Monday, September 29, 2008

Hiking From Top To Bottom

Deep Creek Weekend – 9/6/08 – Day Two – Forney Ridge Trail/Springhouse Branch/Forney Creek/Whiteoak Branch/Lakeshore Trail – 17.5 miles

Early Saturday morning in talking with Marta, we hit upon the notion that she, Ronda and Kim M could change from their plan and hike UP from the campground to Clingmans Dome if they could have my car to come back. Eureka! Can I have my lost hours of sleep back now? Even with a swollen ankle, this simplified plan in my head and my running shoes on my feet made me dance around the campground getting ready for the day.

The weather looked gorgeous as we moved cars, everyone crammed into mine and we drove through Cherokee and on up Newfound Gap Road towards Clingmans…but is that a cloud? Hmmmmmm, looks a little darker here…..And then the mountains just...disappeared. When we got out of my car at Clingmans Dome the fog was thick…and I thought to myself with dismay, these people are going to hate me. Then as the wind gusted and we put on rain gear I thought, I know these people are going to hate me!

But the Forney Ridge Trail started out as a hobbit-esque fairyland of boulders and spruce and fir trees, and about a mile from the trailhead we stepped below the clouds. By the time we reached Andrews Bald our faith was rewarded by the stunning views. (Cathy is standing on a rock strategically placed for photo ops.) By the way, hiking to Andrews Bald is only about 3.6 miles round trip from the parking lot and, although quite rocky, is a worthwhile trek.

Picking the trail up again at the far side of Andrews Bald is a little tricky but a big ole sign helped me out – I’m obviously not the first pilgrim to lose her way. Here at the very end of summer, Forney Ridge Trail was challenging with much overgrown vegetation, faded wildflowers, blueberry bushes and blackberry brambles. Apparently the blackberry crop was so good this year that the bears could not eat them all. At first we stopped for samples, but then we learned that we could each snag a couple of berries as we walked by and be assured that there would be more along the way. We practiced our tightrope walking as the trail went sideways along some steep ridges. Put tall vegetation together with a narrow path and you can hear mumbled expletives even from seasoned hikers.
Near the end of Forney Ridge Trail is a majestic oak tree that took five of us to circle around. This is a neat, cool, awesome tree! We hikers are often guilty of looking down, moving fast, clicking off the miles, and we forget to look up at the very things that create our little universe – the trees. The trees are always there, when the sun rises and when the sun sets, when it rains and snows, before we were born and after we are gone. If I hike this trail again ten years from now, chances are that oak tree will still be standing, waiting to be measured and hugged. I hope my children and grandchildren get to hug it someday.

And some trees are lying across the trail waiting for us to crawl over.

After 4.5 miles on Forney Ridge we reached the midpoint of Springhouse Branch Trail and turned right, going over some ups-and-downs and then a long gradual descent to its terminus at Forney Creek Trail. At this junction is backcountry Campsite #71, a very large, flat area sitting beside Forney Creek. This was once the site of the Bee Gum CCC camp, evidenced by brick foundations and this impressive stone chimney. Looks like a great place to camp and I hear it’s quite popular and spaces must be reserved. And horse parking is free.

Once again, I needed to hike a short spur to the right, going up Forney Creek to its intersection with Jonas Creek Trail and back, adding 2.4 miles to the day. Tarah, Cathy and Kim C. turned left and continued on the route to the Road to Nowhere tunnel, while Carolyn and Jeff stuck with me. What we had hoped would be a quick creekside jaunt was…not. The old logging road probably ran along by the water, but now the trail took a steep detour up the mountain and then back down creekside again. By the time we returned to Campsite 71 we were looking at our watches and ready to crank it up a notch.

Have I mentioned that Carolyn is allergic to yellow jackets? She had been stung on a hiking trip recently, not knowing of her allergy, and there was nothing available to treat her on the trail. She hiked several hours out, swelling up like crazy, and finally got treated. Fortunately, her reaction did not close her throat, but her allergy can increase. Now she carries Benadryl and an EpiPen and hikes in long pants even on sweltering days. Yellow jacket nests are in the ground, and hiker’s lore is that the first person to pass a nest wakes them up, the second person makes them mad, and then all the rest of the group gets stung. Carolyn likes to be the person that gets away.

So we really can’t explain how she got stung as we were standing and talking on Forney Creek Trail. Suddenly Carolyn was yelling and running – she had been stung on the thigh, right through her pants. We didn’t see any bees and no one else was stung. Carolyn took her Benadryl right away, and although the affected area swelled to the size of a handprint and hurt like the dickens, it did not get any worse. But now hiking was not fun as she obviously was in pain with every step and we were still nearly six miles from the cars. We kept moving down Forney Creek, left on Whiteoak Branch, left on Lakeshore Trail. By the time the tunnel appeared we knew that Carolyn would live and we cheered our 17.5 miles for the day.

Then we had to walk through the tunnel (shriek, shriek, shriek). We decided to go for it without flashlights. Now, you can see the light at the other end, but it is longer than you think and quite disorienting. There is graffiti painted on the walls near each end and unspeakable things lying there in the dark near the middle, I'm sure of it. I was honest about my discomfort and Carolyn and Jeff tried to act all big and brave, but that big lumpy thing near the far entrance bothered all of us (it was a rock).

SO to summarize: my feet felt great hiking in my running shoes - my car came back (after stopping for dinner) - Carolyn lived - it did not rain - there were no bears - nothing tapped me on the shoulder in the tunnel - WHAT A GREAT DAY!

PS: If you are interested in the Road to Nowhere and the tunnel, the story is too important to condense here. Read up about it at these sites for the background and some opinions:,,

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