Local fishing club treks each year to a remote mountain fishing camp
Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a two-part story chronicling the annual journey a local fishing club has made for over 30 years to a remote mountain stream in the mountains of North Carolina.
By Harold Ross, Jr.
For 34 years and counting, I have been leading members of the Hazel Creek Fly Fishing Club to the backcountry of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Each year, my group of 7 or 8 buddies prepares to spend up to seven days camping and fishing on the crown jewel of trout streams called Hazel Creek. We meet at a club member’s house in January of each year to plan the year’s trip date and try to set a date during the month of May.
May is really the best of both worlds as far as weather for this camping trip. Historically we have warm days for fishing and cool nights for sleeping, which make things much more comfortable. This year we have had to postpone the trip until the second week of September because of COVID-19. Hopefully we will have similar temperatures that reflect the month of May.
Once the date is set, we plan all the logistics from who is driving to the menu. A lot goes into preparing for a trip when you have to pack in everything you need from matches and food to fishing gear and toilet paper for a whole week.
This is not your ordinary camping and fishing trip to the local drive up KOA campground. This is backcountry camping to one of the most remote sections of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There are no restroom facilities, no hot showers, no Coke machines and no driving to a store if you happen to forget something. And if you get homesick – sorry, no cell phone service.
If you get injured, you’d better hope it’s minor because it is a seven-mile hike back down the trail to the lakeshore. Then – if you’re lucky – you might catch one or two or three shuttles coming over from the marina bringing other through hikers or maybe bass fisherman passing through the cove. This is back-to-basics Camping 101 where you carry everything in that you will need for a week of camping and fishing.
The trip starts by packing a covered trailer the night before departure. Everybody brings over their individual duffle bags and/or packs with personal items, clothing and fishing gear. Then there is the community camping gear to pack including a stove, kitchenware, camp chairs, axe/saws, tarp, tents, food, bear-proof chuck box, bear-proof cooler and the survival tool bag.
To haul all this gear up the trail, our group had two customized aluminum pull carts made just for this trip. These carts are heavy-duty and capable of holding over 700 pounds of gear each. Did I mention we had to haul these seven miles to our campsite?
On the day the trip starts, the group pulls out of Johnson City at 5:30 a.m. sharp and heads over the mountain through Asheville on our way to Fontana Lake in North Carolina. We always like to stop by a greasy spoon restaurant to load up on calories for the physical test of prowess ahead of us for the day.
It is also important to be well hydrated for this trip because of the physical exertion of the trek up the mountain to the campsite. Once we arrive at the marina, we unload everything on the boat ramp and wait for “Miss Hazel.” This is the name of the large pontoon boat that ferries all our gear and us across Fontana Lake to where Hazel Creek enters the lake.
Riding the ferry across the lake, stress of our busy lives seems to melt away as we anticipate our arrival into a cove where Hazel Creek feeds into Fontana Lake. After the invigorating 30-minute ride across the lake, we take the last bend into the ever-winding cove of Hazel Creek.
A Kingfisher darts by the boat chattering with excitement as if welcoming us back to our playground in paradise. The physical test on manhood begins once we’re docked on shore. We unload the pull carts first, followed by what seems like enough gear to put on a circus for week. We wave goodbye to our boat captain with a quick shout of, “Don’t forget to pick us up at 1 p.m. five days later,” and the sound of the motor gives way to the peaceful songs of birds and the quiet roar of the creek.
The time has come to pack the carts so they will be balanced just right for the long pull up the mountain on an old primitive logging road. The old logging road is still maintained today by the park service so families of past residents can visit the old gravesites once a year.
From 1830 to 1944, the Hazel Creek watershed was once the home to many thriving townships. These communities were once frontier settlements during the 1800s. When the natural resources started to be harvested they quickly became mining and logging towns. Then around 1939, with the outbreak of World War II, TVA needed more power for the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) located in Maryville, Tennessee.
The building of Fontana Dam and the purchase of over 68,000 acres, which was flooded to create Fontana Lake, made it necessary to relocate over 1,310 families, 1,047 graves and over 60 miles of roads. The government promised to rebuild a road back into this area so families could visit one of over 20 graveyards located in the area.
With carts packed, we start the long pull up the mountain on the primitive logging road, which follows the banks of Hazel Creek. After crossing the first bridge a quarter-mile up from the lake, the trip takes us past the decaying ruins of the Ritter Lumber Company Mills.
The heat of the morning starts to settle in along with burning leg muscles as we enter an area we affectionately call Locust Valley. This is a beautiful open valley with a tall stand of locust trees. As we pass through this area, a large group of crows are chasing a bird of prey as it swoops through the treetops.
We now reach bridge No. 2, which was replaced in 2004 as a result of a flood caused by Hurricane Isabel. During the reconstruction of this bridge back in 2004 and 2005, we had to stop here, unload both carts of all gear and hand-carry across a temporary footbridge (including the carts themselves). This added an extra hour to our trip up.
Now we start one of the long 1.5-mile stretches of the road, all uphill, to bridge No. 3. As we travel through a deep canopy of forest, the sweat really starts pouring and the gnats, horse flies and ticks seem to descend on us as if the strain of pulling all this gear was not enough.
Upon reaching the third bridge, we park the carts for our first water break and short rest. As we stand on the bridge, we observe the magnitude of beauty before us looking both upstream and down. We notice butterflies dancing in the sunlit openness over the creek as the cool breeze refreshes our senses.
Back on the trail, we head further north through an area called Sawdust pile, which is another backcountry campsite named for sawdust left over from a sawmill located along the creek in years past. At about mile five, we reach bridge No. 4, which overlooks a beautiful turn in the creek. We always stop here to view a long deep pool where we can actually see trout rising for flies and other terrestrials passing overhead in the deep clear water.
It is at this point in the trip where a visiting member of our group will ask how much further. You are pretty much soaked head to toe in sweat, feet on fire and legs and back aching for relief. Older members know that the end is in sight, just two more miles.
The distance between bridges No. 4 and No. 5 is only 300 yards, but is probably the roughest part of the primitive road because of the rockiness of the path. Halfway between the fourth and fifth bridges a rock wall spouts a freshwater spring. We always stop here to refill our water bottles and drink the pure pristine mountain water.
There is Brook lettuce growing all around this spring. Old time Moonshiners would always look for water sources with Brook lettuce growing around the spring, brook or creek because they knew that it was nature’s barometer as to the purity of the water source.
Refreshed and invigorated by a splash of spring water on the head, we proceed up to bridge No. 5. As we cross the fifth bridge, you can see another creek emptying into Hazel named Sugarfork.
It was on this creek that the famed Author and outdoorsman Horace Kephart once lived and wrote his famous book “Our Southern Highlanders.” His book told of the many aspects of life in the Smokies in the early 1900s. Another 50 yards, and we come to bridge No. 6, which crosses Sugarfork Creek and is at the base of a infamous hill named “Heart Attack Hill” – and rightly so.
To our right is the third backcountry campsite, which sits on a peninsula at the confluence of Hazel Creek and Sugarfork Creek. This is one of the favorite camping sites for fly fishermen because it sits below a large stand of Hemlocks, and as they shed their needles, the floor of the camp is very comfortable for sleeping.
The sad part about this story is the infestation of the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, which methodically killed the century-old growth stand. They have all died now, and the forest service has been cutting them down because of the danger they pose to campers at this site.
As we prepare to ascend the mighty feat in front of us, we pause for a snack lunch of power bars, trail mix and beef jerky washed down with the fresh spring water.
The strategy changes at this point in the trip. We all man one cart first, four men on the handle and four men pushing the back of the cart. The hill before us climbs ever more steeper as we pull and push our way forward. It is at this point in the trip that each one questions our sanity as our hearts are pounding in our chest, through our necks and out our ears deafening the roar of the creek below.
“Breeeeaaackah!” one of the members of our human mule team hollers. We all stop halfway up the hill, breathing too deeply to even carry on a four-word conversation. It’s not enough that we have already traveled six miles, but that the last mile includes a 300 yard hill from hell!
“Lets Go,” shouts another more physically fit member, and we all resume with grunts and moans of physical pain as we roll forward. Once we reach a plateau in the trail, we park the first cart and walk feebly back down the hill to repeat our wonderful feat of physical stamina.
At this point, you start to see the smiles and hear the excitement on the hearts of men who have completed yet another year of conquering the most grueling physical aspect of this trip. At this point in my story you may ask, “Why go so far to camp and fish when we could have chosen one of the previous campsites?” Well, the reason is twofold. The first reason is tradition and affection of a particular campsite. The second reason is most fishermen that come over to fish Hazel will not hike, camp or fish this high up on the creek for the very reason of the difficulty of getting to the Bone Valley campsite.
One of the main reasons we love this trip is the simple aspect of getting away from civilization and other campers. There is something to be said for the fact that you can camp and fish with your best buddies in the woods and feel like it is your group and no one else.
We round the last curve in the road and we see home sweet home – “Bone Valley Campsite.” This particular campsite sits at the confluence of Bone Valley Creek and Hazel Creek. The name of the creek and campsite comes from an event back in the turn of the century when an early settler was grazing his cattle in winter, and a historic snowstorm trapped and killed all the livestock. For years after that, there were bones scattered across the area by animals that had fed on the perished animals.
Check back next week for some great “fish tales” and other memories Harold and his crew have accumulated over three decades of making the trek to Hazel Creek.