Sunday, November 27, 2011

Winter Hiking: NOC to Fontana

Fall seemed to last forever this year, but now it's finally over and winter is here.  The cold, wind, soft light, and short days make me quiet and contemplative.  These are my favorite things to do while hiking this time of year:

1. Sunrise doesn't come until late in the morning.  Be out hiking as the sun rises.

Climbing out of Stecoah Gap with fog in the valley.

2. Without flamboyantly dazzling fall color all around for distraction, small bursts of red stand out.  Investigate the detail of each leaf and the texture of bark and branching patterns of trees.

3.  Notice how each milkweed pod bursts open in a slightly different manner.  Each one beautiful sparkling in the sunlight.  Each one dispersing its seeds to the wind.  Yet all different forms, arrangements, and (I'd swear) personalities.

4. Climb high up onto the backbone of ancient mountain ranges.  Hike along ridgelines that offer continuous view in both directions.  With such a remarkably clear perspective, discover where you are and where you are heading.
Mountain backbone.
View from Cheoah Bald
5. Play.  Climb trees.  Skip.  Sing.  No one else is around.  The trees will dance with you.
Dancing trees.
The photos were taken during Thanksgiving weekend on two dayhikes in the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina:

Day 1: Stecoah to the Nantahala Outdoor Center.
13.6 miles.
Zero other people.
One piliated woodpecker.

Day 2. Fontana Marina to Stecoah.
14 miles.
Two people.
At least 12 milkweed pods.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Arkaquah Trail to Brasstown Bald

The Arkaquah Trail rises steeply for 5.6 miles from Track Rock Gap trailhead to the Brasstown Bald parking area.  From there, it's another 0.6 miles to the summit of the tallest peak in Georgia.  My guidebook says this trail gains 2,000 feet and that the "elevation change from gap to bald is greater than that of any other trails or combination of trails of equal or shorter length in North Georgia."  What more could you want?

Leslie and her friend Heather met me on a cold, windy, overcast morning.   Track Rock Gap Archealogical Area, near the trailhead, contains impressive petroglyphs and is well-worth a detour on the side-trail to go check it out.

Well-done interpretive signs

The trail climbs relentlessly the first two miles.  Most of the leaves were off the trees at this elevation.
One lone little tree still showing some color.
Lovely but dead monarch.

 Upon reaching the ridge, the tower on top of Brasstown Bald looked like a speck on the horizon. 

The trail continued along the ridge with views off to both sides.  Just when we started to think the walking was getting easy, the trail would start to climb, or, worse, descend steeply, only to climb again.

Ridge walking

We'd get occasional views of the tower, off in the distance, getting bigger ever so slowly.  We knew we were getting close when we finally saw some other hikers.  At the summit, a few rays of sun poked through the clouds.  This is one beautiful trail and one great workout.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Savage Gulf Backpack

I know I say this after every trip, but Savage Gulf State Park in Tennessee is one of the most beautiful places I've ever visited.   This unique gorge has limestone cliffs and lots of waterfalls.  I was delighted to join JJ, on her annual 3-night backpacking trip, along with Greg, who also knows all the trails, and my friend Kristen.

After filling out our permits at the Stone Door Ranger Station, we followed the Stone Door Trail to our first breathtaking view, before descending into the gorge.  The autumn leaves were lovely red, orange, and richly brown, we ohhed and ahhed at the scenery.  At the valley floor, we turned to follow the Connector Trail towards Hobbs Campsite.  The swinging bridges were especially fun because they swayed forward and back and side to side, making it easy to bounce along joyfully.

View of Savage Gulf
Hiking through the "Stone Door"
Swinging bridges. Photo by JJ
The terrain was rocky and challenging due to rain-soaked rocks and leaves.  Kristen's shoes had lost their traction and she had the most difficult time of all, and by the end of the day she was feeling tired and unwell.

The next morning, the plan was to cover 20 miles.  We set out at a quick pace along the North Rim Trail to overlooks revealing wisps of fog sparkling in the valley.  Kristen still wasn't feeling well, and made the difficult but smart decision to end her trip early by hiking out to the ranger station.  We hiked with her most of the way, and she set off down a side trail assuring us that she'd be fine by herself.  About a mile later, I started feeling bad and doubted if I should continue on myself.  I was wearing new boots, and blisters were erupting on my toes and my foot was swelling up.  All I could think about was the pain of each step, and I realized I was no longer looking around at the beauty around me and I certainly wasn't having fun.  I was overwhelmed by the pain, and there were still 13 more miles to our designated campsite.  I knew I could do it if I absolutely had to-- I certainly had an abundance of energy, but I doubted I could keep up the pace with JJ and Greg without causing further damage to my foot.  And I kept thinking of Kristen making her way to the ranger station, and so I decided to bail from the hike along with her.  So I turned around and headed after Kristen.

I'd never done anything like that before, and I was upset with myself for wearing new shoes (and probably carrying too much packweight creating additional stress on my feet on the rocks the previous day).  The worst was being so embarrassed that I wasn't going to tough it out, and that I was a quitter, that I was struggling so much.  My ego was crushed.  I mentally beat myself up and tried to hold back my tears.

I caught up with Kristen after just a short while.  Then, step by step, everything started getting better.  Walking at a slightly slower pace, my foot stopped hurting so much.  Kristen and I talked.  I ate lunch.  I started enjoying the hike and scenery again.  When we got to the ranger station, Kristen call her husband (at no charge- THANK YOU TN State Parks!) and her husband agreed to pick us up the following morning.

It felt like Kristen and I were on vacation or playing hooky.   We lounged around on the picnic tables and soaked in the sun.  Filling up water bottles and using the heated bathrooms at the ranger station felt delightfully wicked.  We hiked to Savage Falls and then our campsite two miles away.  The evening was spent relaxing,  laughing, and doing yoga.   My feet felt much better after airing them out and bandaging up the blisters properly.  Sure I was disappointed that I had only done 10 miles instead of our planned 20, but I realized I made a choice to take care of myself and that was OK. 
At the ranger station

Savage Falls

Our pair of warbonnet blackbird hammocks.

Kristen's husband arrived early the next morning.  I was feeling much better and Kristen helped me figure out a plan to continue my hike and meet back up with JJ and Greg.  We drove to another trailhead where they took a stroll, and dropped me off.  I was hoping JJ and Greg stayed with the original planned route and campsites so I could meet back up with them but I also left a note on their car just in case I missed them somehow.  (When I left them, I hadn't told them my plan since I didn't have one, so they had no way of knowing I was looking for them.)  First, I made a beeline for the food cache, calculating they'd be there without hours to pick up provisions for the rest of the trip.  Fortunately, the food was still there when I arrived, so I was able to retrieve my own food and leave a note.

Leaving a note at the food cache

Next, I headed down the Big Creek Gulf Trail.  At the Sinks, which is where Big Creek disappears underground, I stopped for refreshingly icy but refreshing "shower" at a waterfalls.

The Sinks, where Big Creek disappears underground

By afternoon, I climbed back up out of the gorge to stunningly beautiful Alum Gap campsite on the rim.  I set up camp, and was thrilled when Greg and then JJ finally arrived.  We sat around the campfire as the sun faded and the moon came out, sharing stories of our adventures. 

Sunset at Alum Gap campsite

The next morning, we followed the Big Creek Rim trail back to the overlook when we began our trip.  We lingered there for a long time, not wanting the trip to end.

Photo by JJ

This is the list of changes I made to my pack this trip:

1. Trash compactor bag pack liner.  This is lighter and said to be more waterproof than a pack cover.  The hard part for me was deciding what goes in the liner, because when I seal it up it provides limited access to those items.  (i.e. Does the first aid kit go in the liner so it doesn't get wet, or do I leave it out to get at the bandaids?  If I wear my fleece hat because I'm cold in the AM while hiking it doesn't get safely stored away either.)

2.  Leaving behind my cell phone.  This was the first trip I've traveled without at least one cell phone, and also one trip where we actually needed to make a phone call.  Fortunately, the ranger station was open and making the phone call was no problem.

3. Leaving behind my sunglasses and hat.  Not sure I'd do this every trip, but every bit helps and I didn't miss them too much.

4. Repackaging my hand sanitizer into a smaller dropper bottle.  This worked well!

5. Back to going stoveless.  I left behind my stove, but did get a hot meal the first night because JJ and Greg packed in hot dogs and let me tell you they were really delicious!  On the other nights, I stayed warm at night by wrapping myself in my underquilt and huddling around the fire, and eating a cold, but calorie-rich snack before bed.