Friday, December 12, 2008

Trekking and Tracking

AT Loop Hike Part 2 – 12/5/08

Sweat Heifer Trail – what a charming name! The sweat part is easy, as the elevation gain is nearly 2,200 feet in 3.7 miles. The heifer part? Before the Park was the Park and even before this area was owned by the Champion Fibre Company, farmers drove their cattle up these trails for summer grazing. You know how I dislike going UP on the latter half of a hike, but there was no one to hear my whining so I just took it one slow step at a time.

The trail starts off nicely enough by crossing Kephart Prong near a sweet waterfall. Cascades and falls along the creeks are much easier to see in the wintertime. Between one and two miles up there is a (sort of) level stretch and Sweat Heifer Creek appears. Then the climbing begins again. At one switchback there were some rusted machinery parts in the snow and two buckets hanging from a tree branch. Leftovers from a logging camp or a CCC camp? Each switchback gave a teasing view of the ridge high, high above me which could only be the AT.

  There were no hiker footprints in the snow and I found myself following deer tracks – looked like it had a leisurely stroll for about a mile along the trail. I saw what appeared to be canine tracks (coyote?) and even turkey tracks. Hey, a Hokie has been here!

And what’s this? There appeared to be tracks of at least one adult bear and one small bear. They didn’t look brand new, but I’m not Daniel Boone so what do I know? What I am sure of is that there are no other humans out here to save me.

I followed the bear tracks for nearly two miles. They would stray off the path for a few feet and then reappear. Funny, I never felt really scared. I had convinced myself that the tracks were at least a day old, because they seemed to have been made when the snow was soft and my own footprints were hardly making any impression on the refrozen snow. Anyways, I never saw the owners of the tracks but I guess I can’t pretend they are all sleeping.

I reached the AT again after about a hundred hours and noticed that the temperatures had dropped and the trail was freezing over again. The spot in this photo was just wet this morning and now it was seriously icy. I stopped to chat with a strung-out group of backpackers headed out to Icewater Spring Shelter – it was kind of late in the day and it was dubious whether they were all going to make it before dark.

As I neared the end of my route I heard a hiker whistling behind me and we chatted as we approached the parking lot. He introduced himself as Mr. Nice Guy, a southbound thru-hiker, recently graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He was going to hitch a ride into Gatlinburg to catch up with friends for the night. What a lucky day! I was going straight to Gatlinburg! He was truly a nice guy, reminded me of my son with his ponytail and scruffy beard, and I can only hope that someone gives my son a ride someday when he needs it.

We took a couple of photos of the rhime ice spectacle on the way into town and then stopped at The Happy Hiker, the local outfitter store, for MNG to ask directions. Turned out one of his trail friends was in the store, so after a hug I left him there to make his plans. To Mr. Nice Guy’s family: you did a good job!

As I headed toward my favorite little hotel I had thoughts of a shower and then a pizza from my favorite little pizza place. But hold on a minute…what are these school buses doing unloading all these kids in band uniforms?? That can only mean one thing…

A Christmas parade!

Yes, boys and girls, I was about to be caught up in the Gatlinburg Extravaganza. I hightailed it to my hotel, realizing that I would not be able to leave again by car because the parade route cut me off. So I walked down to the main street, waited in line a few years to get a sub sandwich, and then curled up in my cozy room for the night.

Next year I will go back for the parade. It looked like lots of fun for people who have not hiked all day.

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