Friday, July 8, 2016

AT in TN: Beauty Spot & Unaka Mountain

Appalachian Trail in TN – Curly Maple Gap Shelter to Iron Mountain Gap – 15.9 Miles –3/26/16

Sore thighs this morning and the slightly daunting realization that our car was about 16 miles away.  We can hike big mileage in an overnight, right?  Like childbirth, Carol and I had forgotten the pains.  However, we knew an iconic place was coming up:  Beauty Spot, TN

Sunrise fire on the mountain

The chill quickly dissipated as the trail ascended.  I stopped to remove a layer of clothing, grab a little breakfast, heck, might as well take a photo and pee too while the pack is off. 

Beauty Spot is a grassy bald on the shoulder of Unaka Mountain on the NC/TN border.  It is easily accessible with a parking area nearby, but it’s way more impressive to approach it walking northbound on the AT.  

A sweet campsite (not ours)

Relaxing at Beauty Spot, watching clouds and feeling the breeze.  There was a fellow flying a drone, too, but he didn’t overstay his welcome.  Nice day for it, although I’d rather have seen him flying a kite. Le sigh.

Moving on

The AT rubs up against Unaka Mountain Road on its way to Deep Gap (seems there is a Deep Gap in every mountain county).  As I walked alongside, a forest service ranger stopped his truck to say hello and ask how many thru-hikers I’ve seen.  They are gearing up for a busy season. 

As we continued hiking up the side of Unaka Mountain, we passed first through rhododendron tunnels and hardwoods, then into an evergreen forest of spruce and balsam up to the gently rounded summit (no view). 

Looks like a necktie, am I right?

A critter condo constructed by woodpeckers

Next the trail descended steadily down to Low Gap (ditto on that “every mountain county” remark) and then followed a few bumps before our last ascent of the hike, Little Bald Knob.  Although minor in terms of the elevation we had already encountered in two days, this last push seemed difficult, as last pushes usually do.

We were rewarded with a quiet, soothing, tranquil walk through open forest down to Iron Mountain Gap.  Not much green yet, but the stillness held a beauty all its own.  We walked in peaceful silence.

Carol and I agreed that we are good hiking partners with similar paces, habits and temperaments, and we created a “mutual admiration society.”  Looking forward to more adventures!

We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” ~Jawaharial Nehru

Saturday, July 2, 2016

AT in TN: Spivey Gap To Curley Maple Gap Shelter

Appalachian Trail in TN – Spivey Gap to Curley Maple Gap Shelter – 3/25/16 - 15.4 miles

Back in my days of hiking the Smokies 900, I spent time in the woods with my friend Carol.  At that time she was dreaming of an Appalachian Trail thru-hike, reading journals, weighing the pros and cons of equipment, learning about shuttles and drop boxes, and wondering how to get her husband on board with the safety of her going solo and being away for several months.  Carol and I hiked now and again over the years after my project ended and her dream did not diminish.  In fact, her scheme expanded to include her husband as chief trail angel and cheerleader.

Carol (trail name Penguin) is now in the books as an AT thru-hiker of the Class of 2015.  She celebrated her 60th birthday on the trail. Friends old and new followed her journal where she posted every day and we were (and still are) in awe of her spirit and positive attitude.  She hiked her own hike and had an epic experience. Her husband proudly supported her, meeting her at various points along the way and joining her along with other family members when she summited Katahdin. (Read Penguin's AT trail journal.)

My first hike with Carol after this adventure?  Back on the AT for an ambitious overnight beginning at Spivey Gap in good old Tennessee. 

Previously I mentioned passing Greasy Creek Gap and a feud between landowners.  Well, our shuttle driver today was the nice lady owner of Greasy Creek Hostel.  Hearing only her side of the story, her neighbor really doesn’t like her clientele and makes a nuisance of himself in failed attempts to discourage her.  She says she is there to stay.  (If you need a shuttle driver or a stay at her hostel, be advised that she is quite a talker and will teach you some poems and songs about the mountains.)

The end of March can be a bland time for hiking, well past the snow and ice and before spring green and flowers emerge.  There was a sprinkling of purple and yellow violets and some serviceberry, but nothing else blooming. That’s when you look for strange tree formations.

Carol was also on the lookout for thru-hikers.  She was a traveling trail angel, handing out monster cookies to these three stopping for an early lunch at No Business Knob Shelter. She recorded everyone’s trail names and they compared notes about their hiking experiences so far.  

Carol seems to be happy to be back on the trail

The Nolichucky River flows from the slopes of Mount Mitchell in NC, the highest point east of the Mississippi, through the town of Erwin, TN.

Erwin, TN

Sign at Uncle Johnny’s, a popular hostel at the edge of town

On the Chestoa Bridge crossing the Nolichucky.  From this point the AT meanders into Jones Branch Valley, but don’t be lulled into complacency.  After multiple footbridge crossings of Jones Branch, the trail sidehills steeply up Nolichucky River Gorge, sometimes on steps carved from the rock.  No photos and no talking, thanks. 

At the top of the climb was our goal for the day, Curley Maple Gap Shelter.  I was a little dismayed to see several tents already set up, adults chatting by the fire pit and children running around, too many to count (6? 7?).  Carol and I claimed spots on the bottom floor and made acquaintance with two 20-something thrus, a guy called Crumb Bum and a woman called Doodle.

I couldn’t discern exactly which kids belonged to which adults and I felt apprehensive about how rowdy the kids would be.  But the adults proved to be very friendly and were allowing the kids to explore freely, climbing trees and splashing in the little creek and making up games to play.  The adults didn’t fuss and the kids didn’t whine.  No electronics anywhere. 

The kids were fascinated with Doodle, whose trail name was a nod to her love of drawing.  As she sketched, they huddled around and made suggestions of subjects. 

It’s a safe bet that when you share a shelter or campsite with other hikers, someone will build a fire which you then get to enjoy without the responsibility.

Carol and I ate and nested and prepared a bit for the next day.  At about 8:30 all the kids suddenly crashed and their parents shooed them off to their tents, after which not a peep was heard from them.  Wow.  When I snuggled into my own sleeping bag, a couple of adults were still at the fire, talking in low voices.  I don’t know when they turned in. 

Around 10:30 p.m., though, a bit of commotion woke me suddenly. Turned out to be two female backpackers arriving late, climbing up to the top floor and rustling around to get settled.  Otherwise a chill and restful night.

 “Children have a natural affinity towards nature. Dirt, water, plants, and small animals attract and hold children’s attention for hours, days, even a lifetime.” ~Robin C. Moore and Herb H. Wong

Sunday, June 19, 2016

AT in TN: Iron Mountain Gap to Carver's Gap - Roan Mountain

Appalachian Trail in TN – 2/29/16 – Iron Mountain Gap to Carver’s Gap – 15.2 miles

During the winter of 2014 I worked on my goal of completing the Virginia section of the AT.  Week after week, my efforts were thwarted by frequent heavy snowfalls and colder than usual temperatures.  Many of my hikes are solo and I take seriously the consequences of an injury in any circumstance, but an injury out alone in the cold is more than I am willing to risk, so the conditions under which I go winter hiking are zero to very little chance of precip and no wind.  More than once in the winter of 2014 I arranged shuttles for dayhikes, only to have the shuttle driver advise me the day before that it might not be safe. 

Not true in this winter of 2016.  Trailheads have been accessible and trail conditions have been tolerable.  Given all that, today’s hike still took me a little bit by surprise high up on Roan Mountain. 

My shuttle driver and I met at Carver’s Gap on Highway 261 just a smidge over the state line in Tennessee.  Carver’s Gap is the jumping off point for roaming around the Roan Highlands, a favorite section of the AT for its high elevation, grassy balds, rhododendron bloom and Sound Of Music vistas.  From there we drove south and she dropped me at Iron Mountain Gap.  I faced 15.2 miles on a chilly but clear winter day with lots of waypoints to keep me entertained on my walk back to Carver’s Gap.

And traces of snow

Notice that “Greesy Creek Gap” has been written in by hand on the trail sign (with creative spelling).  Four miles into my hike I stopped at this gap to eat and saw another hand lettered sign indicating a hostel .6 miles down a side trail.  I met a hiker at the gap who told me the story of a dispute between landowners.  A woman bought a piece of property and created a hiker hostel, but her neighbor did not appreciate the endeavor and began a campaign to make life difficult, mowing the lawn at 6:00 a.m., blocking the driveway, etc., and possibly defacing the sign to remove the name of Greasy Creek Gap.  How much of that is true?  Be sure to read my next blog post.

The trail featured plenty of small ups and downs and intriguing trees.  How does this one stay standing?

Winter sky

I couldn’t tell whether this was a trail maintenance marking or graffiti

The reward for the steep push up Little Rock Knob was a sweeping view into a valley with a Christmas tree farm

And a little more snow

Monument at Hughes Gap

I was 9 miles into my hike and feeling a teensy bit fatigued.  Looking at the elevation profile ahead did not help.  Right in front of me was an intimidating relentless climb up Roan Mountain, 2,245 feet in less than 4 miles.  One foot in front of the other.

The snow got a little deeper, and a little deeper, covering the rocks and roots so that every step needed to be intentional.  My criteria of no precip and no wind was in effect, but I hadn’t expected the amount of snow and definitely did not want to slip and sprain an ankle or break a leg.  I hadn’t seen another hiker since the fellow at Greasy Creek Gap and there weren’t going to be any buses coming by.  I concentrated, taking short steps with my tongue hanging out, and my pace slowed to about one mile per hour.  Whew.

I took just one photo during my ascent, icicles on a cold day.  Near the top, balsam and Fraser firs appeared and transformed the woods into magic land. As the trail continues north, this is the last large area of fir and spruce before reaching New England, other than one small section on Mount Rogers in southwest Virginia and another in Shenandoah National Park. Sound was muffled by the snow and I kept my eyes peeled for tiny tracks and woodland creatures.

Just past the summit of Roan Mountain is Toll House Gap.  Back in the 1880’s General John Wilder took an interest in the beauty of the views and the profusion of rhododendron and built the Cloudland Hotel so all the wealthy folks could enjoy it in comfort.  The hotel operated for about 20 years before being dismantled in 1914 and returning the mountaintop to nature – almost.  Today there is parking, a picnic area, restrooms, boardwalks and viewing stands. 

From the meadow at the Cloudland Hotel site you can see Table Rock and Hawksbill at Linville Gorge and Grandfather Mountain.

Too early to celebrate – there is still a half-mile to Roan High Knob Shelter (more uphill in the snow).  Yes, I skipped the slight side trail to the shelter.  Don’t judge.

The rocky trail (old Hack Line Road) from Roan High Knob down to Carver’s Gap was blanketed in several inches of snow, giving the switchbacked descent a dreamy snowshoe-like quality.  I met one local fellow going up to the top, said during the winter snows he frequently hikes a loop going up the trail and down via the road.  I envied his proximity to this place in all seasons.

The trail turned right off of the wide track and zigzagged through the open forest, crossing several footbridges before connecting to the parking lot at Carver’s Gap.  It was later than I had anticipated finishing the hike and I had a three-hour drive home. All in all, a challenging, invigorating, soulful day in the woods.  

"Only when you drink from the river of silence, shall you indeed sing. And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb..." Kahlil Gibran