Saturday, January 12, 2019

AT in NC: Big Firescald Knob

Appalachian Trail in NC – Devil Fork Gap to No-Name Campsite – 4/10/18 – 13.4 miles

 So dang close to completing my AT-in-NC goal on my birthday – but between work obligations and weather limitations, I fell a day short.  Still, any time on the trail is memory-making.  I packed up for a solo overnight, called my shuttle driver, and headed for the border – the NC/TN border - to hike from Devil Fork Gap to Allen Gap.

It was a fine day for walking, but don’t get turned around: hiking the state line atop the mountain ridges from Devil Fork Gap to Coldspring Mountain, southbound on the AT is compass north.  Pisgah National Forest takes up the NC side of the ridge (left/west) but the right/eastern side slides down to a valley of TN farmland. There are more than a couple of side trails that fade in and out along the way, reminding me that there’s been life in the hollows and coves long before the Appalachian Trail was a thing. 
Around every bend the trail’s personality changed:

There are three shelters on this section of the AT between Devil Fork Gap and Allen Gap. I carried my tent, undecided about where I would sleep tonight, maybe a shelter, maybe not.  Flint Mountain Shelter was the first one I passed, some late risers still hanging around.

Almost from the get-go I was hustling because it felt good to move fast, immersed in the trail sensations, but soon I was making mileage calculations in my head to see how far I could get. Shorten tomorrow’s hike? Finish all in one day?  Hike an hour (surely more) in the dark? I must have pulled my little map out of my pocket and looked at it a thousand times.  Some things noted on it I saw, but a few things I missed.

One thing I didn’t miss was the Shelton gravesite. The short version of the story is that David Shelton and his nephew, William, of Madison County, North Carolina, joined the Union army during the Civil War (not uncommon for the hill country of western NC, loyalties divided every which way).  Sources differ on why the two returned to the area when they did.  Were they coming home for a family gathering? Were they deserting the war? Were they part of a Union recruiting detail? What is sure is that they were with a 13-year-old nephew, Millard Haire, acting as a guide, when they were ambushed and killed by Confederate soldiers. The Shelton headstones were erected around 1915; Haire’s memorial was erected in 2013.  Read some stories here and here and here.

 You won’t find me camping at the grave site

Much confusion in my mind as to whether the AT crosses the high point of Greene County, TN.  If it’s Gravel Knob, I missed it. My peakbagger friends who carry GPS’s would know.

No way am I going to bypass Big Butt!  There’s a short side trail to its summit called Big Rocks. A couple of thru-hikers were taking a break there.

Camp Creek Bald is the pointy peak on the horizon

At Big Butt (aka Cold Spring Mountain) the AT southbound takes a 90-degree left turn, still tracing the state border high up on the ridge line, and now TN’s vistas are part of protected Cherokee National Forest.  The side trails are numerous, well maintained, and great hiking all on their own.

A pause in the action for some craggy old trees on the trail today:

I missed the Howard C. Bassett memorial. I passed Jerry Cabin Shelter with just a glance.  Ten miles so far and I was feeling confident. Five more miles and I could pitch my tent at Little Laurel Shelter, then cruise the remaining five miles to Allen Gap tomorrow morning.

I did not read the editorial comments on the sign, but the weather was fine so I took the white blaze, of course.  Thus I was introduced to Big Firescald Knob, a 4,500-foot-high narrow exposed ridge of white quartzite, 1.5 miles of slow going boulders. Some consider it the most spectacular and scenic part of the AT between the Smokies and the Roan highlands. No argument from me.

Looking at North Carolina

Looking at Tennessee

Howard’s Rock, the high point of Big Firescald Knob

Camp Creek Bald and towers

It was late afternoon and there was no hurrying over this terrain.  I’d been aiming to get past Camp Creek Bald, that mountain with looming communication towers that was still far, far away, but I admitted to myself that I wasn’t going to make it today.  I sat down to rest on a front row seat, a tiny speck on a rock on a mountain on a planet in a universe beyond my comprehension. 

Past Big Firescald Knob there was no respite as the trail continued to climb, passing short side trails to Little Firescald Knob, Whiterock and Blackstack Cliffs, all of which I passed with a “not-now-but-next-time” note to self.  I practiced my hiking buddy Carol’s method of counting by 100’s to 1,000 as a distraction. I met a couple of backpackers hiking trail north and asked about Little Laurel Shelter (still nearly 3 miles away). One guy said it was filling up and he didn’t see any open tent spaces left, that’s why he was pushing on. 

I bypassed the side trail to Jones Meadow as well; I didn’t want to detour even a little bit (and a quarter of a mile feels like a giant detour).  Surely there is a flat spot somewhere close to pitch a tent?  At the second bypass for Jones Meadow, I paused to wonder, what is my stubbornness getting me except frustrated and tired?  And there, before my eyes in the lengthening shadows, was a beautiful campsite right beside the trail, two fire rings, a bubbling creek running alongside, several tent-sized flat spots in the open and more behind a screen of rhododendrons. 

No one else is at this first-rate, everything-you-could-ever-need campsite.  Pondering, why not stay here? Why hasn’t anyone else stopped here?  I am alone, is that good or bad? 

I pitched my pink tent and set about camp chores, heating water, drinking tea.  As I began to eat, a guy came along.  We chatted and he decided to stay, too, and put up his tent behind the rhodies where he was hidden from view. 

Peaceful night interrupted only by owls calling back and forth overhead.  

“The secret of the mountains is that the mountains simply exist, as I do myself; the mountains exist simply, which I do not. The mountains have no “meaning”, they are meaning; the mountains are." ~Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard

Saturday, December 29, 2018

AT in NC: Albert Mountain

AT in NC: Standing Indian – Betty Gap to Winding Stair Gap - Albert Mountain Fire Tower – 3/31/18 – 12.2 Miles

I’m a daylight girl with a strong aversion to moving around camp before I can see my hand in front of my face. This morning’s sunrise was well after 7:00 a.m. Outside my cozy tent, the drooping rhododendron leaves confirmed the same chill as yesterday, so it’s best to keep moving.  I had to take my gloves off to strike my tent and load my backpack, fumbling with cold fingers. Today we’ve got 12 miles to hike and 200 miles to drive back to Charlotte, so a little breakfast, a wave goodbye to the thru-hikers that are awake (not many), and we’re on our way to Albert Mountain.

A great view to start the morning off right!

Some nice work rebuilding this eroded trail section

There is a route to bypass the summit during bad conditions (snow, ice, high winds) and no shame in taking it rather than die on the boulders. No worries on this fine morning. The push to the top was agonizingly steep and long (barely more than a quarter-mile, but hey!)

Albert Mountain Fire Tower (summit elevation 5,250 feet, tower erected in 1951)

I visited this tower with Jim on an exploration weekend in Nantahala back in 2012 (geez, where did those 5 years go?) as part of the lookout tower challenge.  At that time Jim and I took the half-mile walk from a parking area at the end of FR 67. Today it felt more legit to approach it via the AT. It’s a place for lingering and contemplating, not just tagging.  Thru-hikers straggled up and took the time to appreciate the place, the birds, the people sharing the moment. Rows and rows of blue blue blue mountains…

Okay, still about 10 miles to go, trending downhill but with two significant “bumps” to keep us on our toes.  A thoughtful hiker left a sign of encouragement – yay, 100 miles done!

Long Branch Shelter, built in 2012, looks brand spanking new

Sleeps 16 cozy backpackers

The day warmed up and we saw our first flowers of the season (trailing arbutus) and this peaceful little scene

A most unexpected surprise today – I heard a voice calling my name and looked up the trail to see an old friend from Girl Scout leader days!  Back in those days Diane B. and I spent many weekends in cabins and tents with girls from kindergarten through high school age, walking in creeks and cooking over campfires.  What an absolute joy to give her a big bear hug out here in the woods!

Marta and I finished our hike at Winding Stair Gap and headed home with a sense of deep satisfaction.  Overnight backpacking is awesome – you can stand anything for one night, whether it’s rain, cold, hunger, snoring campers, because you’ll be back in comfort by the end of the next day.  Then the feeling of satisfaction is replaced by the desire to go out again.  Marta has hiked multiple overnight loops in the Standing Indian area and shared lots of good information, and I would feel quite comfortable exploring other routes there.  Thanks for helping me close this gap on the AT, Marta! Happy Trails!

“The Forest makes your heart gentle.  You become one with it.”  ~Pha Pachak