Time Passages -- Hazel Creek Spring 2009


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Time Passages – Hazel Creek 2009

I walked onto an airplane a few months ago and found myself sitting next to a man who was reading Horace Kephart’s “Our Southern Highlanders”. It turned out the gentleman was from England and had never visited the United States before, much less the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, so I spent the next few hours trying to explain the sensations of seeing the Calhoun house, or the Hall cabin or camping at the old town site of Medlin. I tried to help him visualize the beauty of the valley and more importantly the beauty of Hazel creek, to feel the history yet reveal in the rebirth of nature and how she had pulled the valley back to the wild. I knew in my heart that I could never capture the feeling and the majesty of the real thing but maybe I helped him have a greater appreciation of one of the most spectacular places on earth. But the real accomplishment of that conversation was stirring the embers of my desire to once again stroll the banks of Bone Valley and to sit once more on the porch of the Hall cabin…. So I reread Kephart’s book, which never fails to stir thoughts and images of long gone personalities and cultures ……… gone but never forgotten… and waited for my chance to return

So a few weeks later when a friend since college called and wanted me to go with him on a camping and fishing trip, Hazel creek jumped in my mind and plans were made. To make it even more fun on Saturday before the trip my oldest son Ricky who is a freshman at Georgia Southern strolled into the house on his spring break completely surprising both his mother and I … … so much for father-son communication. But surprisingly for the second year in a row he was willing to spend his spring break in the woods fishing with his father as long as I let a few of his closest and oldest friends tag along. I would love to tell you that spending time with his old man was more important to him than running after “girls gone wild” on the beaches of Florida ……. But the truth is limited summer job finances are a factor that even a college kid must face up to … so fishing with dad would have to do.

The Tuesday morning of St. Patrick’s Day found five of us, three young bucks and two aged warriors, standing at the turnoff overlooking Lake Fontana and the arm that leads to Hazel creek. It was a new sight for three of the five of us, and the last time Ricky had seen it last was about ten years previously when he was 9 or 10. So the group was in awe of the beauty of the view, and even though I had seen it many times before, the beauty never ceases to amaze me. So we stood there in the morning chill silently enjoying the panorama that lay before us and let our thoughts and imaginations dream of the trip to come.

Fifteen minutes later we were squashing the last of the “stuff” into our backpacks and having a last toast of Guinness to bring us a little luck of the Irish…..it is St Patty’s Day after all and we did want some fishing luck…….. The fishing luck alone would make the Guinness a fishing requirement wouldn’t it? And as we strolled down the walk way to the marina

I found myself reminiscing about Saint Patrick’s Day of MY freshman year in college and how I spent it in the lap of luxury in the cheap Chateau Motel with ten of my best friends in Panama City Beach Florida …. And trust me there were a few pretty special “firsts” about that old spring break trip but I still found myself being thankful that I was on this trip instead of that one some 28 years earlier. Time does pass … and quickly too.

Way too much money later we were all licensed and transportation was paid for ….. and yes I did double check everyone’s license this year for those of you who remember last year’s spring break citation fiasco….. and we found ourselves in the boat streaming across the water toward Hazel. The shuttle guy told us he couldn’t take us to the bridge like normal and that we would have to go over the mountain at Ollie cove. That didn’t register with me and I nonchalantly passed that off as idle chatter and forgot about it………… that is until I had my pack strapped on and stepped off onto the lake shore and realized that there was a really ugly vertical climb just to get to the beginning of the trail with took off straight up the mountain…….. oh well it just wouldn’t be an “rbaileydav” backpacking story if there wasn’t a nasty hill for me to whine and cry about would it…… The group made great time up the hill and I purposely staid in the back moving slowly up the hill … … of course that was to make sure everyone else made it up the hill safely… Hey it is my story so I get to tell it the way I want to … …

By the time I descended the hill and reached the Calhoun House at the bridge I was starting to feel better … but I stopped at the Calhoun house anyway just because I love it. This house brings to life the images and history of the people that called this valley home for me and Kephart’s tales about Granville Calhoun ring in my head as I walk through the house. Somewhere in my heart and mind, I hear the sounds of a family living and dying in this house. The ghosts of times past and the memories still living in this house dance through my imagination

By the time I hit the bridge again I am feeling better and settle in to the easy stroll that this hike should have been from the beginning … … and with a view like this how could I be anything but peaceful.

The rest of the hike passed in a nice easy rhythm and was actually very enjoyable until I stumbled on the boys waiting beside the trail… … they had gotten worried about my old ass as I normally never fall behind and they were actually concerned about my well being… I calmed their fears politely… … thanked them for their concern politely… … all the while growing frustrated at the passage of time that had caused a role reversal where the kids were checking on me to make sure I was okay. Times they are a changing. I thought back to hundreds of hiking trips when I had carried the boys or stopped to check how they were doing and slowed my pace to a crawl to make sure they were okay … … and now here they were waiting and worrying about me. That makes a man want to start working on getting in better shape doesn’t it? But I guess I should be glad they cared enough to worry. In the end we all scooted up the trail together and in no time found ourselves setting up camp near the old town site of Medlin or campsite 84 to those in the know and were delighted at what I consider to be one the prettiest campsites in all of the GSMNP.

But enough of this scenery thing as we came here to fish and a fishing we will go. Everyone split up and headed in different directions so I stepped into the water right next to camp. And sure enough the fourth cast landed a brightly colored jewel within a good double haul of the camp fire ring.

And on the dry side of a dry/dropper combination to boot … … ain’t life grand. The rest of the day produced fish but not stunning quantities or stunning size but a good 10 to 12 fish afternoon with the big one near 12 and the smallest well … “jerker” size. But who can argue with a 10 fish day … … and such stunning scenery to boot.

We all stumbled back to camp about the same time tired but happy. A few fish caught by everyone although nobody felt like they had it really “dialed in” as far as fly selection yet… but we were all had a few fish memories more than we started the day with and to me that is always worth more than money in the bank … that is unless you don’t have any money in the bank.

The charcoal was now embers and the steaks were history. It was a rather unique feeling watching my son pull out his own bottle of Woodford out of his backpack… which he had bought and brought on his own … my parental instinct kicked in but just as quickly vanished as I realized if I wasn’t here he would be doing it whether I liked it or not… and from this point in time onward he would be spending much more time away from me than with me… so I toasted his choice of beverage and felt the chill of having my first drink with the man my son was becoming. There go those time passages again. The bourbon loosened the stories which were soon flowing faster than the current in the river… each one of us trying to determine whose college days were more fun than everyone else’s. Stories about me, and from me, about my son and from my son, all of which sounded eerily similar combined to really muddle the time passages as I think we all truly felt for a little while like we were all still in college together. Well as you may have already surmised about me … first drinks soon become second drinks and so on … which the group of college kids surely didn’t seem to mind … so before the night was done the toasts got the toasters and the toastees …. Rather toasty.

The warmth of the sun and the sound of the birds in the trees drug me from my tent long before my tired body was ready, but years of rising early for the working world leave their mark, a mark that the blissful snoring of three college kids and a night time pilot for Fed-ex obviously didn’t share. So I wandered around near camp and took a couple pictures of Sugar Creek and pondered the road that ran next to the creek that led to the cabin Horace Kephart had lived in so many years ago. I wondered what this part of the forest must have looked like in his day recalling the photos from his book and what it must have looked like when the full scale logging had been going on and marveled at how nearly completely nature reclaims her own, leaving little more than traces of the world that used to exist here. So this beautiful morning passed while I was lost in contemplation once again about the relationship of new to old and the passage of time.

Rousing out of my thoughts when the gang finally got up, we made our fishing plans for the day, I was heading up to the Hall Cabin which is my favorite destination in the park…… both for the fishing and for the cabin. So I rigged the old faithful Schaaf Creede for me, and loaned out a 7 ft granger aristocrat and a 7 1/2 foot Wright McGill aristocrat to the boys and went about my merry way. I bypassed much of the Hazel Creek water due to the canyon trail and the heavy fishing I was planning for Bone Valley. And soon enough I felt the cold bite of wet wading in March as I entered the stream. I adore Bone Valley creek… always have always will… it was love at first site for me and I have never felt that hold release me. The fishing was once again good but not spectacular. I caught some fish on dry but got most on droppers…. No great size but steady numbers and a Smoky Mt slam to boot… but to me the real thrill of the creek is her beauty. It is a shy kind of beauty that grows on you, leaving you somehow changed after witnessing it and making you always yearning to recapture that first blushing glimpse.

And with vision of loveliness like that and a few fish sprinkled in to boot I spent a glorious afternoon progressing toward my real destination, the Hall Cabin. I can’t exactly tell you why I love the cabin so much, I guess because it makes me feel tied into and part of the history of the valley and also in awe of families that worked so hard to carve a living for themselves and their families out of this beautiful but often inhospitable valley. After all the name Bone Valley comes from the many cattle bones that once dotted the landscape up here after a freak spring blizzard froze them to death. Yet here I was wet wading in March … beauty like nature is nearly always a dangerous paradox that renders us just slightly in awe of her whim.

My first sight of the cabin always makes me smile and feel tingly and once again my imagination can hear the voices of children playing and the faded muted conversations of Crate Hall and his wife carrying on the breeze.

But the true magic to me is sitting on the front porch as I can almost still hear the rockers creaking. I am enough of a true southerner to know that the front porch is the true heartbeat of any old time southern family. And I swear I can still hear and feel that heartbeat pulsing when I sit on that old porch and let an hour … or two … lapse as I think on the times passage that has occurred on these weathered planks.

I then head over to the rubble of the chimney of the Kreiss family hunting lodge. A house that is now long gone, with only the chimney and the foundation to mark the spot where it so briefly stood, brief in terms of forest time. There is a tree growing straight out of the stones of the fireplace hearth…thin but over 30 feet tall now… nature springing out of the temporary rubble of man … the ultimate mark of the passage of time……….

I take one more picture of the cabin from the chimney’s vantage point just to burn the sight into my feeble brain.

About that time my friend Monte arrives at the cabin so we spend some time just sitting and talking catching up on the world and enjoying each others company. We talked about the boys and Monte commented on how young they seemed to him and I reminded him of what we had been like at their age. Watching him laugh as that comparison struck home for him. I know it was hard for Monte to see them as men because he saw them as they exist today … whereas I saw them as they existed for all of the yesterdays of their lives, a flood of memories of each age and stage poured into my brain and ran like a movie before my eyes, almost as if Ricky were growing up in fast forward right in front of me. I finally looked at Monte and reminded him that all three of them were like my children and that I was proud of how far they had come and anxious of where their lives would lead but that I was confident that they could make it wherever their lives may lead. And that no matter what the world may throw at them … they will always … all of them... be my “kids”. The tune to Al Stewart’s “Time Passages” started echoing in my head. He looked at me strangely as any non parent will when looking at a misty eyed parent, but Monte and I have been good friends for a long time so I knew he understood as he let the conversation lag and fade before we began to fish our way back down Bone Valley to the campsite.

We ran into the three stooges … i.e. my son and his friends in the Bone Valley Campsite area. And an ugly lot they are …

While I may claim all three of them, I think I am required by law to lay blood claim to the one in the middle. Monte hung around up there with them and fished for a while more but I was tired and decided to head on back to camp,

I hit the camp just as darkness fell and before any others of the crew had made it back so I had a chance to light a cigar, mix a bourbon and stream water, light on the stream water of course, and to snap a few pictures… a camping ritual for me. The cigar was wonderful and the bourbon was magic and the pictures??? Well the bourbon told me they were masterpieces but I think ole Woodford may have been lying to me… it does that sometimes you know, so you will just have to judge for yourself … …

We enjoyed a great dinner and a great campfire that night, and spent hours talking about everything under the sun … and the stars as well for that matter. Taking a midnight stroll from the warmth of the campfire to the middle of the bridge near camp to see if we could actually hear the ghosts of the town of Medlin over the roar of the river or see the phantom shadows and silhouettes of the now long gone buildings in the moonlight … and only the souls of each of us can truly answer what we saw with our hearts and felt in our pulse.

The morning dawned way too quickly. Quickly in terms of lacking sleep but also in terms of departure day dawning. Tents were soon struck and backpacks rebuilt … and without further ado we were strung out on the trail leading back to the lake. Each lost in thoughts and memories of our trip, lost in the feeling of the sun on our face and the beauty of the world we were hiking through. All too soon, I found myself taking a picture of Monte back at the lake with the ferry waiting in the background. The trip having come to its conclusion way to fast to suit my tastes … but with memories made to last.

Time passes all too quickly when you are having fun… and we did have fun … a lot of fun in fact…

A few nights later after my son was back at college I sent him a text and told him “thank you” for going on the trip with me and told him how fun it was for me to hang out with him and how much I like his company… a real treat for a parent. As I read his reply …

“Thanks for taking me dad, I probably haven’t told you how lucky I feel having you as a father, All I’ve learned from you fly fishing will last a lifetime. You taught me to be a man … Thanks old man”

I once again heard the echoing refrains of “Time Passages”, through a teary and misty soul … but with a smile in my heart and a thank you god for giving my family the blessing of love for each other, for a shared love of nature and a deep seated joy of fishing together and asked him to please help us always remain as close as we are.

I really enjoyed your post. My friends and I have been to Bone Valley many times. We are planning another trip this year. I always spend at least one day fishing up Bone Valley Creek and eating lunch followed by a nap at the Hall Cabin.
Fishing above the Cabin is not for the feint of heart, it is the back of beyond, like Kephart said.
There are so many surprises waiting in that valley, I recognized many of the scenes in your photos, and have had many of the same experiences you describe.
Sincerely, Neil R
You truly get the mistery of Hazel Creek. I really enjoyed reading your post and deeply understand what this wonderful piece of paradise can do to your soul. It is my home away from home as I met my wife on Hazel Creek and we were later View attachment 47675 married in front of the Calhoun House. I've spent the better part of 3,000 days on the creek during my lifetime sharing it's wonders with others. Beautifully done!
Excellent report. Your writing about your son's growth into manhood really struck home with me. I always cherish every moment with my 9 year old son, especially on the water, but reading your post really drives home how quickly he will be an adult. Thank you for sharing.
Nice post. My youngest boy has a fly fishing passion that is on hiatus while he is off in distant lands attending college. His summers are full of playing baseball where ever the school sends him, so hopefully someday we'll get some quality time on a river like this.

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