Thursday, March 31, 2011

Wildflower Heaven

I eagerly anticipate my first visit of the year to the wildflower paradise that is the Pocket of Pigeon Mountain.  I schedule a hike there with the Trail Dames on Sunday, and make a plan to "scout" the hike on Saturday.  It's been a year since I've visited, so want to re-familiarize myself with the route and driving directions so the Dames' hike goes smoothly.  It's also an excuse to spend an extra day watching spring unfold.

On the drive up on Saturday, the rain begins.  From the look of the sky and the weather forecast, this is not a passing storm.  The rain intensifies.  My partner Still Water looks at me and asks if I want to turn around and go back home.  I flash her my starry-eyed grin and say of course not. 

We decide to save the trip to the Pocket until the end of the day, and take a detour over to hike the Keown Falls and Johns Mountain Trail Double Loop.  Water pours from the sky and down rivulets, the streams swell and burst over their banks. I splash through the trail-turned-stream.  Lightening flashes and thunder booms across the valley.  The soaking rain intensifies the colors of the swollen bud tips of the trees, the white of the dogwood blossoms, and the blood red of the sweetshrub. 

Rain drips from unfolding fern fronds and green moss.  Water rushes over Keown Falls, and pours over the rockface in other spots, creating myriad other waterfalls.  And of course there it is-- the most wonderful thing about hiking in rain... TREE FOAM at the bases of trees!!!

In the late afternoon, we head over to the Pocket.  It's still raining like mad.  But I can hardly wait to see what's blooming.  I dart around the boardwalk, flapping my big rainponch and swishing my rainpants in greeting to all the flowers.  Hello bluebells, hello poppies, hello trillium. 

After three visits to the Pocket last year, I have some idea of where to find clusters of the various species, but I am also surprised at how much further along they all are compared to last year.  There are also more trees down, and signs of flooding.  I am astonished at the number of bent trilliums waving their white heads up the hillside.  The rain fills the valley with an air of freshness.  I soak it all in.

On Sunday, I repeat the hikes again with the Trail Dames under an overcast sky.  I am thankful for the break in the rain so that I can take out my camera and because it makes for an easier hike for the Dames, but I am also grateful I got to experience the magic of that early spring rainstorm.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Section Hiking the Georgia AT (Part 2)

I did an overnight trip with SHOE to hike the AT section from Dick's Creek Gap to the North Carolina boarder near Bly Gap.  This is the second to last section of the AT in Georgia for me, and it was definitely one of my favorites.  Though I think I say that about all my hikes.  I was so excited to finally see the "famous" gnarled old tree located near the boarder.  I've read about this tree in many trail journals, and it definitely lived up to all the hype. 
At Bly Gap near the GA/NC boarder.

We stayed near Plumorchard Gap Shelter, and had some great conversations with a few AT thru hikers.  We also ran into fellow Trail Dame Linda, who was out backpacking.  What a small world!

It was a clear night and I slept in my hammock without the tarp, so had a clear view of the moon and stars through the trees.

Thanks so much, SHOE, for doing this section with me!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Urban Adventures with the Mad Housers

A Mad Houser- built hut.
This weekend I volunteered with the Mad Housers, which is an all-volunteer organization that builds small huts for homeless individuals.  The goal is to provide them shelter from the elements and a secure place to lock up their things and to sleep.  What makes this group so incredible is that they give shelters (called huts) to people for free, providing a sense of ownership and responsibility.  The other really cool thing is that the huts are located out in hidden sites around in the community.

Our job this week was to respond to client's requests for repairs and/or put finishing touches on newly built huts.  After picking up tools and supplies at the Mad Housers warehouse, we drove to the site and met the client.  We repaired his leaky roof, added a ladder to provide access to the loft, and painted the outside green to provide added camouflage.  My task was to climb up into the loft and caulk gaps between the plywood.  Lying up there feeling the wind coming through the cracks, I couldn't help but shiver at the thought of spending the cold winter in what is basically a small, uninsulated shed.

The president of the group was our team leader for the day and was really friendly, and a super guy.   He was great at explaining everything and at giving us all jobs and teaching us what to do so everyone could contribute.

It's amazing to think that within the city, there is this completely hidden world out there.  Outside of view but closer to the rest of the world than you'd imagine, people are living with very little.  Please check out the Mad Housers website and do everything you can to support this incredible organization!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Pinhoti Trail through the Dugger Mtn. Wilderness

The Pinhoti trail extends 335 miles from Alabama to Georgia's Benton MacKaye trail and offers plenty of solitude.  We saw early spring wildflowers and heard spring peepers on our 12 mile hike through the Dugger Mountain Wilderness in Alabama but encountered no other hikers, even though it was a 70-degree sunny Saturday.  We started from the (well-marked and easily accessible) Burns Trailhead and went a bit past Dugger Mountain, the second highest peak in Alabama.  
Hepatica with its characteristic 3-lobed leaves

This little-used path weaved through remarkably varied habitats- dry open slopes, gleaming white boulderfields, mountain laurel lined stream banks, and forest types that were unlike ones I've encountered in Georgia.  The constant of this hike was the bright emerald moss lining the trail.

This section of the Pinhoti trail was exceptionally well-designed (and well-marked) and had the most gradual inclines I've ever encountered, like a long ramp--  as if the trail designer's main goal was to create a trail that's easy on the knees.  Often this required extensive detours up side-canyons, as we traced contour lines.  The Pinhoti trail also lacked any intimidating-looking inclines.  It spiraled it's way around the sides of the mountains, creating the illusion that the summit was just up ahead.  But round the corner, the gentle incline continued ahead still not looking difficult.  In this way, the trail tricked us into climbing 1500 feet while giving the impression it was just an easy stroll (though tired legs provided a reminder that we were really doing some climbing).

We never reached the summit of Dugger Mountain, or an overlook, making me grateful that the leaf-less trees provided winter views in both directions from the ridge-tops. 

The other impressive thing about the Pinhoti trail was the detailed website, complete with trail descriptions, maps, and driving directions to trailheads.  This trail is at lower overall elevation than the North Georgia mountains, making it a great place to go in the fall, winter, and spring.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

An Illustrated Guide to Winter Hiking

Looking back on this past winter's hiking season, I've had a few experiences of been cold or drenched but overall, I've learned a few things out about staying warm that I thought I'd summarize before spring comes and I forget everything.  I had some fun with powerpoint and made up my own illustrated guide to winter hiking:

Here are a few comments about each item:

1. Fill up your thermos with a hearty stew, chili, or casserole for a hot lunch.  Yummy.

2. It can be 70 degrees down in the valley, but snowing up in the mountains.  Get an up to date point forecast for the exact (GPS) location where you will be hiking from this website

3. Rain pants keep you warm and dry, and also make quite a fashion statement.

4. Attach your emergency whistle to the outside of your pack so it'll be within reach.

5. Make up an emergency card to keep in your pocket when you hike.  Write your full name and address, the names and numbers of people to contact in case of an emergency and any medical info or allergies.  Mine goes in my small hiker wallet along with my "emergency" $20 bill for those "ice cream emergency" when I get to town after a long day on the trail.

6. Yak traks slip over your books and provide traction on snow and ice.  Worth their weight in gold.

7. Cotton is freezing cold when it gets wet.  And you will get wet in the winter due to sweat, precipitation, snowball fights, or....  falling into streams.

Most importantly: don't let the cold, wet, snow and ice keep you indoors.  Get out there and hike!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Section Hiking the Georgia AT (Part 1)

I've taken on the challenge of hiking all the sections of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in Georgia.  Once a month, I join SHOE, who leads the Trail Dame's AT hiking series, and we do a 6-9 mile hike, or sometimes an overnight backpacking trip.  I've missed a couple of her scheduled hikes when I've been off traveling, so I've been trying to catch up by solo hiking the sections I've missed.  I'll share with you my experiences completing these sections of the Georgia AT so that you can either (a) repeat these fun and fabulous hiking trips on your own, or (b) know where NOT to go on your next hike.

My goal: the 1.7 mile Section of the AT from Indian Grave Gap to Tray Gap

I began at Unicoi Gap, instead of Indian Grave Gap, to avoid the drive on forest service roads.  Less time driving equals more time hiking, and maximizing hiking time is one of life's main goals, right?  This added 2.7 miles each way and a 1000 foot climb (bonus!).  The section of the AT between Indian Grave Gap and Tray Gap, which was my objective for the day, had a marvelous rhododendron thicket, and I was delighted to finally check off this section from my to-do list.  When I got to Tray Gap, it was still really early, so I decided to climb Tray Mountain, which I suspected would have snow at the top.  What's another couple hundred foot climb uphill when there is snow, a rare treat in Georgia?!?  Sure enough, the ground and trail was covered in a thick layer of snow.  I felt so lucky to crunching through it, thinking of everyone down in the valley experiencing  a 70-degree day.  After lunch at the top, I traced my steps all the way back to Indian Grave Gap. 

I considered a sign marking a blue-blazed side trail: "Andrew Cove campground two miles."  Sure it took me in another direction from my car, but when else might I have the opportunity to check out this trail?  I followed the blue blaze.  This small but well-marked trail rapidly dropped off the ridge that the AT followed, and ran down down down.  With the leaves off the trees, I could see the soft curves of the valley and when I turned around, the ridge and mountains rose up behind me.  It's not often that one gains such perspective of when you've been, and where you might be headed, and at the same time being conscious of your trajectory.  A decidedly downward trajectory.  Soon, the trail crossed a small clear stream.  Then another, larger stream.  Then, the stream joined others, until the flow picked up speed and tumbled along. The campground was deserted, the road to it blocked off for the winter.  After a snack break,  I began the return trip back up to the Indian Grave Gap.  The climb, though steep, wasn't as difficult as I thought it'd be, my fear being much worse than the reality.  Overall, this was a very scenic trail and well-maintained, and best of all it got my heart really pumping.  I highly recommend it!

At Indian Grave Gap, I took the Rocky Mountain Trail back towards Unicoi Gap.   This trail follows the forest service road for a while before peeling off into the woods, but even on the road, I ran into no one (I actually hadn't seen anyone all day!).  The Rocky Mountain Trail hugs the shady side of the hillside, and snow still clung to the ground.  There were no human tracks before me.  I happily crunched along, breaking trail.

Crazy-looking self portrait of me making a snow angel.

Overall, I figure I did about 14 miles total, just to finish up that 1.7 mile section of the AT. 

Considering all that snow, the view from Tray Mountain, those rushing streams at Andrew's Cove, and the wonderful solitude, I wouldn't have wanted to do it any other way.