Friday, April 30, 2010

Up And Over Woods Mountain On The MST

MST – Day 18 - 4/11/10 - Woods Mountain - 13 miles

Today was my birthday and what better way to spend it than hiking? My last two birthdays were commemorated by beginning and ending my Smokies 900 Challenge and today I had the opportunity to join with some of the same friends for a third time – sounds like a tradition. Don Gardner was leading a CMC hike on a challenging section of the Mountains-To-Sea Trail. Danny Bernstein and I decided to tag along and my husband Jim was in on the plan too.

Hike leader Don - wouldn't you follow the flag of your country up a mountain?

This hike was on a Sunday, and the day before I had hiked with the Girl Scouts at South Mountains State Park. Jim also had a big bike ride on Saturday, joining in the Tour de Lure originating in Marion,NC. We met in Marion late Saturday afternoon following our separate adventures, discovering the Jack Frost Dairy Bar on Sugar Hill Road, possibly the best soft ice cream I have ever had in my life (note: closed on Sundays!)

 We stayed overnight at the Skyline Village Inn up on the Blue Ridge Parkway – an adventure in itself. The Inn is a 1950’s style motel (“welcome bikers”) with some refurbishing completed, a work still in progress. After dinner and a sample of the live entertainment, we retreated to our room and the balcony overlooking the valley – after all, that’s what we were paying for. (I realized the next day that we were also looking at the big ol' mountain we would be climbing.) I was a little worried that the bikers might be partying late, but bikers are older now and they need their sleep too. We didn’t hear a peep out of them.

We met the CMC hikers early on Sunday morning and Danny presented me with a delicious birthday cake. After our pre-hike snack we made the lengthy shuttle. This section stretches between Highway 80 where it meets the BRP and Highway 221 – no bailout points, boys and girls.

And the magic works every single time – it felt really exhilarating to be out on the trail again.

Today’s group was comprised of experienced strong hikers and I knew I couldn’t whine on this hike (are you reading this, Jeff and Mike?) Right out of the gate the blowdowns and tree damage were horrendous, even though at least one group had been through to scout the hike and did some preliminary cutting along the way. There was nothing we couldn’t get around, but it was tough going at times with lots of scratches and scrapes.

Make no mistake – even with a clear trail this is a tough section of the MST. In fact, the brutal uphill to the top of Woods Mountain was reminiscent of the Green Mountain Trail in Pisgah. What is a switchback? But the ridge was really too narrow for anything but a straight climb and it was never-ending. Molasses flowing uphill would have passed me and I stopped multiple times to gasp and study the flowers (not many). At the top (also about the halfway mark) we took the side trail east to the site of the former Woods Mountain Lookout Tower. The only remnants are the four concrete base corners and an old metal commode (no takers today). Here we enjoyed lounging and lunching in a spot that few have seen.

 Of course, what goes up…must crunch knees going down, right? From the tower location we plunged down Betsy Ridge. This portion of the trail alternated between narrow paths and old wide forest roads and conditions ranged from very clear to a hot mess. For a while I hiked with CMC member Carroll Koepplinger, 80 years young, who regaled me with stories of his annual month-long hikes in Spain, France and Switzerland. I had not met Carroll before and have no reason to believe he is not truthful…but some of his stories were eyepoppers! An absolute delight. BTW, soon Carroll and his cohorts are off on another adventure to hike the Jakobsweg in Switzerland.

At lower elevation some flowers were struggling to come out, including these beautiful patches of crested dwarf iris. The last couple of miles were flat and uneventful except for two creek crossings that called for dancing across the water. The MST popped out at Woodlawn Park on US Highway 221 and not a moment too soon, considering I had a 2-hour drive ahead of me. I was one tired birthday girl, ready to say hello to my pillow.  

It's fun to have fun, but you have to know how. ~Dr. Seuss

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Girl Scouts at South Mountains State Park

Girl Scout Dayhiking Group – 4/10/10 – South Mountains State Park – 7 Miles

South Mountains State Park is one of my favorite places to introduce to novice hikers. Only 1.5 hours from my home in Charlotte, it’s the closest “real” mountains for us flatlanders. It’s off the beaten path and a few miles of rural roads, but well worth the trip. And there are several places to gorge on ice cream at the end of a fun hike.

On this day our group consisted of six teenage girls and four adults, including me. The sky was a marvelous blue, no clouds, and the trees were just beginning to leaf out in pale spring green. After checking on everyone’s water supply and 10 essentials (not everybody is 100% with these yet but we are improving) we started out on the High Shoals Falls Loop. The water was robust after a wet winter and the cascades were gushing as we crossed the creek on bridges. The girls continually stopped to play on the boulders and we had to coax them to get back on the trail. Ultimately, though, they had the right idea to just stop and enjoy where they were at the moment rather than chasing a path through the woods…but this is a hiking group, after all.

High Shoals Falls

We continued climbing to the top of the falls and crossed the creek on another bridge. Here we took a snack break, adults on benches and girls down by the water’s edge. Then we completed the loop back, not the most scenic trail on earth, but we did scope out a few yellow and purple violets peeking out. Back on the main trail, we ate lunch at picnic tables.

Next we checked water levels and, as I suspected, some did not have enough, so the group had to backtrack to the bathrooms for water and a potty break. The girls are resistant to the idea of peeing outside, and in a state park on a Saturday I can see their concern for privacy. Note to Sharon: next time out I need to talk about this some more.

The girls were not enthusiastic about my planned second hike up to Chestnut Knob Overlook and during lunch had studied the map and made an alternate plan on an easy trail. They said they were “tired”, which I translated to be “bored”. I proposed that we go part way up Chestnut Knob and then reassess. The first section is .7 miles and extremely steep, so if they were tired then it would show.

Well, four girls sprinted ahead, leaving the four adults and two of the girls in the dust. The two left behind were understandably put out by this. When we all paused at the next intersection I explained that we should have a plan for splitting up so that everyone knows what to expect, that it’s not a good feeling to be left behind if you haven’t discussed a slower paced group and a faster paced group, that a hiker can go slower but can seldom go faster. Another note to Sharon: keep reiterating trail and group etiquette.

At the waterfall overlook we took another break and decided to split into two groups. Some of the jackrabbit girls and one adult opted for going back to the parking area and playing in the creek. One jackrabbit and the two slower girls (actually, slower is not the right word – they were more reasonably paced) and three adults opted to continue on to Chestnut Knob.

From this point the hike was not as strenuous and a well-paced walk. The overlook gave a stunning 270-degree view and we could see Crowders Mountain, where we had hiked the month before. Only one person was ahead of us and he left when we arrived, so we had the place to ourselves, a rarity. We stayed for over 30 minutes and explored the rocks, discovering little trails that I had never seen and climbing higher than I knew we could. The girls were very happy with their decision to continue on and felt a sense of accomplishment, and the adults were pretty happy, too.

 After a quick walk back down to the parking area, we found the picnic area buzzing with families picnicking and enjoying the park. It’s great to see people outside enjoying their public lands.

The “creek” girls were happy, having played in the water and napped on the rocks. One girl told me that she had never played in a creek like that before – now that’s what I’m talking about, giving girls and adults opportunities to explore the outdoors. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!  

Use what talents you possess: the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best. ~ Henry Van Dyke

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Early Finish

MST – Day 17 - 4/8/10 – Scotts Creek Overlook to Balsam Gap – 5.5 Miles

(Photos today are by Danny Bernstein.)

Rain in today’s forecast. Our best case scenario was to complete this section and then skip ahead to do a couple of miles tagging up with 191 in Asheville where we had already hiked in December. All bets were off if we got drenched on this first leg.

We parked at the Balsam Gap maintenance center again (our end point today) and drove to Scotts Creek Overlook on the Parkway. Across from the pull-off we stepped onto the newest completed trail work, wide, easy strolling. The CMC trail builders have paid much attention to the details of step work and stone work. Blue flagging tape was still hanging around so we did our small bit of cleanup as we walked along. The trail is a gentle downgrade, not much climbing.

Fantastic bridge over Woodfin Creek

Another view

Yet another interesting blowdown on the middle of the trail

After about two miles we emerged from the woods onto Greenspire Drive (according to Scot Ward’s book). I wasn’t quite expecting that. We followed this gravel road down the mountain, passing nice vacation homes tucked into the trees, catching glimpses of palatial homes on the mountainside. Everyone who owns such a home loves it, but everyone else who sees one doesn’t like it spoiling their view.

The predicted rain finally came, first as a sprinkle but then with a vengeance. We tossed on rain jackets and pack covers, yet were cold and wet very quickly. I had left my waterproof gloves in the car (I am a slow learner sometimes) and I put my hiking poles under my arm and thrust my hands deep into my pockets. After a few minutes of this we stopped to add rain pants to the ensemble, put our heads down and kept moving.

The gravel road came out at the BRP and followed it for a short while before the trail slipped back into the woods. Now we were sandwiched between the BRP and a secondary road and felt quite hidden from all traffic in there. The trail meandered and added some distance, but we finally came back to the BRP and crossed the bridge over 74/23 and into the maintenance parking area.

The deluge had slowed, but I was soaked and mentally checked out – no question about skipping the other section we had contemplated. On the way back up to Scotts Creek Overlook to retrieve the second car, we stopped at the Lyn Lowry Overlook to see the Woodfin Cascade, something I had never taken the time to check out before. (The thin white ribbon in the middle left of the photo does not convey how powerful this cascade looks in real life.) Wispy strands of moisture floated between the peaks.

From there I made my way home. I had two nights and one day to unpack, do laundry, buy a camera, and turn things around before heading back out for the weekend. More MST on the agenda!

Anyone who says sunshine brings happiness has never danced in the rain. ~Author Unknown

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Making Mistakes

MST – Day 16 – Balsam Gap to Old Bald – 11.1 Miles

(Photos from today are by Danny Bernstein.)

Nice day, early start, on the trail by 7:50 a.m.. We parked at the spot we scouted the day before, the Balsam Gap Maintenance Center where the BRP crosses Highway 74/23.

Wildflowers began very quickly with yellow violets and Danny exclaimed at the first sighting of an unopened bloodroot. We thought flowers would be sparse as we gained elevation, but on the east-facing slopes was a profusion of spring beauties, along with squirrel corn, purple violets, hepatica, more bloodroot (some fully opened), trout lilly, cut-leaf toothwort and trailing arbutus. We saw emerging foliage for mayapple and even trillium (not sure what type). Very exciting (and time-consuming) taking many photos as the flowers increased.

Hiking was a gradual and steady uphill with the ribbon of BRP far below on the left. We had a bit of trouble keeping track of where we were “on the ground” with our combination of Scott Ward’s and Walt Weber’s books. Finally we realized we were moving slowly and blamed it on the wildflowers. It was great weather and we had all day.

We finally placed ourselves by Scot’s line descriptions when we climbed very steeply up and over the Parkway’s Pinnacle Tunnel. There were no more white blazes after this so we concluded that “this must be the trail.” After about 10 minutes of descent I stopped to put on sunscreen…and realized that my camera had fallen out of its case that is clipped to my pack’s waist strap. Thus began a series of poor decisions on my part.

Without giving it much thought, I dropped my pack, told Danny I was going to “go back” for my camera and I began to backtrack, running through my head where it could have slipped out. My record for cameras is not great (I’ve broken one, lost one) so I am now fairly consistent in touching the case to insure that it is still with me. So how far back could it be? Well…the real question is how far is too far to backtrack? It’s an expensive camera versus a little bit of my time. I walked back down the Pinnacle Tunnel stretch – no camera. Then I walked back to a serious blowdown that we had navigated, thinking that it had slipped out while I was bending and climbing – no camera. I continued on back to the last place that I knew I had seen it, which was a snack break – no camera. It was gone for good.

Then I looked at my watch and realized how much time had gone by – perhaps 20 minutes of downhill backtracking was going to equal 30 minutes of traversing the same ground for the third time now. I was carrying no water, no food, no nothing. As I hurried up the trail I guessed that Danny would probably be coming for me at some point…and she did meet me about 5 minutes from where I had left her. Fortunately she was at the concerned stage, not yet at the angry stage. The list of mistakes I made as an experienced hiker: walked away without checking the time, didn’t take my pack or even a bottle of water, made no plan for turnaround time. Not hard to see how an inexperienced hiker can get into trouble. Danny did take time to think before she decided to come after me – you can read her story about the day here.

Thus I added a couple of miles to my day and wore myself out with the hustling back and forth. I will always remember that mile of the MST!

 From that point the hike stretched out and I had a hard time resurrecting my enthusiasm of the day before. But looking back at Danny’s photos, I am reminded that the woods are beautiful even if you are distracted.

Cimbing up and up

A very gnarly resident of the forest

Something yummy must have been living in this tree before an ambitious woodpecker got to it

At the Grassy Ridge Overlook the trail intersects with pavement and we took a well-deserved sit-down snack break. Two cyclists were also there, trying to set up a timed photo, and I offered my services. They reciprocated with this photo of Danny and me, undaunted and ready to press on.

Long ending to this day. It took nearly 8 hours to complete the 11-mile section (plus my 2-mile backtracking. But even the last mile afforded knock-out views and interesting obstacles and twisted trees.

I can see for miles and miles and miles

Frequent blowdowns - all in a day's walk after the harsh winter

Be sure to duck your head

Mountain sculpture - Danny wanted this for her front yard

However, I was indeed relieved to see the orange bandanna we had placed the previous day to signal the end of this section.

Reward: dinner at Soul Infusion in Sylva, NC, a truly unique place. We shared a pot of blood orange tea while enjoying the eclectic surroundings and chatted with the owner. Following that we stopped in at the City Lights Bookstore. Sylva is a great little town, lots of interesting restaurants and shops, seems like a nice place to live. ‘Night!  

We may never pass this way again ~ Seals & Crofts (unless you're looking for a camera...)

Monday, April 19, 2010

I Can See The Smokies From Here!

MST – Day 15 – 4/6/10 – Blue Ridge Parkway: Plott Balsam Overlook to Scott Creek Overlook – 9.8 Miles 

(Note: All photos for this day are by Danny Bernstein.)

Can I get an amen from the faithful? The Blue Ridge Parkway is open! Danny and I had a Plan A and a Plan B for our next MST segment, but we went for Plan C with the opening of the western- most part of the Parkway. So GREAT to be back in the western NC mountains!

We picked up where we left off back in November at the Plott Balsam Overlook. Today was all road walking, but welcome because there were no dogs and very little traffic, plus those unparalleled mountain views. The skies were blue, the temps were warm, and I thought I would burst with the joyful feeling of being outside again. Thank you, God, for giving me the health and strength to walk and walk and walk.

The first two miles down to Soco Gap went by in a blink. Debris on the roadside hinted at the tree damage from the severe winter and the amount of human effort that was expended to clear the Parkway. The following days as the trail wound through the woods would bring many more reminders of how Mother Nature does her pruning.

Packs are ready for the road

From Soco Gap we ascended up, up, up to Waterrock Knob. A fellow on a bike passed us going up very slowly, making a monumental effort. Later he whizzed by us on his return down to Soco Gap – the reward for all that work. Every cyclist reminds me of my husband’s epic BRP ride last year.

 Did I say the temps were warm? Try hot, hot, hot on the road with no tree canopy for protection. Soon down to shorts and a tee shirt, and the backs of my knees got badly sunburned, as well as my forearms from the position that I held my hiking poles. I remembered sunscreen for everything else.

At one overlook we talked to a family visiting from Michigan. They asked for directions to waterfalls in the area, but they had a very outdated map of western NC . We directed them to Dupont State Forest but I’m not sure they “got” our instructions. The man made a remark about the harsh winter and “what global warming” and was not amused when we responded that the extremes in weather were indeed evidence of that. Oh well…

We enjoyed lunch in the shade at the intersection with the Waterrock Knob side road, a great spot to wave to motorcyclists, convertibles and other cars passing by. On the search for a discreet bathroom spot, I discovered the unmarked side trail up to Yellow Face, one of the SB6K peaks. So I suppose I will be back here again sometime as I work on that challenge.

One of many great Balsams at this elevation of the Parkway

A great book cover photo, I think

One of many rock slides along the Parkway

We reached our end point by 3:00 p.m. and drove back to the Waterrock Knob VC to check out the scenery. From this parking area you can see Mt. Pisgah to the east and the big peaks of the Smokies to the west (Clingmans Dome, Mt. LeConte, Mt. Guyot) – awesome! I miss the Smokies.

We then spent the next two-plus hours determining tomorrow’s beginning and end points – always better to do this the day before instead of the morning of your hike. Believe me, you sleep much better knowing where your trailhead is! The end point was tough to find because of a map-reading error on our part combined with a genuine error on the map. (We are using Walt Weber’s Trail Profiles and Maps for the mountain sections, along with Scot Ward’s The Thru-Hiker’s Manual.) We eventually found the correct side trail at Old Bald (blue blaze) and left a bandanna tied to a tree at the intersection.

Home away from home was the Sylva Inn. After a nice dinner at Lulu’s, we retreated to our room, dragged out the maps and planned the next couple of hiking venues after we finish with this series. Tired and beddy-bye!

(Read Danny's story about today's hike here.)  

Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. ~Soren Kierkegaard

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Soggy Ending On A High Note

MST – Day 14 - 3/28/10 – Taylor Road to Hanging Rock State Park VC – 10.5 Miles

A half-mile walk on the road this morning took us from our parking area to the Taylor Road Section 4 of the Sauratown Trail. If your storage building falls down, just put another one beside it.

As we walked through Sections 3, 2 and 1 there were a few items of interest:

A victim of the harsh winter - this tree was bent in half by heavy ice and snow

A bit of wasteland - this section had been clear-cut

Vade Mecum Creek

Hunting stand

After crossing into Hanging Rock State Park, we detoured a quarter of a mile to investigate Tory’s Falls, looking invigorating on this chilly morning, and Tory’s Den, a fascinating part of North Carolina’s history. Sign boards in the parking lot detail the story of more than a hundred British Loyalists hiding in this cave during the Revolutionary War. Spoiler: they were found!

 I was surprised that this very accessible waterfall was deserted when we arrived.

 Danny outside Tory's Den

 Danny inside Tory's Den

Hanging Rock State Park is really a jewel of our state park system, one of only two state parks that has cabins for rent. It was built by the CCC between 1935 and 1942 and includes a lake and bathhouse, car camping and 18 miles of hiking trails.

 After Tory’s Den we met our first real elevation challenge for this trip. As we began to climb, the rain began to fall and the previous three days’ efforts caught up with me and I labored up the trail. The payoff at the top was Moore’s Knob firetower…but the view was zilch as the clouds enveloped us. We ate a less-than-adequate lunch under the ledge of the tower and then walked down elaborate stone steps towards our trail terminus. As often happens, the last mile was an exercise in mental endurance. After winding our way through the lakeside parking area, we finally reached the visitor center, where we changed into dry clothes and Danny and I parted ways. The bad weather continued and later that evening there were reports of multiple tornadoes in the central Piedmont area.

So three triumphs for this venture into the Piedmont: another section of the MST completed, another firetower visited (although I need to go again to do it justice) and another NC state park visited. Can you tell I like checking items off my lists?

For a great book on North Carolina's fire towers, look here.

(Read Danny's blog about today's hike here.)

Great things are done when men and mountains meet. ~William Blake

Monday, April 5, 2010

Dog Day Afternoon

MST – Day 13 – 3/27/10 – Mountain View Restaurant to Taylor Road – 15 Miles

Our day began at 8:35 a.m. outside the Mountain View Restaurant, a cool 36 degrees. We walked through Pilot Mountain, a town with a lot of personality (loved their fire hydrant decorating competition). We stopped to chat with three guys outside a restaurant enjoying their morning cup of coffee.

We walked on out of town, completing our last road miles with Pilot Mountain continuing to dominate the horizon, and stopped for a snack. A friendly black dog with no collar slowly inched across the field, checking us out, finally close enough to sniff at Danny’s food, signaling time for us to move on. We finally stepped into the woods on the Sauratown Trail and our first white circle blaze. A hundred yards later we were facing our first stream crossing, Crocs required – the Little Yadkin River.

Sauratown Trail is divided into sections, each one the distance between road points, thus sections are short and pass quickly. The Sauratown Trails Association has an excellent map you can order – but plan ahead. I ordered several weeks in advance and they arrived at my house while I was on the trail. Fortunately Danny had a copy. Our first bit was Section 11, two miles of pleasant wood walking at last.

On Section 10 we picked up a new friend – Heidi, a black-and-tan dog with a bushy curving tail and perky ears. She ran to us as we passed her house, like every other dog we have passed, and her owner called to her from the porch. Heidi ignored him and the owner was not inclined to leave the porch to pursue her. We could hear his calls long after we had passed his property. We turned left onto Mazie’s Lane and Heidi trailed at a distance as we passed cows and donkeys. When we re-entered the woods, Heidi was with us. She followed us for the next eight miles. She never barked once and would not come close enough to be touched, so we could not read her tags. She cavorted through the woods, sometimes running ahead of us, and sometimes she would disappear, only to come racing up from behind at breakneck speed. After the first few episodes I was no longer startled. Heidi splashed in the streams and sniffed at everything. When we took breaks, she waited for us. Danny and I walked about eight miles – Heidi walked about 25. Danny contended that she has been this way before, and indeed she followed the trail well.

Section 9 was hit-or-miss trail signs on an interesting trail, creeks and rhododendrons. At one point I could see six trail signs at once – but most of this trail we hunted long for white markers.

Section 8 was about a mile walking on a gravel road, one car passed us. This looks like a favorite road for trash dumping of objects large and small, couches, toilets, car bumpers, and the everyday stuff of life. You probably don’t notice the trash from the front seat of the car, but it’s hard to miss on foot. Sections 6 and 7 are side trails leading to a large parking area for unloading horses and are not part of the MST.

The Sauratown Trail was very well maintained, thanks to volunteers who have worked hard to overcome the effects of the severe winter. Section 5 still needs work – a bridge is missing (which we fortunately knew from reading their website) and required Crocs again for crossing. This section also has a few blowdowns to contend with. This and the lack of white circles made the trail hard to locate at times.

We popped out on the road at the end of Section 5 and oriented ourselves towards our parking area. Heidi followed us all the way to the car – and then disappeared into the woods and did not return. Now, she had waited patiently for us at every trail break. We had formulated a plan to lure her into Danny’s car and return her to her home – maybe she didn’t want her adventure to be over yet? I felt uneasy just leaving her there, several miles from home. Maybe she knew the way, maybe she didn’t, but after all, she was someone’s pet. So we drove back to the owner’s home to let them know where we had last seen her. No one was home, but the folks next door were very kind and we relayed the info about Heidi’s whereabouts and our adventures of the day.

Moral of the story : Be careful what you profess to dislike on your journey – you may have to live with it. So what’s tomorrow – llamas on the trail? Perhaps we will have a menagerie by the end!

Read Danny's take on our "dog day afternoon" here.

We're so busy watching out for what's just ahead of us that we don't take time to enjoy where we are. ~Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin & Hobbes