Saturday, May 31, 2008

Cataloochee - Day Two - Now We're Hikin'

Friday, May 23 - Rough Fork/Caldwell Fork/Boogerman/Caldwell Fork - 15 miles

I am choosing my hike routes based primarily on Elizabeth Etnier's book, Day Hiker's Guide To All The Trails In The Greaty Smoky Mountains. This book is invaluable to me starting from scratch but is also meticulously written for any hiker. I have tried several times to outsmart her but have had no luck yet. The lady has done her homework! Anyway, Stephanie and I had one car until friends were scheduled to arrive later in the afternoon, so to maximize our time and minimize our repeated trail miles or off-trail miles, we chose a hike that ended nearest the campground but began a couple of miles away at the dead end of the road in the Cataloochee Valley. For those of you playing at home, this is Hike #4 in the Cataloochee section of Etnier's book. The theory was that our friends would arrive at camp by the time we would be ending our hike and they would give us a ride to pick up the car. Two miles is entirely too far to walk on a gravel road, especially after walking 15 miles in the pretty woods.

Camp life seems to move slower, which is a good thing if your goal is to sit in a chair by the creek, but we had miles to go before we slept. We at a quick breakfast of oatmeal (yuck) and bagels (yum) and finally left our car at the trailhead at 8:20 AM. After using the modern facilities (who can resist Jethro's Johnnies?) we set off on the Rough Fork Trail.

We crossed Rough Fork Creek several times on foot bridges. (After Hazel Creek I was very grateful for these!).

At 1 mile we had our first stop to check out the Steve Woody Place. The main house and a small springhouse are all that remain of a large farm. The trees have reclaimed the fields and there is no sign of the barn, chicken house, tool house, wood shed and other buildings that were once part of family life.

We left the Woody Place behind and passed Campsite 40, one of the backcountry campsites where folks are allowed to camp in the Park. Camping is limited to these sites and the nice Park Service people have provided cable pulley systems at all of these sites to hang your food, etc. out of reach of animals (read: bears). Some of the backcountry sites are rationed and must be reserved, but Campsite 40 is first come, first served. Nice place, easy access to water, and a pretty short walk out.

Past #40 the fun began as we gained 1,000 feet in elevation in a mile-and-a-half. We did not talk much, just tried to listen to the bird calls (read: breathe). We turned left onto the beginning of the Caldwell Fork Trail and headed back down again, a very gentle and extremely pleasant walk. Huge hemlock trees are numerous because they were not commercially valuable when these woods were logged - sadly, the hemlocks are dying because of an invasive insect. As the other trees are leafing out it is evident that the hemlocks are perishing. They looked ashen, as though someone had burned each one individually.

One species of tree that is doing well is tulip trees or poplars and there is an area along Caldwell Fork Trail marked indicating "Big Poplars". We stopped for a snack and marveled at the size of these giants. The last time I was here I walked around the largest tree and saw that some people think it makes a good bathroom stop - toilet paper everywhere. All together now: Gross! Fortunately there was none on this day.

Eventually we met a fellow hiker coming up the trail. I find that hikers are always happy to stop and chat for a moment, where are you going, where did you start, have a good day. This fellow told us that he had seen two bears, one about an hour earlier and one about 20 minutes earlier. Stephanie's goal was to see a bear without losing control of herself, so after this meeting we were on the lookout. No need to skip ahead - we did not see a bear today.

We stopped for lunch at the intersection of Caldwell Fork and McKee Branch Trail and then went on to turn right onto the Boogerman Trail. Keep in mind that most of these trails are named for people who once lived here. Much of this property here was owned by Robert "Booger" Palmer (not to be confused with the recently deceased artist who brought us "Addicted To Love" and my personal favorite "Sneaking Sally Through The Alley").

Up to this point the trails had been wide because they are used by hikers and horses, but the Boogerman loop is just for hikers, so the path narrowed. The Boogerman Trail is a 4-mile horseshoe-shaped trail that, when combined with Caldwell Fork from the parking lot, makes a terrific 6.6-mile lollipop hike. On this trail you find evidence of past lives, including an incredible stacked stone wall that is 100 yards long and 2 feet wide. A great photo op is a huge tree that has been burned out on the inside - wonder who and why?

Soon we were back at Caldwell Fork Trail, where a right turn leads .8 miles to the road and the end of the hike - for most people, including Stephanie. For Smoky Scout, though, I had to turn left and go up Caldwell Fork for 1.9 miles to close the loop where we had left off for the Boogerman Trail. For this section of trail I was interested in time so I moved fast to see how well I could do. I covered the 1.9 miles in about 35 minutes, pretty good considering we had been going about 2 miles an hour all day while taking pictures and enjoying sights and sounds. This was a horse trail again, with foot bridges, and I was glad it was not muddy. I learned a lesson, though: I met one couple simply standing in the trail and when I did slow down to say hello they pointed out a huge display of pink lady slippers (flowers, you know) on the side of the trail. I would have glided right past them.

Back at camp, our friends had arrived soon after Stephanie did and her car had been retrieved. They were in the process of erecting the world's biggest blue tarp over our campsite. I believe it could be seen from space. One friend, Nora, had begged to be the camp cook for the weekend and we grudgingly (NOT) agreed, and before we knew it we were sitting down to a feast of a chicken/raisin/water chestnut/cashew dish that I had more than one serving of..and still managed to polish off three servings of a chocolate chip cake thing with peanut butter melted over it.

Tired, stuffed and sluggish, Stephanie and I prepared for Saturday's 17-mile hike for which we planned an early start (leave camp by 6:30 AM). Little did we know...

Thursday, May 29, 2008


Actually, Stephanie and I did poke around the valley area a bit before settling into our campsite for the night. If you love history, you will love this area. Before the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was created more than 1,200 people called Big Cataloochee (and Little Cataloochee, over the mountain where we would be on Sunday) home sweet home. After the government bought up the land, the National Park Service burned homes and buildings for fear the former residents would sneak back in, but some buildings were saved from this mindset and are preserved where they were originally built, including two homes, a church and a school. Brochures for a guided auto tour are available near the campsite entrance, but it's not hard to find things - it's just one road! We explored the Caldwell House and barn and marveled at all the butterflies covering every damp patch of the gravel road. When we walked, they fluttered all around and then settled back down at our passing.

A unique feature of the Big Cataloochee meadows is the elk, reintroduced by the Park Service after reaching extinction before the Civil War. The elk are unrestricted and hopefully will eventually spread over the Park. In the early morning hours and at dusk the elk seem to magically emerge from the trees and wander in the meadows, practically posing for photos. During our visit the first calf of the season was born and many more were expected. The hope is for all females to be born this year, as the ratio needed for the population to thrive is 6 females to 1 male and that has not yet been achieved. While the elk are majestic, dignified and awe-inspiring, the humans that turn out to watch the "show" are more comical. The cars line the edge of the meadows as if at a drive-in movie theater, canvas chairs are set up, blankets laid out, fried chicken picnics produced as they wait for the stars to come out. I can imagine the elk sitting back in the forest laughing and pointing as in a Far Side cartoon before they come out to take the stage.

Before heading back to camp we found the trailhead for our first hike and made our plans for the following morning. Then headlamps out and it's good night, John Boy!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Please Please Please Let There Be A Campsite

My entire plan for the weekend hinged upon scoring a campsite in the Cataloochee campground since it is no reservations, first-come, first-served. It is not possible to pick up the phone and call your favorite park ranger about availability. Most FAQs are answered on the website, but you can email specific questions and they are pretty prompt at answering. My back-and-forth with the ranger was discouraging, as this was a big holiday weekend and there are only 27 sites in the campground. So...Plan A was Cataloochee, Plan B was Balsam Campground (also no reservations and even more remotely located), Plan C was Smokemont Campground (reservations but probably full), Plan D (go to Maggie Valley and hope to find a commercial campground) or Plan E (sleep in the car?) Why didn't I just go with Smokemont and make reservations? Because you pay in advance and you can't get your money back and I wanted to be in Cataloochee (insert photo of toddler stamping foot here).

Stephanie and I left Charlotte on Thursday shortly after noon on a mission: a Cataloochee campsite or bust! We are pretty sure we did not harm anyone along the way. As soon as we got off at our exit from I-40 we stopped for gas and beverages, as we would be leaving modern conveniences after this point. I saw a suspicious vehicle at the pumps - it was full of children and camping gear. I hustled Stephanie back to our car and we sped off up the twisty-turny gravel Cove Creek Road to the sign that says:

Funny thing about Cove Creek: It is paved, then gravel, then paved, then gravel. I'm sure it made sense to someone.
After many suspenseful hours (okay, 30 minutes) the campground appeared and we turned in. I could see the campground host lady at the sign-in board. As I approached I asked if there were any sites left and the answer was, "Well, I believe there is just one left." Cue the Hallelujah chorus! I whipped out my checkbook and filled out the paperwork.

I have not seen my checkbook since that moment. Steph, if it's in your car, give me a call.

Stephanie drove to our site and we set up a small tent for us and a larger tent for our buddies coming in the next day. We finally broke out the canvas chairs, sat back to breathe, and Stephanie says,
"So...what's for dinner?"

Monday, May 26, 2008

Cataloochee Weekend

I am back at home after five days/four nights in the picture-perfect Cataloochee area of the Great Smokies. We hiked Friday, Saturday, Sunday and a tiny bit on Monday for 33.3 new miles, a total of 41.8 miles. Weather was made-to-order wonderful for our entire stay. We had a lot of laughs, good food, 'smores, a disconcerting discovery and many four-legged wonders. Details coming this week as I do the laundry!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Is She Ever Going Back To The Smokies???

Yes, I am leaving tomorrow headed back to the Great Smoky Mountains! I will be camping and hiking with a great group of Girl Scout adults in a fantastic part of the Park (which I won't tell until I'm back because it's not smart to advertise your location on the internet, ya know). I will be putting miles on my boots for four fun-filled days. Can't wait! In the meantime, please consider sending in your donation for our worthy cause, outdoor programs for Girl Scouts (see right). It would be grand to come back from this Memorial Day weekend and see the donor list growing longer and stronger! (Remember, it takes a few days for me to get updated donor lists and totals to put on the blog) Also, feel free to give encouragement by commenting on the blog. It keeps me going! Thanks for your support!

Grand Canyon

I got home late Sunday night (nearly midnight) from our great adventure at the Grand Canyon. Between catching up with work, laundry, and wondering why the maid didn't come while I was away, I have had some nagging in the back of my head to write about the trip. I find that I am at a loss for words. Perhaps some pictures will suffice:

First look at Mathers Point

Second glance - trying to hold my jaw shut at this point

The incredibly strong and fabulously good-
looking Western North Carolina hiking group

Look, Ma, no railing - couldn't resist! Looks like a painted backdrop, doesn't it? There is a great book called Over The Edge: Death In The Grand Canyon. It basically says that adults die but kids don't, because they listen to adults...who don't listen...

The Bright Angel Trail - an easy 4.6 miles down, an excruciating 4.6 miles back up. We began our hike before 6:00 AM and it took 9 hours.

Our destination is just around the the bottom ...Indian Gardens (click on photo)

We got stopped on the Bright Angel Trail going back up while a fatigued hiker (not one of us!) was rescued by helicopter. Warning: It's like a taxi - you ask for it, you pay for it.

The Grand Canyon is a destination everyone should have on their life list, but what made this trip even more extraordinary was the group I was honored to share the trails with. There were over 200 hikers associated with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Hike For Discovery program there to conquer the Canyon as they raised funds to conquer cancer, and the 200 hikers represented $1.2 million in donations -- even more awe-inspiring than the Grand Canyon! Our group representing Western North Carolina was small but awesome and we kicked butt going up and down those trails. It was an experience I will never forget.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Running and Hiking and Flying...Oh My!

The Thin Mint Sprint 5K race on Saturday was very early (7:15 AM start) on a beautiful day and lots of fun. I've never participated in a race before, much less one dominated by little girls. It was also the first race for my youngest daughter, Laura (age 18). The location was Carowinds, a local theme park, and the course snaked around and under roller coasters and water park features, making it entertaining and and distracting from the fact that you are dodging walkers and children who suddenly stop to tie a shoelace. The scent of funnel cakes is not as enticing early in the morning while gasping as it can be later in the day while strolling through the park. The course then popped out onto the parking lot for the last couple of miles and we were thankful that it was still early and not yet the heat of the day.

The event attracted hundreds for the 5K and the one-mile fun run and the energy was great. Of course the kids kept running around even after they had passed the finish line. Looking at the hundreds of photos posted, those young girls are stunning, every one of them. They are grinning and proud, not yet doubting themselves or worried about how they look. How can we help them to skip that part? Unlimited potential right there...How to capture it?
And guess what? Laura won for her age group, and apparently I was the first 50-and-above to finish (well, okay, there weren't very many of us anyway...). An energizing start to a beautiful May day.

Onward to the next event - my HFD group's last training day before our Big Trip. Five of us took two cars to Crowder's Mountain, left one car at the main visitor's center and parked the other at the other end. We walked up the Tower Trail, scoffing at first at the "strenuous" rating, until we hit the steep parts, which properly shut us up. Once at the top, it's a short walk along part of the Rocktop Trail to the rock outcropping and cliff face where climbers climb and lookers look and photographers photograph and lunchers lunch. We could just barely make out the Charlotte skyline in the distance. It reminds me of Dorothy's first glimpse of the Emerald City.

After lunching and posing for photos, two set off back down the Tower Trail and three of us headed onto the Rocktop Trail, which is an extremely fun 1.5-mile walk along the ridge line with lots of boulders and views. Then we hit the Crowders Trail and turned back towards the visitor's center. Once all hikers were back together, we stopped for sustenance at Subway and headed for home.

Tomorrow morning we are flying out early to Phoenix and then on Friday we hop on our bus for the Grand Canyon! Am I excited or what??

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Work Week, A 5K And More Hiking

I've been extremely busy this week with work, really ever since I returned from the Hazel Creek trip. If anyone is wondering, I don't live a life of TV and bon-bon eating, but I do have a flexible job. I am a deposition transcriptionist. When people decide to sue someone, everyone hires attorneys, who in turn start asking everyone questions. These Q&A sessions with the lawyers are called depositions. A court reporter, someone impartial and certified, records the deposition and then I transcribe the recordings. I am self-employed, an independent contractor, and I do transcripts for several court reporters. I got into this field many years ago (almost 20) as a part-time thing while looking for work and having been doing it ever since. It has been great for raising kids, volunteering, having fun, because I can choose to work at 2:00 AM in order to play later in the week. When we are busy, we are very very busy, and when we are not...we starve! So my Smokies hiking will be intertwined with when work is coming down the pipe, and hopefully I can stay afloat.

I try to run a few times a week because I like hiking, and I find that running is efficient training for getting/keeping legs and lungs in shape. Funny, but I don't much like walking around the neighborhood, with cars and houses and the same scenery, so running gives me the exercise I need in the quickest amount of time. I run between 3 and 6 miles about three times a week, although it is sometimes hard to get out there when it's really cold. This Saturday I am participating in my first 5K race at Carowinds in Charlotte. It is sponsored by the Girl Scouts (of course) and it's called the Thin Mint Sprint. My daughter Laura is doing the race also. I am looking forward to the experience of running with a crowd. If anyone has any tips, let me know. If you also like to run in order to hike, I'd like to hear about it. Then, after the 5K, I am headed to Crowders Mountain for one last short hike with the Hike For Discovery team because we leave for the Grand Canyon a week from today! Life is full even when I'm not in the Smokies!

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Caesars Head State Park SC

I am planning my next trip to the Smokies, but in the meantime our Hike For Discovery group is still training and preparing for our Grand Canyon adventure. Three of us have signed up for one of the more ambitious hikes at the Canyon, so yesterday we put ourselves to the test with a trip to Caesars Head State Park in South Carolina. If you have never visited the state parks in the mountains of upstate South Carolina, put them on your list because they are magnificent and Caesars Head SP is outstanding. It is part of the Mountain Bridge Wilderness. (Click on the photos below to see full size.)

I have chosen this hike because I went on most of these trails in the summer of '07 with the Berg Wanderers and it nearly killed me. So...if we made it back out I knew we would be okay in the Grand Canyon. And this time I had more experience and training and wanted to see if it was any easier. A map and detailed description of this hike can be found in Hiking The Carolina Mountains by Danny Bernstein.

Joy, Liana and I met up at 8:00 AM Saturday morning for the 2-hour drive. Joy's sister, Julie, and Joy's four-legged friend, Frisco, were along for the ride and would romp in the park while we hiked. We were on the trail by 10:45 AM. The first 2.2 miles is an easy-to-moderate walk to an overlook that is very popular - across the gorge is an amazing view of Raven Cliff Falls, possibly the most photographed waterfall in the area.

But...seeing the falls from across the gorge is simply not enough for the mighty hikers - we must experience its spray on our faces! There is a suspension bridge that crosses near the top of the falls. Off we went whistling on the Dismal Trail (I'm not making that up), 1.5 miles down, down, down into the gorge. As we walked I'm thinking that I'm glad we're not going up this trail, especially since I knew what was up ahead. I wanted Joy and Liana to be happy as long as possible.

At the bottom of the Dismal Trail we turned onto the Naturaland Trust Trail and the fun began. First was the crossing of Matthews Creek - what, no bridge? We have to walk across a tightrope? Okay, so there's a cable to step on and a cable overhead to hold onto. Are we having fun yet? You bet!

Naturaland Trust Trail climbs up Raven Cliff Mountain, up, up, up, up, up! The trick is put the slowest person in front to set a reasonable pace and just take your time. If the fastest person is in front then others feel pressed to keep up and then you have panting, cursing hikers. So we stopped to examine flowers and peek at the views through the young leaves and made our way along to the Cathedral, an incredible 120-foot semicircular rock cliff face. (If you do this hike, there is no sign designating the Cathedral, but you will know it when you see it.) This was a prime place for a snack as we felt water droplets falling from the cliff tops and dribbling down the rocks. In the summer this natural shower is a lifesaver. This stop was made all the more enjoyable by an extremely cute guy (not that I'm looking, of course) and his extremely cute dog and his....girlfriend. Sorry, Liana...didn't know what he was missing, did he?

Onward toward the suspension bridge crossing over Raven Cliff Falls..but just how far IS it? We climbed up ladders and walked on narrow rock ledges and stomped up switchback after switchback. Just as I could feel imaginary daggers in my back from my fellow hikers (are you sure there is a bridge??) we came around a corner to the falls. The bridge crosses near the top of the upper falls and...well, you simply have to go there to understand how incredible it is. Flowing water is fascinating, from the smallest creek to the largest gush at the top of a mountain, and the closer you can get to it, the better. Standing on this bridge, facing across the gorge, directly beneath your feet the water falls away, down and down. If only we could have stayed there a little longer...

Still miles to go before we were done, and the hour was getting late so we picked up the pace. What's this? More ladders and climbing and yet no more vistas? We finally intersected with the Gum Gap trail, which is an easier walk, but the group was ready to mutiny. I thought to myself, they will thank me someday, because this is where the REAL training begins. How do you keep on going when you are tired and there are miles ahead? Yeah, just like you know your teenager will call you up and thank you one day! But look up ahead -- it's the cute guy, his cute dog and his...girlfriend. Can we push her off the next cliff? Well, at least we have something to look at for a few minutes before they move on out of sight.

On the Gum Gap Trail we met a young woman on her way back from a weekend backpack trip. She had done 45 miles along the Foothills Trail. One look at her loaded pack and we were humbled, mere dayhikers. She was very nice, chatted for a few minutes, and went on down the trail. We took our last turn, back onto the Raven Cliff Falls trail heading back out to the car, where Julie and four-legged Frisco were excited to see us. Our trek took just over 5 hours, including our stops, and was about 8.4 miles (except Liana says it was 10).

Today I am feeling just great, except for my sore feet and sore thighs and sore calves. It's all good.