|One Thin Rope by Mike Bailey
I laid there in bed telling myself that the weatherman on TV was wrong. It would not rain tomorrow
-- they were off at least a day or two (I kept telling myself over and over). How many times have
they been right anyway?
As I drifted off to sleep I was convinced I was right and the hike tomorrow to Jacks River Falls
would be beneath blue skies and warmed by spring breezes. Besides, Deanna was going with me and
so was Jackie, one of our best friends, and it had better not even think of raining. Deanna had just
had her hair done a couple of days earlier (Jackie probably did too) and I was thinking that the
last thing I needed to start a hike off with was two women with fresh hairdos and rain.
Just kidding girls. If ever there were two ladies with class who could in one smooth stroke of their
arms, gently touch the cheeks of a loved one with grace, dignity, and love and then, without
hesitating, switch to digging dirt in their gardens with the furor of a determined hound dog burying
bones, here they were. Friends, confidants, and born troopers. Their smiles and enthusiasm were
always welcomed on any outing -- rain or no rain.
As soon as I woke up the next morning, I realized the weatherman had a fighting chance of being
right. Cloudy. Very cloudy. What the heck -- we were going 80 miles north of here. Maybe there
was still a chance after all.
We picked up Jackie and headed up the road a bit and then stopped for breakfast. We all three
love coffee but knowing where were heading this morning -- let's just say that there would be NO
rest rooms available later on -- we carefully watched what (how much) we drank. Pancakes are
usually good old standbys for hiking -- sticks to your ribs, they say. Anyway, we wolfed them
down, sipped our last bit of coffee and hit the road again -- our adventure was finally rolling.
The closer we got to the mountains up around Chatsworth, the prettier it got. It began to look like
the old weatherman might have missed one after all -- we started seeing patches of blue sky --
things were looking up.
Zipping along the highway, we silently watched the beauty of another spring unfold around us. The
fields were verdant green -- fresh and inviting -- they stretched to the horizon in some places.
All along the way, especially when we were close to the railroad track right-of-ways, the redbud
trees (Judas trees) were ablaze in vibrant shades of lavender, purple, and soft pink. Here and
there, the dogwoods were beginning to show their beauty -- the whiteness of their flowering leaves
sparkling like diamonds on a cool spring morning.
We zipped into one of the burger doodles just past Chatsworth for one final pit stop. I got another
cup of coffee (a mistake) and we were on our way once more. Turning off US 411 at Cisco, we left
the relative calm and civility of life and headed toward the Cohutta Wilderness on old GA
In just a few miles, the pavement ended and as I was shifting gears into four-wheel high, the
pinging of gravel striking the undersides of our Blazer filled our ears with sounds of excitement
Past the turn-off of old 2 that used to go up and over the Cohutta mountains, we headed northward
through the Alaculsy Valley. Church was just letting out as we slipped past Hopewell Baptist Church.
Sitting there along this old but busy gravel road, Hopewell has opened its doors to many
generations of people who call the peacefulness and serenity of this beautiful valley by another
name -- home.
As we approached the Tennessee border, we caught more and more glimpses of the Conasauga
River, swollen with all the recent rains, racing towards the border where it would join with the
Jacks River. Both rivers have their headwaters within the boundaries of the Cohutta Wilderness.
We also saw more and more horse trailers heading out towards Cisco -- rising waters must already
have threatened some pasture lands.
We finally arrived at the old one-lane steel bridge that crosses the river right at the Tennessee-
Georgia border. We all piled out of the Blazer to look at the river raging below us as we walked
out on the bridge. Power -- awesome, raw power -- was thundering under us. Swollen far past its
normal banks, Jacks River was heading westward toward its juncture with the Conasauga River,
just a mile downstream.
I could only imagine what it looked like down there. Same as here I supposed -- churning, boiling,
thundering away toward a destiny even it was unsure of -- only one that it just instinctively knew
it had to reach.
Back into our Blazer, we headed across the border (after the obligatory pictures-by-the-state-
line-sign) and immediately began to see the extent of all the heavy rains that had been falling in
the area. The road in front us was now a part of swollen Sheeds Creek as it raced southward to
meet the Jacks River just west of the bridge we just crossed.
Shifting into four-wheel low, I gunned the motor and we headed straight for the far side of the
new little lake that surrounded our Blazer.
Laughing all the way, we sprayed water high and hit firm ground on the run. Slowing to a crawl, I
shifted back into four-wheel high. The worst was over.
Funny what curves in the road can do.
It can do things like hide another lake in the middle of the road. We hadn't gone a thousand yards
when back into four-wheel low we went. Lining up our "shot" across the lake, I gunned the motor
and away we charged. It was fun -- a scary kind of fun -- but fun just the same. Right in the
middle of the last lake we blazed through, I thought of Deanna's normally clean, shiny truck.
Sorry baby -- not today.
We finally found the turn off we were looking for -- Forestry Road 62. It was just as well,
because just ahead of us, the road went completely out of sight (under water) for as far as the eye
could see. Road 62 turned sharply back to the right and immediately began its climb up the
mountain and away from all the flooding along the creek sides.
Everywhere we looked now we saw waterfalls. Little ones, big ones, multiple ones. I have been in
the mountains many times in my life but I do not ever recall seeing so many waterfalls at one time.
We snapped a few pictures along the way and continued winding our way deeper into the mountains.
The sun was trying to come out again and all in all, things looked absolutely beautiful.
After four miles of winding roads we came to the parking lot for the Beech Bottoms Trail down to
Jacks River falls. My son and I had just hiked down to the falls the week before, but from a
different starting point.
We had come in from the south and had started from Three Forks Mountain. The trails from there
to the falls totals 16 miles round trip. That's not all that bad, except that it's eight miles downhill
to the falls (2700-foot change in elevation) and eight miles back out and up. Anyway, that's
Today's hike was only about seven and a half miles round trip and the trail is rated one of the
easiest in the Wilderness Area. Ever since I had seen Jacks River Falls the week before, I could
not wait until Deanna could see it, hear it, and feel it herself. The falls are truly one of the most
beautiful sights in all of Georgia.
Parking the Blazer at the trail-head parking lot, we geared up for the hike down. I changed into my
hiking boots and the girls got their foot gear in order. Securing my pack and all the stuff I was
carrying -- picnic lunch and drinks for three, to name just a few -- I was anxious to start.
Remember that last cup of coffee I just had to have?
Well, while the girls walked around and made sure the rocks in the rest of the parking lot were all
placed on the ground correctly, I stood by the Blazer behind an opened door and got rid of the
"one last cup."
I had brought my trusty hiking stick and two more for the girls. Little did I know at that moment
of sunny (yes, the sun is out now) enthusiasm how much they would be needed later on that morning.
After passing them out, we headed across the road and down to the bulletin board by the gate
marking the beginning of our hike.
Again, after the obligatory pictures-standing-by-the-trail-signs, we shoved off on our journey to
Jacks River Falls -- 3.7 short, easy miles away. The trail is actually an old roadbed from the
logging days. It's consistently even grade made me think it might have been an old narrow-gauge
This whole area, the Cohutta Wilderness, was heavily logged up until the mid 1930s. Walking here
now, among all the tall trees, it's hard to imagine that just 60 or 70 years ago, most of this area
had been cut to the ground.
After a mile or so of easy hiking, we came to our first major challenge. We had seen dozens of
little waterfalls everywhere and had hopped across a few swollen creeks that crossed our paths
when the roadbed turned tightly against the back of a ravine.
I say challenge because we were faced with either sloshing through the raging little creek and,
thereby, spending the remainder of the day in wet boots or, be creative and find another
Creativity won out.
Twenty yards upstream was a large log that crossed the creek. It was jammed in among the bushes
on the banks of the stream and looked fairly stable. I went first to check it out and made it to the
other side easily. The log was only about 8 feet long but hey, when you're balanced on top of a wet
log above a roaring creek, 8 feet becomes 8 miles real quick -- know what I mean?
Deanna came next and then Jackie followed last. Even crossing a log in the middle of a wilderness
the girls showed their class -- two tiny ballerinas gently tiptoeing their way to safety. Laughing
and giggling, they crossed like pros and we were soon threading our way along the bank on the far
side back down to the road.
On the road again, we continued with our adventure. About a mile farther down the road, we came
into another ravine area that had a small stream running right down the middle of it. What made
this area stand out so was the blush of purple all along the stream. Redbud trees, little and thinly
limbed, lined the creek. Since all the woods were basically brown and bare in this area, the purple
stood out like the evening star rising on a warm summer's night. Beautiful.
We paused a few moments and had small sips from some of the drinks I was carrying. Up ahead, we
could hear the roar of another waterfall rushing down hill. As we rounded the curve in the road we
saw that another challenge faced us -- another little creek was swollen and roaring across our
As I stood there figuring out how I could get across dry footed, the girls just forged ahead and
went prancing through the cold waters, laughing all the way.
What could I do but follow.
I did manage to just get one foot soaking wet -- I poled my way across the rest of the way with my
walking stick. Once again we were on our way. Soon, we passed two of the largest Hemlock trees I
have ever seen. Growing right at trail's edge, these two giants must have been well over a 100 feet
tall and at least 15 feet around. I made a note to myself to bring a tape measure with me the next
time and check out my girth guesstimate.
OK -- I admit it -- I was wrong and the lucky weatherman was right.
The farther we hiked, the more the sun tried to hide from us. Finally, with one final burst of
beautiful spring morning sunshine, our beacon slowly disappeared.
The first drops of rain were finding us as we quietly walked along the trail.
Soon we could hear the Jacks River Falls far below us. Even at this distance the thunderous roar
could almost be felt as well as heard. We only had a short distance to go to get to Beach Bottom
and then across Beech Creek, and finally, join with Jacks River Trail for the short trek down to
An old homestead was here in the bottoms years ago, but time and nature has a way of reclaiming
things. If one looks about closely (and in the right places), the foundations of several building can
be seen. Having just come almost four miles through deep woods, I cannot imagine what it must
have looked like a century ago when this was a thriving farm.
Trouble -- very serious trouble -- was staring us straight in the face.
Our trip down, even with two sizable creek crossings under our belts, could not prepare us for
what was racing past our eyes. Beech Creek, normally a pleasant gurgle of mountain magic, was now
a raging, roaring monster.
Instead of being faced with the usual 10-foot wide, rock-hopping crossing, we were now faced with
churning seas of fast moving waters covering the entire bottom land that marked the end of our
trail by road. The once placid creek was now split into three rivers, all shouting very clearly, do
not even think about crossing me!
I call these new creeks "rivers" out of respect -- their force and thunderous voices demanded
attention and caution.
As we stood there, with the rains falling heavier and heavier, we contemplated our next move --
like we had lots of options!
Just as we were about to call it quits and head back up trail to our Blazer, we noticed movement
on the other side of the largest river blocking our trail.
Out of the pouring rain came six hikers. Immediately, I realized that they might be in trouble --
all the high ground in the bottoms was fast disappearing. Shouting across the roaring torrents
between us, the leader of the group on the other side and I exchanged greetings and information.
Yes, they were trying to get to the trail we were on, and yes, they had come from where we wanted
Unfortunately, it became quite clear that neither of us was going to recognize our objectives very
easily. Further shouting revealed that they had taken almost five hours to travel the half mile from
the falls -- our destination and their nemesis. My newfound hiking friend indicated that there was
nowhere along the roaring rivers that separated us that his party (or us, for that matter) could
His party -- him and another young adult, two teenagers, two preteens -- stood there so close to me
yet so far away.
I could hear the strain in the leader's voice as he indicated to me that things on his side were not
Without thinking of anything else except how to get them out safely, I hollered to him across the
churning danger that I had a rope and for him to help me find the best place across the largest of
the three rivers that we could set up a lifeline. As he started back downstream, I told the girls to
stay put … not to attempt to come any closer to the mess before us.
Handing Deanna my walking stick, I turned and forged across the smaller of the three swollen
rivers. Even with the water just coming up to my knees, the force of the water was almost
overpowering -- a frightening clue of things to come.
Climbing out the other side of this first hurdle, I turned and looked back toward safety and the
girls. Deanna and Jackie were still where I had left them -- standing huddled together in the rain
-- the concern on their faces clearly visible even at the distance now separating us. Sloshing
onward, I angled for the bank of the river that separated me and my newfound friends.
Using hand signals and shouting, the leader and I settled on a point that looked the easiest to cross.
Dropping my backpack to the ground, I quickly retrieved my rope -- 50 feet of precious 4-
millimeter-thick nylon climbing rope -- and went about tightly securing one end of it to the trunk
of a large tree at water's edge.
Throwing the coiled rope to the leader on the other side, I pointed to an opposing tree on his side.
Quickly and without hesitation, he grasped the rope and secured it to his tree after pulling the
rope as tight as he could get it.
Our lifeline was in place.
I shouted across to some of the hikers carrying fishing gear in their hands that they had to secure
the gear on their packs in some way -- they would need the strength of both hands to cross the
river that was raging between us.
One of the teenagers entered the water first and started across. He hadn't gone more than three
feet when I realized that he was going to have a tough -- very tough -- time crossing the river. My
mind said move -- now!
The coldness and fury of the onrushing river ripped at my body as I entered its grasp. My side of
the river was deeper and within seconds, I was almost up to my chest in the river. Only the
strength of the thin rope I was desperately holding onto kept me from being swept downstream.
It's funny what runs through your mind at times. One side of my brain was in full battle, survival
mode. Every bell and whistle in my body was screaming "danger, danger." My heart was racing --
its pounding rattling my eardrums.
As I struggled with all my strength to hold on to the rope and reach the youngster approaching me,
the other side of my brain was thinking I had gotten through another weekend without taking down
all my outdoor Christmas lights!
The teenager's hand grasping me for dear life brought the seriousness and danger of the moment
back into clear focus. I headed back to my side of the river with one hand on the rope and one
hand firmly grasping the arm of a very tired and anxious young man. Pulling myself up and out of
the river, I reached back and pulled the teenager out.
One down -- five to go.
The waters all around us were roaring louder, stronger. Time was getting more precious by the
moment. I shouted back across to the leader that we needed to get the two youngsters across
next. At first, it looked like they would try it by themselves. I immediately shouted back across
that they could not do it -- they would be torn from the lifeline in two seconds.
The other adult entered the roaring rush of waters as I went back into the river. I could not
believe the increase in strength the river had assumed in just a short period of time. My mind was
telling me that things were not looking good. I do not know why this was such a revelation -- even a
two-year could have seen that this was a very bad situation.
Hanging on to the rope, the other adult and I were ready for the two little ones. The oldest of the
two entered the waters first. Hanging on to the rope, he made his way out to and in front of the
adult. Pausing there a second, he then continued toward me. He made his way to me and then slipped
in front of me. I could feel the river trying to tear him from the rope. After a second or two, we
both edged toward my side of the river and hands from the bank helped pull him from the river.
On the far bank stood a frightened young man.
I could see the apprehension building on his young face. Even the water from the rain fogging up his
glasses couldn't hide his hesitation about getting into the water. After a few moments, he climbed
down the bank and grasped the rope. With almost a death grip, he hung on and made his way toward
the first adult. Reaching him, the youngster almost froze -- he wouldn't keep going. After a moment
or two, the adult got him moving again.
He is not going to make it!
Within a second or two, I realized that the young boy was about to be swept away. The thin line of
safety was stretching tight as a banjo string. Two adults and one small boy were being held in place
by one thin rope against the churning, tearing grips of a river determined to take us all downstream.
As I reached out to grab the boy who was now frozen on the rope by fear and panic, I whispered
"dear Lord, don't let this rope fail now." Holding on to the rope with all the strength my left hand
could muster, I moved farther out into the river and reached for the boy frozen on the rope.
I could not believe the force of the water tearing at me now -- it was truly frightening. My right
hand reached the boy and I grabbed him by the top of his small pack. Moving my hand up to grasp
him right behind the neck, I managed to get my fingers securely on the straps of his pack and his
jacket. I told him to hang on, that he was doing good, and that I would get him across.
"Are you sure?" was his only weak reply.
With that, I pulled and lifted him from one side of me to in front of me. I'm not sure where the
strength came from right then, but I guess somebody watching all of this figured I could use a
little bit of extra power about right then. Clinging on to the rope with all his strength, he shivered
in the cradle of my arms as I held both him and me tight against the rope. Again, I told him he was
doing good and to hang on -- that I would get him across.
Moving him to the left toward the safety of the bank took even more strength than I thought I
could draw from. The water now was above my chest -- I must have stepped into a hole -- and the
pull on my arms was becoming very painful. Finally, helping hands again reached from the bank and
the little one was safely across.
After climbing out behind the youngster, I stood there beside him trying to regain some of my
strength. Looking down at him, I again told him that he had done good, that he was very brave.
From behind foggy glasses and a wet, shivering face, the smallest of smiles told me that he was OK
-- yes, he had done good -- he had crossed the river!
Next, the adult in the river came on across.
The rope was stretching even tighter as he slowly made his way across. Having already stood in the
river to help the two little ones across was catching up to him -- his journey was slow but steady
across the river.
Helping hands once again pulled him from the river.
As the second teenager entered the water on the far side, I went back into the river. My arms
were so tired now from holding on to that tiny, but wonderful, little rope. As the waters again
reached almost chest high, I reached out to grasp the hand of the young man making his way
toward me. Once again, I headed back to my side of the river and helped him make his way up onto
The leader was left on the far side and the rope was securely fastened to the tree on his side. Not
wanting for me to lose my rope, he quickly untied it before I could even object. Tying the rope
around his waist, he entered the water with us holding the rope on our end very tightly.
Not wanting to pull him, which probably would have knocked him off balance, we held the rope
steady and tight to keep the slack out of it as he slowly started across the roaring river.
Strength, pure strength and knowledge of the woods and fording rivers, helped the young adult
make his way across the river.
Taking each step slowly -- barely raising his foot above river bottom to prevent a sudden pull by
the raging waters -- he inched his way across the river. The rope was now stretched to its
maximum. It had the full weight of the man pulling on it to maintain his balance as he winched
himself to our side of the river.
After what seemed an eternity, he made it to the outreached hands of his companions and with one
swift pull, he was out of harms way and onto the banks of safety.
It was over.
Standing there, looking at each other, the leader and I quietly shook hands as he said, "thank you,
thank you very much." The strength of that single handshake told me everything was all right.
To this day, I shudder to think what might have happened to all those kids if I had not come along
when I did. Within minutes of getting everyone safely across that roaring, raging, torrent of angry
water, the river started overflowing its banks and where I had stood just moments before would
now be over my head.
We were we very lucky that we made it across when we did. Not only was the river too deep to
stand in now, but huge limbs and logs -- some very big -- were being violently carried downstream
by the raging torrent. I can not even begin to imagine what would have happen to us if these
missiles had arrive just five minutes earlier.
I was cold, hurting slightly, and very, very wet.
As I stood there thinking about this, I started coiling up my rope. Reaching the end of the rope, I
looked down and there standing before me with his glasses still fogged up, was the young man who,
moments before, had been cradled in my arms as we both had held on to this very rope for dear life
out in the middle of a raging maelstrom.
Very quietly, he raised his hand to shake my hand. Looking me straight in the eye and with a strong
young voice, he simply said, "thank you." All the pain, all the hurt, all the anxiety was gone in the
blink of an eye.
Looking back upstream, I gave the high sign to the girls watching all this that everything was OK. I
didn't find out until later, that not only were they concerned about the drama unfolding below
them, they were also acutely aware that the water was rising around all of us. Where we had first
stood and talked with the hikers across the river was now several inches under water.
Everybody sort of regrouped and we headed back upstream toward the girls. Reaching the first
little side river that I initially forged to reach the middle ground, I turned and held my hand out to
the young man with the glasses. His hand immediately grasped mine and we entered the little river
without a word. As the waters pulled at our legs, he squeezed my hand but kept on moving. In a
second or two, we were out and on our way.
We walked a while with our new companions.
The leader said that they had come two days before to do some fishing. He had been promising the
boys for a long time that he would bring them, and the time to do it had finally "caught up with
him." Everything had gone all right until that morning -- all the rain finally had caught up with them
(and us). They had left Jacks River Falls early that morning but the waters in all the creeks were
rising too fast. Before they could get across the bottoms, all the creeks had become dangerous,
Soon, we parted company. Once again, several of the group expressed their thanks. The leader said
that he thought he had packed everything they would need -- everything except 50 feet of strong
rope! He assured me that he would never set foot in those woods again without a rope like mine.
I watched six wet and brave young people forge on ahead of us. They had all gone through a trying
and dangerous time with strength, bravery, and a strong sense of togetherness. As they
disappeared into the wetness surrounding us now, I couldn't help but wish them good luck.
The girls and I were soaked. The rain was coming down harder and harder now. I had put on my
rain suit (trying to keep some heat in), but I really do not think it did much good. Deanna and
Jackie both had nylon wind breakers on, but they, too, only shed some of the water. Before long,
my hiking buddies were soaked to the bone.
Actually, the trip back out was not all that bad.
The tiny creeks we had courageously crossed (up and over by fallen trees, etc.) on our way down to
the bottoms were now callously forged by slopping right straight through them. It is amazing how
one's attitude about things can change in just a short amount of time. Two hours earlier, we had
tried at all cost to keep our feet dry.
We stomped right through the creeks like kids through mud puddles right after a warm
The rain was now getting nasty. The water was running down the faces of the two girls. Listening to
them talking, I gathered that hair spray, makeup, and rain does not make for happy hikers! Finally,
Jackie took a small hand towel from my pack and placed it over Deanna's head to try and make it
act like a hood. Deanna has to wear her glasses to hike and the rain, tears, etc., had been making
this simple task almost unbearable.
Jackie's handy work did the trick.
Deanna looked funny (real funny) but she could finally see where she was going. The lightning was
starting to zap here and there and none of us were too pleased about this latest addition to our
already fun-packed day. Fortunately, we were near the end and let me tell you, this was one bunch
of tired, soggy wet, but happy hikers when we rounded the curve and sighted the gate marking the
end of the trail.
Parked there, waiting on us, was one of the adults from the river below. With a wave and a final
thank you, they were off.
I realized that they might have been able to extract themselves from the flooded bottoms that
morning -- they could have waited until the next day, or worse yet, tried to cross the main river
unassisted. But, I'm just glad the girls and I were there when things got kind of rough down in the
Watching their truck head down the road, I kept thinking about the little ones -- so afraid, yet so
brave -- no match for a raging torrent that would have swept them away in the blink of an eye.
One more photo.
Many hours earlier, we had started out from this very spot on what we thought would be a normal,
pleasant day hike. The picture then captured the innocence of our happiness to be free, happy, and
"off to see the wizard." Now, even visible through the smiles, the sore muscles, and the aching
backs, the toils of today's events were evident.
Wet clothes and all, the inside of the Blazer was heaven. We quickly got as much wet stuff off as
we could. After a few minutes of giggles and groans, we managed to get ourselves into the best
shape we could hope for. I cranked the Blazer and we headed out of the wilderness.
As the girls started getting food out of my day pack for us to munch on, I turned and looked back
at the trail we had just emerged from.
How fast our lives can change -- one moment I was happily walking along with two of the most
special people in my life and the next -- I was desperately holding on to a thin rope in the middle of
a raging river with a small child, whom I had never seen before, cradled in my arms depending on me
to get him to safety.
One thin rope -- stretched tight and true for 15 minutes -- changed the lives of seven
As we bounced about in the Blazer on our way out, we started feeling pretty good. The sandwiches
Deanna had made for our picnic lunch down at Jacks River Falls tasted good -- real good. Soon all
the sandwiches, chips, and drinks were gone and things were slowly getting back to normal.
Deanna had her socks draped over the dash so the defroster would dry them out and I'm not sure
what Jackie did with hers. Somehow or another, Deanna got her pink (yes pink) hiking sweater off
and replaced it with my shirt. Jackie sat with the heater vents blowing hot air her way, so all in all,
we started drying out.
We soon returned to the main dirt road and headed back toward Cisco. All the flooding we had seen
earlier was lower some what, I mean, things were still flooded, but not to the depth it was earlier
that day. It still was kind of funny to see a "land for sale" sign stuck out in the middle of a flooded
field. The same person probably had some more land for sale down in Florida.
As the rain kept falling, we crossed back over the state line into Georgia where the bridge crosses
With one final bounce off the end of the bridge, we disappeared into the mist -- a long day quietly
coming to an end.
|For Deanna and Jackie -- Born Troopers
March 27, 1994
One Thin Rope:
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