Monday, March 30, 2009

Walking The Camel

3/22/09 - Low Gap II Trail/Low Gap I Trail/Big Creek Trail/Camel Gap Trail/AT/Low Gap II Again – 16. 1 Miles 

Today no one was waiting on me because I was hiking solo – and really looking forward to it. Remember last summer when the thought of hiking alone kept me awake at night? When I asked Marta how you get used to it, she simply said, “Repetition” and she was right. I feel comfortable with the safety precautions that I take and I’ve had some test experiences while with other hikers, so now the idea of hiking alone feels refreshing – especially on such a beautiful spring day.

Too bad the trail I was starting out on isn’t beautiful. By 9:00 a.m. I was staring Low Gap II Trail in the face again, this time looking up. My feet had not fully recovered from yesterday’s epic downhill, so I was determined to go slow and steady today. Not only was the hike plan (Hike #4 in the Big Creek/Cosby section of the "Day Hiker's Guide") to go UP Low Gap II, but the end of the day would see me going DOWN it – again. (Of all the hikes in the Park, I think I have been on Low Gap II the most times (4), along with the first couple of miles of the Lakeshore Trail.)

Low Gap II started out with a great show of wildflowers. Can someone name these white flowers? I’m guessing hepatica? And spring beauties were everywhere. Then a switchback took me away from the lovely forest and into the serious business – rocks, rocks and more rocks going steeply uphill. I concentrated on going very s-l-o-w-l-y.

After the first mile I met an AT section hiker going up, fully loaded and making slow progress. He was beginning a weeklong trek towards Fontana Dam, staying at Cosby tonight. The Cosby shelter is only about a mile from Low Gap on the AT and I wondered if he would get there and then decide to press on. When the weather is pretty it’s tempting to keep walking. As I continued up the trail I met four backpackers coming down, looked like high schoolers or spring breakers. They were moving fast, looking like they had cheeseburgers on their minds.

At the trail junction I crossed the AT and went straight onto Low Gap I Trail, which turned out to be more pleasant than expected, steep but winding open forest. I met two backpackers going up towards the AT. About two-thirds of the way down in a flat area I saw a long stone wall that bent inwards on both ends like a smile. Then the trail started going up and I saw a campsite far below on the left. I became confused because I didn’t remember the trail elevation going back up (need to pay more attention to that profile map) and I had a moment of hesitation but chose to keep going a few more minutes to see if I hit an intersection. Sure enough, the trail ended at Big Creek Trail as expected. But it seems to me that Campsite 37 is located differently than shown on the Park Map. Is it on the right or on the left?

Big Creek Trail ends and Camel Gap Trail begins just as a sign along the trail, not a true intersection. My walk on Camel Gap Trail was an absolute delight, following Big Creek on a gentle railroad grade most of the way. Doesn't this photo look like a crocodile head in the water? I was transfixed by the big water roaring over rocks, enjoying the solitude of this trail. The birds were more vocal than I’ve heard all winter and tiny lavender butterflies followed me. I was channeling Snow White walking through the forest (but the birds were definitely not imitating me when I sang.) I passed a couple of great camping spots (illegal, of course) and hopped across a few side creeks, saw lots of slimy stuff with eggs in it. At one spot a little creek tumbled in a small waterfall onto the trail, with these little plants sprouting. You flower experts out there – is it Brook lettuce?

At a switchback Camel Gap Trail begins its final climb to the AT, featuring big full views of the ridge of Balsam Gap Trail. I had that goosebump feeling again of looking at a ridge that I had recently walked on, in this case just two weeks before and covered in snow – seems so long ago. Time has a different feeling when you’re out in the woods. I paused for a snack at the junction where Carolyn and I had stopped on the last day of our snowy backpack trip. Here I noticed that along with the warm temperatures, wildflowers, butterflies and birds, the flying insects were also waking up and making their presence felt. Yellow jackets can’t be far behind, so pack the Benadryl and the epi pens again.

Back at the AT heading towards Low Gap II, I again walked this small section with awesome views and a great feel. It has narrow sections where the mountain drops off on either side of the trail and you can see Tennessee and North Carolina all around.

On a whim I checked in at Cosby Shelter, the only Smokies shelter that I had not actually laid eyes on, since Carolyn and I passed it by on our trek. The AT section hiker that I had met in the morning was there enjoying the peace and quiet, had the place to himself. We chatted for a few minutes and I learned he was from Spencer, NC, just up the road a bit from Charlotte. As I walked back on the AT I realized that we had never exchanged names.

At the junction with Low Gap II once again, I met three college break backpackers taking photos of each other and offered to do a group photo for them. They said they were heading to Cosby Shelter – so much for the section hiker’s tranquility! At least he had a few hours, and he seemed like the kind of guy who would enjoy company.

In spite of my care during the day, going slow, taking it easy on my feet and my lungs, the descent on Low Gap was painful as ever. When all is said and done, steep is still steep and 16 miles is still 16 miles. The wildflowers cheered me along, especially the yellow violets. I took the connector trail to the campground and walked through the campground to my car rather than going on the trail – probably the same distance but easier walking.

From Cosby I had a long drive to Bryson City where I was meeting Lenny for tomorrow’s hike in the Deep Creek area. In my hotel room I rummaged through my food bag for some supper and went to sleep early because tomorrow will be another long distance hike. What an awesome experience this has been!

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