Monday, December 14, 2009

Goodbye, Old Friends

MST Hike – Day Five - 11/6/09 – Rough Fork Trail/Heintooga Ridge Road/Blue Ridge Parkway - 11.9 Miles

Only one trail today, Rough Fork. We estimated a low of about 30 degrees last night, which I have decided is about my own personal low until I am willing to carry more clothing. And wouldn’t you know it? Ten minutes into our steep pull up Rough Fork, we were once again ditching the outer layers. I love hiking! As long as you keep moving, you can regulate to your comfort level no matter what the air temp is.

 Once we passed the junction with Caldwell Fork Trail all three of us were in familiar territory – Danny has completed the Smokies 900, of course, and Carolyn and I were here together back in July of '08. In the hazy heat and thick vegetation of summer I didn’t notice this Dutchman’s Pipe vine, but I should look for it again during bloom time. The ropelike vines are wonderful, but I’d love to see a bloom too.

The last couple of miles of Rough Fork flatten out to a wide road bed. We enjoyed lovely views of Big Spruce Ridge in the foreground, which separates the Straight Creek and Caldwell Fork drainages. In the background is (I think) Maggot Ridge and behind it is Little Spruce Ridge. Don’t you wish you could have served on the nomenclature committee with Horace Kephart and George Masa when the Park was being formed? (Note: great book ~ Place Names of the Smokies by Allen R. Coggins)

Snack break - best seat in the house

Way too soon we arrived at Polls Gap, the end of Rough Fork Trail. It was time to leave our old friends, the Smokies trails, and tramp a few miles on the pavement and out of the Park’s boundaries. We felt a little tug of sadness as we walked away.

Following that double yellow blaze

Heintooga Ridge Road is a spur road of the Blue Ridge Parkway, normally closed after October 31, but cars today indicated that the gate was still open. The lucky ones who slipped in could still enjoy the overlooks from the comfort of their auto- mobiles. I have also been guilty of cruising through some overlooks, sometimes not even rolling down the window to inhale the mountain air; however, walking on the road today brought a new perspective. I had not been looking forward to this part – and it is still not my favorite – but I gained an appreciation for those overlooks as we paused, read the signs, and breathed.

It seemed that we trudged a long time in the sunshine, yet suddenly Heintooga was joining the Parkway. Our cars were waiting for us less than a mile northbound and it was still only midafternoon. We could get home for supper! Funny, at the end of every hike we are so glad to see the cars, but on the drive home we are already comparing notes and planning new adventures.

(Click here to read Danny's blog about our day.)  

Anybody who says the scenery gets old is not paying attention ~ Cecil Rowe, oldest person to complete the Smokies 900 (age 78)

Friday, December 11, 2009

All My Trials, Lord

MST Hike – Day Four – 11/5/09 – Beech Gap II Trail/Balsam Mountain Trail/Mount Sterling Ridge Trail/Pretty Hollow Gap Trail/Cataloochee Valley/Rough Fork Trail – 16.4 Miles

Carolyn, my good hiking buddy from Charlotte, joined Danny and me for this overnight backpacking trip to finish up the proposed Smokies section of the Mountains-To-Sea Trail. We all met in Maggie Valley the night before, had a good meal, did our final packing and got a good night’s sleep at cozy Jonathan Creek Inn. Early on this Thursday morning we made good use of a hired shuttle driver to place our cars at the terminus and get dropped off at the beginning of our hike at Beech Gap I Trail. Gazing down at the Straight Fork, I was reminded of that old song: “The river of Jordan is chilly and cold ~ It chills the body, but not the soul ~ All my trials, Lord, soon be over…”

Fortunately, climbing nearly 2,000 feet in 2.5 miles took the chill right off. (Suggested new name for this trail – Beech Gasp!) We looked for the unbridged stream crossing along the way as noted in the “brown book” but ultimately decided it was just a wide wet place on the trail. A trail-relocating blowdown that I had encountered the previous autumn had been reduced to firewood by trail maintainers. At Beech Gap we paused, a very pleasant spot for a break, and then turned left onto Balsam Mountain Trail for a bit more climbing. The sky was blue and leaves were rustling underfoot and the problems of everyday life fell away as we enjoyed the simplicity of putting one foot in front of the other.

At Laurel Gap Shelter we investigated the chain link fencing across the front. Since the last time I saw this I have slept in a few shelters and it now did not seem so inhospitable. In fact, the clearing was large and sunny…and as we stood there soaking up some rays, a couple of backpackers appeared. Seems this was their destination for the night, to hang out, gather firewood and relax. As we continued on our way we met the rest of their party.

   After another .2 miles we left Balsam Mountain Gap Trail and bore right onto Mount Sterling Ridge Trail, following it for nearly 4 miles as it bounced along the ridgeline. This section went quickly, only slowing down for the occasional horizontal wooden advancement impediment.

Pretty Hollow Gap is now a familiar spot where Mount Sterling Ridge, Swallow Fork and Pretty Hollow Gap Trails shake hands. By now I even remember the placement of logs for sitting and eating. We turned right onto Pretty Hollow Gap Trail and began our long descent toward Cataloochee, passing a couple of women dayhiking up to the gap. After a mile the trail edges closer to Pretty Hollow Creek and follows it down, crossing smaller tributaries with charming names such as Onion Bed Branch and Good Spring Branch.

Tributaries and creeks beg to be crossed and we met a few challenges, the most interesting of which involved a wide log with no hand rail. Danny opted for her favorite splash-and-dash method, walking straight through the water. Carolyn took the dare of crossing on the log – the hard part was getting up onto it. Here she is demon- strating the scooching method, but she soon was standing and walking. It’s hard to trust your legs to lift you from a crouching position when you are wearing a loaded backpack.

When it was my turn, I assumed the position on my hands and knees, and suddenly Carolyn said that we had company. I looked around to see a man standing beside me as if he had been there all day. Things got weirder: Danny said, “Hello Joe!” Turns out Joe is a fellow outdoor writer, formerly with a newspaper, now with a terrific website. He was very kind in his treatment of our encounter (click here).

From this point we picked up the pace, hoping to bypass our original campsite destination and press on through Cataloochee Valley. We reached the end of Pretty Hollow Gap at its junction with Cataloochee Road in the Valley. While Carolyn took a stroll to look at the preserved Beech Grove School, Danny and I admired a passing horse parade.

A primary reason why I feel that the MST should be routed through Cataloochee Valley: this area is a jewel in the crown of the park. We walked along the gravel road at dusk in the company of dozens of elk grazing in the fields. The sun sank low and the animals appeared to be right at home.

A lovely lady

Young bulls


Peaceful elk grazing

Carolyn approaching the Caldwell House

With the loss of daylight we also felt the loss of heat and realized we needed to hustle to Campsite 40. We made use of the port-a-potty at the end of the valley and stepped onto Rough Fork Trail. At the Woody House I could not resist my reflection in the fading light.

It took me quite a long time to feel warm in my little tent. I hope the fellows hanging out at Laurel Gap Shelter were warmer at their higher elevation!
In some mysterious way woods have never seemed to me to be static things. In physical terms, I move through them; yet in metaphysical ones, they seem to move through me. ~John Fowles

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Watch Out For Cars

MST Hike - Day Three – 10/23/09 – Bradley Fork Trail/Chasteen Creek Trail/Hughes Ridge Trail/Enloe Creek Trail/Hyatt Ridge Trail/Beech Gap II Trail – 13.8 Miles

After carrying a full backpack for a few miles, the hiker experiences astronaut-type weightlessness whenever she takes it off. After carrying one for a few days, the hiker is accustomed to the weight but still welcomes the rest breaks when the pack hits the ground. I was optimistic for today’s hike in spite of the rainy forecast because we would be tripping along with little daypacks – sort of like hiking naked (but no sunburned cheeks today!)

It did rain during the night, but Danny and I were still carefree tossing the wet tents and gear into the cars, because at the end of the day we both would be headed home, where everything will be spread all over the garage to dry out. We hit Bradley Fork Trail at about dark-thirty A.M. to enjoy another day in the Smokies.

After a scant mile we turned right onto Chasteen Creek Trail for our big climb of the day, about 2,200 feet in 4 miles. Near this junction is Campsite 50; saw a few tents peaking through the trees. The lower portion of Chasteen Creek Trail is an old road bed. At a couple of turns we noted the CCC’s characteristic stone work. During the wintertime there are several good views of cascading Chasteen Creek. I always enjoy the white water splashing past brown leaves and wet gray rocks.

We passed a lone hiker and a small group of backpackers that had overnighted at Campsite 48. They reported that it wasn’t a bad campsite, but I was skeptical because my memory of it was as a sloping site with little level space for even a single tent. It’s a large area, though, with lots of water from creeks on two sides. Danny and I looked for it as we walked up, but never did see the post indicating the official site. However, I feel that the site we checked out is the true site because there were fire rings. If any readers have camped here, please let me know if you slept with your feet pointing downhill!

Saw this interesting tree stump with a back window

Chasteen Creek Trail changes character, becoming narrow and turning with sharp switchbacks as it climbs towards Hughes Ridge. My other experience on this trail was all downhill, so I liked the new perspective. (Remember, no heavy backpacks!) Still no rain, but no sunshine either, and as we climbed I noticed clouds creeping in to obscure the ridge.

A bit of head- scratching awaits the hiker at the upper end of Chasteen Creek Trail where it intersects with Hughes Ridge Trail. The wooden trail sign for Hughes Ridge indicates that going left leads 4.7 miles to the AT and going right leads to Smokemont Campground, with no mileage designation. The Chasteen Creek Trail sign beneath it indicates Smokemont Campground is 5.3 miles. The confusion increases a half-mile further up Hughes Ridge at the junction with Enloe Creek Trail. Here the sign claims that Smokemont Campground is 7.4 miles away. Interesting…in a half-mile we’ve covered 2.1 miles!

 The answer, of course, is that Hughes Ridge Trail itself used to continue 7.4 miles down to Smokemont Campground, but the section below the Chasteen Creek junction is no longer maintained. I guess we have to wait a while longer for this sign to deteriorate so it can be replaced with an accurate one.

The slow and methodical trek up Chasteen Creek Trail became a woo-hoo jaunt down Enloe Creek Trail. Try as I might, I couldn’t slow down, so Danny let me take the lead for her own safety. This trail starts out fun and becomes muddy slip-and-slide fun, a typical horse trail after a rainy day. The “brown book”, Hiking Trails of the Smokies, has an entertaining tale of Abraham and Wes Enloe, early residents of this remote and wild area. The story goes that a young woman working on their farm became pregnant and one of the brothers helped her move away to Kentucky, where her baby was born – named Abraham Lincoln. While the identity of the child’s father is sometimes disputed, apparently there was a strong resemblance between the Enloes and the esteemed president…

Anyway, we descended into Raven Fork Gorge, mostly virgin forest only selectively cut for larger trees. Enloe Creek is big and loud and roaring on the left. We crossed a footbridge and noticed that the creek was now flowing in a different direction – being the sleuths that we are, we realized that we had passed the confluence and were now following Raven Fork, even bigger and louder. The trail was still muddy and often very narrow, hugging the mountainside, and I wondered how horses passed along.

But the rain that caused the mud also created these two fantastic creeks tumbling down the mountainsides.

Soon we reached Campsite 47, a small site that at first seems really neat but upon inspection is very limited. It sits right beside a very large steel bridge spanning Raven Fork (you have to cross the bridge for access to the creek for water); the other side of the camp is up against a steep, rocky bank, so it’s not easy to cook far away from the tents or to make bathroom facilities. And the creek is quite noisy here. I like a babbling brook, but this is more of a dull roar.

The trail past Campsite 47 rises sharply up and the rain began to pitter-patter – time to put our rain gear on, our heads down, and haul ourselves up the mountain. I couldn’t resist a photo of this little hitchhiker on my boot – the wet leaves had been clinging to my boots all day.
More uphill awaited on Hyatt Ridge Trail and I don’t remember much conversation along this section. At the next intersection with Beech Gap II Trail we paused for another break and the rain began in earnest. We had 2.8 miles to roll downhill now to Straight Fork Road where we had staged Danny’s car. At the end of that last long mile, as I stepped out onto the narrow, gravel, normally deserted road, a bizarre parade approached across the bridge: seven vintage cars (Mazda Miatas, I’m guessing) out for a drive. I didn’t even think about my camera. The drivers waved…I waved…

Say it together with me, people: Every day is a great day in the Smokies!  

I am sure it is a great mistake always to know enough to go in when it rains. One may keep snug and dry by such knowledge, but one misses a world of loveliness. ~Adeline Knapp

Monday, November 23, 2009

Knowing How Way Leads On To Way...

MST Hike – Day Two – 10/22/09 – Martins Gap Trail/Sunkota Ridge Trail/Thomas Divide Trail/Newton Bald Trail/Benton MacKaye Section to Bradley Fork Trail – 13.2 Miles

The night was cold but not awful , I’m guessing in the upper 30’s. With my 15-degree Mountain Hardware down sleeping bag (a bright green, so I call it “the Worm”), I was toasty and even shed an outer layer during the night. This morning was my first of getting up and breaking camp in the dark and the verdict is: I don’t like it much. We were prepared to hit the trail at first light, but making hot tea and cheesy grits in the dark is not a habit I want to form. Just a mental thing to overcome, but hopefully we won’t be backpacking much on this venture.

The 1,000-foot gain in 1.5 miles going up Martins Gap Trail was a great wake-up, however, and within the requisite 15 minutes we stopped to lighten up layers. Climbing in the early morning light was quiet and purposeful and my thoughts rolled back to my last trek here in January, a wonderful cold gray-and-blue winter day. Today was more colorful:

Yellow buckeye

Yellow buckeye

Half-and-half red maple


At the next intersection we took a deep breath to begin the 4.9-mile climb up Sunkota Ridge Trail, a more gentle trail but uphill nonetheless. Our rest breaks consisted of plopping down in the middle of the narrow trail as it clung to the steep sloping ridgelines. Here’s Danny on her pilgrimage up Sunkota.

Sunkota Ridge terminates at the Thomas Divide Trail, which we then followed for a .4-mile stretch to a larger intersection with Newton Bald Trail. The mileage for this short jaunt is not calculated on the $1 Smokies map; neither is the .7 miles from the Newton Bald/Thomas Divide junction to the Newton Bald/Mingus Creek Trail intersection. Why am I attentive to these details? Because our hike just got 1.1 miles longer.

Even more important, at the Newton Bald/Mingus Creek junction Danny and I made history (we hope). Here the current MST turns to follow Mingus Creek Trail to its terminus at Newfound Gap Road near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, where the MST hiker must begin walking on the Blue Ridge Parkway because this section of trail has not yet been created…BUT there is a proposal being considered to continue the MST route further through the Smokies. Danny and I decided to hike the proposed route for several reasons: A, it’s more fun to walk in the woods than on the road; B, it’s safer to walk in the woods than on the road; C, walking on the road requires walking through five tunnels and we do not want to be flattened; D, this route follows much of the already-established Benton MacKaye Trail; and E, hopefully our using and promoting this proposed route will help move the process along to make it official. As with all things bureaucratic, impact studies must be conducted and meetings must be held, but it just makes more sense to have the MST go wherever the road is not.

(BTW, get out your maps - the proposed route from this point is: Newton Bald Trail, cross Newfound Gap Road at Smokemont Campground, Benton MacKaye Trail to Bradley Fork Trail, Chasteen Creek Trail, Enloe Creek Trail, Hyatt Ridge Trail, Beech Gap I and Beech Gap II Trails, Balsam Mountain Trail, Mount Sterling Trail, Pretty Hollow Gap Trail, walk through Cataloochee Valley, Rough Fork Trail to Heintooga Ridge Road, then Heintooga Ridge Road to the BRP. Are we having fun yet???)

So off we go on the “road less traveled.” Newton Bald is a wonderful trail on a fall day and a steady downward slope that gently winds around the mountains curves, enticing you to wonder at what is around the next bend. My past walk on this trail was about a year ago and I remembered well the yellow leaves falling and acorns hitting me on the head. A mile or two from the end we passed a large group of college students from Michigan – a dozen or more – hiking up to Campsite 52 for their first night in the Smokies. They looked prepared for the predicted evening rain.

Beware of hiking buddies behind you with cameras

Our yellow wood

The last bit of Newton Bald Trail showed evidence of the horse trail that it truly is. There is a loop horse trail branching off from Newton Bald that is not indicated on the $1 map, so don’t let that confuse you – just follow the sounds of traffic to Newfound Gap Road. We crossed the road and picked up the tiny section of Benton MacKaye (coincides with one of the horse trails out of Smokemont) and walked the mile to its intersection with Bradley Fork Trail. Here our journey for the day ended.

We had made great time, lots of daylight left, which we needed to get set up for tomorrow. We retrieved our car from Clingmans Dome, set up camp in a tent site at Smokemont (another great reason to relocate the MST – easy camping facilities), cleaned ourselves up as best we could, and staged our car for the next day at the Beech Gap trailhead at Round Bottom on Straight Fork Road. This part was a bit spooky as darkness closed in while we were driving along that deserted gravel road. The highlight of the evening was the buffet at Big Boy’s in Cherokee – well, it was food that we didn’t have to cook, anyway! Time to sleep and get mentally ready for a rainy day tomorrow.

(Read Danny's summary of today's hike here.) And for a cool YouTube interpretation of "The Road Not Taken," click here.  

The Road Not Taken 

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
~Robert Frost

Monday, November 9, 2009

And Away We Go!

MST Hike – Day One – 10/21/09 – Appalachian Trail/Fork Ridge Trail/Deep Creek Trail to Campsite 57 – 13.4 Miles

My year of hiking the Smokies 900 was challenging and satisfying – I set a goal, I completed it, learned some new things, and had a grand time throughout the process. Although I have flirted around with the SB6K and the Pisgah 400, I was not really looking for another challenge with a time frame attached. Then I got an email from Danny Bernstein throwing down a gauntlet for the Mountains-To-Sea Trail across North Carolina. What did I think of section hiking the entire MST with her over a two-year period? I was flattered to be asked and after some back-and-forth about general parameters and a conversation with my spouse, I said yes. Even the next day it still sounded like a good the plans began rolling out. No foot-dragging on Danny’s watch! We had dates on the calendar before I knew what hit me.

A hiking challenge requires many skills, none more important than flexibility. Our very first scheduled outing, an overnight backpack beginning at Clingmans Dome, got moved around because of the (good) weather forecast. On Wednesday, October 21, Danny and I hoisted our packs, marched up to Clingmans Dome and touched the sign marking the beginning of this nearly 1,000-mile trail. Jockey’s Ridge State Park on the Outer Banks, here we come!

The MST begins in the Smokies, home turf for us, and we knew very well what awaited our first few days. Considering the early snow as a good sign, we marched confidently down the AT.

Over our shoulders we caught a glimpse of the tower at Clingmans Dome

Danny likes to voice record notes to write about our trip on her blog. She posts them the day after she gets home (read about Day 1 here.) As my regular readers know, I’m not so fast.

A few tenths of a mile past the Sugarland Mountain Trail intersection we turned right onto a short access trail, crossed Clingmans Dome Road and stepped onto Fork Ridge Trail. On a beautiful day last year I hiked this trail with fellow Berg members Carolyn and Jeff. We had a couple of blow-downs to contend with on the descent down to Deep Creek.

Brilliant leaf show

Frasier magnolia

Love the red stuff

I brought my Crocs in anticipation of crossing Deep Creek at the end of the Fork Ridge Trail, which I remembered as deep and chillin’ – and can confirm that it still is. We turned right onto Deep Creek Trail and encountered three more sketchy crossings of side creeks as they flowed into the big Deep one. I hopped when I could and put on my Crocs once. I abhor the idea of wet boots! Thoughts of Don Gardner followed me on this section from our epic hike earlier this year.

A lovely carpet!

The beauty of Deep Creek

We passed through several backcountry sites, some occupied, some not, on the way to our own home for the night, Campsite 57, also called Bryson Place, the location of Horace Kephart’s last permanent camp. On both of my previous visits here I was unable to find the commemorative millstone placed there in his honor by the Kephart Boy Scout Troop. Danny led me straight to it, further down the trail, not right in the campsite area.

We had a hot supper, a cup of hot chocolate, and I began to fade with the daylight. One difference between Danny and myself: my inner clock is solar-powered and hers operates independent of the daylight. This means that on our winter hiking trips she may be talking to herself a lot, as she rises in the dark and is still ticking after the sun goes down. Fortunately, we plan to stick to day hiking with just a few backpack trips. Looking forward to refining our partnership on this adventure…

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. ~ Lao Tzu