Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Girl Scout Camp Many Years Ago

My first camp experience was when I was in 6th grade and a Junior in Girl Scouts. I had been a member of Girl Scouts for about two years in my little town in Virginia and we definitely did not do outdoor stuff. The opportunity came up to spend a week at Camp Kittamaqund (Camp Kitty, which still operates, by the way) and off I went with friends Leigh and Virginia.

The three of us stayed in a platform tent but we had cots to sleep on. As anyone who was in Scouting as a kid can tell you, it might be hard to tell you about the troop meetings, but those outdoor experiences are vivid. Some memories: Tent inspection in the mornings, rolling up the tent flaps, pillowcases facing toward each other to say "hello", sweeping the floor. Our tent was in a unit where the river flowed nearby and one day there was a rumor that there was a.....BOY.....prowling near the river. We tried our best but did not encounter him.

I was very allergic to poison ivy as a kid and of course I developed a rash at camp. I was sent off to the camp nurse. There was already a girl ahead of me complaining of a sore throat. As the nurse and another adult chatted, the nurse handed the girl a Dixie cup and told her to drink it, which she did. Then my turn came. My rash on my arm was deemed impressive but not fatal so, alas, I could not be sent home. The nurse placed a Dixie cup of liquid in front of me and turned to talk to the adult again. I was an observant child and I picked up the Dixie cup and chugged it. I was contemplating the burning sensation in my throat when the nurse's eyes grew big and she lept toward me and snatched the cup. How was I to know that the cup contained some kind of topical medicine to be applied to my rash with a cotton ball? Alas, I still did not get sent home.

I wrote letters home to my mom filled with homesickness. I said I even missed my little brother! My mom sent letters back giving the Little League baseball scores and news of a small town. She saved both my letters and hers and they are a wonderful slice of a girl's life when read chronologically. A true excerpt from one of my mine: "Virginia forgot her toothpaste so I am letting her use mine. And I forgot my toothbrush, but don't worry, she is paying me back by letting me use hers." Was it real or a joke? Even then my wit was advanced.

As the week went by my homesickness faded. We did outdoor cooking, swimming in a lake, arts and crafts, endless piles of popsicle sticks. I remember meeting for the first time a Jewish person, one of the girls in my unit. I remember huge sing-a-longs while waiting outside the dining hall for meals, shouting what are deemed today to be politically incorrect numbers such as "Gray squirrel, gray squirrel, on the power line" and "Little Bunny Foo-Foo." To this day I can sing "I Know A Place" and "Flicker." If you are a Girl Scout or leader and you don't know these songs, look them up and learn them! Like all music, Girl Scout songs can transport you back in time.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Notes To Self

Wisdom gained for future trips:

1 - Points earned for carrying sunscreen are forfeited when sunscreen is not used

2 - It's good to have too much toilet paper in the backcountry

3 - Lamaze breathing techniques and a focal point come right back to you when your feet hurt and you have to keep walking

4 - Hot flashes in a sleeping bag can be dangerous to your tent mate

5 - Hot flashes make it easy to go outside the tent at 3:00 AM for a nature break

6 - You know you're having a good time when the end of the trail makes you think about...the beginning of the next trail

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Photos At Last

I have finally figured out the photo thing so I am going back and adding photos to old posts. In the meantime, be sure to stroll through my favorite links and see what's happening in other outside venues!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Day 3 - Back Out The Way We Came In

Not a great night's sleep Saturday night, in spite of the tiring day, because there were too many thoughts to be thunk. I kept going over my gear list to see what I could secretly pass off on Jim to lighten my load (the answer: nothing! He is too smart for me.) My left ankle was hurting with boots that I had been wearing for months and I was worried about walking 8-9 miles back to the boat shuttle. I knew that Jim's feet were bothering him and that he had blisters forming. We needed to leave by 7:30 AM to ensure getting back before the boat arrived, which meant getting up by 6:30 AM to pack up. Whenever I have an early wakeup time in an unfamiliar place I don't sleep well. And so I lay there obsessing and listening to...you guessed it...Hazel Creek.

It was much colder Sunday morning and there was much debate between Jim and me as to how many clothes to leave on, since once we started walking we would quickly heat up. We skipped cooking (again) in our haste to get things packed up. We really need to get better at the food thing because part of our tiredness came from not eating sufficiently to fuel our hiking. Elliott had left at the unbelievable hour of 6:00 AM to catch the 10:00 AM shuttle back. The rest of us hit the trail by about 7:30 AM and headed down Hazel Creek Trail for the final time. People walked and talked in different combinations but we were all focused on getting to the shuttle, so people often walked alone. I liked that about this group - everyone was respected as being self-sufficient, and if you asked for help it was given, but no one watched to see if you were "doing it right". Walking and talking with Danny kept my mind off my limping as we discussed future trips together and more history of the area. Again we passed through the flat areas beside the creek that once were filled with homes and businesses. Fading daffodils, a sure sign of the human touch, could be seen here and there. Although I would not be back on the Hazel Creek Trail anytime soon, I will be on the Lakeshore Trail going through Proctor and I want to be sure to look for the cemeteries and things that Danny talked about.

We now pause for this brief advertisement for Danny's current book, future book and website at http://www.hikertohiker.com/.

At the first trail intersection (we were staying on Hazel Creek but intersections helped mark the distances) Jim and Danny and I removed long underwear. There is no modesty in hiking, boys and girls! The temperature was great for hiking, a little cooler than Saturday but still very comfortable. If not for our foot maladies Jim and I would have enjoyed the walk out much more. As it was, he eventually pulled out ahead and concentrated on getting to the end. I left him alone so that he would continue to like me and consider hiking with me in the future.

As we passed one campsite we saw a large group that had pulled three carts filled with camping equipment and had set up residence. I'm talking chairs, Dutch ovens, big tents, eating pavilion, tablecloths, etc. They pulled these things nearly FIVE MILES. This is allowed at a couple of campsites in the Hazel Creek area where horses are not allowed, the rationale being that if horses and carts went together there would be even more stuff hauled in and an even greater impact on the site. I was thankful that we had not camped there.

Everyone reached the lake by about 11:20 AM and quickly doffed packs and donned clothing, as standing still by the water with a wind blowing makes for shivering. We were relieved to be in place on time and joked about how we would represent our trip to friends as a survival ordeal. Cheers from everyone when the shuttle arrived at 11:40 AM! The ride back to the marina was very cold. We carried our packs one last time up the hill to the cars, said our thank-yous and goodbyes, and everyone went their separate ways. Jim and I went back to the Fontana Village general store for a soda and a Moon Pie to make everything all better, then began the long four-hour drive back to Charlotte (well, Jim drove while I examined the insides of my eyelids...)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Day 2 - Loop Hike - Hazel Creek, Cold Spring Gap, Welch Ridge, Hazel Creek Back To Campsite 82

 4/12/08 - Hazel Creek Trail/Cold Spring Gap Trail,Welch Ridge Trail/Hazel Creek Trail Loop - 18 Miles

We had 18 miles to go before we could sleep on Saturday so our start time was 7:30 AM. I was hoping for an average of 2 miles per hour hiking. Danny was concerned that we would be coming back to camp in the dark. Neither of us was correct. The 6:30 AM wakeup call came ridiculously early (well, I guess it was 6:30) and Jim and I worked to get water purified, some form of a breakfast made (instant oatmeal) and daypacks ready. Everyone waited patiently and we were ready by 7:45 AM.

The rain had continued off and on during the early morning and we all started off in full rain assault gear, rain jackets, rain pants, pack covers, etc., but in reality we did not see any more rain that day. The day began to lighten and as we climbed the sky began to turn blue and we had a sparkling day. Danny said she would never again cancel a trip because of a weather forecast.

We walked a couple of miles back the way we had come the previous afternoon on Hazel Creek Trail and turned onto Cold Spring Gap Trail. The guide book had actually been consulted in advance and we knew that we would be fording Hazel Creek near this intersection. And a serious ford it was! Several in the group waded through, boots and all, but the rest of us stuck to our principle of dry feet. The water was high enough to graze the bottom hem of my hiking shorts, so a few inches above my knees. This time I had my Crocs (worth every penny) and my hiking sticks, which were essential for balance in rushing water. I had been apprehensive about this ford for weeks but with the proper equipment it was safe and manageable.

Word had it that Cold Spring Gap was not in good shape, seriously eroded in parts, and that going up it was preferable to sliding down it. We can verify that report! It was 3.5 miles of wet rocks and cascading small creeks that were gushing because of the rain the night before. I eyeballed every rock on that trail as I chose footing very carefully. Again, my hiking sticks were essential. At times we had to assume that the creek was the trail. (There are no painted trail markers within the Smokies except for the white blazes of the AT; you just stay on the trail until you run into another one where there is a sign posted and hopefully you are where you meant to be.) We zig-zagged up the mountain and only near the top did we get a little distance away from the flowing water. Our reward was that the trail grew steeper.

We then turned left onto the Welch Ridge Trail, which was absolutely a relief. Ridge walking is what every hiker dreams of: small ups and downs over the tops of mountains! We were on the lookout for a side trail up to High Rocks, the site of a fire tower. We found the trail, admired the bear poop in several places along it it, and made our way up to High Rocks to stop for lunch. This is a big rock (surprise!) on the top of the mountain with a tremendous view down to Fontana Lake and miles beyond. The fire tower has been removed but the caretaker's cabin remains, though it is in such decay that it is not safe to go inside. It has a little front porch looking out over the miles, and if you like peace and quiet and solitude, this would have been a great home and occupation.

Jim had hurriedly set off for the day with a lunch that required a spoon and he had forgotten to grab one (some sort of heat-and-eat thing that he was going to eat cold). Laying on the boulders at High Rocks was: a plastic spoon! I believe he wiped it on his pants leg and dug in. He also spotted three beer cans and went to pick them up, thinking about the type of person that would lug beer all the way up to this place and then not carry out the empties. And...they were not empty! Jim put them in his daypack with plans for later. The Lord was providing for him that day and he wasn't asking any questions. An idyllic place for lunch, some conversation, some photo taking that we knew would not truly convey the sights, and it was time to press on.

We set off on Welch Ridge and thoroughly enjoyed it. Since the leaves were not yet out on the trees, the views were great, and often we were on a ridge maybe 10 yards wide with more mountains rising up in all directions. "Wow" and "Look at that" were repeated many times as we walked the ridges. This is a remote part of the Smokies and we did not meet any other hikers. (In fact, we saw not one other hiker the entire weekend, although we saw a couple of campsites occupied closer to the lake.) This was the most relaxing part of the day's adventures, because Hazel Creek awaited us...

After 5.5 miles on Welch Ridge, we turned left onto the northern terminus of Hazel Creek Trail and began our last third of the hike, 6 miles back down to Campsite 82. The guidebooks said that there were "numerous" water crossings on this part of the trail, something else I had been worried about for weeks. But now I knew how to do water crossings, right? There were many switchbacks that zig-zagged down the mountain and soon we could hear water. Some of us were anxious to refill water bottles and we were happy to arrive at the first crossing. It was a rock hop across and I felt better. Ignorance is bliss!

The summary of this leg of our hike: 6 miles, 3.5 hours, 23 water crossings, most of which required wading, sometimes up to our knees. We quickly disbanded and it was every hiker for himself/herself to get back to camp, and we leapfrogged each other a few times. Jim and I stayed together. After a while we walked in our water shoes looking for the next crossing. We had no idea how many there were, and with each one we were hopeful that we were done. Several times we would cross the creek, walk 50 feet around a curve and cross it again! I'd like to say that it was fun, but after a while the novelty was worn off and we zoned out and just looked for the end. I had somehow gotten a bruise on my left leg above the ankle where my boot would hit and each step was becoming painful. Can I just click my heels three times and go home now??

Camp finally appeared at 6:30, nearly 11 hours after we had started our day. Sitting and resting was helpful and everyone went about the camp chores of resupplying water from the ever-present Hazel Creek, cooking dinner, winding down. Jim put his 3 beers in the creek to get cold while I went for the hot chocolate. A campfire was built but we soon grew tired, and the fire was doused as we headed to our tents before 9:00 PM. There was organizing to be done for an early start tomorrow (7:30 AM again!) for our hike back out to meet the boat shuttle. As I lay in my sleeping bag I thought about the past two days and wondered....what in the world have I signed myself up for????

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Day 1 - Hazel Creek to Campsite 82 and Side Trip to Bone Valley

4/11/08 - Hazel Creek Trail to Campsite 82 + Side Trip In-Out Bone Valley Trail - 13 Miles

We spent a restless night at Fontana Village Lodge. The Lodge is terrific, extremely comfortable, but my thoughts were racing ahead to morning, packing again, logistics, etc. We got up and hauled our backpacks into our room to get ready one last time, then headed for our “last good meal” in the Lodge’s restaurant (stuffed French toast, which absolutely stuffed me). We tossed everything back in the car to go check out the rest of Fontana Village and get over to Fontana Marina by 11:30 AM to meet our group and the boat shuttle.

There were northbound Appalachian Trail thru-hikers arriving at the Lodge and more hanging around at the Village store. As much as I have read thru-hiker trail journals online, I found myself too bashful to talk to any of them. They all seemed so young (truthfully, most of them are) and suddenly I felt so old. Where was all my big talk about age just being a number? I have to work on this.

When we arrived at Fontana Marina there were yet more thru-hikers. The AT crosses directly over Fontana Dam, but that portion has been temporarily closed for road work at the dam, so I think the AT is re-routed somehow to the marina where the thru-hikers catch a shuttle over to Eagle Creek Trail and re-connect to the AT. I’ll have to check on how that works. Anyway, more young folk hanging around looking surprisingly relaxed and energized

Our group of backpacking cohorts included Danny and her husband Lenny, Don, Bob, Elliott, Jim and myself. Everyone is a member of Carolina Mountain Club except for Jim, and I just recently joined and only knew Danny and Lenny. Our club status got us a reduced shuttle rate, though. Quick introductions all around, and suddenly I heard someone singing "Happy Birthday". Danny came up with two muffins with lit candles, one for me and one for Lenny, whose birthday would be tomorrow, April 12. What an absolutely wonderful moment! I will always remember that. Then quickly, one last visit to the flush toilets, and onto the boat shuttle we went. It’s about a 20-minute ride across Fontana Lake and up Hazel Creek to the drop-off point. The boat pulled away and we would see it again on Sunday at noon.

About .5 miles up the approach trail is the beginning of Hazel Creek Trail, intersecting with the Lakeshore Trail, and the remains of the town of Proctor. The quickest summary I can make of this area of the Park is that there were many small communities here before the park was created in 1943 and Fontana Lake was formed in 1945. There were logging companies and therefore thriving communities of workers with homes, churches, even a movie theater. No one lives there now, but there are signs of that life if you look hard. Cemeteries are preserved and once a year, Decoration Day, the Park provides transportation to descendants to visit their loved ones’ burial places. Reading about this is fascinating and then being there is chilling.

The trail up Hazel Creek is an old road that is still maintained by the Park. Hazel Creek was beautiful and loud as we followed it up and it would stay besides us for miles. I quickly learned that stopping for photographs at every lovely point would take days and I put the camera away. We walked and chatted and enjoyed the weather, which had been forecast as rain but so far was not, just warm enough for shorts and short sleeves. I would recommend this part of the hike to anyone as an easy hike on a gravel road. I said THIS PART…

After 5.3 miles on Hazel Creek we came to the intersection of the Bone Valley Trail. I wanted to go up this little spur of 1.8 miles because after Sunday I would not be back this way again. (Is that Robert Frost I hear?) Campsite 83 was at the intersection and we hung our packs up on the bear pole system, taking just water bottles for this short jaunt up and back to Bone Valley. Well…“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale…”

Bone Valley’s name comes from a farmer’s bad luck at having his cattle still grazing on the mountaintop when early winter came one year in the 1870’s. The cattle had no shelter and all died and their bones remained on the valley floor for many years after. The trail is the old railroad bed built by the logging company, so still pleasant hiking. We were laughing and chatting still, when suddenly around a bend the road was intersected by a creek. Being the experienced hikers that we were, none of us had read the trail description before starting up and our shoes for water crossing were safely back with our packs. So…off came the shoes and socks and we waded barefoot about 25 feet through the CHILLY ankle-deep water. On the other side my wonderful husband produced a bandana and we dried our feet, donned socks and shoes and resumed our trek.

Well, we did this four more times. A couple of times we tried walking barefoot to the next crossing (which we never knew if indeed there was one coming) but the gravel was tough. And remember, five times across going in…five times across coming out!

But at the end of Bone Valley Trail is the Hall Cabin, the most remote historic structure in the park and on the National Register of Historic Places. Near the cabin is the foundation of another home that was built by the Kress family (of Kress Department Stores in New York) as a sports lodge in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Awesome to be standing there in what is such a remote area and imagining such a grand place!

And yet this was not the end of our side trip. Don showed us a narrow path up behind the cabin that took us about a half-mile up the mountain to a cemetery where 19 people are buried. As we slogged up the hill we joked that they must have located it where the first person died, but when we arrived we could see why this wonderful spot was chosen for eternal rest. High up on a knob and with no leaves yet appearing, we could see that the site was surrounded by even higher mountains and was very peaceful. We placed plastic flowers that had been blown over by the wind and set right an American flag on the grave of a World War I veteran. As we looked at the names we saw more than a few infants, including one that was apparently stillborn. I felt very sad, imagining a young woman giving birth in the cabin down at the bottom and carrying her baby up to this place.

The wind picked up and a glance at the sky told us that the nice weather was changing to match the forecast, so we headed back out of Bone Valley. Did I mention that we had five creek crossings to repeat? We were still stubborn about keeping our boots dry so we repeatedly removed/replaced socks and shoes and eventually got back to our packs. Someone apparently had added rocks to the packs because they were much heavier than they were earlier in the day! Our side trip had taken longer than we planned, our leisurely walk was over and now we hoofed it on up Hazel Creek Trail looking for Campsite 82 where the other three members of our group were. I don’t have an exact mileage distance to that point, but felt like about 17 miles (really about 3). All told, mileage for the day was about 13 miles.

We arrived at Campsite 82 at 6:30 PM. Others were cooking/eating their suppers. Jim and I got our tent up by 6:35 PM and at 6:40 PM the thunder arrived and the skies opened. We got inside the tent, got our packs set up in the vestibule, and essentially did not come out again that night. We decided to skip trying to cook, ate some of our packaged snacks, got into dry clothes and into sleeping bags. Our feet were talking to us about what a long day they had had. I found the pages I had copied from “Hiking Trails of the Smokies” about the trails we walked that day, and I read aloud to Jim what we should have read ahead of time. That’s when we found the warning about all the copperhead snakes at the Hall Cabin in Bone Valley. The rain came down all night long.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Back Home - More Tomorrow

We made it back to Charlotte at 5 PM today (Sunday). The real numbers for the weekend were 14 miles Friday, 18 miles Saturday, 9 miles Sunday. That is what the group decided and we're sticking to it! When I wake up from my coma tomorrow I will limp to the computer and start writing up the details. To everyone who saw the articles in the Charlotte Observer, thanks very much for the emails and phone calls. Now send money...Seriously, though, Megan is the person who got the ball rolling on publicity, and she did such an excellent job (with a little help from it being a slow news week) that she is now my manager.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Heading Out The Door

We are backpacking this weekend for my first outing but I don't normally do much backpacking so have not invested in all the lightest equipment. I will not mention how much our tent weighs (Jim is carrying it because he loves me). I am happy that my pack weighs about 27 pounds so I think I can handle that for 8 miles to the campsite. We plan to hike 18 miles on Saturday in a loop back to the same campsite so daypacks will do for that. Then 8 miles back out on Sunday and heading for home. How hard can that be? Famous last words!

The weather forecast is for rain all three days, so after much hunting around town I found a pack cover that fits well. At some point I will post a gear list of what I like to use; maybe that will be helpful to someone.

Time to go!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Gear, Gear and More Gear

Well, I made a generous donation to REI today and will be testing some new equipment on my first weekend out. I finally found a long handled titanium spoon - I've looked four or five other places and had no luck. I now have a pack cover for my new Aura pack, a tiny headlamp and some other goodies. I am going to look like I just fell off the outfitter truck!

At this time of year you can always plan on some rain and the temperatures will vary greatly from day to night, so planning clothing takes a great deal of thought. I purchased another rain jacket and a pair of thick nylon tights on sale. My clothing system for hiking is pretty much set: a short-sleeved wicking shirt, a long-sleeved wicking shirt, a micro fleece, wicking long underwear (don't think I'll need them) and zip-off pants. This combination has been working for day hiking all winter long. I also have rain pants in case there is a monsoon.

We will be crossing Hazel Creek over a dozen times so I have Crocs to try out. Danny says she just wades on through and keeps going, but I am reluctant to get my boots and socks soaked without at least trying the Crocs first. If it becomes a pain to stop and switch footwear I may rethink that. Food is a big deal because Jim burns a lot of calories (alas, I do not) and he is concerned about starvation. We are planning 2 Mountain House suppers together (which he is supplementing) and everything else is on our own. We will share our little Pocket Rocket stove. I'll bet we return with a lot of food uneaten.

I'm getting pretty nervous here at the 11th hour. Can I really do this? What if the 18 miles on Saturday kills me? I've committed to 982 more! Making this a public commitment means a public failure and my Type A personality wants to check off the miles because I have said that I would. But underneath all this runs a current of anticipation at just being outdoors and seeing what is around the next curve, up the next switchback, behind the next tree. For nearly a year I've said I can't wait to get started..and the wait is almost over.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

No Drought Right Now

I have had several hikes "weathered out" in the past couple of weeks, including HFD's trip to Dupont State Forest and a trip to scout out Mount Mitchell. I want to take the HFD group to Mount Mitchell in early May to simulate the higher altitude of the Grand Canyon and to give them an idea of hiking down when you're fresh and hiking up when you're tired. Guess I will have to check it out on a weekday. In the meantime, I am pulling my stuff together for my first "official" Smokies trip. Jim and I will do a 3-day, 2-night backpack with some members of Carolina Mountain Club. I don't have a lot of really lightweight equipment so I guess I'm going shopping!