THE ROCK

July 2014, Elmer Watts 



In my generation, in the United States, “The Rock” referred to the infamous prison of Alcatraz.  In Canada, the island of Newfoundland is affectionally (?) dubbed “The Rock”.  So, of all the fabulous places to visit in the world, why visit?  The answer was not that clear to me, especially when I read an account of an ordeal that a pair of Newfoundlanders had hiking across the southern portion of the island.  We are often led into our greatest adventures when we are dubious of the result.


My companions, Voreata and Betsy, and I had independently received glowing reports of the wonders of the island from friends.  My input was mostly from the most hardy individuals who would, as a matter of course, disregard insects and weather as part of the adventure.


Chris got me off in the usual efficient manner and was safely home before my plane took off.  The outdated prison aspect of Newark airport, complete with depressing colors and exposed pipes is often a necessary evil to get the best connections.  Poorly marked directions are made worse by staff that acts very Parisian in their distain for anyone not familiar with the warren that they call an airport.  I was very pleased to lift off a half hour late.  The airline was at least apologetic and explained the delay to the passengers.


St Johns, Newfoundland was only three hours away.  My seat mate, and half the rest of the plane were converging, from all parts of the United States and Canada, for a wedding.  She was very impressed with my involuntary comment as we circled into the Atlantic to approach the St Johns airport “It looks like an artist’s sketch for Peter Pan, or some other fantasy harbor”


The only indication that the harbor was not an inland pond was the row of oceangoing craft at the piers lining the water.  An orderly array of buildings marched up the hillside from the water.


As the pilot dipped the wing to line up with the runway, we had a momentary glimpse of the narrow opening between high cliffs that was the harbor entrance.  The setting sun broke through the clouds, causing a blinding reflection as we passed.  The entrance and guarding rock tower was forever imprinted in my mind.


The small terminal made customs and getting our little black chevy rental a snap.  Only a slight delay in finding the hotel from local directions momentarily broke the spell.  We were to find that more hand gestures than oral communication were often involved in directions.


Voreata and Betsy were soundly asleep when I arrived.  Flight problems had caused Betsy to get no sleep the night before and Voreata’s luggage had not arrived with her.  After a quick hello we were all soon sound asleep.


Habitually early rising, Voreata and I had a relaxing morning over coffee and complimentary breakfast.  In deference to her lost night of sleep we let Betsy sleep until just before the breakfast bar was going to close.


Sometime during breakfast we had decided to stay in the hotel another night, since much of the day would be spent getting food and equipment.  We would also have time to explore St Johns.


When we finally did get going, we drove downtown.  The center of town stretches along the edge of the magical little harbor that I told you about.  The outdoor store was there.  After shopping and walking we stopped at "Dukes on Duckworth Street" pub for lunch. The cod melted in our mouths and it was the first time in a long time that food really tasted good.


From there we drove to the top of tower hill.  The park, where the old fort tower protected the narrow entry to the harbor, would keep a painter busy for years capturing the wild vistas.  A lot of people were wandering the many paths but it did not seem crowded, because the trails stretch for miles along the cliffs and old battlements.  


By Newfoundland standards it was calm with only twenty mile per hour winds.  A dozen crows were playing follow the leader on the wind.  They would hang motionless, pointed into the wind, then one by one let the wind take them, in a thrilling race along the green, but treeless hilltop.  Seagulls lounged in a lake below us, near the visitor's center.


A few fishing boats made little dots in the Atlantic, apparently going somewhere important, but the direction seemed pointless.  A freighter left port while we watched. The captain kept his speed below five knots for a long time.  He steered straight out from the rocky gash in the cliff, that was the harbor entrance.  Far out, he changed course sharply to starboard and increased his speed to full ahead.  The seemingly bottomless ocean must have some nasty surprises underneath out for a couple of miles. The sea was so calm that his white, slightly foamy, wake was clearly visible on the silvery grey surface of the water all the way back to the cliffs, even after he made his turn.


I took the last antibiotic and hoped that my usual fast recovery would follow.  It would not be unpleasant to have another night in a bed before we started sleeping on the ground.


The hotel breakfast was well above any “included” meal we were used to.  I would think that the room was too expensive if we were not splitting the cost three ways.


Chris and I spent our anniversary apart again.  I wonder whether apart or together is a higher number in our forty nine years?  SPOT seemed to be working fine, except I have to take him outside to get a signal.  My mother would be complaining again tomorrow about two locations that were the same.


Even in the midst of the largest city on this large island we felt at ease.  We were outfitted and ready to experience the island.


Cape Spear juts into the atlantic.  From the earliest days the cape was a hazard to navigation.  A lighthouse has been maintained here and the entire cape is now a very impressive National Historic Site.


A well maintained set of trails provides the hiker with miles of rugged, rocky coast reaching up to meet a green table land accented by the active lighthouse.  The fog, that came and went, framed the lighthouse in a soft cool blanket.


A local group, sponsored by Easter Seals, was demonstrating a one wheeled trail chair, for use by paraplegics.  They gave Voreata a ride.  The contraption would make many trails accessible to anyone who had two strong friends willing to pull and push.


Wild Irises and a hundred other flowers bloomed among the rich green vegetation surrounding the scattering of rocks.


Lunch at a locally owned roadside diner raised our spirits further.  The owner/waiter waited ten tables while keeping a jolly banter going on with everyone.  The cod was outstanding.


By afternoon we had worked our way as far south as La Manche Provincial Park and set up camp.  Our first hike north to a waterfall wound through the thick forest with views of the pond on our right.  The trail was well maintained.  We were a little surprised when we met people in swim attire coming the other way. Moose droppings along the trail confirmed our consensus that the marshes and marsh plants should be perfect moose habitat.  I did later see a moose warning on the highway and we read that there is a large moose population.


When we did reach the falls we found that is was a favorite swimming spot.  A dozen people were swimming as if they were in Florida. Youngsters, as they do all over the world, were trying to see who would jump from the highest cliff.  I estimated that the winner jumped forty feet.  He probably would have gone higher if there had been a higher rock.


We thought that these people must be very tough.  They insisted that the water was not cold.  How could that be in a land with the winters that they have here?  Water is colder in the streams in Tennessee.  What gives?


The next morning we hiked in the other direction to the East Coast Trail.  This trail has been developed for several hundred miles along the east coast of the island.  We reached the trail at a very impressive suspension walking bridge at the abandoned village of La Manche.  


La Manche had been used as a fishing harbor for many years and was known as one of the best fishing coves on the southern shore.

The community was settled around 1840.  La Manche remained tiny throughout its history probably because of the isolation and the rocky terrain.  The La Manche school was closed after confederation (1949) since they did not have the minimum requirement of eleven students. There was no resident clergyman or doctor. A law keeper was appointed to the community but court records of that period show no mention of accused or convicted criminals.  We need more law keepers like that.

The population of La Manche ranged from 7 to 55 over a more than 100-year span. Income was based on fishing. Farming was at subsistence level, some farm animals were kept.  The thick tuckamore, a local term for thick stands of trees, that we found on our hike and the rocky ground indicated that subsistence meant “work your butt off for very little reward”.

In 1966 a severe winter storm hit the east coast of the Avalon Peninsula. An enormous tide washed away all the flakes (fish drying racks), boats, anchors and stores of La Manche as well as the suspension bridge which connected the sides of the harbor. Most of the houses were demolished, miraculously there were no deaths attributed to the storm. The entire economy of the village was destroyed so the residents of La Manche agreed to be resettled by the provincial government.

Looking at the ruins a hundred feet above the tranquil waters of the arm it was hard to imagine a storm that would destroy concrete structures that high above the sea.

A new bridge was completed in 1999 and is a part of the East Coast Trail.  It was impressive that not only the massive bridge but extensive wooden stairs and walkways were built for the use of the hiking community.

In the afternoon we drove to Bay Bulls for a whale and puffin watching trip.  The smaller boat, that we had a reservation with, broke down.  While I was making other arrangements, Voreata became good friends with the operators of the smaller boat.  We nearly always have more rewarding adventures because she approaches people as if she had known them for years.  The ladies were a well of information on the area, including best hiking trails.  


We were able to get a spot on a larger boat.  We had all seen humpback whales on other trips.  The size of the fin whales, that are only second to the blue whales as the largest animal on earth, is hard to describe.  When they break the surface, the top of the back seems to slide by forever before the fin near the tail breaks water.


One particularly large animal broke water between us and the setting sun sending a spout high in the air.  Several vivid rainbows curved in random directions in the spray, as the long black back cut through the water.  Another snapshot that will forever only be in my mind.  


The boat pulled close to a fabulous bird island.  Atlantic Puffins had surrounded the boat most of the way from the harbor.  They would wait until the boat was close and then flap across the waves, just far enough to not be run over.  Every green spot on the island was honeycombed with puffin burrows.  A horde of the little black birds with brightly striped bills came and went, fishing for their chicks.  Every barren ledge of rock was a home for kitty wakes, murres, guillemots, and gulls.  The only dangers to the birds out here were each other and falling into the sea.  Chris would have been ecstatic.


Researchers had a small blind on the island for observing the birds.  Getting on and off the island must have been treacherous, and smelly. 


On the way back to camp we stopped at a small pond.  A master modeler had created a dozen miniature ships of different designs.  The fishing village along the shore completed the scene.  A number announced that boats were for sale, but then I would have to build a pond. 


Voreata spotted a Newfoundland pine marten crossing the road at camp.  This marten is distinct from mainland martens and has more black, especially in the tail. 


The sunset reached high into the sky above the large pond (always read pond as lake).  Orange, purple and pink shades painted the sky and cast a spellbinding reverse image into the pond. There were enough mosquitos to drive us to our tents after the sun went down. 


I was still having trouble with the new tent.  When I moved the tent I broke the hoops again.  They are garbage.  I will replace all hollow rods with solid ones when I get home.  The entry zipper in the top is also too short for any but the smallest person so will need to add a lateral one.  The rain fly cannot be installed after entering the tent but I have a fix.  I should just send the tent back, but I am pretty stubborn.


No neighbors moved into the only site near us, so the only noise we had was early, when the people who were at the park only for the day left.  The people here are openly friendly but not usually aggressively so, a pleasant combination.


An overnight backpack trip was the plan for the next day.  I must be getting old.  I did not feel like going so I didn't.  I stuffed my gear into the black chevy that we had dubbed our “rolling suitcase”.  Voreata and Betsy had more sorting to do in preparation for a night out.  I had time for a walk by the pond and saw more birds.  A White Rumped Sandpiper is a new life list bird.


I dropped them at the trailhead and went in search of accommodations for myself.  A room in St Johns with a pub in the building was my choice. I soaked in a bath (with Epsom salts).  The mosquito and fly bites stopped itching immediately.   At the pub, I ate, drank and cultivated the island accent.  The sound is not exactly Irish.  The hardest part of understanding is filling in the syllables that you can not hear.  Speech tends to be soft but not rapid.


The weather had been fabulous, especially with the cold, wind, rain and insects that we had been led to expect.  It was almost too warm to sleep when I first went to bed.


I Drove to the trailhead and hiked out an hour to meet the ladies near a lighthouse on a point.  We all saw whales from the cliffs.  Sea birds also accompanied us as we walked.  


Their camp at Freshwater had been idyllic.  Betsy continued to a famous coastal spot called The Spout.  She reported that the ocean did surge up impressively through a hole in the coastal rocks.  Betsy also saw a moose and got several pictures.  One photo is very good.


The return hike took longer than walking out.  We were hungry by the time we reached the car.  Over lunch at the Junction Cafe we decided to drive toward Placentia.  We were trying not to plan too far ahead.


We stopped at Fitzgerald’s Pond Park on a great pond.  This pond was well inland and higher than the coastal area.  The tuckamore was thick near the water, but most of the area was more like open tundra.  


The park was run by Dave.  He was a big friendly man with ruddy complexion.  He had owned the campground, that used to be a Provincial Park, for ten years.  When we inquired about traveling to investigate his Irish roots, he emphatically let us know that this was his place and he did not need to go anywhere else.  He even finds it difficult to visit relatives for the holidays.  He is much more comfortable when they come to the park.  Winter is his favorite time, even though he does enjoy the guests in the summer.


We were the only ones in the tenting area so we spread out among the thick stunted black spruce, white spruce and balsam fir.  These trees grow so dense that bushwhacking through them stopped even Betsy.  The breeze in the open was brisk but I could hardly feel it in the little opening that I chose to put my tent up in.


Dave advised us of a bull moose that is so tame that he thinks he is a horse.  He frowned when I suggested that I should take him for a ride.  I wished that I had the picture of me riding the moose in Montana.  The moose did not visit.


The promised loons did not put in an appearance either.  Dave came by after we finished dinner and talked at some length.  His accent was hard to understand to start with but we were soon understanding each other.


I was up at 5:30 for the first time on the trip.  Maybe I was getting well.  It had been a warm evening with a damp fog.  I never did pull the sleeping bag over me.  


It was an easy drive to Placentia.  Tower Hill gave a fine view of the coast and town. 

The old fort was very well maintained.  Dave had remarked on the town being six inches below sea level.  The continuous line of steel pilings are accentuated by the continuous sound of pile drivers.  Locals must get used to the constant pounding.


As we crossed the Placentia lift bridge we could see the long line of interlaced rusty steel pilings protecting the town from the rapidly rising tide.  Betsy commented that the mechanism on the bridge lift looked rusty.  I added that it probably was not use often.  


We visited the cemetery high on the hill behind the down. Families buried over the history of the town reminded me of the passing of time and where time invariably leads.


I went for a walk while Voreata and Betsy visited a local museum. The fog had obscured then revealed the town at intervals while we were on tower hill.  Now the low clouds let the sun peak through occasionally.  It was very warm in the sun and the cloudy and breezy condition was much more comfortable.   


Lunch at Phillips cafe allowed us to use the WiFi.  After lunch we drove south and walked on the beach.  The abundance of colorful rocks added a handful to Betsy’s collection and a few to mine.  The tide was near high and making spectacular spray along the rocky cape to the north. Gas was around six dollars a gallon.


We drove as far as the Gannet's Nest Restaurant and set up camp in their back yard.  A very convenient wood fence helped fend off the vigorous breeze.  I met a couple on tricycle motorcycles from Edmonton.  He had also worked at Syncrude, an oil recovery project where I had also worked many years ago. 


Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserve is a wonderland for birdwatchers. Thousands of gulls, razorbills, common murres, black-legged kittiwakes, northern gannets, and double-crested and great cormorants nest here. Scoters, old squaw, harlequin, dovekies, thick-billed murres, and kittiwakes winter here.  Cape St. Mary's is the most accessible seabird rookery in North America.  Bird Rock is the third largest nesting site and southernmost colony of northern gannets in North America. Cape St. Mary's is also the southernmost breeding area for thick-billed murres in the world and the southernmost major breeding site for common murres in the northwest Atlantic Ocean. You can see how that this is a first choice for birders trying to add species spotted to their lists.

Sheep wandered among the mosses, lichens, low-growing shrubs, and alpine wildflowers that blanketed the plateau.  The area is seasonally rich with wild bakeapple berry pickings. I did not discover until I got home that bakeapples, that we saw advertised, were not apples but were a kind of raspberry.  We should have been more inquisitive.  We did see people with buckets gathering fruit as we drove along.

We drove the five miles in the afternoon and walked the mile to bird rock.  The smell and sound carried through the fog to us far before we reached the rock.  Only a narrow chasm separates the viewing spot from the round topped giant rock.  Every inch of the surface, reaching far down the vertical sides was covered with gannets and downy chicks in every stage of development.  The birds soared past our heads on six foot wings.

As if zoned by species, the kittiwakes nested in cracks below the gannets and murres and razorbills nested below them.

The interpretation centre was spacious and informative with giant viewing windows.  We eventually tore ourselves away to return to Gannet’s Nest for dinner, hoping for clearer viewing in the morning.  Voreata swore that the cod was the best that she had ever had and my moose stew could not have been any better.  The operator was a friend almost immediately and once again we had to adjust our ears to her accent. 

We walked under thin clouds and then bright sunshine waiting for the restaurant to open for breakfast.  By the time we had eaten and talked with the proprietress again the fog was back.  It is a rare day that the cape is not enshrouded in fog.  This is the reason that the lighthouse was built and manned long before their were roads.  The keepers first brought their provisions in by packhorse and later by a tram built up the cliff from the turbulent sea.

Viewing at Bird Rock was as mesmerizing as the night before.  By the time we could bare to leave it was lunch time.  More cod and moose soup at the Gannet’s Nest prepared us to start north again.  Three meals and camping fee probably made us preferred customers.  The forty foot long mural of bird rock along one wall in the dining room gave us our only view not shrouded by fog.

Although it would be a long drive, we had decided on Terra Nova National Park to cap off our trip.  Not being ones for backtracking, we drove gravel roads for several miles to reconnect with the Trans Canada Highway (TCH).  Cataracts  Provincial Park was only a short detour, on more gravel road.  Cataract should be a large waterfall.  These turned out to be more cascades than cataracts.  In wet weather they may have lived up to the name.  The deep gorge was spectacular.  The only other visitors were two boys and a girl on an ATV looking for a private place to roll a joint and commune with nature and each other.  It is good to see that young people everywhere are on the same page.  We soon left them going north.

Terra Nova National Park is located on the east coast along several inlets of Bonavista Bay. Terra Nova's landscape shows remnants of the Appalachian Mountains, contributing to rugged topography. The park has several rocky "fingers" jutting into Bonavista Bay. Inland areas consist of rolling forested hills, exposed rock faces, bogs, ponds and wetlands.  Terra Nova also protects an area containing remnants of the Beothuk Nation, as well as many of the early pioneer European settlements in the region.

This region is thickly forested with tuckamore, including black spruce, balsam fir, white pine, mountain ash, tamarack and maple trees. In some places I do not see how an arctic hare could get through them. 

Our tent site was in the middle of a swarm of RV,s of all kinds.  On this holiday weekend it appeared that everyone on the island had towed some sort of vehicle to the park.  It was not the remote nature camping experience that we expected.  I was, nevertheless, very glad to get my tent up and turn in.

Halfway through breakfast rain started and we quickly put up the big tarp.  The night had been uncomfortably hot, surprisingly.  I did not get much sleep.  Voreata said the campground was noisy but my earplugs stopped the noise, although I was not asleep much and sweated buckets.  The improvised bug net touched me, so I had to be sure to have cloth between to stop the mosquitos.


I was up early and took a long hot shower that helped sooth the mosquito and fly bites from the day before. Voreata made cheese grits and shared with me so I only made coffee.  We used the WiFi at the park store and cafe and read, watching the rain out the window.  


The visitor center was next with a touch tank with many crabs and star fish.  After a sort film we continued to Groverton for gas that I had not done on the way in.  We stopped next to the water at a little cafe for lunch.  I am not sad to not being roughing it.  The waitress was comical, trying to describe a dish that we were not familiar with.  She finally left the discussion with “I’ve never had it”. 


We returned to camp and Betsy went exploring.  I had set my tent up on a large ant hill.  I guess that I was very tired the night before.  The occupants insisted pointedly that I relocate. 


Betsy finally got word that her son Bobby did get his passport.  He would be meeting her the day Voreata and I left, for another week of camping farther north at Gros Monde. 


We hiked north and met the chief of the Migmaws.  He and his  brother and cousin were baking a salmon in the sand by the arm. He gave us a history of the local peoples. I was interested enough to do a lot of reading at www.muiniskw.org.  The history and some of the things this particular group of First Nations People have done right is good reading.


The chief was a cheerful ambassador for his people.  The salmon baked as we talked.  When I passed the beach on my return hike they were still cheerfully doing nothing, waiting for the salmon to cook.  A day in the past is precious to these people.


A european wanted to apply a name to the river that passed the reserve.  The people gave him a thirteen letter word that means "Too Damn Small”.


While Betsy wandered farther north, Voreata and I visited a swimming hole that she had found on an earlier hike.  A suspension bridge in the trail looked down on a scene from my childhood.  A family of rednecks (or whatever they are called in Newfoundland) were established on a gravel bar.  A cooler full of longnecks was within easy reach of their beach chairs.  Old country music was slightly louder than the laughing of the children in the swimming hole and water spilling over the improvised dam. 


Another woman played with her young Airedale dog while her family played in the wide pool.  Several young girls demonstrated how they could stand on their hands with shapely legs reaching toward the sky, sometimes not in the most Esther Williams fashion.  I was safe because I was sure that none of these young nymphs knew who Esther Williams was.


A long twisting avenue of sand reached far up a steep bank.  It would have looked like an otter slide except for the deep sand.  Children, and some adults, no doubt went to the trouble to climb and tumble back down into the water.


The water was refreshingly cool but not cold.  Once again I was perplexed by the warmth of the water.  All I could find was the interaction of the warm gulf stream and cold Labrador current.  There are no high mountains for late snow melt, but why would the streams here be warmer than in Tennessee?


We left our misplaced rednecks enjoying the swimming hole and went back to camp.


A man with a portable generator set the thing right next to my head.  My impression of Newfoundlanders is only slightly tarnished.  It stayed hot all night and I sweated buckets.  


We got a good start back to St Johns in the morning and had time to detour to some of the inlets (arms).  We saw a moose a little too close to the road on the Trans Canada Highway.  It was at the top of a hill and if she had been in the road, instead of on the shoulder, I would have had no time to react.  


We all thought that we needed to see Dildo. The word, in the original languages of the area, means two islands.  Other sources say that our use of the word comes from the Italian word for delight.  The little museum was interesting and I had to have a T shirt and some post cards.  The town is wrapped around a curve in the land rising out of the arm of the atlantic.  A friend of mine’s ancestors are from Dildo.  For that reason I nearly did not include my comment “You should have seen the water tower!”. 


The oldest town in North America was next.  Cupids is embraced by rugged round rocky land, falling sharply into the sea.  This was the first planned settlement in north america.  “In those early days Cupids was a rugged vista, wild and ferocious in its beauty, cruel and unforgiving to those who took it for granted. And yet John Guy and his brave pioneers thrived, prospered, explored and conquered. Through tenacity and daring, and no small measure of sweat and toil, they wove the fabric of a culture that has resonated across the ebb and flow of centuries”.


Over the next 400 years, English settlements in Newfoundland and Labrador and the rest of British North America grew to become what is now English Canada. But it all started in 1610 with John Guy’s fateful choice of Cupids as his new home.


At the end of the road we had lunch at the Cupids B&B and Tea House in a converted church.  The peaceful summer afternoon gave little evidence of what a rugged life this sliver of the Atlantic provided the early settlers.  Even today a winter here must be something to behold.    


As we skirted Conception Bay it did seem a shame that Dildo was not on this obviously productive body of water.


The sun was out for the rest of the drive to St John.  The Trans Canada Highway is fast.  Most other roads have frustratingly low speed limits.  A stop at the liquor store, a dip in the pool at the hotel and a soak in an epson salts bath revived me.  The salts and a good bottle of wine does wonders for bug bites as well as sore muscles.


I shuttled Voreata to the airport at 3:30 and was back in bed by 3:50.  I was starting to learn my way around.  I roused again at 6:00, told Betsy goodbye and went to breakfast.  My morning paper was particularly interesting.  The lift on the lift bridge in Placentia, that Betsy and I had commented on, had collapsed.  I am glad that we did not return that way.


Another great article was on Labrador Huskies and preserving the breed and dogsledding in Labrador.  Chris was not entirely pleased when I grinned at her over the copy I showed her.  She seemed to be concerned about future plans in another part of the north.  I wonder why? 


I read “Do Unto Others” by Austin Dowers on the way home.  I am sure that the tale embroideries the accomplishments of his ancestor, who was an early settler.  The story is well written.  We often overlook the little events that shaped the big picture that we have embraced as history.  If I had read the story earlier I am sure that I would have tried to visit Conche, his home town.  He is a retired teacher, storyteller, singer and writer.  It would have been a treat to meet him.


We only visited a small corner of this vast island and already yearn for another visit.


2015 Charit Creek Christmas

“He should stop every hour for you to stretch your back” the therapist intoned seriously.


Chris rolled her eyes but did not elaborate on the likelihood of Elmer stopping a road trip every hour for anything less than the apocalypse.

The knee and then the back had kept the new RV, Olaf, close to home.  Chris tried navigating for awhile, then moved to the bed when her back hurt.  A stop at Walmart for chemical heat patches, gas, and a long rest area stop did not exactly meet the therapist’s prescription on the nine hour drive to Charit Creek, Tennessee.


The sun was an hour above the horizon when Olaf reached the parking lot at the end of the ten mile gravel mountain road.  Chris gamely started down the trail as Elmer rounded up the three dogs and shouldered the backpack.


The back pain made the progress quite slow.  Elmer checked each inch that the sun sank.  Clouds, then rain, stopped this measuring.  Elmer had learned several thousand miles ago that you do not try to guess how far you have gone, and just walk until you get there.  Lights came out as the light faded and full darkness engulfed the steep, sometimes slick, trail.  Chris’ pace increased, in spite of the pain.  


She was apprehensive when she heard Elmer say ahead “I’ll take the dogs across and come back for you”.  The sound of slightly angry water boomed up from somewhere below.


Chris is not fond of any walking surface that you can see through.  She definitely avoids any contrivance that swings as you walk across.  There is probably no need to mention that things high in the air are not her favorites.  The newly risen moon, feeble headlamps, fortunately, did not allow her to assess her situation entirely.  


Chris had backed down the stairs at the end of the long suspension bridge by the time Elmer had secured the dogs on the far bank.  “You stay there!”  She did not want Elmer walking to add to the bridge motion.  The river drowned any other comments she may have made to her loving husband.


Alfred Hitchcock could not have created a scene that more completely encompassed all of Chris’ fears.  She gamely reached the other side.  From there it was only a few hundred yards to Charit Creek Lodge.


Tom, Voreata, Rosemary and Pat had been worried.  We all went in to dinner and got settled in our rustic, 1800’s, cabin.


Elmer rose early to bring more essentials from Olaf.  Breakfast was on the table when he returned.  We ate in shifts to assure that the gaggle of dogs behaved.  The staff was cheerfully accommodative of this prolonged meal period.


The smoke did not so much rise from the rustic rock fireplace as sneak out the top and string out toward the cook shack.  The lazy white ribbon was hypnotizing.  Elmer was not thinking back over the year past as he sat in this frontier setting. 


The group was snuggly enjoying a rainy Christmas morning.


The cabin that we watched the smoke from was built from logs from Jake’s Place, the nearby homestead of Jake Blevins from the 1800s. The other field cabin was built from logs from Elijah “Booger” Blevins’ house (son of Jake).  A reminder of constant change was the two foot thick American Chestnut logs in the walls.  No such trees survive today. 


Gregg, the site manager, was a former restaurateur, and the quality and variety of dinner and breakfast dishes were outstanding.  The meditative mood was bolstered by being stuffed with fine food.


Once the finest timber had been plucked and the coal extracted, jobs dwindled. Following World War II, people steadily moved off the land. While the U.S. Corps of Engineers proposed damming the river for recreational purposes, others fought to preserve the land. Thus, in 1974, Big South Fork (it is the south fork of the Cumberland River) was created as a national river and recreation area.  Some of the cabins at Charit Creek date to 1817.


Park Superintendent Nikki Nicholas notes that Big South Fork is actually part of a larger plat of open land that includes Daniel Boone National Forest. Having these contiguous spaces 'helps with species restoration and ecosystems management,' says Nicholas. 'There are not that many big chunks of land left in the Eastern U.S. We must have this land to solve these issues.’


Horse and hiking trails radiate from this unique location.  The clear forty foot wide creek provides a cheerful harmony to all activities.


The people were: Tom, Voreata, Pat, Rosemary, Elmer and Chris.  The dogs were: Rusty, a red setter mix, Rosy, a boston terrier, Ripply, a Labridoodle puppy, Strider, a Yukon sled dog, Kona and Decaf, little black Shipoos (or as Tom prefers Pooshits).


Dogs and people had more than enough room in the spacious old cabin, with a couple of bunkbeds left over.  A screen porch kept us out of the rain and a tight little stove, with plenty of wood, kept the group as warm as they wanted to be.


Christmas carols, accompanied by banjo uke, brought back memories of the sixty some christmases that group could remember.  Fears that we might be taken for some fanatic religious sect were probably needless.


Meatballs are not exactly a Christmas dinner tradition, but these were not ordinary meatballs.  The dim light brought our group, and those from other cabins together in a shared feeling of a special time and place.  Like minds seem to gravitate to like places.  Another visitor had also bicycled across the US from east to west, as I had.  Runners had tales to share with Voreata.


Booger, Greg’s dog, slipped in and was only banished because one woman could not stand the smell.  I could not smell him, so probably smelled worse than he did.  This big red hound looked exactly like the odd sled dog Homer that I ran in the Yukon.  He was keen to interact with our dogs and bounced on the screen, which drove Rosy to distraction.


Replete with dinner and dessert, it was easy to settle in the cabin.  Doors had to be opened to adjust the temperature once the fire was burning well.  Dogs established dog rules.  There were no skirmishes, but Rosy was sure that Strider was her boy toy.  He, as he always does, ignored these blatant female advances.


Elmer nodded off, smiling at the sight of Tom reading by lantern light.  Rosy’s pug nose was specifically bred, over many generations, to snore like a three hundred pound truck driver.  Elmer’s ear plugs expanded slowly to block even that buzz saw.  He could not, however, ignore the wet tongue on his face when Strider wanted out.  The little black ones always go out when Strider does.  With Strider on the lead and the little guys running free Elmer surveyed the night.


One day past the rare Christmas Eve full moon, the still round moon danced among clouds at the top on the steep hill to the west.  It should be nearly morning from the position of the moon.  This was confirmed when Christian lighted the lanterns, and smoke curled from the chimney in the cook shack, to start breakfast.


Strider nudged Elmer’s leg, as the moon was only a broken glow through the trees on top of the mountain.  Dawn had broken enough to make out the motion of Decaf and Kona foraging along the creek.  One soft call and they returned to the cabin.  After stoking the fire all four rejoined Chris in the King sized lower bunk.


The rain was gone but more was forecast.  Elmer and Voreata took a hike to her car to reduce what would have to be packed out the next morning.  Strider escorted them over the pair of grand natural arches within a mile of the lodge.  Along the way they decided to move Voreata’s car to the closer parking lot where Elmer was parked.  With rain expected for the morning, a shorter walk out sounded good.


Rosemary had seen them off on the hike and expected them to come back the same way.  She nearly ended up returning in the dark, as Chris and Elmer had done the first night.  Search parties had not been organized before she returned, after deciding that she was not going to meet Voreata and Elmer walking back in.


Another great dinner and lazy evening topped off the adventure. 


Rain did not materialize.  The group said their goodbyes along the trail.  Chris and Elmer followed the others because of her sore back.  She was walking much better and the trip out took half the time of the walk in.  Even the suspension bridge caused her minimal distress in the daylight.  The dogs explored along the way detecting things that humans can only imagine.  They were clearly overjoyed with the outing


Elmer mused, as they stowed gear in Olaf, about all the things we think that early settlers had to do without.  The peace of those enfolding hills and gentle stream is something that they had every day and today we have to go very far to find for a moment.


A magical trip to the past.