Biologist Drew Crain told me there were only a couple of things to worry about at Slickrock Creek: bears and rattlesnakes. I'd asked Drew and his son Jared to accompany me to camp at the mouth of Slickrock, which is accessible only by boat or a hike of a few miles.
I told Norman, my German shepherd, that it would be his job to ward off bears, and he seemed agreeable to this new responsibility. Unbeknownst to us, it wouldn't be bears or rattlesnakes that disturbed us in our stay in the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness.
Calderwood Lake, where we would put in, borders the northeastern tip of the 17,394-acre wilderness, and the Tennessee/North Carolina state line splits the creek. Designating an area as wilderness limits access and development. There are no roads, limited trails, and all of the campsites are primitive—without water, electricity, or concrete picnic tables. You can't drive an ATV or anything else motorized into a wilderness area.
The idea of preserving wild places like this one began with the Wilderness Act of 1964, which set aside tracts of land "for preservation and protection in their natural condition." It should be "undeveloped...without permanent improvement or human habitation," and "devoted to the public purposes of recreation, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation and historic use."
We drove over the Tail of the Dragon (Highway 129) from Maryville and got to Magazine Branch Boat Ramp (the right turn just before crossing the bridge below Cheoah Dam) around 2 p.m. Drew and Jared were in kayaks, and I served as the freighter, taking on supplies and an 85-pound bear-sentinel (who hates water) in my canoe. The dam-generated current and the wind pushed us the mile to the mouth of Slickrock in just a few minutes. Once we took the left turn into the creek, all became still, the air as well as the water. We chose the campsite on the left, though there was another on the right side of the creek closer to the mouth. I strung up my hammock and Drew and Jared popped their tent on one of three platforms with soft wood-chip surfaces.
Up a trail we hiked, past the falls, following the creek for a mile or so. If you hike the entire Slickrock loop, you have to cross this creek several times. Water flashed white and clear over moss-covered rocks and eddied into pools that looked good for wading, swimming, or fishing. Norm showed me he could jump five feet onto a rock ledge at one rough part of the trail.
Drew caught a small rainbow at the base of the falls near camp, and I caught a tree on the far side of the creek. It took me over an hour to make a crossing above the falls to retrieve the lure. Barefoot, I had to hunker over on all fours a time or two, the flat rocks were so slick. Jared and I waded into the pool waist deep. It was 10 degrees warmer, we estimated, than the deep and frigid main channel.
We got our campfire started, ate dinner, stowed away our food and trash, and settled in to experience a night in the wilderness. My hammock was set up as the first defense in the wilderness, literally strung across the trail. I tethered Norm to a 15-foot boat strap, thinking he would take the point, but he stretched the tether in the opposite direction to get as near to the fire as he could.
I lay awake most of the night checking on Norm, gazing at the stars and the fireflies, and listening for the sound of heavy snorting or stomping through the woods. After a while, it began to dawn on me that if a bear approached, he or she would not be obliged to use the trail. Once I dozed off and awoke to find Norm off his tether sitting up in the trail, nose in air. I re-tethered him.
Sometime after midnight I heard a human voice say one word that sounded like "Norm." Why would a disembodied voice call my sleeping dog from the depths of the wilderness? Tiny beacons of light began to shoot back and forth at the mouth of the creek. More voices, seemingly excited, angry, celebratory, it was difficult to tell. I didn't call out to Drew or Jared, but I thought, as did they, I later confirmed, that there were some partiers in a pontoon at the mouth of the creek. Wrong.
About a half hour later, a procession began. It was a parade of lights coming down a trail we didn't know existed 200 yards above our campsite. Somebody squealed and somebody else laughed and asked if she were all right. An adult voice said, "We've had enough close calls up here." It seemed like at least 35 hikers were descending the trail, what we guessed was either a Boy Scout or a church group. What possessed them to commence a hike in the dead of night into a wilderness is anybody's guess. Adventure, perhaps. Norm watched the procession without alarm.
After they passed, presumably to camp among the sites farther up the creek, the wilderness resumed its silence, ruled by the low static of the waterfall, tree frogs whirring, a branch snapping every now and then.
Next morning, we still had the creek to ourselves. It had risen a foot or two, and we were glad we had tied our boats off. I was reluctant to leave, but by mid-morning, we could see that the current and wind were roaring in the main channel. The return trip to the boat ramp took twice as long, the current and the wind was so strong. Norm did not panic as we fought the elements and a couple of boat wakes to return to the paved surface of civilization after an eventful night in the wilderness.