Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Toadally Awesome Trip to Russell and Spence Fields

The view on the Appalachian Trail between Russell and Spence Fields
Starting out early proved to be a very good idea on this very hot Saturday morning in East Tennessee.  We hit the Anthony Creek trailhead at the Cades Cove Picnic Area at 8:00 a.m. because we knew the forecasted highs were in the 90s for that day even though at the time, we all wore light shirts or jackets we would shed fairly soon.  This trek up Thunderhead Mountain is a nice 13.4 mile loop through beautiful forest filled with hemlocks and flame azaleas and rhododendron.  In fact, the reason we chose this hike at this particular time was to see the rhododendron in bloom.  Although we did not traverse it during the blooming shrub's peak season, there were enough in bloom to make us realize just how gorgeous it would be to hike this during peak season. 

Camouflaged perfectly--we almost stepped on this guy!
Sunning Salamander in the bottom left
We debated which direction to ascend Thunderhead Mountain by:  up via Russell Field Trail and then down Bote Mountain Trail and Anthony Creek Trail or vice versa.  The Russell Field Trail is longer but not as steep, and the stretch of Bote Mountain Trail we had been on before was rocky and rough.  We decided to go up Russell Field Trail to avoid having to climb the steep ascent of Bote Mountain Trail while also watching our footing on those loose rocks.  This made for about a 5 mile hike to the summit, but I'm glad we went that way.  Along this part of the trail, especially the first couple of miles, we just kept seeing toads!  During the trip we counted 8 toads altogether.  In this moist, lower region of the slopes we also found salamanders in some of the creek crossings (small crossings today or made easy by footbridges).  One of our favorite salamanders was seen in a little puddle from a tiny waterfall.  He was perfectly content to lie there in his own private paradise and gaze up at his personal waterfall while basking in the dappled sunlight coming through the canopy.  He never budged the entire time we sat for a rest, took pictures, and rinsed our bandanas out in the cool water just below where he was sunbathing.

We reached Russell Field shortly before the intersection with the Appalachian Trail.  Just as a heads up, there is no sign or marked trail to the actual field where former inhabitants of these hills once grazed their cattle.  A "social path" takes off a short distance to the left.  Luckily, we took that social trail or we would have missed the field altogether.  It was a beautiful respite on the top of this mountain surrounded by encroaching forest and underbrush.  There was no view of the valley below as I had hoped, just wide open blue sky above, but this field and the trees that rimmed it were quite peaceful.  I stood and wondered what it would be like to have lived in the time when these mountain men (or more likely their children) herded their cattle to such a place so that they could graze on these wild grasses. 
One of the shady areas on the edge of Russell Field
I was able to imagine, during the hottest part of the day, these shady areas surrounding the field full of cattle grazing under the protection of these old trees, nibbling at the plants and grasses that grow here.  It was one of those magical places you wanted to linger in, transported out of the hustle and bustle of our world into the beauty and respite of this mountaintop world.  However, we lingered only briefly and soon made our way up to the Appalachian Trail shelter for rest and a quick snack.  While we were there, we met a thru-hiker, Matt Campbell, who is hiking the AT from Georgia to Maine to raise money for military families.  It was very apropos that we would meet him on Memorial Day Weekend.  His journey can be followed at www.activeheroes.org/trail.  I will be checking up on him occasionally and wishing him well. 

Some of the prettiest views of the day came as we hiked along the AT between Russell Field and Spence Field.  I love the AT anyway because much of it is just like what we experienced on this day.  This section of the AT runs predominately along the ridge line with drop offs on both sides.  I just love that feeling!  Some of it was draped, unexpectedly on my part at least, by gorgeous flame azaleas blooming to cheer us on.  These tall, lanky beauties spread their blossoms out wide in areas which were not as densely covered by the canopy as the other parts of the trail. 

As we came to Spence Field, there was no need for a side trail.  The expanse simply opened up before you.  Here there were lush green grasses bending slightly in the wind surrounded again by cool areas protected by large trees.  Blackberries were in bloom along one edge of the field and I thought to myself that I was sure glad they weren't ripe.  I'd hate to have a bear think I would hike all the way up there to steal his supply of berries.     

From here, we rested for a while, ate our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch and then began our descent.  We were correct in assuming this part of the Bote Mountain Trail would be as rocky and steep and the previous section of it we had done on an earlier hike.  Once you begin the trek down Thunderhead Mountain, there's little you can do except watch carefully where to place your foot with every step. It's times like these I'm glad my Keen Targhee II hiking boots are high enough to keep my ankles from turning.  I sure needed them on this part of the hike.

The rocky path of Bote Mountain Trail passes through blooming rhododendron tunnels
There were a few times when we could stop and take in the rough beauty of this trail too though.  Some of it moves through dense rhododendron tunnels.  This is the part of the trail which would have been exquisitely beautiful if we had caught the rhododendron in full bloom as we had hoped; however, there was still plenty of beauty and serenity to make this hike worthwhile. Although it is a strenuous hike, I will make this one again.  I'd like to do it when I had more time at the top to enjoy the respite offered especially by Spence Field.  The hike took us a total of about 8.5 hours including the stops we made, but I could have spent all day at the top!  Next time...!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Even on a workday...

I took this picture after pulling into my driveway one afternoon this week after work.  It reminded me that I don't have to be hiking to see beautiful displays of nature.  I just need to remember not to get so bogged down in the everyday grind that I forget to look!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Mt. LeConte--Second Time Around--Up, Up in the Clouds!

Cloud cover began to clear as we were coming down Alum Cave Bluff Trail

Early on Saturday morning, my hiking group began our second trip up to Mt. LeConte.  This time we began at Newfound Gap, stepping out on the Appalachian Trail, walking literally along the Tennessee/North Carolina border under low cloud cover.  Some of my companions had never been on the AT before, so they learned first-hand the mystique of the white blazes.  They also learned that the AT is a little different than most of the trails we have been on in the Smoky Mountains--a little more challenging. The thing I love the most about the AT is that much of the part that I've covered tracks along the ridges.  I love to be walking along those ridges with nothing but "down" on either side!  Even though we were only on the AT for 2.7 miles, there was enough ridge-walking to give my hiking buddies a little bit of the feel that I cherish.

The views from those ridges on Saturday, though, were severely limited due to the low cloud cover.  In fact, once we reached the Boulevard Trail and quickly covered the next .3 miles, we found ourselves at the turning point to go to the Jump Off but decided to save that side trip for another day.  There just wasn't going to be anything to see.  It made me sad, but it was probably a good thing after all.

Loose rocks "pave" much of the Boulevard Trail
The Boulevard Trail was deceptively mild at the beginning, except for the loose rocks that lined much of the trail.  The trail began as primarily a descent, but soon began a fairly mild climb toward the back side of Mt. LeConte.  We were passed by a couple of older men who had apparently hiked LeConte numerous times.  One of them told us Boulevard was his favorite way to the top; we were appropriately encouraged.

We continued to make our way up and around the mountain and the clouds continued to restrict our view.  There were many places along the way where I would step over to what should have been exquisite views of the valleys below only to see nothing but clouds and fog.  I think that's part of what made the hike begin to be more difficult as we began to tire.  I remember on our previous trip, the views were so spectacular that they were energizing in and of themselves!  We got no such encouragement as we made our way higher and higher up on the slopes of LeConte on this day. 

I simply wasn't prepared for the difficulty of the last mile or mile and a half of this trail.  The guidebooks that I use gave no warning, so I'm thinking it must have been the combination of the loose rocky footing, the additional length of the trail compared to Alum Cave Bluffs trail we traveled last year, and my lack of serious conditioning.  I remember thinking we were probably getting very close to the top as we were seeing many skeletons of hemlock trees on the nearby slopes.  It just seemed like we were almost to the top.  Then, suddenly we rounded one bend in the trail, looked ahead and saw a tremendous incline above us--a slope we knew we still had to climb.  My spirits tumbled and from there as the footing deteriorated, so did my spirits.  I'm thankful that I knew it was a shorter distance to the bottom if I just kept going than it would have been if I had turned around.  I don't think I would have given up and turned around, but I might have been tempted.  From there on, it was an act of sheer will to keep going.  We were more than tired.  We joked about putting one foot in front of the other and don't look up!

Part of that last, grueling mile.  Doesn't seem very steep, but we were really tired!
This picture shows the area of the mountain where one face of the slope simply slid down into the valley after a deluge many years ago.  It left more loose rock and unsure footing for us with what should have been an excellent view opportunity had it not been for the clouds.  We pressed on.  Finally, we reached the turn off to Myrtle Point.  The mountain was still shrouded in dense clouds, and tired as we were, we decided not to even go the .2 miles it would have taken for us to experience Myrtle Point.  Had we not been socked in, we would have gone no matter how tired we were.  Somewhat discouraged, we continued on after a short rest.

We made it to High Top!

Our first point of rejuvenation occurred when we made it to High Top.  We knew that this little pile of rocks was the attempt by hikers to make Mt. LeConte higher than Clingman's Dome. It shows the love that hikers have for Mt. LeConte--the determination that this difficult to reach summit should outshine the slightly higher summit of Clingman's Dome with its paved path that presents no challenge for the typical hiking enthusiast.  We began to smile again in appreciation of that fact and because, honestly, the trail could ONLY go down from here--something we were ready for!  With renewed spirits and a burst of energy, we began the short trek to LeConte Lodge from High Top.

Soon, we encountered the trail intersection where the Rainbow Falls Trail, the Boulevard Trail, and Trillium Gap trail come together.  A solo hiker we had befriended at High Top told us that this is one of only 13 places in the park where three trails come together.  I'm not sure how accurate his information was, but it sounded pretty cool at the time.

Within just a few short minutes now, we finally saw the cabins that populate the area around Mt. LeConte Lodge, a welcome sight to say the least.  We had done it!  We had made what had proven to be a more difficult journey than had been expected and had beaten back discouragement and disappointment to press on until we had achieved our goal.  Exhausted, but encouraged, we made our way into the dining room where we had reservations for lunch.  Lunch consisted of vegetable soup and a chicken salad sandwich on homemade bread.  The best part, according to my hiking buddies who inhaled theirs, was the cow paddy cookie!  I don't know--I was really too tired to eat.  To me, though, I'd have paid the $9.00 for just the hot chocolate!  It was fabulous and helped beat back some of the cold that had chilled my hands on the way up.

Again, we decided not to hike out to Cliff Tops where I had taken such awe-inspiring pictures last year.  We rested for our hike down.  We had taken longer than expected to climb LeConte--a solid 5 hours, so we were feeling a little rushed to get off the mountain by dark.  However, we did take time to purchase our "I HIKED IT" shirts in the office before we left.  Thankfully, though, just as we were preparing to leave, the clouds began to part and I was able to get a few nice shots.

The beginning of clearing skies--better late than never!

Our descent was via Alum Cave Bluffs Trail.  Even with a companion who had hurt her knee near the top, we made the hike down in less than four hours and about an hour before dark.  We will hike Mt. LeConte again, but I'm going to really work on conditioning between now and then.  Even hiking 10-12 miles every other weekend had not prepared me for this hike.  We are tentatively planning on doing it again in the fall, hopefully on a day where the colors are vibrant and the skies are clear.  There's just something about that mountain!  As much as I felt it had beaten me on Saturday, I am drawn to ascend it once again.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Mt. LeConte, here we come!

Mount LeConte is the peak in the background on the left.
Well, the day is finally here!  It's 5:30 a.m. in the east and I'm sitting on ready, waiting for one of my hiking buddies to arrive.  I'm excited, and just a tad nervous.  This will be my longest hike ever, but it should be one with many rewards.  I must admit, the snake and bear encounters of the last hike I was on have me a little more cautious/concerned than usual, but I'm hoping for no close encounters today.  I'll be one tired puppy though by the time this hike is over, that I'm sure of.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Gear Review--HOT new flashlight for hiking and camping

SE Redline Flashlight
My wonderful husband just bought me an awesome new flashlight--the SE Redline! I love it! This flashlight, although not much bigger than the palm of my hand, literally turns night into day at the flick of one simple switch--all powered by 3 AAA batteries, not those extremely expensive batteries that some of the other powerful flashlights use. This light comes complete with a zoom adjustment that allows you to make it a long range, focused light or a wide range broad, light-up-the-whole-area kind of light. It will be with me this weekend when I hike Mount LeConte. I will carry it with me from now on--on any hike or camping trip I take. I will also carry it in my car when I'm not on the trails. Give it a try! I bet you will like it as much as I do!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Preparing for Mt. LeConte--3 Days and Counting!

Trying to actually work instead of thinking about Mt. LeConte has become a real challenge.  I would much rather be planning the hike instead of doing what I probably should be doing right now, which is grading papers.  So, I'm taking a few minutes break to make my paper grading more productive later, right?

It is time to call the Lodge at Mt. LeConte to order our lunches for the hike.  I know $9.00 sounds like a lot for lunch, but when you think about everything it takes to get the food up to the summit of LeConte, at over 6500 feet elevation, I'm not the least bit worried about it.  In fact, the idea that our lunch supplies will have been carried by llama up the mountain is a bit intriguing.  The weather is predicted to cooperate, so I will make that call in a few minutes.

Our group continues to grow.  We are up to approximately 10 people at the moment, and I won't be surprised if others decide to join us last minute.  We are pretty excited and folks are definitely talking about the trip, so that may entice others to come with us.  The more the merrier!

Chota GVX 2 Ultralight Pullover
I do look at this hike a little differently than some earlier hikes at lower, more predictable elevations.  Although the weather in Gatlinburg, TN is predicted to be clear with a high of 77 on Saturday, the high on LeConte typically runs about 10 degrees cooler than that of Gatlinburg.  That puts our predicted high at around 67.  Because of the extreme elevation changes and how early we must start, this hike will probably begin in temps that are quite cold and require either layers or a jacket.  I will be hiking in no cotton, as usual, just in case showers blow up and get us wet, which is always possible when you hike in the Smokies!  I've just bought a new lightweight windbreaker that is also waterproof, made by Chota primarily for the fly-fishing market, that I will definitely take with me on this hike.  It weighs only 6 ounces and will serve as a nice light jacket and also excellent protection in the event of rain.  I purchased it a few weeks ago at Little River Outfitters in Townsend, and it has already kept me totally dry in a downpour on one fishing outing.  If, however, we do get wet, as long as you are wearing the great new dri-fit fabrics, you dry out very quickly and rain shouldn't be a problem.  I'm just so very glad there are no storms forecast for Saturday. One thing that I'm not crazy about is hiking at high elevations in storms.  I don't mind it if you are above the storm clouds, but being caught in a thunderstorm with no shelter is probably my least favorite thing about hiking.  Hopefully the forecast will hold and the weather will stay clear.

Gear that I will use on this hike includes my trusty Keen Targhee II boots which provide enough ankle support for me that I don't worry about turning my ankle if the trail gets rocky.  I absolutely love these boots!  I also paid the extra money to buy Keen socks and find that the built in arch support works great for me.  This built in arch support requires the socks to be fitted for left and right feet which some hikers find annoying, but I love them! I will hike in zippered hiking pants and will probably start off with the legs on, but I bet I shed then before reaching the top.  I'm not sure which of my dri-fit shirts I will don on this day, perhaps the I Hiked LeConte in 2011 shirt I bought at the top last year.  I will carry a simple day pack that I purchased at Walmart a couple years ago.  It has served me well, and I saved a little money there.  It does have nicely padded straps which I think are very important and the waist belt has padding and supply pockets.

For food, I will take a couple of Clif Bars with me.  I really like the Blueberry Crisp and the Macadamia Nut flavors, personally.  I usually also carry some beef jerky with me on long hikes.  I don't know if it's the protein or the salt, but it does a good job reinvigorating me when I have a "sinking spell" as my grandmother would say.  My day pack has a water bladder, and I will also carry my MSR Miniworks water pump.  I doubt I will need it because there is fresh water at the top of the mountain with which I can refill my water container, but I've wished for it on the last two hikes and it doesn't weigh all that much, so it's going with me.  I will also make sure I take a flashlight with me on this hike because of the distance.  I think we will have plenty of time to hike up and back before dark, but just in case of an emergency or if someone needs more time coming down, I'll have one with me. Then, of course, we will take the normal supplies with us--first aid kit, snake bite kit, Benadryl, etc.  One of the most important things we will carry with us though is the Ibuprofen!  At our age, a hike of this length makes us SORE!  We will take a couple of these somewhere on the way down, so that after we have sat in the car an hour or so we will actually be able to get OUT of the car! Last spring, after our first LeConte hike, the hardest thing we did all day was pour ourselves out of the truck when we got home. So, as I look forward to the weekend, I'm so excited. I can hardly stand the wait until Saturday. But in the meantime, guess I'd better get back to grading those papers.  :)

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Fly-fishing on the South Holston

Today was an awesome day fishing with my 81-year old dad on the South Holston River just out of Elizabethton, TN. We started out about noon (81-year old dads don't get up too early any more, or at least mine doesn't). We began our day fishing on the "grates" just down from the dam. My dad is a firm believer in fishing the tiniest of tiny midges off those grates, so that's what I started off with. I caught four fish on that, nice rainbow about 12 inches long. About that time, pretty much everyone stopped catching fish. I noticed that they were still hitting on the top of the water though. I decided that even if Dad got mad at me, I was going to switch to a dry fly which is my absolute favorite kind of fishing. So, I tied on a beautiful black ant with an orange parachute and began fishing top water. Within just a few minutes, I began catching fish again! No other fly fishermen were catching fish now. The only folks catching fish now were fishing minnows. I continued to catch beautiful rainbows and browns, in the range of 12-16 inches. I caught a total of 7 fish in that spot until some other fishermen moved in right on top of me. Someone else there today said, "you can teach anyone to fly fish, but you can't teach manners." At one point one kid, maybe 15-years old, was casting so close to me, I thought he was going to hit me with his lure. I tried to tell him nicely he was too close. He left, then returned a few minutes later with his two older brothers. They showed a tremendous amount of class by surrounding me and taking over the entire area I had had such success in. Ah well, I had a great time while it lasted. I eventually let them have my spot, but I sure hope they didn't catch much. Hope they enjoyed bullying a woman fisherman.  Dad never noticed, thankfully. Even at 81, I'm sure he would have done battle with those hoodlums if he'd have seen it. Sure wasn't worth that!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Supermoon and a Moonbow to boot!

I didnt even know it was possible, but tonight while looking at the Supermoon, I saw what looked like a rainbow, but it was nighttime! The moon was full and bright, the clouds had parted just in time for moonrise only in that part of the sky. As we were admiring how beautiful the moon was, it began to mist rain. When we turned to look to see where the rain was coming from, we saw it! It was a Moonbow! A Lunar Rainbow! I wasn't even sure it could happen, so what did I do? I pulled out my trusty iPhone and pulled up Google. Sure enough, I'm not crazy. It IS possible if conditions are just right, with a full moon and rain. The rain kept us from seeing the meteor showers that I was hoping to see tonight, but the showers of the liquid kind allowed us to see what may very well be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.

My camera phone would not capture the moonbow, so I picked this picture from the following source:

Friday, May 4, 2012

Look to the skies on Saturday, May 5th!

Tomorrow night will be a great time to head outdoors away from the city lights, spread a blanket on the ground, and enjoy the show! May 5, 2012 will bring two spectacles for us to enjoy in the night sky. The first is the yearly "Supermoon" when our closest celestial neighbor passes within about 222,000 miles from Earth, and will appear up to 30% brighter than lesser full moons of the year. Coinciding with this lunar display is another show of night lights--the Aquarid meteor shower--a trail of shimmering dust particles traveling in the wake of Halley's Comet. I remember riding across the mountains separating North Carolina and Tennessee in the earliest days of Interstate 40, watching meteor showers send blazing streamers across the sky. I remember being awestruck at the vast numbers of streaks I saw. I don't remember the time of year, but I wonder now if it was this annual showing that I remember so vividly from my youth. I do not pretend to really know anything about astronomy, but there is a wealth of information at your fingertips on the internet about both of these events. The weather is a bit iffy in my region if you also check the internet for a forecast, but I am surely holding out for clear skies tomorrow night so I can make a short trek up to the Blue Ridge Parkway with my parents with whom I am visiting this weekend. We will find a quiet spot somewhere in the dark, lie back on a blanket, and enjoy! Hope you can too!

Photo source: http://www.sott.net/articles/show/244854-Supermoon-Alert-Biggest-Full-Moon-of-2012-Occurs-This-Week

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Planning for Mt. LeConte

View from Mt. LeConte Summit Store

In less than two weeks a group of friends and co-workers is going to hike to the top of Mt. LeConte in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Three of us went last year and you can find a blog about that hike earlier in the entries on this site.  This year, we want a little more challenge so we are taking a longer route.  Last year's hike was 10 miles round trip.  This year we will begin on the Appalachian Trail at Newfound Gap and hike up to the Boulevard Trail and take it to the summit of LeConte.  That is about 8.1 miles on the first leg of our journey.  A few of us will also add another 1.4 miles by taking two spurs--the first is the Jumpoff that leaves Boulevard trail to go to a rock outcropping that overlooks Charlie's Bunion, and the second is the short jaunt off the trail to Myrtle's Point on Mt. LeConte.  This is one of the popular overlooks from near the summit.

While at the top of LeConte, we plan on eating lunch at LeConte Lodge.  If you pre-order you can get lunch here for $9.00 which includes soup, sandwich, cookies, and hot chocolate.  We didn't do this last year, but wished we had, so some of us plan on ordering the lunch this time.  I will wait to closer to hike date to order it and will definitely check the predicted weather conditions first.  Other neat opportunities await you at the summit of LeConte too.  Mail is carried down the mountain by llama (the same llamas that bring food to the folks that work up there all summer and to provide meals for the hikers that make reservations the year in advance that it takes to get to stay in the cabins at the top).  Last year, I sent a postcard to my parents from the top of this mountain, and they still have it on their refrigerator!  They loved it!  Also, there are t-shirts available for sale at the top, verifying that you made it all the way to the top.  They change the design each year, and it always give the year in which you made the trek to the top.  I will definitely buy one of those again this year!

2011 "I hiked Mt. LeConte" T-shirt

After spending some time resting and visiting the overlooks at the top of LeConte, we plan on coming down the Alum Cave Bluff trail which will lead us back to a vehicle we will leave at that parking area on our way to Newfound Gap that morning.  The hike down is 5.0 miles, which will give us total mileage of from 13.1 to 14.6 depending on which spurs each of us chooses to do.

I'm so excited about this hike.  The views were spectacular last year, so I am hoping for clear weather again.  Several of my hiking group have never been to LeConte even though they are more experienced than I am.  I really hope they get the experience of those spectacular views on that day!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

You mean we gotta cross THAT???

Abram's Creek Crossing--unexpected turn in the path!

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, my husband and I decided last minute to go do a quick hike--maybe 7 miles or so that we'd never done before.  We set out for the Abram's Creek Campground area because neither of us had ever hiked in that area and there was a little loop that looked to be a little over 7 miles.  We figured we could do this easily even though we got a late start since we hadn't even planned to hike on Sunday.

We left our car at the Abram's Creek Ranger Station parking lot, headed up Rabbit Creek Trail looking forward to a nice Sunday afternoon walk in the park!  We had absolutely no idea what lay in store for us on this clear, sunny Sunday.

It didn't take us long going up Rabbit Creek Trail to see the devastation that the tornadoes last spring had wreaked on this area.  I've never seen so many trees down in my entire life.  It seriously looked like a tree graveyard.  In fact it reminded me in places of what we called the "Boneyard" during our visits to Ossabaw Island, GA, a strictly controlled-access island off the coast of Savannah where old Live Oaks had been overtaken by the encroaching sea and left to stand on the deteriorating beach as nothing but skeletons of the majestic trees they once were.

Storm Damage on Rabbit Creek Trail
Tornado devastation
These trees, however, were lying askew down the slopes--hundreds of old evergreens and deciduous trees as well.  Mother Nature hadn't been picky.  If they were tall, they were fair game.  In fact, the lack of tree cover made this hike a steamy one.  We hit our water pretty hard as we made our way up those slopes in the glaring sun.  I made the decision right then and there that I will not do another spring or summer hike of any significant distance without my MSR Miniworks water pump/filter tucked neatly in my backpack.  It's just too easy to carry and use, not to have it with me when I need it.  There were lots of places along the way I could have pumped more water, but it's hard to do that if you didn't bring the pump! 

Pink Lady's Slippers on Rabbit Creek Trail
Although the sight of all these majestic trees downed was a bit depressing, there were some nice surprises along the way.  I was not expecting to find several different clumps of Pink Lady's Slippers growing right at the edge of the trail.  In fact, I saw more of these rare beauties on this hike than I've ever seen on any hike in the Smokies.  My husband had never seen one, so I got to share this exquisitely delicate flower with him, although, I'm not sure he was as impressed by them as I am--go figure!  Let me say this, in case you get tempted to go and dig some of these beauties up and take them home with you.  Not only is that illegal in a National Park, it is also a death sentence for the flowers.  These orchid-like flowers live in a symbiotic relationship with a fungus in the soil in the few areas where they can still be found.  If you dig up the flower, there is no way you can get enough of the fungus to transplant with them to sustain the bulbs in the ground.  They WILL die, so please just look at them, appreciate them, take pictures of them, and leave them alone.

Rabbit Creek Trail is not my favorite trail, in fact, I probably won't repeat that one again for a very long time.  I would be interested to see, though, how the area will have rebounded in 15-20 years.  I know the forest will repair itself, but it's hard to imagine it after seeing it this weekend.

Once we turned onto the Hannah Mountain Trail, though, the terrain changed and the scenery improved.  Once again, we were under the lush cover of trees and the temperatures cooled significantly.  This single-file footpath is more like what I expect when I go hiking in the Smokies.  Several small water crossings caused no inconvenience and the walk was pleasant.  It did, however, make you think of bear habitat.  At one point, we were talking loudly to let any nearby bear be aware of our approach and sure enough, we heard a bear startle and move off through the underbrush.  We never saw him, but I don't think it could have been a deer.  About a quarter of a mile up the trail from that point, we saw what I feel might be a bear den.  Some animal of pretty good size was definitely using it on a regular basis.  The trail to the cave-like area was beaten bare and worn smooth in places.  I didn't get any closer than this picture I took with my iPhone camera because I didn't want the Goldilocks story to play out for real.

Could this be a bear den?

At the end of Hannah Mountain Trail, I knew that the next trail, Little Bottoms, was supposed to run alongside Abram's Creek for the duration of our hike.  However, due to the fact that we were in a hurry to leave since we just up and decided to hike that day, I hadn't taken the time I usually take to research our route.  I expected to maybe just have a typical water crossing like many other hikes I've been on before.  Well, let me just say, such was NOT the case!  When we rounded the last bend as Hannah Mountain Trail approaches Abram's Creek, I was shocked at the expanse of water that stretched out before us.  Far on the other side was the rest of the trail.  However, there was NO footbridge here.  Simply water, and LOTS of it!

Abram's Creek Crossing on Hannah Mountain Trail

It's hard to tell from this picture, but in those dark areas, the water was deep, you could tell that much from the bank.  The question was HOW DEEP?  I had lost one of my Keen sandals that I carry just in case I run into a water crossing too deep for my hiking boots, so I knew my feet would be wet the rest of the trip.  We looked upstream and downstream of this spot and found no better location to cross--water in those areas was moving entirely to fast.  We did, however, startle up a family of four river otters who were playing right here just above where we ended up crossing.  It was fascinating to watch as they made their way upstream; the trout were literally jumping out of the water to get out of their way.  If it weren't for the encounter with another creature a little further on down the trail, I would say I'd like to bring my fly-fishing equipment back with me to this spot.  But, no, I don't think I'll be doing that!

After taking our lunch break staring into this water and trying to plan the best route to take in attempting to cross it, we finally decided to prepare to swim in those darkest areas.  It looked very deep and the water was moving pretty swiftly.  I must say, I was just a little scared about trying this.  We never did really have to swim, although I had wrapped my cellphone in everything plastic I had in my pack.  At two different points, I did have to go down on my hands and knees though to crawl over a submerged boulder because I couldn't see or feel bottom around it with my hiking sticks.  Had those boulders not been there, we would have been swimming.

Yes!  I did it!

Finally, after carefully maneuvering our way across, wet from the waist down, and thankful for good traction on Keen hiking boots, we emerged on the other side, really pretty proud of ourselves and feeling good that we had not turned around and gone back like we considered doing.  It's times like this one is thankful for the new fabrics that dry SO quickly.  I learned something else on that day too.  I don't think I'll carry hiking sandals for water crossings in the summer anymore.  My Keen boots and socks were still very comfortable even though saturated with water for the rest of the trip.  I never developed any issues as a result of that.  In fact, I cooled my feet intentionally in water a couple more times as we made our way down Little Bottoms Trail toward the parking area.

One more incident worth telling about happened as we had climbed away from the river again, back up into the scorching sun of tornado ravaged terrain.  We were tired by now and the adrenaline rush from having crossed the river was wearing down into fatigue.  I was in front, and suddenly I heard my husband behind me say, "Keep walking!"  Not sure what that meant, I turned to look at him.  Now, we've been married for almost 25 years, and I've never seen my husband as shaken as he was at that moment.  We've encountered a black bear at point blank range on the AT before, and that was scary, but I've never seen him shaking literally all over, but that's what was happening at that instant.  After putting a little more distance between us and whatever it was he was afraid of, we looked back to see a timber rattler crossing the trail where we had just been--a HUGE timber rattler!  That snake was probably 6 feet long and seemed to be as big around as my wrist.  I had not seen him when I must have passed within just a couple feet of him, but he began "rattling" after I passed him, just as my husband came alongside him.  My husband had followed the rattles to the head of the snake which was only a couple of feet from where he stood at the instant he told me to "Keep Walking!"  Needless to say, I didn't stick around to get his picture!

After we had walked another couple hundred yards and were just beginning to gather ourselves back together, my husband said, "there's a pack of wolves!"  I couldn't believe this and thought he must just be hallucinating or something.  No way could we have stumbled across a bear, river otters, a timber rattler, and a pack of wolves all on the same hike!  He was still shaking and had trouble getting the pistol out of his pocket (we always go armed with a small handgun, more for protection from some two-legged creature than any animal we might encounter in the woods).  I'm not sure he could have cocked it though, he was still so shaken by the snake encounter.  Soon, I too, saw a canine coming up out of the creek.  When I looked more closely though, I told him, laughingly, that it was a black lab!  In his state of heightened defenses after our timber rattler, he just assumed the worst since we hadn't seen people in miles.  However, here, back down now level with the creek a couple was innocently letting their dogs play in the water.  Later, at home safely in bed that night, we laughed until we cried about our "pack of wolves."

I must say, though, that one of my favorite sights on this particular hike was that of my red Mustang convertible sitting in the parking lot when we finally made our way, stressed, hot, thirsty, and out of water,  back to our starting point. 

Finally back to the car after quite a hike!