Sunday, May 8, 2016

AT in NC: Up And Over Cheoah Bald

Appalachian Trail in NC – NOC to Brown Fork Gap Shelter – 10/23/15 – 15.8 miles

Re-acclimating to scripted daily life/work after my Iceland trip took a couple of weeks, but the mountains of North Carolina began calling.  More time ticked by before an opportunity arose for two consecutive days of freedom.  In total, seven weeks passed between the Laugavegurinn hike and hoisting my backpack again to meet the Appalachian Trail.  No matter how far I wander in exotic places, the green mountains patiently await my return.

I spent the preceding night in a cozy old-fashioned little room at the Hike Inn.  The next morning my shuttle driver, an AT section hiker and free spirit named Rene (trail name Legs), dropped me at the Nantahala Outdoor Center.  I shuddered at the memory of the day hike that brought me to this point.  Well, this time I’m hiking solo, unencumbered and at my own pace.  Bonus points for returning to the familiarity of David “Awol” Miller’s handbook The A.T. Guide with its elevation profile and marked waypoints.  Yes, I was one very excited backpacker looking at 29 miles of walking meditation.

Oh, and 3,313 feet of net elevation gain, eight miles up to Cheoah Bald starting right now.  Eight miles of steady uphill is pretty rare even on the AT.  Mind prep, a repetitive mantra, fresh legs, chocolate and a touch of insanity helps. 

I was in no hurry, enjoying the bright sun, crisp air and brilliant fall palette.  Mindful of going as light as possible, I left the backpacking stove and fuel at home.  I carried only one liter of water, filling up and treating more as I went.  Still, my backpack felt heavy after no hiking for seven weeks so I knew that pacing and frequent stops were critical. 
Sunbeams at the Jump-up looking out over Nantahala Gorge

Sassafrass Gap Shelter, time to take off that pack for a few minutes

Piped spring at the shelter

Fellow hikers were on the trail both coming and going, escaping the everyday grind and searching for (finding?) peace that Mother Nature always offers.  I met three young college women from Florida, moving very slowly and cheerfully, on their first backpacking trip.  Their “plan” was simply carrying food for five days, walk northbound, turn around.   I asked if they had trail names, and they conjured them on the spot – Squirrel, Pocahontas, Sailor Girl.  They were accompanied by a huge shaggy dog named Daisy.  I wonder how far they got.  I’ll bet they had a great adventure no matter the mileage.
Cheoah Bald, elevation 5,062 feet, the high point of my trip.  This is the northern terminus of the 100-mile Bartram Trail, created to follow the approximate route walked by William Bartram, a Philadelphian naturalist who traveled throughout the southeast from 1773 to 1777 and wrote extensively about the plants, animals and people that he encountered in Bartram’s Travels.

Can you imagine waking up here?  A grand site/sight for a human to spend a clear starry night.  How about during a thunderstorm?  

View from the other side of Cheoah Bald

The tiny community of Stecoah

At the summit I met another backpacking group, two men and one woman, who said they were planning to stay at Brown Fork Gap Shelter.  Nice to know who’ll be spending the night with me.

It’s a steep slide down from Cheoh Bald with a couple of bumps to Stecoah Gap where the AT crosses NC 143.  Fall colors were splashed through the trees and the sound of leaves falling in the stillness were like dripping water.  Really.

Blazing yellow at Stecoah Gap

Thirteen miles with my light (heavy) pack had taken their toll.  Fun and games were over as I climbed northbound out of Stecoah Gap.  The ominously named “Jacob’s Ladder” turned out to be a straight-up-the-mountain drudge, 600-foot elevation gain in .6 miles, rather than a technical rock climb.  The trick is to take very small steps, which many people count, but I’ve found that singing or humming a repetitive tune works well for me. 

Brown Fork Gap Shelter was small (sleeps 6), old, dark, three walls and a roof, no porch, painfully uninviting, so I opted to pitch my tent.  I’d arrived later than anticipated and no one had passed me, so I was not surprised to be alone.  I realized it would be dark within an hour, so not much time to evaluate a tent space, get water, eat, hang up my food bag.  Down by the creek there was space for a couple of tents, but I left them empty for when the party of three arrived.  Not many other suitable places, so I put up my tent about 10 yards in front of the shelter. 

Chores were completed and still no others hikers had appeared.  Had trouble getting a rope set up to secure my food, so I settled for hanging it from a mouse baffle at the front of the shelter overhang.

By 7:15 p.m. darkness had settled in and so had I, feeling a tad lonely and isolated.  I’ve never slept alone in a shelter and was glad to have my little pink castle. 

Woke at 11:00 p.m. to pee.  What is that glaring street light?  The moon!

Woke again at 2:00 a.m. to the sound of voices, but it wasn’t who I had expected.

On the recollection of so many and great favours and blessings, I now, with a high sense of gratitude, presume to offer up my sincere thanks to the Almighty, the Creator and Preserver.” ~William Bartram

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