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