On the second morning of Bertha’s first camping trip in the Cherokee National Forest, I had to return to Knoxville to attend an engagement I was unable to reschedule. The following is an account of the events of that morning.
The Appalachian Anglers Society had assembled in the McNabb Creek campground for its annual gathering, an event known as Camp II. I had arrived on Wednesday, a bit earlier than most, to secure an optimal camping spot for Bertha and Sophie (truck). In the days leading up to Camp II, weather reporters had been predicting heavy rain and high winds during the time we would be camping. Inclement weather has been a part of Camp II for most of the 39 years I have attended, and no prediction would prevent me or anyone else from attending this year.
The first night of camp was relatively uneventful insofar as the weather was concerned, and the handful of campers enjoyed a casual evening around the campfire. On Thursday morning, the weather reports proved to be accurate. High winds arrived around 6:30 and several tarps collapsed.
McNabb Creek campground sits near the bottom of a bowl-shaped valley that is bisected by the North River. I had just poured my first cup of coffee when I decided to step outside of the trailer for a breath mountain morning air. Once outside, I could see the tops of the huge pine and poplar trees surrounding our campground bending with the quickening winds coming across the upper reaches of the valley. In the distance, I could hear limbs cracking as they surrendered.
I had a few hours until it was time to load a few things into Sophie for the hour and a half trip back to Knoxville but, with rain on the way, I decided to leave earlier than I intended rather than sit around and wait for it to arrive. As much as I hated to leave Bertha behind, I had positioned her well and felt sure that everything would be ok.
8:30 am: I left McNabb Creek. With a little time to spare, I turned left out of the campground amid a few sprinkles and drove a mile or so along North River to check out North River Campground. I wanted to see if it was suitable for a future trip with Bertha and Helen (adorable wife). The campground was empty, but even if it was full, I reasoned that it would be no problem to back Bertha into any of the campsites. Pleased with this discovery, I returned to the road, and within minutes Sophie was engulfed in torrential rainfall.
By the time I reached River Road, the main road back to the town of Tellico Plains, trees everywhere were swaying frantically in the gusting winds. Leaves and small limbs covered the road. To my left, a large tree had fallen over the Tellico River with the crown of the tree covering the entire left side of the road. As I rounded the next curve, a Forest Ranger was approaching from the opposite direction. I flashed my lights to warn him of the impending danger.
I drove around several more trees before reaching Bald River Falls. The rain had subsided somewhat, and I wanted to take a picture of the falls, now gushing from the earlier rainfall. In hindsight, I could have made better use of my time.
Now, back behind the wheel of Sophie, I crossed the bridge at the falls, which placed the river on my right, and drove for another mile only to find a huge tree blocking the entire road. The root ball, a mass of dirt and twisted roots about as large as Sophie, hung precariously on the side of the mountain some twenty feet above the road. Resigned to the fact that I wasn’t going anywhere soon, I decided to return to McNabb Creek and hope that the Ranger I passed was meeting fellow Rangers, equipped with very sharp chainsaws. Once again, rain was falling in buckets.
Driving back toward camp, I noticed that several more trees had come down since my earlier departure. Turning left onto North River Road, I ran smack into a roadblock created by an oversized pine tree. I was now blocked in both directions as the wind gusts picked up in frequency and intensity. My options at this point were to leave Sophie and walk the two miles back to camp in the driving rain and wait it out in Bertha or, turn around once again and drive a short distance down River Road to a small picnic area with the hope that a road clearing crew would come to our rescue. I chose the latter.
Barely a half a mile back down River Road, I witnessed a Birch tree drop from the right side of the road about 200 yards in front of me. I drove up to the trunk. Although the tree wasn’t large, it was too large for Sophie to climb, too large to move by hand, and I had no saw. I was stranded. I turned the key and shut Sophie down. By now the winds were gusting hard and, with each gust, I could hear another tree fall somewhere in the forest.
Just beyond the Birch tree, a crow flew in suddenly and landed on the road. He was the curious sort and walked to and fro along the tree trunk as if inspecting the damage. Simultaneously with the crow’s arrival, a huge gust of wind shook Sophie and, in the woods above me, I could hear the unmistakable sound of a very sizeable tree hitting the earth with a resounding thud. I was startled, but the crow only moved enough to look straight at me. Recalling Poe’s epic poem The Raven, I named him “Nevermore.” Another limb hit the road. Nevermore flew to a small tree beside the road and waited there. For what I wondered? Perhaps he was sent to witness my demise. I trained my thoughts elsewhere.
10:00 am: I realized that I had no food, but I wasn’t hungry. I had no water either except for some melting ice still in my cooler. Next to the cooler was a box with five bottles of Perrier, a 750 ml bottle of Scotch, and two bottles of cheap red wine. Casting a quick glance toward the rising river, I had difficulty in deciding which to drink first. I opted for the Perrier.
10:35 am: The rain had trailed off to a sprinkle, and the wind died completely. I assumed that I was now in the eye of the storm as it was passing over the region. Soon the winds and rain would begin again. Taking advantage of the break, I moved Sophie to a new place on the road and out from under a tall pine that had been swaying wildly in the high winds. I don’t know that I was any safer, but somehow, I felt so. Nevermore remained on his perch…
11:00 am: About the time I needed a bathroom break, the rain returned. After ruling out the use of an empty Perrier bottle, I reluctantly decided it was time to get wet. I grabbed my raincoat and stepped outside. On the far side of the river, another tree fell.
11:30 am: No sign of anyone as of yet. I continued to believe that a crew of Rangers would arrive and remove the trees. Surely they were working by now and would reach me eventually. I also felt that some campers might come along soon. Campers always have chainsaws…all campers except me. It’s been years since I was a serious camper. I made a note to bring a saw with me when I returned from Knoxville.
11:45 am: I tried the cell phone knowing that it was an exercise in futility. There are no towers in the National Forest. I tried the CB radio I kept in Sophie, hearing nothing but static. A softly gurgled “croak” from Nevermore was barely audible from the tree above.
11:50 am: I started Sophie and turned on the radio. I hoped that Garrison Keillor would keep me entertained for a few minutes and then I could find some news somewhere. I always listen to Writer’s Almanac from NPR. Garrison told the story of Peter Minuet’s arrival in New York in 1625. I was grateful for the distraction because the river had risen a few more inches and no rocks were visible now.
12:00 noon: A radio station in Knoxville came in sufficiently enough to hear the news which was all about the wind gusts expected to reach 80 mph and the downpours that would follow. “Swell,” I thought. I refused to panic and kept the radio on so Rush Limbaugh could ride out the storm with me. Sophie’s gas tank was two-thirds full, and I had probably three gallons in a gasoline container for my generator in the back. I opened another bottle of Perrier. Thankfully, I was still not hungry.
12:30 pm: Time for another bathroom break. I left the truck in the driving rain, hopeful that I would hear chainsaws in the distance, but no luck. With the winds gusting as strong as ever, I decided to remain outside thinking I would stand a better chance of avoiding a falling tree than I would by sitting inside Sophie and be waiting to get crushed. Nevermore was hunkered down in the storm but watching my every move. The rain came down so hard I finally had to return into Sophie.
1:00 pm: By now I had been stranded for three hours and, while hopeful that help would arrive soon, I was beginning to resign myself to the fact that I would be spending the night somewhere in the forest. I worried that Helen would soon be looking for me and I had no way to contact her. If the rain subsided, I would move Sophie to the side of the road (away from the river) and walk the now two and a half miles back to McNabb Creek where there would be food and a dry bed inside Bertha. Thinking of food, I reached for another bottle of Perrier, opened it and took a drink. When I put down the bottle, I looked to my left and was staring straight into a pickup truck and the smiling faces of three men there to rescue me. I could have kissed all three.
These men were huge guys who lived on the mountain and had ventured out in the rain and wind knowing there were people like me in need of help. Each had a large chainsaw and cut up the birch tree in less than a minute. I was so gleeful about being rescued that I neglected to take pictures of their work. The pictures here are obviously not my rescue party, but readers will get the idea. I followed them down the road to the edge of the National Forest.
In the three hours I had been sitting, so many trees had fallen that it took a while to pass through them. One tree was lodged overhead between two other trees and stretched from one side of the road to the other. It was sitting low enough that there would be no way to get Bertha underneath. Thankfully, all was clear when I left the area on Sunday.
At the edge of the forest, a line of cars pointed in the opposite direction stretched for almost a mile. All expressed their gratitude to the timber cutters as they drove around some downed trees onto the freshly cleared roadway. Like me, several offered to pay them for their efforts, but these hearty souls only wanted to help and refused all offers.
Somehow, these men will be rewarded in some way someday, of that I remain convinced. After thanking them once more, I left the area and made my way to Knoxville. I’m forever grateful that there are still good people in this world.
Nevertheless, I’m equally convinced that Nevermore left frustrated. While the Raven watched, my guardian angels arrived, denying him the opportunity to witness a perilous sequence of events. As he gave us a muted “croak,” Nevermore departed for places unknown.
Easin’ Along never felt better.