Trouble Along Snowbird Creek

My husband Martin, our two-year-old Golden Retriever Holly, and I were backpacking, and it was pouring rain.

Of course it was. That’s what happens when Martin and I travel. Rain, torrential at times, followed us on virtually every vacation.

We were living in North Carolina. The South was in the grips of a severe drought when, six months earlier, I had requested vacation time from work for this trip.

“Plan for rain that weekend!” I quipped.

Everybody laughed. We hadn’t seen rain in months.

But driving to the Appalachian Mountains near the North Carolina/Tennessee border, the road led us towards an ominously dark sky. As we pulled into the parking lot of the trailhead, fat rain drops began to fall. We sat in the car, windshield wipers flashing furiously, as the sky opened up and rain poured down.

It was classic Beebee backpacking weather.

The latest forecast, checked the night before in those pre-cell-phone, pre-know-everything-all-the-time days, was for “scattered mountain showers.” And sure enough, thirty minutes later the rain abruptly stopped.

We climbed out of the car and hoisted our backpacks. Holly sported a pack of her own. With an insatiable zest for both tennis balls and swimming, she pranced happily about, utterly delighted. She knew what it meant to wear a backpack. She knew tennis balls were stowed inside. And she could hear Snowbird Creek somewhere down that leafy trail, rushing enticingly over rocks, calling her name.

She couldn’t wait to get wet.

Yeah, getting wet wouldn’t be a problem on this trip.

Snowbird Creek, Nantahala National Forest, NC

Snowbird Creek, Nantahala National Forest, NC

The trail led us to Snowbird Creek, a friendly little knee-high stream chattering over rocks. It gurgled briskly along, fast enough to sweep a tennis ball downstream with an exuberant dog in pursuit, shallow enough for humans to ford with a little care.

And there was the trail, disappearing into the creek on one side and emerging on the other. Indeed, the trail playfully crossed Snowbird Creek a number of times, occasionally on rickety and somewhat dubious bridges, which Holly crept unhappily across, but usually simply leading us right into the water.

Go on, get your feet wet.

Crossing Snowbird Creek the old-fashioned way, Nantahala National Forest, NC

Crossing Snowbird Creek the old-fashioned way, Nantahala National Forest, NC

Holly loved it. Heck, so did we.

We camped that night next to Snowbird Creek as it burbled along. It was shaping up to be a lovely trip.

The next day, the sky darkened and it started to rain.

If we’d had smartphones back then, if we’d had access to a weather report, we would have seen that forecasters were no longer calling for “scattered showers.” A massive storm was bearing squarely down on the region. People were instructed to secure their homes and prepare for severe weather. We should have left the mountains, immediately.

Instead, unaware of the tempest barreling down upon us, we went into our standard camping-in-the-rain mode. We stored our packs under the tent’s rain fly, wore our rain gear, and used lots of towels to wipe off dog paws when entering the tent. That evening, we crouched under the meager shelter of tree branches to cook our dinner as the rain lashed down.

We kept expecting the rain to abruptly stop, any minute, just like it did at the trailhead.

Any minute now.

And all night, the rain thundered down.

The next morning we were due to hike over a ridge to a Snowbird Creek tributary, Sassafras Creek. We would camp there that evening. The following day, we would hike down along Sassafras Creek, cross it just above the confluence with Snowbird Creek, and hike out to the car.

We started packing our bags in the unrelenting morning downpour.

It’s not easy emptying a tent of goose-down sleeping bags, damp clothing, and muddy sleeping pads, and stuffing everything into a backpack while trying to keep it all dry.  It’s not easy collapsing a soaking wet tent, rolling it up, and stuffing it into the same backpack as your supposedly-dry clothes and imperative-they-stay-dry down sleeping bags.

Down sleeping bags, when wet, lose their insulative ability. They had to stay dry. And there we were, stuffing all that wet gear into the same soggy pack. In the rain.

Backpacks loaded, hoods up, heads down, we hiked over the ridge.

The whole time, the rain beat down.

We reached Sassafras Creek in early afternoon and stood under a tree to discuss the situation. Should we just keep hiking? We could continue down the trail right now, cross Sassafras Creek, and get out. It would mean cutting the trip short by one day.

Or we could pitch the tent, and hope the rain would stop. Maybe we could still enjoy some late afternoon sunshine, and a sparkling morning tomorrow! Surely the rain was about to stop! This “passing shower” had already lasted 24 hours!

We were young and optimistic.

That, or just dumb.

We decided to camp. It was the wrong decision.

That massive storm was upon us. It would ultimately rain, torrentially, for an entire week. There would be major mudslides blocking interstate freeways, severe flooding, extensive property damage, widespread power outages, and indescribable suffering. People would lose their lives. It was an epic storm.

And there we were, happily pitching our tent.

It’s not easy setting up an already-wet tent in driving rain, and filling it with “dry” sleeping bags and “dry” clothes. All our towels were soaking wet. We erected the tent with the fly already attached, wiped down the inside as best we could, and threw the gear inside. We scrambled inside, too. We would simply hang out inside the tent, reading and napping until this little shower passed.

The day grew longer. The sky grew darker. The rain lashed harder. When we exited the tent in late afternoon we noticed, with a prick of alarm, that Sassafras Creek had swollen.

Were there any tributaries entering Sassafras Creek between us and our crossing site? How swollen was the creek becoming downstream? We briefly discussed taking the tent down, this instant, and hiking out before it was too late, before the creek was too high to cross.

But then we decided not to panic. It was a small creek, quite narrow (up here, anyway), and only ankle-deep in places (originally, that is, when we first arrived).

How bad could it really get by tomorrow? We were confident we could cross it.

Still, we placed a rock as a marker at the water’s edge, and grew more concerned as we had to move the rock up the bank each time we checked it.

Sassafras Creek was rising. Fast. And now night was falling. It was too late to hike out.

Fear began to whisper to me in the darkness.

It was a hard night.

The rain poured down relentlessly, violently. I tried to sleep but couldn’t help wondering about the water gushing into Sassafras Creek. I wished we’d hiked out. Why hadn’t we hiked out when we had the chance?

Aided by a storm- and rushing-creek soundtrack, I dreamed uneasily that a great wall of water, like a burst dam upstream, was sweeping menacingly towards us to wash us away.

I dreamed the whole world filled up with water, lifting our tent up onto waves where enormous breakers rose precariously above us, threatening to crash upon us.

I dreamed that Sassafras Creek was surging higher, flooding right into the tent, clutching perilously at our very feet…

I awoke with a start. My feet were wet. Why were my feet wet? 

Fear raised its head and openly taunted me.

I elbowed Martin in alarm. Wide awake, we groped around the bottom of the tent. A large puddle of water had formed, soddening the bottom of our down sleeping bags. Grabbing his rain gear, Martin scrambled outside to investigate, and found we’d pitched our tent in what had become a small pond. Water was seeping into the tent from underneath.

We believe in Leave No Trace camping. We camp only in existing campsites, pack out all our trash (and the trash of others), bury our waste deeply, and do everything possible to preserve the natural landscape. We try to leave it untouched.

So I know you’re not supposed to do this, and I apologize for it right now, but in the middle of the night, in that drenching rain, we cut a channel around the tent to divert water away from us. While we were outside, we checked the rock next to the creek. We couldn’t find it. It was totally and completely submerged.

Sassafras Creek, way up here, was swollen. What was happening downstream?

I felt the stirrings of panic.

Throughout the long night, we awoke frequently to bail out the bottom of the tent with wet towels. It kept filling with water. Martin had to recut the channel a few times. Rain poured down from the sky. Sassafras Creek continued to rise.

So did my fear.

Around 3 AM, Martin was up yet again to check on the puddle inside our tent when suddenly the flashlight went off, leaving us in the pitch dark.

He gave a quiet chuckle.

“What is it?” I asked tensely. Fear gibbered boldly at me in the darkness; panic leered over its shoulder.

“The flashlight bulb just went out,” he said mildly.

It’s funny how the brain works.

I was a grown woman; I wasn’t afraid of the dark. But suddenly I was utterly panic-stricken.

Panic-stricken to be in a suffocating, tightly-battened-down tent in the pitch dark.

Panic-stricken to have flood waters rising around me, literally lapping at my feet, with more rain pouring from the sky.

Panic-stricken to have no light with which to face this disaster.

Instantaneously, I decided that the best course of action, the most obvious and logical thing to do, would be to exit the tent immediately. Middle of the night and furious downpour notwithstanding, I would go sit underneath a tree in my long johns. I would spend the rest of the night there, out in the fresh air. I wouldn’t get too wet. I wouldn’t get too cold. Didn’t matter if I did. I would be much safer out there.

Perfectly logical, right?

Right!

Panic never leads to good decisions. Unfortunately, you’re too panicked to realize it.

Somehow, incredibly, I managed to resist the impulse. I frantically unzipped the tent door, stuck my head into the cool air of the fly’s vestibule, closed my eyes against the darkness, and whispered urgently to Martin, “Get the light back on.”

Martin, being a good outdoorsman, had a spare flashlight bulb. He’s that kind of guy.

It’s not easy changing a sunflower-seed-sized flashlight bulb in the pitch dark. He had to locate the new one, remove the burned-out one, keep them separate, figure out the orientation of the new one by feel in the dark, place it properly, and screw the cap back on.

He chuckled again, softly.

I fought the urge to scream. Panic roared brazenly in my ears, assaulting me, smothering me. “What?”

“The bulb. I dropped it.”

My sanity was on dangerous ground. I was convinced I would not survive the night without a functioning flashlight.

“Find it.”

So Martin groped blindly but carefully through the tangled heap of wet sleeping bags, strewn-about wet clothes and socks, wet towels and wet dog (who slept unconcernedly throughout the night, having had a lovely day in all the water), for that tiny seed-sized bulb. He found it. He successfully seated it. The light came on.

I breathed a little easier, and decided maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to spend the night outside in the rain, dressed only in my long johns, after all.

Things always look better in the morning. When day dawned, the rain was still thundering down. Did we hurriedly tear down the tent, pack up our belongings, and race out of there, feeling grateful to escape with our lives?

No!

Unbelievably, astonishingly, we decided to just wait until the downpour let up. It would be so much more convenient to strike camp when it wasn’t actively raining, you know.

Makes you shake your head in wonder, doesn’t it?

I had been in an utter panic the night before! How could we possibly decide to wait out this relentless rain?

Call us very optimistic. The last forecast we had seen called for “scattered mountain showers.” It was just lasting a little longer than expected, that’s all.

So we hung out all morning, wasting precious seconds while the rain pounded down, while brooks everywhere rose higher, while tributaries for miles around poured all their floodwaters into the creeks below.

And we just sat there, reading our books.

Until the little warning bell that had started to ring earlier really began to gong at us. Finally we heard it!

It’s ridiculous it took so long. But we suddenly looked at each other and knew it was time to go. And once it was decided, the urgency grew every moment.

We struck camp in record time, throwing wet items indiscriminately into the backpacks. We hastened down the trail, noting with growing unease the water cascading off both sides of the hillside. Rivulets had appeared from nowhere; small waterfalls and rushing streams all emptied into Sassafras Creek, now grossly swollen beside us. The trail itself was a small river to splash through. Water poured from the sky.

And it all funneled into Sassafras Creek, all of it.

Why in the world had we waited so long to leave? The trail cut away from Sassafras Creek, plunging into dense forest. We trotted anxiously towards the confluence of Sassafras and Snowbird Creeks.

We heard Snowbird Creek from afar. It roared over the din of the rain.

Rounding a corner, we saw it, off to our left.

Our enchanting little knee-high stream had transformed itself into a raging river, deep enough to easily toss about whole trees and large vehicles. It roiled powerfully downriver, brown and frothy, leaving destruction in its wake; it was entirely unrecognizable as the friendly little creek we had playfully crossed just days before.

Snowbird Creek was utterly and completely impassable.

But Sassafras Creek, immediately before us, had transformed itself too, from a quiet ankle-deep brook to an angry thigh-high river. Its muddied waters pitched and heaved, kicking up waves and carrying large sticks. The current churned along, boiling and bucking, into Snowbird Creek. Our crossing site was only 100 yards upstream from Snowbird. Getting swept into Snowbird Creek meant likely death. We would either drown or be crushed by debris.

We stood at the water’s edge, surveying Sassafras Creek in dismay.

It was unthinkable to wade in there. It simply wasn’t safe. But what was the alternative? We could pitch the tent and try to wait out the rain. We had some emergency food left, enough for a day, maybe two if we rationed strictly. Everything, including sleeping bags and clothes, was soaking wet; we would certainly be cold.

But if we didn’t cross Sassafras Creek right now, it could be days before we could get across again. The creek would continue to swell from upstream run-off, even after the rain stopped.

Whenever it stopped.

It wasn’t looking like a passing shower anymore. We were finally figuring that out, anyway.

We dismissed the stupid hopeful stupid idea of waiting out the storm. We had to go for it (which was probably a stupid idea).

Martin tested the waters to see if we could make it. With backpack straps unfastened so he could instantly shrug off the pack if he fell, and gripping a heavy stick for balance, he bravely entered the swirling water and slowly started to feel his way through the torrent.

He wobbled only once, tilting precariously backwards, the current tearing at him, trying to sweep him into Snowbird. But he told himself, “I will not die today.” With a Herculean effort, he clenched his walking stick and fought the river, leaning forward and righting himself. After an eternity, he successfully reached the far shore. He made it.

The whole time, I had to hold Holly back. She was whining anxiously and pulling at her harness. What’s Dad doing out there? Make him come back!

Martin dumped his backpack on the far shore and cautiously returned to us through the dangerous water. She greeted him exuberantly. “Holly’s next,” he said tersely, removing the packs from her harness.

Holly pranced about until she realized we expected her to go into the water. She was a smart dog; she loved to swim but she wasn’t about to go in there. It was sheer craziness! She hastily backed away; she ducked, trying to hide behind my legs. Martin grabbed her harness and pulled her in.

Once committed, Holly fearfully obeyed every command. Martin set his own feet against the water, then pointed to a large submerged rock and pulled her harness forward. Holly hopped to that rock and unhappily remained there, frozen, while the river boiled and surged around her. Martin moved sideways across the current, still holding her harness to prevent her from being swept away, and pointed to the next rock. He tugged; Holly tremblingly obeyed.

I watched, terrified, as my two favorite creatures on Earth slowly crossed the pitching water.

About three-quarters of the way across, Holly decided to bolt. She leaped forward, lunging for shore and was immediately swept downstream; Martin grabbed at her, spun around, and fell too. Both disappeared into the floodwaters.

From the far bank, I watched the scene unfold, aghast. It was my worst nightmare coming true. Was I about to see them die, right before my eyes? My husband and dog flailed in the roaring river.

Then several hammering heartbeats later, Holly struggled onto the muddy bank, and Martin regained his footing, and I could breathe again.

Holly sat down resolutely, high up on the river bank. Her demeanor said, “I don’t care what you say or do, I’m not going back in there.”

Martin, hero that he is, waded into the treacherous water yet again to help me cross. He shadowed me every step of the way, as he did with Holly. I used a stout stick for balance and followed his shouted commands: “Put your foot there! Now step over here! Careful, the next step’s a long one!” And somehow, amazingly, Martin guided me safely across the raging water, where Holly joyfully greeted us, wagging her entire body.

The three of us hiked out in the pouring rain and made our way home. The severe weather lasted a solid week.

We settled back into our routines. The South slowly dried out from the biggest storm in years.

It didn’t rain again for months. Indeed, the brutal drought continued another three years.

We really should have planned another backpacking trip in the South, to combat the drought. But we went backpacking in Colorado instead.

Where it poured rain.

5 Comments Trouble Along Snowbird Creek

  1. Jeff Michals-Brown

    Wow! I almost freaked when Martin went after Holly–even though I know how the story ends. Beautifully written. One question: did you have rope? was there anything upstream you could have tied a rope to? (whoops–two questions.) I picture using it as a sort of horizontal trapeze. It might have kept you from being washed away if you fell on your way across.

    Reply
    1. Carol

      Yes, but it was more like thin cord than real rope, used for hanging food in trees. Martin didn’t think it’d be strong enough to do us any real good. And I was too panicked (LET’S GO RIGHT NOW!) to insist on digging it out and trying it. Panic never leads to good decisions…

      Reply
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