Sunday, July 15, 2018

Heart of Darkness on the BMT

Longing for open sky, the ridgewalking and balds shown on the topo map for this section of the Benton MacKaye Trail seemed tantalizing. When I found that the trailhead was less than 2 hours away, I decided to make sections 14-16 of the BMT along the TN/NC border my weekend backpacking trip without researching anything else.

Misty morning

The ridgewalking seemed to stretch for miles but there were only tiny glimpses of sky through the tunnel of green. The reality of southeastern forests is that the nature here envelops you. A jungle-like greenery seemed to reach out to fill the air. Thick spider webs adhered to sweaty skin as if stuck with superglue. Nature was constantly flying into my eyes (no-see-ums!), buzzing in my ears, and biting through my skin (ticks, sweatbees, mosquitos!). Even the air itself seemed thick to breathe, laden with humidity.

Wading through.

Along the ridge, beauty could be found not by looking out, but looking close at the tangle of life.
Rocks jutted up along the spine created ideal habitat for lichen and rockcap fern. Hill-topping butterflies danced along the ridge looking for mates.

Red-spotted purple (Limenitis arthemis) mimics the coloration of the poisonous pipevine swallowtail to avoid getting eaten.
Rock with lichen and mosses.
Tall bellflower

Little did I know that the BMT trail maintainers refer to this remote, jungle-like section as the “Heart of Darkness." Dedicated volunteers do regular brushing to open up the trail but the brambles grow back quickly each year. I hiked for miles through freshly brushed-out trail, thankful for their hard work.

The culprit. Also, delicious.

But then I got to the end of the maintained section, where the brambles were thick and high. If only I'd checked the BMT website, I would have seen their warning. But alas, I didn't plan ahead.

How long do you hike through blackberries before you turn around? What if you are on an out-and-back? Knowing the further you go, that it only adds to the distance you will have on the way back.

Putting on my rainpants and diving into the neck-high mess.

I made it a mile. Had to because I was out of water in 90 degree heat and needed to get to the next spring. But after filling up at the spring, I cut my trip short and turned around. I'd had enough up-close nature.

Always a good night's rest and thankful for a bugnet.
Side trip from Sixmile Gap up to Waucheesi Mountain. Finally got a view, even though the communication tower and trash detracted from the ambiance.


This out-and-back backpacking trip was along the Benton Mackaye Trail from TN Hwy 68 to near Round Top (and back). It included parts of Sections 14, 15, and 16. This section is lightly used and no other people were seen.

The Benton Mackaye Trail Association has a great website with all the resources, maps, and information you need. Check it before you go so you can avoid problems.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Big Frog on the BMT

A short overnight backpacking trip on the Benton Mackaye Trail Section 11 in Tennessee provided two favorite summertime treats: swimming holes and ripe berries. Perfect for the intense heat!

Section 11 of the BMT climbs gradually from a low point at the Ocoee River (1120 feet) up and over the summit of Big Frog Mountain (4224 feet), namesake mountain of the Big Frog Wilderness, and then down to Double Springs Gap at the Georgia/ Tennessee border.

Ocoee River
The start of the hike crossed over several dirt roads but then finally entered the wilderness. Following old logging roads made for easy hiking.

Former logging roads turning back to nature.
 Ripe red raspberries grew in thickets along the old roads. Sweet and juicy. The taste of summer.

All mine.
It felt great to enter into the wilderness area. The Big Frog Wilderness of Tennessee borders the Cohutta Wilderness of Georgia. Combined, they form the largest tract of Wilderness USFS land in the eastern US. This section only had "winter views" which meant that there were only partial views obscured by leaves. But at least I could imagine the vastness.

Once in the wilderness, the BMT follows the West Fork of Rough Creek, one of the prettiest places I've been to in the southeast. Hemlock and great rhododendron in full bloom line the banks of this sweet bubbling stream.

Massive pink blossoms filling the air.
Plunging into a bubbling creek on a hot summer day might just be one of the greatest pleasures in life. I splashed around for what seemed like hours, with butterflies and jewelwings dancing around my head. A lazy lunch on mossy rocks while soaking my feet, until my feet turned to prunes. Even though I've had some pretty epic swims in the last few years, this one stands out for the lovely wildflowers, insects, and jacuzzi-like water, and because it was so intensely hot out.

Definitely one of the best swims EVER!
Azures all around.

Long tunnels of mountain laurel
Even though there were only obscured views through the trees, the ridgewalking went on for miles. And there was a wonderful sense of being up high.

 Big Frog Mountain (4,224 feet elevation) is named by the Cherokee for the spring frog, which emerges early in the season. I didn’t get to see any frogs, but salamanders were out roaming before the storm.

A woodland salamander prowling around
Other wildlife was abundant. I startled two black bears who ran off.
This timber rattlesnake stayed put on the trail. So I was the one who went the long way around.
On the approach up Big Frog Mountain
Once I got to the top, I continued south down over the crest. A steep mile or so that descended a bit over a thousand feet. The turn around point of my trip was Double Springs Gap, which indeed has two springs, one on either side of the Tennessee Divide. One side goes out the Conasauga River to the Tensaw River to the Gulf of Mexico at Mobile Bay. The other spring flows to the Ocoee River and eventually to the Mississippi. After cooling off at both springs, I turned around and climbed back up Big Frog, and descended more gradually going northbound.

Storms came rolling through in the evening, but not before I had set up for the night. I'd forgotten just how much I love the sound of rain on my tarp. The skies cleared the next morning for the quick hike back to the river.

A sub-24 hour trip, but it was good to get out!

Red-spotted purple butterflies are a great example of a Batesian mimic. They show similar coloration to the unpalatable pipevine swallowtail, so predators are fooled into not eating them even though they are palatable.

More information 

I did this as an out and back from Thunder Rock Campground, which has good parking for BMT hikers.

Here is the trail guide from the BMT association

A Quick and Dirty Guide to the BMT

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

A sort-of quiet trip on the BMT

A weekend backpacking trip on the Benton Mackaye Trail sections 1 and 2 in Georgia.

Following the white-dimonds

I was looking for some peace and quiet after a busy week and the BMT is usually good for solitude. After hiking the Approach Trail last weekend, a visit to Springer Mountain from the other direction seemed appealing. Access to the trailhead at Little Skeenah Creek via GA 60 is easy, maximizing hiking time.

Marker on section 1 of the BMT, located just after the first split with the Appalachian Trail.

I’ve previously hiked these sections of the BMT during winter but it felt like a completely different experience in the heat of summer.

Bright green tunnel.

Fortunately, there are plenty of streams, springs, and even a river on this section for cooling off.

The Toccoa River Bridge is the longest Swinging Bridge east of the Mississippi at 270 feet.
Great rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum) was still blooming along the river.

A downside of summer is that the no-see-ums were out in force. Constantly buzzing, make kamikaze trips into my eyeballs, and produce itchy welts. Oh what fun. 

Female ebony jewelwing were plentiful as well.
Ticks marched up my legs and I picked them off one by one, rippping off their heads with my fingernails. Because I'm only a friend of nature sometimes.

Long Creek Falls near Three Forks is where the BMT joins the AT.

The one mile section of the BMT that shares tread with the AT south of the falls felt like a superhighway. There was even a family with a parade of children pushing a stroller up the trail that made me smile because I like seeing kids outside. Quite a contrast to the quiet of the BMT.

Wide tread where the AT and BMT join.

The view from Owen's Overlook, just a few hundred feet off the BMT, provided more expansive views than Springer Mountain.

I choose a campsite near an open field that I hoped would provide clear views of the evening sky. The openness was a relief from the long green tunnel of the BMT. I haven't gotten used to the closed-in feeling of eastern forests after being out west these past few years.

So-called Bald.

Perhaps if I’d read the trail notes, the low-flying helicopters that flew directly over me as I hung in my hammock at the edge of “The Bald” wouldn’t have been so terrifying. Apparently the clearing is used by the US Army Rangers for training. But at least they only flew over a few times. Making this a quiet trip over-all, with a few notable exceptions.

More information

I did this hike as an out-and-back starting at GA 60 and hiking south on the BMT to Three Forks where I did a loop with the AT/BMT to Springer Mountain, and retraced my steps back to GA60.

The Benton Mackaye Trail Association's website has trail information and good trail notes.

A Quick and Dirty Guide to the BMT

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Returning to Standing Indian

I knew exactly where I wanted to go for my first trip in the southeast. Standing Indian Mountain in the Southern Nantahala Wilderness of North Carolina offers outstanding views and the botanical diversity can’t be beat. At least that's how I'd remembered it when I'd left here in 2014.

In particular, a favorite place of mine is a particular tunnel of purple rhododendron on the eastern slope of the mountain. In my memory, I can envision the gently curving twisting trunks supporting a riot of deep purple blossoms. To walk through is to be enveloped by beauty.

Heavy rains fell during the long drive to the trailhead. It has rained every single day since I’ve been back East, so this was nothing new.
A roaring Kinsey Creek overflowing its banks.
The rain persisted as I started up the Kimsey Creek Trail. The whole trail had been transformed into a stream.
I sloshed through the water, often up to my ankles but sometimes higher. Waves of rain pounded down, alternating with heavier, drenching rain as I joined the Appalachian Trail at the ridge.

Some parts were deeper.
I’d been up this trail many times, but this is not how I remembered it. What shocked me at the summit of Standing Indian was not that there was no view, but that the heath shrubs were scorched by fire. What had happened since I’d been here last in 2014?
No view, no flowers.

A check of the weather indicated more thunderstorms on the way. An alert revealed that subtropical storm Alberto was passing through. That explained everything!

I hurried off the summit, still anticipating the purple rhododendron grove.

Instead I found blackened trunks of the rhododendrons and the bare branches. Fire had killed this grove. How could I not have known this? I was totally shaken and flooded by waves of homesickness, not for any place in particular, but rather for a sense of belonging. It felt like I was utterly alone. What was I doing out here anyway, shivering in the horrible rain, far away from everyone I have ever loved?
Turns out a fire raged through here in 2016.
Just as I was sinking deeper into a self-pity party, four soaking wet hikers came up the trail. They’d been unable to cross a raging river ford up ahead. Other hikers were camped down at the gap, waiting for the water levels to fall.  Did I have any cell service to call a shuttle to pick them up to give them a ride into town?

Part of me wanted to go see if I could find a way across, but then I caught the eyes of a father and looked at his limping daughter. Automatically, I offered all four of them rides to whereever they needed to go.

I’d remembered the hike down the Lower Ridge Trail as taking only two hours. But it took us nearly four, with much slipping and sliding.
The young daughter spotted two salamendars! How cool!
As we hiked, we traded stories and helped each other over downed trees. It reminded me about everything I love about the Appalachian Trail— how quickly friendships are made, how people from different walks of life can come together. Hiking as a group and helping each other out was uplifting and gave me that sense of belonging that I needed to find.
Amazingly, we squeezed all five of us plus backpacks into my tiny car! Not the trip I'd expected, but exactly what I needed.
Making it all fit!

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Pecos Wilderness

I didn’t realize how much New Mexico deserves its nickname, the “Land of Entrapment.”

I got trapped in New Mexico. After backpacking around the San Pedro Parks Wilderness, a week was spent around Los Alamos.

Next, I met up with Jan for four days in the Pecos Wilderness. A truly enchanting place full of high alpine lakes and ridgewalking to take your breath away.
Lake Katherine, still partly covered in ice.
On the ridge above Lake Katherine.
Sharing this trip with Jan was bittersweet. My new job in Georgia is (potentially) for a whole year and I doubt I’ll be able to convince Jan to come out to the east. So this trip felt like the last trip we will have together for a while. I sure will miss hiking with my dear friend.
Pecos Baldy Lake
If you ask Jan about our trip, she’d inevitable give you a slightly different story as to the difficulty of the terrain. But the thing about Jan is she always stays in good spirits even when the going gets tough.
Jan postholing.
I'm sure this is the last blowdown, Jan. (Photo by Jan)
Not sure why we are going descending so much when we are wanting to get to the summit. But maybe that had something to do with our total elevation change of the day being so high.
Going cross-country when the switchbacks are covered in snow.
More upward.
Finally to the fabulous ridgewalking.
Plenty of time was also taken for dancing along the ridges. (Photo by Jan)
One of the best things about hiking with Jan is that she helps me make good decisions. Like when to go swimming.

Half unfrozen means it's still swimmable!
"Why did I do that?"
More swimming in a different lake. This one was warmer.
One evening we made camp by early afternoon. Jan said she'd stay and "watch camp" while I hiked an extra six miles to the lake for a bonus evening swim.
When bighorn sheep were spotted on the far slope, we settled in and ended up watching them for over an hour. Sometimes they’d run and frolic, sometimes a few more would appear and then disappear. I love that Jan doesn’t mind simply sitting and watching, to not be in any kind of hurry. To gaze about and watch the clouds drift by.
Watching bighorn sheep
More resting, further down near the wilderness boundary.
Iris starting to bloom.
Goodbye, Pecos. Goodbye, Jan. I know I'll see you later.