This
isn’t exactly a paddling trip report, but the trip was intended to
be. Back in October, I heard from Chris Bell, of Western Carolina
Paddlers, that he was leading a canoe-kayak trip on Fontana Lake in November. The
lake was being drawn down 100 feet for dam maintenance, and Chris
thought we could paddle touring kayaks up to the locations of the old
towns of Japan (pronounced JAY-pan), Judson, and Fontana, NC, that
had been inundated by the lake in the early 1940s. Meg was interested
in a trip that didn’t include white water, so we signed on. Meet at
9:30 at the Almond Boat Dock, Chris said.

On
Saturday morning, it was raining at the Almond Boat Dock. The
forecast was rain until a cold front came through, then cold and high
winds. (DAH-dum) (What was that?) Not only that, but the proprietor
of the ABD said his boat ramp was closed, so we couldn’t put in
there. Randy Bullard and Bob Griebel, the only paddlers on the trip I
knew besides Chris, had already been scouting alternate put-ins, and
said the water was a long ways from everywhere they had been. We
consulted the map in the rain, then decided that paddling was not in
the cards.

We
could, however, walk up the railroad tracks from Route 28 to a point
near where Chris believed Judson was, then hike down into the lake
bed from there. We would have to cross the quarter-mile long railroad
trestle over the lake, but we decided that the Smoky Mountain Railway
wouldn’t be running, so that shouldn’t be a problem. (DAH-dum…
DAH-dum) (That music. What is it?)

The
rain was letting up, but nine frustrated paddlers were still dressed
in rain gear and polypro as we ambled up the tracks like a crazy
re-make of the “Wizard of OZ”. Four others had enough sense
to go back somewhere and drink coffee. Arriving at the trestle, I
noted that there were side platforms every couple of hundred feet, so
that one could get out of the way of a train. But we knew the train
wasn’t running (DAH-dum), so it wasn’t an issue.

We
started across. As I get older, I find that I am much less
comfortable on high places than I used to be. Like on railroad
trestles 100 feet above a drained lake. I wasn’t enjoying the view as
much as the others. Meg was enjoying it even less. But we arrived at
the far side uneventfully, glanced back at the two adventurers still
in the middle of the bridge, then glanced up the track to see…
that’s right, a train. Yikes! We waved frantically at our friends,
than stepped aside as the train thundered past, showering us with
dirty looks from the train crew and waves and smiles from the
passengers. We hoped our friends were on a platform. The end of the
train passed, and we followed it across the trestle with our eyes.
Nothing. Nobody. Then, to our great relief, two figures stepped back
onto the trestle and sprinted over to join us. Tragedy averted.

We
arrived at the point where Chris believed Judson might be and headed
down into the lake bed. Meg and Bob decided to stay on top. The rest
of us walked down and in about a mile or so, trying, not always
successfully, to avoid the knee-deep mud. No town, but when we
rounded a point, we came to the reduced lake. We had been walking on
the clay bank, but around the point we found a spectacular 150 foot
rock cliff dropping vertically into the water.

Walking
back out, the weather was actually warm. I turned and looked back
down the lake bed, across the water, up to the ridge on the far side
and the vibrant colors of the trees up there. Above the trees, the
sky was a roiling mass of black and white. There was the front.

Minutes
later, it hit us. The temperature dropped and we were pelted by
frigid rain driven by gusty winds. Good thing we were on our way out.
All we had to do was cross the trestle (DAH-dum… DAH-dum…
DAH-dum).

When
Meg and I arrived at the trestle, three adventurers were already
halfway across. They were bent double, leaning into the wind, which
was roaring across the lake and then being funneled up the river
valley. Clearly, if they had stood up they would have risked being
blown off the bridge. Rain and sleet were pouring through the trestle
— sideways. Our choices were to brave the winds and cross or to
hike out to Bryson City, many miles down the track. Amazingly, it
never occurred to us to wait it out.

We
decided that in union there is strength, so each of us grabbed onto
at least one other and we eased out onto the trestle, bent over to
provide the wind with the least purchase. We walked a few steps
hunched over, leaning into what must have been a 40 MPH wind, then
were forced to our knees to wait out a 60 MPH gust. Slowly,
painfully, we inched across, literally holding on for dear life. We
realized we could see the next gust coming by looking down at the
water; class I waves would suddenly appear and march upstream toward
us. Chris’ glasses were ripped from his face by a gust. We supported
each other verbally, morally, and physically.

At
about two thirds of the way across, we were pinned down by a
ferocious gust that seemed to go on and on. We estimated that it must
have been 70-80 MPH. It finally slacked off, but only to a continuous
50-60 MPH, too strong to walk through. And in the back of all of our
minds, although we refused to say it, was “WHEN DOES THAT DAMN
TRAIN COME BACK?” There was nothing else to do but crawl, so we
did, scuttling along like demented crabs, periodically hunkering down
to let a gust blow past, using the time to look wildly down the
track, expecting any minute to see a headlight piercing the rain and
sleet.

(DAH-dum…
DAH-dum… DAH-dum) Oh, knock off that scary “Jaws” music.
After a terrifying few minutes — it could have been 10, or 100 —
we all reached land. No one was blown away; no one was even hurt
badly, although Meg did scrape her knee crawling on the railroad ties
(Ask her to show you the scar). We decided that the gods — river,
wind, whatever — were trying to tell us something, so we bagged the
rest of the weekend and headed home.

Before
we left, Randy said he would plan a sea kayak trip near Charleston in
the spring. Chris wanted to know what the “bonding experience”
would be for that trip, given what we had just been through. Unless
it’s bourbon, lobsters, and a campfire, we ain’t going. Oh, yeah, the
train. Bob says it arrived about 45 minutes after we left.

by
Steve Cramer
From
The Eddy Line, January 1996