I love topographic maps. It’s easy to lose track of time, while poring over these drawings that show the Earth’s natural, and human-built, physical features. After studying the map of the eighty-acre Cabin Creek watershed, which drains into the Chattahoochee River, a friend and I decided to walk the creek and its two tributaries as far as we could go upstream on each—hoping to find their sources.
Following the contour lines on the map, we noticed that Cabin Creek rises from a place a few hundred yards above a small, man-made lake – not far outside the boundaries of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. One of the two streams flowing into the larger creek also appeared to be dammed in its headwaters, near or at its source.
On a chilly, overcast morning in December, my friend and I walked down a well-beaten trail in the national park and turned into the silent woods, crunching piles of leaves that released the pungent smell of late fall. After crossing a small ridge, we descended the slope of the ravine, seeking the water that we knew was at its bottom: the creek that defined this little hardwood gorge over hundreds of years.
The clouds began to part and the temperature warmed. Patches of blue sky allowed sunlight to shine down through bare branches, illuminating the flowing water in Cabin Creek, when we reached its banks. As we walked upstream, listening to the sound of water falling over rocks on its way to the river – a sound more beautiful to my ears than a symphony – our companions were tiny fish, varieties of moss, ferns, and birdsong. The water in the foot-deep pools below the small waterfalls was a stunning shade of blue-green.
I adjusted my eyes and concentrated on tree reflections in the gin-clear water that offered a mirror to the beeches, hickories and other hardwood trees growing on the moist slopes of the ravine. Further upstream, we found a massive beech tree with a circumference of one-hundred and twelve inches, indicating that it is about two-hundred and ten years old. This tree could have been a seedling in 1809 – the year that Abraham Lincoln was born.
On one side of the beech’s trunk, we found carvings in the thin-skinned bark, including a crude drawing of a hand, enlarged over the years as the tree grew. I laid my hand with fingers spread against the cool, smooth bark – within the much larger outline of the handprint – and wondered who made this carving and how long ago. I also wondered, not for the first time, why people find it acceptable to vandalize and harm American beech trees with their knives.
Nearing the park’s boundary, we looked upslope and saw the earthen dam that creates the lake we had seen on our map; the seep or spring that gives birth to Cabin Creek is somewhere on private land. Heading back downslope, we found several fallen trees covered with turkey tail mushrooms in amazing colors and sizes. Scrambling over and around the deadfall, we eventually reached the mouth of the first tributary: the place where its waters enter Cabin Creek.
Our second upstream trek was a bit more strenuous, given the steeper slope of the ravine. Our first discovery was a large tulip poplar tree with massive roots that extend into and across the small stream, creating the structure for a stair-step waterfall, when there is sufficient flow.
Further along, we found several swampy areas with a surprising amount of sediment for the largely-protected stream. I stopped to admire rock outcrops, beech roots and ferns. It was almost more natural beauty than I could absorb—until we looked upslope and saw the second earthen dam that we expected from our read of the map.
The pond created by this dam at the stream’s headwaters – as an amenity for a private residence – had been partially drained. Pumps and flexible pipes used to dump the pond water downstream into the park were visible on both sides of the private fence. The sediment we noticed earlier was likely the result of scouring from a flood of water pumped from this pond, when it was drained. It was ugly and sad. No wonder we couldn’t find any fish in the stream.
Our hike up the second tributary that flows into Cabin Creek was breathtaking – in every way. Its entire watershed is within park boundaries and, therefore, protected. This unnamed stream cuts through a surprisingly steep ravine that is obstructed with a significant amount of deadfall and brush. We were forced to climb higher on the hill, still tracking the stream, as it became smaller and smaller – until we reached a depression, really a damp spot, in the woods at an elevation nearly one-hundred and fifty feet above the river. We had found the stream’s source.
Several deer ran across the ridge, away from us and our noisy walking, while a hawk cried repeatedly overhead. I wanted to lie down on the carpet of emerald-green moss at the top of the ridge and gaze into the treetops and the sky beyond, but it was past lunchtime and we were hungry. Our adventure was done, but for one last discovery: an old stone hearth covered with moss. It may have been used a few decades ago or a hundred years ago. We’ll never know.
Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. Her award-winning Above the Waterline column appears monthly in Atlanta Intown.