Waterfall Bike & Hike in the Appalachians (2009)


Scrambling near Whitewater Falls NC 909.JPGI assemble a small group of friends and urban design colleagues. The plan? To share with them the spectacular joys of mountain biking and hiking in the Dupont State Forest in North Carolina. My wife owns a large, luxurious cabin in this forest, but I soon realize we have too many in our group (my call for friends to join me on this adventure was unusually effective, apparently). We opt to rent a second cabin next door.

The weather forecast has been grim in the week leading up to the trip. Several consecutive days of rain and clouds have already blanketed the region, and WeatherChannel shows that this wet, gloomy weather is expected every day for the next 300 days or so…

But we are too committed. Too much motivation (Or is it “inertia”?). We press on.

On my 6.5-hour drive to the cabin from Richmond VA, nearly all of the drive is through a steady rain. My spirits remain glum.

Only half of our group has arrived. We opt for a hike of Whitewater Falls. The falls, which plunges 411 feet, is the tallest waterfall east of the Rockies. As we drive to the falls, we ascend in elevation into the clouds. We walk to the official observation point, but the falls are hidden by a thick fog. Glancing to our left, we see a fenced off trail which seems to lead to the top of the falls. Despite the fence and the many signs warning not to approach the falls due to the 15 who have died here in the past, we take this trail. Soon we hear the slightly disconcerting roar of the Beast of the East. Access is by extremely steep, unauthorized dirt and slippery rock trails along the side of the falls. We are able to get out onto the flat, smooth rocks at the precipice of the falls, and enjoy the mighty view.

The next day, as we join the group in charming, vibrant downtown Asheville, the weather has been overcast without any precipitation for a number of days.

We start out at an Irish Pub in downtown Asheville, where superb, hand-crafted beer is served. I order and enjoy an excellent porter. Once we are all Whitewater Falls2 NC 909.JPGassembled, we go upstairs to the hip, healthy Laughing Seed restaurant.

It is now Saturday morning. Still no rain. Or sun. We saddle up on our mountain bikes and I lead the group up a cruel uphill forest road to start the morning of riding in Dupont State Forest.

The exhilarating Ridgeline Trail rewards us by starting us off on a high-speed, rollercoaster ride on a twisting, turning, undulating single-track trail. After a number of fairly steep hills following Ridgeline, we arrive at the covered bridge, which is the gateway to the top of High Falls. Since I was here a few months ago, a wooden split fence has been erected at the perimeter of the wooded area that provides (unauthorized) access to the flat, smooth rock at the top of High Falls. Large piles of cut trees and brush have also been piled in front of the (unauthorized) trail leading to the precipice. And a sign warns us that there is “NO ENTRY!” here.

Of course, such a sign informs me that this is EXACTLY where we will enter. It is an invitation screaming to me that this is where the fun is. After all, my long-standing adventure philosophy is that “we don’t need no stinkin’ badges!”

After about 15 minutes of enjoying lunch and looking out into the valley below the falls, one in our group is back on the covered bridge and is frantically waving us back. We decide it would be a good idea to do so (given how frantically his waving has become). Upon our return, we learn that a park ranger has informed our worried friend that if she comes back and we are still out on the waterfall Ledge of Doom, she will fine each of us $150.

Onward we ride. Arrival at Triple Falls is such a spectacular sight for the group that all the cameras come out. We hike out onto the rocks at the falls, then head down the trail for our final biking destination on this day: Hooker Falls.

Back at the cabin, I suggest an easy hike to Bridal Veil Falls (where Daniel Day Lewis is alleged to have been filmed in Last of the Mohicans, although this claim is also made for other falls in the region). Half of the group is too exhausted from the morning mountain biking to be interested, so three of us more hearty adventurers head to the trail head.

Bridal Veil Falls3 near NC cabin April 07.JPGI decide to take a route that requires us to ford a swift, foot-deep creek. The bottom of the creek is smooth and very slippery. Best to slowly and carefully negotiate it by gingerly walking/shuffling in bare feet – or better yet, with only socks on.

This requires me to toss my sneakers to the other side of the creek. A mere 10 feet or so. Much to my displeasure, my second sneaker hits a rock on the other side and hops into the rushing water. With no way to wade out to get the shoe before it is swept downstream into a boiling whitewater whirlpool, we watch helplessly as it floats past us. We spend about 10 minutes at the whirlpool hoping to see it reappear. But it doesn’t. And is probably sitting in that whirlpool as I write this, several days later…

Most reasonable people, I suppose, would abort the hike at this point. But I am not one of them. Life is too short. I’ve promised the group that the weekend (and Bridal Veil Falls) will be unforgettably enjoyable. So I opt for the manly option: Proceed on the hike with a bare foot. We hike to Bridal Veil and back. Well over two hours of hiking with a bare foot. Not so bad. Except in the several locations where relatively sharp road gravel has been spread onto trail sections to minimize erosion. But if my ancestors walked and ran for their entire lives with bare feet, I can bear it for a few hours.

At our departure from behind Bridal Veil Falls, the rain starts. It is approximately 3 pm on a Saturday. For the remainder of our hike back to the trailhead, the rain is a steady downpour. We debate whether it is more unpleasant to hike in the rain or in hot, humid weather. I prefer the later. My companions prefer, oddly, the former.

The rain is relentless. Most of the trails we slog through on our way back to the trailhead are no longer trails. They are muddy water rivers.

Which presents a bit of a problem for Barefoot Dom: He can’t see the trail surface, and can only hope that he does not step on sharp metal, glass, stone, or snake, since the trail surface is no longer visible.

We arrive back at the cabin, relieved to be able to get into dry clothes again. I cook a meal of pasta, homemade basil pesto and shrimp for our group, accompanied with my homemade bread, homemade white Chardonnay wine, and an outstanding Calabrian rosso wine (to celebrate my Calabrian heritage). We toast to a successful week of adventure (and subversion of the dominant transportation paradigm). The meal concludes with a locally-made Triple Falls3 near NC cabin April 07.JPGcherry pie from a nearby street-side produce market.

That night, the downpour continues to rattle on the tin roof of our cabin. It is now noon Sunday, and most of the group has departed. A friend and I find ourselves in the cabin unable to hike or bike in the now drenched, flooded forest around us. Instead, I show my friend how to sign up for and use Facebook, as I had earlier somehow persuaded him to try Facebook at my (normally unsuccessful) urgings.

As we drive to the Asheville airport for my friend to catch his flight on Monday, the rain continues. Rivers have overtopped banks. Grassy areas have become lakes. Earlier, we learn from the Internet that the all-time record for Asheville rainfall for September 20th (set in 1913) has been TRIPLED by the rain that fell on 9/20/09. For much of my drive back to home in Richmond, the rainfall persists. It has now been approximately 42 continuous hours of rain.

For all I know, the rain has not stopped falling in Asheville as I write this seven days later.


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