By David Cohen, Wilderness Ranger
It is beneficial for a Wilderness Ranger to occasionally travel beyond where the trail ends. In my experience, much of what an area has to offer cannot be seen from the usual paths, and a Ranger should know the Wilderness better than most.
An appropriate time to go exploring is the middle of the week when long hours or even an entire day can pass without seeing another person. On a dreary Wednesday with thunderstorms in the forecast, I know my encounters on the trail will be few. At the northern end of Ellicott Rock Wilderness, the Chattooga River Trail leaves the valley bottom and climbs to a ridge in order to skirt around a steep, gorged-in section of the river. For several miles, no trail even comes close to the mighty Chattooga. This is where I leave the trail.
Walking up this riverbed is not like walking along a maintained trail. Rapids, boulders, and deep pools create a veritable obstacle course. My land-loving boots are poorly suited for such mixed terrain, so I trade them for a pair of amphibious Chacos. As I wade and rock-hop upstream, it’s not clear what I’m actually looking for. Perhaps I will find some hidden campsite known only to local anglers. Or maybe I will be left wondering about what hides around the next bend when a distant crack of thunder convinces me to turn back.
Eventually, a small tributary feeds in from one side of the river. Following the whims of my curiosity, I make my way up the tiny creek. Tightly woven rhododendron makes progress extremely difficult, but I can’t stop. A little voice in my head keeps whispering, “Just a little farther.” As I push through one last thicket I find myself standing on a slab of bedrock, awestruck at what lies in front of me. A forty-foot waterfall cascades down a nearly vertical, polished granite wall and lands in a bottomless green pool.
Before long the rumble of an approaching thunderstorm catches my attention. Time to head back. I consider the day a success, and it confirms my belief that traveling beyond the trail is a worthwhile endeavor.