Leaning against the railing of Cumberland Falls was where I choked up silently by myself. I was moved after the three-day backcountry hike in the rain more often than not. All that water. According to Wikipedia, the lowest recorded peak flow rate over the falls was 17,500 ft3/s in 1985. Being there, watching the second largest waterfall East of the Rockies, was reminiscent of standing on Hurricane Hill back in the Olympics. Not merely awe-inspiring, but it epitomized what I like to think of as pure gratitude. For having the chance to see and experience things like this while providing a deeper understanding of nature and be humbled by both its fragility and its persistence. The feeling of connection to the forest around me and the people with whom I had hiked with for the past three days lightened my heart at that moment while listening to the deafening sound of the water spill over the crest and crash into the river below.
But I suppose all hikes begin at the trailhead. This hike was organized by the Central Kentucky Backpackers group. I’ve been out three times with these good people and each time has been amazingly well organized, beautiful and very fun. This time, we all made arrangements to carpool together. There were four of us. An operating room surgeon named Claude, a world-traveling teacher and avid board game enthusiast named Celeste and a wonderfully kind and resourceful writer, program manager and child care taker called Eloise. We all arrived on Thursday morning around 11 am or so. It only took a few moments to put on all our packs and head on up to the trailhead. The sky had been spitting at us so we donned our rain shells and, trekking poles in hand, we headed up the long grassy tree-rimmed corridor to the point where we’d descend into the massive rock-lined path that lead us down toward the streams below along our route.
The group of us stopped by our first waterfall, the name escapes me but it may well have been near the Yamacraw bridge. Since we weren’t in a hurry the group relaxed time wise. Claude made tortilla pizzas, a popular trail lunch, while Eloise broke out some containers filled with all sorts of fresh fruits and vegetables. I boiled some water and rehydrated a package of Good To Go pasta with marinara sauce. This always reminds me of shivering next to Doug up at Heart Lake in the Olympics after a long trek up the mountain in the misty foggy weather. We were both spent with only enough energy to break camp, make dinner and clean up a bit before crashing into our bedrolls. I guess that dish brings with it some good memories.
From there we trekked through the woods, making the same stream crossing over slick rocks multiple times until we reached Princess Falls on Lick Creek. It was a low but long rock shelf with an impressive water flow creating a curtain of flowing water making a thunderous noise. We all decided to take a break to rest our feet a bit down by the campsite nestled at the base of the falls. Eloise decided to go for a swim in the crisp water darting under then through the falling water. She had the courage I did not to realize a moment I’d always dreamed of being to stand under falling water outdoors just breathing in the positive ions all around. She was the picture of joy right then. Celeste and I sat on the rocks and aired out our feet while Claude looked around the area checking out all the geological features, including the discovery of stairs out of the area. The Cataract Power Light and Traction Company, later known as Dominion Power and Transmission, was built on the nearby Chedoke Radial Trail generating power for the area using water from the old Welland Canal. In those days the nearby town was called the “Electric City.” Funny how one of the things I love most about visiting places like this is escaping my own digital lifestyle in the end.
We all packed up, dried off, laced up our boots and headed out.
We plunged down a pretty unpleasant stretch of the Sheltowee Trace next. It was more about the mood of the trail though. There was a recent river flood that saturated the banks we were walking atop which made the ground rise up and tamp like a bog as we walk across the spongy cracked drying but wet mass. There was a total lack of breeze which made you sweat everywhere. Right down through your underwear and socks dampness. Schweddy balls indeed. We followed the white turtle blazes out of that stretch of trail while seeing multiple sets of fresh bear and deer tracks along the way.
As we made our way back out onto our trail with the white diamond blazes we finally came out to “Negro” Creek. One of my Kentucky trail books says that the repulsive name may come from a rare African American family who lived at the mouth of the creek in the 1800s. Around the corner, our campsite waited. Once we were set up, Celeste and I filtered water from Negro Creek while Claude hung his hammock with the Cuban fiber tarp to ward off the coming rains of the night. We sat around the fireless fire ring as everything was just too wet to kindle, made dinner and shared company with one another. Trail family for a couple of nights. We broke out some whiskey and talked well into the night while listening to the Cumberland River behind us, the wildlife sounds of toads, owls, and other animals that all comprised the ecosystem we were mere visitors within. After our food bags were hung on our bear lines, we headed back to our respective shelters, donned our night clothes and fell deep asleep.
Morning came to soon and a long day awaited us. We had only walked something like 7 miles the day before so we were all still pretty fresh. The second day however I think we topped around 12 miles.
Just before one of our stream crossings, as fate would have it, Claude walked over a young copperhead just as Celeste held the rest of us back and guided us slowly backward. It was a pretty awesome sight to see. Something so small and unassuming yet poisonous and representing imminent danger when you are six miles down a trail with a 25 lbs. backpack strapped to your back. Nature is beautiful… even the sharp parts.
Later, we climbed up a pretty decent sized exposed hill into the sunlight where I gladly took my soaked shirt off to dry in the sun and the wind while munching on a fruit bar Eloise was kind enough to share with Claude and myself. Celeste found a meditation spot on the other side of the summit and sat quietly in the sun no doubt reflecting on the beauty around her.
From there we dove back into the Daniel Boone Forest and made our way to the roadway. Eloise told us that this was the first time shed worn her hiking boots in over a decade. She’d decided to get back outdoors recently you see. From experience, I understand just how much courage to change this takes. Well, her boots did great but everything has an end of life. So, her right boot burst apart at the toe box. Claude and I decided duct tape was the thing to do. I had wrapped that on my trekking poles as recommended by Outdoor Adventures once. And like a fool, I was in a hurry to help with no regard to my own process so I whipped out my Swiss Army and, treating it alike the full tang blade it was not, plunged it into the tree trunk we were both sitting on when it collapsed and cut into my index finger. While unfortunate, and mostly embarrassing, it was OK because Claude and Celeste patched me up as Eloise wrapped her boots. It made me think about what I have in common with an old boot… and that the boot did not share my own stupidity.
From there we made our way to Yahoo Falls which is the only place where we saw any people along the entire trail. It’s thought to be the highest waterfall in Kentucky. Standing at the base of it, you have no doubt of this as its powerful finger touches the black rocks below with a melodic crash. Almost like a harps cord. Just this living strand of water singing as it moves over the earth. We all took a few moments here and just took it all in.
After this, it was time to close the loop however and try to head back to Princess Falls for the night, back up the butthole of the Sheltowee Trace trail. The miles seemed to stretch on in the heat and humidity though. Claude suggested to the group that there was a discrepancy in what was reported on the map and what his GPS was saying, and not in our favor. I was getting low on water and feeling the negative effects of not having a proper lunch when Celeste told me to filter some water at the next stop which gave me a second wind for a while. All through this stretch, however, we passed geological feature after feature. Towering proudly above or teetering as if they would topple in that very minute. All while passing streams and creeks just bursting full of water noisily signing and giving life to everything in the area.
Eloise was feeling the same way I was at one point and fading fast. We did the best to prop one another up but when your tank is low, its low. We passed an old chimney that looked like that all it was missing was the house to make it a Blaire Witch experience. We also came across an AT style shelter in a particularly dank section of the Sheltowee Trace. It’d be a great Winter spot but with our campsite from the previous night nearby, we chose to push on.
Finally, however, we came back to the spot we started off from that morning. Around 12 to 13 miles later if I recall right. Celeste, Eloise and I went to gather water after setting up our shelters, leaving Claude to set up his hammock. We all had dinner with much lower energy than the previous night but, oddly enough, with light hearts that were practically beaming with all the beauty we experienced during that day. Together as a group. There was talk of family, friends, life, choices, and possibilities. Once again, bear bags were hung and we all crawled into our respective shelters slipping out of trail clothes and into deep dreams while listening to the river, frogs, and owls talk to the night sky. That night the sky let loose and decided to pour out upon the earth with a heavy volume. Loud. Pounding. And thorough.
We decided to wake up pretty early the next day in order to tackle what we suspected would be another set of mismeasured miles on the map. The rain let up a bit while we made breakfast and packed up our campsite but never fully stopped. When we hit the trail, it began with gusto again, however. By the time we reached the Sheltowee Trace, everyone was soaked, rain gear notwithstanding. Walking down the trail was reminiscent of being a 6-year-old kid sloshing and splashing on City sidewalks that had become temporary streams. That stretch of trail was both complicated by the rain and difficulty of traversing the muddy terrain but lighter because of the cool water, cooler temperatures and the breezes that permeated the trees. It was, in many ways, a totally different experience than the day before.
We made it back to Princess Falls and then to the multiple stream crossing that lay in store for us. Unfortunately, the trail wanted a little more from us however than a boot, my finger and Claude having fallen on his ass on a rock, no doubt leaving a formidable bruise. It was Celeste however who glided in and out of those woods unharmed. But back to the present moment. On the stream crossing with the rope strung across, Eloise slid on the jumping off rock and painfully fractured her hand. We got her upright and across that and the other stream crossing, however. Reminding her of my own experience with disaster thinking. That it’s not worth jumping to the worst-case scenario first. That we can choose to instead kindle the fire of a more hopeful possibility. Alas, this was not her reality. However, when getting through experience, there is strength in hope.
There’s a meditation that I read recently about “touching peace” which I was reminded of over the course of the 27 miles we hiked last weekend.
“The possibility of peace is all around us, in the world and in nature. Peace is also within us, in our bodies and our spirits. The act of walking will water the seeds of peace that are already there inside us. Our mindful steps help us cultivate the habit of touching peace in each moment.”Thich Nhat Hamh
I’ve spent so much energy on managing anxiety the past four years post heart attack. And while running got me back outdoors, it’s been hiking that has given me lasting moments of relief. A way to refocus on the experience at hand which, effectively, trains my brain to zoom out and look at the path ahead of me instead of the fears of what might lie around the corner. Finding likeminded people to hike with has been an amazing thing as well. The memories that you walk out of the forest with are worth every drop of sweat you shed.
Next up? A short two-day backpacking trip to Zaleski with a new buddy this coming weekend and then camping with some friends the following weekend to kick off the summer season. After that, I plan to make my first trek out to the Dolly Sods and Hoosier National Forest. I’m damn grateful for every hike and chance to be outdoors. I think that’s why I choked up behind my sunglasses at Cumberland Falls. Not out of sadness, but joy.