The Laurel Fork Gorge is a river valley that is traversed by the Appalachian Trail. It lies just west of where Dennis Cove Road crosses the A.T., northeast of Hampton, TN, and a few miles east of Lake Watauga. The Gorge is known for having a section of the trail that crosses a narrow rock ledge right in the edge of the water. In the course of hiking the A.T., I went through Laurel Fork Gorge quite a few times in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, in several hot and cold seasons.
On one of those winter trips, my friend Mike Shouse was driving the second half of the car shuttle. After parking my car at the trail end, the whole crew was riding back to the trailhead in Mike’s truck. We could not all fit in the cab, so I had to ride in the truck bed, exposed to the bitter cold winter wind. The temperature was probably in the mid-teens and the truck was going about 40 miles per hour. I noticed that I was snugly warm in my down filled coat and my wool lined 60/40 cloth jacket. I remember thinking that it would likely never get colder than this on any of my outdoor trips, so this combination of clothes was as warm as I would ever need.
On another winter trip my brother Frank was along. During the day we were rained on and his cotton blue jean pants got wet. Before going to bed, he took them off and hung them across his tent to dry. That night we received about 4 inches of snow and the temperature dropped into the 20’s. The next morning Frank’s pants were frozen stiff as a board. I am not sure how he got them on, but he was wearing them when we hiked out. Frank and his girlfriend kept their frozen feet under the car heater most of the way home.
One spring I decided to hike the Gorge by myself. My plan was to scout out a route and later come back with friends to ride the river on inner tubes. I told my co-workers the plan. On Friday afternoon as I was leaving the office, my boss Larry Moore jokingly warned me to watch out for rattlesnakes! I said sure. I told him that I have a sixth sense for snakes. I have often had some feeling that a snake was around before I physically saw it. Or maybe I saw it with my peripheral vision before I was conscious of what it was. Then a few seconds later, or a few feet further down the trail, there would be a snake. These premonitions had happened several times with Chris Carter in Linville Gorge, with Dan Bumgarner in Slickrock Creek Wilderness and with Eddie Martin Smokey Mountain National Park.
After I had hiked down from Dennis Cove to the big waterfall, I was taking the side trail to Potato Top Mountain. Near the end of the trail, just before the overlook down to the falls, I was hiking beside a shoulder-high rock shelf on my left. The shelf had a few scraggly blueberry bushes on it, but it was mostly exposed to the warm spring sunshine. I was tempted to reach over the ledge and check out the blueberry blossoms, for picking later in the summer. As I reach up, something in my head yelled “snake!” I jerked back. But, from my vantage point, no snake was visible. I moved down the trail a few feet, climbed up on ledge and looked back to where I had been reaching. There was coiled a rattlesnake!
Phew! Dodged that bullet. A couple months later, I came back to the Gorge with a crew of friends. We put our inner tubes in the creek just below the waterfall. We had to take the trip partly on faith, because some portions of the creek were not visible from the trail. For all we knew, we could be washed over another big waterfall! Fortunately, the inner tubing was all fun, with no rapids bigger than a whitewater class 3. One girl did have her tube punctured and she had to ride double on another tube for the rest of the float. The best part of this trip was that Jim McKinney toted in a watermelon! After cooling in the creek all day, it was scrumptious after supper for dessert.
On our hike out, I took my friends on the Potato Top side trail to see the view. As we passed the ledge with the blueberry plants, I reached up to the ledge and jokingly referred to the snake I had seen there several months earlier. Wait a minute! Son of a gun! The same friggin’ rattlesnake was catching rays under the same bush!