Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Max Patch

Appalachian Trail Overnight Backpack Trip – 9/5-9/6/09 – Davenport Gap to Max Patch – 17 Miles

For Labor Day weekend some Berg friends planned an overnight section hike on the AT, northbound starting from Davenport Gap where the trail leaves the Great Smoky Mountains NP. The mileage was low and I welcomed the chance for a “leisurely” trip after the Tetons. We left Charlotte on Friday night and camped at the Cosby Campground – felt wonderful to be back in the Park after so long, even if I wasn’t really hiking there.

As we were kicking back and contemplating dinner, a downpour began and continued for essentially the rest of the evening. The six of us huddled under a tarp and cooked black bean burgers and other yummies, then crawled into tents and prayed for the rain to end by morning.

Which it did! Though the clouds stayed and there was a mist in the air, it was certainly great hiking weather. Cathy and I dropped off all the packs and people and then set up our car shuttle (one vehicle at Max Patch, then one at the Big Creek ranger station) and then walked up the gravel road to the trailhead – so she and I had 1.5 miles logged before we actually hit the AT. Cathy’s husband John was waiting with our packs, while Barbara, Ruth Ann and Emily started out ahead of us.

Ah, that first white blaze! It snags you like a lasso and pulls you along. How can I possibly add the AT to my list of challenges? Thru-hiking has never appealed to me because of the time away from home…but completing the AT in North Carolina is intriguing. And what about Tennessee? Don’t forget the first part in Georgia, it’s not all that far away. And of course I love my home state of Virginia…For the rest of the trip we talked about such goals and I pondered. The descent down to Waterville Gap was quick. Fun stuff along the way:

Fall colors gearing up

A great weekend for fun fungi

Whitewater rafters on the Pigeon River

We walked across the Pigeon River on Waterville School Road. This was the first time I had crossed a major road during a hike.

 Notice the white blazes
 underneath the directional arrows at the bottom of the sign

AT trail sign at top of stone steps after crossing the road


Wood aster and goldenrod nodding across the trail

We caught up with the gals about halfway up the ascent of Snowbird Mountain. As we stopped for a breather, a southbound hiker passed by and stopped to chat. She had finished her thru-hike in August and here she was back again to enjoy Max Patch – when she passed through in the spring there was a snowstorm and she pretty much missed the view. I can understand the pull to return to the AT as soon as you have finished it – the goal of completion is intoxicating to think about, but being done is kind of like a hangover – gee, I wish I was still at the party…

 Atop Snowbird Mountain is an FAA tower and the only really good views of the day. Cathy and Emily and I arrived first and checked it out as we waited for the rest of the crew. The gnats were vicious, though, and standing or sitting still was torture.

Emily protesting the gnats

Cathy's fashion statement

Barbara and the white blaze - one of my favorite photos

The long descent to Deep Gap was a bit of a wake-up call compared to the ease of the earlier part of the hike. Our overnight home was .2 miles off the trail at Groundhog Creek Shelter, where a nice young couple was already settled in. We put up tents, strung up the tarp again in case of rain (didn’t need it) and went about the many camp chores.

Interesting fact: the Groundhog Creek Trail that runs through this camping area is part of an old road that runs from Deep Gap down to the Pigeon River at I-40 – and was an original route of the AT in the 1930’s. So even when we were off the AT, we were on the AT!

We chilled in the waning daylight as we each cooked our own suppers around the campfire ring. I especially enjoyed getting to know Emily, who is Ruth Ann’s 17-year-old daughter. Emily has done a good bit of backpacking and is contemplating a thru-hike before she gets old (i.e. 22?) I was impressed with her maturity and especially how she took good care of her mom/hiking partner, sharing stuff and not acting like your typical teenage daughter. Good job, Emily (and Ruth Ann)!

We had a noisy night with cicadas in full force and a company of owls conversing overhead. I stepped out of my tent for my usual pre-dawn potty break and some coyotes began to howl, perhaps three feet from me – or it sounded like it, and I could not see that far. I scrambled back inside the safe walls of my little Big Agnes tent and enjoyed another hour of snoozing. Isn’t it funny how safe we feel inside our little nylon kingdoms? Kind of like a toddler who plays peek-a-boo, we think that if the wild animals can’t see us, they don’t know we are there. They also cannot break through those miraculous steel walls that only weigh a couple of pounds when we carry them on our packs. Are humans really supposed to be the smartest of all creatures?

 The next day was shorter mileage that began with the inevitable uphill pull, this time to the top of Harmon Den Mountain. This entire section of the AT is well graded and well maintained, very enjoyable. Our group spread out and I hiked solo for most of the way, though I occasionally caught glimpses of those ahead of and behind me. Such a great feeling to be walking in the woods! I wish everyone I know could have this experience.

Don’t you love this huge fungus that looks like a clamshell?

Another interesting fungus thingy

We caught up to one another at the intersection with Cherry Creek Trail. While we waited for the entire group to gather I took a zillion photos of this inchworm exploring my backpack. Originally we planned to hike straight to the parking area when we intersected Max Patch Road, but Cathy, Barbara and I decided to continue on the AT to the summit of Max Patch. The others headed for the car to drop their packs and then climb by a different trail to the summit. But if I’m counting AT miles (am I?) I didn’t want to skip this little bit.

Beauty along the trail

Climbing to the top of Max Patch

Max Patch is easy for anyone to walk to, less than half a mile from the parking area. I’ll bet my book club would love this!

As you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged by a mountain stream, the great door, that does not look like a door, opens. ~Stephen Graham, The Gentle Art of Tramping

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