Saturday, December 29, 2018

AT in NC: Albert Mountain

AT in NC: Standing Indian – Betty Gap to Winding Stair Gap - Albert Mountain Fire Tower – 3/31/18 – 12.2 Miles

I’m a daylight girl with a strong aversion to moving around camp before I can see my hand in front of my face. This morning’s sunrise was well after 7:00 a.m. Outside my cozy tent, the drooping rhododendron leaves confirmed the same chill as yesterday, so it’s best to keep moving.  I had to take my gloves off to strike my tent and load my backpack, fumbling with cold fingers. Today we’ve got 12 miles to hike and 200 miles to drive back to Charlotte, so a little breakfast, a wave goodbye to the thru-hikers that are awake (not many), and we’re on our way to Albert Mountain.

A great view to start the morning off right!

Some nice work rebuilding this eroded trail section

There is a route to bypass the summit during bad conditions (snow, ice, high winds) and no shame in taking it rather than die on the boulders. No worries on this fine morning. The push to the top was agonizingly steep and long (barely more than a quarter-mile, but hey!)

Albert Mountain Fire Tower (summit elevation 5,250 feet, tower erected in 1951)

I visited this tower with Jim on an exploration weekend in Nantahala back in 2012 (geez, where did those 5 years go?) as part of the lookout tower challenge.  At that time Jim and I took the half-mile walk from a parking area at the end of FR 67. Today it felt more legit to approach it via the AT. It’s a place for lingering and contemplating, not just tagging.  Thru-hikers straggled up and took the time to appreciate the place, the birds, the people sharing the moment. Rows and rows of blue blue blue mountains…

Okay, still about 10 miles to go, trending downhill but with two significant “bumps” to keep us on our toes.  A thoughtful hiker left a sign of encouragement – yay, 100 miles done!

Long Branch Shelter, built in 2012, looks brand spanking new

Sleeps 16 cozy backpackers

The day warmed up and we saw our first flowers of the season (trailing arbutus) and this peaceful little scene

A most unexpected surprise today – I heard a voice calling my name and looked up the trail to see an old friend from Girl Scout leader days!  Back in those days Diane B. and I spent many weekends in cabins and tents with girls from kindergarten through high school age, walking in creeks and cooking over campfires.  What an absolute joy to give her a big bear hug out here in the woods!

Marta and I finished our hike at Winding Stair Gap and headed home with a sense of deep satisfaction.  Overnight backpacking is awesome – you can stand anything for one night, whether it’s rain, cold, hunger, snoring campers, because you’ll be back in comfort by the end of the next day.  Then the feeling of satisfaction is replaced by the desire to go out again.  Marta has hiked multiple overnight loops in the Standing Indian area and shared lots of good information, and I would feel quite comfortable exploring other routes there.  Thanks for helping me close this gap on the AT, Marta! Happy Trails!

“The Forest makes your heart gentle.  You become one with it.”  ~Pha Pachak

Monday, December 17, 2018

AT in NC: Return To Standing Indian

Appalachian Trail in NC: Standing Indian – Beech Gap Trail to AT to Betty Gap – 3/30/18 – 10.7 Miles

Hiking plans are just wishes that sometimes work out, and sometimes they get usurped by circumstances beyond hiker control.  Eventually another opportunity rolls around.  Last September I had to leave a 19-mile gap in my Appalachian Trail quest at Standing Indian, impeded by the wreckage of Tropical Storm Irma.  Five months later, I got another chance at it.  While visiting NC for a while, my friend Marta put the word out looking for hiking friends for a short trip and I immediately raised my hand – pick me, pick me!!  An overnight trip should do the trick to close my gap and Marta was happy to hike at Standing Indian, a particular favorite of hers. Perfect.

Early on a Friday morning we left Charlotte, bound for Nantahala National Forest west of Franklin, NC. At Winding Stair Gap on Highway 64 we met our shuttle driver to take us to our starting point.  I was worried that I wouldn’t recognize the trailhead for Beech Gap Trail, but it was not a problem. We repeated my climb to intersect the AT at Beech Gap, where I had turned southbound last autumn.  This time we’re heading northbound.

Blue blue skies, white white clouds, chillin’ comfy temperatures, and big smiles on our faces – seven mild miles rolled by in a twinkle. No hint of spring flowers yet, so our attention was turned to interesting mosses and barks and blowdowns.  Marta’s bright colors leading the way made a strong contrast to the grays and browns of the winter woods, like a bird flitting through the trees.

Someone placed a helpful leaf to direct the water flow

Lots of northbound AT thru-hikers on the move, about two weeks into their journey north to Maine.  Many had started out solo, made friends and formed loose groups, some walking together and some just meeting up at the end of the day.  We chatted with a Latina (named Judith?) hiking solo back home to Maine. There was a mix of ages but skewed towards the younger end.  Marta has thru-hiked solo southbound, completing the trail in 2007.  I could feel her intense interest in the AT and the energy of the thru-hikers today.

We passed Carter Gap Shelter, a handful of thru’s sitting around on a mid-day break.  It seemed that they might not move again. They were not making high mileage; they started the days late and ended them early, enjoying the social aspects of the hike.

We reached Betty Creek Gap before 6:00 p.m.  Seemed plenty early, but camp chores take time and the sun sets before you know it.  The gap had several large open areas for tenting, but a little reconnaissance revealed small spaces tucked away for more privacy and hopefully peace and quiet. A few hundred yards down the blue blazed side trail, a nice stream flowed. Marta and I pitched our tents, collected water, put on another layer of clothing, and prepared a meal as the thru-hikers came straggling in.  I was surprised at how many stopped, apparently averse to the shelters and preferring tent camping.  Judith popped up her tent and immediately crawled inside for the night, but most everyone else enjoyed hanging out at day's end.

Nine thru-hikers gathered together to cook their meals and built a campfire (again a surprise to me, I didn’t think thru-hikers bothered with fires).  I don’t build fires anymore either, but I love to sit by one that someone else is tending, so Marta and I put on yet another layer and joined in for a while.  Lively conversation, a lot of talk about food, origins of trail names, did y’all see that bear today?  Hearing about Marta’s solo southbound hike as Five-Leafed Clover, eyes widened, questions popcorned, and more stories flowed. I enjoyed sitting back and watching the admiration.

I didn’t catch all the names, but three of the young’uns were especially friendly:

Wet Sticks was a young guy with a distinct Tennessee twang, a skinny fellow with scraggly hair and a beard (typical trail look).  He had a reputation for building a fire every single night no matter what the conditions.  Wet Sticks loved everything about his hike experience (peace out) and expressed gratitude for every day.

Nerp, a young nurse from Connecticut, got burned out from with her nursing job, decided – why not? Now was the time for following her dream of hiking the trail. 

Bruiser was from New York, had planned this thru-hike with his dad, but he passed away in December 2017. So Bruiser was living that dream for his dad.

Nerp, Wet Sticks and Bruiser

Camaraderie around a backcountry campfire transcends ages, genders, backgrounds, worries, responsibilities, powers and prejudices. Cold night, warm sleeping bag, deep sleep.  Peace out.

“Light a campfire and everyone’s a storyteller.” ~John Geddes