Friday, October 25, 2013

Antidote For A Bad Hike

Appalachian Trail in NC – 7/24/13 - AT/Lost Cove/Lakeshore Trail Loop – 11.5 Miles

My last hike of the ATC Biennial:  If I don’t like the looks of these participants, I plan to bail out and go home.  Thus had the slow-motion fest inured me to the hiking-with-strangers concept.

Good news, karma believers!  As I waited at the meeting spot, several participants from yesterday’s hike came by to say hi, offer condolences and thank me for taking on the responsibility of the slow hiker so that the group could continue.  I was very surprised and appreciated them seeking me out.  Two of them were signed up for today’s hike! 

Everyone showed up ahead of time and looked well prepared, seven hikers including myself.  The hike leader gave a description of the route, multiple creek crossings, wet feet, and everyone was okay with that.  I decided to stick with it but drive my car separately so I could leave directly for home.  Besides, the hike was a loop in my beloved Smokies, so if I got stuck once again at least I would be in heaven.

Our loop started on the AT as it crossed Fontana Dam and entered the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  The participants were multi-sport, also into biking, half-marathons, paddling.  Two were involved in their home state’s AT maintainers’ club.  Karma instructing me once again:  this group was fast from the get-go.  Again I was the sweep and I had to hustle as the AT ascended 2,100 feet in 3.25 miles.  No talking for me, I stayed far enough back where they couldn’t hear me gasping.  What a difference from 24 hours earlier!

The mountainside was covered in a cloak of midsummer flowers, yellow sundrops, white flowering spurge, blue tall bellflower and purple phlox.  The steady breeze foiled attempts at photographing the display other than this tall white spike of…galax?  Snakeroot? 

A short, steep side trail took us to the Shuckstack lookout tower, constructed in 1934 by the PWA and used for fire detection until the 1960’s.  The tower has fallen into disrepair.  The stairs are rickety and missing a handrail and some steps.  I climbed four of the six flights of steps and lost my nerve to go higher.  The chimney and cistern are all that remain of the tower-keeper’s cabin.

Looking down from Shuckstack

 We backtracked to the AT, continued on to Sassafrass Gap and made a right turn onto Lost Cove Trail, a fun interior trail that few people get to.  Combined with the AT and the Lakeshore Trail, I think it makes for one of the best loops in the Smokies.  Lost Cove Trail careens roller coaster steep downhill.  The group was still moving at a fast pace but my knees were not a problem.  After the first mile, Lost Cove Creek appears and braids back and forth across the trail 13+ times.  I do love a good rock hop challenge and I managed to hop them all, but the other three women put on their water shoes for this section.  I will admit, on a hot day it looked like it felt good to just wade in the water.

A mushroom as large as a punchbowl

Being last in line on a summer hike has its advantages.  I heard yelling and saw trail dancing ahead, which meant that someone had disturbed a yellow jacket nest.  Two people got stung several times.  The last three of us in line backed up quickly and made a wide detour up the hillside to avoid the nest.

We stopped for lunch at Campsite 91, a former homesite, a broad level area with room for plenty of tents and also accommodates horse campers.   A lumber company railroad spur once ran up alongside Lost Cove Creek past this point from the confluence of Eagle Creek and Little Tennessee Rivers (prior to the creation of Fontana Lake). 

Rattlesnake plantain bloom

Rattlesnake plantain foliage

Chris crossing Lost Cove Creek on a high log.  The crossings got wider and deeper as we followed the trail down.  

We turned right onto the not-flat Lakeshore Trail and began a series of rolling ups and downs with glimpses of the lake edge through the trees.  Highlights of this section included two bears up in the trees, another hornets’ nest (two more people stung, still not me) and a garter snake that Chris picked up for us to examine.

Chicken-in-the-woods in abundance along the Lakeshore Trail

The entire Lakeshore Trail runs 35 miles along the north shore of Fontana Lake and passes multiple home sites, town sites and cemeteries.  It is an excellent multi-day backpacking trip to explore the evidence of days past before Fontana Lake was created.  Parts of the trail were once Route 288. In the last two miles of our hike we passed old 1930’s cars.  I’ve heard that during the early days of WW II when rubber was in short supply, cars were abandoned where the tires blew out.

All in all, this hike was an excellent antidote to the previous day.  The group blended together like peas and carrots, lots of stories and laughter, and more than once someone would stop to comment on how great the day was.  Fun folks, a lookout tower, snakes, bears, yellow jackets, beautiful flowers, stream crossings and old cars, all in the Great Smoky Mountains.  It just doesn’t get any better.

The cherry on top:  taking a shower at the Fontana Dam Visitor Center to be clean for the long drive home!

What day is it?” 

“It’s today,” squeaked Piglet. 

“My favorite day,” said Pooh.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Eight Miles In Slow....Motion...

Appalachian Trail in NC – 7/23/13 – Tellico Gap to Nantahala Outdoor Center – 8 Mile

Day 2 of the ATC Biennial Conference for me:  An eight-mile hike, nearly 3,000 feet of downhill over six of those miles, eager to complete this little bit of the AT down to Nantahala Outdoor Center and be back at the conference center for supper.  Today I was a co-leader on this straightforward shuttle hike.  I volunteered to be the sweep (last person).  I did not realize how long I would have to carry that broom…

Our hike started from Tellico Gap, same as yesterday, and headed northbound on the AT.  First stop:  Wesser Bald lookout tower for a fine view of this part of the world.  Clouds were moving around like they do in the hot summertime and we hoped to finish before late afternoon thunderstorms that had plagued the week.

Drippy melted candle wax-looking fungus


Ten minutes into the hike I noticed that two women were extremely slow, chatting amiably and strolling up the trail.  I stayed a few dozen yards back.  They didn’t speed up when the rest of the group disappeared from sight.  I got closer and discerned from their conversation that they were not old buddies, they had just met.  One woman (let’s call her Mary, not her real name) seemed unsteady on her feet and the other woman was kindly keeping her company.  I joined the conversation and the other woman eventually pulled ahead, leaving Mary and me, who then told me about numerous health problems and the fact that on her hike the previous day the leader had turned her back, and she was very disappointed and offended.  She was very determined to complete today’s hike.  The two of us arrived at Wesser Bald tower about 35 minutes after the group and I knew I was looking at a problem.

At the tower I chatted with some of the participants, including a congenial fellow named Howard whose accent was familiar to me.  Turns out our families are from the same county in Southside Virginia and we swapped memories of rural country life and family connections.  Small world!

Howard and me on top of Wesser Bald lookout tower

I talked with my co-leader and then we had a conversation with Mary.  We were concerned that she couldn’t complete the remaining 6.5 miles of the hike, despite her good attitude.  Her balance wasn’t good, she was very hesitant going over obstacles (which included every rock and root).  But she seemed so disappointed at turning back that, in fairness to the rest of the group, I agreed to hike with her and let the others go ahead.  Howard became the new sweep and Mary now had herself a personal guide.  We never saw the group again that day.

I shepherded Mary for the next six-plus miles.  She did not increase her speed, continued to have balance problems (that she denied), was carrying so much weight (water, Gatorade, a Diet Coke, food) that I took some from her, fidgeted and stopped about every 100 yards, and drove me crazy.  Every time I encouraged her, she lit up and pushed a little, but soon fell into her pattern of hesitancy over every obstacle.  While she expressed much gratitude for my personal services, I felt a little like she expected it also.  She was pleasant to talk to and did not complain about the trail conditions or being physically challenging.  She seemed oblivious to time.  My mood swung back and forth between a compassionate appreciation for her effort and homicidal fantasies.

A brief rain blew through and as I pulled my rain jacket out of my pack, my first aid kit fell out and rolled down a steep embankment.  If any of you see it, let me know.  I wasn’t going after it. 

When we stopped to put our rain jackets away (too hot to hike with them on) Mary’s camera fell out of her pocket and rolled down another steep embankment.  I did go and fetch it.  Is there combat pay available?

The only other photo all day:  at The Jumpoff

All together our hike took 8.5 hours, from 10:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.  The hike leader and one other participant were waiting for us. (To be fair, two other participants were slow finishers as well.  I think the larger group finished about 3:30, the other two at about 5:00.)  We all missed supper.

As we finished the hike, I congratulated Mary on her accomplishment – after all, she did walk eight miles.  However, I told her, although she was able to do it at her pace and to her ability, it was not appropriate for her to sign up for group hikes.  I don’t think she heard anything I said past “congratulations.” 

So I learned a huge lesson as a hike leader, that I will not ever hesitate to turn someone back again.  I had no way to assess Mary’s abilities and she certainly did not assess herself accurately and completely disregarded the hike’s rating of very strenuous.  Fortunately for both of us, she didn’t fall and have an injury due to her poor balance. 

Still, it was a beautiful day to be outside.  And tomorrow I’ve committed to co-leading another hike…

"I'm a slow walker, but I never walk back."  ~Abraham Lincoln 

Friday, October 18, 2013

A Detour: AT in NC - Tellico Gap to Wayah Bald

Appalachian Trail in NC – 7/22/13 – Tellico Gap to Wayah Bald – 11.3 Miles

The 2013 Appalachian Trail Conservancy Biennial Conference was held at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, NC in July.  The conference moves around to different locations along the AT corridor to give participants opportunities for hiking on the AT and to experience the trail towns and other delights of the area.  My friends Lenny and Danny Bernstein were heavily involved in the conference (okay, Lenny was the chairperson and Danny was in charge of excursions).  Danny made sure to tap me early to commit myself and Jim to co-lead a bike ride excursion on the Blue Ridge Parkway, something a little different.  I also signed up to co-lead a couple of hikes.

I joined one hike as a participant to see how the hike leaders did things.  Although I am in the midst of my Virginia AT hiking project, I was very excited to set foot on a section of the trail in NC that I had not experienced. 

Hikers who registered ahead of time gathered at the appointed spot early in the morning to arrange carpooling.  Turns out this was a key swap hike and required extra head-scratching, a confusing start with lots of people I didn’t know.  Hikers were jockeying for position to hike in the less strenuous downhill direction.  I ended up in the “uphill” group (AT southbound), guessing that the group would be smaller and more fit hikers.  Good guess.

The hard part of key swapping is making sure that there are enough cars at the end of the hike to accommodate everyone.  If the two groups are wildly uneven, someone is going to be hitchhiking.  And the drivers end up at their own vehicles, so they start off driving someone else’s vehicle.  You really have to see it in action.  We finally left the parking lot.

Driving up to Tellico Gap on a one-lane gravel road, we met a service pickup truck coming down.  The driver backed up very fast, a long distance around several curves, to a pullout to let us pass.  We were so impressed that we stopped to compliment him on his great driving skills.

At last, at last, the hike started out with a 1,300 foot climb.  Our group sorted itself - as all hiking groups do, even the uphill ones- into faster and slower hikers.  I got in a position of the last of the fast group, with no one following on my heels, a very pleasant spot.  We walked in a light mist that eventually lifted and the air was surprising cool for mid-summer with a slight breeze.   Aahhhhh….

Flowers along the way – white bee balm

Flame azalea

Indian pipe


A scraggly rhododendron tunnel

Our lunch stop was at Cold Spring Shelter, where Jennifer Pharr Davis was struck by lightning (you’ll have to read her book Becoming Odyssa or go hear her at a speaking engagement or watch this interview).  Another ATC group hiking the same section of trail from a different starting point intersected with our lunchtime.  Their hike leader was a member of the local trail maintenance group that rehabbed the shelter in recent years, actually repositioned it, and he gave a detailed description of the work. 

At our halfway point, Burningtown Gap, the other half of our group arrived and keys were swapped.  Funny, we had come as far uphill as they had downhill in the same time frame…

The remainder of the hike was nondescript, a big green tunnel with no big views.  Perhaps nondescript is the wrong word:  walking in the woods with like-minded folks is always a memory-maker.  The final pull up to Wayah Tower was quite steep and the chill of the morning was gone for good.  We shared the triumph of arriving at the tower. 

I was here at Wayah Bald Tower with Jim in February 2012.  We hiked in from the other direction.

View from the top of the tower – packs and poles

After a good long rest at the tower we headed back to WCU for a good supper in the cafeteria and evening entertainment.  Jim had gone home but I had other friends attending the conference, and it’s always easy to make new hiker friends. 

It's not too early to put the ATC 2015 Biennial on your calendar.

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

Friday, October 4, 2013

AT Project In VA - A River Runs Through It

Appalachian Trail Project in VA – 7/14/13 - Wilson Creek Shelter to VA 614 Jennings Creek – 17 Miles

The night was as pitch black as I have ever seen.  Usually my eyes adjust, but there was not a smidge of light from moon or stars.  Rain fell all night, sometimes hard, sometimes soft, nonstop pitter-pattering on the shelter roof.  Towards morning it was hard to distinguish whether I heard rain or just water dripping from the trees.  No matter what, we were gonna get a little bit wet out on the trail.

Morning light came a little after 6:00 a.m.  I discovered my food bag had been invaded by a small creature, but at least it wasn’t soaking wet from hanging out in a tree all night.  As we stirred around in our sleeping bags, Mike checked the radar on his phone and saw that the jury had brought in an innocent verdict in the Zimmerman trial.  Is having internet access on the trail a good thing?  I think it’s better to walk in ignorant bliss.  Later in the day I would wish for that a lot more.

We were packed up and moving out at 6:50 a.m.  Sounded like a light drizzle, may as well get it over with…but it turned out to be just dripping from wet leaves, so no need for rain gear.  

You know how I feel about burls on trees

Today I tried Becky’s suggestions, walking downhill concentrating on the balls of my feet, lowering my center of gravity a tiny bit, pushing my hip bones exaggeratedly forward.  It may have looked a little silly, but my right knee did not hurt nearly as much.  My butt and thighs got tired, but muscle fatigue is preferable to excruciating knee pain.  The key seemed to be lowering my center of gravity a few inches, making me keep my thighs tensed and taking the pounding rather than my knees.  Becky practically runs down hills in this manner.  Did I mention that she is 70?

Our group was quickly spread out as usual.  We passed a group of summer camp kids carrying backpacks, middle schoolers.  They all looked terribly young.  If anyone was in charge, they were no more than college age.  Near the end of the line I asked a girl about their trip and she told me they were out for 2 weeks and it had rained 12 days.  That lesson should serve them well in their later years:  what seems like a hardship now will be a great story later.

The first overlooks we passed were fogged in, nothing to see, and the sky remained overcast until late morning when the sun finally broke through.  Very few flowers, but fungi were worth noting.

Yellow mushrooms disguised as yellow flowers

We all caught up together as the AT crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway at the Peaks of Otter overlook.  I turned on my phone to send a photo to Jim.  He and I camped at the Peaks once when we were in college – it rained then also, as I recall. 

As I said earlier, I prefer to stay unaware of the goings-on in the world when I’m on the trail.  But when I turned on my phone for the camera, I had a text message from my daughter Megan telling about the death of an actor whom I greatly admired, Cory Monteith of “Glee.”  He had died at the age of 31 of a drug overdose.  Not someone I knew at all, but I felt a knot in my stomach and such a sadness at the loss of such a young, talented person from a terrible, baffling disease.  And here I was on a mountaintop.  Nothing to do but walk on. 

Becky and I leapfrogged each other most of the day, me a little faster on the uphills, she trotting on the downhills.  At Bearwallow Gap she stopped to filter water and soak her feet in the creek, and I continued on to climb Cove Mountain.  I knew from the elevation profile that it was the biggest push of the day.  It was high noon, a steep climb, mountain laurel and scrub brush, not many trees, and my heart pounded as sweat ran in rivers down my clothes.  I felt really overheated but did not stop until the summit.

What goes up must come down.  Next I descended the other side of Cove Mountain.  The openness and lack of mature trees is the result of a forest fire in the 1930's that burned for nearly a month.  While the openness meant hot sun on the back of my neck, it also meant beautiful wildflowers.

Cathy and Mike were waiting at Cove Mountain Shelter to regroup and we rested for a short while.  Becky didn’t appear, but a few minutes after we resumed, I heard her fast approaching on the downhill and she passed me for the final time near the end of our section. 

My car was waiting where Homer put it in a small parking area beside Jennings Creek – ahhh, heaven!  After the hot, hot, hot day, the creek was flowing wide, cold and shallow enough to lie down in.  A great swimming hole!

Cathy, Becky and me enjoying the creek

Becky lounging in Jennings Creek

A perfect way to end the day – we will be back here again!

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”  ~Norman Mclean