Phil Perkins Photography

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Category: Lessons From The Trail

  • Upper Spruce Flats Falls

    It had been quite a while since first I saw another waterfall above Spruce Flats Falls. During autumn of 2021, as leaves fell from the trees, I’d caught a glimpse of whitewater through bare branches as I traversed a mountain trail in the Smoky Mountains.

    Of course, I had to find a way to access these newly discovered falls, but, over time, that proved to be difficult. There was no way to climb up and over the 30-foot tall Spruce Flats Falls, as it ran down a vertical wall of slippery, wet rock. On the right side of the gorge is a tall mountain, with several sections of imposing cliffs and no visually discernible route of ascension.

    I’d tried the left side, before, successfully climbing up some distance, though, without seeing a path forward, turned around. Yesterday, however, I tried again.

    The hillside is very steep and always wet, due to both airborne mist from the falls, and given that its proximity is somewhat shielded from direct sunlight. Under wet leaves, the soil remains damp and slippery. This means that, to advance uphill, there are often instances when footing is reliable for no more than a few seconds.

    As such, it’s important to avoid open areas which lack handholds – rocks, exposed tree roots, trees and bushes (especially Rhododendrons, a hearty shrub).

    After an arduous climb, I reached a relatively flat space and stood to rest for a moment. I also laughed, because, as I caught my breath and thought about how strenuous that climb had been, I saw an old tree with many persons initials carved into the bark. Well, I thought…I’m sure they were younger than 59 years old!

    Thus far, stability and continuity of movement were of primary concern; if I’d lost balance and started to slide down such a steep face, I probably couldn’t have stopped. To such ends, I expended a great deal of physical energy, which, at times, included essentially crawling uphill to increase the breadth of my grip, where little was present.

    With this endeavor, challenges were constant, and the need for caution, continuous. In order to access the base of Upper Spruce Flats Falls, I needed to keep climbing much higher before then descending across the mountainside along a diagonal trajectory – I knew where the falls where, but only generally how to go about getting there.

    Looking forward I could see that I first needed to reach higher ground, some 20-feet above my location. To do so, I’d either have to backtrack a fair distance in order to climb up a rocky section; or, alternatively, I could try a route directly in front of me, across a narrow leaf-covered ledge and then up a short but steep hill, also with leaves.

    As I mapped out an ascent in front of me, it appeared that there would be sufficient small rocks in place to establish safe handholds. Well, that turned out to be a mistake.

    Halfway into the process, I realized that the ground was more slippery than anticipated and, while a few fixed rocks had decent edges for gripping, the consequence of slipping would entail a fall of 20 feet. I quickly gathered myself, and, very slowly, climbed down in reverse from whence I came. Once safe, I opted for the other route.

    After an exhaustive hike up the mountain, than across and back down again, through dense shrubbery and vines with thorns, my legs were gashed and bleeding in several spots. Nonetheless, I’d finally arrived at the approx. 25-foot tall waterfall!

    Prints available in my gallery.

    Lessons From the Trail

    A note about trekking poles. Walking sticks provide hikers with the capacity to achieve better balance, and I surely could not have reached this waterfall absent such aides. However, more commonly, I used my trekking poles continuously to brace myself from sliding downhill, as push-points for upward locomotion, to test surface footing underneath leaves, remove debris from underfoot, and, on my return, as points through which to gather my weight during descent.

    A note about leaves. Leaves can be deceptive, as often a flat blanket of leaves does not accurately represent an underlying surface. There may be crevices or a hole. Also, leaves accumulated on a hill against the upside of a log may simply be stacked in suspension. Either way, it’s important to always check for stability before trusting your step.

    A note about handholds. For safety, every handhold should first be tested whenever possible. One should never assume, for instance, that a tree will support ones weight, particularly when its the only point of stability being relied upon. In such situations, grasping the base of the tree near the ground increases the likelihood that a tree won’t break.

    A note about focus. The cost of weak moments can be significant and, just as the physical demands of such a climb left me exhausted, so too did the need to retain focus. Herein, in order to remain safe and to accomplish my goal, each step had to be considered, and each movement methodical. Furthermore, as previously noted, it’s always better to err on the side of caution and take the time to be thorough when weighing options to proceed; to recognize a diminished state of mental acuity, and not allow oneself to hurry.

  • Spruce Flats Falls

    After sitting a spell to enjoy a peaceful setting at the base of Spruce Flats Falls, I decided to hike downstream to see what I could find. During summer months, the water is generally lower than otherwise, allowing one to more easily traverse the rock-lined waterway of Spruce Flats Branch. Nevertheless, there are several areas which remain difficult to safely navigate, and it’s important to be mindful of potential hazards.

    Of course, damp rocks are slippery, as is moss (which is everywhere), and each should be approached with caution. Worse yet, though, are rocks which appear dry yet have a thin, slippery film under a fine layer of dirt. Other rocks, some of significant size and weight, defy ones perception of stability, unexpectedly shifting underfoot, posing a risk of falling or injuring an ankle. The same holds true for downed timber. It’s important to always test whether or not a log can support ones weight, if that is the purpose applied for passage. Again, even the largest log can give way and pose real danger.

    At a few points, I had to climb up and out of the creek bed, making my way across steep and narrow surfaces, before descending again back to the water below. In such situations, trekking poles are critical and serve to provide needed support for both weight and balance. It’s also wise to be aware of surrounding handholds (hearty plants, small trees or exposed roots) on hillsides, should the need exist.

    The final stretch of this creekside adventure entailed descending a 15-foot rock face, strewn with logs and quite slippery in some areas. This waterfall is named Honey Cove Falls, and is visible from along a dirt road in Tremont, across Middle Prong Little River. Following consumption of water and a protein bar, I relaxed to enjoy the natural beauty of this area, thereafter pondering… what next? Do I retrace my steps up the mountain to Spruce Flats Falls, expending a great deal of time and energy in so doing, such that I may then hike out along the trail from which I entered the forest? Or, given a seasonal deficiency of water, is it possible to safely wade across Middle Prong Little River, in order to follow the road back to my parked vehicle?

    I opted for the latter, very cautiously wading through over 2-feet deep flowing water, across a river bed of very slippery stones. Even here, caution is critical to avoid injury, as ones feet can slip and become wedged between rocks.

    All told, I had a great hike and enjoyed many sights which are not often seen. Being mindful and with a deep respect of the danger inherent in nature, such hikes aren’t overly difficult. However, without deliberation, it can be very easy to have a bad day.

    I have many fine prints available in my gallery, and encourage guests to visit.

  • Lessons From the Trail

    Chasing Waterfalls

    By definition, waterfalls are always moving, following gravity. And, at times, falls may disappear – flowing underground, or, with seasonal changes, run dry. Furthermore, though a waterfall may be visible, getting close for a photograph often poses significant challenges.

    During an early morning visit to Middle Fork Falls, my first time on site, it soon became apparent that the best views were from the other side of the river. Hiking around the upper plateau was easy, though views remained obscured by many small trees and branches. For a better perspective, I’d need to descend the steep hillside.

    Here, the hazards were many. In addition to steepness, several successive days of heavy rainfall had fully saturated the topsoil. Some footholds remained secure for no more than only a few seconds before giving way to slide in mud. On such a grade, stopping oneself from a slip might not be possible until some 50-feet below, on the rocks at waters edge.

    The ground was covered with rocks of varying sizes, each hidden under wet leaves, an issue which could not be overlooked. Small rocks wouldn’t support my weight, and large rocks – more flat than round – mirrored the angle of the slope, usually encased with a slippery, mossy-film and hazardous. So, I sought to use medium sized rocks as footholds, as these could be pushed into the ground some distance, binding long enough to provide safe footing.

    There were also some smaller, 1″-wide young trees, useful for stepping topside, though not trustworthy as handholds. Most useful were my trekking poles, without which I could not have proceeded.

    Next, I traveled to nearby Potter’s Falls, where, as I began to drive down into the gorge, was greeted by a substantial roar of water through the forest, and would soon face another sort of challenge.

    Potter’s Falls has an upper and lower set of falls, and the river – Crooked Fork Creek – has a bridge to cross. While taking photographs on the south side of the waterway, I observed a 25-foot tall waterfall some distance away, tucked among the trees along a hillside, though deemed the terrain too dangerous to traverse. So, I set off across the bridge to the north side for a better look.

    Crooked Fork Creek was full from recent rains, flowing high on the banks with fierce currents. If in the primary channel, one would surely be washed away downstream, thrashed into rocks and drowned. So, I thoughtfully set my sights on the safest options nearest to what may be defined as the edge, or shore.

    I could see the waterfall across the river, though many trees impaired my direct line of sight. And, there were dozens of rocks in the water (some quite large), several of which appeared close enough that I might be able to use safely as stepping stones – climbing toward a single point I’d identified as best from which to photograph the falls.

    Note: this particular waterfall has no name, present only temporarily and solely as a result of the deluge from recent rainfall, a channel from which to drain downhill into the river.

    Part of this challenge was to ascertain the most viable route via closely-situated rocks and trees, most of which whose trunks were underwater. So, standing back I used my eyes to follow a variety of potential pathways, those which seemed plausible, until I decided upon the best way forward.

    On slippery surfaces, it’s important to keep ones knees bent with each step, the movement of which need be slow and deliberate; indeed, one step at a time. Branches should supplement stability as handholds, if only for balance, and trekking poles are also very useful to test rocks and logs for movement before entrusting ones full weight.

    After approximately 20 minutes of slow progress from shore, I had only one gap to bridge – a final area judged too broad and slippery to step across. So, using my trekking poles to tamp unseen surfaces beneath the rolling, muddy river, I carefully walked a short distance through knee deep water, shoreside of the rocks and away from the channel, cautious with each step so as not to wrench my ankles between rocks.

    Climbing back out of the water and on to the furthest and final rock of my route, I learned then that the view for taking photographs was only decent, at best. Nevertheless, I’d safely navigated the first half of this challenge, which I considered a successful endeavor and worthy of sharing, herein.

    Thanks for reading & enjoy the great outdoors – safely!

  • Lessons From The Trail

    Watch Your Step

    Everyone enjoys daydreaming now and then – humorous thoughts, events from earlier in the day or something planned for tomorrow, the face of a beautiful woman…

    That’s what happened to me on my last hike to Hen Wallow Falls, near Cosby, Tennessee. I was on my way back to the parking area, after enjoying the 90-foot tall waterfall, following a downhill trail with many small rocks – and, a significant amount of mud from recent rainfall.

    Rather than paying close attention to every step, I allowed my mind to wander to pleasant thoughts of a lovely lady from Lisbon, Portugal. A second later, my feet were airborne and I landed on my keister in the mud – D’oh! 😂

  • Lessons From The Trail

    Spatial Awareness

    We walk alone in fields, pass through doorways, stand in crowded elevators and wait in lines. Point being – we’re all familiar with our own presence and girth, in a variety of different settings, and generally don’t give it a second thought. However, to stay safe when hiking, some situations mandate a heightened sense of awareness.

    In order to get the shot I want when photographing waterfalls, for instance, I sometimes access areas which are inherently dangerous – such as narrow, elevated ledges. Of course, I don’t do so haphazardly – I first closely observe the environment, width, footing, stable handholds within reach, etc.. Perhaps most important, though, is that I remind myself I’m wearing a backpack!

    Few scenarios are more startling than attempting to turn around on a ledge, only to have the added bulk of ones backpack bump into a rock face or trees – creating an unbalanced sensation of being pushed forward. It’s difficult to regain ones composure in close spaces when balance is compromised – understand the space you occupy.

  • Lessons From The Trail

    Listen To Your Body

    After hiking all day, it’s finally time to go home. However, the parking area is miles away, and, being impatience, you decide to walk faster in order to arrive at your car sooner.

    I’ve found myself in similar circumstances several times and have come to understand, that, when I observe myself starting to drag my feet, tripping here and there on rocks and tree roots, it’s a good idea to slow down. Though falling on the trail isn’t fatal, ones diminished reaction time due to fatigue makes it more difficult to catch or control any given stumble; thus, more likely to sustain an injury – heads up.

  • Lessons From The Trail

    Don’t Rush

    People are always in a hurry. In fact, I would suggest this is more common today than ever. Impatience is a sickness and people can’t wait to be somewhere else – anywhere other than their present location. In many instances, this may be inconsequential. However, patience can be very important in an unfamiliar environment.

    Case in point: my Adventure At Paine Creek. During a grueling 7 hour hike on a mountain in near 90-degree temperatures, and without a trail – only my ears to listen for running water through the forest, below – I was struggling to make headway. Frustrated with my pace, constantly having to stop and untangle myself from vines, plants and trees, legs bleeding from cuts…there was a temptation to recklessly plow my way through the foliage – to get out as fast as I could!

    But, understanding that such behavior would increase the likelihood of injury, I chose instead to remind myself to slow down and exercise caution. As it turned out, doing so provided me with an opportunity on two occasions to observe high rock ledges hidden behind bushes – use your time wisely.

  • Lessons From The Trail

    The sounds of forest animals, echos of rushing water among mountains, wind through the trees…adventures in hiking and photography contribute to a sense of peace & happiness in my life. Accordingly, in order to enjoy such occasions, it’s important to understand and follow a few simple rules – Lessons From The Trail.

    Don’t Be Caught Off Guard

    It never ceases to amaze me, that, given I only weigh 230 lbs., my weight can nevertheless cause movement of boulders many times my size, often upward of a thousand pounds. While it’s not complicated to understand – a focal point of balance hidden from view – it can be difficult to react when you find yourself caught off guard.

    It can happen as you navigate a field of smaller rocks, sometimes unstable and possibly slippery. In your mind, you’ve mapped out a sequence of steps to safely guide your movement across the area, ending on the surface of a large, flat rock assumed to be safe. As you place your final step, the last rock shifts unexpectedly, causing you to lose balance and jeopardizing your safety – not everything is as it appears.