Archived Outdoors

Up the creek: Where the heck is Moses Creek? Up Caney Fork!

The Tuckasegee River runs wild under heavy rain May 26. Kelly Donaldson/Jackson County photo The Tuckasegee River runs wild under heavy rain May 26. Kelly Donaldson/Jackson County photo

On Friday, May 27, the day after a big storm dumped inches of rain on Western North Carolina, the air was so clear and the sky so blue it made me think back to the spring of 2020 when Covid shut down the world and for a few weeks the earth’s atmosphere returned 300 years to pre-industrial clarity. I called it Pandemic Blue. 

During the height of the storm, however, the sky was dark and heavy as I walked down Moses Creek Road, with a downpour streaming off my hat. My destination was the bridge over Caney Fork, one of the principal creeks in Jackson County. Caney Fork comes to life on the southern flank of the Great Balsam Mountains, and if you have pulled into mile-high Caney Fork Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway and taken in the vista stretching out for miles below, you’ve been there. Many times, I have taken in Caney Fork from the other direction too, while canoeing its clear, lively waters through sun and shade and looking up at the forested mountains around.

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Small fish littered the trail to Cullowhee Falls May 28 as receding floodwaters left them stranded. Holly Kays photo

But the Caney Fork I saw that day racing under the bridge was something else entirely — a raging brown beast. For water to move faster, it would have to fall straight down. For water to be thicker, it would have to be pure mud.

Caney Fork looked like it was bringing half of the valley along with it — and not only dirt, but trash and yard items swept off the banks, woody debris, leaves, branches. I even heard a big submerged rock flipping and clopping downstream. The creek itself was loud, surging in pulses against the bridge piers. 

A log about 20 feet long and a foot in diameter suddenly came into view around the bend. The ends were sawed off, so it must have washed out of someone’s wood lot. The bridge, newly built, is a massive concrete trough that looks out of place over our country creek — as if the NCDOT has plans for an interstate to cross it someday. It replaced a 50-year-old wooden bridge that I thought suited the creek better. The central piers that support the new structure are thick pillars sunk to bedrock. But when the log crashed broadside into the upstream pier with a thud, the bridge and I felt the impact. 

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Then here came a snag with its rootball still attached. I leaned way over the concrete railing to get a good look, and when the snag hit, the current sucked the rootball down, causing the trunk itself to rear up and smack the side of the bridge. It happened so fast that if my head had been a bit closer, it would have been going down Caney Fork too.

I walked upstream on a gravel driveway that parallels the creek. Seeing a chunk of wood come rolling along and wanting to get an organic feel for how fast the creek was going, I decided to race it. The channel was its lane, the driveway mine. First one to the bridge was the winner.

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Burt Kornegay. Donated photo

I probably would have done better when I was young. A Moses Creek neighbor who is my son’s age told me she sometimes runs for exercise to the top of our property on a trail I’ve built. That’s a gain of 600 feet in elevation, the last part steep. I hike the trail every day, and it helps keep me fit, but I don’t remember when I last ran on it, or anywhere. 

Maybe that’s why “race" doesn’t really describe my attempt to out-run that chunk of wood. “Run" isn’t the right word either, in the sense of stretching out the legs, eating up ground. I was shocked to discover the best I could do was little more than a rapid hobble, hips creaking and knees squeaking. Even when I poured it on, out of the corner of my eye I saw the heavy, insensitive, wooden thing pull ahead and leave me behind, winded. Caney Fork had given it new life. 

I stopped and watched the chunk disappear under the bridge, waving back at me with a branch. If my young neighbor had been looking on, she would have laughed.

(Burt Kornegay ran Slickrock Expeditions, a wilderness guiding business based in Cullowhee, for 30 years, and he is the author of "A Guide’s Guide to Panthertown Valley.”  He lives with his wife, Becky, up Moses Creek in Jackson County.)

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