Thursday, May 7, 2015

Foothills Trail Thru-Hike - Sassafrass Mountain & Stone Thrones

Foothills Trail Thru-Hike – Day 4 - 3/26/15 – Rock Creek to Cantrell Homesite –17.9 Miles

A long stretch without water, uncertainty about where to end the day, and an unexpected section of ups and downs made Day 4 our toughest one on the Foothills Trail.

Cathy and I packed up very wet tents and started the morning off with an uninspiring few miles to Laurel Fork Falls, the trail doing the now-familiar weave on and off old logging roads in drizzly misty fog.  As usual, Cathy quickly outpaced me but waited for me to catch up at a Lake Jocassee boat access spur trail.  Half a mile later we reached the overlook to Laurel Fork Falls.

Laurel Fork Falls from a distance – after a brief look, Cathy kept going but I sat down for 10 minutes to eat and reflect. 

I skipped the side trail to the top of the waterfall (a great campsite location, BTW, for those who plan better than we did).  For a couple of miles past Laurel Fork Falls the trail was in rough shape, dozens of blowdowns alongside and occasionally across the trail.  Perhaps there was a recent weather event, a microburst that toppled trees?  The FT crossed Laurel Fork Creek multiple times, always bridged, but this was not a picturesque walk in the woods.

A Hobbit-like bridge across Laurel Fork Creek


I met up with Cathy again at Virginia Hawkins Falls (named for an executive secretary of the FTC) and we enjoyed a nice rest.  The waterfall was lovely but hard to photograph in the dappled sunshine that had finally appeared. 

Past this point we knew the trail would begin to climb and that water sources would be scarce.  Campsites were also limited – we might end up on the summit of Sassafrass Mountain or just at some flat spot beside the trail.  Since Cathy’s filter had failed, our only treatment source was my Aqua Mira drops, so we had to be together to treat water.  Sitting at the waterfall, we assessed how much water we still had and then prepared another liter for Cathy to carry on ahead. 

Then began an unexpectedly rigorous series of ups and downs that took all my energy (plus one intriguing encounter – see footnote). Unlike Heartbreak Ridge, where its reality was less than its hype, the five miles from Virginia Hawkins Falls to the Laurel Valley access parking was a shock to the system.  Quick switchbacks up, then a reprieve of switchbacks down, followed by an abruptly steep uphill…maybe the guidebook doesn’t note it because the difficulty is less severe from the other direction.  All I know is by the time I connected with Cathy again we were both toasted.  She said carrying that extra liter of water did her in.

At the gravel parking area we hung our tents over the sign board to dry.  A dayhiker there told us we could scramble down under the upcoming Highway 178 bridge to get water (I think this is Estatoe Creek).  No mention of this in the guidebook; would have been nice to know.  Cathy felt that she still had enough water in her own Camelback so I took the extra liter she had hauled for the last five miles, then retrieved another liter from Estatoe Creek to be sure we had enough for cooking at camp.

Back on the trail.  The next section to Chimneytop Gap was a little kinder and gentler.  As I crossed F. Van Clayton Highway, I noticed a tractor-trailer that was obviously too long to make the hairpin turn there and was stuck. A couple of cars were forced to stop and their drivers were out in the road trying to advise the truck driver, but it looked like it was going to be a long night. 

The climb up Sassafrass Mountain seemed interminable – well, it is the high point of South Carolina (3,560 feet) so it should require some effort, I suppose.   What used to be a tree-covered summit with no views has now been clear-cut in anticipation of “improvement” with an observation platform.  Not too pretty right now, but hopefully it will get better. 

As for camping there, forget it.  The wind was fierce and you can tell by Cathy’s body language that we will keep moving.

Back in the woods, we began scouting for a campsite, any campsite, any reasonable flat spot.  We saw a place where two tents could fit in, but pushed on and found the old Cantrell homesite mentioned in the guidebook – hurray!  The original stone chimney and a more recently constructed 3-foot-tall stone fire ring with eight stone “thrones” encircling it, plus a stick shelter.  Surely the Boy Scouts had been here more than once.

There was plenty of room for tents and a young couple had already claimed their territory.  There also was a spring somewhere nearby but since we had hauled our water we didn’t bother to look for it. We popped up our tents, put on an extra layer against the chill as the sun set, and prepared to cook our last supper on the trail.  And…my stove igniter wouldn’t work.  And…my matches wouldn’t stay lit in the breeze.  Thanks to Cathy’s Jetboil, I didn’t miss dinner. 

Maybe not our longest day in miles, but this was our biggest day in elevation gain, problem-solving and decision-making.  Whatever tomorrow brings, we’re going home. 

“When you’re safe at home you wish you were having an adventure; when you’re having an adventure you wish you were safe at home.”  ~Thornton Wilder

*Footnote:  Often when hiking I repetitively count my steps in my head, 1 to 10, or hum a song.  During the tough part of today’s hike I softly sang the refrain of a song I’d heard in worship the previous Sunday that goes like this:  “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy on me.”  The cadence was perfect for my pace and I walked for some time in a “zone-out”.  Suddenly I felt a tingling sensation, a slight blurring of vision and diminished hearing.  I distinctly felt that something, a presence, was walking with me.  Not scary at all, rather exhilarating.  I don’t recall exactly where I was or how long it lasted (more than a flash but surely less than a minute).  In thinking about this a lot, I believe that I entered a walking meditative state and encountered God/Holy Spirit.  Hmm.

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