Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Three Bears...Where's Mom?

Christmas Getaway – 12/23/08 – Laurel Falls Trail – 6.2 Miles

My daughters and I got up, dressed, packed and out of the hotel room with a minimum of verbal exchange (very important skill as the parent of young adults) and ate breakfast in Gatlinburg before heading to the Laurel Falls Trails. I was very excited to be doing this trail with them. Actually, I’m excited to hike just about any trail with anybody at any time, but this was especially great because I knew the waterfall would be a big payoff for them. The thrill meter had slipped a tad since yesterday because now they knew that hiking could be hard work, but they were still good sports. They got a kick out of the fact that yesterday we went to “Meg’s” mountain and today was “Laura’s” waterfall.

It was cold but clear once again and now Megan and Laura were experienced at being outfitted. (The day before Laura’s hands had been too cold after our lunch break, but we got that worked out with different gloves.) Ours was the first car in the parking lot of this extremely popular spot and I knew we would not be alone for long.

The trail up to the falls is paved so it’s easy walking, although a little bit steep in places. I remembered from the summer that a bear family hangs around this trail so I kept a watchful eye but saw no signs. Along the way we saw really cool (ha!) icicles and hoar frost.

Laurel Falls was in fine form and we hung around taking photos from different angles. At this point Laura chose to go back to the car (I had given them both an option earlier that they could turn around any time if they were willing to wait in the cold car for me.) Megan and I continued up the trail to its intersection with Little Greenbrier Trail, where Judy and I had been just a couple of weeks before. Along the way I pointed out to Meg the faraway ridge line of the AT. Could that be Clingmans Dome in the distance?

We turned around and walked back to the waterfall, took a few more pictures and slipped around on the ice. By now other people were making the pilgrimage up, some hikers in proper attire and others in jeans and carrying babies and asking the inevitable, “How much farther?” As always, I try to remember that I once hiked in jeans and that anybody who takes the time to step on a trail and see the forest is a potential convert to the hiking life.

For both hikes I had slowed my pace for Megan and Laura, but now that I was in the home stretch I asked Meg if it was okay to go ahead of her back to the car so that I could see how Laura was doing. Turns out Laura was cozy in the back seat with her quilt and her iPod, of course. She told me about seeing two bears on the creek below the falls soon after we parted ways. They were far enough away that she did not disturb their behavior and she watched them for a few minutes. The fact that she was alone didn’t seem to bother her.

Megan arrived back at the car just five minutes later, very excited because she had seen a bear too! During a moment when there was no one else on the trail she heard leaves rustling and saw it moving around behind a big log. The fact that she was alone did freak her out a little bit so she didn’t linger. So…three bears for the girls, zero for mom! Add that to the one yesterday and that’s a pretty good bear score for our trip.

Thus ended our mini-trip to the Smokies. We drove back to Charlotte to get started on the holiday festivities, but I felt like I had already received one of the best gifts possible: time with some of my most favorite people doing one of my most favorite things.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Hiking With My Girls

Christmas Getaway - 12/22/08 - Curry Mountain Trail Out and Back – 6.6 Miles

Just about every Christmas since my children were born has been spent with my parents, a few times at their home in Virginia but mostly at our home in Charlotte. This year would be different because both of my parents have passed away, my mother in January 2007 and my father in July 2008. All our kids came home to Charlotte, Megan from Baltimore and Brett from school at Appalachian State and Laura from Virginia Tech, and my husband and I planned a few surprises and we all took good care of each other as we sailed through uncharted waters.

When we saw what the schedule of arrivals and departures and work for the week was shaping up to be, there was a small window of opportunity to go to the Smokies. My husband and son had to work, so the girls and I slipped away on Dec 22. Outfitted with warm clothes and a promise to “fake enthusiasm” we drove to the Tennessee side of the Park. The girls were interested to see the places that I had been talking and writing about and I was extremely excited to show them my world in the Smokies. I probably didn’t make much sense as I gushed about trailheads and campgrounds as we drove towards Gatlinburg. The only thing that would have been better is if the guys had been with us as well.

We stopped quickly at the Sugarlands VC to check the temperatures (32 degrees, yay!) and then drove to the Metcalf Bottoms parking area to hike the Curry Mountain Trail. This is a 3.3-mile trail up to Meigs Mountain (or Meg’s Mountain, as we decided to call it).

See how excited they were? They actually were great hikers, with youth on their side, and it was a beautiful day (the weather forecast is what helped us decide to do the trip). We crossed creeks and hopped over fallen trees. The frozen concoction on the end of this log looked particularly gross.

At the intersection with Meigs Mountain Trail we turned right and walked the short distance to the Meigs cemetery. I could find very little informa- tion in the “brown book” about this cemetery, but it is maintained nicely. There are only a couple of graves with engraved markers and all the others have simple rough headstones and footstones.

As always, there were many tiny graves.

After a short break (it was still cold!) we began our walk back down the mountain. Hiking both ways on a trail may seem boring, but often a trail is worth a second look going in the opposite direction. Are you sure this tree was laying across the trail before? Do you see the way that cloud is hovering over that peak? The big highlight of our return trip was that Megan spotted a bear below the trail! Now that the leaves are gone we can see bears from a safe distance so it’s fun and not scary. And we would have missed it completely without Megan’s eyes.

The girls begged for more hiking but I insisted that we go to my favorite hotel in Gatlinburg
and get cleaned up and get something good for dinner. We dined at Ogle’s Brick Oven and then collapsed at our room. We laughed at ourselves as Laura tried to lead us in stretching exercises and watched Hannah Montana until we couldn’t stand it anymore. The lights went out early to rest up for another day of hiking tomorrow. Little did we know what excitement awaited us!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

On The Border

Part 2 - 12/7/08 - Metcalf Bottoms Trail/Little Brier Gap Trail/Little Greenbrier Gap Trail/Cove Mountain Trail – 13.9 Miles 

  Leaving behind the Walker Sisters’ home, Judy and I hiked up to the end of Little Brier Gap Trail and turned right onto Little Greenbrier Trail, Judy's thermometer still confirming what the rhododendron leaves already knew - baby, it's cold outside!

Little Greenbrier Trail runs along the Park’s border. Now, I have a pretty good compass in my head and a pretty good visual memory of maps,, but this trail made me question those abilities. It gently curves around the mountains, turning north, then south, and at least half a dozen times I saw houses in Wear Cove over my right shoulder on the “wrong” side of trail. How could we be headed east, looking south into the park (on my right) and see houses?? Very disorienting…at one point when we thought we had it straight we got out the USGS map and determined that we were looking across at the spine of the Smokies and Clingmans Dome.

At the end of Little Greenbrier Trail we turned left for a short jaunt (.9 miles) on Laurel Falls Trail up to its terminus at Cove Mountain and then turned left again for the short walk to the fire tower located on the mountaintop. This particular tower has a big shed type building on it so the top is no longer accessible. The shed houses equipment for monitoring air quality. At the base we met four men who were dayhiking as part of a guys’ weekend, and we all departed the tower together swapping stories about trails and lamenting that spouses often do not share this passion for walking in the woods. One of the fellows, Dale, walked with us for a while but eventually took off to catch up with his friends.

We followed Cove Mountain Trail for 8.4 miles back to the Sugarlands Visitor Center. This trail also hugs the Park boundary, frequently paralleling gravel roads and coming within spitting distance of private homes (all on the correct left side now!) The fence of one home doesn’t even require spitting – you can reach out and touch it. The sign says “Private property – thank you!” which is so much nicer than “keep out”!

Judy and I heard and saw the snow blowers blasting and the chair lifts moving for Ober Gatlinburg ski resort. This trail is not for wilderness and solitude lovers! But I’m not a solitude hiker and I was interested to see this aspect of the Park’s neighbors.

One interesting discovery along Cove Mountain Trail was these things which are extremely prickly (see photo). Judy did a little internet research and found that they are chinquapin nuts, which sounds reasonable since the “brown book” ("Hiking Trails of the Smokies") says that we were on Chinquapin Ridge, although the Park’s official word is that there are no chinquapin trees…Chinquapins are a relative of the American chestnut tree and the nuts are edible…if you can get to them!

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – the joy of winter hiking is the views. My favorite photos have become those looking through bare branches at distant peaks. Along Cove Mountain Trail on this beautiful, cold, clear day we walked for hours in full view of majestic Mt. LeConte, with its three peaks and what the “brown book” tells me are the shoulders of the “bull” at Balsam Point. This was truly an awesome hike and I felt a thrill every time I looked up and saw those imposing peaks. It was so awesome that I stopped taking photos and just enjoyed the experience.

At last we wound our way down the mountain and began to see roads and cars. The trail is deceptive here, though, as we passed Cataract Falls and expected to walk straight into the VC parking lot. But first we meandered through the nature trail for what seemed like a ridiculously long time – it seems that no matter how long or short the trail, the last mile is the longest! But we reached the VC, changed shoes and drove back to Metcalf Bottoms to retrieve my car. Then Judy and I parted ways once again, knowing that before long we would be back again hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

History Hiking

12/6/08 - Metcalf Bottoms Trail/Little Brier Gap Trail/Little Greenbrier Gap Trail/Cove Mountain Trail – 13.9 Miles

On a very cold day it may take a little more than fresh air to get a hiker outside, so today Judy and I took another history hike to remind us how folks once lived. We had a hearty breakfast in Gatlinburg and then left a car at the Sugarlands Visitor Center and headed along Little River Road to Metcalf Bottoms. We were not surprised to find that ours was the only car in the large picnic area parking lot. (In warmer weather this place is teeming with people.) We were almost at the trailhead for Metcalf Bottoms when I had that funny feeling – did I turn off the stove? Did I lock the car? Better go check…sure enough, the car was unlocked. Dang it, something else to become OCD about now…

Though many tourists drive the gravel road to Little Greenbrier Schoolhouse, Judy and I were, of course, walking the trail and cracking the usual jokes about the good old days of walking to and from school, uphill both ways, in the snow. The “brown book” (“Hiking Trails of the Smokies") has a fascinating summation of life in the days when the school was active. Back in the 1800’s school was not a given. If the community could provide the building, the county would provide a teacher as long as the poll tax was sufficient. Children did walk to school through the woods, crossing creeks (certainly not with the footbridges provided now), and often barefooted even when there was frost. The “brown book” tells us: “For many years school was only held when the frost was on the ground when it was ‘too cold for the boys to be needed in the fields.’ Sometimes school was only held for two months each year. This is all the poll tax would pay. In 1900 there was no school at all. There were not enough children (i.e. poll taxes) to pay for a teacher, make needed repairs and buy firewood. Only repairs were made that year.”

I must say, that “brown book” is great reading!

At the schoolhouse we marveled at the craftsmanship of the building (see dovetailing of boards) and the simplicity of the inside. The building opened on January 1, 1882 and served double duty as a church building until 1924 when a church building was built beside it (which was moved in 1936). The cemetery remains there and, as always, is worthy of one’s time to walk around and reflect and remember.

We continued on up Little Brier Gap Trail to visit the Walker Sisters’ cabin and farmstead. How to summarize this place and the story of the remarkable Walker Sisters? I recommend the “brown book’s” summary and also a book I picked up at the Visitors Center by Bonnie Trentham Myers, The Walker Sisters, Spirited Women of the Smokies, (click to read a good portion of it). In a nutshell, John and Margaret Walker raised 11 children on this farm (remarkable in itself that all children survived to adulthood). Of the 11 children, the 4 boys and 1 girl married and moved away, and 6 of the girls continued to live and die here. (Six unmarried sisters was unusual for that time, and some say that the oldest girl, Margaret Jane, discouraged the girls from marrying because losing a hand around the house/farm meant a lot of work for the rest.) The Walker Sisters were the last people to live in the Park and the last sister, Louisa, died in her home in 1964.

Sorry, people, you are going to have to search this story out because I can’t include it all here…

Judy and I checked out the springhouse lined on the inside with stone shelves and wooden shelves.

We also checked out the barn.

There are very large boxwood type shrubs growing near the buildings, and although it’s wintertime we could imagine flowers blooming and a vegetable garden flourishing. The two-story portion is the original house and the kitchen with a side porch was added later. The main part of the building has an enormous hearth, nearly the width of one wall. The access to the second floor is by a ladder going straight up. In "The Walker Sisters, Spirited Women of the Smokies", the description goes that the boys slept upstairs and the parents and girls slept downstairs, and there are photographs of the rooms filled with beds and furnishings and belongings everywhere, including hanging on the walls and from the ceiling.

Life was hard here, but who’s to say we are happier today with our cell phones and Blackberries and computers and our family members spread so far that we don’t see them day to day?

As we left the Walker Sisters’ home we laughed that Judy’s tube from her water container was sticking out, frozen! The temperature on this morning was 21 degrees. Of course, that did not matter to my hot flashes…at one point Judy commented that I had frost on the back of my shirt where the perspiration was freezing before it could evaporate. Now that’s a story to tell the grandkids.

And as Mr. Frost said, we still had miles to go before we would sleep…

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Postcards From The Smokies

Take a minute to go check out Postcards From The Smokies, a photo-blog companion site to the Bryson City/Swain County Visitors site featuring Smokies information on the NC side of the Park. Lots of good information about events and neat stuff in the area, both inside and outside of the GSMNP. Hey, they even mention me!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Rock Walls and Ghost Chills

Old Settlers Trail & Maddron Bald Trail – 12/6/09 - 17 Miles

I looked forward with much anticipation to today’s hike on Old Settlers Trail for several reasons. One, Greenbrier Road to the trailhead would be closing on December 31 and I would not have another chance to hike here until March. Two, this hike is 17 miles without bailout points (well, actually…) and so not for the faint-hearted. Three, Judy would be hiking it with me and she’s always happy to be hiking. Four, winter is a great season for this trail because it is filled with old home sites and signs of pre-Park habitation that is easiest to see when the leaves are off the trees.

Judy and I met at the Oak Orchard store, left my car, headed to the trailhead off Greenbrier Road and were hiking by about 8:00 a.m. The trail almost immediately passes into the heart of the former Greenbrier community. As the “brown book” (“Hiking Trails of the Smokies”) describes it: “Although it is not known exactly how many people lived along the watershed, more than 250 children attended school here in the early 1900s and the community supported a general store and two churches. Several hundred families made their living here, primarily as small farmers, until Tennessee began purchasing their land for a national park in the late 1920s.” And once the families had moved out, the CCC moved a base camp in.

The only hiker we met on the trail today was a Park ranger hiking in the opposite direction. He clued us in to the numerous unofficial side trails (also called manways) along Old Settlers. Most trails in the Park only have signs at intersections, but occasionally there are signs that simply name the trail and point in two directions, as if to say “keep going.” These are to divert hikers from the unmaintained side trails. Old Settlers Trail has many such places because it roughly parallels Highway 321, and the ranger told us that on the backs of the signs people have scratched in the destination of the side trails, usually a campground or resort or public road. So if you really need an emergency bailout point, keeping track of where these side trails are can help. Talking with the ranger was a real treat and Judy and I wished we had a ranger or interpreter for the entire trail.

The temps were cold today as the trail went up and down, up and down. The names of some of the creeks we crossed: Bird Branch, Copeland Creek, Snakefeeder Branch, Soak Ash Creek, Timothy Creek, Noisy Creek, Tumbling Branch, Texas Creek, Webb Creek, Indian Camp Creek. We also walked up and over places known as Copeland Divide, Snag Mountain and Chestnut Divide (the toughest climb, highest elevation today and a little bit of snow.) Now, how can you resist a place with such colorful names?

Some of the biggest chills we got, literally, were in the bottomlands at old home sites near creeks. The air would suddenly feel cooler as we passed through the trees – was the cold air trapped in the holler or were the souls of former residents still living there? There are a couple of cemeteries along the trail that we did not visit today – but I know I’ll be back.

As we came around a switchback on Chestnut Divide we glimpsed a hunting dog wearing a large radio collar. He took a quick look at us and then ran off in the same direction we were going – didn’t give us even a backward glance. Within a couple of moments he began barking his head off along with another dog. We speculated that they had probably sent some animal up a tree. The barking went on and on and on until we finally walked out of earshot. They are probably still there.

The highlights of the day (and there were many of them) were the old home sites along Old Settlers Trail. The “brown book” has a good description but even it cannot list them all. There are extraordinary rock walls like the one at the beginning of this post, four or five feet high and two or three feet thick, that go on for a hundred yards or more. At one point they line both sides of the trail. Some have been knocked over by fallen trees and some look like they were just completed yesterday. I particularly liked this one where the farmer started with what God had already placed there – a big boulder.

We passed at least a dozen chimneys in various stages and they all had the distinctive inverted V shape in the outline of the hearth. We learned later that the same man built nearly all the chimneys in the Greenbrier area and this was a sign of his workmanship. If you see chimneys elsewhere in the Park they are straight across the top of the opening because they were made by other people. One homesite boasted two chimneys in the home, and one site was particularly awesome because we could see the remains of the chimney, the rock wall marking the front of the property, and outside the edge of the photo is a beautiful creek with a little cascade – an idyllic setting.

 Closer to the Maddron Bald end of the trail (but don’t ask me how close) is the Tyson McCarter Place. The home is gone but the barn is still standing intact and is an amazing example of design, boards and ingenious door hinges.

The small outbuilding's new roof was made from a tree that had recently fallen about 10 yards away from it.
At the end of Old Settlers Trail we turned left and walked down Maddron Bald Trail for a little over a mile to the Park boundary, then half a mile past homes to 321 and the Oak Orchard, reaching my car at about 5:00 p.m. Even though we covered a lot of miles today, we still took time to explore a bit and enjoyed this trail immensely. It is now on my list of trails to do again in a different season (spring, I think) when the day is longer and I can include checking out the cemeteries.
What's the best thing after a long day of hiking? Dinner at Brick Oven Pizza & Pasta in Gatlinburg and bread pudding for dessert! Yum, yum!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Trekking and Tracking

AT Loop Hike Part 2 – 12/5/08

Sweat Heifer Trail – what a charming name! The sweat part is easy, as the elevation gain is nearly 2,200 feet in 3.7 miles. The heifer part? Before the Park was the Park and even before this area was owned by the Champion Fibre Company, farmers drove their cattle up these trails for summer grazing. You know how I dislike going UP on the latter half of a hike, but there was no one to hear my whining so I just took it one slow step at a time.

The trail starts off nicely enough by crossing Kephart Prong near a sweet waterfall. Cascades and falls along the creeks are much easier to see in the wintertime. Between one and two miles up there is a (sort of) level stretch and Sweat Heifer Creek appears. Then the climbing begins again. At one switchback there were some rusted machinery parts in the snow and two buckets hanging from a tree branch. Leftovers from a logging camp or a CCC camp? Each switchback gave a teasing view of the ridge high, high above me which could only be the AT.

  There were no hiker footprints in the snow and I found myself following deer tracks – looked like it had a leisurely stroll for about a mile along the trail. I saw what appeared to be canine tracks (coyote?) and even turkey tracks. Hey, a Hokie has been here!

And what’s this? There appeared to be tracks of at least one adult bear and one small bear. They didn’t look brand new, but I’m not Daniel Boone so what do I know? What I am sure of is that there are no other humans out here to save me.

I followed the bear tracks for nearly two miles. They would stray off the path for a few feet and then reappear. Funny, I never felt really scared. I had convinced myself that the tracks were at least a day old, because they seemed to have been made when the snow was soft and my own footprints were hardly making any impression on the refrozen snow. Anyways, I never saw the owners of the tracks but I guess I can’t pretend they are all sleeping.

I reached the AT again after about a hundred hours and noticed that the temperatures had dropped and the trail was freezing over again. The spot in this photo was just wet this morning and now it was seriously icy. I stopped to chat with a strung-out group of backpackers headed out to Icewater Spring Shelter – it was kind of late in the day and it was dubious whether they were all going to make it before dark.

As I neared the end of my route I heard a hiker whistling behind me and we chatted as we approached the parking lot. He introduced himself as Mr. Nice Guy, a southbound thru-hiker, recently graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He was going to hitch a ride into Gatlinburg to catch up with friends for the night. What a lucky day! I was going straight to Gatlinburg! He was truly a nice guy, reminded me of my son with his ponytail and scruffy beard, and I can only hope that someone gives my son a ride someday when he needs it.

We took a couple of photos of the rhime ice spectacle on the way into town and then stopped at The Happy Hiker, the local outfitter store, for MNG to ask directions. Turned out one of his trail friends was in the store, so after a hug I left him there to make his plans. To Mr. Nice Guy’s family: you did a good job!

As I headed toward my favorite little hotel I had thoughts of a shower and then a pizza from my favorite little pizza place. But hold on a minute…what are these school buses doing unloading all these kids in band uniforms?? That can only mean one thing…

A Christmas parade!

Yes, boys and girls, I was about to be caught up in the Gatlinburg Extravaganza. I hightailed it to my hotel, realizing that I would not be able to leave again by car because the parade route cut me off. So I walked down to the main street, waited in line a few years to get a sub sandwich, and then curled up in my cozy room for the night.

Next year I will go back for the parade. It looked like lots of fun for people who have not hiked all day.

Part 1 - The Bunion

AT Loop Hike Part 1 – 12/5/08 – Appalachian Trail/Dry Sluice Gap Trail/Grassy Branch Trail/Sweat Heifer Trail/AT – 14.1 Miles

The day began with a predawn shuttle to leave Mike’s car at the Cosby Campground. He and Daniel were hiking the AT from Newfound Gap to Cosby, staying one night at Peck’s Corner Shelter and one night at Tricorner Knob Shelter, coming out on Snake Den Ridge Trail to the campground. Then we drove to Gatlinburg in search of a hot breakfast. Do you realize how much backpackers can eat before heading “into the wild”??

Our timing was right to stop at the Sugarlands Visitor Center by 8:00 a.m. for the guys to register for their shelter spots (already reserved by phone). As we came around the corner we were dismayed to see that Newfound Gap Road was…closed! The backcountry rangers informed us that the road was being treated for ice and would be opened sometime during the morning, so Mike and Daniel formulated a new plan. Since their hike would start later, they changed shelters for the first night. Then we went into the VC and watched the excellent movie about the Park.

  By 9:15 a.m. the road was opened, early enough to go back to the guys’ original plan – and I would still have time to do my own plan, a loop hike starting on the AT with them, if we didn’t dawdle. The drive up to Newfound Gap was stunning, with rhime ice formed on the trees.

At the parking lot the guys jumped out of the car and posed for a couple of quick photos. (A fellow told me once that he always takes photos of a hike group before they start out so they can be identified by what they are wearing…how morbid is that?? But that’s what I always think of now…)

Anyhoo, the temps are in the 20’s and so it began. The guys were ahead of me as I took more pictures in the parking lot and the trailhead. I’d been here before and could probably come here once a week and still be awed by the view. Today the AT was coated with snow and ice and my new equipment purchase, YaxTrax for my boots, worked like a dream. I was cautious, but no longer afraid of sliding off the mountain. I was very happy not to be wearing a loaded backpack to make balancing even more precarious.

I soon caught up with and passed the guys and wished them a safe journey. I had 14 miles to go and wanted to get back to my car by 5:00 p.m. They had about 10 miles to go to their first shelter. (Turns out they walked an hour in the dark that day…well, I guess it was that night, actually…) I stopped at Icewater Shelter for a little snack and warmed up with some sunshine on my black shirt.

At Masa Gap I got some great photos out to Mt. LeConte. Interestingly, there was no rhime ice at the higher elevations.

I could not pass up a stop at Charlies Bunion, a huge craggy rock outcropping exposed by a terrible 1925 wildfire and a 1929 cloudburst that washed away the soils. The story goes that a crew including Horace Kephart, George Masa and Charlie Conner went to check out the damage, and they felt that this newly exposed promontory should be named. Apparently Kephart remarked that it had the same knobby appearance as Charlie Conner’s bunion.

Today I stood on the outermost part of the Bunion all by myself with conflicting emotions. One, it was awesome to be alone in a place that is normally crawling with people. Two, I wished I had someone there to share it with. If we had been on the same pace today, Mike and Daniel would have been there and very much appreciated the inspiring beauty. (They did stop there on their trek.) But for now, it was just me and my shadow.

As I sat on the Bunion I could see the clouds down below moving slowly, leaving rhime ice on the trees.

From the Bunion I walked a short distance further up the AT and turned right onto Dry Sluice Gap Trail. Judy and I had hiked the lower part of this trail a few weeks ago on our route from Kephart Trail down to Smokemont, Today I completed the 1.3-mile upper section, and at the junction with Grassy Branch Trail I chatted with 3 backpackers who were taking a break. They were heading in the same direction as I was, so I felt good to know someone was coming along behind me in case I needed them. I had a good laugh on Grassy Branch Trail when I passed this glove stuck on a branch. Hmmm…Part of Michael Jackson’s G.I. Joe ensemble?

At the end of Grassy Branch I stopped for a break at Kephart Shelter, where the backpackers were going to stop for the night, but they never did catch up to me. The temps had warmed up only a little and snow was melted on the sunny south-facing slopes and dense on the shaded north-facing slopes. Finally, there were no more excuses – I had to face the most challenging trail of the day, Sweat Heifer Trail, which was going to be 3.7 miles back UP to the AT.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Channeling Charlie Brown

Big Creek Area – 12/4/08 – Appalachian Trail/Chestnut Branch Trail – 7 Miles

I sometimes suffer from Charlie Brown Syndrome – I worry and overanalyze and delay making decisions on things that are usually out of my control anyway. This weekend I had big plans for an Appalachian Trail backpack, 3 days, 2 nights, with friends from the Carolina Berg Wanderers. I watched the weather forecast, borrowed equipment, and lost much sleep worrying about the cold. There are no bailout points so no room for “gee, I’m cold, let’s cut this short” or “I can stand anything for a day.” In the end four of us (including myself) decided not to do the trip because the forecast was for nighttime temps in the teens. The two tough guys, Mike and Daniel, were not bailing out. I decided to do day hikes for the weekend and sleep warm, and the least I could do was shuttle my two friends for their journey. Thus I found myself driving to the mountains on this Thursday with the intent of meeting them at a hotel, getting gear packed and leaving before sunrise on Friday morning.

What to do on a Thursday afternoon? Go hiking, of course. Rain clouds were looming as I approached the Big Creek campground of the Park, but I planned to hike only 6 or 7 miles so the rain was not a deterrent. My route was Hike #3 in the Big Creek/Cosby section of the “Day Hiker’s Guide.” But the book describes this as a shuttle and there was only me, myself and I and we had one car, so a road walk was necessary between the AT trailhead and the Chestnut Branch trailhead.  

“Hello, could I speak to Charlie Brown, please? 

Should I start at the AT end or the Chestnut Branch end? 

Which way up is steeper? 

Which trailhead is it safer to leave my car at? 

Where do I want to be if I don’t beat the daylight? 

Is it easier to walk on the road or on the trail after dark?

Isn’t it easier to get hit by a car on the road at night? 

The road is gravel – will anyone even be on the road at night? 

Just how long is the road walk anyway?

Should I drive the road part first and then make the decision? 

Hello? Charlie, are you there?”

So I drove up the gravel road looking for the AT trailhead, guessing it was about a mile. At about .8 miles, a big tree lay across the road with branches going everywhere. An SUV was in the process of turning around. The occupants said the AT trailhead was just around the corner.

Decision made. I went back to the Chestnut Branch trailhead near the campground, left my car, and walked the road first around to the AT. Crawling through the branches of the downed tree I got a fierce-looking scratch on my nose. No one believed me when I said it was a bobcat…

Davenport Gap is where the Appalachian Trail enters/exits the eastern side of the Park. Less than a mile on the trail is Davenport Gap Shelter, empty when I was there in midafternoon, but from reading the log book I could see that a stream of southbound thru-hikers were coming by. This shelter sports the traditional chain link fencing across the opening, unlike most of the other Smokies shelters that have no fencing. There are also mice baffles here to hang food bags on, although I don’t think very many mice are baffled by them.

The rain finally began and I changed into rain gear at the shelter. My hike up the AT was uneventful, just a quiet walk through the clouds with little dabs of snow here and there and the occasional white blaze. This double white blaze in the photo indicates a change coming up on the trail, in this case my turnaround point, the intersection with the Lower Mt. Cammerer Trail. I backtracked for a mile and turned right on Chestnut Branch Trail and before I knew it…I was back at my car. Gee whiz, 7 miles feels like nothing now!

I still had some daylight so I hurried on towards Cosby, TN to check out the beginning of Maddron Bald Trail, where Judy and I planned to hike on Saturday. I’d read that this trailhead is not safe for cars and it’s best to park (with permission) at some businesses on 321. Good fortune led me to the Shady Oak General Store, which is also a little restaurant, where I was the lone diner and enjoyed a fantastic bowl of homemade tomato bisque soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. Comfort food at its best! The owner makes a different soup each day of the week. The couple was very friendly and granted me parking privileges, so I was all set.

I checked into my little hotel room and hung up my wet hiking clothes all around the place. Mike and Daniel finally arrived and we talked and completed our plan for tomorrow. Then it was lights out – good night, Charlie Brown!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Cold Feet

Deep Creek Section – 11/21/08 – Thomas Divide Trail/Deeplow Gap Trail/Indian Creek Motor Trail/Stone Pile Gap Trail/Indian Creek Trail/Deep Creek Trail – 17 miles

Today was another opportunity to hike with Danny Bernstein and her husband, Lenny, in the Deep Creek area of the Park as we all are working on our Smokies 900 miles. We wanted to be on the trail by 8:00 a.m. for a long day. Heading out the hotel door to put things in my car, I saw the flags flapping briskly and flakes floating. Yikes! This suggested that we would encounter some snow, which could only mean that I had to put on my hiking boots instead of my trail runners. I had brought my boots inside the hotel room in hopes of drying them out some after the Eagle Creek sojourn, but they were not quite dry. Sigh…my enthusiasm for the day sputtered and struggled to rekindle.

And I must tell you that although it was a great day to be outside, it was a tough hike for me. I had the learning curve for hiking in the coldest weather yet, my feet were cold and wet all day, and it was the third day of strenuous hiking and I was tired. The snow was only a couple of inches deep but it was wet and clung to our boots and pants legs in big clumps. The tips of my hiking poles were big blobs of ice. Our route consisted of ups and downs and some out-and-backs, so psychologically it was challenging. It was hard to keep track of where the halfway point was so that I could look forward to being in the home stretch.

All this debate was going on in my head, but the company was awesome and we did have a great time. Danny and I chattered constantly (Lenny kept a safe distance ahead of us to enjoy some peace and quiet). The snow was present from the first steps on the trail and the rhododendron leaves confirmed the cold temperatures. (The leaves curl up with the cold – the tighter the curl, the colder the air.) Snowy woods are always charming. You can see the outlines of fallen trees and the contours of the land as it climbs sharply up or falls steeply away.

We began our hike at the Thomas Divide trailhead and the route constantly changed at trail intersections (the longest section was only 2.4 miles) so we were continually surprised at the good time we were making. (If you are looking at Etnier’s “Day Hiker’s Guide” our route was roughly Hike #6 in the Deep Creek section, with a little detour at the end.) The sky was cloudy, though, with little sunshine to warm us up, so break times were short. At one point we hunkered down in the hole left by a big tree blowdown to escape the cold breeze.

We returned on Thomas Divide Trail to the Stone Pile Gap intersection and Danny continued on back to her car, while Lenny and I hiked Stone Pile Gap over to Indian Creek Trail. Stone Pile Gap is a narrow connector trail with a picturesque bridge crossing near the Indian Creek intersection. From here it is about a one-mile walk on wide service roads back to the Deep Creek area parking lot. Along here Lenny and I encountered an interesting sight – a big pile of feathers (probably grouse) and a skinny, long T-shaped bone, picked nearly clean but with a little red meat on it. No carcass, no feet, no head. Looked like it had just happened…Hmmmm….

I paused for a photo or two of Indian Creek Falls. There are several waterfalls in the Deep Creek area that are within an easy walk. This one is lovely in spring, too, with more water.

Danny had picked up her car and driven to where mine was parked and she walked up the trail to meet us. She and Lenny were staying another night at the hotel, but my plan was to head to Virginia Tech to stay with friends and see the Hokies play football (we won). I warmed up with a quick shower in their room and then got in the car to drive…again. All in all, a challenging hike and a fantastic feeling of accomplishment at the end of the day.  

After a day's walk everything has twice its usual value. ~George Macauley Trevelyan