conservancy completed the handover of 88 acres to U.S. Forest Service, finally allowing hikers a way to experience this natural treasure. I have had the recent opportunity to work with the folks at Foothills Conservancy on a membership brochure and found them to be incredibly dedicated and hard-working. To date, the group has helped preserve more than 43,000 acres in the Blue Ridge foothills. Learn more about them here.
I met the gang at the trail head and we set out in high spirits. Sarah and Sean's twin 2-year-olds are accomplished hikers and their baby daughter needs only to learn how to crawl before she joins her brothers. The trail began easily enough as it followed the creek along its course up the ridge. Evidence of human habitation included the stone ruin of one streamside home and another, concrete structure further up. The trail boast three sets of waterfalls, with the lowest being the most modest. The middle falls are unique in that they plunge through a break in a 1900s dam that was built to generate power. I am always amazed at what industrious people can accomplish when they set their minds to it. How they hauled the materials up the steep valley to construct the dam must have been a lesson in perseverance.
Thirty minutes into our trek and the kids were doing great; tiny legs fueled by a sense of discovery and peanut butter crackers. I wonder if Caesar couldn't have conquered an even larger empire if he'd only had a supply of Captain's Wafers. We kept the boys going with frequent rest stops and rock-throwing contests, but their little sister decided she'd had enough at the 1-hour mark. While my companions sat by the stream to rest, I went ahead to see how far we had to get to the upper falls. Our goal was only a few minutes up the trail for an unladen adult, but there was a tricky traverse over the creek and some boulders to scale. In the end, Sarah made the sacrifice to stay with the kids while Sean went with me to the end of the trail. The upper Catawba Falls were far more impressive than we'd ever expected - plunging several hundred feet from the top of the ridge. We paused there for awhile in the cool, moist forest, then Sean headed back down the trail while I pushed my luck.
There is a small goat path at the base of the falls with a broken sign making it clear to anyone who wishes to proceed that they do so at their own risk. I did so in the hope of making it to the top to see the source for all that water tumbling down the mountain, but the trail quickly turned technical. After 50 yards or so of using my hands to pull myself up the slope, I came upon a stretch so steep that intrepid falls watchers had installed a rope anchored into the rocks above. With the view getting more impressive with every step, I climbed the rope and then climbed some more, but the way was only getting more difficult. The rewards of Catawba Falls correlate directly with one's testicular fortitude. Mine gave out about 100 feet from the top, but the view of the valley below made up for most of my disappointment. It's not every day one gets to see a river being born, and the Catawba certainly has picked a beautiful spot to greet the world.
The way down was just as tricky, and I think I may have ruined a pair of shorts as I slid on my butt down the mountain. By the time I'd reached the bottom I was soaked in sweat that was half exertion, half fear. The trail to the top is about as extreme as I'd care to get at this stage of my life.
By the time I'd caught up with my hiking partners and made it back to the vehicles, it was 2:30 in the afternoon and way past lunch time. I had leftovers waiting for me back at home, but I think the next time I go, I'll head on in to Old Fort to find a bite to eat. When I'm there, I'll be sure to tell them I came because of Catawba Falls and thank them for protecting it.