Friday, August 27, 2010

It's Five O'Clock Somewhere

MST – Day 29 – 8-11-10 – Woodlawn Park to Old NC 105 -- 15.4 miles

After a couple of months off for other adventures, Danny and I are back on the Mountains-To-Sea Trail. The next segment on the agenda is advertised as one of the toughest, so we chose to schedule it without any other hiking days. Yes, a great decision, or I would not be here to write about it.

We are getting farther away from Asheville and Danny’s home, so we planned to camp at Lake James State Park the night before to get an early start. When I arrived at Lake James the first thing I saw was the sign at the entrance informing that the gate doesn’t open until 8:00 a.m. I went in search of the park office and Danny was already standing there, asking the same questions I had in mind: Are you sure? Are there any exceptions? Can I talk anyone into opening earlier? The answers are: Yes, no and no. We went to check out our campsite and found that, although I knew it was a walk-in site, it was a looonngg walk, hauling gear to pack up in the morning in at least two trips. Finally Danny suggested we just place the end car and go back to her house for the night so we can be in control of our start time, so that’s what we did.

(Fellow CMC member Jim Reel had shown her the end point for our hike, for which we were very grateful because we would have had some difficulty finding it. It’s on Old 105, the Keistler Highway (gravel road) on the western rim of Linville Gorge.)

We were almost at Danny’s house when she mentioned that she had no air conditioning… so it would be a little like camping after all…

Thus we got our early start from Woodlawn Park, where the tough Woods Mountain hike on my birthday had ended.

The trail starts out innocently enough switching among old forest roads and trails. We were using Scot Ward’s guidebook today, and trail maintenance and blazing was excellent, so navigation was great and we had no questionable moments. I think we are finally getting the “feel” of the trail, too, and recognizing when and
 where to look for blazes and when to trust just a few more yards
around the bend.

 A nice field for camping - but don't

 An absolutely awesome
 bridge built by dedicated trail folks across the North Fork of the Catawba River –  for which we were again very grateful because the river was extremely muddy and very uninviting.

I’m guessing a million snakes, thousands of pirhanas and a few dozen alligators live under that bridge.

 Right after the bridge is the Clinch- field Railroad

The infamous Southern heat and humidity were oppressive even before we started the switchback climb up Bald Knob. Today was the first time in a very long time that I have worried about having sufficient water on a hike. My Camelback holds 3 liters and I had filled it nearly full. The advantage of water bladders is being able to sip as you walk along, but the drawback is not being able to see how much you are consuming. Safety guidelines say to drink anyway rather than rationing water, but it’s hard to do that when you know there are few (any?) water sources and a lot of miles ahead.

The climb definitely whipped my butt. There were several viewpoints at the switchbacks and we stopped to look a couple of times, but eventually we were stopping just to catch our breath and (unsuccessfully) a breeze.

Possible Backpacker Magazine cover girl?

Scot’s notes were a little confusing about the summit. It fit with the mileage on Danny’s GPS but he sometimes leaves out items that I think are noteworthy, so when they are not mentioned I start doubting where I am. I guess you can’t put everything in a guidebook. We concluded we had summitted Bald Knob only after we had also summitted Dobson Knob (which Scot does not name in his notes at all).

The climb up Dobson Knob is straight up at an unbelievable grade – my slightly educated guess is more than 20%. I had recently read an article about the rest step, and while I had heard of it several times before, I had never used it. Going up Dobson Knob I tried it out and I can say that it was fantastic. It slowed me down to the point where my breathing was normal and I did not feel tired when I reached the top. I repeated to myself, “Step, stop, step, stop” and it was a physical and mental lifesaver.

After Dobson Knob we cruised along the ridgetop before descending on a combination of forest roads and trails again. Trail blazes are essential for this section as the changes kept coming. Walking a forest road thinking about what I would like to drink if I ever got off of this trail, one song popped into my head, and Danny and I sang “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” as we tramped along in the heat. If there were other hikers in the area, we may have scared them off.

Some fading summer wildflowers were hanging on (check out this yellow fringed orchid), but the real “bloom” report is that today was mushroom day, every color from bright white to yucky mud. I even saw one that was a grey-purple, but it was not very photogenic. Oranges and yellows were the prettiest.

Today was a new record for spiderwebs, hundreds of them, and we often came eyeball to eyeball with the architects. Ahhh, how I love hiking in the dead of winter…

 Part of our route overlapped for a mile-and-a-half on the Over- mountain Victory Trail. Can you see thousands of soldiers coming up the road?

The last .8 miles was on the Kiestler Highway, gravel and dust and sun burning the back of my neck. My forearms were aching, I assumed from the extreme temps and swelling from fluid retention and possibly from using poles after nearly a month off, but later I wondered if it had something to do with kayaking a few days earlier and helping my daughter move to a new apartment. No matter what the reason, my arms were sore for several days. We ended the hike looking over the western edge down into Linville Gorge.

The good part about this trail section? Very well maintained, very well blazed…and we are past it. Read

Danny's tale of the day here.  

You will never stub your toe standing still. The faster you go, the more chance there is of stubbing your toe, but the more chance you have of getting somewhere. ~Charles Kettering

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Crossing Abrams Creek

Smokies Trip - Abrams Creek Campground Base – 7/13/10 – Rabbit Creek Trail/Hannah Mountain Trail/Abrams Falls Trail – 11.2 Miles 

 Our original loop plan started from Abrams Creek Campground, but we could cut off 5.4 miles if we started from Cades Cove, plus Judy could pick up the one-mile Wet Bottom Trail. So we broke camp very early (the luxury of throwing wet tents in the car without careful packing) and drove to Cades Cove. Repaved with federal stimulus money for the first time in 40 years, the Cades Cove loop road was heavenly, no potholes or cracked pavement, more pulloffs – and people were actually using them (!)…at least for this morning as we sped toward the trailhead.

Judy hopped out to hike the Wet Bottom Trail. I drove on to the Abrams Falls parking lot and saw an astonishing sight – an empty parking lot. Was there a rock slide that closed Laurel Creek Road? Was there an all-points-bulletin manhunt that we missed? A cholera epidemic?

No, it was just early.

Bridge over Abrams Creek where we would end our hike

Judy arrived lickety split and made a decision – she wanted to hike the loop clockwise beginning with Rabbit Creek rather than counterclockwise beginning with Abrams Falls. It was her hike, plus I had done it the other way on my last go-round, so she’s the boss. It meant we missed the chance to see Abrams Falls without the crowds, but hey, any way you hike in the Smokies is a good hike, right?

It also meant that we started out immediately wading Rabbit Creek – wet boots again. BUT… it wasn’t raining. Turned out the clockwise route was a good one, because Rabbit Creek Trail in this direction is a couple of good climbs and then coasts down to Campsite 15 – good to get the climbs over with in the a.m.

At Campsite 15 there was evidence someone left in a hurry, with rope and water bottles on the ground and a large stuff sack hanging from the bear cables. We ate a snack while discussing the possible contents of the hanging bag – hacked up hiker body parts? We left it where it was and Judy reported it at the end of the day.

Hannah Mountain Trail is voted the easiest trail in the Smokies by Judy and me. I didn’t even use my hiking poles, just toted them in one hand. The “brown book” says, “The steepest part…is the last 100 yards where it drops sharply to Abrams Creek. To cross requires wading – extremely hazardous in high water.”

Noting the big rocks and the deep pools, Judy and I scouted Abrams Creek for quite a while before putting our feet in. We traded cameras and crossed one at a time to document triumph or tragedy. All the rocks are very slippery and on the far side are ledges of rock that run parallel to the bank and are covered with moss – a foot underwater. I made it safely across – Judy too – while a young fellow watched us from the far side. I tried to give him some pointers, but his English was limited, and I guess watching us was sufficient. He did take my advice and found a stick to use for balance – he made it across safely, too. Good, because I was not brave enough to rescue anybody.

Flower of the day - coreopsis

Onward to Abrams Falls and the mass of humanity. At least no one was jumping from the rocks into the pool today. Abrams Falls is a 5-mile round trip from the main parking area and extremely popular. We didn’t stay too long. On the hike out we passed dozens of people still hiking in, some prepared, some not. One young family all had backpacks, even the three-year-old, and I congratulated the parents on being prepared and teaching their child about responsibility in the outdoors. Others bopped along in flip-flops on the way to the falls, some with already-empty one-liter water bottles. Not even halfway there and the water is almost gone. And were they picking up on the fact that they were hiking down and would have to hike back UP?

Body language of kids on the trail – little ones stopping to look at every insect, young ones skipping ahead, teenagers slumping along bored, trying to get a signal for texting. We blew past them all as we toted up the hours of travel ahead, the drive out of the Cove, back to Judy’s house, and then my two hours home to Charlotte. Leaving Cades Cove was not as breezy as our arrival - no more nice guys at the pulloffs, just people on the lookout for turkeys and deer (no bears). Today’s hike concluded a huge section of the Park for Judy and she is close to finishing her Smokies 900.

Ready to go again!  

The other day a man asked me what I thought was the best time of life. "Why," I answered without a thought, "now." ~David Grayson

Monday, August 23, 2010

So Good To Be Back Again

Smokies Trip - Abrams Creek Campground Base – 7/12/10 – Cooper Road Trail/Goldmine Trail/Cane Creek Trail/Cooper Road Trail/Hatcher Mountain Trail/Little Bottoms Trail/Cooper Road Trail back to Campground – 16.8 miles

What took me so long to come back here??? There is just no place like the Smokies.

 My hiking friend Judy accompanied me for many miles during my Smokies 900 year and has continued to fill in her own Smokies 900 map since then. I had promised to return the favor and join her on a few expeditions, the most recent being September 2009. Time to go again! Judy needed two good loops to complete the far western reaches of GSMP. When I hiked these trails it was in the chilly, wet, drab brown month of February, so I was happy to go again in a different season.

No rain in my part of North Carolina for two months, but it was indeed raining as we left Judy’s house at 6:30 a.m. and it continued off and on for the three-hour drive to Abrams Creek Campground. The closer we got to the Smokies, the harder it rained. Time to test that mental fortitude. After all, I encourage other people not to let the rain cancel a hike…

I had complicated the logistics planning when I read online that the Foothills Parkway would be closed for construction, so we headed for Abrams Creek by way of Happy Valley Road (found out later that I was wrong about the road closing). This was my first stay at Abrams Creek Campground. It is quite small, 16 sites, first-come-first-served. If there were no sites available we planned to continue on to the much larger Look Rock Campground. But it was a Monday morning and the campground was only about half full with people stretching out the weekend, so we chose a campsite, signed in and parked the car.

Our hike started on the Cooper Road Trail, historically significant as a lifeline between Cades Cove and Maryville and points beyond for livestock and produce going out and for mail delivery and other goods coming in. Today it is still a wide roadbed accessible to Park Service vehicles. I have to confess, it is not an exciting walk but imagining its history helps jazz it up. After 2.6 miles we reached Gold Mine Gap and paused for a snack. The rain was still spitting and drizzling.

Turning left, we walked up Gold MineTrail, nicer than last time, greener and no blowdowns to crawl over. It’s a quick .8 miles up, but on the way back down, the heavens opened and every drop of moisture since time began poured down. Judy put on her rain packa but I thought I’d tough it out – bad decision. I was absolutely drenched. My boots felt as though I were wading through knee-deep water. The storm passed overhead, with brisk winds and close-by lighting, so we kept moving.

Back at Gold Mine Gap I put on my rain jacket and we began the out-and-back walk down Cane Creek Trail, rather nondescript except for the Buchanan cemetery, recently decorated with new flowers. There were four creek crossings that were challenging and that I did not remember; they probably were not noteworthy when I hiked here before. But today even retracing our steps back up the trail, the water levels were noticeably increasing.
Another hiker on the trail

We stopped for lunch near Campsite #2, sitting on a log across the trail from the campsite itself. Judy remarked that the campsite was not very inspiring, and we laughed that we were so contemptuous of it that we wouldn’t even eat lunch there. Having passed by every backcountry site in the Smokies, I guess we have become very discerning in our criteria for camping.

The next left turn took us back onto Cooper Road Trail for our last segment of this rather dull road. At least today’s route was a combination of several short trail sections, which makes the hike feel shorter. Somewhere along this bit we noticed that the rain had abated and we removed rain gear and enjoyed a little sunshine the rest of the day. At the next intersection we turned right onto Hatcher Mountain Trail, no longer wide like Cooper Road.

Hatcher Mountain blew by like a breeze, 2.8 miles of slight downhill. At the junction with Little Bottoms Trail it’s a little confusing – does Abrams Falls Trail come all the way here? Does Hatcher Mountain Trail continue on down to the left? Trail signs and maps do not give mileage, but we walked perhaps a quarter-mile down to where the Abrams Falls Trail meets the creek and becomes Hannah Mountain Trail to check out what the water level looked like – tomorrow we would be crossing here, what I considered the second hardest crossing I did during my Smokies 900 (the first, of course, will always be the infamous Hazel Creek adventure.” (P.S. Consulted the brown book later – looks like it is Hatcher Mountain and it’s .2 miles)

Then we climbed back up to the junction and continued on Little Bottoms Trail, which I consider the most interesting part of this hike. It is a wild little manway, ungraded, careening up and down and quite narrow in places. It passes Campsite 17, which looks huge (although not a horse camp) and is probably quite popular but could accommodate several groups without getting on each other’s nerves. This area is the former site of the Anderson family farm and the namesake for the trail as the only bottomland suitable for farming along this stretch of Abrams Creek. Next the trail goes right down to the creek’s edge and follows it for a while before turning sharply right and upwards, over the shoulder of the mountain and down to meet Cooper Road Trail once again, turning left and retracing the final .9 miles back to the campground.

After 17 miles of sloshing, we removed wet boots and put on Crocs to wade into Abrams Creek at our campsite. The water felt wonderful, could have even been a few degrees colder and made us happy. A small rock dam has been built to create a wide, knee-deep pool. Fellow campers were floating and playing in the water, families with children. I met one woman who said she was brought here regularly as a child and now she brings her own children. That’s what I’m talking about that so many kids are missing out on these days. (This woman also informed us that the Foothills Parkway was not closed, so we drove to check it out and then made alternate plans for tomorrow’s hike.)

Judy is ready for some spa time

At suppertime I screwed my pocket rocket stove into a fuel canister from my camping box and it began to hiss. I tossed it onto the ground and we listened to the hiss for a while and watched frost form on the stove. Fortunately, Judy also had her Jetboil stove so we were still able to heat water. The rain was gone and the air was not exactly cool, but the temperature was dropping. Very relaxing to sit in canvas chairs and watch the evening fade.

At the bathhouse I saw the little girls who had been riding their bikes around camp. They left as I was brushing my teeth and I heard them squealing outside. When I looked out, they had their daddy there with a big stick, exclaiming that they had seen a big snake. With each sentence the snake got larger and scarier, but dad couldn’t find it.

Judy and I carried our chairs down to the river’s edge to watch the water roll on. A heron gracefully swooped down in the dusk and began fishing. I can tell that these eyes are getting old because it was hard to track the heron in the dwindling light. We walked one more time to the bathhouse without using a flashlight, and as I was describing to Judy the girls’ encounter with the snake, a large branch on the paved walkway began to wiggle. I switched on my headlamp and we watched a dignified rattlesnake slither off into the brush. My first snake sighting in the Smokies and it was at the campground bathhouse.

 I do love sleeping in a tent, with the creek gurgling and the cicadas making a racket. Unfortunately, the camping neighbors tuned up the old guitar to sing a few tunes. After 11:00 p.m. Judy politely asked them to call it a night. That made it easier to hear the thunderstorm that rolled in around 2:00 a.m. But I was snug and dry.
And I am marking my second Smokies 900 map.

A rainy day is the perfect time for a walk in the woods. ~Rachel Carson

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Look Before You Duck

MST – Day 28 – 6/24/10 – Black Mountain Campground to Hwy 80 – 7.8 miles

Our easiest start yet with zero commute time, walking out of the campground. Within the first mile we passed an area of old building founda- tions. A woman camping there (actually looked like she lived out of her car) explained that it was the site of the first fish hatchery in NC built by the CCC. According to her, the buildings we were impressed with were the workers’ bathrooms.

A turn left took us into the woods and we began a steady, nicely switchbacked climb up to the Parkway. We were smitten with this trail, having lowered our expecta- tions now that we were out of the CMC’s trail mainte- nance jurisdiction. Then we hit a bad patch – a half-mile of precarious bushwhacking through numerous downed trees obliterating the trail. Then we were all clear again. Apparently two maintenance crews (or the same crew coming from each end?) had worked up to a certain point and then called it off for the bigger equipment. One of the blowdowns looks to me like it needs a reroute and it’s on a steep slope. But all in all, a good section of trail.

Steps were cut in this tree trunk with a hatchet

Impressive fungus

Highlight of the day: Pipsissewa, a bloom I have only seen in flower ID books.

Lowlight of the day: while leaning forward to duck under a tree branch, I received a full spiderweb facial (pause for yucky stomach lurch).

We crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway a couple of times, and on one occasion got a little confounded and could not find the trail on the other side. The written instructions from Scot Ward’s book were a bit ambiguous so we interpreted that we should walk on the road for a half-mile to the Singecat Ridge Overlook, where we knew the trail picked up again. But at the overlook we looked backwards and saw the trail we had missed. Danny was okay with our road walk because the trail truly was lost to us at that point, but I had a nagging feeling that since we had found the trail we should go back and walk it. But can we do this every time? We will probably run into this problem again, especially on the road. I let it go for now…but I may go back and walk that section sometime when I’m close to it again.

Danny is chillin' before the long drive home - read her story of the day here.

We finished our short section today around 11:00 a.m. Our ending point at Hwy 80 connected us to the Woods Mountain section that we had done with CMC on my birthday. Now I have completed nearly 330 miles of the MST – next up, approaching the wild and crazy Linville Gorge.  

There's never enough time to do all the nothing you want. ~Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Lofty Summit and a Toe Dip

MST Hike – Day 27 – 6-23-10 – Hwy 128 to Black Mountain Campground – 11.4 Miles

Danny and I met and set up camp at Black Mountain Campground the night before our Mount Mitchell summit day. Despite the heat wave in the eastern half of North Carolina and all along the East Coast, the campground was chillin’ and I needed my lightweight fleece as we sat around after supper. One of life’s greatest pleasures is sleeping outside in 50’s temps.

After a short commute and an early start time, our day began with an incredible level walk following an old road bed to the site of Camp Alice (see Danny’s blog for history lesson). St. John's wort was abundant, as were purple fringed orchids, though none as large as those we saw at Lunch Rocks the last time out. Still, orchids along the trail are not something you see every day (or for me, even every year).

Signage within Mt Mitchell State Park is terrific, including trail maps and explanations. If you’d like to try a hike here, the website has a downloadable map. I always recommend planning your hike route before you go.

After Camp Alice, the steep climb up to the Mt Mitchell summit begins with no apologies – no messing around here. The trail has square blue blazes to correspond to the park map as well as white MST circles.

At the upper trailhead, we prioritized and turned left to the snack bar, where Danny had hot tea (how can she drink hot tea on such a hot day?) and I rewarded myself with a Snickers bar. I probably could have eaten ten of them! Only then did we proceed further up the trail to the lookout tower for Mt Mitchell, the highest mountain east of the Mississippi at 6,684 feet – a milestone for many reasons. And not surprisingly, cloud cover hid the views.

All downhill from here, more than six miles, and you will never convince me to hike this route in reverse when I know that I can just drive to the top. A short story: Years ago our family planned a camping trip for my son’s birthday (he was an avid Boy Scout at the time). The scheme was to camp at Black Mountain Campground on Friday night, cook a fancy dinner, and hike up to the Mt Mitchell summit on Saturday. Well…it was a dark and very stormy night, we had difficulty finding the campground, someone forgot the tent stakes (had to tie the corners out with big rocks), but we still cooked the elaborate Dutch oven dinner (complete with Black Forest cake at midnight – do I get my crown in Mom heaven or what??). The tent's rain fly was inadequate and it rained all night and we got soggy. The next morning we woke to blue skies, packed up and drove to the summit of Mt Mitchell and had a lovely lunch.

On the downward trek we passed a large camping area with several trail intersections but kept holding out for Higgins Bald to have a lunch break. It took a bit longer than expected to reach this point. Remember, downhill does not mean faster – on the contrary, it often means slowing down to step more carefully and to lessen the impact on the knees. We finally stopped at a random shady area to eat, and then about 100 feet down the trail we found the spot we had originally anticipated. Note to self: eat when you’re hungry and you can still stop at cool spots just for a rest.

A backpacker on the trail

A classic photo with Danny on the trail

Shiny chips of mica littered the
 ground on the way down

Our trail ended as we walked into the campground, where we donned water shoes and headed for the South Toe River….. aaahhh…..
But the fun wasn’t totally over. We had both brought something simple to heat up for supper, but the restaurant at Mt Mitchell was open until 8:00 p.m. so…part of our mission is to experience the local color, right? Pass the cornbread, please!  

Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day. ~Winnie the Pooh