Thursday, July 26, 2012

Big Cat Scratch

Smokies SB6K Backpack – Day One – 6/8/12 – Pretty Hollow Gap Trail/Palmer Creek Trail/Balsam Mountain Trail – 12.8 Miles

The most intimidating part of the SB6K challenge, at least for me, is 7 peaks that rise high in the Great Smoky Mountains.  Why so daunting?  After all, I’ve hiked all those trails, even summited 5 of the total 12 peaks there (Clingman’s Dome, Mt. Collins, Mt. LeConte, Mt. Kephart, even Mt. Sequoyah) during my Smokies 900 year. 

Ah, but the remaining 7 peaks are off-trail, you see, and not reasonably in reach for me as dayhikes.  Bagging these peaks requires a multi-day backpack trip, navigational skills, a thick skin and a good attitude.  So who you gonna call?  Jeff.  I proposed a weekend to hit all 7 peaks and still get home on Sunday night. He said okay because he is applying for sainthood.  

The plan:  DAY 1 - Hike from Cataloochee Valley to Laurel Gap Shelter, summit nearby Big Cataloochee Mountain, stay at Laurel Gap.  DAY 2 – Hike via Balsam Mountain Trail to Tri-Corner Knob Shelter, summit Luftee Knob, Mark’s Knob and Mt. Yonaguska along the way, stay at Tri-Corner.  DAY 3 – Backtrack on the AT a little to summit Mt. Chapman, then go north on the AT to summit Mt. Guyot and Old Black, then hike down Snake Den Ridge to Cosby exit.

Oddly enough, after hearing the trip description (3 days of bushwhacking in June, 2 nights in shelters), no one else wanted to join us. 

After much time spent planning routes with expensive shuttle companies, two good friends from the Bergs stepped in to help us out.  Daniel and Mike planned a base camping weekend in the Cosby area on the Tennessee side of the Park, allowing Daniel to drop Jeff and me at the beginning of our route in the Cataloochee area on the NC side.   Daniel drove my car to Cosby, where he and Mike used it for their own hiking shuttles and then placed it in the Cosby hiker parking lot for our exit on Sunday.  Genius plan that worked very well for everyone. 

The weather forecast started out to be great, then deteriorated through the week.  At the trailhead we were re-editing our packs in preparation for rain.  Also, even though I had made reservations for the shelters, we each carried a backpacking tent in case the shelters were too full for comfort or had annoying occupants (hey, it happens.)

We started off with a pleasant stroll on Pretty Hollow Gap Trail, catching up on recent adventures and checking out the wildflowers.  Here’s a new one:  stinkhorn.  Yes, I touched it.  It feels just like it appears, a cold, gelatinous, dead finger.  BIG YUCK.

After .8 miles we turned left onto Palmer Creek Trail and began a long, steady climb, 1,500 feet in a little over 3 miles.  Jeff gave me the details of his newest car purchase and I tried to stay attentive as I huffed and puffed.  It takes me a while to get into an uphill rhythm, the most important consideration being not to go too fast.  Once I’ve hit the right stride, I can plod along for miles. 

Crossing Lost Bottom Creek

Near the confluence of Lost Bottom and Palmer Creeks

Lots of summer blooms up close on Palmer Creek Trail, including galax – I proclaim this the “flower of the weekend”


Azaleas in intense shades of coral, salmon and deep pink

Clamshell-like fungi on this tree as big as my two hands together

Bowman’s root

I reached the end of Palmer Creek Trail at Balsam Mountain Road ahead of Jeff (he went off to bag a little peak somewhere).  I really needed a rest on this extraordinarily comfy rock.

Balsam Mountain road is a one-way gravel road that begins at the end of paved Heintooga Ridge Road, a side road off of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  It is closed in the winter, but check it out sometime for a thrill ride through the backcountry.  Several Smokies trails are accessed from this road.  We walked about half a mile on the gravel to the beginning of Balsam Mountain Trail.  Here we saw a piece of paper on the ground that said something about Laurel Gap Shelter being closed, but it looked old and torn and we shrugged as we passed it.  But we made note of a Park Service truck parked there. 

Balsam Mountain Trail is lovely, abundant ferns lining the edges and more azaleas overhead.   Our steady climb continued, adding another 1,000 feet.  Today was the biggest elevation gain of the trip and we would spend the rest of our weekend gallivanting on the highest trails in the Smokies.

After 2.3 more miles, at the intersection of Balsam Mountain and Beech Gap Trail we saw a very new looking sign:

Well, this was more than an inconvenience, this could be a problem.  I made our reservations weeks ago.  It was too late in the day and we were too far away from any kind of vehicle to turn back.  No other choice but to continue the remaining 2 miles to the shelter and see what’s what.

And…there was indeed a trail crew settled in with a very elaborate setup.  In addition to overtaking the shelter itself, they had a shower tent, a cook tent, several enormous coolers, a gas grill, and an electrified bear fence to keep it all safe.  There were also several tents spread around.  We never asked, but I’m sure it was all brought in via horses.  

I told the young crew chief, Eric, that I had reservations.  He questioned me a bit rudely, like where was my paperwork and who had I talked to?  I didn’t back down, said again that I had reservations, and obviously there had been a mixup but that we had to stay there.  He wanted to know how many nights (one) and where we were headed the next day.  When I told him our plans and that we were hiking the SB6K’s, that Jeff had hiked them all and that I was extensively familiar with the Smokies, good old Eric changed his tune considerably.  He pointed out the path to the spring for water, then escorted us to an area that he would permit us to camp – which turned out to be the toilet area.  No flat spots, and Jeff and I ended up setting our tents up on a faint path, a ditch, really.  Jeff was put out by the treatment we got and noted that it was all well and good to be nice if we were experienced backpackers, but if we were inexperienced it would be even more important to be nice and helpful because there were no other options than to stay there.  (note: I reported the issue to the Park office when I got back home.)

At the spring we filled up extra containers with water and then left the shelter area to carry out our real purpose of the day – summiting Big Cataloochee.  And remember, we had already backpacked nearly 10 miles uphill.

Continuing a short distance on Balsam Mountain Trail to the next intersection, we turned right onto Mount Sterling Trail.  Now, Jeff is the man with the GPS track to the summit, and as I followed him I became a little nervous because the woods looked impenetrable on either side of the trail.  Oh ye of little faith!  Jeff turned left off of the trail and walked into the thick of the forest and I followed, determined to keep him in sight. 

Bushwhacking:  Slowly stomping through thick underbrush, stepping up over fallen tree trunks and down into holes you can’t see, duck walking under branches, sliding on moss, stooping and twisting sideways to squeeze in between trees.  Fallen trees lay every which way.  Everything in the forest is rotting every efficiently, crumbling and crunching and squishing underfoot.  There is no time to worry about what you might be stepping on or what might be scurrying or slithering away just as your foot comes down (you can’t see it anyway).  If that stuff bothers you, you’re in some trouble.

So we bushwhacked a half-mile steeply uphill at a snail’s pace through thigh-high ferns and head-high blackberry briars.  This was beyond even my experience on the Richland/Reinhart hike (that was in winter).  Now we were in full summer undergrowth.  Areas of balsam trees were better because there was very little undergrowth, but watch out for the small, bare lower branches which I called stubs – they can really scratch or poke an eyeball.  I got some impressive scrapes on my legs and arms, bloodied up in the first five minutes.  (One scar remains – I like to call it my Big Cat scratch.)  We left our packs back on the trail and I carried my hiking poles out of habit, but they were a hindrance and I didn’t use them off-trail for the remaining peaks.   

People who came before us had left flag tape intermittently, but not in any organized manner that I could follow, so I worked hard to stay near Jeff.  The summit of Big Cataloochee is designated by a tree with a bunch of flags.  My first peak bagged!

You find some awesome stuff when you venture deep into the woods.

We bushwhacked back down trying to go a slightly different way (i.e. longer), but ended up coming out at the same spot.  I was never so glad to see a trail in my life.  And just how was I going to do this 6 more times?

Back at Laurel Gap Shelter the hour was getting late.  The off-trail hike had taken more than two hours.  We hustled to treat more water for the next day, cooked and ate supper sitting underneath the bear cable hangers.  Afterwards I went to have a little chat with the trail crew.  (Eric the leader had retired to his tent.)  The other fellows were very nice, said the trail work had been scheduled for months and someone in the backpack reservation office obviously messed up.  They described the work they were doing to repair Gunter Fork Trail, which had been closed for nearly a year due to landslides.  They said they would be up and out to work the next morning by 7:00 a.m.

Daylight was fading and the air was chilling.  I crawled into my tent, too exhausted to move, a good thing because I was nestled in a ditch. 

If you pick 'em up, O Lord, I'll put 'em down.  ~Author Unknown, "Prayer of the Tired Walker"

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Final Resting Place on Noland Creek

Wild Women of Deep Creek – 6/3/12 – Noland Creek Trail Out-And-Back– 8.2 Miles

After another elaborate breakfast attempting to eat up all the remaining food (impossible), the Wild Women broke camp and headed out for a little hiking before returning back to normal lives.  Looking for some new miles for Carol, she and I chose the portion of Noland Creek Trail going up to Springhouse Branch Trail at Campsite64, about 8 miles round trip.

From the parking area on Lakeview Drive (the Road to Nowhere) Noland Creek Trail goes underneath the road, a little hard to figure out at first, and my memory was blank on how I did this last time.  We looked for a side trail, found one, but obviously not the right one – oh, well, a shortcut.  On the way back we figured out the proper route.

Like most trails that originate from pavement, this one starts off as a wide gently climbing road bed, extending 10+ miles to the Noland Divide Trail.  The Noland family and others lived in this valley, leaving behind non-native plants such as daylilies, daffodils and Spanish bayonet.  We saw some shrub roses blooming beside the trail.  At about two miles on the right is the old Decker homestead, easy to spot with its boxwood-lined walkway leading to a set of steps and a partial foundation. 

This lower portion of Noland Creek Trail crosses Noland Creek several times on wide sturdy bridges, a clue that there is a cemetery somewhere that the Park service maintains access to.  Yes, immediately after the third bridge on the left we saw a small rutted road and a “no horses” sign.  Something to investigate on the return hike.  

Beautiful Noland Creek 

We passed a couple of male backpackers today, but more interestingly, we passed two groups of female backpackers, something I have not seen much of in my admittedly few years of hiking.  Go ladies! 

A nifty little book called “History Hikes of the Smokies” describes this hike in great detail:  “…the land between bridges three and four is Solola Valley proper and was heavily settled,” including farms and a post office.  Past the fourth bridge, Mill Creek spills into Noland Creek and we could see the remains of a power plant, a water wheel, a concrete base and a tall stone support.  The book relates that this generated power for the 600-acre sheep pasture of an affluent property owner named Phillip Rust, who electrified a big fence to keep his sheep in and the bears out.  Of course, few people in the valley had electricity at all.

Between the fourth and fifth bridges once stood the Mill school, “…also called the Rust school because most of the pupils were children of people who worked for Rust, so Rust paid for the teacher.”   Also on the fifth bridge was a happy snake taking a sun bath.

Past the fifth bridge, Springhouse Branch Trail intersects with Noland Creek Trail at Campsite 64.  The campsite is quite large, with stone picnic tables and hitching posts for horses and several separate campsites.  Carol and I took our lunch break listening to the sound of rushing water.

So far we’d had a pleasant Sunday afternoon walk in the woods.  On the return hike we turned to explore the track at the “no horses” sign.  The tire tracks lasted nearly a quarter mile, then a faint footpath extended beyond, up and up and up…and steeply up another quarter mile to a very narrow finger ridge.  As we slowly climbed I kept looking up to where the cemetery might be, guessing that it must be on the other side of the ridge in some flat spot.  Well, it was at a flat spot – a very skinny flat spot on the very top of the ridge.   We found a dozen graves, some very small, lined up side by side in a single line extending out on the narrow, sharp ridge, no markers other than rough stones.  The “History Hikes” book tells that a descendant of the valley “…said the ridge was so narrow that they had to be careful while burying people so their feet did not stick out over the side of the hill.”

Every time I visit a cemetery in the Smokies I can’t help but pause to imagine what life was like there and how it must have felt to carry the remains of a loved one up that steep path to be laid to rest.

We backtracked down the faint, steep path to the beginning of the wider track and saw another faint path to the right leading to an impressive fieldstone chimney.  

Scattered around the foundation ruins of the house were rusted metal bed frames, an old sink and metal scraps.  “History Hikes” claims that the house here was used by patrolling park rangers until it mysteriously burned down in 1979. 

Carol and I finished our hike and headed for the flatlands of Charlotte.  The other four Wild Women had done a loop hike beginning at the Tunnel, now one of their favorite places.  Brave!

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. ~John Muir

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Wild Women of Deep Creek

Wild Women of Deep Creek – 6/2/12 - Deep Creek Trail/Indian Creek Trail/Martins Gap Trail/Sunkota Ridge Trail/Loop Trail/Indian Creek Trail/Deep Creek Trail Loop – 13 Miles

Another adventurous weekend for the Wild Women, this time based in another of my favorite camp- grounds of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Deep Creek.  The crew:  Leida, Karen, me, Ellen, Joan and Carol.  

Leida, Ellen and Joan are WW veterans.  Karen is Ellen's neighbor, likes hiking and camping.  Carol is a long-time Girl Scout buddy of mine and an experienced backpacker.  So no real newbies this time, but still an opportunity to make new friends in the outdoors. 

We set up camp on two sites right beside the creek on Friday afternoon – then rain began to pour.  We went into Bryson City, got a rain poncho for Ellen, and then to pass the time we drove out to the Lakeshore area of the Park via the Road to Nowhere.  My idea was to just show the Wild Women the tunnel where the road ends and tell them the background story, the initial plan to build a road along the north shore of Fontana Lake and the subsequent decision to abandon it.  We walked up to the entrance to the tunnel, as spooky to me as ever, and peered through to the small glow of light at the other end.  Then… they began to walk right through.  I was astounded that they were not afraid, as I certainly had been the first two or three times I encountered it.  Remember, these gals worry constantly about bears behind every tree.  Apparently they did not think bears lurked in pitch black tunnels.  Moreover, they were wearing sandals which must be protection against icky snakes and creepy-crawlies.

But we fearlessly walked through the tunnel, and at the far end Karen climbed up on top of it to see what she could see.  We walked a few dozen yards beyond until the wide road bed narrowed, then turned and walked back through the tunnel.  And it had stopped raining and the sun was beaming.

(A more in-depth article on the history of the Road to Nowhere is here.)

Back in town, Carol arrived, we had Anthony’s pizza for dinner, then headed back to camp for a small campfire before snoozing.  Big plans tomorrow!

Morning, an elaborate breakfast of eggs, bagels, fruit, etc.  Someone asked me if this was a lot different than what we eat on a back- packing trip and I laughed.  On backpacking trips most people don’t even bother to light a stove for hot water.  Peanut butter spread on a granola bar is elaborate.  

Several hiking options:  I chose a 13-mile loop route that efficiently covered a portion of the Deep Creek trail map, a route that Carol had hiked with me before.  She planned a loop route that matched mine for the first few miles; then when I turned left, she turned right so she could cover some new miles.  So we hiked side-by-side loops with a shared central trail, like a butterfly with wings. 

The remaining four women planned a loop that passed by the waterfalls on Deep Creek Trail, Indian Creek Trail and Juney Whank Falls Trail.

Carol and I headed out first on Deep Creek Trail right out of the campground.  Tom Branch Falls is just .2 miles from the trailhead. 

A right turn onto Indian Creek Trail brought us almost immediately to Indian Creek Falls, looking robust today.  As we paused here we met a group of a dozen hikers from Haywood County (I think?).

We passed Stone Pile Gap Trail on the right where Carol would close her loop hike, and then the Loop Trail on the left where I would close mine.  Ten minutes later we saw a “no horses” sign that indicates a cemetery.  

I had done some research online and had my eyes open for two cemeteries along Indian Creek Trail, and this was the first one, the Laney Cemetery.  Most graves were marked with bare rough stones.

Grave marker for Liza Conner Parris, born 1841, died 1918, possibly a victim of the flu epidemic of 1918?

At the intersection of Indian Creek Trail and Deeplow Gap, Carol and I parted ways.  I was at this intersection in April 2012 during my birthday solo backpacking trip.  Carol turned right onto Deeplow Gap and I continued on up Indian Creek Trail looking for the second cemetery I had read about.  Unfortunately, I didn’t find it, but gave up the search and settled in to enjoy the climb up Martins Gap Trail to Sunkota Ridge. 

A tree burl

New spring green on the rhododendrons

My mom called this running cedar.  She would wind it around a wreath form to make a Christmas wreath for the front door.

Flame azalea

At the intersection of Martins Gap Trail and Sunkota Ridge I stopped for a short lunch.  Just a couple of minutes later a fellow came running up behind me, waved and said hello, and turned to run back down.  The Deep Creek area is very close to the town of Bryson City, close enough that residents consider it like a town park, and it is heavily but lovingly used by runners and walkers for daily exercise.  I have to remember that I am not quite in the “back of beyond” here. 

After my brief rest I resumed the last bit of climbing on Sunkota Ridge before the big downhill back to Deep Creek.  Now, do I hear voices?  Hey, it’s the Haywood Hikers, they’re hiking the same loop in the reverse direction. 

It’s a long way down Sunkota Ridge, 3.8 miles, and then it tees into the center of the one-mile Loop Trail.  Since I’m surreptiously marking a second map of the Smokies 900, here I decided to hike the right half of the Loop Trail down to Deep Creek, then returned and hiked down the other half to Indian Creek Trail and continued on backtracking to the campground. 

An impressive blowdown on the Loop Trail.  Always wonder what it would be like to see this happen.

In midafternoon I turned back onto Deep Creek Trail for my last mile.  The parade of tubing folks was steady, toting or dragging their tubes, some dads carrying kids on their shoulders.  For the first float down the creek, people hike more than a half a mile to the farthest put-in.  Each subsequent float is shorter as the thrill of the ride is eclipsed by the work of the hike. 

I was the last hiker to make it back to camp.  Everyone was set up down at the creek, trying to unwind.  (It was working.)  We compared adventures of the day – Carol saw snakes, the other gals explored a cemetery. 

Karen, Joan and me

Watching the tubers go by – most of the adults asked for a beer

Another in my series of “feet first” photos

After a couple of hours of doing absolutely nothing, Leida gave us our assignments for cooking dinner:  a delicious stew in one Dutch oven and my fabulous “bear scat” cake in another one.  Ellen threw some veggies wrapped in foil on the coals just in case the main course did not turn out as advertised.  I must say that the stew was the most delicious dish I have ever tasted and everyone had seconds. 

My wild women friends are just wonderful.  They are learning more with each trip and I think they are ready to take off on their own.  Gee, I hope they invite me!

“Don’t wait until everything is just right. It will never be perfect. There will always be challenges, obstacles and less than perfect conditions. So what. Get started now. With each step you take, you will grow stronger and stronger, more and more skilled, more and more self-confident and more and more successful.” ~Mark Victor Hansen

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Whirlpool Rapids, Niagara River, NY

Whirlpool State Park, New York – 5/27/12 – 3 Miles

Every year Jim and I take a little anniversary trip.  Most often we go to the North Carolina mountains.  On the “big ones” we go farther, like Alaska or Ireland.  For number 31 this year, we went all the way to Niagara Falls. 

We spent the first few days exploring the falls from every angle, the Canadian side, the American side, the nighttime illumination, the fireworks, the Maid of the Mist boat ride, the Cave of the Winds tour, and so on.  Niagara Falls State Park (American side) was expensive but excellent.  One day we drove on the scenic Canadian Niagara Parkway up to the lovely town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, where we rented a tandem bike and navigated the Niagara Parks Recreation Trail, stopping at a winery or two.  

On our last day we drove north on the American side of the Niagara River and visited Whirlpool State Park, part of the Niagara Gorge Rim Trail system.  From the Rim Trail we could see:

A trolley crossing with a bird’s eye view of the Niagara Gorge whirlpool - between this and the power boat tours and the helicopters flying over, it's a busy place

Water coming down Niagara River – Class VI rapids

Flowing into the “V”

Entering into the whirlpool basin

The whirlpool:  There is an elbow in the Niagara River where it takes a right-angled turn and a basin has been carved out to the left.  When the water flows above a certain level, the water coming down the narrow Gorge enters the pool and then travels counterclockwise around the basin.  When the water tries to cut across itself after swirling all the way around, pressure is built up and forces that water to flow underneath the incoming stream.  The swirling movement creates a vortex or reversal phenomenon.  If the water flow is low (diverted for hydroelectric purposes) the water merely flows straight through the basin and on to Lake Ontario.  

We walked downstream on the Rim Trail, then descended 300 feet down the crazy tilted steps to the bottom of the Gorge and followed a trail back up the river to reach the whirlpool rapids up close. 

Eye level at the "V"

Big waves at the entrance to the whirlpool basin:  the wave is curling upstream

A hole formed by pounding backsplash

A meditation moment at the whirlpool rapids (except for when the powerboat tours come roaring up about every five minutes)

Standing at the river’s edge, looking back up at the Rim Trail

So it’s more of a walk than a hike, but well worth the time.  If we had planned a little better we would have tried the whole Rim Trail as it continues on downriver to Devil’s Hole State Park.  Maybe next time?

“So much water moving underneath the bridge, let the water come and carry us away.”  Crosby, Stills & Nash