Saturday, February 28, 2009

First Trip to Whitewater Falls


February 2008
-- about a year ago.
The Blue Ridge Escarpment just north of where I live has many waterfalls, most of which have been described by Allen Easler on his website.

One of my favorite destinations is an easy ride to one of these waterfalls.

Whitewater Falls is located on the Whitewater River just into North Carolina in Jackson County on Route SC-130. It is 411 feet high, and is located in the Nantahala National Forest.

The route from home is through Pickens, SC (where the red star is on the map), then north on US-178 to the Holly Springs Country Store at the junction with SC-11. Recall that “the store” is a favorite meeting place for motorcycle riders. I stop here for a few minutes to see if any other riders are around. They are not today, so I go on my way to the south on SC-11.

I have previously described SC-11 as a nicely-paved highway with very long sweeping curves and straights. Along the way is Keowee-Toxaway State Natural Area. There are not many facilities here, but there is a small museum of mostly Indian-related items and information, a campground, a picnic ground, a view of Lake Keowee, and one rental cabin. Hiking and kayaking are nearby. Here is some additional information.

It is a bit cold this morning – about 40ºF, so I welcome the warmth of the museum. I thaw out while I look at the displays. They tell the story of the Cherokee Indians who once roamed this area and their relationship with the European settlers of South Carolina.

I start back out of the park and continue south on SC-11 about six miles to route SC-130. The turn is a sharp right. I am not yet very good at negotiating turns that are greater than 90 degrees, so I take it slow. I try to keep the engine pulling through the turn, rather than coasting for best control.

SC-130 is a nice road for most of its length to the falls. The curves are almost all sweepers, and except for a few places where the surface has been patched, it is well-paved. Some of the better riders tell me that they take a few of these curves at more than 100 miles per hour. I can muster only a little over half that most of the way, and I don’t think it wise to go that fast on a public road anyway. Yes, I expect that it would be exhilarating to do so, but I am always concerned about what could be around the next bend: sand on the road, an animal, or a stopped vehicle. Maybe some day a track school would be a safe way to learn to ride fast in the curves.

It is about eleven miles from SC-11 to the Whitewater Falls entrance. Since I have never traveled this way before, I am watching for the park entrance in this mostly wooded area. I think to myself that it would be pretty in the spring and fall with the budding trees and colored leaves. I have returned many times since that day, and it is, indeed, beautiful along here.

I cross the state line into North Carolina. There is a sign there stating that motorcycle riders must wear a helmet. This is not a requirement in South Carolina for riders who are twenty-one years old or greater. I have come to find that riders along this road frequently stop just south of the state line to don their helmets before continuing. I can’t help but think what would happen to their noggins if they took a spill without a helmet. For my part, I don’t want to find out, especially first hand.

Just a few hundred yards beyond the state line, the entrance to Whitewater Falls appears on the right. I cautiously survey the entrance, slowing quite a bit before I have to turn. Ah, it is not gravel. I make the turn into the road leading to the parking lot. I spot a rest room building on the way in: I’ll need that soon. The parking lot is almost empty, there being only two other cars. Since is it rather cold, there are no other bikers.

I stop and put my two-dollar entrance fee in the envelope and take the parking stub with me. The view back toward Lake Jocassee from the parking lot is already pretty good. I cannot see the falls from here, though. There is a paved path that leads from the parking lot through an open area with a few picnic tables and benches, and it is slightly up hill. In about a half-mile, I reach a vantage point from which the falls are visible. I have left my riding gear on to help keep the chill out, so I am walking with it on.

It has been dry here for some months, so the falls don’t look as full as in some of the pictures I have seen. I gaze for some time over the edge at the distant falls. I snap a few pictures, and try out the self-timer on my camera to see if I can take my own picture. It is a little difficult to make sure the camera view is right, so I take several. Note the fluorescent yellow vest I am wearing. This one was purchased from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation originally, but mine came from the Goodwill Store. I paid all of $2.00 for it, a nice bargain.

I'll stay back!
I'll stay back!

Smile for the camera.

There is a wooden stairway to the right that leads to another observation platform, offering a nice alternate view of the upper falls. The Foothills Trail is accessible from here as well. A sign says that there are no other views of the falls from the trail, so I linger a while and take some more photographs here.

Long way down.

Whitewater Falls is the highest waterfall east of the Rockies. Unlike Niagara Falls in New York, it is actually a series of waterfalls, as you can see from the photographs. Niagara, and the adjacent Horseshoe Falls in Ontario, are unusual in that they are not cascading, but are one massive drop. Niagara Falls drops one hundred seventy-six feet, though due to rocks at the base, the actual fall is seventy feet.

Interesting aside:

Here are some facts about Niagara and Horseshoe Falls.

Niagara Falls was turned off for inspection in 1969. I visited there on a vacation while it was turned off. This faucet feat was accomplished by installing an earthen cofferdam upstream of the falls. Horseshoe Falls remained flowing, and I suppose that the upstream diversion structures and tunnels diverted more than the usual amount of river water through the various hydroelectric powerhouses in the area. It was thought that something should or could be done to reduce the rate of erosion of the lip of the American falls to maintain their esthetically-pleasing appearance, and to prevent their eventually turning into a series of rapids. They decided that there was nothing that should be done. That was a good decision, I think: Man probably ought to let nature handle itself rather than spending massive amounts of tax money on them. Now some forty years later, the falls still look fine without our having meddled with them.

Another interesting fact is that there is a now-shut-down hydroelectric plant on the Ontario Canada side whose discharge is in the form of a tunnel that exits behind Horseshoe Falls. A group of urban explorers went there and documented their trip. Exciting, if dangerous and illegal stuff, this. See this and this as well.

...and a long way back up.

Once I have taken my photographs of Whitewater Falls, I face the long climb back up the steps. I like to try to keep myself on good shape, so I hoof it apace up the stairs. I count one hundred fifty-four. I find myself panting for breath at the top, so I look over the fence at the falls again for some time and sit for a while on a nearby bench before heading back down the path.

There is another bench at a parting in the trees where Lake Jocassee is again visible in the distance. I sit for a minute and take in the view. As I walk, a young couple is going the other way, and look me up and down as though I were an alien. Well, I guess I do look a little like that. …or a Power Ranger as they refer to me at work, maybe.

By the time I reach the parking lot, I am thirsty and take a drink of water from the bottle I have carried. It is important to keep hydrated. Even in the winter when you are not perspiring heavily, there is a significant loss of moisture through your breath in the dry air.

The Chicago Region BMW Owners Association has a useful article that many of us can profit from called Flatlander's Ride Guide for Twisties, by Tom Brown.
"Manage your hydration level. Drink water at every stop. When you're 'in the wind', fluids leave your body quickly. If you get even mildly dehydrated, your mental ability will suffer...and you'll be prone to panic and bad judgment."

I also eat one of the crunchy granola bars my wife buys for our son and I. I may have eaten a peck of them so far in my lifetime, but I have lost count. I finish my water, then walk over to the restroom. Without going into too much detail, the color is light, indicating proper hydration.

That complete, I go back to my bike and prepare to leave. It occurs to me that the bike has been out of my sight for a considerable period of time today. Someone with a pickup truck and a couple of helpers could have scooped it up. I really ought to consider an alarm system of some kind.

I start the engine and run slowly in first gear back to the main road. I now notice that I must stop on an upgrade with some gravel scattered about while watching for oncoming traffic on this curving road in both directions. I must manipulate the rear brake, clutch and throttle properly to start out from here, all the while making sure some vehicle is not bearing down on me.

I am apprehensive about this. I am still not very good at coordinating all that I must do in this situation. I look both ways – luckily traffic is almost non-existent, then concentrate on the controls. I slip the clutch a bit more than I should, but otherwise get up the hill and out onto the road again without too much trouble. I will have to practice this many more times before I get better at it.

I shift through the gears and make my way back to route 11. The road surface is more broken on this side of route 130, so I go a little slower in places. I feel a bit less tense than I did on my way up, so I enjoy the ride to a greater extent.

The first thing I pass on the way back is the entrance to Lower Whitewater Falls. Unfortunately there is an automatic gate that keeps me out. The property is owned by Duke Power, the power generation company. Anyone is granted access by driving up to the gate and letting the pavement sensor open the gate. My motorcycle is not massive enough to trip the sensor no matter where I position myself, so I have never been beyond it. I would have second thoughts about going, since the sensor on the other side might not let me out again!

Once I reach route 11, I stop, survey the traffic, and turn to the north -- the way I came. I move along at a good clip here on the mostly straight, smooth road. This is much less difficult riding for me, but I maintain my vigilance in case a hazard should appear. There is temptation to go fast here on this road, and many motorcyclists have been pinched by the police who patrol this road.

After fourteen and a half, miles, I reach “the store” again. Unfortunately, there are no other bikes there again. I move through the stop sign at the crossing with US-178. As I do, I imagine trying it to the north, with its challenging turns. I am not yet ready for that, so I turn my face toward the easier road ahead and continue on.

I pass Table Rock State Park, and turn at the Old Country Opry onto SC-8, through Pumpkintown, then on SC-135 back to Easley. This is part of the same route I have taken – and written about -- before.

As I near home, I feel a sense of accomplishment: I have ridden on my motorcycle to a place I have never been to before. It feels good, and, looking back, I think I was beginning to formulate what has become my favorite type of ride – to a destination, make a stop to look around, then ride some more. I will write further about this preference in future postings.

Also, as I near home, I find that I don’t want to stop today. I think of excuses to stay out longer. Let’s see, the mail can be picked up at the post office, and I could go by the Wal-Mart to see if there are any squids posing there, and, by the way, I wonder whether my mother in law could use some company. Well, there is mail, there are no squids today, and she enjoys a visit. I also enjoy warming up in her house, as I have become a little cold from the ride.

I down a glass of water and have some conversation at Mom’s house, then put my helmet and gloves back on, preparing to ride out of her neighborhood, then the short distance home. I still don’t want to stop today, so I circle through an adjacent housing development and do some low speed, figure-eight tight turns in a cul-de-sac. I have come to do this -- and practice quick stopping -- almost every time I take a day ride. It is a fairly safe place with controlled traffic, but the people who live right there probably wonder why this guy on a silver motorcycle is weaving about in seemingly random patterns in front of their houses. (They may be some of the same people who have seen me navigate through there on in-line skates, so events like this may not be so out of the ordinary after all.) Another good place to practice is at the DMV. Their test course is not far away, and I sometimes stop there to practice as well.

Finally, I return home, put the bike and my riding gear away, and relax. The trip odometer reads 112 miles, my longest ride thus far. The route.

Here are some pictures of Whitewater Falls and Lake Jocassee taken at other times of the year. God's creation is sure pretty, isn't it?

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