Sunday, July 31, 2011

Mountaintown Creek Trail

It was a long, winding, bumpy drive over washed-out forest service roads to the well-marked Buddy Cove Gap trailhead on FS 64.  From there, the Mountaintown Creek Trail follows part of the Pinhoti Trail in the Cohuttas.   Our guidebook said this was a little-used trail, and sure enough, we didn't see anyone all day.  The trail had lots of mushrooms sprouting up in the middle of it-- as if people hadn't walked on it for some time.

Puffball fungus
Elegant stinkhorn fungus
Starting 3,120 feet up at the trailhead, we descended steeply for about half a mile until we reached the small trickling headwaters of the Crenshaw Branch.  The trail follows along this creek as it descends through the valley.   There are no bridges on the trail.  The first water crossing were easy, but rock-hopping grew tricky as the stream swelled in size as we went downstream.

Still Waters makes it across with dry feet

On our descent, we first heard and then saw a wild boar crash down the trail at our approach.  It looked HUGE!  Thank goodness it was running in the direction away from us, because it moved at lightening speed.  After that, we tried to make more noise as we moved along so we wouldn't startle it again.  I'd only see a wild boar once before, at dusk in the Smokies, though I've seen plenty of evidence of their destruction in the forests.  They root around, tearing up the ground and killing native plants in search of food, causing so much damage this invasive species has become a the target for control in many areas.

What is the wild boar doing there?  After reading about them, I learned that wild boar lack sweat glands so need to cool off by wallowing in mud or water.  It could have been down near the stream for the same reason I was there- to enjoy the natural air conditioning of the valley.

After about a mile, the stream cascades down beautiful rocky slides, over falls, and finally through a long v-shaped gorge.  At the base of the falls, there were small moss-lined rocky pools perfect for soaking hot feet.  One of my favorite parts of summer hiking is taking the time to wade around in streams, and to feel the texture of moss, mud, sand and rock with my toes.  So much of the time when we hike, we rely on just a few of our senses to experience the outdoors--  we mostly just look around.  Rarely do we actually, literally, touch nature.  But give it a try-- wave your feet in the water, squish your toes in the mud, rest them gently on a mossy rock.  It's a little scary at first to take off your shoes and walk around because you never know what's going to be sharp, or scratchy, or even latch onto you.  You can start small, just resting during a hike with your shoes off, feeling a breeze on your bare skin.  Try wading on rocky streams where you can see the bottom.  Maybe you will experience a connection with nature that you hadn't felt before.

Falls of the Crenshaw Branch

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

DIY Gaiters

Quite a fashion statement
I've been dreaming of sewing myself custom gaiters for years, and finally made some last fall.  They have quickly become one of my favorite pieces of gear, and I wore them every day last week on my trip to the Michigan sand dunes.

Gaiters are only useful under specific conditions though.  They are ideal for hiking anywhere dirt and sand tend to fly into your shoes.  They've also been useful for bushwhacking through tall grass and brambles, and on overgrown trails.  My gaiters keep my legs warm and protected when I want to wear a skirt, and can easily be pushed down when it gets hot.

Dirty Girl Gaiters, which seem to be very popular out on the PCT, come in cool and hip bright patters, but only go up to your ankles.  To make my gaiters, I started with this pattern and stretchy floral fabric to fit around my shoes, but then added on an upper portion of lightweight synthetic salvaged from old hiking pants.  They attach to my shoelaces by a velcro tab, and to a velcro strip superglued to backs of my shoes.

A triangle of velcro on my shoe keeps the gaiter in place

Monday, July 25, 2011

Glassmine Gap to Winding Stair Gap

It's been hot and steamy with temperatures in the upper 90's, which is even hotter than normal for Georgia.  Sensible people might stay home in the air conditioning, but I was itching to backpack, and Still Waters said she'd go with me as long as we camped near water.  So, we figured out a backpacking trip with shorter miles than usual so we could take it easy- another section that we hadn't done along the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina from Glassmine Gap to Winding Stair Gap.  

Stopping to get gas in the blazing heat, I was apprehensive.  Many years ago, I got heat stroke and dehydration and ended up in the hospital with an IV, and have always been very cautious about hiking in the heat since then.  But at our trailhead at Rock Gap, NC, a comfortable breeze greeted us.  I was so relieved how cool it was up at this high elevation!  We were also starting out late in the afternoon to avoid the hottest part of the day, and only had 2.5 miles to get to camp near Glassmine Gap.

Hemlock and Still Waters

The mid-summer wildflowers were gorgeous along this section, and I was so excited to finally see the open flowers of wood's bunchflower (Veratrum woodii), a plant that's been a mystery to me for several years.  I'd seen the leaves for many years, but never know what it was because I'd never seen the flowers.  Now, I suspect it's because they flower during the hottest time of year when I'd always previously avoided hiking in the southeast-- usually by escaping to other parts of the country.

Wood's Bunchflower

From Glassmine Gap, we followed the Long Branch Trail about 0.2 miles down to a campsite in a small rhododendron-lined cove.   We dipped our toes in the icy stream and they grew cold after only a moment of soaking.  I slept soundly in my hammock listening to the sounds of the babbling stream filling the valley.

Along the Long Branch Trail
The next morning, we traced our route back to the car at Rock Gap.  I dunked my head under the spring at Rock Gap shelter, and then took off my shirt and drenched it in the water, before putting it back on.  This is my trick to staying very cool when it's warm.  Refreshed, I took more photos of the lovely flowers near the spring.

Turk's cap lily (Lilium superbum)

Bee balm (Monarda didyma)
At Rock Gap, we parted ways-- Still Waters headed out north on the AT 3.7 miles to Winding Stair Gap.  I hopped into the car and drove to Winding Stair Gap, where I left my car.  Then I set out for an out and back hike along the AT towards Rock Gap, passing Still Waters on the way, reaching Rock Gap, and then turning around and walking back to Winding Stair Gap again.  In this way, we both got to do the entire section, and I got to stretch my long-legs and get in the miles I'd been craving.

It was such a delightful surprise that it never felt too hot while hiking, even though I know it was dreadfully hot down in Atlanta.  It was wonderful to be up high in the cool North Carolina mountains, never too far from a cool stream or spring.

We hear thunder far off, but never got any rain.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Wesser Bald Overnight

Ever notice how sometimes you make a decision and it sets you down a path where everything clicks and good things just keep happening, and everything is beautiful-delicious-wondrous-cool breezes-sparkily?


I decided to hike from Tellico Gap along the Appalachian trail in North Carolina, keeping with my intention to continue section hiking the AT.  I'd though I'd hike this solo, but shifted the plan to hike with Still Waters.  This trip ended up being totally extraordinary.

Rosebay rhododendron were in full splendor all along the trail.  The floral color scheme seemed to be all rosy, with lots of bee balm, the speckled red berries of solomon's plume, purple-flowering raspberry, and firepink.

The botanical highlight of the day for me may have looked really boring to most people-- the seemingly unremarkable flower stalk of a ratty-looking plant.  But I whooped with delight to have finally found the flowers (even though they were only buds) of the wood's bunchflower (Veratrum woodii).  This plant has baffled me for two and a half years-- ever since I moved to Georgia, I've seen its leaves on many hikes, and never knew what the heck it was.  A few months ago, a friend finally identified this plant.  This plant is in the lily family, and the leaves can be confused with those of wild leeks/ ramps but these don't smell.  Non-flowering plants are not uncommon in GA and NC, but this is the first flower stalk I've seen.  One cool thing about this plant is that the flowers at the bottom of the stalk are all male, while the upper flowers are perfect (i.e. have both male and female parts).  I'm tempted to go back and see it in full bloom so I can see them for myself.

Flower stalk of wood's bunchflower
It was only 1.4 miles to the fire tower on Wesser Bald, but we were already drenched in sweat from the heat when we got there.  Several families were enjoying the 360-view already, so we continued north to check out Wesser Bald shelter, which was only another 0.8 miles down the trail.  On the way, we filled up our water containers at the very nice spring.  After reading the shelter registry and looking around, we decided to turn around and climb back up to the bald to camp.  Still Waters had never camped on a bald before, and it seemed like it might be cooler higher up.

By the time we got back, everyone had cleared out.  There was a small shady spot perched on a ridge down from the tower, just wide enough for Still Water's tent and with two trees perfectly spaced for my hammock.  Everywhere were sweet tangy plentiful black raspberries and blackberries.  Mmmmm.

We spent the evening up on the tower, having a leisurely dinner and then relaxing.  It felt like we were floating above the trees.  Mountains stretched out in all directions.  We caught a cool breeze.  Birds swooped, bees hummed.  Thunderheads moved off beyond the horizon.  Clouds slowly transformed to rosy pink.  The sun set.  Stars came out.  Fireworks sparked in a valleys below. 

The next morning, we climbed the firetower again to watch the sunrise and eat breakfast.  Then, we set out in opposite directions--  I headed north towards the NOC so I could finish this section.  Still Waters returned to Tellico Gap to get her truck, and then drove to the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) to park and hiked in to meet me.  We met back up again at a big lunch log-- I had stopped to chat with a woman who led rafting trips for kids.  Still Waters arrived and had been talking to a really nice guy, trail name "The Geek" who does trail maintenance.  We all rested and chatted for a while.

Sunrise from Wesser Bald
Still Waters and I got back to the NOC in time to meet our friends Copper, her daughter, and SHOE for a delicious lunch.  It was so good to hang out with them, and then we all went over to Fontana Dam and finished the day with  ice cream.  What a sweet day!