20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

There’s nothing that screams “Southern Appalachian summer” like taking the kids to a remote swimming hole. The ice-cold water, the dense forest where moss grows on every surface, the dudes in jean shorts doing backflips off rocks (then diving deep over and over to try to find their lost Oakley sunglasses)…I can almost feel the humidity just thinking about it.

So, we decided to ditch work for a day in the middle of the week and take the kids to Midnight Hole, one of the classic swimming holes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Because it’s the Southern Appalachians, we had to time our visit between thunder storms and were mostly successful. The sun never really broke through the clouds, but nobody got struck by lightning, so I consider that a win.

It took my kids a while to work up the courage to soar off the jumping rock, a massive boulder that hung 15 feet above the deepest part of Midnight Hole. They were skeptical about the jump partly because the water was so damn cold, but mostly because of the blanket of white bubbles that churned at the bottom of the small waterfall, obscuring the landing zone. My son told me he was scared because he couldn’t see what was beneath that white, churning surface. It didn’t matter than I had done the jump and declared it to be safe and fun. He was suspicious. The swimming hole was scary and full of mystery for him.

Which is exactly what Midnight Hole is known for, earning the name “Midnight Hole” because the pool at the bottom of the falls is so damn deep, it’s black. I tried my damnedest to touch the bottom with each jump, but never once felt anything firm beneath the surface.

Maybe the best part of the entire day was talking with the wonderful lady who owned the Big Creek Country Store, a general store at the edge of the park where we stopped for Moon Pies and peanuts after the adventure. She grew up in the area and told us how the grownups would tell stories to their kids about the boogeyman who would rise up from the bottom of Midnight Hole and snatch swimmers. When she was just a kid, a man in a scuba suit showed up at Midnight Hole to test the depth of the river at the base of the falls. It was one of those old school scuba suits—the kind with the big, round helmets used in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. She says that the scuba diver never found the bottom of the hole.

I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I like the story, and it just underscores the notion that this swimming hole is full of mystery. Like, maybe there is some body-snatching monster that lives in the depths of that hole, just waiting for the right combination of laughter, Budweiser and Chacos to rise to the surface for a snack.

After he worked up the nerve to jump, my son did some exploring of his own with some snorkeling gear. He didn’t see a monster. He saw a lot of little fish. Maybe somebody’s watch. But no monster. And he’s dying to go back. So again, I consider that a win.

Places to Go, Things to See: