Monday, February 25, 2013

Wintertime hiking---my favorite!

I absolutely love hiking in the winter for so many reasons! A little over a week ago, my hiking buddy and I took out on a Saturday morning to get in a short hike, starting a little later than usual because of the questionable weather predicted on Friday night and Saturday morning. We had decided to let the sun get up good and make sure the roads were open before leaving our homes. The hike of choice was Curry Mountain, a nice 3.3 mile trek up to Meigs Mountain Trail which runs from Elkmont to Tremont. This was going to just be an in and out for a round trip of 6.6 miles, only 3.3 of which were going to be new miles for me. Jennifer had already done the trail, so for her it was strictly spending time in the woods and leaving the stresses of the work week behind.

The weather was nice as we left Knoxville, and we were surprised when it started to snow pretty hard as we were making our way through Townsend. We chose to drive up Little River Road so we could stop in at the Sinks to see what damage had been done by vandals earlier the week before. Thankfully, when we got to the Sinks, no sign of damage was evident to us. I suppose park officials had already sand-blasted the graffiti off the rock surfaces which had been tagged by some nincompoop who must have thought it cool to destroy one of the most beautiful places in the world.

As we made our way from the Sinks to Metcalf Bottoms picnic area where we parked our car before heading up to the trailhead, snow peppered around us, beginning to stick to the ground, but not to the road. We debated not hiking, but honestly, not for long. So far, this snow was very different from the conditions on the AT the previous Saturday which turned us around in search of less ice in lower elevations. This snow, light and dry, simply enticed us further as opposed to making the path more difficult. Even as we moved higher up the mountain and the snow began to really cover the trail, it never became treacherous--just gorgeous!

I love wintertime hiking for several important reasons. Most importantly, probably, is utter lack of snakes! I detest snakes with the fervor God intended when He cursed the serpent in the Garden of Eden. And in weather like this I don't even have to worry about them at all. That's always a plus!

Another favorite aspect of wintertime hiking that appeals to me is the lack of other people on the trails. It is rare that we see more than one or two people on any trail we do this time of year. Don't get me wrong; I don't have anything against people in general, but I do love the solitude and quiet that pervades the mountains and trails this time of year. On this hike, we only saw one other hiker--a young man who had hiked out of the campsite he and his wife had set up when it had started to snow the night before. They had hiked down off the mountain not knowing what to expect from the weather. I got the feeling he would have stayed, but instead he carried out his wife's backpack, leaving his own gear on the mountain. That's how we saw him coming down Curry Mountain as we were going up. He'd already been back to the campsite to retrieve his pack and was about half way back down when we were making our way up the trail.

And, then there's the views! In winter, views seem to stretch on forever, unimpeded by the foliage of the deciduous trees in the forest. Surrounding mountaintops covered in snow and oncoming clouds threatening to drop more snow on both you and those mountains make for an exhilarating sight. I do have a healthy respect for the unpredictability of winter in the Smokies, but we always hike prepared for weather conditions that may deteriorate. We are also smart about things, staying on the trail and fairly close to a trailhead when conditions are iffy. But there's no quiet as quiet as these mountains covered in snow which seems to insulate from all sounds even those made by the wildlife. If you stand amid a few inches of snow and hold your breath, it's as close as I've ever been to silence. Literally the only thing you can hear is the beating of your own heart. Now that's silence!

It also seems to me that when the clouds break after or during a winter snow event, the sky is more blue than I've ever seen it on other occasions. I'm sure there's something scientific at work here, but I remain oblivious to those reasons. I just am enamored by the sight. There was one such moment of crystal clear blue sky peeking out amidst snowstorm clouds noted in the photo below:

If you look carefully at the mountains just below the storm clouds you can see that they are literally being dusted with snow as the blue sky breaks out just above them. It was a spectacular sight.

I know as spring approaches, it will hold beauty and excitement of its own. It too, is one of my favorite times to be in the mountains. However, a part of me holds onto these special wintertime hiking days as the rest of the year marches on. To be honest, I suppose whatever season I'm in at the time is one of my favorites--each season holds its own unique advantages and surprises.
I suppose it's ok to adapt a popular bumper sticker here: A bad day in the mountains is better than a good day at work! Not surprisingly, I haven't had many "bad days" in the mountains!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

iTrack Spring!

Though bone tired when I left work today, I resisted the temptation to go straight home and take a long nap. Instead, I reluctantly headed out with the bike I had, thankfully, loaded on the back of my Mustang this morning before daybreak. I drove to my favorite bike trail in the area--the Maryville-Alcoa Greenway for what I figured would be very short ride. I almost changed my mind even sitting in the parking lot of the greenway. The sun had been obscured by dense cloud cover, and in spite of the fact that the thermometer on my car said 55 degrees, the breeze made it feel much colder.
Bradford pear trees setting buds
I unloaded the bike primarily because I had driven 20 minutes to get there, and peddled off more slowly than usual. I love to ride my hike between hikes, but today I simply wasn't feeling it. As I peddled a little longer, I began to notice the day's troubles begin to melt away. Soon I noticed surprising early signs of spring--something I certainly had not expected.

Suddenly I had an idea. This year I will take the time to track the approach of spring, my favorite season of the year. The plan, though, is to only do so when I am either traveling on foot or on my Cannondale Quick. Since I usually carry my iPhone with me when walking or biking, that's what most of the photos will be taken with--hence, the title of this little series: iTrack Spring! However, when I hike, I'll have my Fuji XP camera with me, so I will use it on those adventures. I hope to bite my tongue (or fingers in this case) and, for the most part, let the pictures chronicle the advance of this most delightful time of the year.
So, off we go!
Jonquils gracing the edge of the trail
Most folks call this a weed, but it has a beautiful tiny blue flower.
Forsythia in bloom at the base of the Alcoa Highway bridge

This pair of Canada geese seem to be thinking Spring too!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Ice Skating on the AT--I don't THINK so!

Our original plan for this Saturday's hike was to go to Ramsey Cascade in the Greenbrier area of the Smokies. We were all excited about doing a destination hike and having lunch by the falls on a day in which the high in Gatlinburg was supposed to be in the upper 50s. Thankfully, though, one of our group members noticed on Friday afternoon that Greenbrier Road was closed due to damage to roadway and bridges during the recent heavy rains and storms, meaning that even if we had driven to Greenbrier, we would have been a long way from the Ramsey trailhead when we would be forced to abandon our vehicles. We quickly came up with a plan B.

Plan B was another destination hike that I've been wanting to do for many months--Charlie's Bunion. Charlie's Bunion is a rock outcropping which received its name after a hike in which Charlie Connor and Horace Kephart made it to this spot. While there, Charlie took off his boots to reveal a bunion on his foot which was shaped much like the rock outcropping they were visiting. According to Hiking in the Smokies, Mr. Kephart told Charlie that he was going to get his name put on a national map in honor of their hike together and the uncanny resemblance of Charlie's Bunion to the now-famous rock outcropping. That was in the days before the founding of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and Mr. Kephart proved true to his word.

I've been to the nearby Jump Off which offers similar views, but never to Charlie's Bunion. It presents the opportunity for some of those photo ops where it appears that you are standing literally on top of the world, and I was ready for a new one. All was well in the morning as we headed up to the mountains from Knoxville, the skies crystal clear, promising superb views along the AT as we made our way toward the Bunion. This would have been in direct contrast to the weather conditions the last time we had made our way up the AT from Newfound Gap Road during our hike to Mt. LeConte via the Boulevard Trail. On that day, we were literally hiking in the clouds and the views were obscured throughout the entire trip. We were excited that the views would be spectacular with skies this clear and bright.

The first sign of trouble came as we neared the top of Newfound Gap Road. I had seen, a few minutes before, a few clouds roll over the mountain, but they quickly made their way out of the area, and the sky had cleared again. However, as we rounded a curve in the road, glistening treetops surprised us. Was that ice or snow or what? We decided that the clouds that had just rolled through had left enough moisture on the trees to freeze them in what must be pretty cold air above us. We stopped to take a few pictures and noticed that we needed our coats, but the temps were not unbearably cold.

However, when we got out of our cars at Newfound Gap, the weather was decidedly different even than it had been maybe a mile lower down the road. Up here the wind was whipping and there were snow banks left from plowing the parking lot. Anywhere water had crossed the parking lot as snow had melted yesterday, it was now a solid sheet of ice. Shocked, we donned extra layers that we had packed "just in case," and made our way out to the Appalachian Trail. Once on the trail, we began to warm up pretty quickly. The trees that flanked both sides of the trail protected us from the wind and made the hike much more comfortable than standing in the parking lot getting ready had been.

For the first quarter of a mile, the trail was "normal" including the stairs and rock scrambles typical on the AT. However, soon the path became covered with snow and ice making us have to carefully determine where each step would be placed to keep us from slipping on the ice. Disconcerted, I began to wonder if this was a wise move since none of us had any type of footwear made for these conditions. We kept going, lured by the prospect of those spectacular views that we knew would await us if we could just get to Charlie's Bunion. All of us were hoping that trail conditions would improve. But, they didn't. Two of the four of us hiking on this trip were close to or over 50. We kept envisioning a fall on the ice resulting in a broken hip or other bone. At one point I literally skated over one particularly iced over section of the trail. At that point, the two elders in the group called out to the youngsters up front and expressed out concerns and our perceived need for caution. One slip and bad fall on this ice could mean many lost weeks of hiking opportunities for those of us with more brittle bones. Reluctantly, we turned and made our way slowly and carefully back to the parking area. The trip back down was much more treacherous than the mile we had hiked going up, easing our disappointment a little at least.

Feeling somewhat like a wusses, we made our way back down Newfound Gap Road to the lower elevations where there was no sign of snow or ice. We left a car at the Huskey Gap trailhead just above Sugarlands Visitor Center and drove the other vehicle to the trailhead of Jake's Creek. We hiked up Jake's Creek for .7 mile to the intersection with Cucumber Gap and took a left. This pleasant trail was not new to me--I had hiked it with my kids when they were young. It was nice not to have to worry about each step you took. We relaxed and enjoyed the scenery around us and the peaceful sounds of the birds in the trees. At the end of Cucumber Gap we went right for a short time then turned left onto Huskey Gap. It was near here, as we crossed the bridge that traversed the Little River that we had evidence of the force of the floodwaters that had been ravaging the area and had resulted in washed out bridges and roadways. At the bottom of this bridge, on the upriver side, were two huge trees that had been washed down the river. They lay parallel to the bridge, lodged up against the abutments that secured the bridge in place. It's really amazing that these massive trees had not taken out this bridge entirely when they were slammed into its moorings. We had an increased appreciation for both the strength of this bridge and the power of nature that had taken out other such bridges in the park.

The Huskey Gap trail was another pleasant walk through the woods, characterized by big, old trees with little underbrush to obscure the scene. Admittedly, the ascent was steeper than Cucumber Gap had been, but it was still not a difficult climb. After Huskey Gap crossed Sugarland Mountain Trail, it began the descent toward Newfound Gap Road. This part of the trail was characterized by sections which were covered by vines hanging from the trees, making you feel as if you were hiking through some enchanted forest which just might possibly come alive at any moment.
All in all, this day in the woods had turned out just fine. I ended up getting 4.1 new miles (of the almost 9 we hiked) and came away with new appreciation for the unpredictable nature of the weather conditions that can await you in these mountains. I also realize that I need to search for some appropriate form of crampons, spikes, or something to carry with me when doing high elevation hikes in the winter just in case the need for them arises. I'm open to suggestions on what would work well for me, knowing that I never (at least not yet) intentionally set out to hike in the snow and ice.