Saturday, February 19, 2011

Adventures at Cummins Falls

Just about a week ago, another painter and I went on the toughest hike of my life, in the name of saving Cummins Falls. I have hiked in high altitudes in the Rocky Mountains, but that was nothing compared to this largely off-trail excursion lugging way too much paint and weather gear!

First I'll give a little background on the Cummins Falls situation. This huge waterfall is located on 186 acres of wooded land near Cookeville, TN. The Chestnut Group, the plein air painting group I belong to, is partnering with the Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation in an effort to protect this property from impending future development. The Foundation needs to raise enough money to purchase the waterfall from a private owner, or the land will go up for sale this coming June. This individual landowner had purchased the waterfall area in 2010 as part of a deal to hold the land for one year, giving Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation time to raise the money for purchase. The Chestnut group is sending out artists to paint the waterfall and to sell the works at a fundraiser on February 24. The more paintings we sell, the more money will go toward saving Cummins Falls.

Now to the adventure. I have never had to walk more than 15 minutes to get to my painting destination, so I'm not equipped with the most ergonomic paint gear. I normally find my gear to be light and easy to travel with. However, the day of this paint-out had a low of 8º F and a high in the 30's. (For the Europeans, 32ºF is the equivalent of 0º...freezing!!) So I took 2 extra jackets, and also extra food and water, since I knew I would be out in nature all day. We were told the hike to the bottom of the gorge would take about 30 minutes. Then we'll paint the falls. No big deal! 

So we start hiking through the woods. Pretty!

click any photo to enlarge

It's getting a little steep. But pretty!

We get to the end of the trail. We're at the edge of a river, with no waterfall in sight or in earshot. 

Ummm...where's the waterfall? Thalia, my fellow hiker, tells me we have to hike up the river–in the water–to get to the falls. She had posted this information online, but I had brilliantly missed it. She starts pulling on her thigh-high waders. I'm feeling incredibly lucky to be wearing my almost knee-high rubber boots.

Rather than wade the whole way in the river, we decide to hike along the bank. We cross to where the bank looks better for foot travel. The bottom of the river is slippery and the water is almost to my boot tops, but I make it across dry!

Some of the hiking is easy, but much of it is along muddy, sloped embankments and through dense thickets of fallen trees. Sometimes it would take 5-10 minutes for me to muscle my way through a particularly tough clump of branches, while trying to keep all my gear and jackets with me. I start getting so hot that I have to carry two coats over my arm, in addition to the easel and two tote bags.

Finally we meet our match in a large cedar tree that has fallen across a high, steep muddy bank. Since there's no way through it, we cross the river to a more passable looking area. My boots meet their match in the water, as you'll see in the video below. As I mutter to myself in the video, the frigid water rushing into my boots was actually pretty refreshing in my state of overheated fatigue! I had to be careful to keep my balance, because with each step I could feel the swift current pushing against my legs.


OK, it's about 30-35ºF, and I am slogging about in boots filled with ice water. That sounds like a bad thing, but to my feet, the water is like cool, hydraulic footpads that circulate all through my boots with each step. Who needs gel soles? But obeying common sense and not sensation, I sit down and dump about a half gallon of water from each boot. Then almost immediately we find that we can't pass the far bank either, because it's so craggy and rocky. Here's a photo of that side of the river. Thalia is a tiny speck at the base of the gorge ... can you find her? 

So it's back in the water again, crossing back to the original bank. Now I have a new freedom of not having to worry about whether the water is over my boots! I'm waterlogged anyway, so I just stomp right across the river.

Now we are in a slightly less impassable boulder field. This is the hardest part of the hike. I have to muster all my strength to haul myself and my gear over each boulder, with precarious footing and numerous drop-offs to sharp rocks below. A couple of mini-avalanches erupt ahead of me, almost hitting Thalia, and both of us wonder if some animal had set it off in the cliffs above us. Every now and then I would look up at the cliffs, imagining a mountain lion staring down with interest. Yeah, I know this isn't Colorado, but I am almost delirious with exhaustion, and I decide that it wouldn't matter if a wild animal were stalking me anyway, because I'm too pooped to escape. 

Then.....we finally see the falls!! (With the help of my camera's zoom lens) It took us about 2 hours to get to this point.

The shadow of the gorge has its own local weather. The snow is about 2 inches deep, and the air is definitely colder. I'm dreadfully fatigued, with soaking wet feet, but that doesn't's time to paint the falls.

I pop in my earbuds and escape the cold and damp with the warm, sunny sounds of an African pop song. Song after song comes to my rescue, warding off the burning pain that sets into my frozen feet. I'm able to pull off a paint sketch in about 2 hours.

When I pack up and head back, I discover my feet are frozen numb and cannot be trusted on the snowy, craggy footholds. My thighs are like wobbly rubber, too. Even scarier: I discover that in my fatigue, I have lost my fear of falling. A few times when I start losing my balance, my reaction is dull apathy. It would be nice to just give in to gravity. Huh?? OK, apparently my survival instincts are useless, along with my legs, so my brain kicks in and finds a somewhat easier path. I still have obstacles, but I get over each one by sliding and scrambling on my stomach or backside. Along the way, I see a plastic bag with waders in it. Then a familiar straw hat. Then a roll of paper towels. I believe my hiking partner is losing her stuff! Or maybe this is how she marks the trail for me. I gather it  up and finally come to a point where she's waiting for me. She has my coat, which I also had lost along the way, and we exchange lost goods. I tie the coat around my waist, but somewhere along the way I lose it again. I feel like we're Hansel and Gretel, leaving a trail of debris to guide our way back.

After more boulders, mud, fallen trees, the river, and the steeply graded forest trail ... we make it back to a campfire and food! I remove my boots and entertain everyone with my wool socks and pant legs steaming in the campfire heat. Yay, mismatched socks. 

As much as I detailed the difficulties of our hike, I wouldn't trade that day for anything. The constant, strenuous exertion put me in a state of mind that lived in the moment-to-moment present. That basic kind of existence is an oasis of primitive bliss in the chaotic modern world. That's all the more reason to keep wild, rugged areas like Cummins Falls protected from encroaching civilization.

p.s. Thank you Thalia for taking so many of the pictures and the video in this post! And thanks Cathleen for the food and the "steamy" pic at the end.


  1. Ya'll make Lewis and Clark look like a couple of metrosexuals.
    Way to "gut it out."

  2. I have a whole new appreciation for the icicles in your painting. I think you both should bring your thigh highs to the show and set them up with the photos of the adventures!!!

  3. Lisa, thanks for posting this. It was great to see your journey. I would love for you to put a link to this on the Chestnut friend page and on the save cummings falls page. Way to go girls!!!!!!

  4. Thank you Dawn! There's a link on the Friends page, but it might have gotten bumped down throughout the day. Great idea about posting to the Save Cummins page...I just saw that Cathleen beat me to it! Thank you Cathleen!

    Also to Kevin - I was equally impressed about you and Kay climbing down a 30-foot bluff!! Good grief! I think we're all nuts.

  5. Wow Lisa! I am so impressed! Thank you for documenting your efforts to capture this beautiful place. The work is beautiful too! see you Thurs!

  6. Thanks for sharing this! You really are "nuts."