Archived Mountain Voices

Changing a flat in a rising creek

ellison footbridgeForty years ago this coming July 5, my wife, Elizabeth, and I and our three children moved into a small cove just west of Bryson City. The kids are grown up now and doing their own thing in Sylva, Asheville and Colorado Springs, Colorado.

But we’re still here, where until not very many years ago the only way to reach the house in a vehicle was via a ford on lower Lands Creek just above our property line.  

We discovered that crossing creeks is hard on brake shoes. They quickly deteriorate, especially in winter, and become truly dangerous. So for years, unless we absolutely needed to get all the way to the house, we simply parked the truck or van or whatever we happened to be driving at the moment on the far side of the ford and walked the quarter-mile or so to the house. 

To cross the creek we used a foot-log perhaps 25 feet in length. My son and I downed a tulip poplar that, by sheer luck, fell just right. It was even level. All we had to do was wench it into place on either side of the creek.  

We were all surefooted critters back then. When a handrail I made rotted away, we didn’t even bother to replace it. All I did was use a draw-knife to flatten the top of the log for better footing and a handsaw to crisscross the flat surface for better traction. By moonlight or starlight or no light at all — with or without flashlights — each of us could scurry across that log like a raccoon on the run. 

(Okay, as Elizabeth will insist on pointing out, I did slip and fall off the foot-log into the creek from time to time. But it didn’t hurt much. And then there was the time when I fell and disappeared. When she didn’t hear me hit the water, she came looking and found me hanging upside down, holding to the log with both hands and both feet. It took me a while to see the humor in that episode.)   

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These days the property above ours has been developed for cabin rentals. The owner rightly surmised that potential customers — mostly folks from urban areas wouldn’t want to drive their fancy low-slung vehicles across a creek to their cabins; so, he installed a large metal tile and diverted the creek through it and the roadway over it.  

 Presto! In one day a creek ford that had been used by humans for perhaps 10,000 years (give or take a year) disappeared. I’m referring, of course, to the earliest Indians who preceded the Cherokees in these mountains. To my knowledge neither the early Indians nor the pre-historic Cherokees ever bothered to make footbridges. But maybe they did. And they were certainly aware of the location of fords where horses and livestock could cross big creeks or rivers with some degree of safety. 

We had our share of family adventures in the ford above our place.  Nothing like having the engine conk out in January when your stranded vehicle is situated smack-dab in the middle of the creek. Here’s one of our creek ford adventures my son didn’t think was so amusing at the time.

Back in the early 1980s we owned a little Ford Courier truck that had the spare tire mounted underneath its rear end. To get the spare you had to run a metal rod through a small hole under the bumper and then plug the end of the notched rod into a socket. This allowed you to crank the tire attachment mechanism in reverse and thereby lower the tire for use.

Accessing the spare tire on that vehicle could be tricky in good weather on dry land. 

One day as my son and I were coming home the truck decided to kill its engine and have a flat tire at the same time right there in the middle of the ford. (You have no doubt noticed that trucks have minds of their own.) It was raining cats and dogs and the creek was rising. We couldn’t push the truck out because it wouldn’t roll over the rocky bed of the creek with a flat tire. And we weren’t quite trifling enough to simply leave it in the creek, although I will admit to considering that option.

It was difficult enough getting the rod through the hole under the bumper, but engaging it in the submerged socket up under the truck was all but impossible. We tried and tried and tried … nothing worked.  

Finally, I asked my son to hold the rod in place while I held my breath and went down under the water on the good tire’s side. After two failed attempts, I submerged myself for a third time and was finally able — more by luck than anything else — to slip the rod notch into the socket with my hand, thereby enabling him to lower the spare.

The story doesn’t end there, of course. Have you ever tried to jack up a truck and change a tire in the middle of a creek? Have you ever had your truck washed off a jack by a torrent of water? Let’s just say that it took a while to fix the flat, push the truck out of the ford, dry it out and get it started again.     

The foot-log is gone. So are the creek ford and the truck. In the end only the memories will remain. And they, too, will fade away.  

(George Ellison is a naturalist and writer. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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