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By Mike Harrington

It was off-trail hiking that brought me to the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club. A casual mention of this interest to a friend at work, Ray Payne, netted me an invitation to go on the club’s Ramsay Prong to Dunn Creek hike set for Saturday, April 20, 1991. With high interest but very limited experience, I was glad to find out there was a group of people who were willing and able to venture from the well traveled paths. I was in good shape, but was apprehensive and wondered how I would do with a group of what I thought might be “extreme hikers”. This story records my first impressions of an SMHC off-trail hike.

The six-person group set out from the parking area at the Ramsay Cascade trailhead about 9 am. By 10:30 they were at the cascade, which I assumed would at least be a stopping point for rest and a snack. After all, the cascade is four miles from the trailhead. The group merely paused for what seemed like a half-minute to put on rain suits or ponchos since it had started to sprinkle. Without stopping to rest or drink in the beauty of the waterfall, we continued across the split-log footbridge, and scrambled up the steep south bank of the ravine to get around and above the falls. We didn’t actually climb the cascade, which would have been truly dangerous. Above the cascades, the terrain flattened out, and the group traveled in the bed of the creek, Ramsay Prong, hopping rocks and occasionally taking to the south bank to get around large boulders or other cascades.

I was really glad when the rhodo thinned and then gave way to an area of large dead firs, fir saplings, and blackberry patches, the essentially thornless kind that grow at high altitude. It was a great relief to be out of the rhodo and able to walk normally. We soon reached the ridge top. It was damp from the recent rains, but each hiker found a place to sit down and eat lunch. Fortune smiled because the sun came out briefly as we dined.

After lunch I looked about trying to figure out the direction the group would take next. I knew we wouldn’t go back down the ridge we just climbed and I thought surely we wouldn’t go down the north side because it was very rocky and had a slope of what appeared to me to be about 90 degrees (straight down). It seemed logical that we would proceed along the top of the ridge to some point that provided a reasonable way to get down the north side. Just to make conversation I approached Ray and asked which direction we would go next.

He pointed down the 90-degree North Slope and said “That way.”

I was taken aback. Thoughts like “You’ve got to be kidding!” and “We’ll all perish!” entered my mind.

Those panicky thoughts remained unvoiced, but I did manage to inquire, “How do you know that’s the right way?”

Ray was very patient with my lack of knowledge. He got out the quadrangle map and explained: number one, he had our position reasonably well pinned down because of a saddle point in Pinnacle lead that he pointed to and that we could both see; and, number two shortly down the north slope we would pick up the first trickle of Dunn Creek and it would lead us out. It was then that I grew curious about all the red lines penciled in on Ray’s map. It seemed like every creek and most of the ridges on the whole map were traced in red. I asked why, and he told me that was his way of marking where he had been. After that, I didn’t worry about the route anymore.

We let ourselves carefully down the 90-degree slope, which soon became 80 then 70 and so on. (Well, OK, maybe it was only 70 degrees to start with, but I’m trying to convey impressions here.) We were warned not to step on the thick moss because sometimes there wasn’t rock underneath it. That proved true, although no one was hurt. The rocky steep slope gave way to actual ground and we were soon following the beginnings of a creek. Someone pointed out some plants with two broad leaves, about four inches tall. Many East Tennesseans have heard of Ramps (Cosby Ramp Festival, etc.)but never tasted or seen them growing. To me they tasted like a cross between onion and garlic. Not a tempting snack food but it was pleasing to see where they grow and learn how to harvest them (should one ever need to live off the land).

The sun disappeared behind clouds after we started down the North Slope and it did sprinkle a little more. That helped us appreciate the theme for that spring day -- the many shades of green -- dark green, light green, blue green, emerald green, every imaginable kind and shade of green moss and green plants and trees -- the myriad greens of the Smoky Mountains temperate rain forest. Before I knew it, we reached Albright Grove with its gigantic poplar trees. A last few easy downhill miles of maintained trail were like a superhighway. We squeezed into the shuttle car for the ride back into Greenbrier Cove and were headed back to Knoxville before dark.

This hike was a powerful experience for me. It inspired me to want to go on every off-trail hike offered in the future. I’m not going to be able to explain the way I felt at the time but I knew I had communed with nature in a way that I had never done before. This was the best way to appreciate a place like the Smoky Mountains in my opinion. The club members on the hike were kind and willing to accept a stranger with similar interests into their midst. Besides Ray, I believe that Matt Kelleher, Steve Higdon, and Jenny Bennett were on this trip. I’m happy to say that since that first off-trail hike led by Ray Payne, I’ve hiked with these individuals numerous times, to other interesting and little seen destinations throughout the Smokies.