Friday, December 11, 2009

All My Trials, Lord

MST Hike – Day Four – 11/5/09 – Beech Gap II Trail/Balsam Mountain Trail/Mount Sterling Ridge Trail/Pretty Hollow Gap Trail/Cataloochee Valley/Rough Fork Trail – 16.4 Miles

Carolyn, my good hiking buddy from Charlotte, joined Danny and me for this overnight backpacking trip to finish up the proposed Smokies section of the Mountains-To-Sea Trail. We all met in Maggie Valley the night before, had a good meal, did our final packing and got a good night’s sleep at cozy Jonathan Creek Inn. Early on this Thursday morning we made good use of a hired shuttle driver to place our cars at the terminus and get dropped off at the beginning of our hike at Beech Gap I Trail. Gazing down at the Straight Fork, I was reminded of that old song: “The river of Jordan is chilly and cold ~ It chills the body, but not the soul ~ All my trials, Lord, soon be over…”

Fortunately, climbing nearly 2,000 feet in 2.5 miles took the chill right off. (Suggested new name for this trail – Beech Gasp!) We looked for the unbridged stream crossing along the way as noted in the “brown book” but ultimately decided it was just a wide wet place on the trail. A trail-relocating blowdown that I had encountered the previous autumn had been reduced to firewood by trail maintainers. At Beech Gap we paused, a very pleasant spot for a break, and then turned left onto Balsam Mountain Trail for a bit more climbing. The sky was blue and leaves were rustling underfoot and the problems of everyday life fell away as we enjoyed the simplicity of putting one foot in front of the other.

At Laurel Gap Shelter we investigated the chain link fencing across the front. Since the last time I saw this I have slept in a few shelters and it now did not seem so inhospitable. In fact, the clearing was large and sunny…and as we stood there soaking up some rays, a couple of backpackers appeared. Seems this was their destination for the night, to hang out, gather firewood and relax. As we continued on our way we met the rest of their party.

   After another .2 miles we left Balsam Mountain Gap Trail and bore right onto Mount Sterling Ridge Trail, following it for nearly 4 miles as it bounced along the ridgeline. This section went quickly, only slowing down for the occasional horizontal wooden advancement impediment.

Pretty Hollow Gap is now a familiar spot where Mount Sterling Ridge, Swallow Fork and Pretty Hollow Gap Trails shake hands. By now I even remember the placement of logs for sitting and eating. We turned right onto Pretty Hollow Gap Trail and began our long descent toward Cataloochee, passing a couple of women dayhiking up to the gap. After a mile the trail edges closer to Pretty Hollow Creek and follows it down, crossing smaller tributaries with charming names such as Onion Bed Branch and Good Spring Branch.

Tributaries and creeks beg to be crossed and we met a few challenges, the most interesting of which involved a wide log with no hand rail. Danny opted for her favorite splash-and-dash method, walking straight through the water. Carolyn took the dare of crossing on the log – the hard part was getting up onto it. Here she is demon- strating the scooching method, but she soon was standing and walking. It’s hard to trust your legs to lift you from a crouching position when you are wearing a loaded backpack.

When it was my turn, I assumed the position on my hands and knees, and suddenly Carolyn said that we had company. I looked around to see a man standing beside me as if he had been there all day. Things got weirder: Danny said, “Hello Joe!” Turns out Joe is a fellow outdoor writer, formerly with a newspaper, now with a terrific website. He was very kind in his treatment of our encounter (click here).

From this point we picked up the pace, hoping to bypass our original campsite destination and press on through Cataloochee Valley. We reached the end of Pretty Hollow Gap at its junction with Cataloochee Road in the Valley. While Carolyn took a stroll to look at the preserved Beech Grove School, Danny and I admired a passing horse parade.

A primary reason why I feel that the MST should be routed through Cataloochee Valley: this area is a jewel in the crown of the park. We walked along the gravel road at dusk in the company of dozens of elk grazing in the fields. The sun sank low and the animals appeared to be right at home.

A lovely lady

Young bulls


Peaceful elk grazing

Carolyn approaching the Caldwell House

With the loss of daylight we also felt the loss of heat and realized we needed to hustle to Campsite 40. We made use of the port-a-potty at the end of the valley and stepped onto Rough Fork Trail. At the Woody House I could not resist my reflection in the fading light.

It took me quite a long time to feel warm in my little tent. I hope the fellows hanging out at Laurel Gap Shelter were warmer at their higher elevation!
In some mysterious way woods have never seemed to me to be static things. In physical terms, I move through them; yet in metaphysical ones, they seem to move through me. ~John Fowles

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