Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Finishing the SB6K Challenge

Black Mountain Crest Trail – Final SB6K Hike – 7-22-12 – 12 Miles

Yes, just two days after I retrieved my car from the Honda dealership (they replaced the ignition cylinder) I was ready to go hiking again.  And this time it’s a big one:  my final SB6K hike.  

The list has been whittled down to just three peaks on the Black Mountain Crest Trail going north from Mount Mitchell – Mount Craig, Balsam Cone and Potato Hill.  This is an out-and-back hike, so we’ll go over every mountain twice.  I’ve already summited Mt. Mitchell several times and I’ve also tagged the three outer SB6K peaks on a strenuous day about a year ago.  I’ve left this particular hike until last because the views are dramatic and because I wanted Jim to accompany me.  

Typical of summer weather patterns in the NC mountains, it was sunny at our house and grew increasingly cloudy and drizzly as we approached the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Our view of the Black Mountain Crest Trail from the Parkway was not cheerful.  Would we be in the fog all day?
Nothing to do but to do it.  The trail begins from the picnic area below the main parking area, with impressive trail work and stone steps. 

I was thrilled to see these pink turtleheads, blooming profusely everywhere.

The first mountain to the north is Mount Craig, where the trail passes through a fragile area and is clearly designated to keep hikers on track. 

Clouds were fascinating, boiling up and shifting around all day

Summit photo at Mount Craig – a total whiteout behind me

A plaque in case you didn’t know – I wish every summit had these

In between the three SB6K peaks there are other mountains.  The next peak that Jim and I passed over was Mount Tom, also with an informative plaque.  “Found the body of” refers to Elisha Mitchell, the man for whom Mount Mitchell is named and who fell to his death at nearby Mitchell Falls.  Elisha is buried at the summit of Mount Mitchell.

Next the trail goes over the top of Balsam Cone’s narrow ridge, but the summit is not marked, so I stepped up onto every rock I could find to assure that I hit the summit.  Funny, Jim could stand right next to it and not worry about tagging it.  Maybe if there was a bike on top of it…

Michaux saxifrage was also abundant along the trail, hard to photograph, but I kept trying.  I really love the delicate laciness of this flower and its foliage.

Indian pipe, always love to see this.

The Black Crest Trail does not mess around, going straight up and down the peaks with no thought of switchbacks or avoiding obstacles.  Occasional ropes are helpful, especially on a very wet day. 

Another mountain between the SB6K’s, Cattail Peak coming up next.

Don’t look behind you, it’s a little ominous

Cattail Peak has a big sign saying it’s the summit when it’s really not.  Using my skills gained in my off-trail seminar with Jeff and his trusty directions that it’s “over there about a quarter-mile,” Jim and I bushwhacked and actually found the benchmark!  I felt as triumphant at this accomplishment as I did finishing the whole hike today.

Acting like I know what I’m talking about, pointing out the high peak of Balsam Cone.  This photo was taken from near the summit of Potato Hill.  At this point I had officially completed all of the SB6K peaks!  But I still had to go back over all five peaks from today to get to the car.

Since we were here and I might want to someday say I had hiked all the connecting trails in the Black Mountains, Jim and I scurried downhill to Deep Gap, where my Black Mountains hike last summer had passed through. 

We were rewarded for our effort with these spectacular Turk’s cap lilies

Deep Gap is a great lunch stop.  As Jim pulled out his sandwich, we heard the unmistakable rumble of thunder.  Yikes!  Chew faster!  We were aware that it would take several hours to go back over all the bumps and the ridge line is not the place to be during a thunderstorm, so we kept a close eye on the sky and were prepared to hunker down and get really wet.  

Something with serious claws was here

Moving so fast I am just a blur

We got caught in about 15 minutes of light rain, nothing dangerous, and were able to enjoy the rest of the hike back.  A pause for reflection back at Mount Craig.

Pink turtleheads galore!

“The End”

So I’ve touched the summits of 40 peaks above 6,000 feet in the Southern Appalachian Mountains.  Some of them I will see again, some I am sure will only be revisited in my memories and photographs.  It’s a worthy challenge that took me to many places I would not otherwise have ventured, and I feel enriched and humbled by the experience. 

“There are days when I question my sanity, but I’ve never had a moment in the mountains when I wished I was at home watching football.” ~Rick Shortt

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Does This Tow Truck Stop At Waffle House?

Yellow Face & Blackrock Mountain – SB6K - 7/16/12 – 6 Miles

Like the folks aboard the S.S. Minnow, I started out for a three-hour tour – or in my case, a three-hour hike.  After our family’s beach vacation I didn’t have any work scheduled for a few days, so I made a last-minute decision to further whittle down my SB6K list and hike to Yellow Face near Waterrock Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  With the SB6K guidelines of a minimum five-mile hike, I needed to hike beyond Yellow Face and over to Blackrock Mountain.  It’s not really on a trail map, but Jeff had given me all his information and it seemed like a simple enough venture, just a long drive there and back.  After all, the mountains are where they are.

I made a miscalculation and ended up driving a scenic route, adding 45 minutes to my morning.  I was daydream- ing about checking out Davidson River Campground on the return drive and…well, anyway, I was running late.  By the time I got to the BRP I was pushing it, zipping along and getting anxious.  I had a time deadline to get back home, plus there was a forecast for afternoon thunderstorms and I did not want to be on top of a mountain for that.  However, skies were slightly overcast, great conditions for photos, and I said aloud to myself, “This is a waste of a good drive on the Parkway because you are in a hurry to get to your hike.”  I stopped for one good shot.

At Waterrock Knob Visitor Center I said hello to the rangers and told them my hike plan.  Ranger Mike had done this hike and gave me some good advice:  “When you see the purple/yellow blazes painted on big rocks, that is not Blackrock (your destination).  Keep going another half hour to one large rock about 40 feet across.”

On trail about 11:20 a.m., it was very easy to follow, much better than the unmaintained trail that Jeff and I hiked from Waterrock Knob to Lynn Lowry and Plott Balsam Mountains last August.  That was a nightmare hike that originally was intended to include Yellow Face but we opted for dinner instead. 

Mountains still go up, and I had a steady half-mile climb to summit Yellow Face with some fun stuff along the way.

Turk’s cap lilies, as spectactular as rhododendrons

The summit was open with a few trees and full of blackberry bushes as tall as me

Lots of ups and downs between Yellow Face and Blackrock Mountain, but I prefer that to long stretches of either one.  Yellow/purple blazes (Western Carolina University colors) were sporadic but helpful in a couple of places.  Several times the trail got very skinny, hugging the steep mountainside.  Note:  I am not a goat.

Vegetation was quite high in some spots

Blue beads (fruit) of yellow bead lilies

Fungus on rocks looked like peeling vinyl

I passed the area of gigantic boulders that Ranger Mike had told me about and kept going.  Soon thereafter I met a couple returning from Blackrock, said there would be some moderate rock scrambling (true, more short steep sections and lots of fun).  

Finally at Blackrock, hot as blue blazes, but I sat on top of it to eat lunch.  What a peaceful place.  The hump directly above the rock, in the center of the photo, is Yellow Face.  I would like very much to go back here in the fall.  This is a great novice hike…but it sure is a long drive.

View west from Blackrock Mountain

Emerging cow parsnip bloom - I tried all day to get a good shot of this.  Looks a bit like the monster plant in "Little Shop Of Horrors."

Butterfly dangling on Turk's cap lily

On the return lap I slipped on one steep section, landed flat out on my back, acquired a few more battle scars.  I also met a young man and woman wearing forest service clothing, orange vests.  The woman had what looked like a small folded laptop strapped to her chest, said they were doing some “geologic mapping.”

Who knew there would be so many people on this unmaintained trail on a Monday afternoon?  Very close to the trailhead, I met a group of six hikers who said they were going to “Bear Rock.”  I detected accents, not English as their first language.  I raised a mental eyebrow that it was nearly 2:30 p.m. and they were beginning a six-mile hike with thunderstorms in the forecast, but I kept my mouth shut.  I did ask if they had water and they said yes, but I sure didn’t see any, and no backpacks.  I think I would be a terrible forest ranger because I would worry about everybody too much.

My hike took about 3 hours, not bad.  Back at Waterrock Knob Visitor Center, I checked in with the rangers, used the restroom, then got into my car to head back home.  Thus began the REAL adventures of the day. 

My car key would not turn in the ignition.  Wiggling, jiggling, twisting the steering wheel, nothing worked.  There I was , high up on the Blue Ridge Parkway, 150 miles from home on a Monday afternoon.  The good news was that I wasn’t alone on some dirt back road.  There were people around and maybe I could get some help.

Following are my notes just as I wrote them when I (finally) got home.  Names have been changed to protect…well, you know…

I called my husband Jim, busy at work, he couldn’t problem-solve over the phone.   I asked Ranger Mike to look at it:  a head-scratcher for him, too, but at least he confirmed it wasn’t just my imagination or weak arms.   Cell phone service was sketchy, better on one side of the parking lot than the other.  I called AAA, explained my situation, got cut off.  After several attempts, I hoped a tow truck was on the way.  The rangers gave me their cell phone number as a callback in case mine didn’t work (battery getting low, of course).  A traveler stopping at the visitor center (Bill) overheard my conversations with AAA, said he was a mechanic and would be happy to look at my problem.  He worked on it for over 30 minutes and concluded that the ignition cylinder needed to be replaced. 

I sat around on the curb like a vagrant waiting for the tow truck to arrive.  I couldn’t wait in the car because (1) it was too hot and I couldn’t put the windows down and (2) I was afraid I wouldn’t get cell reception at my car.  Talked off and on with Mike and the other ranger about different hikes in the area.  

Watched people come and go.  A late afternoon storm did come up, hard rain for a little bit, then hail, then it passed on and we watched it travel eastward – fascinating, really.  Three motorcycle dudes stopped at the VC to sit out the storm.

Rangers offered to wait around with me, but I said I’d be fine.  They closed up shop at 5 o’clock and left.

Three women with six kids pulled up before the storm, kids ran around the parking area, women were fascinated by the storm and aftermath, trying to take photos of lightning.  They were there probably an hour.  I finally struck up a conversation.  They were from Biloxi, MS where Hurricane Katrina “actually happened.”  One sis lives in Clyde, NC now.  They come up several times a year to visit her and hang out at Maggie Valley.  One sis said she has lost her New Orleans area accent but I silently disagreed. 

Tow truck arrived at 5:30 p.m., Dave in charge.  I rode with him back to Fletcher, NC (near Asheville) to the only Honda dealer – Jim had called around for the best possible place to get it fixed.  It was a long ride at 25 mph going down the mountain.   Dave liked me right away since I was nice to him about the long wait (2.5 hours) because I knew that it was a rural area and his is the only AAA towing service in the county.  Anyway, in that hour ride I learned many things:
Dave’s dad passed away in March from small cell lung cancer.  His mom is having a tough time and they are afraid to leave her alone.  Mom and Dad have been divorced since the ‘80’s but lived a quarter mile apart and stayed friends.  Dave’s wife was going over there tonight to stay with her.

Dave didn’t have on his seatbelt ,and when I chastised him about it he said he doesn’t drink, smoke or do drugs, so this is the one rule he doesn’t follow, because a good friend a long time ago had a wreck and went into a pond and because of his seatbelt being fastened he drowned. 

Dave got a text from his wife and explained:  his cousin’s granddaughter had been molested by a family friend, and they charged the man, and the man had just that minute killed himself with a shotgun.  True story, that’s about how succinctly he told it to me.

Many other topics covered with Dave – can’t get them all down.  An extremely nice, down home, mountain resident, happy with his work and loves his family.  I was thankful for my own rural upbringing to help me appreciate his friendly manner.

At the Honda dealer, the guy there (Bob) showed Dave where to unload my car, noticed my Virginia Tech sticker and showed me his VT watch.  He’s a ’74 graduate, played basketball for Tech.  We compared notes and it seems he and I were both at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans in 2001 – did we see each other on Bourbon Street?

Then Dave dropped me at the Waffle House to wait for Jim to pick me up, because the dealership closes at 8 o’clock and Jim wouldn’t get there until 9 o’clock (it was 7:30).  I was the only customer.  They were training a new waitress.  I told them I was waiting for a ride and we got into all kinds of conversations.  The young waitress had quit smoking because she had bronchitis and then became pregnant, a good incentive.  Her co-workers congratulated her.  I ordered an omelet and it was the best thing ever, very light and fluffy.  The young male cook was very sweet, told me the secret is to drop it in very hot grease and cook it very quickly, no browning.  I told him I was eating so slowly because I didn’t want it to end. 

The young waitress grew up around here and talked about some hiking she had done (when she was younger?) and some camping spots.  She really seemed to appreciate that she lives in an area with many treasures.   One camping spot near Mills River she no longer recommends because she heard they do witchcraft there. 

Around 8:45 p.m. the culture of the Waffle House changed, some more customers came in, the 9 o’clock shift people arrived, someone turned on the radio and it became kind of hectic.  Jim called to say he was close and to order him some food to go.  I gave the order to the new trainee and she got to place her first order in code without writing it down.  While it was being prepared she told me about her 23-year-old son who is estranged, she doesn’t know where he is, and she is seeing a counselor.  I told her I thought it would turn out all right eventually if she always lets him know that she loves him. 

Got home about 11:00 p.m.  Geez, a six-mile hike.

There is no such thing in anyone's life as an unimportant day.  ~Alexander Woollcott

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Rambling at Lumber River State Park

Lumber River State Park, North Carolina – 2 Miles – 7/14/12

Well, this was not so much a hike as a fact-finding, curiosity-satisfying, rambling side trip on the way home from vacation.  My family spent a traditional week at Sunset Beach, NC, and on our return home I decided to check out Lumber River State Park, just a few miles detour.  When I announced my intentions, everyone piled in my husband’s car and I was left (happily) on my own. 

I have spent time in most of North Carolina’s western mountain state parks but have only visited a couple of the Piedmont and coastal parks, most notably Eno River near Durham and Jockey’s Ridge on the Outerbanks.  So what is Lumber River?

In a nutshell, its name derives from its use as a transportation vehicle for timber harvesting in the late 1700’s.  Small towns sprung up along its route.  Lumber River is a black water river with deep channels that flows through wetlands and swamps.  Decaying vegetation leaches into the water, giving it the appearance of brewed tea.  Lumber River is the only North Carolina black water river to earn federal designation as a National Wild and Scenic River.

Rather than one central location, there are several access points that comprise Lumber River State Park with put-ins for paddling, fishing and some small camping spots.  I was checking out the Princess Anne Access, one of the main areas that includes a ranger station (closed on the day I visited).

First I planned to drive around and get a feel for where things were, but I quickly saw that Princess Anne is a very small place and I could walk the parking and picnic areas from end to end in less than five minutes.  There is a very large picnic shelter with charcoal grills and a large restroom.

It was about noon on Saturday, very hot and only going to get hotter.  I walked upstream on Griffin’s Bluff Trail first (1-mile round trip).  This is a simple stroll by the river’s edge and it was tempting to move quickly, but I slowed down to look at the details.  The water moves so slowly it’s like looking at a lake or pond, reflecting trees and clouds and an occasional fish jumping. 

Ethereal Spanish moss

Bald cypress tree

Row of bald cypress trees on the far river bank

Cypress tree with Spanish moss

Near the end of Griffin’s Bluff Trail a side creek flowed ever so gently toward the river.  Here you can really see the tea color created by the tannins.

There is a large wooden observation platform jutting out on a gentle bend in the river, a good fishing spot according to locals Gary Jones and his son, Landon, although not much was biting today.  Landon was very talkative, and shared with me every fish he had caught this summer. 

I backtracked to the main parking area, walked past the boat landing and a few young fellows silently fishing.  The stillness of the air made the heat more intense.  I headed downstream on the .4-mile Naked Landing Trail (could not find any info on how this got named).  This trail passed two campsites, one occupied by a large tent.  I was interested to note that there were metal garbage cans with lids right beside the tent.  No critter problems?  

This trail also stayed right beside the water.  I saw more interesting bald cypress trees and knees and wondered for the first time if alligators were common (answer:  not common but not impossible).   Soon the path narrowed considerably , but I continued to follow it until I got creeped out by the spiderwebs, realizing nobody came this way much, and turned back.  More so than alligators, I expected to see snakes, but no luck today. 

Cypress knees

On my return walk I met a family, grandpa, dad and elementary age girl, who were occupying the tent site.  I asked about the garbage cans, and Dad said the ranger assured him that black bears had never been sighted here, so no concerns about garbage (so I didn’t mention raccoons and mice). 

Back at the picnic shelter, a group of a dozen or so folks were firing up the charcoal grill for a cookout.  They invited me to stay and eat – locals again, good Southern manners.   Reminded me very much of my dad’s family, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, that would get together in different city parks in Richmond, VA for Father’s Day or just a Sunday afternoon to have a potluck picnic and visit.

All in all my exploration of Lumber River State Park took a little over an hour, well worth the stop to see how our state park system looks outside of the mountains and the population it serves.  I’ll bet a leisurely float down the river would be wonderful – in cooler weather.  I don’t think I’d ever be enticed into that black water.

I said a sincere prayer of thanksgiving for the air conditioning in my car.

A river is a river, always there, and yet the water flowing through it is never the same water and is never still.  ~Aidan Chambers