Sunday, October 10, 2010

Gregory Bald Backpacking Trip

I joined the Atlanta Wilderness Backpackers for a 15 mile loop to Gregory Bald in Smoky Mountain National Park.  There were four of us: Dmitry (hike leader) and Margaret (another flower enthusiast) were taking their first trip as a married couple and were terribly cute together, and Wild Bill is the nicest guy with a great sense of humor.  The trip featured beautiful fall colors, spectacular wildflowers, and incredible views.   I also got to face another one of my fears: night hiking.

It was several hours drive getting to the Twentymile trailhead in the southwestern Smokies, so we didn't start down the trail until 1PM.  The first few miles followed a lovely stream lined with purple asters, blue lobelia, and other fall flowers.  All the worries from my week melted away as I settled into the rhythm of the trail.

Wild Bill taught us the 50:10 method of hiking (hike 50 minutes, rest 10 minutes) which we happily followed.  Studies show this is very effective for hard exercise requiring endurance-- just the ticket for trip which had a climb of 3,000 feet in the first 5 miles and then another 3 miles after that.  Ten minutes sounds like a long time to rest, but it allowed us to chat, snack, stretch,  look around and enjoy the view, and talk some more.  On the second day, ten minutes stretched into 50 minutes as conversation deepened and we were lost in the moment.  We joked that we'd switch to 10 minutes of hiking and 50 of rest and never make it down off the mountain.
Wild Bill and I taking a rest break.  Photo by Dmitry Shishkin.
We kept a comfortable pace on our way up the mountain, and it was a good thing because it was a tough climb.  We passed by four nice backpackers who warned us that it would be getting dark soon and there was more steep trail ahead, but that there was a good, though illegal, campsite if we couldn't make it all the way to the top (in the Smokies, you are required to camp only in designated campsites).   After hearing this, I could feel the fear wash over me as visions of night hiking crept into my mind.  You see-- I've always had a fear of getting lost after dark and I felt uneasy about setting up camp in the dark. 

The climb continued and I tried to push these fears from my mind.   I kept telling myself to focus and look at the flowers.  (Don't laugh!  This never fails to keep me happy and motivated!)  When we finally got to the flat illegal campsite they described, we paused.  Dmitry checked to be sure that everyone was feeling OK and had headlamps.  I gulped thinking about my very lightweight, but somewhat dim headlamp.  Dmitry encouraged us to press on, and we trusted his judgment.  And it turned out to be a good thing too!

Because after hiking all day beneath the golden-green canopy, the sky opened up as we emerged onto the bald around dusk.  Dense, knee-high blueberry bushes were interspersed with patches of  meadow.  Gregory Bald was like a large dome, with a 360-degree view of mountains decked out in full fall color as far as you could see.  At the top, we met another group of four old friends who were also enjoying the view, and we chatted with them pleasantly.  Together, we watched as the last of the sun's rays lit up distant mountains and the sky turned pink-red.  The stars slowly appeared, the sliver of moon brightened.   It was absolutely breathtaking.  I understood the logic of our timing-- to see this spectacle, we needed to night hike.  And it also allowed us not to rush the hike, which made the ascent more pleasant for everyone.
On top of Gregory Bald. Photo by Dmitry Shishkin.
Crescent moon from Gregory Bald.  Photo by Dmitry Shishkin.
Finally, Wild Bill, Margaret and I set off the 0.5 miles down the trail to camp, while Dmitry hung back taking pictures.  Turning on our headlamps as we entered the forest, it took all my concentration to focus on the small patch of trail illuminated by my weak headlamp.   But I quickly adjusted, and followed the others more confidently down the trail.  The forest around me transformed as a chorus of frogs and insects began their nighttime songs.  Woo hoo!  I was night hiking! 

When we reached camp, Wild Bill put us "ladies" up in front to approach the other campers to find out if there was space to camp and locate the bear cables to hang our food, saying other people would be nicer to us girls.  The other campers kindly pointed us towards a free fire ring with level ground around it, and even invited us to join them around their campfire after dinner.  I had my tent pitched, gear efficiently put away, and dinner cooked in record time, like to was second nature to me.  And I must say I was totally pleased with myself, because once again, I did something that I'd been fearing, and once again, I found out that it was actually fun.

One more thing that I want to add is that this was such a great trip because the group came together so well.  It's always amazing how people who are strangers to me in the morning become trusted companions that share conversations about deep things by the time we are sitting round the campfire in the evening.   There sure is something wondrous about backpacking.
What a great group! Photo by Dmitry Shishkin.

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