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

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