Monday, October 25, 2010

Halloween Backpack: Third Time's the Charm

No other place had taken on such mythic status to me as "the Hangover" and Bob Stratton Bald in the Joyce Kilmer Wilderness Area.  I have made two previous attempts to reach these places, hidden high up in the wilds of North Carolina.  In June 2009, we had only hiked two miles into the wilderness area before the blackberry brambles that were overtaking the unmaintained trail scratched one of the members of our group so bad that he was bleeding on his face, so we turned around.  In November 2009, I returned again to Joyce Kilmer, backpacked in to just 1.5 miles short of the Bald, and spent the night in a fierce rain, watching the trees dancing in the wind.  It was so socked in the next morning that we turned around because there wouldn't have been a view anyway (see photos from this trip here).  On these two trips, I'd gotten a taste of the incredible beauty of Joyce Kilmer, and I longed to return.  So I jumped at the opportunity when my friend told me she was coleading a Halloween backpacking trip there with the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club.

Our group of five got an early start up the Haoe Lead trail from the Maple Springs trailhead.  We met a half dozen small groups of hunters and their dogs within the first two miles of trail.  I was happy to learn they were hunting wild boar, an introduced species that are very destructive to the forest.  The Haoe Lead trail became even more wild, rugged, and technical as we hiked deeper into the wilderness.  Our pace slowed to about one mile an hour as we negotiated over loose rocks and gnarled roots, all obscured from view by a layer of slippery fallen leaves.  We practiced our acrobatics through the obstacle course of downed trees, tossing our packs ahead of us to squeeze through the tangles of branches. The trail, which probably sees more deer and wild boar traffic than human feet, was so narrow in spots that my wide feet hung over the edge and were at constant risk of slipping down the hillside.  Thickets of blackberry brambles towered over us, though they weren't as impenetrable to us in our long pants as they had been the previous June on my first attempt.  And yet, I was in heaven!  I marveled at the rugged beauty of this wild forest, which, to me, seemed protected by its very remoteness and these inaccessible trails.
Gnarled old tree.
We took the side path over to the Hangover.  There, we perched on jagged rocks and looked out over the mountains that surrounded us in all directions, ablaze with fall color.  I celebrated FINALLY making it to this spot after my two other attempts.  This place was absolutely stunning-- in the distance, we could see the ridge we'd followed to get here, and in the other direction, Bob Stratton Bald towered up before us.
View from the Hangover.
Then, we set out again, stopping briefly to fill up our water containers at the spring below Naked Ground.  Our trip co-leader, an enthusiastic naturalist, found a record-breaking FIVE salamander under a single rock at the spring!  (When we hike together, we always compete to see who can find the first salamander-- seems like I will have to practice my salamander-hunting!)  We reached the huge bald with plenty of time to make camp and explore.  We found huge candelabras of Turk's cap lily seed pods, and purple clusters of carrion flower fruits (Smilax lasioneura).
Carrion flower fruits.
Turk's cap lily seed pods.
As the sun set, we dressed up in our Halloween costumes, this being the annual GATC Halloween hike, and exchanged treats within our group (mmmm-- candy, dried fruit, and handwarmers).  Under the full moon, we went "trick-or-treating" to the other campsites dispersed across the bald.  No one gave us candy, but we got lots of laughs!

On top of the exposed bald, the wind howled all night, and even with the low end of my tent pitched into the wind, my tent shook.  Fortunately, I stayed toasty warm.  (Note: because I knew we'd be camping on the bald where trees were scarce, I brought along my tent instead of my hammock.)

In the morning, we descended down the Naked Ground Trail into a beautiful, old growth forest, crossing rivulets, and then following the Little Santeetlah Creek.  Amazingly, this whole valley escaped loggers and miners, and this forest has incredible plant diversity and huge trees to show for it.  We ended our hike at the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest loop, which has the highest concentration of big trees (and unlike some of the other trails, this loop is very popular and accessible to everyone).   I know I have a habit of saying this after every trip, but this really was the best backpacking trip EVER and I can't wait to return to Joyce Kilmer!

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