Monday, May 18, 2015

AT in NC: Birthday Backpack at Max Patch

Appalachian Trail in NC – Max Patch to Hot Springs Backpack – Day 1 – 4/11/15 – 10.5 Miles

Is it just me or are the birthdays speeding up?  Since I started this blog I have celebrated quite a few.  At least I know what I’m going to do on every birthday – go hiking.  This year was extra special because of my backpacking buddy – hubby Jim. 

I ordered up a simple overnight trip beginning at an iconic spot on the AT in North Carolina, not too many miles, an easy shuttle ride, crossed fingers for good weather, and I got all of my birthday wishes.  Jim and I started out from Max Patch on a flawless April morning, where we saw backpackers, day hikers and trail angels giving out Mountain Dews.

Max Patch

Too soon the trail descended into the trees, but then the experience changed to spring wildflower sightings.  Between Roaring Fork Shelter and Lemon Gap we saw:

Wood anemone

Large-flowered trillium

Squirrel corn (bushels of it)

Wake robin

Trout Lily (just a few of these)

False hellebore with its striking foliage

Spring beauty

More spring beauties

At Lemon Gap we passed a group of youthful thruhikers who appeared to be having a slow day.  Jim powered ahead of me just because he could. 

A brisk climb up Walnut Mountain through this grassy clearing

At Walnut Mountain Shelter I found Jim sitting at the picnic table chatting with a bushy-bearded southbound thruhiker named Max Heap.  (His trail blog is here.The young’uns straggled in and various conversations about mileage, gear and food ensued.  Jim and I were planning to camp in between shelters and Max told us there were several good places, but be sure to get water soon because it was scarce on the north side of Bluff Mountain.  One of the young women hikers said that they would probably do the same thing, since it was already mid-afternoon and the town of Hot Springs was 13 miles away.  I was a bit reluctant to leave the congenial group - this is part of the unique AT experience - but we went on our way.

The climb up Bluff Mountain was a big one, about 1,000 feet in less than 2 miles.  Luckily it was covered with spring beauties. 

The last water source before the summit, the flow improved with a simple leaf

For those of you who want to walk this route, the top of Bluff Mountain is a terrific camping spot if your timing suits you.  A good breeze was blowing, though, and we wanted to get to a more sheltered spot maybe a mile further along the trail to shorten our day tomorrow.  I kept a sharp eye out for a flat spot to pitch our tent.  We passed up a couple of places in anticipation of a better one, until we exceeded the “this is fun” and “I’m a little tired” stages and entered the “I want to stop right now” zone.  Jim’s feet were hurting and I was very hungry. 

At the next level-looking spot we began clearing out leaves and fallen branches and uncovered a rock fire circle.  We didn’t plan to build a fire, but it was nice to know that someone else had the same idea that this was a good campsite.  We popped up our little two-man tent, heated water for a cup of tea and a simple dehydrated backpacker meal.  As we were eating, the young’uns came around the bend, laughing, now motivated to make it to Hot Springs on this Saturday night “before the bars close.” 

The temperature began to drop and we retired to our tent while it was still light.  Neither of us had brought a book.  Imagine our excitement when we discovered that we had a cell signal!  I am ashamed to confess, but we gleefully spent a half hour checking emails and Facebook before giving in to sleep.  A very cozy night in our little tent in the middle of nowhere.

“Spring work is going on with joyful enthusiasm.”  ~ John Muir

Monday, May 11, 2015

Foothills Trail Thru-Hike - Out With A Whimper At Table Rock State Park

Foothills Trail Thru-Hike – Day 5 - 3/27/15 – Cantrell Homesite to Table Rock State Park –8.6 Miles

No matter what the weather or the experiences of the rest of the adventure, the backpacker’s mind on the last day of a hike is mainly focused on a change of clothes, a big meal and setting that backpack down.  A bathroom and running water is even sweeter.  With 8.6 miles between me and the car, I admit I wasn’t thinking much about the trail. 

In the wee hours the rain began and gained intensity, until I faced reality and admitted that my tent wasn’t going to be dry no matter time I hit the trail.  So at 6:30 a.m. I decided to suck it up and walk wet.  Cathy and I had agreed to leave about 8:00, but I was ready by 7:30 and told her I wanted to go ahead while she was still packing.  I knew she would catch me soon – and she did – and she passed me again. 

My pack weight felt negligible today – less food? less water? less worry?  The air was noticeably colder, though, a cold front arriving with the rain.  We wore shorts but kept rain jackets on for the entire hike. 

Don’t be fooled, even the last 8 miles of downhill had some uphill thrown in, a short climb up Hickorynut Mountain, followed by a longer, steeper climb up the side of Pinnacle Mountain.  Squinting and holding my mouth the right way, through the still-bare trees I saw wispy clouds swirling around the lower peaks below.  At the intersection with the Pinnacle Trail, I passed up the opportunity to go the extra .2 miles to the summit (after all, that would be .4 miles round trip) and continued on the downhill home stretch.  I’m sure I’ll be back to hike the Pinnacle on another (sunnier) day.

From that point the downhill got more serious and the wet rocks slowed me down

Views from a rock face

Views from a rock face – watch out for the edge

At the next rock face I pondered the white blazes painted along the granite slope.  Hmmm, is it too slanted?  Poor judgment – I tried to walk it.  I slipped and slid several yards down, poles skating along beside me.  I wasn’t terrified because there was a line of mountain laurel shrubs at the bottom to catch me, but I sustained a palm-sized scrape on my left outer thigh and my shorts were soaking wet.   I gathered myself and my poles, stood up – and slid again, same scenario, making the scrape twice as large.  The second ride took me to the woods’ edge, where I again picked up my poles, dusted off my dignity and moved on.  When I told Cathy about this later and showed her my wounds, she casually noted, “Yeah, you know, I just sat down and slid on my butt.” 

I am doing Table Rock State Park a serious disservice by not telling more about its attributes, but the most I remember besides the lovely water near the trailhead are a couple of badly eroded trail places with exposed tree roots. 

My favorite sign of our Foothills Trail thru-hike

Clean dry clothes, Bojangles chicken biscuits, and Cathy and I headed for home.  Along the way we analyzed our experience (remember, the longest thru-hike for either of us so far?) and while we were happy with the accomplishment and would highly recommend the Foothills Trail, we agreed that we didn’t love carrying so much weight.  However, if we had added a day or two, shortened the daily mileage and rested more, perhaps it wouldn’t have felt so rigorous.  When will we test that theory? 

See I've conquered hills but I still have mountains to climb....
Right now, right now, I'm doing the best I can." ~Tracy Chapman

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Foothills Trail Thru-Hike - Sassafrass Mountain & Stone Thrones

Foothills Trail Thru-Hike – Day 4 - 3/26/15 – Rock Creek to Cantrell Homesite –17.9 Miles

A long stretch without water, uncertainty about where to end the day, and an unexpected section of ups and downs made Day 4 our toughest one on the Foothills Trail.

Cathy and I packed up very wet tents and started the morning off with an uninspiring few miles to Laurel Fork Falls, the trail doing the now-familiar weave on and off old logging roads in drizzly misty fog.  As usual, Cathy quickly outpaced me but waited for me to catch up at a Lake Jocassee boat access spur trail.  Half a mile later we reached the overlook to Laurel Fork Falls.

Laurel Fork Falls from a distance – after a brief look, Cathy kept going but I sat down for 10 minutes to eat and reflect. 

I skipped the side trail to the top of the waterfall (a great campsite location, BTW, for those who plan better than we did).  For a couple of miles past Laurel Fork Falls the trail was in rough shape, dozens of blowdowns alongside and occasionally across the trail.  Perhaps there was a recent weather event, a microburst that toppled trees?  The FT crossed Laurel Fork Creek multiple times, always bridged, but this was not a picturesque walk in the woods.

A Hobbit-like bridge across Laurel Fork Creek


I met up with Cathy again at Virginia Hawkins Falls (named for an executive secretary of the FTC) and we enjoyed a nice rest.  The waterfall was lovely but hard to photograph in the dappled sunshine that had finally appeared. 

Past this point we knew the trail would begin to climb and that water sources would be scarce.  Campsites were also limited – we might end up on the summit of Sassafrass Mountain or just at some flat spot beside the trail.  Since Cathy’s filter had failed, our only treatment source was my Aqua Mira drops, so we had to be together to treat water.  Sitting at the waterfall, we assessed how much water we still had and then prepared another liter for Cathy to carry on ahead. 

Then began an unexpectedly rigorous series of ups and downs that took all my energy (plus one intriguing encounter – see footnote). Unlike Heartbreak Ridge, where its reality was less than its hype, the five miles from Virginia Hawkins Falls to the Laurel Valley access parking was a shock to the system.  Quick switchbacks up, then a reprieve of switchbacks down, followed by an abruptly steep uphill…maybe the guidebook doesn’t note it because the difficulty is less severe from the other direction.  All I know is by the time I connected with Cathy again we were both toasted.  She said carrying that extra liter of water did her in.

At the gravel parking area we hung our tents over the sign board to dry.  A dayhiker there told us we could scramble down under the upcoming Highway 178 bridge to get water (I think this is Estatoe Creek).  No mention of this in the guidebook; would have been nice to know.  Cathy felt that she still had enough water in her own Camelback so I took the extra liter she had hauled for the last five miles, then retrieved another liter from Estatoe Creek to be sure we had enough for cooking at camp.

Back on the trail.  The next section to Chimneytop Gap was a little kinder and gentler.  As I crossed F. Van Clayton Highway, I noticed a tractor-trailer that was obviously too long to make the hairpin turn there and was stuck. A couple of cars were forced to stop and their drivers were out in the road trying to advise the truck driver, but it looked like it was going to be a long night. 

The climb up Sassafrass Mountain seemed intermin- able – well, it is the high point of South Carolina (3,560 feet) so it should require some effort, I suppose.   What used to be a tree-covered summit with no views has now been clear-cut in anticipation of “improvement” with an observation platform.  Not too pretty right now, but hopefully it will get better. 

As camping there, forget it.  The wind was fierce and you can tell by Cathy’s body language that we will keep moving.

Back in the woods, we began scouting for a campsite, any campsite, any reasonable flat spot.  We saw a place where two tents could fit in, but pushed on and found the old Cantrell homesite mentioned in the guidebook – hurray!  The original stone chimney and a more recently constructed 3-foot-tall stone fire ring with eight stone “thrones” encircling it, plus a stick shelter.  Surely the Boy Scouts had been here more than once.

There was plenty of room for tents and a young couple had already claimed their territory.  There also was a spring somewhere nearby but since we had hauled our water we didn’t bother to look for it. We popped up our tents, put on an extra layer against the chill as the sun set, and prepared to cook our last supper on the trail.  And…my stove igniter wouldn’t work.  And…my matches wouldn’t stay lit in the breeze.  Thanks to Cathy’s Jetboil, I didn’t miss dinner. 

Maybe not our longest day in miles, but this was our biggest day in elevation gain, problem-solving and decision-making.  Whatever tomorrow brings, we’re going home. 

“When you’re safe at home you wish you were having an adventure; when you’re having an adventure you wish you were safe at home.”  ~Thornton Wilder

*Footnote:  Often when hiking I repetitively count my steps in my head, 1 to 10, or hum a song.  During the tough part of today’s hike I softly sang the refrain of a song I’d heard in worship the previous Sunday that goes like this:  “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy on me.”  The cadence was perfect for my pace and I walked for some time in a “zone-out”.  Suddenly I felt a tingling sensation, a slight blurring of vision and diminished hearing.  I distinctly felt that something, a presence, was walking with me.  Not scary at all, rather exhilarating.  I don’t recall exactly where I was or how long it lasted (more than a flash but surely less than a minute).  In thinking about this a lot, I believe that I entered a walking meditative state and encountered God/Holy Spirit.  Hmm.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Foothills Trail Thru-Hike - Oconee Bells & Heartbreak Ridge

Foothills Trail Thru-Hike – Day 3 - 3/25/15 – Thompson River Campsite to Rock Creek Campsite – 15.6 Miles

This morning our tents and groundcloths were bone dry.  Good omen?  One of my hiking poles (which double as tent poles) wouldn’t lock and I spent 15 maddening minutes fiddling with it, finally taking it apart and working with the screw inside.  Bad omen?  Charles left out a bit ahead of us, maybe we’ll see him at the end of the day.  The trail headed uphill right from camp so we started out in shorts and short sleeves.

Cathy is a waterfall fan and has hiked around the Foothills area a bit, but on today’s section we took the short side trail to a new one for her (they are all new to me). 

Hilliard Falls, named for Glenn Hilliard, first chairman of the Foothills Trail Conference.  Great swimming hole for a warmer day than today.

We backtracked the .2 miles to the FT.  While standing by the Hilliard Falls sign, we felt tiny raindrops and put on our pack covers – 9:15 a.m.  The drops soon became steady rain and we slipped into our rain jackets.  Rain jackets are hot, so either you are wet from sweating or wet from the rain.  Sitting down to eat breakfast wasn’t appealing and we kept hiking, hoping for the rain to slow down, but we finally had to stand still and choke down a few bites.  This is the character-building part of backpacking!  The rain really isn’t so bad if you embrace it and keep on walking.

Even when it rains for 4 hours as the trail winds in and out of the dripping forest onto old logging roads and there are few flowers or views or points of interest

Okay, one sweet Robin’s plantain

Interesting bark on a tree blocking the trail

The rain relented, although the sky remained overcast.  Focused in my own little hiking zone, I rounded a curve and came upon…people!  Lots of them!  A crew of students from Auburn University out for a spring break adventure.  They were moving slow, as large groups tend to do, taking about 10 days to hike the FT as compared to our 5 days. 

I thought the group was pausing to descend steps down to the bridge over the Horsepasture River (come on, get outta my way, I’ve got miles to go) and then one of the guys pointed down.  Along the sides of the trail and all down the mountainside, intertwined in ivy, were Oconee Bells, millions of them.  The natural range of Oconee Bells is the river gorges that feed Lake Jocassee, meaning they are rare except when they are blooming in profusion from mid-March to early April.  Our timing was perfect. 

Oconee Bells

Oconee Bells

Oconee Bells

Floral explosion

Along the staircase (not a good photo but you get the idea)

A calm section of Horsepasture River flowing under the bridge

Cathy’s photo of me after crossing the bridge and beginning to ascend stairs on the far side

More weaving off and onto logging roads.  Several times the trail veered off into the woods, paralleling in sight of the dirt road, then dumped onto it for a hundred yards, then off into the woods again.  The one time I made a misstep was where the trail actually crossed the road but I turned onto it.  I quickly realized my mistake and retraced my steps. 

Note to future hikers:  Do not confuse Bearcamp Creek with Bear Creek.  They are about 5 miles apart on the trail and both have designated campsites.   Both are crossed via 35-foot wooden bridges.  Make sure you are where you think you are.  Just sayin’.

“Wherever you go, there you are.”  Helpful trail signage.

The FT winds along the shoreline of Lake Jocassee for about 1.5 miles and we could see where the Toxaway River pours into the lake.  We crossed the river on the longest suspension bridge on the FT.

After Toxaway the Foothills Trail Guide warns in bold letters with flashing lights that a VERY STRENUOUS section called Heartbreak Ridge is coming up:  hundreds of wooden steps ascend and descend the ridge and great caution is required.  The previous night Cathy and Charles and I had discussed this and planned to camp at the designated area right after this epic section because we would be, you know, exhausted. 

Turns out Heartbreak Ridge wasn’t a big deal, maybe because it was anticipated – 286 unevenly spaced wooden steps up and who knows how many more down - but I walked very slowly, counting as I went.  I looked back and thought, “That’s it?”  I think that people believe they have to quickly power through steep sections, when the real trick is to slow w-a-a-a-y down.

We descended and crossed the suspension bridge over Rock Creek and arrived at the agreed-upon campsite, a huge space alongside Rock Creek.  It was 4:40 p.m. and we had hiked 15.6 miles.  Cathy had seen Charles continue on.  Tough choice - do we keep going?   My legs had a couple more miles in them, but the next campsite was over another climb and 4.5 miles away.  We decided to stay put.

Camping at Rock Creek

Having so much time to set up camp was nice, time to relax, hang up stuff to dry, enjoy a leisurely supper.  About 7:30 p.m. (the time we would have been just arriving at the next campsite) the rain began to pitter-patter again. 

“Smile, breathe and go slowly.”  ~Thich Nhat Hanh