Sunday, November 25, 2012

Frosty Morning on Meigs Mountain

The temperature reading on the dash of my vehicle showed 26 degrees as we made our way to Tremont Institute to drop a car to be waiting for us when we finished the hike chosen for today. The temperature had not changed when we pulled into the parking lot at Elkmont for the Jake's Creek Trailhead. We bundled up--layers of Cuddleduds, hiking pants, a short-sleeved UnderArmour, a long-sleeved North Face warm gear shirt, and then to top that all off, a fleece pull-over. Of course, gloves and a hat were the final accoutrements for the day. We were determined to stay warm, that's for sure!

We only had to travel about .8 miles on Jake's Creek Trail, but that outer layer of fleece pullover didn't even last to the juncture with Meigs Mountain Trail. I shed it about half way up! It spent the rest of the day tied around my waist. Jake's Creek Trail is wide and nice, but it gains elevation pretty fast. Bundled up in all that gear, that short stint on Jake's Creek was the hardest part of our day. By the time I reached Meigs Mountain Trail, I had shed the jacket, the hat, and the gloves. The gloves would come back on, but the hat and jacket were simply along for the ride. Layering for a winter hike is not something I'm good at yet. I feel like I need to have enough clothing with me to survive a night out in case of trouble, but that makes for a heavy pack.

The most interesting things along this part of the trail are the old vacation homes common in this Elkmont area. Apparently these home owners escaped being removed from the Park until 1992 when their extended leases expired along with that of the stately old Wonderland Hotel. The end of that era left remnants of what would have once been quaint, relaxing places for their owners to retreat from the hustle and bustle of the real world below. This old home with the family name of Croftton on the front sports a lovely stone fireplace still in excellent shape, but the walls and ceiling are crumbling after 20 plus years of disuse by anything other than Park wildlife. We did not go in these old homes--they are condemned and off limits--but this picture was taken through a window whose glass panes had long ago been broken out.
We returned to the trail and continued the ascent which soon led us to the trailhead for Meigs Mountain Trail which turns to the right and then crosses over Jake's Creek fairly soon. We at first thought we would have to cross Jake's Creek by rock hopping, but soon found a footbridge hiding just a short distance downstream. There was one place just above the Jake's Creek Crossing where you come to a fork in the trail. There is a sign for Meigs Mountain Trail, but it is placed at an angle that is really not very helpful. We stood for a minute at this crossing debating which way to go. We decided the trail that went down by the river probably wasn't the main trail, so we forked to the left here. Thankfully we were correct in our decision.

Meigs Mountain Trail is a pleasant trail which meanders along overlooking gaps and rises which you can see and enjoy but don't have to climb. This trail is nice and flat (compared to most trails in the Smokies anyway). The larger trees found on some other trails are missing here because this area was logged extensively in the early 1900s. But that does not detract from the beauty of this area, in fact, it may enhance in some ways the views that you have down into these deep gaps.

Backcountry Campsite #20
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
At about 1.9 miles in on Meigs Mountain Trail, we came to backcountry campsite #20, a large and beautiful area which would hold a great many tents. There's a clear, tumbling water source, unlike the campsite we came to later in our hike. There is also an old wagon wheel laying on the ground and another piece of metal or two from some former day. We discussed the idea of coming back here to camp one night to practice what it will be like as we prepare for our AT section hike in the summer. This is a lovely campsite and not very difficult to access.
The water source for Backcountry Campsite #20

Hiking on, we eventually came to the juncture where Curry Mountain Trail comes into Meigs Mountain Trail. There was a tree down that had broken about 2 feet off the ground but had not totally come apart, so the trunk of the tree made a perfect place to sit to rest and eat lunch.

After lunch we continued on and a quick two mile walk past our lunch site led us to the intersection with Meigs Creek Trail. At this point, Meigs Mountain Trail's name changes to Lumber Ridge and the terrain and trail conditions changed significantly soon after. I was under the false impression that Lumber Ridge was a steady descent back to Tremont Institute, but I had apparently not looked closely enough at the trail books before I left. Lumber Ridge makes a steady, but not too difficult, climb up to the saddle at the crest of Lumber Ridge. After that, the trail does descend into the valley below. It is here, on this downhill portion of Lumber Ridge Trail that we were the most worried today. There had apparently been a little rain the previous day or night and in these temperatures, especially when the ridge we were on was shielded from the sun, there were resulting small droplets which had turned to ice. These were scattered all over the leaves that covered the path below our feet. The leaves themselves were covering up the roots and occasional rocks that would trip the unwary hiker, but the little droplets of ice made it very slick. We descended slowly, being careful to watch our footing along the way. Lumber Ridge Trail is narrow in sections and undergoing some erosion on the downslope side leaving areas where one misstep could send one sliding down a very long and steep hillside. However, this trail does offer some excellent views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.

Beautiful view from one of the openings in the trees along Lumber Ridge Trail

As we approached the lower regions of the Lumber Ridge Trail, about the time we began to hear the Middle Prong River below us, we came to an area of rock outcroppings which, according to Hiking Trails of the Smokies (the Smoky Mountain hiker's Bible) is a rock called Metcalf Phyllite, a metamorphosed shale. It provided something cool to look at other than your feet carefully picking a safe place to land.

Metcalf Phyllite

Soon after passing these rocks our trail for this day ended with a quick descent to Tremont Institute. Just before the end, we came to the intersection where an unofficial trail goes off to Spruce Flats Falls--one of my favorite falls for a picnic. The fact that it's an unnamed, unofficial trail means not as many people frequent that falls as some of the others in the Smokies. We didn't go on this day, but it's only about a mile up to the falls from the Tremont parking lot. There's also a nice shop at Tremont Institute where you can buy the important hiking books (and lots of other great books and souvenirs of the Smokies).

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Magic of Mount Cammerer

Stunning Vistas from the Mt. Cammerer Lookout
Breathtaking views awaited us on this clear, crisp November morning as we gathered in Knoxville and carpooled out to the Cosby Campground to make our last long hike of the fall season. Time had changed now, so Daylight Savings Time would no longer shift the clock in our favor; instead, we would see the sun setting at 5:31 p.m. The Lower Mt. Cammerer--Appalachian Trail--Low Gap Trail loop is a 15.7 mile venture that we had selected as our last hoorah hike of the fall because destination hikes like this are our little hiking group's favorite type of scramble through the woods. Two of the members of the Bucket Brigade, our group of ladies who spend at least two to three days a month working toward the 900 miles of trails in the Smokies, are close to a personal goal of 250 miles and 200 miles completed by the end of the year. Short days and colder temperatures threaten to impede these goals, but we were not to be deterred on this day.

We arrived at the Cosby Campground parking area about the time the sun was coming up--7:30 a.m. However, to our dismay, the bathrooms at the campground/picnic area were closed, there were no pit toilets available, and we had consumed a fair amount of coffee on the way. We determined that we must retreat in search of facilities! We had to drive back toward the interstate about 8 miles to find what we so desperately needed, but thankfully a little country store was open early on this Saturday morning. I could write a whole blog entry on this quaint little store with its old-fashioned cash register and its small group of tables at the back where, undoubtedly, the liars' club convenes for coffee every morning. I love those flashbacks into the past when I stumble on a place like this.

Having lost at least 30 minutes of precious daylight, we donned our gear and headed up Lower Mt. Cammerer trail, a nice easy grade trail which skirts the base of Mt. Cammerer, winding and climbing slowly toward an intersection with the Appalachian Trail somewhere near the ridge line. This enjoyable path ascended at a grade similar to that of a rails-to-trails bike path. There were times when you really didn't even notice that you were climbing, but you knew you must be. At this time of year, with most of the trees having dropped their leaves to the forest floor, there were ample opportunities for pleasant views of the surrounding mountains. Sutton Overlook, a detour of about a quarter mile, offered a tease of what lay ahead for us with a nice view and enough cell phone service to text a picture to family at home.

Lower Mt. Cammerer trail, however, did not go unscathed during Superstorm Sandy's visit to the Smokies a week and a half earlier. Numerous rhododendron bushes had broken or had bent and bowed under the weight of the heavy snow she dropped on this region. I cannot imagine how many of these beautiful shrubs on the whole face of Cammerer were damaged because we had to go under, over, or around at least 25 on this trail. In one spot, a large tree had uprooted and fallen over the trail leaving a gaping hole in the mountainside. We had no choice but to scramble up and over the root ball in the loose soil of that wound simply because there was no other way around it.

It was somewhere along the Lower Mt. Cammerer trail that we began to hear large rustling sounds in the woods around us. We had probably been hiking 4 or 5 miles and the rhododendron thickets were dense enough that we could hear the movements of some fairly large creature, but we could not see him. We promptly began talking loudly to each other and I took my safety whistle and blew it three quick bursts. The Bucket Brigade member who was leading the way, Andrea, jumped, screamed, turned around, and ran back to literally hide behind me and between me and Jennifer. I've honestly never seen a human being move that fast in person! We need to sign her up for the Olympics! That had to be a record time--too bad there's not a 10-yard dash event--she would definitely win! After a good laugh and a discussion about what we should do if we actually met a bear, we set off again.

Not long after this encounter, I was leading the group up the trail (Andrea would no longer hike in front!) when down in the ravine to our left, out from behind a rhododendron thicket came what we were sure for a brief instant was that same bear! Of course, almost instantly we recognized that it was not a bear, but a lone male hiker, off trail and ascending the ravine that would intersect with this trail. Already unnerved from our previous experience, we said only cursory hellos and moved on. Honestly, it was a bit disconcerting to see a man, dressed all in black from his head to his toes, coming out of nowhere like that. We hoped he had just been relieving himself and kept looking to see if he followed us. All three of us had our bear mace at the ready if he did. However, he must have gone the other way, because he did not appear again until much later.

The last mile and a half of the Lower Mt. Cammerer Trail does begin to ascend much more steeply. In fact, we had been hiking at a pretty fast clip because we knew the AT would climb hard and fast as the AT is wont to do. We also knew our pace would slow considerably on that type of terrain, so we were trying to make our best time on this leg of the journey so darkness would not descend until we were done with our hike. In short, we were getting tired. Finally, at 11:45, we reached the intersection with the AT, tired and hungry. The sign said 2.9 miles to Davenport Gap, but "hiker brain" had set in for me and every time I tried to talk about Davenport Gap (our destination next summer when we hike the AT through the Smokies), I reversed the letters and called it Gavenport Dap! It actually happened several times, so amidst our laughter, we decided that it's new name is now Gavenport Dap.

Turning now toward Cammerer on the AT, we knew that the hardest section of this hike was just ahead of us. We were right! Tired and facing those infamous AT steps built into the trail, we struggled up the first mile and a half of this segment. It was tough going. We stopped to eat a banana knowing that we were burning precious time, but deciding that if we didn't eat we would just get slower. Eventually the grade leveled off some and the ascent was much more doable. Also, about this time a rock outcropping provided some excellent pinnacle-type views and photo ops which reinvigorated us. After taking some time for each of us to climb to the top, we were ready to go to the Lookout!
Snow along the spur trail that goes up to the Lookout

Mt. Cammerer Lookout
Snow was now edging the trail along both sides, left over from the superstorm. When we made the turn off of the AT to the little spur that goes to the Lookout, the snow was probably still 6-8 inches deep primarily because it was still so shaded. No matter the reason, the snow did lend a special beauty to this hike. We passed the tie-outs where four horses were resting having carried their owners up this mountain. They were beautiful and I experienced some mixed emotions. I felt sorry for them having to carry people up here, but I also was a bit wistful that their riders had definitely had an easier time of it that we had.

Finally, we made our way to a break in the cover and saw the Mt. Cammerer Lookout in front of us. It really is a beautiful structure which seems like it rises out of the granite rock upheavals all on its own. In reality, it was hand hewn from rocks nearby and constructed by workers of the CCC during the days of the New Deal. Regardless of how it got there, it is a Great Smoky Mountains National Park treasure! The Lookout offers 360 degree views and a marvelous place to rest and recover--one of the most beautiful picnic spots I've ever seen.

While we were there, enjoying the vistas, a familiar black suited creature came literally out of nowhere. He did not come up the trail; instead, he just appeared from behind a rock or tree. Come to find out, this man hikes all over the Smokies--OFF trail! He has been to Mt. LeConte 32 times and never on trail. He had been climbing up the ravine when he met us, turned the opposite way from us on Lower Mt. Cammerer, and had ascended to the top via other such ravines and rock outcroppings. I guess you could call him an extreme hiker. He turned out to be very nice--as are most humans who have hiking as a hobby it seems--and also very knowledgeable. I asked him if he knew what he was looking at as we all took in these incredible views. He pointed out each of the mountaintops and called them by name--Mt. Sterling, Mt. Guyot, and many more. He told us that if we climbed up on top of the railing of the Lookout, you could see some incredible outcroppings of rock. We told him that we would pass on the climbing up on the railing part! We would also leave the off-trail hiking to him. We do well to do the hiking ON-trail!

Sadly, time was passing quickly and the sun was visibly lower in the sky than I really wanted it to be. We left the Lookout and reached the intersection with the AT again at 3:00 p.m. That left us with just 2.5 hours to make it back to the base of this mountain. We still had approximately 5.9 miles to go and we knew full well that going down is sometimes harder than going up. It has its own treacheries.

Needless to say, the descent down first the AT and then Lower Gap is a blur of leaf-strewn trail, rocky footpaths, and evil tree roots whose sole purpose in life is to trip up a hiker. It is a beautiful path, but I'm glad we were going down and not up. The loose rocks and steep slope of the Low Gap trail would have made for a difficult ascent, although it would have been much shorter than the way we had come. What I remember most about that trail was the feel of my toenails being ripped off by the continual bumping into the end of my sock and toe box of my boot and knowing that stopping to re-lace my boots might help. However, I was not going to be the one who was responsible for us getting caught hiking in the dark, so I just trudged on.

We did make it out while daylight was still with us. We hit the trailhead at 5:30 p.m.--one minute before the official setting of the sun. It was quite dusky, however, we did notice that, as we had hoped in case we were later than this, there is enough daylight left after sunset, even in the mountains to still see for probably another 30 minutes, easy. We had brought flashlights with us (well, two of us had), but none of us wanted to be on the trail in the dark with just a flashlight. Luckily, we didn't need them.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Time is a River and a Place to Heal

I am not often touched by a novel the way Time is a River by Mary Alice Monroe touched me. As a female fly-fisherman I understand the bond that exists between a fly-fisherman and the river. There is nothing more relaxing, more centering, than standing knee-deep in a river surveying the runs and ripples, trying to discern where the fish might be laying in wait for an insect snack. The challenge of placing a fly in just the right spot, with the imperceptibility of cast and line on the water is one that takes years to master, but provides instant gratification when accomplished even on accident and on occasion. The thrill when you see a fish rise to take the fly at the end of your tippet followed by that electrifying jiggle of life on the other end as the fish dances to pull the fly away from you is not only exhilarating, but unmatched in my experience. To imagine that this would have a healing effect in the spirit of those who have undergone tragedy is natural.

Time is a River shares the story of a woman, Mia, stricken not only with breast cancer, but with a husband who betrays her in her hour of greatest need. After attending a Casting for Recovery retreat for breast cancer survivors, Mia returns to her Charleston home, finally hopeful that her life can improve, only to find her husband cheating on her with a well-endowed woman in Mia's own bed. Horrified by this turn of events, Mia flees back to the mountains near Asheville, NC where the retreat was held, where she had felt hope and a renewed sense of life only hours before to escape her new, cruel reality.

The beauty of this book for me lay in the descriptions of the river, of reading the currents and entomology of the river, of becoming one with the river in order to heal. Another powerful aspect of the novel came into play when Mia discovers the fishing journal of a turn of the century fly-fisherwoman who recorded her experiences in the local rivers in a time when the sport was not only dominated by men, but female participation in the sport was scorned. These records gave a sense of who this pioneering woman had been and the life that she had led, enough of a sense that Mia begins to dig into this woman's past in an effort to clear her name--a name tied to an infamous deed that had never been proven but had plunged its holder into hermit-like solitude for the final years of her life. This is a great read!

                                   Click on this link to view Casting for Recovery video.

I have since learned that Casting for Recovery is a real charity organization that organizes these retreats and offers them at no charge to women of any age and at any stage who are recovering from breast cancer. I want to applaud them and their sponsors for the work that they do. Check out this video "Voice of Courage" to get an idea of their mission and its importance. I believe you will be as touched as I was.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Wishing the best to Solo!

Rescue helicopter
There's been lots of news the last couple of days on the Appalachian Trail hiker stranded amid the snow drifts somewhere between Tricorner Knob (approximate elevation-5900 ft) and Peck's Corner on his way to Newfound Gap. I heard about his dilemma Thursday night as reports of more than 3 feet of snow on Mt. LeConte with drifts up to the roof of the lodge were still coming in. This part of the AT follows the ridgeline on its way to the highest peak in the Smokies just south of Newfound Gap. I knew the winds and the temperatures would be vicious up there. I was sure hoping he had the necessary equipment and supplies to wait out the rescuers I also knew would be after him soon. We have excellent Search and Rescuers that work the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of whom is the husband of a friend. I knew they would find this hiker if he could just survive the elements long enough.

Tricorner Knob Shelter in warmer weather
Once I heard the hiker's name yesterday, I was able to find his blog about his adventures along the Appalachian trail this summer and fall. It seems he left Maine in June, hiking south. He was in Hot Springs, NC this weekend, apparently heard there might be some snow, but set out for Newfound Gap, expecting only 6 or so inches. Somewhere along the way the superstorm, Sandy, turned those 6 inches into several feet of snow! It appears he spent at least one night at Tricorner Knob (he posted a picture of his gear spread out in the bunk there) and must have been on his way to Pecks Corner when the drifts made it impossible for him to travel further. Luckily, he had enough cell phone service to make at least two 911 calls to set the rescue mission in motion and then yesterday morning, let them know he had survived another night. News sources report that rescuers attempted to reach him by foot, but the going was too difficult and the winds still very high. A Tennessee Highway Patrol helicopter then apparently put men on the ground at Tricorner Knob. They were then able to find his footprints leaving Tricorner Knob and followed them to his "camp" about a mile away and airlift him out. Video footage on a Knoxville news station showed this hiker, only two years different in age from me, walking out of the helicopter and sitting on a gurney to be transported to LeConte Medical Center for treatment.

I was so thrilled to see him walking. I was fearing extensive frostbite. I surely hope the extent of his injuries is minor and that he is able to recover fully. He is so very close to his goal. Even if he doesn't finish this year, if he can recover fully and still wants to, at least he will have that option at some time in the future. I am thankful that he is alive and safe now. My thoughts are still with him and his family as they all recover from this ordeal. Good luck, Solo! Godspeed!