Sunday, August 31, 2008

One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven

Elkmont Trip – 8/25/08 - Day One – Sugarland Mountain Trail from Little River Road to Huskey Gap & Back – 6.2 miles

My Girl Scout buddy Carol enjoyed our wet adventures at Balsam Mountain in July so much that when she heard the rain forecast she jumped at the chance to hike with me again. We headed for the Smokies on a Monday morning for my first camping experience at Elkmont Campground. Each of us drove separately because I planned to stay until Friday and Carol had to head home on Wednesday. Note: when car camping, bring everything you own. I made good use of an umbrella, two rain jackets, a tarp and a beach canopy on this trip.

Between stopping for lunch, for caffeine, for gas and driving in the rain, it took about 5 hours to get to the Tennessee side of the Park. Over lunch I had convinced Carol that we could squeeze in a late afternoon stroll (just 6 miles, I promise). As I have mentioned here before, many of the hikes in the “Day Hiker’s Guide” have spurs in the middle or tail ends that make the hikes more efficient but long. In some instances, if I have a short amount of time it makes sense to hike a portion of a route to shorten a lengthy hike later. In this instance, I was looking at the Elkmont/Tremont Hike #14, and saw that if I covered this section of Sugarland Mountain now, the rest of the hike could be done as a lollipop rather than as a shuttle hike.
Loop hike: Begins and ends at the same point but does not cover the same ground  
Shuttle hike: Begins and ends at two different points and the hiker needs a car or a driver at each end Lollipop hike: Hike out for some distance, then in a loop, then return on the original trail (just draw a lollipop and it will make sense)  
In-and-Out hike: Hike out and return by the same route

The Sugarland Mountain trailhead is off Little River Road opposite the trailhead for Laurel Falls, an easily accessible and therefore very popular waterfall. As I was getting out of my car, Carol yelled, “Hey, bears!” There were half a dozen people, including children, on the paved trail near the parking lot, watching a mama bear and two cubs going up the hill – and one cub on the other side of the trail (and thus the people).

Let’s review: Do not get between a mama bear and her cubs.

Of course we had our cameras out for protection. I got a photo as the single cub headed up a tree and then it suddenly cried for its mother. At that point Carol and I said, “Time to go,” and everyone else ran forward with their cameras. Don’t know what happened after that.

So off we went on the Sugarland Mountain Trail at 4:00 PM. We expected to be done before 7:00 PM. The trail goes up, then down, then starts back up and we were enjoying the day, noting the fact that the rain had stopped. We saw some leaves already beginning to show their fall colors. And then…

Let me back up a minute. When you are hiking alone, you look around as you walk but mostly you look at your feet to make sure you don’t stumble. When you are hiking with other people, you look around even less as you talk and still look at where your feet are going. If you want to look up for more than a second, you stop. Personally, I cannot look over my head and walk at the same time without becoming dizzy, so I stop a lot.  

Back to our story: Carol was perhaps 15 feet behind me. I glanced over to my right and saw a mama bear about 20 feet from me, standing and looking at us from behind a tree on the high side of the trail. In the moment this took to register and say, “Uh, Carol,” I had traveled a few steps past the tree. Carol stopped. Here we were in a triangle, me, the bear and Carol. It went something like this:

ME: (looking up): I see two cubs way up in the tree.
BEAR (looking at Carol): I don’t like you – you are too close.
CAROL (looking at mama bear): What should I do?
BEAR: Huff, huff, huff.
ME: Neither of us can pass her so let’s both back up. (Potentially dumb move that fortunately does not cost us our lives, for now Carol and I are separated even more.)
BEAR: (still looking at Carol): Back up some more, sister.
CAROL: Maybe this big stick will help.
BEAR: (clacking jaws): I suggest backing up even more.
ME (now 40 feet away): Keep backing up but let’s stay in sight of each other.
BEAR: Huff, huff, clack, clack, I’d much rather you go away altogether
CAROL (now 40 feet in the other direction): Where’s my camera? Do you think she’ll mind the flash? (Intermission for several minutes while we wait for…what?)
BEAR: Okay, I’ll go up the tree.
CAROL and ME: Let’s get a photo since we are here.
BEAR: Get away while you can.

After mama bear was way up in the tree with her cubs (click picture to see mama looking down at Carol), Carol walked past and up the trail to where I was, pausing to lay her big stick across the path to mark where the bears were for when we came back past there later on. Then we headed on our way, hyperventilating and rehashing what we should have done (stayed together and backed up toward the trailhead, or me going off the trail and circling around back to Carol).

Within five minutes we hit the intersection at Huskey Gap, our turnaround point, which we thought would have taken much longer and given mama bear more time to relocate. Ummmm…do you think the bears have left? Going any other route would mean a long detour and hitchhiking back to our cars. So we headed back and approached our marker on the trail. We could see a black spot way up in the tree, a cub, but we could not see mama anywhere. We kept talking loudly, walking and swiveling our heads around 360 degrees like moms are able to do, but mama did not reappear.

Safely back at our cars, I realized that we had seen 7 bears in the first 3 hours of this trip to the Smokies. An auspicious beginning! Paraphrasing Piglet and Winnie-the-Pooh, "I wonder what's going to happen exciting tomorrow?"

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Numbers

Days hiking: 4 Nights in a wet tent: 3 New miles for the trip: 23.5 Total miles for the trip: 33.5 Bears: 7 Deer: 8 Turkeys: a bunch Dead car batteries: 1

Sunday, August 24, 2008

No Surprises, Please

Kids are all situated, work is put aside, hubby has a sufficiently long honey-do list, so I am heading for the Smokies for a few days. I have a couple of cohorts joining me and we've made all kinds of ambitious plans - all subject to change, of course. I have been reading the latest bear stories on blogs by Smokies Hiker and Jeff at Hiking in the Smokys and trying to stay calm. It's no secret how nervous I am about bears. I don't mind the idea of seeing them but I don't want to surprise them (or vice versa). Who knew I would be doing this project when the "bear crop" was so good?
Still, I am very excited to be on the trails again. After so many changes in my life in the past month, I want to walk and walk and walk, and maybe think just a little. The Smokies are endlessly fascinating to me, the majestic trees, the mystery of what is around the next it a switchback? A view? A creek? A trailhead? Just, startled bears.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Empty Nest

Today is packing day and tomorrow is unpacking day - taking our baby off to college. Of course, she (center) is going to one of the two greatest schools in the nation: Virginia Tech (the other one being Appalachian State where our son (left) is attending). Our older daughter (right) also attended Virginia Tech, graduated, got a job and her own insurance, so we are hopeful that her siblings will follow her lead. My husband and I have been looking forward to the empty nest - except for the part about everyone being gone. Sounds odd except to those of you who have done it. A clean house...lots more freedom...and lots more quiet...and lots more empty. I am going hiking all next week.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Hikin' With The Girls

I met with a local Girl Scout troop tonight to plan a camping/hiking trip in the Smokies in September. For the past two years I have been doing adult training and have missed working directly with a troop of girls - the real reason why we do what we do! The group is a mixture of middle school and high school age girls, lots of energy, some shy, some definitely not. As we talked I was thinking, "This is the future sitting right here in front of me." The leaders are excited, the girls are excited, I am super excited - look out, Smokies, here we come! (I won't tell you when or where we'll be hiking, but you'll know us when you see us!)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Out Under The Sky

I've just finished reading Out Under the Sky of the Great Smokies: A Personal Journal by Harvey Broome and I'm thinking of starting it again immediately. Broome was an attorney born and raised in eastern Tennessee who helped found the Wilderness Society and served as president of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club. The book is from his writings of nearly 50 years of exploring the Great Smoky Mountains on foot, off the trails more than on. (Heck, there weren't many "trails" as we know them today, but old roads and footpaths and animal paths.)

But it's more than a recording of "what I did today." It is a love story about the Smoky Mountains, his love for the wildness and his vision for its future. Broome's concern for conservation is absolutely contemporary. Many of the things he feared have indeed come to pass: pollution, development, encroachment, people trying to get their "nature" without getting out of their cars. His opinion of the automobile was often skeptical: "The car has for many people become a sort of extension of their personalities. But if they were forced to do without cars they would adjust quickly. Studies in the physical conditioning of modern Americans show that many of this generation may not be fit because of softening influences in their formative days. But the race is not injured basically and the next generation, if need be, can be strong again...But what concerns me is the rejection of the past in this summary way...They have become so entranced with the illusions of power which the automobiles and the other contrivances of modern living have bestowed upon them that they want to dedicate themselves to such a life without thought of the consequences to themselves, their history...A second illusion is that they can soak up beauty and natural values from an automobile in the same manner and to the same degree as on foot. Sound and subtleties which the canoeist or foot traveler would hear and sense do not exist for the motorist." Broome made those observations in 1953.

One can usually determine my enjoyment of a book on my shelf by looking at the number of page corners turned down. Broome's book is filled with bent corners at his thoughts on conservation and his eloquence of description of each hike into the beautiful mountains. Just lying on his back on the ground was cause for reflection: "I reveled in the feeling of god-like attainment afforded by these full views on a warm spring day through the winter nakedness of the trees. Everything was perfection and the views fell in our laps."

It is always interesting to read about places one has been and I tried hard to picture Broome's views of Gregory Bald, Chimney Tops, Porters Creek, Charlies Bunion, Greenbrier. But what he describes is no longer there as he saw it. The Smokies are constantly changing, sometimes because of weather in the form of flash floods and ice and snow and sometimes because of humans creating trails and furthering erosion. That makes Broome's book especially important as it captures changes from his first hike as a teenager in 1917 to 1966 - it is a history book as well as a love story. I've got to get back to my reading...

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Porters Creek Trail

Cosby Weekend – Day Three - 7/17/08 – Porters Creek Trail (Plus a Little Bit Extra) – 8 Miles

A peaceful night with no rain, but I had something on my mind. Since we had changed our Sunday plans, I was going to come up a tiny bit short on my mileage. I have a goal of 40 miles of hiking to justify all the driving and logistics of coming to the Smokies for a weekend and a Type A person (A for Aries in my case) can get stuck on goals. My ultimate resolution: the Gabes Mountain trail splits at a certain point and you can either hike .3 miles to the campground or .3 miles to the picnic parking lot and either way you have “completed” the trail. Yesterday I went via the campground route, so today I quickly ate breakfast and drove (yes, drove, I know it makes no sense except I didn’t have much time) to the picnic parking lot and happily skipped the .3 miles to the junction and .3 miles back out. This put me at 40.2 miles for the weekend and made me very happy. Say what you want about us Aries people – we are doers (and honest)!

I confess that my right knee had been hurting something awful for most of the downhill on the 18-miler yesterday, but thankfully a good night’s rest fixed me up and it did not bother me at all today. Everyone got up and packed up and ready to have an easy hike all together. Even Dawn was going to give it a go. Of course, “easy” is always relative in the mountains. (Note: An apology here for the grainy photos - remember, I didn't even know if the camera was working!)

Background on the Greenbrier Cove area of the Smokies where Porters Creek Trail is located: According to the Hiking Trails Of The Smokies, this area was heavily settled and farmed and therefore not heavily logged. Near the end of the 19th century “26 families lived here and at one point sent 225 children to the local school.” Now, how many children per family would that be?? Anyway, in this area there once stood “four grist mills, three cemeteries, two churches, two stores and two blacksmith shops” and “the two-story Greenbrier Hotel”. Walk along this trail and just imagine…

We climbed the few steps to see the Ownby Cemetery and the flowers on the graves appeared to be quite recent, perhaps from Decoration Day or simply from attentive descend- ants. There were many tiny graves and headstones, always a sobering sight. If every family had eight or more living children in school, and yet there were so many infants laid to rest…sometimes I marvel at how those mountain women of the past were so strong.

This trail is particularly known for its spring wildflowers, but we were here in July so it was all about the water. We were never far from the sight and sound of the creek and it was breathtaking, gimpse after glimpse of cascades through the trees. This is a four-season trail for sure: spring wildflowers, summer shade, fall foliage and winter with clear views of all that water.

We began to climb and crossed the creek on a long footbridge that was a very wide V shape over an awesome cascade. (Here Ruth Ann turned around to meander back to the car.) I tried to walk ahead a bit to practice hiking alone (ha!) We met a couple of overnighters coming down with their backpacks and then we met two local hikers, Marlene and Glenn. They had on “900-Miler” tee shirts, so I quizzed them and they have hiked all the trails once and I believe Glenn has done them twice (Marlene is almost done with the second go-round). Wow! And they get to come here all the time.

Porter’s Creek Trail does not intersect with another trail but ends at Campsite #31 in a lovely grove of old growth hemlocks above the creek. There is a very faint, very steep, unmaintained trail from there up to the AT near Charlies Bunion. We sat here to munch on lunch and just enjoy it all.

Time to head back to the world. The walk down was quick with lots of spirited conversations, people constantly regrouping and chattering. Soon we found ourselves going past the cemetery once again, where there were special visitors – a doe and her fawn with its Bambi spots! They did not run away but posed for photos and were still grazing when we walked on.

At the cars there were hugs all around, politely ignoring the fact that we were all quite sweaty, and then we all headed back toward home. When I got within cell phone reception there were messages for me that my dad was getting worse, and my mind turned toward him. Perhaps God gave me this wonderful weekend to help me get ready for my dad.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Awesome Hikers

Cosby Weekend – Day Two – 7/26/08 - Snake Den Ridge Trail/Maddron Bald Trail/Albright Grove/Gabes Mountain Trail/Henwallow Falls – 18.5 Miles

 As I lay in my tent contemplating the trouble associated with a trip to the bathroom, I heard a rustling in the trees, following by splashing sounds. The drops grew louder and more frequent until it was officially raining. I listened for, hoped for, prayed for thunder which would signal a fast-moving storm passing through. For two hours I pretended that it would all be over at any moment. But no…so would everyone decide to bail out and go find a good breakfast buffet?

Not a chance - these are serious hikers. Everyone agreed that it couldn’t last long and it was warm anyway, so it could be kind of refreshing (yeah, that’s it) to hike in the rain. Five of us (Carolyn, Judy, Marta, Dawn and myself) were hiking the loop from the campground going up Snake Den Ridge and back around via Gabes Mountain Trail. Ruth Ann and Barbara would jog up Low Gap Trail to the AT and over to the Mount Cammerer fire tower.

The rain was settling in for a long visit and we began our uphill power walking. Did I mention how much I like going uphill at the beginning of the day? We would meet a number of people on the trail during the day, all hiking in the opposite direction. First they would be amazed that we were doing the entire 18-mile loop in a dayhike and second, they would inform us that we had done it the hard way by coming UP Snake Den Ridge rather than going DOWN it. What can I say? We were the awesome hikers.

But we lost one of our mighty women in the first couple of miles, when Dawn had to admit that her heel spur had not disappeared and was actually quite aggravated. She knew she had to get off of it and she was smart about it and headed back to camp. You hikers know that it can be hard to turn around once you have a hike in your head. So we just talked about Dawn all day (all good stuff, really!) Since this was my first time meeting her I was disappointed to not spend time getting to know her. But tomorrow was another day…

At some point during the previous day my camera screen had taken a hit and was not working, i.e. I could not see what I was photo- graphing (if anything). Looked like it had a big thumbprint on it. So I didn’t try many photos, but once I got home and uploaded I found that I was indeed taking pictures. This is the fabulous view for most of the morning.

Then it got better. Actually, by the time we topped out and turned right onto Maddron Bald Trail the rain was gone. Maddron Bald is unlike Gregory Bald – it is very narrow and covered with sand myrtle and mountain laurel just a little taller than a person. On a short side trail we climbed a rock outcropping where the view is usually 360 degrees, but today we saw clouds moving out. (Note: Side trails are usually worth checking out.)

Two great spots on this hike: Off of the Maddron Bald Trail is the Albright Grove Loop Trail, a .7-mile fairyland walk through a virgin forest (meaning the lumber companies never cut trees here). Whispering seemed appropriate as we stopped again and again to lean back and try to see to the top of these magnificent giants, Fraser magnolias, Eastern hemlocks, maples and especially tuliptrees. This is a special place, so put it on your list.

The second highlight was on Gabes Mountain Trail: Henwallow Falls near the end of the day, after more than 16 miles of footpounding. A dozen people were there enjoying the water and we followed suit. It is a simple but great outdoor pleasure to soak your feet in a creek at the end of a hike. We still had two miles to go back to the campground, but we agreed that the diversion gave us the strength to get ‘er done.

(Hey, Mark and Tamal, we were there at the falls at about 5:00 PM on Saturday, July 26 – were you there too?)

Back at camp feeling a great sense of accomplishment – 18.5 miles! Barbara and Ruth Ann had made it to Mt. Cammerer and back, having seen absolutely no view (10 miles). Guess they’ll have to do it again another time! Since we had spent no time on communal meal planning, everyone brought out her individual backpacking stove (AKA pocket rocket) and made dinner. The original Sunday hike plan to Mt. LeConte was scratched (were we crazy?) and a new scheme for a leisurely stroll up the Porters Creek Trail was agreed upon by everyone, including Dawn (who had sat around and read all day and was itching to try again). The night was comfortable, the company was outstanding and the laughter could probably be heard for miles.

"Some people walk in the rain, others just get wet."  ~Roger Miller

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

How About a Warm-Up Hike?

Cosby Weekend - Day One - 7/25/08 - Hemphill Bald Trail/Caldwell Fork Trail/Rough Fork Trail - 13.7 Miles
I am writing this many days after my last outing, so the facts may be a little fuzzy (embellished?) but the great feeling is still there. First of all, I have to say that this hiking weekend was an absolute delight with seven very cool and accomplished outdoorsy women. I had to work hard to keep up my self-image as a savvy hiker. There was lots to learn from this group, many stories (some of which shall remain confidential) and lots of laughter.

For my first trick I talked Carolyn into leaving Charlotte at crack-of-dawn-thirty to squeeze in a little hike on the way to Cosby Campground in Tennessee, our weekend home base. Yes, that's why you can't find the above referenced route in the Cosby area of the Park map - it isn't there! This is Hike #3 in the Cataloochee section (yes, I know it's closer to Balsam Mountain but...) in Etnier's book. The Hemphill Bald Trail is accessed from Heintooga Ridge Road on the NC side of the Park and actually follows the eastern Park boundary. You can stick your hand over the fence and be on private land. You can also get licked by a cow. The upper part of the trail looks out over...that's correct...a bald and open fields and the ski lift for Cataloochee Ski Resort
We could also see homes and farms and roads and man's best friend. As Carolyn and I were walking up the trail, these two fellas were walking down, and they turned right around and accompanied us for a spell. Our repeated stern "NO!" was met with tail wagging. Eventually we followed a short side trail to the fence to take in the view, and when we moved back to the trail the dogs headed left (the way we had come) and then we snuck off to the right, snickering at our brilliance. No more dog followers for that day.

What we did see much more of was Turk's cap lilies everywhere, sometimes nodding on stems at eye level across the trail. They are stunning, large blooms, often in bunches, and we were constantly pausing to admire them. (Click to see full screen and see if you can find the spider.)

Just before Hemphill Bald Trail takes a sharp left back into the woods and away from the view, there is a small fenced-in area that contains a welcoming shade tree and an enormous stone slab table and stone benches. Embedded in the table top is a schematic of all the mountain tops overlapping in waves before you and the distances from you to them. On this clear day Carolyn and I saw Mount Pisgah, Cold Mountain, even Mount Mitchell. We had lunch and enjoyed the idyllic setting and talked about how everyone on earth should do this hike.
At the end of the Hemphill Bald Trail sits this impressive rock cairn.

Here we turned left onto Caldwell Fork. I had been on this trail before on Memorial Day weekend with Stephanie - this is where the Big Poplars are located. Somehow this trail had increased in elevation since I was last here (well, this time I was hiking in the opposite direction), but our section was short (1.7 miles) and we knocked it out. Then we took another left onto our final trail, Rough Fork, and began to climb again.

Have any of you hikers noticed this phenomenon? It doesn't matter whether the trail is 3 miles long or 13 or 23, if the last couple of miles are uphill it is just not fair. I have decided that I like getting the big ups over at the beginning so I can slouch downhill the rest of the day. Then I can have enough breath to complain about my knees hurting...

But the car was right where we left it and we headed towards Tennessee. The Foothills Parkway was closed because of smoke (found out later there had been a rather large fire started by a lightning strike earlier in the week) so we had to do some back roads driving to get to Cosby. When we arrived at camp, our friends Ruth Ann and Barbara were ahead of us and had moved us from the campsites that I had reserved to more choice sites on another loop. (Note: only 20 sites at Cosby are by reservation but most of the campground is first come, first served, and as you all know, I don't like taking chances.) As it turned out, the campground wasn't even half full for the weekend. I was shocked. Doesn't everybody in the world want to be in the Smokies all the time??

Arriving soon after were the rest of our cohorts, Marta (AT thru-hiker 2006), her friend Judy (AT section hiker and looking to do it all the way through in 2010) and Dawn (strong hiker who has been so many places I can't keep up). Since Ruth Ann and Barbara had actually erected a tarp over their picnic table, the rest of us didn't even try, but simply proclaimed their site the gathering space. We discussed the weather forecast for Saturday (30% chance of rain), set a time to set off in the morning on our epic hike and eventually went to our tents. I had my own tent to myself for the first time ever!

We woke up at 5:00 AM to that 30%.