Hundred Mile Wilderness: hiking in Maine, and The Road Not Taken.

Have you ever felt like you’ve walked straight into a movie?  How about a poem?  Well, for the first time in my life, that’s exactly how I felt.  Seriously!  So I think it’s safe to begin this blog post there:

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Rewind to 2010.  A young, 25 year-old Christine, and 27 year-old John, along with our friend and fellow thru-hiker “Jaybird” are hiking in the Hundred Mile Wilderness of Maine.  It had just rained an inordinate amount from the remnants of Hurricane Earl, and we were on a mission.  A mission the complete the entire Appalachian Trail, and we were only a few days away.

It was early September, the air was crisp, and the leaves were starting to change. We came to a junction and stopped.  In one direction, the Appalachian Trail beckoned us towards Mount Kathadin, victory, and the end of our thru-hike.  In the other, an overflowing stream needed to be crossed in order to access the Gulf Hagas which promised handfuls of waterfalls and tremendous views.  To say I had blinders on would be an understatement.  I peered across the stream and quickly cast my vote: “no extra miles!”

 
John, however, was more intrigued.  He wound up fording the stream and ran down the side trail just to the first waterfall.  He quickly caught up with us and showed us pictures.

I’ve regretted my decision ever since.

It took us 7 years to return to the same spot, and as the moment approached, it occurred to us that we were literally going back to The Road Not Taken.  Despite the last line of the poem, I’ve always thought of this poem as an ode to regret and the frivolity of decision making.

Fast-forward to September 2017, almost to the day, 7 years later.

9/10/17

We slept really well at a campground somewhere hours away from the trail.  We made the now well documented mistake of following the GPS, and found ourselves on a dirt road being asked by a computer to cross a mid-sized stream in our compact rental car.  We headed back to the nearest town and asked a real human-being for directions.  The number of times you need to make a mistake in order learn from it is STILL yet to be determined.

After paying $14 per person to drive on a gravel road, we found the right parking area off of “KI road” in the Hundred Mile Wilderness and donned our packs.  A quarter mile from the trail head, we forded the Pleasant River and found a ridge runner sitting on the other side, happily stoned and waiting for his 10 day shift to end.  I tried to ignore the obvious smell of marijuana as I put the insoles back into my wet shoes.  He had little advice to offer, but we had a brief chat nonetheless.

 

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Easy ford of the Pleasant River. You can just see the Ridge Runner sitting on the other bank.

We hiked onward and quickly found the intersection of the Gulf Hagas.  Because of our blunder with the GPS, we arrived somewhat late in the day, but we were so anxious to see some of the sights on the trail that we had waited 7 years to come back to, that we headed down it despite the fact that there was no camping allowed anywhere near that area.   The trail did not disappoint.  As the trail followed the edge of this gigantic canyon, further side trails led us to points along the gorge where you could either peer down cliffs or stare at memorizing waterfalls.

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Two roads diverged…

Not much time went by before we started wondering how quickly we could get through the section, and where we’d be able to camp.  We decided to cut back to the AT to find a place to camp just as night fell.

Instead of pounding out miles, we decided that we’d do this whole trip as more of a wander than a hike… much to the confusion of every thru-hiker we met.  We originally planned to do some sort of big loop with some theoretical trails that existed on the map- with no idea of what their condition was like in real life.  We also were happy to do out-and-back hikes on the Appalachian Trail, without any particular destination in mind.

 

We met lots of section and thru-hikers.  Each one asked us where we were hiking to.  We  persistently responded without much of an itinerary but rather an intention that must have come across as a somewhat of a dopey plan for this trip.

We determined that wanted to:

a) See the entirety of the Gulf Hagas

b) See a moose

c) Get a good view of Kathadin (if the weather allowed)

This made no sense to the miles-per-day- oriented section and thru-hikers, most of which, by the way, were baby-boomers.

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Look! There’s Kathadin!

 

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Spruce Grouse- not afraid of us, in fact barely moved out of the way!

After climbing over White Cap, and getting our picture perfect view of Kathadin as well as a visit with a family of Spruce Grouse, we left the Appalachian Trail at Logan Brook Rd and headed towards the unknown.  The road walk was quite nice and had more wildlife on it than any section of the Appalachian Trail.  We found snakes, toads, frogs and birds every few steps.  We hiked up to a commercial camp/ vacation home, and asked for directions.  The gentleman who pointed us in the right direction did so with a warning.  Apparently the last people to have made it through the trail we wanted to attempt came  out cursing having traversed sections that were waist deep in bog.  Nonetheless, we decided we’d give it a go, just for fun.

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Fall foliage on the road walk

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Frog

We got as far as a taller-than-John-bush-wack through what was beginning to feel a lot like bog when we decided we didn’t need quite that much of an adventure, and turned around.  We decided to head back up the AT despite having to hike back over White Cap (in case you didn’t know, it’s somewhat of a climb).

As we walked the road back to the AT, pondering whether we had made the right decision (too many cross roads!), when a ground shaking stampede suddenly broke out in the woods next to us.  Before we knew it, a bull moose appeared on the road in front of us, and while my heart was trying to climb out of my esophagus, John managed to reach for his camera.

At this point we had no regrets.  The point of trying to get through the boggy part of this loop was to see a moose.  All we had left was to experience the entire Gulf Hagas in order to call the hike complete.

Back on the trail, we quickly ran into more hikers.  The trail was absolutely buzzing with hikers.  It saddened me when we talked to a north-bounder who had absolutely no interest in hiking the Gulf Hagas because he wanted “no extra miles” and was “just excited to be almost done”.  I saw my past self in the weariness of his voice, and silently hoped that one day he’d look back with nostalgia on the beauty of these miles in Maine.

We headed back south towards the Gulf Hagas and watched the thru-hikers pass us.  Most had earphones in and their heads were down.  A few of the slower section hikers stopped to talk to us.  We took a side trail to get some water, and an extremely loud woman came down the trail after us and took one look at the pool of water and said “ugh, this is it!?”  Then she shouted back at her friend, “it’s not worth soaking your feet in this tiny pool!”  We had been painstakingly collecting water from this small source without complaint.  I could see John snarling at the idea that someone would think of putting their dirty, stinky, smelly feet in a spring that people and animals relied on for drinking water.

Then the woman decided she actually wanted to collect water, and asked us for advice.  I told her that she could use our bowl to scoop water into her bottle.  I asked her if she wanted me to help her with that, and she said no. Instead she took my bowl and completely muddied up the entire water source with it.  The water was only a couple of inches deep, and there was a layer of mud on the bottom that was easily stirred up.  I had painstakingly taken a few drips of water with each scoop in order to preserve the pool of water.

She poured the bowl of water into her bottle and looked back into the mucky pool, huffed, and handed me back my bowl.

I gave John “the look” and we waited 5 minutes for the pool to settle back down as she marched off, so I could collect another liter.

Sometimes people really annoy us.  We were ready to be off the AT.

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What’s for lunch? How about peanut butter and Nutella on a tortilla? YUM!

The next day we got our wish.  We took our detour once more and finally hiked the entirety of the Gulf Hagas Trail.  Compared to the hustle and bustle of the AT, the Gulf Hagas was a complete sanctuary.  We had waterfall after waterfall all to ourselves, and although the trail was extremely rugged, we were constantly rewarded with breathtaking views into the canyon.  Deep into the canyon, the river flowed, and sometimes we could see the shapes and turns that the water made, and sometimes we could not.

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Lots of waterfalls!

On one occasion we came close enough to the water to jump in and claim a chilly but refreshing, and much needed bath.

We took most of the day on the Gulf Hagas, something we couldn’t have afforded on our thru-hike due to the amount of food we were carrying.

We passed the intersection for the last time, and I recited from memory The Road Not Taken.  We had wandered around the Hundred Mile Wilderness of Maine for about 6 days, so we headed out towards showers, hot food and friends in Portland.

The inconsequential decisions in life lead us down distinct paths, and it’s unusual to be able to come back to a given intersection and take the Road Not Taken.  We felt surprisingly grateful to have been able to do so.  I’d recommend this hike to anyone who can get to the middle of nowhere Maine, and take a wander.

 

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The pointless hobby of peak bagging: Mount Mitchell and 11 other peaks.

Friday August 25th 2017: Mileage – not too many (?)

We definitely knew better than to blindly follow our GPS to the trail head, but for some reason we did it anyway.  A 45 minute drive turned into a nearly 2 hour expedition on a windy unpaved road that our GPS claimed had a speed limit of 55 mph.  The number of times you need to make a mistake in order to learn from it is yet to be determined.

The trail head was well concealed.  After searching up and down the road, we finally resorted to asking a local who pointed us down a small road (Watershed Road) marked “private”.  We parked the car in the mud and started up the Crest Trail, starting at around 3000ft in elevation and climbing steadily up to nearly 6000ft.  If you’d like to feel out of shape, this trail is for you.

For some reason, I decided to start at a fast pace, and quickly wore myself out.  About half way up I saw a bear moving among the trees and shouted at it:

“Hey Bear!!”

I banged my poles together to get his attention.

“I’m not a bear,” replied the bear.  That’s exactly the sort of thing a bear would say, I thought to myself.

We approached, and saw a man dressed mostly in black hunched over collecting firewood near his campsite with his wife.  They shared information with us about upcoming water sources.

We made it up to the ridge and started on our peak bagging mission.  Our first peak was Celo Knob, which had a nice trail from the south side which wasn’t too hard to find.

Next, we attempted to climb Horse Rock.  We succeeded, but certainly not in a graceful fashion.  We didn’t find a trail, and bushwhacked through horrible blackberry bushes as tall as John to reach the summit, covered in blood.  The lack of trail should have been a clue that this peak was not one of the official 6000ft peaks on the peak bagging list of “South Beyond 6000ft challenge”.  Who checks these things before heading out anyway?

Then we hit Gibbs Mountain, which had somewhat of a trail to the top.  The top was sort of lumpy so it was hard to tell which point the actual top was.  We put our little tootsies on all of them just to be sure.

Then the Crest Trail continues up and over Winter Star, but we weren’t sure if the peak was on the trail or not, and so we kept scrambling to the top of random things just in case.  Which was dumb.  None of them were Winter Star.

As darkness fell, we managed to find a campsite and ate our lovely Ramen dinner.  As we sat there, we noticed that there was a salamander on a tree next to us.  Upon further inspection, there were salamanders everywhere.  On almost every tree.  Poking their little heads out of holes at the base of trees.  We spent some time taking pictures and baby-talking to our new neighbors.

Our favorite little neighbor salamander


 

Saturday August 26th: Mileage – vaguely doable amount (?)

We got up and immediately investigated whether our friends, the salamanders, where still around, and mostly they had retreated into their holes, but we saw our one friend still poking his head out looking at us with curiosity.   We bid him farewell and hiked out.

Not long after we started hiking, we hit the summit of Winter Star.  There was a bench mark there to prove it.

We passed some folks camping near Deep Gap who were impressed that we had come up from Watershed Road.  I was impressed too.  My legs, however, were less impressed.

We hiked on to the top of Mt Mitchell and spent $5 on some soda, some fudge rounds and a bottle of Gatorade because I had forgotten to bring my pee bottle, and had to begrudgingly get out of the tent the night before to relieve myself.  Yes, I know, I’m lazy.

We got one of the many tourists at the summit to take our picture.


We continued on the Old Mount Mitchell Trail so as to hit Hallback Mt, which had a pretty well defined trail to the top along with a freaking sign post once we hit the summit!  I would have never guessed.

A sign on top of a mountain! Wow.


We collected water at the Ranger Station and walked across the road to a gravel road to try to get to Mount Gibbs.  We left the gravel road and followed a questionable utility line up the mountain until we hit a strange house and from there easily found the top of the mountain.  Back from the house we easily followed the overhead power line trail back to the road, which would have been the more obvious way up to the top (oh well, again, no research).

We then thought we’d hit Clingman Peak, but there was a giant fence around it, so that peak was a no-go.  I’m guessing it’s not on the official list.  I still haven’t checked.

To the right of the peak, the gravel road continued and was marked “private trail” with another sign reading “no trespassing”.  This road lead us to a very fancy house, which we tiptoed up to, looking for a trail.  The trail happened to be right in front of it.  Nobody seemed to be home, thankfully.  We traveled swiftly into the forest to follow the Boundary “Trail” to Potato Knob.   We lost the “trail” many times, but always somehow found it again.

We followed these for way too long

After we hit the peak, the trail was steep, hard to follow and overgrown.  This is probably understatement.  I couldn’t have been happier to have an altimeter.  Upon further investigation, Potato Knob is also not on the official list.  Don’t ask me why we checked.

Rock outcropping near the top of Potato Knob


We finally hit the MST and there was a simultaneous sigh of relief.  Heading away from Mt. Mitchell, we hiked the MST in order to bag our final peak, Blackstock Knob.  Since dark was falling, we decided to camp somewhere near Rainbow Gap.

Sunday August 27th: Mileage – waaaay too many (?)

Sunday: the day of rest; so we slept in an extra 10 minutes and headed in the direction of Blackstock Knob, probably the most unremarkable peak of our trip.  We hit it fairly quickly, but to be sure, hiked down the other side to find the “overhanging rock” as written in the CMC MST data book as being on the other side of the peak.  Mind you, there’s nothing but rocks in this section, so who knows.

Not the “overhanging rock” but one of many rocks near the trail

We turned around to hike the MST in the other direction to the Buncome Horse Trail all the way to Big Tom Spur which got us past the summit of Mt. Mitchell.  It was flat and wet, but our feet were already soaking wet from the rain which had only started to subside since dawn, so it didn’t matter much.  Big Tom Spur was steep, but by this point “steep” had kind of lost its meaning.  The rain subsided, and we reached the beloved Crest Trail once more.

We found these beautiful grass-of-parnassus on the Buncombe Horse Trail

I was feeling fairly tired, but as usual, my mind was doing little mileage calculations and I realized that we could potentially make it down to the car instead of camping another night.  I gobbled some swedish fish gummies and hiked on.  We hiked up and down and up and down and the trail was just as hard as it was two days ago.  We passed several perfectly good camping spots, and each time I looked at my watch and said to John “want to keep going?”

Wondering if we should move on along the Crest Trail

Soon the trail left the crest and started to head down.  Again, thank god I have an altimeter, because my feet and my knees were so sore that every 100 ft felt like 500 ft.  I groaned practically every other step.  We heard a bear, but it ran away before I could introduce myself, so we kept hiking some more.  Darkness was falling, and I started walking like a penguin.  Hiker hobble, they call it.  Too many miles.

Just after 8pm we got down to the car, and we started dreaming of all the things we would eat and drink once we got home.

Afterthought:

Upon returning home, we looked up the “official rules” of the South Beyond 6000ft (SB6K) challenge, and they seem arbitrary and, frankly, too complicated.  Plus on the official CMC rules page, it says “under construction”, so who knows what that means.  I realize that peak bagging, like many other hiking and running pursuits (like being a white blaze purist on the AT, which, of course we were to a stupid degree during our thru-hike), is by its nature a completely frivolous sport.  So, who knows, we probably won’t actually apply as official challenge finishers, even if we do wind up completing the list (and then some). The biggest reason being that it would mean keeping track of all the random details they want you to keep track of.  Plus, who wants to pay $10 for a patch that’ll just weigh us down in the future?  Thoughts about the SB6k challenge welcome!

Hiking with Sciatica

As many of you know, I have been dealing with Hip Dysplasia now for several years since finding out that I was actually born with this hip abnormality.  I have had hip pain since my 2014 thru-hike of the PCT, and subsequently, I’ve had several hip surgeries to correct the problem.  In June I had my last hip surgery to remove the hardware (screws) in my hip, and my hope had been to have the whole Hip Dysplasia saga behind me after this final recovery period, and be back in top hiking shape at this point.

Well, life is never so simple.  About a month before my hardware removal, I started experiencing the symptoms of sciatica: nerve pain down my left leg.  My PT helped to diagnose the problem, and I tried exercises to help it, and then hoped that some forced rest with my last surgery would knock it out.  It didn’t, and the pain persists.

It has been about 12 weeks since I first developed sciatica nerve pain, and let me tell you, it is hard and unrewarding to be in pain for 12 weeks after going through two and a half years of surgeries and recoveries in order to get to this point.  The pain itself is annoying, but what’s worse is the lack of a timeline, the lack of prognosis, and the need to constantly cancel or reschedule hikes and trips due to pain without knowing when or how this will ever go away.  The sciatica pain flares up sometimes making it hard to even walk around the house, and other times it subsides and allows me to do some less strenuous hikes.

After a lot of research, I decided that I would cut sitting out of my lifestyle and try to do some flat walking on a regular basis as pain allowed.  In general, this seemed to be the recommendation for sciatica patients.  I started using a standing desk, and I would lie down instead of sit whenever I wanted a rest from standing.

That was going well until last Thursday when I decided to go to the movies.  I sat for almost 2 hours.  Big mistake.  When I stood up I couldn’t walk without shooting pain down my leg.  That night my mental health plummeted.  I saw no hope.  I would have to cancel another hike I was supposed to guide on Saturday, and cancel my personal hike for the weekend too.  I had no other plans for the weekend besides hiking.  Nothing to look forward to.  Just another day of trying to stand all fucking day long.  It felt like no way to live.  So unfair and so demoralizing.  With every step I was forcefully reminded with an electric shock down my the back of my left leg.

On Saturday I spent the morning lying on my living room floor while Dirt Stew was out guiding a hike.  I decided to take a Gapapentin for nerve pain to see what effect it would have.  I was so bored and depressed, but I did feel somewhat better physically.  I decided I wanted to spend a night in the woods and try to catch up with our friends who had planned a backpacking trip through the Middle Prong Wilderness.

Dirt Stew came home and I told him I wanted to go backpacking..  He tried to talk me out of it, for fear that I would do more damage, but there was no way I was spending the rest of the day standing around annoyed and depressed.  If I was going to do that, I may as well do it in the woods.

We packed up and headed out on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  We decided to park at Devil’s Courthouse and find the MST and camp somewhere along it.  Once I started walking, I immediately started to feel human again.  It was so good to be outside and in such a beautiful section of trail.  The Hermit Thrushes were singing their mystic songs which echoed through the dense forest. It was surprisingly cool.  It had just rained, and the trail was full of puddles and mud and I was delighted to stomp through them getting my feet and legs dirty.  Sections of the MST were quite overgrown with brambles and the thorny bushes left cuts on my legs.  We wound up hiking for an hour and a half to Silvermine Bald which has some great camping spots.

View of Davidson Valley, Pilot Mountain, and the ridge that the Art Loeb Follows

We got to our campsite just after sunset and I sat on the soft forest floor rummaging through our food bags while Dirt Stew set up the tent.  My legs were covered in wet mud and scrapes and my shoes and socks were sopping wet and muddy, and I was hungry.  For the first time in weeks I felt alive again.

We ate and got into the tent just as darkness fell, and the minute I closed my eyes, I was fast asleep.  I woke up just as it started to get light out around 6AM, and I felt reasonably well rested.  We quickly packed up, knowing that we had to intersect our friends on the MST at Haywood Gap before they passed through there, and we didn’t really know when that would be.  We got up and packed up within 15-20 minutes.  “We’ve still got it!” I said with regards to how quickly we packed up.

We hiked back to our car and drove down the road to Haywood Gap.  We got out of our car and started getting our packs out of the trunk when our friends Donner (AT class of 2010) and company emerged from the forest on the other side of the woods.

“NO WAY!” exclaimed Donner as he saw us.

Good timing!  It was so good to see them again, and we donned our packs and followed the group into the woods to continue on the MST.  We chatted and caught up with friends we had hiked with before, and introduced ourselves to some new friends in the group, and all the while, I felt on top of the world.

We knew this section of trail, but the last time we had hiked it was in April, and the trail looked completely different now.  Back in April, the trail was covered in Trout Lily and May Apples, and now it was overgrown with stinging nettles, black berries and brambles.  It was still fairly flat and fast going, and with the distraction of talking with friends, the miles went by quickly.

We passed on intersection that obviously led over to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and then passed another intersection that we assumed did the same thing until we started going downhill quite a lot.  Dirt Stew asked me if I wanted to turn around at this point since I was going to suffer if I had to do much uphill hiking.  We looked at the map and decided that we would keep going until the intersection with the Fork Ridge Trail, which is where the trail would really start to go downhill, and our friends would be taking that route back to their cars which were parked on 215 at the bottom.

Well, eventually we figured out that we missed the turn for the MST at the junction with the Buckeye Trail, and we had been heading down the Buckeye Trail for quite some time now.  We knew exactly where we made the wrong turn.  I wasn’t keen on going back up, and I also was having a great time hiking with my friends, so we decided that we would keep hiking with them down to their vehicles and then get a ride back up to our car.  I felt bad inconveniencing our new friends, but I also knew we could probably hitch-hike if we needed to.  I just wanted to keep hiking.

We got to the bottom of the Buckeye Trail soon after which there is a stream to ford.  Since my feet were already wet, I just walked through it, but others took the time to take off their shoes.  The water was nice and cool, and the stream was beautiful.  Bee balm and Turks Cap and Carolina Lilies were blooming everywhere.

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Eyeing a ford while the dogs lead the way through the cool water.

 

Stream with a nice waterfall

Do I look as happy as I feel?

 

Carolina Lily


Bee Balm

We finished the hike on the gravel road leading down to 215 and caught a ride with Lindsay and Taylor back up to the Blue Ridge Parkway.  We certainly owe them a favor for getting us back to our car!

Finishing the hike on a gravel road.  Dirt Stew is eyeing the lilies.

I can’t tell you how good it was to spend the night in the woods, spend a day with friends, and spend a good amount of time in nature walking.  It was the best therapy I could have asked for, and I plan on doing it again very soon.

In a week I will see a Spine Surgeon to hopefully find the source of my Sciatica Pain, and I now believe more than ever that the final cure for this will be another long distance hike.  I hope sooner rather than later I will find myself down that path.

Shining Rock and Middle Prong Wilderness

“An area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” -Wilderness Act, 1964

Trails within wilderness areas tend to be primitive and sparsely maintained.  The Wilderness Act does not allow the use of motorized vehicles or chainsaws, so trail maintenance in these areas is difficult.

Day 1: 12.5 miles-ish

We parked our car at the bottom of the Fork Mountain trail on Route 215 along the river.  If Dirt Stew hadn’t said there was a trail there, I would never have found it.

We first had to cross the freezing cold river, which came roughly up to our knees.  There were several people fishing along the river, and they watched us with skepticism as we staggered across the river seemingly randomly.  Once on the other side, I saw where the trail went up into the forest.   The Fork Mountain Trail is a 7-mile trail with about 3,000ft elevation gain.  Most of that gain happens in the first few miles.  The trail was steep and rugged and had I been going at a decent pace, I would have become exhausted quite quickly.  Luckily, wildflowers dotted the trail, and I stopped every few minutes to take some pictures.

Blood Root

 

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Bird’s Foot Violet

It was obvious that this trail did not see many visitors.  There were downed trees every once in a while, vegetation encroaching onto the trail, and the tread-way was not well worn.

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John hiking on the Fork Mountain Trail

Once we got close to 5000ft elevation, we made a series of wrong turns. We made a wrong turn at an old railroad bed, and again a bit further where we wound up following a trail used by surveyors that dead ended at a survey marker.

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We didn’t know it because we were lost, but we were on a trail that only existed because of this survey marker.

We also climbed part of the way up Fork Mountain by accident and hit a wilderness boundary sign before realizing our mistake.  Luckily by studying our map we were able to retrace our steps and find the trail, but we lost a lot of time, and did a good job scraping up our legs bushwhacking around looking for the trail.

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We may be lost, but we’re lost in a beautiful spot!

Once we were back on trail and on the ridge, the trail was easier and we heard some voices.  We ran into a couple who had hiked in from the other direction, and we wound up chatting to them for a while while we hiked up to the Ivestor Gap Trail.

Once we hit the Ivestor Gap Trail, we had a lot of options, and it was hard to decide which way to go since we have done a lot of hiking in that area, and wanted to see new things.  We decided to take a very round about way to hit the Mountains to Sea Trail by walking on trails we hadn’t hiked on before.  We hiked toward Ivestor Gap and got water near there, and then took the Graveyard Ridge Trail, which turned out to be mostly a stream.  It was basically impossible not to get our feet wet.  I could see why most people don’t hike this trail.  It’s another old railroad bed, but none of the culverts actually work anymore.

Once we hit the Mountains To Sea Trail I was feeling pretty tired.  We decided we’d hike to Chestnut Bald where we had camped before on the Art Loeb.  This was a section where the Mountains to Sea Trail and the Art Loeb intersect.  My hips were a bit sore, and my leg muscles were tired from the big climb earlier in the day.

We ate a large pot of mashed potatoes and called it a night.

Day Two: 15.5 miles-ish

Our ultimate goal was to hike a loop in the Middle Prong Wilderness where Dirt Stew had seen an amazing wildflower display last year.  We had also intended on hiking Sam’s Knob, but somehow didn’t set ourselves up for it by camping where we did, so we decided to skip Sam’s Knob.  In any case, Sam’s Knob is an easy day hike from the Black Balsam parking lot.

We decided instead to just take the Mountains to Sea Trail (MST) over to the Middle Prong Wilderness to hike that loop.

Along the way, we decided to take a side trail to hit Devil’s Courthouse.  From there we got some beautiful views of the surrounding mountains.

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John checking out the view from Devil’s Courthouse.  Notice Pilot Mountain poking up between the trees!

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More views from Devils’s Courthouse

We hiked and hiked and hiked and hiked.  I started getting grouchy.  Why was this taking so long?  The trail was anything but straight.  It winded around practically in circles.  I had somehow thought of the MST as some sort of teleportation trail that would quickly get us over to Haywood Gap and Buckeye Gap Trails in the Middle Prong Wilderness.  We didn’t have any data on the mileage of this section of the MST, but it looked quite short on the map.  Well, it wasn’t, and I was grumpy about it.

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Middle Prong Wilderness!

We stopped and ate lunch, and carried on hiking.  I vaguely remember passing the Green Mountain Trail, but we must have missed the Buckeye Gap Trail.  Slowly the MST started presenting clusters of wildflowers until they practically covered the forest floor.  My hips were aching a lot, and I stopped to take Advil.  By the time we got to the Haywood Gap Trail, it was probably 3pm.  The intersection of the MST and Haywood Gap harbored one of the most beautiful displays of wildflowers I have ever seen.  There were Trout Lillies as far as the eye could see, and Spring Beauty, May Apples, Dutchman’s Britches, all carpeting the forest as far as the eye could see.  Flashes of yellow, flashes of red where Trillium had just started opening up.

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Trout Lilly and Spring Beauty as far as the eye can see

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Just a narrow footpath lined with Trout Lilies

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May Apples, more Trout Lilies and more Spring Beauty!

Dirt Stew was giggling, and I was stunned. I kept the camera in one hand and my trekking poles in the other and tiptoed down the trail trying not to step on any flowers.  They were growing in the middle of the trail at points!

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Dutchman’s Britches

We decided that since we missed the Buckeye Gap Trail, we would just hike the Haywood Gap Trail to the end and take the gravel road from there to our car.  Hiking down the Haywood Gap Trail was hard.  The trail follows the stream the whole way down, and parts of the trail are washed out, and many sections are very steep.  There was at least one or two fords where we couldn’t rock hop, but the cold water felt good for my tired feet.

Despite my sore hips and tired feet, the wildflowers continued to put on a show for us.  As we descended into the valley, different flowers presented themselves at different elevations.  It was like each flower species got their turn to carpet an area, where normally I would have gotten excited to see one individual.

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Larkspur

The trail ended at a gravel road and we walked the road down past a closed gate down to where we parked our car.  We went home a day early, but completely satisfied with the weekend’s adventure.

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Trillium

The Beautiful Smoky Mountains

What better time to go for a backpacking trip in the Smoky Mountains than on a random weekend in late February while the seasons are busy being confused about what time of year it is.

We left mid Friday to get in day’s worth of hiking on our first day out.  For me, a day’s worth of hiking is currently about 6-8 miles, given that I had hip surgery 4 months ago.  I’m constantly getting stronger and increasing my mileage, and this trip was no exception.

Somehow when Dirt Stew planned this trip, he failed to mention to me what the elevation gain would be on the first day.  I usually don’t care, but it turns out that from the parking lot at Big Creek Trail head to the top of Mt Sterling where we were going to camp that night is a 4000ft climb over 6 miles.  That must be one of the biggest climbs on the East Coast!

We got out of the car and I immediately had to take off my jacket.  It must have been almost 70 degrees out.  I was struck by how green the moss was next to the parking lot.  We snapped some pictures, checked our altimeters, and started climbing the Baxter Creek Trail.

Shorts and t-shirt weather in February!

We stripped down to shorts and t-shirts, and gawked at the many wildflowers that were just as confused about the weather as we were.  At low elevations, the Spring Beauties were out as well as Toadshade and Sharp Lobed Hepatica.  We hiked at a reasonably slow pace and took lots of pictures.

Toadshade

We saw two ladies maybe a mile from the trail head, and then not a single other person all day.  We climbed through entire ecosystems, from the wet stream valley covered in wild flowers to the drier rhododendron filled mountainsides all the way up to the magical land of spruces and huge rocks covered in moss.

Rocks covered in moss

Spruce trees growing on moss covered rocks

We took water at the last stream crossing, since we didn’t know about any other water sources.  It turned out though, that 0.4 miles from the top of Mt. Sterling, there was a sign pointing to a water source.  We didn’t bother checking to see if it was running.

My hip started to really ache once we got to about 5,000ft, and I started limping just a tad, and walking a bit slower, taking a break every so often to stretch out my hip flexors and adductor muscles.  The moss and fern covered rocks provided me with plenty of inspiration for photography.

By the time we hit the top at 5,842ft, the temperature had dropped maybe 10 or 15 degrees.  It was a pleasant temperature, but the wind was starting to pick up, and at the top of Mt Sterling, there is a very tall fire tower luring you to climb to a better view.

Scary-as-all-hell fire-tower on top of Mt Sterling

 

We took a few steps up the tower and instantly felt vertigo.  The stairs had small pathetic railings, and at the landings between stair cases, there was nothing to stop you from falling over.  Dirt Stew started cursing.  He was holding on to his camera in one hand, and gripping the railing with the other.

“Nope!”  He proclaimed.  “Not going any further!”

We got down from the scary-as-all-hell fire tower, and contented ourselves with taking pictures of the fire-tower instead of from it.

We set up camp, and ate dinner.  We knew that this night was going to be warm, and the next night was going to be very cold.  The forecast for Asheville showed 50’s at night for the first night, and 20’s for our second night.  We had decided the direction of our hike based on this information, since it made no sense to be on top of a nearly 6000ft mountain on the colder night.

I went off to water a tree, and when I got back, Dirt Stew was gone.  I called out for him, and heard a voice from up ahead.  He had climbed most of the way up the fire-tower on his own to get some more pictures.

“It’s not so bad when you can hold both railings,”  he said.  I wasn’t convinced.

“Please don’t die,”  I begged.

 

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Picture from up the fire-tower

 

He came down, and got ready for bed.  We hung our food on the handy bear lines provided, and crawled into our tent around sunset.  We dozed off, but were constantly awoken by the wind vigorously swaying the branches above our head and whipping at our tent.  Dirt Stew decided to use ear plugs.

I had another problem.  I usually bring an empty Gatorade bottle with me which I pee in at night so I don’t have to leave the tent.  I use my handy p-style, a magical device which allows women to pee like men.  This time I forgot my empty bottle, and I had to leave the tent each time I had to pee.  Bummer.

Hanging out in the tent

By 3AM I was woken up by flashes of lightning and crashing thunder.  It started to rain.  I snuggled deeper into my sleeping bag and tried to sleep.  I couldn’t.  I counted the seconds between lighting flashes and associated claps of thunder.  When they got to be 2 seconds or less, I decided to wake up Dirt Stew.  We were in a terrible location.  Why was the designated campsite on top of the tallest mountain around?  We never would have chosen to camp here had we been allowed to camp wherever we wanted.  I cursed the National Park and their rules.

We agreed that there was basically nothing that made sense to do but stay put and hope for the best.

Eventually, the storm died down, and we fell back asleep.

The next morning the rain was subsiding as we got up.  By the time we ate breakfast and our packs were packed, the last drops of rain were lingering on branches, teasing us with showers when the wind picked up, encouraging us to keep our rain jackets on to start our hike.

 

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The sun making an appearance through the morning mist

 

The clouds lifted, but it never warmed up.  Our day was mostly downhill.  We hiked over to the Swallow Fork Trail to Campsite “37”, which was located in a stream valley.  We passed two sets of two hikers, and were surprised each time.  Water was reliable, and corresponded to where we thought it would be based on the map.  By the time we got to the campsite, there were some people milling around.  We were about 5 miles away from the trail head from the Big Creek Trail, where we were planning on hiking out and finishing our loop, so it made sense that some day hikers had made it in that far.

Stream Crossing

We decided to set up camp and continue to explore up the Camel Gap Trail.  We wanted to see what the ford looked like to get onto the Gunter Fork Trail, where there was a “high water caution” written on our map.

But first we took our time to select our campsite.  Again, this was not the ideal location to be camping tonight.  Tonight the prediction was cold, probably into the low 20’s, and all the available campsites were in a cold valley next to a creek.  Not ideal, but at least the elevation was nearly 3000 ft lower than the previous night.  We hoped that would make a big difference.  Given the forecast, we decided to take two sleeping bags each.  I guess you can say we’re wimps about the cold, or at least I wasn’t used to cold weather camping since last winter I was also recovering from surgery.

We picked the best spot we could, furthest from the stream, and then left our gear and took our empty packs containing just food and water and ventured up stream.  We saw a red salamander hanging out right in the middle of the trail.  I picked him up and moved him to the side.  The trail was easy despite some downed trees, and we hiked about a mile to the ford.  The ford was definitely a ford, not a rock hop.  We decided we didn’t want to get our shoes wet, so we just hung around taking pictures, and then wandered back to camp.

 

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Cute Red Salamander

 

The temperatures kept dropping, and we struggled to keep warm.  This is the point at which I realized why most people don’t like going backpacking in foul weather (rain, snow, cold, etc.).  Most people aren’t willing or able to hike all day, and therefore they’re stuck shivering at camp at the end of their hike, huddled around a camp fire trying to stay warm.  Now I was in that boat too.   I’m used to hiking all day, and when you’re hiking, you can stay warm.  Now I was cold, bored, and uninterested in “hanging around camp.”  I had hiked a grand total of maybe 9 miles.  An easy 9 miles.

We decided to climb into our tent before sunset.  We got out our two sleeping bags and climbed in.  It was plenty warm, and we lay there staring at the ceiling of our tent.  I see why some people bring books now.

Hanging out in the tent again

After many hours of sleep, we woke up with the sun.  We slept plenty warm, we probably didn’t need the extra sleeping bag each, but we were better safe than sorry.

The next morning we we only had 5 miles left to hike to make it back to the car.  These 5 miles were probably the easiest 5 miles I could imagine.  Flat; very slightly downhill; wide trail.  We stopped at Mouse Creek Falls and Midnight Hole Falls, and there was one more waterfall that wasn’t labeled on the map.  They were all beautiful and photogenic.

Pretty waterfall

Midnight Hole Falls (awesome swimming hole if it’s warm)

The streams in the Smokys are so beautiful

 

Keeping warm while checking out waterfalls

 

Dirt Stew poses for a picture

Once back at the car, I was sad to drive away from the beautiful smoky mountains, but happy to be headed in the direction of a warm shower and a hot cup of tea!