Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Ascent to Saunder's Shelter

Relaxing, finally, at Saunders Shelter
This was already burning when we got there!
This last part of day one proved to be a serious challenge to these two newbies to backpacking.  Come to find out, I had misjudged our remaining distance to Saunder's Shelter by about a mile, so we still had about 4.5 miles to go and most of it was a climb.  The first part of the day had been somewhat downhill, relatively level, or only slightly uphill, but this section was predominately uphill.  The path was rocky and single-file much of the way.  We found ourselves stopping to rest quite often, leaning against a tree, or plopping down on a rock or log along the way.  The afternoon drug on.  We were both tiring and Bunk's heel issue (plantar's fascitis) was really bothering him.  The weight on our backs seemed to be getting heavier all the time and we discussed the need to pack lighter next time, cutting back ounces wherever we could, before doing this again.  The waypoints I kept looking for seemed to never get there and except for the fact that we were still following those white blazes, I would have begun to doubt our course.  What I did begin to doubt was whether or not we had unknowingly passed by Saunder's Shelter.  We were unsure as to whether all shelters on the AT were marked as clearly as Lost Mountain Shelter had been.  I knew that Saunder's Shelter lay approximately 1/4 mi off the path, but I didn't know for sure that it had a sign that would point us to our destination for the night.  I did know that there should be blue blazes marking the path to the shelter since there is a reliable water source there that is in all the guide books.

As we trudged along the ridgeline that topped Straight Mountain, exhausted as we were, there was little conversation going on between us.  Suddenly we rounded a slight bend in the path and Bunk stopped in his tracks and said "Bear!"  We backed up a little ways, and I asked him, "are you sure?"  He said "it was not a black lab!" so we retreated even further.  It had been a male bear sitting only a foot or two off the path who had apparently not winded us because he didn't move until he heard Bunk speak.  At that point, he scampered down the mountain.  Actually that was the only direction he could go because at this point the mountain went down on our left side (where the bear had been) and also down on our right side since we were literally walking along the ridgeline.  We were afraid the bear would double back and come up behind us, so I fished the 32 caliber pistol Bunk was carrying in his backpack out, Bunk put the clip in, and it remained in his hand for a while.  Thankfully, the bear never returned.  After the adrenaline rush from this encounter subsided, our spirits were quite low, thinking we should have already arrived at our destination for the night.  Bunk kept saying he was going to have to just camp wherever we could find a spot, but our need for water drove me forward.  I took the lead for the last mile and a half or so and prayerfully kept pushing forward.

At one point, we came to an old roadbed that took off in the right direction for it to lead to the shelter and low and behold, there were the blue blazes I had been searching for!  So we took that roadbed, although it didn't appear to be as much used as I expected that it would be.  After a while, the blue blazes just stopped.  I kept calling out in hopes that someone in the shelter ahead (hopefully ahead that is) would hear us and we were almost there.  No answer.  No water.  So after praying for guidance again, I turned around.  I bet we added at least another 3/4 mile to our trip that day because we went down the wrong path in search of the shelter.  I've never been so glad to see a white blaze again, when we finally reached the AT again!  And so we trudged on.  I had decided at this point that we had probably passed the shelter because I just knew we had traveled more than 3.5 miles.  But I knew we had to have water.  Bunk was running on fumes and I was afraid we would have to hike all the way down the mountain before we found water.  I was saving my water for him, and he was sucking hard on what he had left.  I was praying fervently now that we find Saunder's Shelter SOON!

And then, it was there!  A wonderful little sign that said "Saunder's Shelter 1/4 mi"!!!  I've never been so thankful in my life as I was to see that little sign!  Even that last 1/4 mile was hard.  But finally, we were there, and the shelter was AWESOME!  As we neared the shelter, a thru-hiker we would later know as "Smooth" asked how we were.  I said, "we are whooped!" He replied, "you look a little 'whooped'!"  Turns out there was a very nice young couple, Smooth and Spot, who were thru-hiking the AT during this summer after they graduated from college already staying in a tent near the shelter that night.  Since they got a late start due to graduations, they were going to "flip-flop".  They were hiking up from Springer Mountain, GA and would go into Pennsylvania.  Then their parents were going to pick them up and take them to Katahdin, MA and they were going to hike back down to their stopping point in Pennsylvania.  They were doing this to beat the cold and snow that would close that part of the trail before they could get there.  They have already completed about 1/4 of the AT and another 1/4 runs through Virginia.  They hike about 18-20 miles per day because they have to average just over 100 miles per week to stay on schedule.  I will think about them often this summer and wonder where they are along the way.  I really hope they make it!

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