Saturday, July 25, 2015

It's all about the terrain

Today was the day to meet up with some cachers and tackle a geocache at, Wildcat Creek, GC1TXZ4. Up until last month, it only had 8 finds over 5 years, and it wasn't uncommon for it to go years without a find. The cache involves a short but treacherous scramble up Wildcat creek, with mostly unavoidable deep pools, waterfalls, and slick as snot rocks. What's not to love! A cacher from the Chattanooga area had organized a group hunt of the cache and I quickly signed up, since everything about this cache was right up my alley. Rugged terrain, swimming holes, rarely found cache in remote wilderness setting. I'm all in. A few weeks before our scheduled trip, a few local cachers, Lullabye and Kaput attempted the cache but didn't find it. However they returned a few days later and made the find. I actually received an email from Kaput telling me that this cache was right up my alley, so I was pretty psyched to be going.

The cache is located south of GSMNP, in a part of the Appalachians we had never visited before. Since it was my first time to the area, I carefully picked out a route to hit some interesting geocaches on my drive down, as well as have some bonus geocaches for afterwards. One cache that particularly interested me was Cadet's Paradise, another terrain 5 cache involving a swim across an abandoned quarry, climb up a cliff, and delving into a cave. If I had enough time, I could hit it up on my return trip.

My morning caching took me along the Tellico "lake". I made stops at Fort Loudon, and the Tanasi Village memorial, and hit up the oldest cache in Monroe County. I especially liked the earthcache GC19560 which took you to a Cherokee memorial showing the eight different clans and also the burial site for Cherokee Warrior/Chief. The caching made for a longer drive to Tellico Plains, I took over 3 hours, but was definitely worth the extra time. I felt like I got to see a bit of the area on my way down.
Cherokee Memorial
I ended up arriving at the Tellico Plains visitor center slightly ahead of the other cachers, which gave me time to find the cache there. i was just rehiding it when the geocachers pulled up. We had a nice picnic lunch, but I had little appetite, I was rearing to go. We piled into 3 cars and made the short drive up the into the foothills and to the start of our adventure. The parking area is right on the Tellico water and it looked so inviting that I couldn't help but make a bee-line down to it. I recall Nate, the group organizer, mentioning that there was a better crossing a tenth of a mile up the road, but I was already in the water by then. I wasted no time, finding a pool deep enough to submerge in. Sufficiently cooled off, I turned my attention to actually crossing the river. It was not easy going. While the river depth was manageable at 1-2 ft, the bedrock beneath the water tilted at crazy angles, and was almost impossible to see beneath the rippling waters. It was very slow going. And we couldn't just cross the river and walk up the far riverbank, there was no walk-able bank there, just rocky cliffs or dense vegetation. It didn't take long for us to realize we should have headed the advice ont he cache page and walk up the road before making the crossing, but by then most of the group had committed themselves into the water. Oh well, next time we'll know. Since it took extra time for everyone to cross, I had some time to put on my goggles and look for hellbenders. No luck on that giant salamander, but I did spot many shiny minnows.
Crossing the Tellico
Once we reached the Wildcat Creek, it looked like it would be easier going. The creek was shallower, had much less water flowing, and it almost looked like we could walk right up it. This quickly turned out not to be the case. once again the footing was treacherous. Either the rocks were slimy and impossible to get a grip on, or you couldn't see them and just had to guess how deep your foot would go in the creek before hitting something. But it really didn't seem to matter that we were going slowly. We had planned for this sub-mile hike to take us hours, might as well enjoy every minute of it.
Typical conditions up Wildcat Creek
As we progressed upstream, a funny noise came down the canyon. It sounded like a two-stroke gas engine. I couldn't believe someone would have a little motor up in here, but as we rounded a corner, we came across the most kitted out prospectors I've ever seen. A man had a full face mask attached to a hose and air-compressor, and was going under the water with a bucket to pull up sediment, where his partner, a lady, was sifting it through some contraption. Hoses and PVC abounded, and they even had a modified white-water kayak which served as a hub for the equipment. Quite the operation! They must have thought us as strange a bunch, a large group of rolicking and wet geocachers, some of us vainly trying to keep cameras/backpacks dry, tumbling over rocks, and climbing up the nearby waterfall. I wonder which of us was odder?
Destitute Falls
After the waterfall, the going remained slow and wet and fun. We discovered some deep "tubes" in the rock, in which a person could nestle right down into. We swam, and stumbled and cursed our way up to GZ. Finding the cache thankfully easy, since there were a dozen of us spread out over the hillside. I was searching WAY off the wrong spot when someone yelled that it was found. We signed the log, posed for pictures and took a break before making the return trip. After a 2.5 hour trip in, folks were looking a little less enthusiastic about the treacherous return. No one got seriously hurt, but it seemed like everyone took some good falls, and several people had minor cuts. The cache certainly earns its terrain rating. It also earns all the favorites it receives. It is a wonderful adventure and day out in the wild. I'm very grateful that I was able to join this group of excellent cachers to this most excellent cache.
Group shot with the cache in hand
Compilation Video

While most of the other geocachers prepared to have a celebratory watermelon back at the Tellico Plains Visitor Center, I was already thinking about my next cache. There seemed to be enough time in the day for me to visit Cadet's Paradise. And I was already wet. And when would I get another chance? So instead of being social, I said my goodbyes and hopped into my car, speeding off towards Sweetwater. When I arrived at the suggested parking for the quarry, I was a little confused. The suggested parking was at a speedway, and there was a race on tonight. I decided not to park there, but instead look for the path that led to the quarry. I drove slowly along the highway (no one was behind me don't worry) and then up County Rd 296. I spotted a couple gated tracks that might have led to the quarry, but all of them were posted with NO TRESSPASSING signs. Hmm, this wouldn't be the first quarry cache I've done that "encourages" tresspassing. After a bit of mulling my options, I opted to park off of Highway 68 and then bushwhack through the woods to the quarry. This is how I justify my actions in my head, if I don't actually see a NO TRESSPASSING sign while bushwhacking in, I can plead ignorance, right? Pretty weak, but it is exactly what I did. Never mind the barbed wire fences I had to cross, or the poison ivy covered slope. The closer I got the worse I felt, but I was already there and close, so I kept going. Eventually the quarry came into view, as I came out on top of the cliffs along the southern shore. I took a little pause here to sight where the cache was supposed to be, then I put all my kit into my "waterproof"ziploc baggies, stuffed that into my camelback and took the 20+ foot plunge into the turquoise water.
The view from my approach of the quarry
The water was fairly warm, not having a constant flow through, and being cooked in the sun. It wasn't too warm though, and made for pleasant swimming. There is something creepy about swimming across a really deep quarry though. The water is so clear, but so deep, it feeds your imagination about what could be lurking way down at the very depths. Bah, imagination, why do you try to get me in trouble so. I focused instead on the cliff I was swimming towards, and how I would climb up into the cave. From previous logs, it sounded like there were more than one cave and that I would have to climb up to the "harder" one. However, there seemed to be more than two caves as well. One really close to the water, one high up but in a spot where climbing looked pretty reasonable, and a third that was even higher up, but looked very difficult to climb. I swam over to option 3 first, and it was a dead vertical climb for 20' or so. There were some holds, but not really big jugs, and the rock was loose and crumbly. I made a few moves up onto it anyways, establishing myself at a position just above the waterline. The next moves looked hard, like 5.10 hard, and I decided right then that I would not be going up this way, so I let myself fall back into the water. By swimming back a short ways, it looked like this cave might be accessed from a ledge coming down from the top. I hoped that because it could be reached from the top, the cache wasn't hidden here, so as to force you to make the swim or bring rappelling gear. So off I went to cave location #2.

This spot was much easier to climb, just a few moves on good holds. The climbing was a little challenging because my wet feet seemed to skate right off the holds. Something about the water and quarry dust made for a slick mud, not conducive to climbing. A short ways up though and I reached the vegetated ledge which angled me over to a rope hanging from a large tree at the entrance to the cave. I was soon up at the entrance and breaking out my flashlight to go in.

The first thing I notice on entering the cave was other footprints. Shoe prints actually. Perhaps someone had been here recently, but then shoe prints could survive in the cave for a while, so maybe it wasn't all that recent. The cave floor was slippery and muddy, and the cave itself branched out in 3 different directions. One hole on the right hand side looked like you could crawl into, but there was no way I was going to. A little ways back though was a largish chamber and it was behind a shelf in the back of this chamber that I found what I thought was the cache, a plastic Tupperware. Psyched at how easy that had been I took it out to the entrance to open it up, only to find that the container held nothing more than a clean red rag. What? Could this really be the cache? It seemed like it must be. Who else would leave a perfectly functioning Tupperware container deep inside this cave. But the contents were boggling. Just a red rag. Perhaps some kids had stumbled across the cache and taken the contents, leaving only the red rag? That seemed likely to me, but it also seemed plausible that I hadn't found the correct cache. Maybe this is just some random junk left by said kid. I decided to go back in and explore the cave further.
What I found
I was able to negotiate a passageway beyond the large chamber and scoot my way back pretty far. This passage had some natural light coming in from a crack along a seam on the floor, and I am guessing that on the other side of the crack is the 1st cave I tried to climb to. It must be a shallow cave if one at all. There was no way through though, so I just kept crawling along until I got to a spot tight enough that I didn't want to go any further. I looked all over the cave for something that might be the cache, but found nothing. Coming back out to the large chamber, I decided I had two options. One, leave a piece of paper and my name in the Tupperware here, or head out and hope that the last and very small cave is the one with the cache. I ended up leaving my paper and mark here. The last cave just didn't seem likely at all given the description of the cache and previous logs. And the longer I was in this quarry, the more nervous I was becoming about tresspassing. I could hear cars and trucks crunching up gravel, nearby, and was hoping that this was from the speedway, but fearing that it was someone coming down a road to the quarry. in my mind, someone had reported my car parked along the highway as suspicious, and the state police were staking it out, or maybe even sending a partol car here into the quarry to catch me red handed. I had visions of having to call up my wife from the back-seat of a police car, in handcuffs, and explain to her how I wouldn't be home for dinner because I had been arrested. Arrested for going after a geocache. Damn it, geocaching shouldn't make you paranoid. I hastily left my mark on a piece of paper (using mud, because despite my preparedness, I had left the pen in the car), put the Tupperware back in its hiding spot and made my way out of that cave.
Leaving my mark
Once out of the cave, I paused and listened. Was there someone across the quarry waiting to catch me? It looked clear, but I kept hearing cars crunching on gravel. I could also hear the announcers from the speedway quite clearly. They were raffling off prizes. I waited, sweating for some sign that someone was there, but no one was, so I quickly, but carefully worked myself out to a ledge, jumped into the water, and started swimming. I swam along the cliff and past the first and lowest cave. It didn't look that interesting to explore anyways. I landed at a steep bouldery ramp that I could climb up to the toip of the cliffs but avoid having to go near where the road came down to the quarry. Relieved to be back in the cover of shrubbery, I climbed myself up and out, then whacked through forest down the steep poison ivy covered hill to where I had parked my car. Before emerging from the woods near my car though, I paused once again. Was there a patrol car waiting behind mine? There was a house across the highway from my car, and someone was out in the yard. Were they keeping watch on my car, ready to call the police the moment I came out of the woods, looking dirty and scared? I waited a few minutes, sweating and oblivious to the insects buzzing around my head. The man in his yard turned, walked up his porch and disappeared into his house. I took out my car keys. I put away my goggles so it wouldn't be so obvious I was elicitely swimming in the nearby quarry. Then I made my move, emerging slowly and, what I hoped for any observer, calmly. I went straight to the door, opened it up, threw my camelback down on the far seat, sat down, turned the ignition, checked mirrors for cars, and accelerated off. My heart rate didn't slow down until a mile down the road.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Resisting the urge

Sometimes it is hard to not think about geocaching, especially when travelling. We recently took a long weekend trip to Maryland to visit my Sister-In-law and her family, who just moved. We made the long drive on Interstate 81, through much of Virginia, then skirted around DC and over to Maryland near Annapolis. There are a lot of interesting places along the 9 hour drive. DC itself is home to a huge abundance of old virtual caches among all the monuments there. Someday it would be fun to check those out. But the trip was not about geocaching, it was about hanging out with family, so I tried to keep myself from thinking about where there may or may not be geocaches nearby. We did end up walking past one geocache location in their neighborhood, but I only was able to search for about 30 seconds and couldn't find the cache. I guess the fact that I was thinking about geocaching at all meant that my attempt at resisting the urge to cache was failing. I did end up penning my name to a geocache, a park and grab in a shopping plaza that I grabbed while running some errands before our Chesapeake Bay crabbing adventure. And this is really what is at issue with my geocaching habit. The one geocache I find while traveling to Maryland to visit family has just about no redeeming qualities at all. It was not in an interesting place (shopping center), it was not a clever hide (magnetic nano on a bench), it did not entice me to do anything interesting (park and grab while out running errands). Really what was the point of it? Was the point simply to say I found a cache while on a trip? To have some stat about getting a cache in another state, even though I already have found caches in Maryland? Does finding it benefit me in any way? I don't have a good answer to any of these questions, because the bottom line is, I don't have a good reason for finding this cache. I simply feel this urge to find geocaches, wherever I am. Just knowing that there is one nearby is enough to make me want to have a look. There are times that I can get over this urge, especially if I end up visiting the location and it is really unappealing for some reason. But for the most part, this urge remains strong in me. Is this something I should fret over?

Saturday, July 11, 2015

A lofty milestone

Since I started geocaching I've kept track of two stats that most cachers do not bother with. Miles hiked and elevation climbed in pursuit of geocaches. I was prompted to do this by a local challenge cache GC1G1N4, located in the Organ mountains. The challenge was to accumulate 100,000 ft of vertical elevation gain from geocaching hikes.  This challenge is well thought out, with caveats for what can count as elevation gain on a hike, and how to keep your records. Since I was new to geocaching, it was easy enough to set up a spreadsheet and every time I went on a hike, I would note the miles hiked and elevation gains. I reached 100,000 ft of elevation gain in a bit less than 2 years of geocaching, but even after completing this challenge I have kept up my spreadsheet. There is no driving reason for me to do so, but once in the habit, I find that I enjoy looking back and seeing how far I've hiked, and how much I've climbed while hunting geocaches. Since moving to Tennessee, my elevation gains have been quite a bit less. Except for the Smokies, most of the hikes around here do not involve large elevation changes, the topography just isn't the same as out west. But my mileage has stayed pretty consistent, especially with the hikes I've been doing on the Cumberland Trail.
A lofty geocache, Higher than the Buzzard's Roost
This past weekend, I visited the Laurel-Snow Pocket Wilderness, which is also part of the Cumberland Trail. The hike was another gem of the Cumberland Plateau, with waterfalls, rocky bluffs, and swimming holes. There are also a bunch of geocaches, like some older traditional ammo can hides and some more recent earthcaches highlighting some of the areas nicest geologic features. I planned my hike to visit all the areas highlights, which meant a long hiking day and two steep climbs. Normally this would be a pretty tough hike on a hot and humid summer day, but I wore my swim suit and cooled off in every swimming hole I cam to (almost) so it made the hike pretty manageable. The trade-off for keeping cool by swimming was some serious chaffing, but I only felt the pains of that later after the hike was done. This hike involved two big climbs and the total elevation gain for the day was 1571', putting my grand total of elevation gain at 201,357'. A little over 3 years since I passed 100,000' I have now doubled that achievement. It is a good feeling, knowing that I am still getting out and doing long and strenous hikes. I sincerely hope that I will reach 300,000 ft in another few years. As long as I keep hiking and geocaching, this will happen. On another note, I am very close to another distant milestone, I currently have logged 984 miles hiking and jogging in the pursuit of geocaches. Heck, if I could go on one more marathon hike I could be at 1,000 miles.

In the Hoggitville Entrance

Snow Falls

Buzzard Point

Dog Tired at our last geocache stop, Bryan Overlook