Bartram Trail: Cheoah Bald to Franklin, TN

Bartram Trail

Day 1: 19 miles

We woke up to our alarm, and got out of our warm comfy bed for the last time in a while.

At 8:30AM, Jen came to our house to pick us up. Her kids are used to being strapped into the back seat of her car. An hour and a half later, we were at the NOC, and our trail friend Rob (trail name Donner) met us there with another thru-hiker (AT class of 2018),Russell (trail name Savage). The two of them are doing a ~60 mile loop with the Bartram and the Appalachian Trail, and they had just done a 20 mile day the day before to reach us.

We started the long ascent on the Appalachian Trail up to Cheoah Bald, a 3000ft ascent. Having only gotten going at 10:45AM, and knowing that we had almost a 20 mile day to do, I tried to set a decent pace. The climb, however, was relentless.

The Bartram Trail officially starts at the top of Cheoah Bald, so you have the choice of either an out-and-back on the Bartram, or starting on the Appalachian Trail (a slightly more gradual ascent). John felt hot spots on his ankles and stopped to tape them up. We took brand new shoes for this trip – something we never recommend that anyone does.

At the top of Cheoah Bald we had a terrific view, and stopped to eat a late lunch. Given that it was already 2pm and we had done less than 5 miles, I started to question our goal. But, since daylight savings was a week ago, we knew we had quite a bit of sunlight.

The Bartram diverged unceremoniously from the AT a few steps later.

It was like exiting a highway onto a dirt road. The trail was soft and covered in leaves whereas the AT was bare and hard, having seen thousands more hikers in recent months. We descended from the top of Cheoah Bald along a beautiful stream with many impressive waterfalls.

We reached a stream crossing, and Donner painstakingly took off his shoes and socks in order to do the crossing barefoot. John and I simply plowed through with our quick drying Astrals (basically water shoes). Before long there was another stream crossing… and then another. Donner and Savage tried over and over to keep their feet dry while performing impressive rock jumps and log balances.

We reached a road, and after a nice flat section on a paved bike trail, we got to a parking lot and quickly got disoriented trying to follow the blazes. Finally, a fisherman showed us the way, and we headed up our second large climb of the day. My shoulder and right hip started bothering me. Same old problems, different trail. I kept my head down and kept plowing forward.

As we reached the golden hour (the hour before sunset), we started descending amongst rhododendron thickets. Soon darkness started to fall, but as we got to a landmark, we figured out we had only a mile left to complete our 19 mile day. I was impressed.

I soon pulled out my headlamp. I’m always the first to put out a light because my night vision is not good. The four of us completed the last part of the last mile with the help of my headlamp. We got to a nice camping spot along a stream and set up camp and ate dinner. It got cold fast, and my fingers were numb despite my hands being in gloves. I didn’t take long to jump in the tent and crawl into my two (yes, we each brought two) sleeping bags.

John took off his shoes, and to his horror his socks were covered in blood. He had massive blisters on the back of his ankles and they had popped. This is the first time John has ever gotten blisters, and we guess it is because they redesigned the heel cup on the shoes he’s wearing. He put some Neosporin on his ankles and put them in some dry socks for the night. Hopefully we’ll stay warm.

Day 2: roughly 20 miles

I think I must have snored last night because I vaguely remember waking myself up snoring. That’s a first. I must be getting old. John tended to his feet and we packed up and got going.

We walked along the Nantahala River for miles. The trail was easy, but sometimes hard to follow, and the river was high, so when the trial got close to the river, it was sometimes washed out.

We eventually got to a paved road, and after crossing it, we started walking on a gravel road, diligently following the blazes. We walked fast, hoping to get to a promised gas station and restaurant before they closed for the day. Eventually, however, the trail dead ended at a concrete road completely submerged by the Nantahala River. It looked pretty daunting, but upon further inspection, we saw blazes on the other side of the river. We stood there dumbfounded for a while, checking our maps and wondering why on earth there wasn’t any warning about this.

We decided the best option was to attempt to ford the river. We prepared and linked arms. We got maybe 10 or 15 ft into the river before my feet started slipping under me. I was the lightest so I figured it was up to me to make the call to turn back. We got back to the bank and spent some more time staring at the map trying to figure out what to do, It turns out tat the Bartram Trail on the Nat Geo map is incorrect compared to the way it is blazed and also compared to the trail notes we were following. But we could walk 2 miles back to the road crossing and walk on pavement around this section. So, that’s what we did.

When we got to the road, I was worried about the amount of extra time and miles we were adding to Donner and Savage’s hike. They already had planed a 20 mile day followed by a 4 hour drive back home before work the next day. A 24 mile day sounded painful. As we walked the road, I stuck out my thumb.

Time passed, but eventually a pick up truck pulled over and drove us to the gas station. That probably saved us a mile or two, and a bunch of crappy uphill road walking. We were happy. Sadly, however, the gas station was closed. It was a good thing we weren’t counting on it, but it would have been nice to stop in for some more snacks.

We carried on, and followed the trail back into the woods straight uphill towards Wayah Bald. The trail was steep and we were all a bit tired at this point. My neck/shoulder problem was bothering me, as usual, and I tried to focus on one foot in front of the other, but I eventually stopped and took some Advil.

Before we got to the top of Wayah bald, we intersected with the Appalachian Trail, and this is the spot at which we had to bid Donner and Savage farewell. They would hike another 2 miles downhill to their car, and we would continue on. It was so nice to have other hikers join us for a stretch of trail, it was sad to see them go. But, as a parting gift, Donner gave us a few of his extra snacks. I downed two to three granola bars on the spot.

After they left, we continued uphill to Wayah Bald. There is an observation tower on top, and the views were phenomenal.

The cold wind drove us off quickly though, and we scurried down to start looking for a campsite. The Bartram soon diverged from the Appalachian Trail, and we carried on. Soon we found some flat ground to call home for the night. We’re above 5000 ft here, and I know it’s supposed to drop below freezing down in Asheville and Franklin so we’re in for another cold night. I’m so glad I have two sleeping bags!! I have no shame.

Day 3: 14-ish miles

We were warm last night, perhaps even warmer than the night before. It’s all about campsite selection. We picked the perfect spot – not in a valley, not near a stream, and somewhat protected by bushes.

We started what I had imagined to be a 10 mile mostly downhill section towards Franklin. I guess mostly downhill isn’t completely inaccurate as we did wind up at a lower elevation than when we started. For those of you veteran AT hikers reading this blog… do you remember the section of the AT they called “the roller coaster” in Virginia where the trail went up and down about 13 times? Well, that’s what this was like. We went up and down so many “PUD’s” (pointless up and downs), that I actually started to get annoyed.

I mean, I’m a hiker, I don’t generally mind going up and down a bunch, but I think what got to me was that trail was often times slightly steeper than was actually comfortable (like you had to climb on your toes, and descend slowly and carefully). Admittedly, my mind was also fixated on the all-you-can-eat Asian buffet that I knew awaited us in Franklin. My mouth watered.

At least I still had some Doritos left in my pack to polish off. I sat down and rummaged through my pack.

“Where are the Doritos?” I asked John

“What Doritos?” He replied

“MY Doritos!!” I barked

“I thought we were sharing” He said sheepishly.

“There were TWO bags!”

“They’re all gone…”

John looked at me with big puppy eyes.

“What do you mean they’re all gone?! You unceremoniously polished off two bags of Doritos without offering me any!?!”

I sighed. The Asian Buffet lingered in my mind for a minute as I swallowed a few spoonfuls of peanut butter can carried on.

As we descended, the first wildflowers started to appear: blood root, a beautiful while flower. And another strange green plant we didn’t know (if you know it, please tell us!)

We reached a road, and started the long road walk through Franklin. Road walks are boring, but I don’t mind them as much as I used to. I guess New Zealand changed me. As long as I don’t have to walk down a busy highway with no shoulder, I’m happy. Not that I want to be walking on a road. I’d happily skip it. But I understand that sometimes in order to connect two bits of trail, a road is sometimes the only way.

Before we knew it we were at Walmart resupplying. We bought five days worth of food and then dragged our heavy backpacks into the Asian Buffet and gorged ourselves.

We’re now spending the night at the Microtel. The lady here made us sign a piece of paper specially for hikers noting that if we got anything dirty, they’d charge us for it. They also handed us some non-perfect towels so that we wouldn’t get their perfectly white towels dirty. I wish all hotels gave towels like that to hikers. I was happy that they knew how to treat hikers, so I went back to the front desk and asked if they also had non-perfect sheets because John has bloody blisters on his heels and we didn’t want to get blood on their sheets. They told us no, but if we got blood on their sheets, they would charge us for it. I went back to my room with a somewhat sour taste in my mouth. I kind of wish they just put on their website that they don’t really want hikers staying at their hotel. I would have gone somewhere else.

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2019 and new adventures!

Admittedly, 2018 will go down as one of my favorite years.  I knew that hiking across New Zealand followed by an awesome summer job working in three national parks followed by a European adventure would be a hard act to follow.

In December, we got back to our house in Asheville and started applying for jobs.  Luckily, we were distracted from our situation by training for a race: John was training for the 40 mile Mount Mitchell Challenge and I was training for the 26 mile Black Mountain Marathon (same day, same course, John just had to run further- to the top of Mount Mitchell).  I was annoyed at the time that we had these races to train for because I was tired of running and sick of trying to train in the winter.  But looking back, it was good for us because we still had a goal to strive for, and we were also able to stay physically active.  This has always helped with anxiety and the winter blues which always ensue at the end of a long hike or adventure.

We applied for the Leave No Trace Traveling Trainers position thinking we had a good shot this year having worked for them over the summer.  Unfortunately, their hiring process took several months which did not help with the aforementioned anxiety.

Luckily, we still had connections in Asheville, and we started working again with Blue Ridge Hiking Company.  I also started applying for engineering jobs again, and John started applying for environmental jobs.  To cut a long story short, we were not offered the Leave No Trace position, but we both were offered jobs in our respective fields.  I decided to turn down a promising sales engineering job in favor of a part-time job working for Jennifer Pharr Davis (owner of Blue Ridge Hiking Company) as her Director of Corporate Sales.  Who knows if that was the right decision, but I’m pretty happy with it.  The fancy title means that I’ll be helping her to book talks at businesses.  She’s an amazing speaker and author, and if you don’t know who she is, you should look her up – she shattered the gender gap in hiking by being the first female hiker to break the overall record on the Appalachian Trail.  Pretty impressive.  Knowing she hiked 46 or 47 miles per day for a month and a half has given me a lot of inspiration over the years.

Meanwhile, John accepted a job working part-time with some old colleagues as an Environmental Scientist.  With both of us working part time, we have been able to also start guiding again with Blue Ridge Hiking Company.  In fact I just guided the first backpacking trip of the season, and it reminded me how much I love guiding hikes.

Although we’re going to be hustling a lot this year, we do have the flexibility to do some personal hiking, and while the guiding season is still young, we thought we’d take advantage of some extra time by hiking the Bartram and Foothills Trails.

The Bartram Trail is about 115 miles long and runs through North Carolina and Georgia.  We’re going to hike it southbound (NC to GA).  The trail roughly follows the route that William Bartram, a botanist from the 18th century, took .  He must have covered many more miles, however, as he traveled for several years all over the southeast taking notes on the local flora and fauna. The Bartram Trail connects to the Foothills Trail, which is a 76-mile trail in South and North Carolina, and apparently has some amazing wildflowers in late March, which we hope to encounter.

As usual, I welcome you to join us on this roughly two-week adventure!  More blog posts to follow!

 

Denali Wrap-up

It’s been a few weeks now since we left Denali, but I’m only just getting a chance to share some of my final thoughts on this park along with some of our experiences that I didn’t wind up blogging about earlier (I rarely blog about day hikes, and otherwise I only have one fairly embarrassing story about quitting 5 minutes into a backpacking trip).

But first, let me tell you that Denali was not our favorite National Park (our favorite so far has been Grand Teton!).  I realize that the reasons are mostly situational, but still, it’s not going high on the list of places to re-visit.

We were in Denali for 5 weeks from the 7th of August until the 11th of September.  For the entire month of August, I remember seeing the sun a total of maybe 4 times.  Otherwise, it rained, drizzled, misted and occasionally poured.  Even when it occasionally didn’t rain, it was overcast, dreary, and often threatening to rain at a moment’s notice.  As it turns out, my tolerance for 40 degrees and rain is lower than required in order to enjoy the month of August in Denali, which is the month when summer ends and winter hits.  In fact, we were told that this was one of the rainiest seasons they’ve had in a long time, and even the locals were starting to complain bitterly by the end of August.  Although we did get to live (sleep) indoors during our time in Denali, our work consisted of sitting outside 6-7 hours a day (regardless of weather) along with a much longer commute than in previous parks.  Still, you can’t complain about a job that sends you to three National Parks!

We did, however, get about 4 fantastic days during the month of August, and on those, we maximized our time hiking on the 30 miles of maintained trail within the park.  We easily covered all the available trails in Denali National Park, and then found another beautiful trail in Denali State Park where we did a day-hike on the 30-something mile trail that runs along it.  I would have liked to do the whole thing, but I certainly wouldn’t want to do it in poor weather as most of the trail was quite exposed.

In fact, a lot of the best hiking in Denali National Park was on exposed ridges and these hikes are fantastic when the weather is good and miserable when it is bad.  We were lucky that when September hit, we got more days of good weather than the entire previous month, however, the temperature would plummet each evening into the 20’s or 30’s.  Our favorite hikes were Mt Healy and the Savage Alpine Trail, which were nice, short, and somewhat strenuous day hikes.

The locals along with park employees would encourage us to spend time off-trail, because this is where you can actually explore the park on your own terms.  In fact, this is what you must do in order to backpack in the park, and if you’ve been following this blog, you may remember reading about our first attempt at a backpacking trip in Denali (spoiler: it didn’t go very well).

Well, we decided to be brave and make one more attempt at a backpacking trip on a day where the weather looked slightly less miserable.  We packed, took the free bus to where we wanted to start, and got out.  Upon exiting the bus, we stood in the freezing cold with strong gusts of wind tearing through our clothing for several minutes as we poured over our map and attempted to agree on a route.  We walked for about 5 minutes towards the mountain we wanted to start climbing which was rapidly disappearing under a thick grey cloud, and then we almost immediately had to get our feet wet.  We looked at each other and decided right then and there that we simply weren’t going to do it.  We were too tired of being cold, too tired of being rained on, and not in the mood to try again to navigate by map and compass from the middle of dense clouds.  So we quit.  See?  We’re really not very bad-ass.

Much to our surprise, however, was that our absolute favorite thing to do in Denali was to volunteer at the dog kennels.  When we first arrived, we visited the kennels where they keep roughly 30 sled dogs who actually have ranger status at the park.  These sled dogs work primarily in the winter months (of which there are many) when they haul large amounts of materials around the park from debris to research equipment.  This is because much of the park is designated a Wilderness (with a capital W), and the use of motorized equipment is strictly prohibited.  We enquired about volunteering to be dog walkers and soon we were taught how to walk or run our sled dogs.  We each were given a particular sled dog, and we were only to walk that particular sled dog and we had to commit to at least 1 hour three times a week.  Each sled dog, however, could have multiple walkers so they could hope to get enough exercise.  John’s was given the most energetic sled dog on the team, a two-year-old male dog by the name of Cupcake, whom 4 previous walkers had given up on, and I was given a one-year-old female dog who was still learning the ropes named Story.

We quickly decided we would run our dogs rather than walk them.  Our biggest joy was to show up at the kennels to find 28 dogs sleeping on their kennels while Cupcake and Story jumped up and down eagerly in our direction until we put a leash on them.  Their excitement was contagious and being recognized and so much appreciated by another animal made our whole trip to Denali a delight.  We also got special privileges to cuddle with the newest sled dogs on the team, a litter of 7 puppies before we left.

We also became much stronger runners and by the end of our time in Denali, John had signed himself up for an ultra-marathon (this was somewhat of an accident as he thought he wouldn’t get chosen in the lottery for the Mt Mitchell Challenge, so he somewhat haphazardly entered).  When John found out he was going to run this 40-miler, I signed up for the marathon length (the “fun run”).

Now that we’ve left winter in Denali for the locals to deal with, we have reentered fall in Europe where we are traveling around visiting friends and family while attempting to train for the Mt Mitchell Challenge, which will be in late February.  Training for a race is hard enough when you have a routine, but finding places to run in big cities like Paris is proving to be an additional challenge.

Next week we are off to hike the GR20, a 115-mile trail in Corsica (an island off the coast of France and Italy).  The GR20 is supposed to be one of the hardest trails in Europe, so we’ll give it our best shot, but given that we’re starting in October, we’re somewhat outside of the normal hiking season, so most of the facilities will be closed.  We will have to carry more food than most GR20 hikers, but we’re up for the challenge. We’re hoping that the weather will cooperate nonetheless and we will be able to complete this hike, but who knows!  As usual, I will blog so you all can follow along!

Denali backpacking fail

Denali is an interesting National Park because first of all it is HUGE (the size of Massachusetts), and it has practically no trails (roughly 30 miles of trails mostly around the visitor’s center and other campgrounds). So, if you want to go backpacking you have to, and are encouraged to walk off trail. To most of us who are from the lower 48, this is not what we’re used to. We’re used to being told to stick to trails, mostly for leave no trace principles (walk and camp on durable surfaces) to minimize our collective impact. But in a park the size of Massachusetts, with a fraction of the number of annual visitors of most of the smaller parks in the United States, this isn’t much of an issue.

There is one road in the park, and it is 92 miles long and mostly only accessible by bus. You are allowed to drive the first 15 miles in your private vehicle, but after that, only busses are allowed, and the road is narrow and unpaved.

After reading our new friends Justin and Patrice’s blog about their backpacking trip here in Denali (they are also working for Leave No Trace on a similar project, so they are visiting the same National Parks that we are this summer), we decided to show up to the permitting office without a plan. In their blog, Justin and Patrice mentioned that they had come up with several ideas for routes, but once they got to the permitting office, none of the zones they were looking at were available.

So, going back a step- the park is split up into these zones, and the way the permitting system works here is that you pick a zone to camp in, and there are a certain number of permits they give out to each zone per night.

We decided to show up with no plan, and let the availability dictate where we go. That turned out to be a good choice since a surprising number of zones were full, and pretty much all the ones we had our eye on were in fact full.

We looked at one or two zones that were available, and talked to a ranger about possible travel within these zones, and decided on zone 18. We would have to travel through another zone to get to our zone, but it looked feasible.

We had three days off, and for most people the highlight of their trip to Denali is taking one of the park busses down the road and back. So we decided we would take the bus almost to the end of the road and then turn around and get to our designated spot. So we went off and got a bus ticket on the earliest camper bus (6:55am, $40pp).

Back at home we filled our bear canister to brim and then brought sandwiches and extra bars, too for the first day out. John is always complaining that we don’t carry enough food, so we’re trying to get better about that.

In the morning we caught the bus and settled in, knowing we would be on the bus for 5 or 6 hours to get to Wonder Lake, which isn’t even the last stop. Our bus driver was knowledgeable, telling us about wildlife and history. She was also a careful driver, going around turns at a slow pace. I was grateful.

One hour into the drive we realized that we forgot our trekking poles. You wouldn’t think this would be a big deal, but in our case, we use our trekking poles to set up our tent. We otherwise have no other tent poles.

“We can find some sticks..?” I suggested nervously.

We stared out of the bus window watching the unforested expanse of tundra float by, and collectively wondered where on earth we were going to find a pair of sticks.

The bus took a break every 1-1.5 hours, and we could get on and off the bus to go to the restroom and take a few pictures.

The first wildlife we saw was two caribou far up on a hill and I was glad I had bought $10 binoculars off of Amazon in preparation for coming to Alaska.

Soon we saw more caribou a bit closer and before I knew it, we lost track of how many caribou we saw.

Then, down a valley we saw a mama bear and her yearling, and the bus stopped so we could watch them for a while. These grizzlies were big, but not as big as I was expecting. It turns out that grizzlies in interior Alaska are not as big as the coastal ones, which feed off salmon. These ones were only slightly bigger than black bears.

Further along, we saw another single bear foraging for berries.

Then, as with the caribou, we lost track of how many grizzlies we saw.

We passed the Eilson Visitor’s center, which is where we were going to start our backpacking trip, but we wanted to go a little further along the road first.

On the way to Wonder Lake, three grizzlies were walking in the middle of the road in front of us. I could barely believe how much wildlife this park had. It was a mama bear and two cubs, but the cubs were probably a number of years old because they were practically the same size as their mother.

We knew that the weather forecast looked grim. In fact, we knew that it was supposed to rain more in the next day than it had rained the whole time we had been in Alaska so far, but we were not going to let that deter us since this was our one period of three days off in a row. We have one other two day off stretch, otherwise all our days off here are single days off. So we HAD to go backpacking regardless of the weather.

We were pleasantly surprised that it was not raining on the bus drive. We even got nice views before the clouds started rolling in.

Finally, the bus dropped us off at Wonder Lake, and it was already after 1pm. We decided not to stick around at Wonder Lake, since the clouds were descending quickly, and we weren’t going to see Denali (the tallest mountain in North America).

But, the campground there was forested, and I found an area where someone had cut back vegetation from the side of the road and managed to find two sticks that would have to do as trekking poles.

We caught a bus going back in the other direction. This bus was crowded and was being driven by a Latin American gentleman who was a crazy driver. The road is definitely a bit scary in some sections. It gets very steep and there is only one lane with no guard rails. Incoming busses have to yield to outgoing buses.

Our crazy bus driver screeched up to another bus on a cliff and the other bus yielded. Then, we had to pass this other bus on the cliff edge with no room for error. We passed within fractions of an inch- the bus driver stopping and inching forward while everyone on the bus held their breath. As we finally pulled past the other bus, the driver turned on his microphone and said the one and only thing he said the whole ride: “I love my job.”

Everyone breathed out and giggled somewhat hysterically.

We got back to the Eilson Visitor center and headed out. There was a short trail down to the river that we had to walk along to begin our journey.

We reached the valley and started walking along the gravel bar up the river valley. It started to rain. At first it was only a drizzle, but then the drizzle turned into a heavy drizzle.

We put on all our rain gear, and continued onward. The clouds kept coming further and further down into the valley until our visibility was next to nothing. We really couldn’t see landmarks in order to navigate, so we simply kept going along this gravel bar.

We were surprised when a group of 3 or 4 other people were walking towards us, and they told us they had just seen a mother grizzly bear and her two cubs, and decided to reroute in order to avoid them.

At this stage, the road was up above on our right, and we eventually would need to veer left up a stream called Glacier Creek. But before we even got there, we would need to cross the Thorofare River. This river is extremely braided.

So, we decided to cut across a bit early to avoid the bears.

We saw some caribou in the mist, and shouted out “Hey Bear!!” We shouted out over and over again so as not to have a surprise encounter.

We started fording sections of the river, without really knowing where we were at this stage. We were in a huge flat area with poor visibility. we looked at the map every 20 minutes, but it didn’t help much.

In amongst the braids of the river, there was quick sand, and each time my foot started sinking into it, I panicked. At one point I sank in past my knee and shouted out in horror. I was not having fun. We were lost in the middle of a huge river surrounded by willows, mist and rain, and soaking wet, and the temperature was in the mid 40’s. If you’re reading this and have any experience with wilderness medicine, you’re probably thinking “woah, that’s hypothermia weather!” My thoughts exactly.

We considered quitting right then and there, but decided we would persevere. We probably wouldn’t be able to get a bus back at this point any way.

We decided we made the turn too early, and headed back slightly.

(The chilling remains of a grizzly bear)

More quicksand, more river crossings, more rain. But finally, we saw the edge of the glacial deposits from the huge Muldrow Glacier, and we knew that this was our landmark to turn up the Glacier Creek.

We started heading up Glacier Creek. This was finally enjoyable. The going was easy enough (we have plenty of experience following a creek from our time in New Zealand.)

Didn’t eat a thing from the bear canister. The rain and cold made us loose our appetite, and we weren’t about to unpack our backpacks to get food we weren’t hungry for.

We stayed to the right hand side of the creek so that we wouldn’t accidentally take a wrong turn, and we knew at some point we would need to cross it to get to a place to camp.

Eventually, we saw a place we could camp on the other side of the creek and decided to ford in order to get over to it.

We linked arms and crossed at a spot where the creek was widest. Still, it was up to my lower thigh and moving very quickly. Plus the water was completely grey so you really couldn’t see into it at all to tell how deep it was or where any rocks were.

I set up the tent with our sticks, but in order to make sure I didn’t break the sticks in the process, I didn’t tighten the tent much. It flapped in the wind, but that would have to do.

We had to eat any food that didn’t fit in the bear canister and store the canister 100 yards away. We walked down the bank of the creek in order to get this done, and along the way we noticed some bear scat. It looked fairly fresh. Eating just felt like a chore. We ate some bars and some nuts until we could fit everything in the canister and close it. Then we found a rock to stash the canister behind, and wandered back to our tent.

We piled layers of dripping wet clothing in either the vestibules of the tent or the far corner where my sleeping bag wouldn’t be on top of them.

We had thought ahead and brought more clothing than normal so that we would have dry clothing to change into. We did this and climbed into our sleeping bags.

We laid there listening to the rain on the nylon tent, and John said “Next time we have time off, we’ll get beautiful weather.” Then he knocked on the stick holding up our tent.

We kept warm over night, mostly thanks to the fact that we had synthetic sleeping bags. I was so thankful that we didn’t bring our down ones. Still, we slept horribly. The tent flapping in the wind would hit us repeatedly on the head, and in the early hours of the morning, the tent actually collapsed on me as the tent stake holding my side of the tent up ripped out from the ground.

We considered getting up then, as it was already light out, but I felt like I had just pulled an all nighter, and all I could think about was sleep. But, I soon realized that with the tent barely standing, more sleep was probably not going to happen.

We had to take off our warm clothes and put on our soaking wet clothing. It was probably in the high 30’s or low 40’s and I was not looking forward to crossing Glacier Creek first thing.

We packed up and started looking at the stream. It was clear that it was higher than it was the previous day. We got to a spot where I thought the stream was the widest, and let John try to cross first. He got most of the way across before the creek got to its deepest spot, and I saw him struggle to reach the bank of the river, as the water rushed up to his crotch and the rocks slid beneath his feet. He looked at me from across the stream and shook his head signaling that that was NOT a good spot to cross.

We walked down the creek checking the depth over and over again, and each time, it was too deep.

I kept walking down, and turned around to see John trying again, and to my horror I saw him fall in, and grab on to some rocks to get back up again. He was OK, but my adrenaline was starting to pump fiercely now. Maybe the water was still rising? Maybe I was stuck on this side of the creek, and John was stuck on the other side. We couldn’t even really communicate over the sound of the gushing water. I pointed upstream hoping to suggest that we try looking for a spot upstream instead of down. He nodded and we headed back.

There was nothing, and at some point my path was obstructed by a huge cliff on my side of the creek. John continued up his side of the creek in case I could climb over this hill to the other side and find a spot. I waited. Fifteen minutes later, he came back and shook his head. We would need to go further downstream instead. We went downstream further than we had before, and the creek did widen slightly to a point where John managed to cross back over. He got back to my side of the stream and I ran up to him to hug him. He told me his legs were really cold. It was good to be able to talk. We were both very nervous, wondering if we were stuck here, or what.

We continued down stream, as that seemed to be our only option besides setting up the tent again. Finally we found another spot worth trying, and we got in together. I held on to John’s arm, and John led the way, knowing that if it got too deep, we’d turn around together. It got up to John’s thigh, which was my waist, and I was no longer able to keep my footing. “It’s OK, I’ve got you!” He shouted as he dragged me to shore. There was no way I could have crossed that stream alone.

We celebrated, and I let out a few whimpers as my legs and feet were completely numb. My legs hurt, and my feet felt like giant blocks of ice. I couldn’t tell where they started or ended, and I stumbled over rocks trying to keep moving to warm up.

I knew we still had the Thorofare to cross, and that was huge.

As we walked along the creek, our legs warmed up, and we continuously shouted “Hey Bear.” While trying to keep an eye on our surroundings.

“Shit, there’s a bear” John said.

“Where? How close?” I couldn’t see it.

It was about 100 yards away, and once John pointed it out, I could see it’s blond body against the willows. Luckily I t hadn’t spotted us yet, but still we were too close.

We kept moving swiftly, but not silently so we wouldn’t have a surprise encounter. The bear was uphill from us and we were caught between the bear and the creek. We couldn’t give it any more space. Finally we moved past it without incident. Luckily it was happily chomping on berries.

We made it to the confluence of Glacier Creek and the Thorofare, and we started crossing the braids of the river.

There was so much more water this time around, it felt like we had infinite braids of this river to cross, and sometimes they were huge.

It was hard to tell how deep anything was, because again, it was all murky.

Each time we crossed several sections, we had to jump around to regain feeling in our feet.

We finally got to the widest and deepest section of the river, and although it was impossible to tell how deep the river was, we just picked the widest spot and then went for it together. We moved quickly because we knew our legs would quickly get numb, and we reached a shallow sandbar and took very little time to reassess before heading back down into deeper waters. John shouted out to me where the water was reaching on his body: “knee!” “Thigh!” “I’ve got you!” We got to a fairly deep spot, and John dragged me to the shore as the rocks beneath my feet were dragging me downstream. I grunted fiercely trying to move my legs against the current while at the same time barely realizing that my lower body had practically no feeling left.

As I got to the shore and jumped around a bunch to try to regain any feeling in my legs, we celebrated.

“I’m pretty sure that was it! That was the last hard part!”

We were going to make it, and mostly thanks to the fact that John was 6ft 4 and strong. I wasn’t complaining. I wondered how anyone else managed this route, and guessed that they probably did it in much different circumstances.

We crossed many more small sections of the river – the smaller braids and soon reached the edge of the hill on which the road was and followed the last braid down towards the visitor center.

It took a while, but eventually we could make out the visitors center in the distance. As we walked along the edge of the river we remarked on how most of this seemed to be just gravel bar the day before. Was there even water here? We couldn’t remember, but we certainly didn’t remember this quantity of water.

We found the cairn that marked the beginning of the trail back up to the visitors center and rejoiced.

We just had to climb up this trail – a trail that we knew could not possibly offer any sort of treachery. As we climbed up, I doted upon this trail. I liked trails. There was a sort of comfort that hiking mindlessly along a trail provided. Maybe I’m not tough enough to be an off-trail hiker. Maybe I’m just cut out for on-trail hiking.

Now that we were headed uphill, my body suddenly realized that I was hungry and dehydrated. I promised myself that I would drink and eat once we got to the visitor center. I also fantasized about changing into dry clothing.

I dragged myself into the dry refuge of the visitors center and unloaded my backpack with a sigh. I took my bag of dry clothing and tried to change in the handicapped stall in the women’s bathroom. I immediately made a mess on the immaculately clean bathroom floor. My shoes, socks and pants were all full of sand and pebbles, glacial deposits that were churning through the rivers that we had spent the better part of a day crossing.

Once back in the lobby, John told me we could catch a bus in 10 minutes. I quickly gathered my belongings and we ran over to the bus dispatcher to ask him which bus we were on. He told us to wait by the busses and he’d be right out.

Unfortunately, it was still raining, and still in the low 40’s and now I was wearing dry clothing and not very many layers. I jumped from one foot to the other impatiently as we stood outside waiting for further instruction.

Finally, we were allowed to get on a bus, but not before I was shivering pathetically. The bus was practically full, and we had to sit in different rows. No less than three people offered me clothing, and I stubbornly said no until one older gentleman simply put his jacket on top of me. I was irrational, tired and angry that we were made to wait in the cold out in the rain.

The bus ride back was long and tiring. I was so tired that I think I actually fell asleep as the boring bus driver told long stories about how she moved to Alaska. We did see several more grizzly bears along with several herds of caribou, but I was quite a bit less interested compared to the journey out. All I could think about was a hot shower followed by a hot meal and a warm bed.

Finally after a 4 hour bus ride back, we were dropped off where we parked our car. I cranked up the heat in the car and let John drive us the rest of the way back to Denali Education Center, where we are staying.

I stood in the shower letting the hot water ease the muscles in my neck and shoulder which at this point were all tight and knotted, and was so thankful not to be stuck out in the wilderness another night.

Once back, we tried to think about why this trip went so wrong. We realized that one of the main reasons we wound up in this predicament was because we didn’t make a plan ahead of time based on the weather, mostly because of the permitting system. We simply went on the recommendation of a ranger, who had probably done this route in good weather. The fact that we were somewhat comfortable fording rivers meant that we didn’t turn around on day one when we probably should have. In retrospect, and looking at the map, this was a pretty dumb place to be in the continuous rain that we had.

(If you can tell from this map, we started at the visitors center along the road and camped near green point in the bottom left hand side of the map. We probably went about 6-8 miles each way through what looks like a mess of rivers on the map).

Yosemite: Half Dome, Clouds Rest and Echo Valley

Another post from our June 2018 trip in Yosemite!

After many attempts, we finally secured a permit to climb half-dome and camp nearby.

We climbed out of the valley after work up the popular and ever overcrowded Mist Trail, which offers views of Vernal Falls and further up, Nevada Falls.

We set up camp right past Half Dome (the permit we got was called the walk through permit), so we would need to backtrack in the morning, but I was fine with that, as it was only an extra mile or so. I was just happy we weren’t camping at Little Yosemite Valley, which is a complete zoo, and definitely the most popular backcountry camping site in Yosemite.

I was still surprised by how many people were camping near where we were set up, and even more surprised by how many people were leaving their bear canisters just a few feet from their tent (I believe the rule is you’re supposed to store them 100ft away).

I imagined that in the morning all these people would get up early to climb Half Dome, and we would be in a line of people waiting to climb the cables.

So, I was pleasantly surprised when we woke up and everyone else was still soundly asleep as we broke down camp and headed for the famous peak.

The climb to the base of the cables wasn’t bad, but did take some energy out of us. At the cables, there was only one or two people on their way down, and nobody going up.

We found some discarded gloves and made our way. This is the second time I’ve climbed the cables, and somehow I completely forgot how scary it is. No wonder people die here. It’s very steep, and the wooden boards for stepping on are placed several steps apart, so you really have to trust the cables you’re hanging onto as you pull yourself up to the next step.

I was surprised by how uncomfortable John was feeling. Usually he’s the one to boldly scramble over things that make me quite uncomfortable, but this time, as I looked down at him, he grimaced and repeated “this is so stupid” over and over.

After 400ft of adrenaline filled climbing up the final ascent, we reached the summit and were surprised to see only two other couples. We snapped some quick pictures but decided not to linger so as to be able to follow the other people back down the cables.

There’s something reassuring about looking down and seeing another human being rather than a sheer drop. We encouraged each other down, and one of the couples took a celebratory picture as we congratulated each other on making it safely back down. They took our phone number and promised to share the picture with us when they got signal.

We then pushed onwards towards Clouds Rest. What I failed to take into consideration when planning this loop was how much climbing we would have to do to get to the top of Clouds Rest after having done Half Dome. We dragged ourselves slowly to the top.

The climb was well worth it— more worth it than half dome, we both agreed. We had a great view of where we had just come from and beyond. Many day hikers were milling around, having hiked from Tioga Pass. A marmot was also milling around looking for opportunities to share a meal.

We continued on to find a place to camp near Sunrise lake. We found a spot a mile or two before the official camping area along the John Muir Trail.

When I went off to go find a place to go to the bathroom, I found a mylar balloon wedged next to a tree. Sigh. Balloons wind up in really remote places when people let them go in civilization!

The next morning we got going and quickly hit Sunrise Lake. As we got closer, we got completely attacked by mosquitos. I don’t mean that there were a few buzzing around our head – I mean that there were clouds of them so thick you had to close your mouth and squint to try to run through them. I tried in the quickest manor to rip my headnet out from my backpack, but in the 5 seconds it took me to put my pack down and open it, I could see about 10 mosquitos sucking blood out of one of my arms.

We literally ran through the meadow to higher ground, and the mosquitos persisted for quite some time, but we finally managed to escape them. Somehow their bites were not bad- they weren’t even itchy.

We were trying to do a loop but at the same time, avoid the JMT as much as possible because we had plans of hiking from Tuolumne Meadows to the Valley on the JMT as a day-hike on another day off.

So we followed some trails to Merced Canyon, which was beautiful and desolate of people. Compared to how crowded Half Dome, Clouds Rest and the JMT were, these trails offered a ton of solitude.

In Echo Valley, there had been a fire somewhat recently, and the sun beat down on us through a lack of canopy. The wildflowers were thick and beautiful and the river was beautiful too.

We decided to make a push to get back to the Yosemite Valley rather than trying to stay in Little Yosemite Valley campsite.

When we reached Little Yosemite Valley, I was glad we made that choice because of how crowded it was. It was a tent city – with people acting like they could be as loud and obnoxious as they wanted while their neighbors were only a few feet away.

We hurried past and took the JMT for the last little leg back into the Valley (the other option besides the Mist Trail). This was significantly less crowded than the Mist Trail, yet had some great views of Liberty Cap and Nevada Falls.

We got back to the Valley go find that our bikes, which we had left chained to a bike rack, were missing! We speculated that they were returned to the bike rental company because typically people are only allowed to rent bikes for a day (we were renting them for a month).

We took the bus back to our campground and were thankful that we came back early so as to sort out the bike problem before our work shift the next day.

All in all this was a great trip with lots of rewarding views and challenging climbs!