Friday, June 10, 2016

AT in GA: Pay Attention Or Pay the Price - Tesnatee Gap to Unicoi Gap

Appalachian Trail in GA – Tesnatee Gap to Unicoi Gap Plus a Detour – 1/30/16 – 17.7 Miles

Once in a while the universe serves up a reminder that experience is no guarantee against making mistakes.  Pay attention or pay a price.

When the opportunity for a group hiking weekend in Georgia came up I was very energized.  Other commitments dictated that I could only participate on a Saturday hike, but I made the long drive to Hiker Hostel in Dahlonega,GA on a Friday night and met some new folks.  Breakfast on Saturday morning amid much chatter built up the excitement for my first steps on the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail.

Most hikers were heading for the Bartram Trail, but a young woman named Laura and I agreed on the AT section between Tesnatee Gap and Unicoi Gap, about 15 miles.  I deferred to Laura’s desire to hike northbound and we chose to set up our own shuttle, a decision that later had consequences because it took quite a bit of time. 

But it was a gorgeous blue sky day, white blazes on the trees and a little white stuff on the ground.  No worries, just walking!  Laura and I quickly fell deep into conversation, comparing hiking experiences and wish lists.

Soaking in the Georgia mountains

Our first road crossing at Hogpen Gap is just a mile north of Tesnatee Gap and I looked at my watch, wondering why we had not yet reached it.  Then Laura mentioned that the white blazes had turned to blue blazes a while ago… and I felt a tingle of apprehension.  We were certainly still on a nicely developed trail, but sure enough, those blazes were blue.  I had been so engrossed in our conversation as I followed Laura that I had paid no attention. 

We reached a shelter but couldn’t pick up the trail past it.   I pulled out my NatGeo trail map and determined that we had missed a turn and gone 1.2 miles on a side trail to Whitley Gap Shelter, very nice indeed but not at all where we wanted to be.  Time to backtrack the 1.2 miles (meaning we’ve added 2.4 miles to the day). 

We got to see that lovely view again.

Sure enough, we had missed a huge sign and left turn.  In fact, the road crossing at Hogpen Gap was visible from the turn.  Adding up the shuttle setup and the detour time, it was now after 12:30 p.m. and we had about 14 miles to go to our original destination of Unicoi Gap (where my car was parked).  Several options:  hike the mile back to Laura’s truck and call it a day, hike back to Laura’s truck and drive it to an in-between location to shorten the hike, or go for it and hike on to Unicoi Gap.

Hikers with goals are determined and borderline stubborn.  We both agreed that we wanted to continue with our original plan.  That meant moving at an accelerated pace, not much stopping, and likely ending after dark.  I admit to spending most of the hike silently berating myself for not keeping up with trail blazes even though we started off the hike with Laura in the lead.  How many times have I instructed people in camping and backpacking courses that everyone is responsible for navigation and safety, not just one person?  Every person should carry a map and every person should check course periodically. 

Repeat : pay attention or pay the price.  Fortunately, Laura and I were in sync with our pace and our goal and the weather was great.  (If the weather had been threatening, we would have abandoned the hike.)  So off we went on winged boots, with little time for photos.  The terrain wasn’t difficult and there were no hard climbs. 

A little trail magic

The trail wove on and off old logging roads like this one with its collapsing rock wall

At Low Gap Shelter we stopped to eat a bite, filter some water, look at the map again and calculate the time.  Oh, yeah, we will definitely be walking in the dark. 

And yes, it was chill when we stood still

Afternoon sun

We hustled down Blue Mountain, the sun dropping faster than we were, and I was a few minutes ahead of Laura when I switched on my headlamp – which did not work.  Another lesson for the day.  At 6:45p.m. we terminated at Unicoi Gap and hugged my car, but the day wasn’t over.  We returned to Laura’s truck at Tesnatee Gap, waved goodbye, and then I set my GPS for home.  Four hours of exasperation, second-guessing and finally acceptance as I drove.  Pay attention. 

“Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time.” ~Steven Wright

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