Monday, May 30, 2011

Biting bugs, false bugbane, and (imaginary) bears

This weekend, I headed out for another solo overnight backpacking trip to see the Catawba rhododendrons on top of Standing Indian Mountain in North Carolina.  (Botanical aside: You may recall that a few weeks ago, the rhododendrons were blooming at Lake Russell, but those were a different, lighter pink, lower elevation species called rosebay rhododendron.  The ones on top of Standing Indian are the higher elevation Catawba rhododendron.)

The Appalachian Trail curves around the Standing Indian Basin, and I combined two side trails to form a loop hike with the AT (the loop is described here, though I opted to do the longer version down the Kimsey Creek Trail).  Starting at the Standing Indian Backcountry Information booth, I ascended the gentle Long Branch Trail, and reached the AT at Glassmine Gap.  It was easy walking all the way to Big Spring Shelter, and a short steep climb up Albert Mountain.  I'd heard about the great view from the fire tower on top of this mountain, and I felt really lucky that the day was clear.  Mountains in all directions, cotton-ball clouds.  Breathing in the sweet air and soaking in the view, I felt better than I had all week.

View from on top of the fire tower on Albert Mountain

As I ate lunch on the fire tower, I chatted with a section hiker from Switzerland.  It always amazes me how people travel so far to hike this trail that I get to hike all the time.  He told me his story of the storm three days ago.  Down where I live, we'd had thunder and high winds, but up where he was at Plumorchard Gap Shelter, the storm was intense, and the hail tore leaves off the trees.  Even in this section of the AT, the forest floor was littered in what looked like salad greens.

After descending very steeply down the other side of Albert Mountain (sometimes on my hands and tush), it began to get really hot and I hadn't been feeling very well to begin with.  At a stream, I dunked my head under the water, and felt better after cooling off.  I set off at a slower pace, hiking on autopilot, and staring blankly at the ground.  Not exactly my usual observant, wildflower-seeking self.

12 miles into the hike, I reached Carter Gap Shelter, and stopped to fill my water containers for the evening.  At the spring, I overheard two boys telling their mom how when they had their own kids, they'd take their kids to do fun things like riding dirt bikes or relaxing on the beach-- definitely not backpacking.  This made me laugh because I know when I was a kid, I complained too about always going camping, and not being able to stay home and hang out with my friends.  I hoped this mom knew she was doing them a service by sharing her love of the outdoors with them.

I stopped an hour later to have my supper, and then continued hiking for another two and a half hours, dinner giving me an extra energy boost.  I hadn't intended to make it even close to Standing Indian Mountain, but I ended up camping half-way up the mountain anyway, after doing about 16 miles total.  I found a nice stealth site, hidden safely from view of the trail, near a few blooming Catawba rhododendrons.

I haven't mentioned this before, but all day long, whenever I'd stop walking, the biting insects (small flies and mosquitoes mainly) swarmed.  They darting into my eyes, nipping relentlessly at my ankles.  But I could outwalk them, so I kept moving.  At camp when I had to stay still, I twitched tying up bear-rope, trying to shake them off me to no avail.  The biting and buzzing drove me into the safety of my hammock.  Faced with an hour left of daylight (it was only 8:30), I was too exhausted to do much, but my mind was racing too much to fall asleep. 

I find the most difficult part of solo backpacking to be the hour after the sun goes down, but before the stars come out and I finally fall asleep.  I try to relax and watch the light fade.  But sometimes, my imagination gets the better of me.  Sometimes, an old stump looks like ominous figures on the horizon, and the rustle of leaves sounds like it could be a bear out to devour me.  I can feel my heart pounding as the scary stories spin wildly in my head.  Does this happen to other people too?  What do you do?

Finally, I flipped on my iphone and scrolled through my podcasts, looking for a distraction.  I found a guided meditation which I hadn't noticed I'd downloaded.  This seemed like a better option than depressing news shows, so I gave it a try.  It turned out to be a meditation that I'd learned a few years ago when I took a meditation class.  A soothing voice began, "Breathe deeply, and close your eyes."  I realized I hadn't been breathing, and I reluctantly closed my eyes.  She continued,  "Now say to yourself-- I am safe, I am content, I am at ease."  And I thought, "Actually, a bear is probably stalking me right now."  Then I laughed at all my worry over imaginary bears.  I realized that I was going to be OK, and laughed at myself my irrational fears.  I started to relax.  Then she continued the meditation, and said to extend this good wish, like a prayer, out to loved ones, then friends, and then out to all the other people around us.  I imagined the guy from Switzerland and the family at the shelter, and then all the other hikers I'd talked to today.  I concentrated with my whole heart on wishing them safe and comfortable and content.  I imagined them tucked into their sleeping bags, listening to the night sounds of the forest as they drift off to sleep.  Somehow, this calmed me.  I am not religious and don't pray, but what this women on the podcast said made complete sense to me, and I fell into a deep sleep.

The next morning, I was up before dawn, and on my way during my favorite part of the day-- in the cool air watching the sunrise from the ridgetop on the shoulder of Standing Indian Mountain.  Well-rested and feeling great, I tunneled through the thicket of bursting pink-purple rhododendron.  I couldn't believe my good luck-- the first fire-red rays of the sun electrified the huge bursts of purple flowers. 

Catawba rhododendron near the summit of Standing Indian

I enjoyed a hazy view from the summit, and headed down the other side of the mountain to Deep Gap.  There, I turned onto the Kimsey Creek Trail, back towards my car.  I'd hiked the Kimsey Creek Trail the previous weekend with the Southeast Women Backpackers, and this week I was delighted to find a few new flowers blooming that I hadn't seen previously.  The most fascinating was tassel-rue, also called false bugbane, (Trautvetteria caroliniensis), which is in the buttercup family.  It doesn't have any petals- the white showy things are long stamens (the pollen producing part).

tassel-rue or false bugbane

The rest of the hike was beautiful, though my knee gave me some trouble again, so I guess it hadn't healed from my crazy 20-miler two weeks ago.  I wrapped it with an bandage, and that helped a lot.  The odd thing was that it only hurt on the steep downhills, and was fine on the flat and uphill sections.  Guess I'll have to stick with hikes that only go uphill. Ha ha-- for those of you who know me, you already know that I love the uphills, and this just gives me further incentive.

Bandaged knee

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Update: New Years Resolution (I did 20!)

This weekend I finally achieved my New Years goal of hiking 20 miles in a single day.   It was thrilling to set a goal that seemed far-reaching and actually accomplish it.  

My inspiration came last weekend, hiking with two ladies with the Trail Dames who were stepping on the AT for the first time.  Watching them strive to do something beyond what they'd ever done before made me want to try for something that pushed my limits too. 

I picked a section along the AT in North Carolina that I'd never done for a solo out and back.  I choose this section because it had a cool feature (Wayah Bald) 10 miles from my starting point (Winding Stair Gap), knowing that an out-and-back would give me 20 miles.   But I also promised myself I'd turn around early if I was feeling tired.

I've been building up to 20 miles for the past five months--  during the week, I climb my neighborhood hills with my fully-loaded backpack (looking like a dork), and I've been carrying a full 30 lb. pack on my dayhikes or going backpacking every weekend.  More importantly, I'd been building my confidence by hiking solo, first on familiar trails (where I knew I wouldn't get lost) and then in unfamiliar territory.  

Starting from Winding Stair Gap (3800 feet),  within the first mile, the trail passed a waterfalls and a cove rich with trilliums, clintonia lily, and umbrella leaf.  I took so many photos in the first mile, I never thought I'd have time to make it to my goal.

 The trail climbed to an opening at mile 4 where there was a side trail up to Siler Bald.  The peak (5216 feet) offered a 360-degree view of incredible mountains in all directions.

Siler Bald

The trail then descended to Wayah Gap (4200 feet), and climbed back up to Wine Spring Bald.  I finally decided to really go for it when I spotted my second patch of yellow lady slipper orchids;  I was cruising down the trail and spotted them  halfway down the hillside.  I took it as a sign that I was totally grooving.  Whenever I am distracted, or if I'm not feeling 100%, I will miss spotting flowers, so seeing them was a good indication that I was fully alert and feeling the "flow" of my hike.

View of lady slippers from trail.
Zoomed-in view from trail

Close up.

The final two miles to Wayah Bald (5350 feet) were the most botanically rich-- hillsides were thick with a diversity of wildflowers.  Again, I stopped to admire and photograph and ohh and ahhh.    The clouds had rolled across some of the mountains when I finally reached the CCC-build tower at Wayah Bald.  But I still had fabulous views in the other directions.  After I had lunch, it hit me that I'd just done 10 miles in four hours-- I was so excited but tried not to think about it.  And I also couldn't believe I'd seen so many flowers-- including three separate patches of yellow lady slipper orchids. 

The return trip seemed more difficult, with the long descent, and then ascent, and then descent roller coaster.  In all, it was 4000 feet total elevation gain-- more than I'd ever done before though it turned out to be gradual.

The most difficult part was when my knee/leg starting hurting on mile 17 during a rough downhill section, and then suddenly, the pain was so bad I had to stop.  I knew I had been going too fast, but I had been enjoying the feeling of trying to push myself.  I haven't experienced pain while hiking like that ever before.  It was scary, so I stopped, took a deep breath, and took inventory.  I realized that I wasn't hungry, which is alarming because I'm ALWAYS hungry while hiking, and for me, this indicates a problem.  Then I noticed I still had two liters of water left, which meant I hadn't been drinking enough.  (During college, I ended up twice in the hospital with an IV for dehydration before I figured out that I was especially prone to dehyration and needed to both eat and drink during prolonged, intense exercise.)  After a snack and adding "emergency" sports drink mixes to my water (which, thankfully, Still Waters had insisted I carry), I became more clear-headed and the pain subsided.

Was 20 miles really any more difficult than the 14 miles I'd limited myself to before I set out my New Years Resolution?  Perhaps not physically, because I'd been training for it, but it was harder mentally because I was more afraid of getting tired or injured.  Once again, the lesson for me is that the most difficult challenge is the mental part of hiking--  trusting myself and having confidence in my abilities.

What's next?  I don't know but right now I feel like I could do absolutely anything.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

No ladies on the Ladyslipper Loop Trail, but...

Rosebay rhododendrons in full splendor.
The Ladyslipper Loop Trail at the Lake Russell Recreation Area winds a little over six miles through rolling hills.  This trail is also used by mountain bikers and horses, so it was wide and rutted.  Still Waters and I chose this trail on a day with 70% chance of thunderstorms.  We only had a few sprinkles and the sun stayed out giving us "sun showers."  We never did find any ladyslippers, but the rosebay rhododendrons and mountain laurel put on a show that more than made up for it.

We started beside Nancytown Lake, full of cattails and buzzing with activity.  The trail begins by climbing to a ridge, then descends again, crossing a few streams.  Several intersections were unmarked, and we had to choose between equally used trails and old roads.  Somehow, we always ended up OK, eventually finding a trail sign.  But it was always a bit dicey. 

A few minutes after I said I was ready to stop for lunch, we rock-hopped across a stream.  Pausing, I noticed the sound of rushing water, and was reminded of a recent conversation with waterfall enthusiast Karen.  She said she often finds waterfalls by listening for them.   Curious, we bushwhacked down the hillside and came upon a hidden falls down below the trail.  It was absolutely stunning, framed by thickets of mountain laurel and rosebay rhododendron  heavy with bright pink blossoms. Incredibly, the sun peaked out from behind the stormclouds, lighting up the water and making the flowers twinkle.

Hidden falls near the Ladyslipper Trail.

On the way home, we stopped by David and Katies in Homer, which was recommended to me by Pyro.  For those of you in the area, this Amish market is backpackers paradise-- they've got all sorts of dried veggies (to-die-for dried okra!), dried fruit, tons of powders you won't find anywhere else (like cheese powder and dried buttermilk), dried soup mixes, and spices.  It's all much more affordable than buying expensive pre-packaged meals from REI.  Last time I was there I talked a long time to the owner-- nice guy, and he prides himself on getting local and made-in-the-USA goods.  I highly recommend this place to all of you from Georgia-- I don't usually like to recommend stores or products, but I'm making an exception because this place is so remarkable.  Not to mention they have hand-dipped ice cream-- always the perfect ending to a hike.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Section Hiking the Georgia AT (Part 3: Hightower to Gooch)

This Saturday, I hiked with the Trail Dames 8.2 miles from Hightower to Gooch Gap on the Appalachian Trail.  It was a day to savor being outside in perfect hiking weather.  Nine of us met at Woody Gap on GA 60.  A record four of us were sporting hiking skirts (for those that are skeptical, I've got two words: easy peeing.  Haha!).  Thankfully, two women had brought trucks for the forest service roads, so we hopped in for the ride to Gooch Gap, the end of our hike.  We left one truck at Gooch Gap, and all piled into the other truck, Indra exclaiming that she'd never ridden in the bed of a truck before.  On the bumpy ride along FS 42 to Hightower, we previewed the flame azalea lighting up the forest.
The fabulous AT hikers.  Photo by Sandi.

This was the first AT hike for Sue, Amy and Indra, and by the end, they were already talking about their plans to take on the rest of Georgia.  Sharing the hike with women new to the AT gave the rest of us a wonderful, fresh perspective 

The first few miles took us up and down and up and down, and included the infamous Sassafras Mountain.  Apparently, Sandi and the others totally missed the summit, where we'd agreed to stop to reconvene for lunch, and had to backtrack.  Way to go for blazing right past the mountain, as if the climb were no big deal!  With that, Sandi earned her new Trail Name-- Sassafras (Sassy for short).  It definitely suits her bubbly personality, plus sassafras are way cool plants, with their three different leaf types, not to mention we all love root beer!

At lunch, Salt (Kristen) demonstrated how to setup a hammock, since Sassy (Sandi) was interested in learning about them for backpacking. (Hehe-- we may soon have another convert!). 

After refueling, we set off again, Denise, Sandra, Still Waters, and the others paving the way.  We passed through more diverse forest types with different plant assemblages-- here were foam flower, wood betony, columbine, Indian cucumber, purple meadow parsnip, wild yam.  Butterflies circled around us.  Monarch caterpillars munched on milkweed. 

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed

It was a pleasure hiking with other people who enjoy nature, and who take the time to notice interesting things along the trail.  I loved it when Indra and Sue would stop to point stuff out.  Together, we saw (and sniffed out!) so much-  in full bloom were a profusion of Catesby's trillium, wild geranium, solomon's plume and solomon's seal, mayapple, and flame azelea.

Salt and Sassy in their hiking skirts checking out the flame azalea

Cooper Gap, 3.5 miles into the hike, marked the last section of the AT in GA for me.  It didn't feel like the end of anything though, not just because we still weren't halfway into the hike, but because my experience of the Georgia section of the AT has been a jumping off point for exploring more sections of the AT and other long distance trails.  Plus, I'm hooked on revisiting the same sections of the AT in different seasons.

Finishing my section hike of the GA AT.
Now, let's go hike some more!

The 4.7 miles from Cooper to Gooch Gap had been transformed in the last two months since we hiked it in a very cold rain.  The sun lit up the spring-green new growth, and it was even warm enough to linger at Justice Creek to cool our feet.

The last few miles brought dwarf crested iris in bloom, a few stray jack in the pulpits, yellow wakerobin, canada violet,  wood sorrel, showy orchis (alas already past blooming-- but now I know where it is for the future), two patches of pink lady slipper orchid, and my botanical highlight of the day, a small yellow lady slipper orchid.  At the end of the trip, Sue declared they deserved a Certificate for all the plants they'd learned about!

Yellow lady slipper orchid

By the time the last of us reached Gooch Gap and had a snack, Still Waters and Salt returned from picking up the trucks, and we all headed back to Woody.  It was such a lovely day to enjoy with new and old friends.