Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Whitewater Rambles

The Whitewater River has always been unfamiliar to me. I’ve seen Whitewater Falls, “the tallest falls east of the Mississippi”, on many occasions. And that was about all I knew of the river.

Somewhere along the way, I’d heard of “Lower Whitewater Falls.” But I never investigated how, or if, it was distinct from “THE” Whitewater Falls. For all I knew, the “Upper” part was what you see from the Forest Service overlook off NC 281, south of Sapphire, and the Lower Falls is viewed by descending the stairs from the overlook.

Well, I was mistaken, and so I recently devoted an afternoon to a better understanding of Whitewater geography.

Technically speaking, “Whitewater Falls” is a misnomer. It’s not on the map. According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Board on Geographic Names, the tall falls you find on postcards is simply “Upper Falls,” while “Lower Falls” is a couple of miles down the Whitewater River in South Carolina.

With a drop of about 200 feet, Lower Falls is impressive. I finally saw it last month after a two-mile walk from a trailhead on Duke Power’s Pumped Storage Facility at Bad Creek. I had driven past the Bad Creek entrance many times. Due to the imposing gate, the chain link and the barbed wire, I assumed the place was strictly off-limits to wood tramps like me.

Once again, I was mistaken. So I brazenly steered my way through the gate and past the bizarre Bad Creek reservoir. I found the trail and commenced to walking. To reach the observation deck for Lower Falls, you have to cross a footbridge over the Whitewater.

On the east side of the river, the Foothills Trail leads north to the Upper Falls.

On the west side of the river, another trails meanders through old growth toward a twenty acre tract of virgin forest, the Coon Branch Natural Area. This path finally gave me a chance to get acquainted with the Whitewater River. The day was too short, though, so I’ll have to find the gigantic Fraser magnolia on a later date.

Once upon a time I might have known, but I had since forgotten, that the Whitewater begins near the High Hampton resort in Cashiers. Driving along NC 107 toward South Carolina, you’ll cross the river. Silver Run Branch flows into the Whitewater just a short distance downstream from Silver Run Falls.

The final stretch of the Whitewater River is the part that I will never see, since it is lost forever beneath the waters of Lake Jocassee, built by Duke Power in the 1970s. Among the worlds lost to the Jocassee damnation was the trail of the French botanist Andre Michaux who explored the Keowee and its headwaters in 1878 and 1788.

Somewhere between the Whitewater and the Toxaway Rivers, he took notes on one unusual plant. The subsequent efforts of botanists to find the Shortia galacifolia described by Michaux continued for a century before the mystery of the Oconee Bells was finally solved.

Michaux’s second, and last, trip along the Keowee and Whitewater was in December 1788. Over the next few days I’ll post some entries from the journal he kept on that expedition.


For all stories on Andre Michaux http://gulahiyi.blogspot.com/search/label/michaux


River Lover said...

Nice article! Here's some additional information about the upper Whitewater and the mini-gorge it travels through before reaching 281 and the big falls: http://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/detail/id/3564/

Navigating otherwise almost impenetrable terrain to reach special places is the real reason lots of folk develop the skill to safely paddle creeks like this. Seeing a wilderness creek from the water is an amazing experience. It feels very natural, like being one with the water, which merely visits. Other nearby treasures that can be viewed in the spirit of Powell include the North and West Forks of the French Broad, the Horsepasture down to Windy, the Toxaway for a highly-skilled few, Overflow Creek, and (hopefully!) soon the upper reaches of the Chattooga.

GULAHIYI said...

Thanks for that comment, RL. Glad you enjoyed it. At the risk of reigniting an old debate...
I'm sure some folk are on the water for that experience of communing with nature. On the other hand, I've observed lots of kayakers who seem incapable of experiencing rivers as much more than water-park thrill rides. Now, I'm not singling out kayakers for spoiling the wilderness experience for everyone, since hikers, campers and other outdoors folk CAN be just as guilty. That said, we both know there are strong arguments NOT to open every inch of every stream to kayakers. I've had to jump off the trail to avoid getting run over by a phalanx of kayak-toting maniacs, and don't look forward to having that happen on the Upper Chattooga. But I recognize American Whitewater for what it is, essentially an industry trade group that employs NRA-style tactics to aggressively push its agenda. Paddle or die! Yap, yap, yap...

Perhaps if I saw AW take measures to distance itself from testosterone-crazed YEE-HAW paddlers, instead of enabling and glorifying that "culture", I would change my opinion. I like that "spirit of Powell" ideal. How could it be introduced to the sport today, and promoted as a worthwhile value? Anyhow, there are already plenty of rivers where paddlers can whoop and holler and show off all they want to, AND I DON'T HAVE A PROBLEM WITH THAT! I acknowledge, as well, that what I object to needs to be addressed with more than simply laws and regulations. I consider Joyce Kilmer Forest a cathedral, a sacred place. While visitng there a few years ago, I heard some people yelling about their ropes and their gear. As I my made my way along the trail, I saw them climbing the big trees. I didn't go to Kilmer to hear thrill-seekers screaming about their equipment. In my opinion, they were crass and inconsiderate, just like lots of paddlers are crass and inconsiderate. Wilderness protection regulations are a highly imperfect way to preserve the wilderness experience, but better than nothing. As long as we have lawyers and industry trade groups, though, I guess no place can be protected from the YEE-HAW sports crowds. Maybe what they say about lawyers applies to paddlers as well: "It's only the 95% of them that give them ALL a bad name."
Thanks again, and Peace!

River Lover said...

Well, no need to dive back in to our older debate. The "YEE-HAW" label stings a bit though, and I truly believe it's maybe 40-60, not 95-5 (I'm trying to be fair and acknowledge your observation -- I hate seeing skull stickers on helmets). And hikers and fishers certainly have some "YEE-HAW" imbeciles who spoil it for the rest of us, too. So why the inequality? Anyway, we'll obviously have to agree to disagree. Sacred places should be protected -- I'd be amenable to an equally-applied limited access permit system. Baxter State Park in Maine is a great example of good management.

Tree climbers? Is that for real? I'm against drilling rock but think I would get belligerent if I witnessed somebody spiking an old growth Hemlock. By the way, Kilmer is one of the places I've always wanted to spend some time in. What's your favorite trail?

GULAHIYI said...

I wasn't sure it was you! Forgive my gratuitous excesses. I could say it comes with the territory, but that's a cop-out. And I appreciate your proven willingness to engage in a civil discussion. What I'm really getting at is bigger than paddling. And yes, I'm frustrated about feeling closed in from every side. It's almost impossible to go to the Blue Ridge Parkway without getting ear-bleed from the Harley riders. (I have to bite my tongue whenever I see a "Loud Pipes Save Lives" sticker plastered on one of those useless little pie-pan helmets.) But now that they're entrenched, I doubt we could get even one no-Harley day a month on the Parkway.

I don't know if they allow the tree climbers anymore, but the bunch I saw was some Atlanta outdoor adventures business (from what I remember of their van, before I flattened their tires...just kidding). The "figure 8" trail at Kilmer is great, of course. By the time I get out there, I don't have time left to do much more than that. I need to get busy and find more of the big trees. Boogerman Trail in Cataloochee has some giants...that was a good hike. I'll have to hike back in to Coon Branch to see those. Ramsey Cascades on the TN Side of GSMNP has some of the biggest trees in the Park, and I haven't been there yet. I understand there are some enormous trees near Highlands, if you can find them. But Kilmer is special.

The saying goes, "if your only tool is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail." And that's part of my problem with the technology-dependent outdoor sports. I fall prey to that mindset myself by toting a camera (almost) everywhere. I start to look at things as potential "shots" and that can prevent me from being as present as I might be. It's a two edged sword. Looking through the camera might draw me in to see things I'd otherwise miss, but it can be a distraction, too. And I think that is the mixed blessing of paddling, climbing, fly-fishing, horse-back riding or what have you. So let that "yee-haw" comment roll off like water from a duck's back. I thank you for bringing the spirit of Powell to life. And besides that, you don't know it, but I am indebted to you for a small act of thoughtfulness of your part almost five years ago. It was (and is) greatly appreciated.