Monday, November 23, 2009

Knowing How Way Leads On To Way...

MST Hike – Day Two – 10/22/09 – Martins Gap Trail/Sunkota Ridge Trail/Thomas Divide Trail/Newton Bald Trail/Benton MacKaye Section to Bradley Fork Trail – 13.2 Miles

The night was cold but not awful , I’m guessing in the upper 30’s. With my 15-degree Mountain Hardware down sleeping bag (a bright green, so I call it “the Worm”), I was toasty and even shed an outer layer during the night. This morning was my first of getting up and breaking camp in the dark and the verdict is: I don’t like it much. We were prepared to hit the trail at first light, but making hot tea and cheesy grits in the dark is not a habit I want to form. Just a mental thing to overcome, but hopefully we won’t be backpacking much on this venture.

The 1,000-foot gain in 1.5 miles going up Martins Gap Trail was a great wake-up, however, and within the requisite 15 minutes we stopped to lighten up layers. Climbing in the early morning light was quiet and purposeful and my thoughts rolled back to my last trek here in January, a wonderful cold gray-and-blue winter day. Today was more colorful:

Yellow buckeye

Yellow buckeye

Half-and-half red maple


At the next intersection we took a deep breath to begin the 4.9-mile climb up Sunkota Ridge Trail, a more gentle trail but uphill nonetheless. Our rest breaks consisted of plopping down in the middle of the narrow trail as it clung to the steep sloping ridgelines. Here’s Danny on her pilgrimage up Sunkota.

Sunkota Ridge terminates at the Thomas Divide Trail, which we then followed for a .4-mile stretch to a larger intersection with Newton Bald Trail. The mileage for this short jaunt is not calculated on the $1 Smokies map; neither is the .7 miles from the Newton Bald/Thomas Divide junction to the Newton Bald/Mingus Creek Trail intersection. Why am I attentive to these details? Because our hike just got 1.1 miles longer.

Even more important, at the Newton Bald/Mingus Creek junction Danny and I made history (we hope). Here the current MST turns to follow Mingus Creek Trail to its terminus at Newfound Gap Road near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, where the MST hiker must begin walking on the Blue Ridge Parkway because this section of trail has not yet been created…BUT there is a proposal being considered to continue the MST route further through the Smokies. Danny and I decided to hike the proposed route for several reasons: A, it’s more fun to walk in the woods than on the road; B, it’s safer to walk in the woods than on the road; C, walking on the road requires walking through five tunnels and we do not want to be flattened; D, this route follows much of the already-established Benton MacKaye Trail; and E, hopefully our using and promoting this proposed route will help move the process along to make it official. As with all things bureaucratic, impact studies must be conducted and meetings must be held, but it just makes more sense to have the MST go wherever the road is not.

(BTW, get out your maps - the proposed route from this point is: Newton Bald Trail, cross Newfound Gap Road at Smokemont Campground, Benton MacKaye Trail to Bradley Fork Trail, Chasteen Creek Trail, Enloe Creek Trail, Hyatt Ridge Trail, Beech Gap I and Beech Gap II Trails, Balsam Mountain Trail, Mount Sterling Trail, Pretty Hollow Gap Trail, walk through Cataloochee Valley, Rough Fork Trail to Heintooga Ridge Road, then Heintooga Ridge Road to the BRP. Are we having fun yet???)

So off we go on the “road less traveled.” Newton Bald is a wonderful trail on a fall day and a steady downward slope that gently winds around the mountains curves, enticing you to wonder at what is around the next bend. My past walk on this trail was about a year ago and I remembered well the yellow leaves falling and acorns hitting me on the head. A mile or two from the end we passed a large group of college students from Michigan – a dozen or more – hiking up to Campsite 52 for their first night in the Smokies. They looked prepared for the predicted evening rain.

Beware of hiking buddies behind you with cameras

Our yellow wood

The last bit of Newton Bald Trail showed evidence of the horse trail that it truly is. There is a loop horse trail branching off from Newton Bald that is not indicated on the $1 map, so don’t let that confuse you – just follow the sounds of traffic to Newfound Gap Road. We crossed the road and picked up the tiny section of Benton MacKaye (coincides with one of the horse trails out of Smokemont) and walked the mile to its intersection with Bradley Fork Trail. Here our journey for the day ended.

We had made great time, lots of daylight left, which we needed to get set up for tomorrow. We retrieved our car from Clingmans Dome, set up camp in a tent site at Smokemont (another great reason to relocate the MST – easy camping facilities), cleaned ourselves up as best we could, and staged our car for the next day at the Beech Gap trailhead at Round Bottom on Straight Fork Road. This part was a bit spooky as darkness closed in while we were driving along that deserted gravel road. The highlight of the evening was the buffet at Big Boy’s in Cherokee – well, it was food that we didn’t have to cook, anyway! Time to sleep and get mentally ready for a rainy day tomorrow.

(Read Danny's summary of today's hike here.) And for a cool YouTube interpretation of "The Road Not Taken," click here.  

The Road Not Taken 

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
~Robert Frost

Monday, November 9, 2009

And Away We Go!

MST Hike – Day One – 10/21/09 – Appalachian Trail/Fork Ridge Trail/Deep Creek Trail to Campsite 57 – 13.4 Miles

My year of hiking the Smokies 900 was challenging and satisfying – I set a goal, I completed it, learned some new things, and had a grand time throughout the process. Although I have flirted around with the SB6K and the Pisgah 400, I was not really looking for another challenge with a time frame attached. Then I got an email from Danny Bernstein throwing down a gauntlet for the Mountains-To-Sea Trail across North Carolina. What did I think of section hiking the entire MST with her over a two-year period? I was flattered to be asked and after some back-and-forth about general parameters and a conversation with my spouse, I said yes. Even the next day it still sounded like a good the plans began rolling out. No foot-dragging on Danny’s watch! We had dates on the calendar before I knew what hit me.

A hiking challenge requires many skills, none more important than flexibility. Our very first scheduled outing, an overnight backpack beginning at Clingmans Dome, got moved around because of the (good) weather forecast. On Wednesday, October 21, Danny and I hoisted our packs, marched up to Clingmans Dome and touched the sign marking the beginning of this nearly 1,000-mile trail. Jockey’s Ridge State Park on the Outer Banks, here we come!

The MST begins in the Smokies, home turf for us, and we knew very well what awaited our first few days. Considering the early snow as a good sign, we marched confidently down the AT.

Over our shoulders we caught a glimpse of the tower at Clingmans Dome

Danny likes to voice record notes to write about our trip on her blog. She posts them the day after she gets home (read about Day 1 here.) As my regular readers know, I’m not so fast.

A few tenths of a mile past the Sugarland Mountain Trail intersection we turned right onto a short access trail, crossed Clingmans Dome Road and stepped onto Fork Ridge Trail. On a beautiful day last year I hiked this trail with fellow Berg members Carolyn and Jeff. We had a couple of blow-downs to contend with on the descent down to Deep Creek.

Brilliant leaf show

Frasier magnolia

Love the red stuff

I brought my Crocs in anticipation of crossing Deep Creek at the end of the Fork Ridge Trail, which I remembered as deep and chillin’ – and can confirm that it still is. We turned right onto Deep Creek Trail and encountered three more sketchy crossings of side creeks as they flowed into the big Deep one. I hopped when I could and put on my Crocs once. I abhor the idea of wet boots! Thoughts of Don Gardner followed me on this section from our epic hike earlier this year.

A lovely carpet!

The beauty of Deep Creek

We passed through several backcountry sites, some occupied, some not, on the way to our own home for the night, Campsite 57, also called Bryson Place, the location of Horace Kephart’s last permanent camp. On both of my previous visits here I was unable to find the commemorative millstone placed there in his honor by the Kephart Boy Scout Troop. Danny led me straight to it, further down the trail, not right in the campsite area.

We had a hot supper, a cup of hot chocolate, and I began to fade with the daylight. One difference between Danny and myself: my inner clock is solar-powered and hers operates independent of the daylight. This means that on our winter hiking trips she may be talking to herself a lot, as she rises in the dark and is still ticking after the sun goes down. Fortunately, we plan to stick to day hiking with just a few backpack trips. Looking forward to refining our partnership on this adventure…

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. ~ Lao Tzu

Monday, November 2, 2009

I Hate Backpacking and This Is My Last Trip

Judy’s Hazel Creek Backpack Trip – Day Two - -Hazel Creek Trail/Cold Spring Gap Trail/High Rocks/Welch Ridge Trail/AT – 18.1 Miles UPHILL

We got up at early light and were packed up and on the trail before 8:00 a.m. Looming large was the big crossing of Hazel Creek on the Cold Spring Gap Trail, a nice cold splash to wake us up. As we walked out of camp, we stopped to chat with the two guys who came in after dark. They reported that they had hiked up to High Rocks (part of our route coming up) and back and “got kind of a late start.” They also said that the crossing of Hazel Creek wasn’t too bad. Everything is relative, of course…

We walked 1.3 miles back up Hazel Creek Trail and turned right onto Cold Spring Gap. At .3 miles was our last crossing of Hazel Creek for this trip. From April of '08 I remembered it as wide and deep. The “brown book” says that it is about 10 yards wide and the depth varies from 3 to 4 feet in winter to 1 to 2 feet in drier times. “Consequently, this crossing can be a refreshing interlude or a potential nightmare.”

Apparently my camera set itself to some terrible setting because most of my photos of this day are fuzzy, but I think you can see Judy’s expression as she begins the crossing.

Turns out it was about mid-thigh, no worse than a couple of our crossings from the day before. We put our socks and boots back on and began the 2,000-foot climb up the 3.5-mile Cold Spring Gap Trail.

Some of you may remember my summaries from my Smokies 900 year where Cold Spring Gap was named as one of the don’t-make-me-go-back-there-again trails. Now, optimists would say that Cold Spring Gap is “full of inspiring challenges” and pessimists would say it is “the worst trail EVER”. As a realist, I have to say that any day in the woods is a good day, but this trail is horrible. Some of it is an old logging railroad bed, but not like the other ones I have experienced. It follows Cold Spring Branch for part of the way, meaning that after the rains earlier in the week we were creek walking. The trail is extremely rocky, rutted, muddy where it’s not actually flowing with water, and badly eroded. More than once I had to stop and think, “Are we still on the trail?” The further we went, the steeper it got. Because it is so far into the “back of beyond,” anyone who hikes this trail is hopefully prepared for an arduous climb. There is not one single step of down. I shook my head at the prospect of those guys hiking up it AND then back down it in the near-dark on their round trip visit to High Rocks.

Shouts of hallelujah as we arrived at the gap, where Welch Ridge Trail begins with a left turn. Looking to the right here, however, we could discern a faint manway that I later learned was once a maintained trail down to Bear Creek. But our route took us left onto Welch Ridge and we climbed .6 miles to the intersection with another signed (but unmaintained) trail to High Rocks.

High Rocks is the site of a long-removed fire tower, but the view is still there. The short trail up seemed endless as we fought our way through more blackberry brambles and overgrowth. We topped out at the rocky bluff upon which the tower once stood. The foundation and the caretaker’s cabin remain, although the cabin is extremely deteriorated and there are currently no plans to rehab it. Since I was here last year, someone has made a statement by placing a chair on top of the rocks, inviting valiant hikers to pause and enjoy.

The best seat in the house

No words necessary

What I saw from where I sat

Judy and I enjoyed lunch and a rest here, glad to be done with Cold Spring Gap, but you know the Robert Frost mantra by now: miles to go before we sleep. We thrashed our way back down the jungle trail to Welch Ridge, turned left once again, and began the long hard pull ever upward.

Welch Ridge is 7.3 miles long and we walked every inch. There really is some down to it, such as at Water Oak Gap, and there are some level sections. There are magnificent old trees that were missed by logging, and more cool fungi. There was also more undergrowth than I expected, and no rhyme or reason to when it would crop up and when it would disappear. Thorns tore at my clothes and at least half a dozen times my shoelaces were pulled loose by blackberry brambles (will never leave my gaiters at home again). We really don’t appreciate trail maintainers until we encounter an example like this where maintenance is lacking. I suppose that’s a clue that I should volunteer to do trail maintenance here next summer…

  To break up the monotony, Welch Ridge Trail is intersected often by other trails. I’ve found that hiking more than 4 miles without a landmark drives me crazy. At the intersection with Hazel Creek Trail again, I noticed that something had been chewing on the signpost. I didn’t remember seeing this the day before…
On this last pull up Welch Ridge we began to catch glimpses of our destination: Clingmans Dome. Can you tell how far away it is? Seems like miles…well, yeah, it is…but look how pretty the mountain ash berries still are.

 Every hike begins with optimism, a spring in the step, an anticipation of what’s around the bend. If the hike is the right distance, it ends on the same note as it started. If it is a little longer, the hiker loses a little steam but finishes feeling that he/she has met the challenge. If it is a lot longer, the body begins to tire, the pack gets heavier and the pace slows down. There is no way to describe the return portion of the AT to Clingman’s except as a death march. We hiked, we stopped to rest, we drank water, we ate (first backpack trip that I have eaten everything I brought), we hiked some more, and still that mountain stayed in the distance. I challenge anyone to re-measure the distance from Welch Ridge to Clingman’s Dome – it is farther than the map says! We wondered if we should have broken this trip up into 2 nights and stayed at one of the AT shelters – but we knew we would have gotten to the shelter and said, “Hey, it’s only 4 miles to the car, let’s keep going.” For that everlasting last mile I repeated to myself, “I HATE backpacking and this is my last trip.”

With aching knees and tired legs we walked gingerly down the paved trail from the Clingmans tower to the parking lot. Photographers were set up to capture the sunset and even we paused to appreciate it.

Then I looked over my shoulder and saw the full moon.

We were much later than expected and Judy’s husband was calling to check on us (see why it’s important to leave your hike plan with someone?) We drove to Judy’s house and then I stubbornly got in my car and drove home to Charlotte, arriving after midnight, in retrospect not a wise decision. Next time I’ll stay at Judy’s and drive home early in the morning.

Wait a minute…did I just say NEXT TIME???

Don't let people drive you crazy when you know it's in walking distance. ~Author Unknown

Sunday, November 1, 2009

33 Creek Crossings - But Who's Counting?

Judy’s Hazel Creek Backpack Trip – Day One – AT/Welch Ridge/Hazel Creek/Bone Valley - 19 Miles 

We stepped onto the Clingman’s Dome Bypass Trail, quickly warming up along this half-mile uphill climb and shedding some layers. IMHO, this rutted and eroded trail is good for only two things: avoiding the crowds on the paved trail to the tower and getting the heart pumping on a cold day. But at the top is the magic spot – stepping onto the Appalachian Trail. The more I hike, the stronger the feeling of auras of past hikers on the AT flowing around me. And I discovered on this trip another layer of presence – my hiking partners of the past year as I walked these trails.

The AT descends gently down (doesn’t feel so gentle going back up!) the ridge line, alternately slipping to the left for views of NC and then to the right for glimpses of TN. Brilliant red berries of mountain ash glowed against the blue sky. Once again it was necessary to take a bazillion photographs in hopes of preserving the memory. We walked through closed-in spruce-fir woods and across grassy balds and my heart felt elated at being in the Smokies once again, here on top of the world.

We passed the Goshen Prong Trail coming in on the right and remarked at our hike last year down that trail (river) in a downpour. I resolved to return on a sunny day to every trail I had walked in the rain. As we approached Double Spring Gap Shelter I was looking forward to a bathroom break and a quick snack. Judy was ahead of me as the grassy open area came into view, and suddenly she stopped and whispered that wonderful/awful/scary/where’s-my-camera word: “Bear!”

Now, this bear was hanging out in front of the shelter like it was his vacation home. He (she?) was nosing around the fire pit in front and looked to be eating grass. We stayed behind the trees at the edge of the clearing and watched, thinking that we were undetected. Finally we made a little noise, and Mr. Bear lazily swung his big head our way, then went back to his investigation. What should we do? He was not in a hurry and the trail went right past the front of the shelter. And I had to pee. If he scares me, that will no longer be an issue. Better take a trail break right now…

After taking care of business, Mr. Bear was still at the shelter, so we stepped out to the edge of the clearing and banged our hiking sticks and shouted. He loped away for perhaps 20 feet to the far edge of the woods, then turned and took steps in our direction. My heart jumped and I was glad I had had my trail break! We retreated and decided to take a detour in a wide half-circle to the right, past the spring and behind the shelter before intersecting with the trail on the far side. We left Mr. Bear behind (we hoped) and bounced on down the AT like it was the yellow brick road.

We stopped at another good photo op spot looking eastward and I managed to fall off the mountain while maneuvering to take a photo. But I got a great shot!

At the intersection with the Welch Ridge Trail we stopped, checked for a cell phone signal, and I called the Park’s backcountry office. A mid-day encounter with a habituated bear at a shelter (i.e. the bear was not afraid of humans) is a sad and potentially dangerous situation. If the bear continues to be a nuisance then the Park service will have to do something about it. And if the bear is that brave in daylight, imagine what it may be like in the dark. I was glad not to be staying at that shelter! The park ranger was very interested and wanted a photo of the bear – well, I’ll have to send that in later.

The “brown book” (Hiking Trails of the Smokies) aptly describes Welch Ridge Trail as “a long rib off of the spine of the main range of the Smokies.” We had a short walk on Welch Ridge (1.7 miles) to reach the beginning of Hazel Creek Trail, but we got a bad taste of things to expect on our return trip up the entirety of Welch Ridge (7.3 miles) for Day 2. The trail was extremely overgrown with blackberry bushes and dying flower stalks, often shoulder height and above, damp and scratchy and slowing us down. We were very happy to turn right onto Hazel Creek Trail.

This was Judy’s first experience with upper Hazel Creek but my memory kicked in of the first hiking weekend of my Smokies 900 quest. The main theme of that day was “23 creek crossings” when Jim and I stubbornly stopped and switched to water shoes each time, eventually giving in and leaving the water shoes on. My plan for this trip with Judy was to put the Crocs on at the first crossing and keep them on until we got to camp for the night. (Turned out I walked nearly 10 miles in my Crocs, wearing a loaded backpack – and it felt great!)

The first couple of miles descending on Hazel Creek consists of steep and narrow switchbacks, and the sound of water gradually increases until the first crossing, an easy rock hop. At the second crossing we zipped off pant legs, put on the Crocs (kept on the Smartwool socks – because wool keeps you warm even when wet) and plunged in. All of the crossings were more substantial than on my previous trip, but only twice did the water reach mid-thigh. Judy and I have a healthy respect for water crossings (instilled by this same Hazel Creek) but we have become very adept at reading the water and maneuver- ing across. Sometimes one would watch the other to see where to step (or not to step) and sometimes we waded through together by different routes. On the other side I often did a little “this-water-is-cold-as-I-don’t-know-what” screaming dance to get the blood circulating again. Best remedy for cold wet legs: keep hiking!

After a couple more miles the trail became more gentle and the walking between water crossings was quite pleasant. We saw hoof prints and these curious paw prints – probably a raccoon? The crossings were frequent enough to keep us guessing what was around each bend, and at least once we crossed and immediately crossed again. I guess it made sense when the railroad track was being laid here by the logging folks. At long last a bridge appeared and the trail became a wide road bed. From this point the walking became dull and I began to check my watch to estimate our timing. We had made an ambitious plan to drop our packs at Campsite 83, hike out to Bone Valley and back, and then Judy had another .6 miles to go down Hazel Creek to the intersection with Jenkins Ridge Trail – and .6 miles back to Campsite 83.

A missed opportunity today: we hesitated at an unmarked intersection and chose to take the lesser path for a short distance to see where it led. Around the first bend we saw the “no horses” symbol, a horse silhouette inside a red circle with a red line across it, which indicates that the trail led to a cemetery. We walked a little bit farther, but then decided to abandon the trail because of the miles we had yet to go. Cemeteries can be as close as .2 miles or farther than a mile up a side trail and we had no idea about this one. Neither of us had read up on the trail description before the hike – later the “brown book” told me that this was probably the Walker cemetery, a half-mile in.

Hazel Creek Trail is steeped in history, homesteads, cemeteries and artifacts of bygone residents. Judy and I resolved to return to Hazel Creek on a multi-day trip for the sole purpose of investigating the phantom communities. I felt a little ashamed to be bypassing it all for the sake of miles. But still…

We arrived at Campsite 83 at the intersection of the Hazel Creek and Bone Valley Trails. Knowing that Bone Valley had 5 creek crossings (meaning 10 for the out-and-back), we kept the Crocs on, grabbed our water bottles (I also took my headlamp because ya nevah know), hung our backpacks on the bear cables, and practically flew up Bone Valley. The trail is quite flat and the water crossings were much more robust than I remem- bered. At the trail’s end we checked out the Hall cabin, but we skipped the cemetery that is a steep half-mile up the mountain behind the cabin.

We made it back to Campsite 83 in record time, and I gave Judy my headlamp so she could continue on to tag up with Jenkins Ridge. Starting to feel the chill of the fading day, I put on my “warm fuzzies” (thermal shirt and pants) and dry socks and my boots. By the time my tent was up and my nesting was complete, Judy was back. She set up her camp and we cooked and ate a hot supper and enjoyed our hot tea. We noticed that other campers were set up at the other end of this enormous site (Campsite 83 is a horse campsite) but no signs of life. Well, as we were heading for bed, headlamps came bobbing along. Guess they had a long day somewhere as well.

 Total miles for me today: 19. Total miles for Judy: 20.6. Welcome back to the Smokies!  

But indeed, it is not so much for its beautythat the forest makes a claim upon men's hearts, as for that subtle something,that quality of the air, that emanates fromthe old trees, that so wonderfully changesand renews a weary spirit.  ~Robert Louis Stevenson