As the weather cools, I start to think more and more about hiking. Everybody feels better as fall approaches, and I’m no exception. It doesn’t take much to get me thinking about exploring the outdoors on foot.
That’s where my head was the other day as I set out to explore a remote part of the Chattahoochee River near Helen, far back in the Chattahoochee National Forest. I actually had a serious reason for the trip -- shooting some more photos for the new book on fishing for Chattahoochee trout. The day’s assignment was to shoot photos in a remote section of the upper Chattahoochee that I call “the gorge.” Sure, serious work was on the docket -- but if I happened to squeeze in a little flyfishing along the way, that would be just fine too. I love research like that!
“The gorge” is a 4.5-mile section of river between Upper Chattahoochee River Campground and the Chattahoochee Wildlife Management Area check station on Forest Service Road 44 (Poplar Stump Road). Through that section, the river flows in a steep-walled valley with slopes too steep to climb. But down in the gorge, the river’s actually pretty flat and offers pretty good fishing too.
We made it into the gorge, hiking in from near the WMA check station, and got the photos we needed. The fishing (okay, I admit it) was pretty good too.
But what I really want to tell you about is the bridge that isn’t there.
The story starts about 1913, at a time when timber and not tourism drove the Helen economy. That’s when the Byrd-Matthews Lumber Company built a sawmill in Helen. The company was cutting timber far back in the mountains. To transport the logs (some as much as eight feet in diameter) to the Helen mill, they constructed a narrow-gauge rail line which more or less followed the river. Much of the old railbed remains. Surprisingly, some of it is not too badly overgrown, and it actually makes a pretty decent hiking trail.
“That old rail bed is not a bad way to get around along the river,” one oldtimer told me. “But you’ll have to cross the river a few times.”
River crossings, eh? Originally, timber trestles carried the tracks across the river. Those trestles are long gone. But its not hard to see where they once stood. Sometimes you’ll find an easy ford with a trail leading from the old track bed down to the water.
But other times…
We were walking along the old railbed, stopping now and then to drop down to the river and fish. We’d hike a bit, see a promising spot, and try it. Then we’d make our way back to the railbed and hike some more. Hike. Fish. Hike. Fish. It fell into a kind of rhythm, and it was good.
We were in the “hiking” phase when suddenly and unexpectedly the railbed simply stopped. It literally disappeared into thin air. One minute we were walking on a not-so-bad trail. The next we were standing there looking out into space, like someone had chopped off the trail with a huge knife.
It turns out that we were at the site of one of the trestles which used to cross the river. Down below us, the Chattahoochee flowed merrily along. On the far side we could see where the railbed continued on the other side of the gorge
But between where we stood and where the railbed continued there was only a lot of empty air.
“This must be one of those ‘interesting’ crossings,” I thought to myself, for the only way to continue was to drop back down to river level and then climb up to the railbed on the far side.
Or we could simply stay and fish right there, which is what we decided to do.
The fishing was good, but the history was captivating. It wasn’t hard to imagine some long-ago steam locomotive pulling log-laden flatcars along the very route that we walked. I found it fun to paint that mental picture. The flip side, of course, was what the landscape must have looked like then, with trees clearcut and hillsides bare. I didn’t like part of the picture nearly as much.
Not surprisingly, many modern-day adventurers stop right where we did. But I want to see the rest and check out more of the fishing, and (yes) I want to see where the railbed goes on the far side that ghost trestle too.
Fall’s coming. It’s cooling off. The hiking is going to be great, and I’m making plans.