Monday, March 16, 2009

Ridge Runners and Ocean Waves

AT Backpack Weekend – Day Two – 3/7/09 – Appalachian Trail to Tricorner Knob/Balsam Mountain Trail Out-and-Back – 15.5 Miles

During the nighttime the moon was so bright that no headlamp was needed for the inevitable bathroom trips. You know, once one person gets up to go, everyone else has to go too! And those of you who have stayed in shelters know – that privy is way too far away in the middle of the night, so why try to get there? There’s probably bears and boars and bobcats along the way – oh my!

Jeff’s plan was to leave earlier than the rest of us so he could bag some summit peaks along the AT, including Mount Sequoyah, Mount Chapman and I don’t know what else (Jeff is a GPS nut). Before 7:00 a.m. I cracked one eye open and looked on the upper bunk – there sat Jeff, fully dressed and ready to go, looking like a kid on Christmas morning waiting for the signal to go downstairs to see what Santa brought! The rest of us got moving, a little cold but not too bad (upper 30’s), ate breakfast, put on dry socks and wet shoes. Thru-hiker Primitive left wearing just a short-sleeved tee shirt…ah, youth.

But Primitive had the right idea because the day really heated up. Judy, Carolyn, Carol and I hiked along the AT ridgeline, marveling at the views that are constant along this part of the trail. This photo is from Eagle Rock (I think). Soon after this we met two hikers who introduced themselves as ridge runners, Jim and Susan. They would be staying with us at Tricorner Knob Shelter. Hey, a chance for interesting conversation, some good stories and learning about ridge running!

We caught up with Jeff on the trail after he had summitted Mount Sequoyah. He told me that it was an easy summit, just 40 feet up, and I started through the brush to find it. I immediately realized that I am lost even five feet off the trail if I don’t have a map and a reference point, and I have few compass skills, so I came back to the trail. Jeff asked me if I really wanted to go up…well, I have learned to take people up on their offers out here in the woods, because who knows if/when we will be here again? So I said I’d go if he was willing to take me, and we summited Mount Sequoyah together. Jeff now has yet another trail name: Mr. Wonderful.

Continuing on the AT, how about this photo? Are they mountains or ocean waves? And how many shades of blue can you name? For an abundance of fantastic photos, click here for Jeff’s and Carolyn’s contributions to the Carolina Berg Wanderers’ page about our trip.

By 11:00 a.m. we arrived at Tricorner Knob Shelter, the Smokies shelter that is the farthest distance from any road and our home for the coming night. There we ate, resupplied our water and dumped everything possible from our backpacks, keeping only water and rain gear and some food to take with us on our out-and-back jaunt on Balsam Mountain Trail. (Here Judy is collecting water to be filtered.) We spread out wet clothing to dry on the hillside in the strong sunshine. The four women started out around noon, leaving Jeff eating his lunch, as he was going to do several more off-trail summits along Balsam. Carol was taking it easy and turned back early, and Carolyn and I got to talking and moving pretty fast. Walking with near-empty packs was absolute heaven! Judy caught up to us and we slowed to a more reasonable pace and enjoyed the trail, very easy walking at first. Then…we reached a section that crossed steep slopes, a narrow path still in the shade, lots of deep snow, which took all our attention. We could see the Mount Sterling ridge and even the Mount Sterling fire tower. Still, we reached the junction with Gunter Fork Trail, nearly 5 miles, in about 2 hours. (Judy and I were at this Gunter Fork junction back in November.) Then we turned around and walked back, with Carolyn in the lead and soon out of sight. Along the way we passed Jeff’s pack on the trail at an impossibly steep and overgrown section and we hoped he would make it out okay. We also passed this brave little tree trying to grow from a big old stump. I wonder if it will make it?

We were glad to get back to the shelter. The ridge runners were there and three additional hikers had arrived. Four more were scheduled to be there that night, a full house (they never showed up, though). Cooking is not allowed in shelters so as to keep the food smells away from the sleeping area, a rule that not all hikers follow especially on cold and rainy days, but with the ridge runners there we were on our best behavior. In fact, the sun was still shining bright and we set up cooking out on the ground underneath the bear cables, enjoying the warmth and relaxing after a good day’s exercise. (I am always grateful to have a healthy body that allows me to get outside and walk and walk and walk.)

Ridge runner Jim's full name is Jim Mowbray and his reputation preceded him, as I had read and even saved an online article about him. Jim hikes the AT year-round as a volunteer and in 2007 he was given the Partnership Award as Volunteer of the Year by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Jim told me he was amazed at how many people he meets that have read about him. I told him he was the equivalent of a rock star in the Smokies hiking world. Ridge runner Susan told us how she was in training this weekend and would then be a ridge runner herself until November. She was an AT thru-hiker in 2007 (trail name Kentucky Blue). Most interesting to me, she was a camp counselor at a Girl Scout camp in Ohio for several years as a teenager and it was there that she first saw a presentation on thru-hiking the AT. With that experience, her path was set (no pun intended) and her love of hiking and the outdoors grew. Now her avocation is also her occupation. Her story is an affirmation of why I’m doing this: expose kids to the outdoors and they may discover a lifelong passion, a career, and at the very least a respect for conservation and the environment.

Tonight was daylight savings time, so I set my watch and it was suddenly almost 7:30 p.m. Where was Jeff? He turned up soon after, looking very tired and not saying much. He had run out of water and was also very hungry. The rest of us were almost ready for sleeping bags, but I sat outside and talked with Jeff a little while he ate (Judy joined us too), and eventually we all settled down, very tired from a good day’s exploring. The moon and stars came out again for another perfect night high up in the Smokies. Sigh…everyone should get to see that.  

“The shadow from the starlight is softer than a lullaby…Rocky Mountain High” ~ John Denver

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