Tree limbs and trunks lay in sections across a short trail leading to the upper section of Wildcat Branch Falls along the side of Scenic Highway 11 in northern Greenville County.
In places, the gnarled branches lay harmlessly beside the trail. Closer to the falls, though, entire trees remained where they fell, their roots ripped from the ground.
Chainsaws have already been here. Sections of many trees have been sliced away. Some, though, across giant boulders at the waterfall’s base, revealed bark worn away where hikers had climbed over.
Downed trees are testament to a month of rain across the mountain passages that swept fallen trees from river banks and felled others as the soggy ground gave way.
The trees are just one source of evidence that this hasn’t been a normal summer.
Slippery rocks, eroded trails and raging rivers also give clues to the huge, record-setting summer rains that pounded the Upstate daily for three solid weeks.
Streams and rivers are running two, three and four feet above normal in places and will continue to run high for weeks, officials said.
And as the fast-running rivers, spectacular waterfalls and full lakes draw hikers, swimmers and boaters, dangers lurk beneath the water’s surface, dangers that have claimed multiple lives this summer.
Since June, two people have drowned in the Chattooga River after their boats overturned in the wild river rapids. Another Greenville man perished while swimming beneath Turtleback Falls in North Carolina’s Gorges State Park. And on Sunday, an 8-year-old boy who was tubing in the French Broad River near Asheville went over a small waterfall and didn’t resurface.
The boy’s leg was pinned by a tree trunk lodged beneath the waterfall. Rescuers freed him after 15 minutes, and he took his first breath on the way to the hospital, The Associated Press reported.
Since 1970, 42 people have died on the Chattooga River, according to U.S. Forest Service data and recent incident reports. Two people have died this year. One man died in 2012 when he broke his back after falling from a raft.
Scott Krein, Oconee County’s emergency manager, called this summer’s water levels the highest sustained high current he’s seen.
Analysis of U.S. Geological Service river gauge data shows that 2,792 readings taken every 15 minutes from May 1 through July 25 ran above what American Whitewater recommends for running the rapids at the U.S. 76 bridge near Clayton, Ga.
Last year, just 43 readings measured above 2.50 feet, the high end of American Whitewater’s recommended range for that section of rapids.
Readings in 2011 had none above 2.50 feet for the same time period.
Krein blamed “strainers” for the recent Chattooga deaths. It’s not just the swift current. It’s not just the logs that become stuck between rocks. It’s the combination.
“The more pressure you have on the object, if a person gets caught between that pressure and that object, they get the possibility of being trapped underwater and drowning,” he said.
Yet strainers, Krein pointed out, are just one of the dangers people face in the Upstate summer due to the rain this year.
Wild and scenic
On June 19, Thomas Patrick Hill, a Florida resident who was on a guided rafting expedition on the Chattooga River, fell overboard.
The search — first to locate his body and then to retrieve it from the rapids — spanned two weeks.
Updates from the U.S. Forest Service showed the difficulty of the recovery effort in the high water. Attempts to locate the body and recover it from the river were suspended time and again because of heavy rainfall or danger posed to rescue teams from the volume of water in the river. It took 13 days to locate the body.
Finally, after nearly 6,000 man-hours logged in 500 shifts, swiftwater rescue crews pulled Hill’s body from the river 17 days after he fell from the raft, Krein said.
The incident highlighted the dangers that made the Chattooga famous — its unpredictable turbulence made it impossible for even the recovery team’s underwater cameras to glimpse anything.
“We had a Class 5 rapids with super-aerated water creating a very large hydraulic to search in with the inability to actually see in that area,” Krein said. “Water levels played a factor in some of that due to it going up and down. It was up higher to start this year alone we’ve had levels that we have not seen on that river continuously.”
That tragic incident drew the most attention of any this summer, but Krein said there have been numerous other injuries and medical evacuations on the river from the current and hazards being swept downstream.
“Some of the areas that normally are not clogged or have hazards in them, we’ve found hazards,” Krein said.
When river levels across the Upstate have approached flood stage, they’ve gone over the banks and collected trees and branches from the banks, said Lance Cpl. Brian Welch with South Carolina Department of Natural Resources in Pickens County.
Boaters could have all of the proper safety equipment — helmets and life jackets — and could hit their heads on floating debris, he said.
Rivers like the Chattooga aren’t patrolled to remove hazards because of their free-flowing nature, Krein said. So boaters must pay attention to avoid debris and steer clear of logs washing downstream.
Welch said boaters should go slowly and file a float plan so emergency responders can locate them more quickly in an emergency.
Warnings for lakes
The same warnings about floating trees apply to lakes, Welch said.
It could be just as dangerous for motorboats, personal watercraft, water-skiers or water-tubers to strike a tree limb floating on a lake surface, he said.
As lake levels rose to flood stage, the water toppled trees along the shore and picked up loose vegetation and carried it into the lake, Welch said.
Hidden sandbars and even rocks that are normally visible on Upstate lakes aren’t right now, Welch said.
“I was on Lake Jocassee and stopped by a boat, and he said he almost ran over two rocks that he didn’t see,” Welch said. “He said he knew they were there, he just forgot about them because he couldn’t see them.”
Popular swimming holes beneath mountain waterfalls have an added degree of danger from the amount of water running over the falls, which has caused more turbulence, Welch said.
Popular waterfalls in Jocassee Gorges and others that drop into Lake Jocassee have been raging, he said.
In North Carolina’s Gorges State Park, it took a week to locate and recover the body of 36-year-old Jermaine Maffett of Greenville, who disappeared while swimming with his brother and a friend in the Horsepasture River in North Carolina earlier this month, Kevin Shook, a spokesman for Transylvania County Emergency Management, told GreenvilleOnline.com.
Maffett’s was the latest death on the water this summer.
Welch urged swimmers to wear life vests while swimming near the falls.
Trail operators said they’ve dealt with erosion, downed trees, muddied trails and washed-out bridges as crews and hikers have reported what they’ve seen in the past couple of weeks.
Maintenance crews and swarms of volunteers have worked to clear trails across the state.
The rain hurt Midlands trails the most along the Palmetto Trail, said Natalie Britt, executive director of the Palmetto Conservation Foundation, which operates the statewide mountain-to-sea trail.
“We’ve had bridges that we’ve had issues with in the Midlands that we’ve had to address,” she said. “In the Upstate, we’ve been pretty fortunate. There’s been some erosion but we’ve addressed that. There are definitely some trees that have come down.”
“Fortunately, we have a group of guys that are chainsaw-certified,” she said. “Certainly we can’t get to it as quickly as we like, especially after such a massive amount of rain.”
Krein, Oconee’s emergency manager, said his department has responded to calls from hikers who have over-exerted themselves trying to climb over and hike around trees that are blocking trails.
It’s a real problem in the heat and humidity when there are added barriers, he said.
All of the state park trails have remained open, though there’s still water on the trails in places, and crews are still working to remove downed trees that have fallen, said Tim Lee, Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area naturalist with the state park service.
A plus from all this water? “They’ve never seen the kind of displays the waterfalls have right now,” said Marion Edmunds, state parks service spokesman.
“If they understand that rocks are slick and they stay on the trails, those trails are designed in such a way that if they stay on the trails, they’re going to be safe and they’ll get to see this really remarkable display,” Edmunds said.
State park trails weathered the storms remarkably well because the rain wasn’t violent, Edmunds said.
The constant rain and soft ground did cause trees to fall but didn’t cause as much erosion as feared on Upstate trails, he said.
“People do need to understand since we’ve hardly had two days without rain that the rock faces are still very wet and the mosses are slick,” Edmunds said.
Lee encouraged hikers to get out and see the waterfalls, calling them spectacular with the additional water that will continue to filter to the streams and rivers for a few weeks.
But he added a caveat.
“Just like any time that you’re hiking on a trail system. Watch your footing. If it’s wet, it could be slippery.”