Sunday, December 29, 2013

Mt. Sterling Fire Tower and Baxter Creek Trail

I am a junkie.  I admit it; I take personal responsibility for it; I acknowledge it to all who ask or will listen; I'm not ashamed of it!  I am an elevation junkie, pure and simple!  And I love winter hiking because it feeds that addiction with every step of a trail that leads to peaks or balds.  This is a wonderful time of year to explore the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in all its grandeur because not only do you have spectacular views at the destination, you get them in snippets all along the way.

The view from Mt. Sterling Trail early in the morning
On days like yesterday when the temperatures are moderate and there is minimal snow on the ground to make hiking treacherous, one of my favorite things to do is get high! I mean that in every sense of the word.  Making my way into the upper elevations fills me with an excitement and joy that I know comes from the Lord.  How can one hike in this place and not sense His majesty and power?  Others may be able to, but I cannot.

Mt. Sterling Trail is a 2.7 mile hike with an elevation gain of about 2000 feet.  Temps were in the upper 20s when we began the hike, but within the first half mile or so, we were shedding layers.  By then I was hiking in only my cuddleduds long underwear shirt and a short-sleeved active wear top.  My fleece lightweight hoodie and my favorite Mountain Hardwear soft-shelled jacket were tucked inside my pack and strapped on the outside, respectively.  We were sweating with the elevation change, that's for sure!

One good thing about taking pictures as you hike is that is gives you a good excuse to stop on these intense climbs and catch your breath without having to own up to needing to stop to give you heart time to get out of your ears and back down into your chest.  That was the case on this hike, but there were always great views to stop and try to capture in the camera.

It took us almost 2 hours to hike that 2.7 miles, but stopping along the way to enjoy these kinds of views was a part of the fun.  One thing I enjoy about my hiking buddies is that we are in the woods to enjoy what it has to offer, not race through them to see how fast we can finish.  There's just too much beauty to fly past it.

Mt. Sterling Fire Tower
At the end of the Mt. Sterling Trail is the fire tower.  It rises 60 feet above the ridgeline which was whipped this day by some fairly brisk winds.  This is one of only a handful of fire towers built by the CCC during the Great Depression that remain standing.  Climbing the tower is not for the faint of heart, especially on a day like this with winds that seemed to be trying to keep you from making it to the top.  The open staircase dares you to look down, but at least this tower has handrails on both sides, unlike the similar structure on the top of Shuckstack Mountain which has lost one side of its handrail on at least one section of the stairs.

I had been told, and yes it is true, that the tower shakes a bit in the winds up there.  But let me assure you, the views from the top are worth swallowing your fears and pressing on.  My iPhone 5 camera is pretty good especially with the HDR setting engaged, but no camera can truly capture what you see from the top when you get the courage to look out.

Climbing back down the tower was worse than going up, but you can't stay up there forever, even though you're tempted to do just that. 

Our descent of Mt. Sterling took us along the Baxter Creek Trail which meanders steeply down a 6.1 mile path of switchbacks and follows the contours of this great mountain through ever-changing forests to take you down about 4000 ft. Sometimes you're surrounded by massive boulders and outcroppings of stone that must have been heaved up out of the ground by powerful forces of colliding continental plates eons ago.  Sometimes you step around a curve to see masses of soft, thick moss literally covering everything much like a landscape which has been overtaken by kudzu, but much more enchantingly beautiful.  Then, oddly enough, it was in the middle elevations of this north face of the mountain that we encountered a dusting of snow--just enough to make it lovely.  

I had heard horror stories of this trail.  Twitter friends who had hiked it told me how steep it was and that they had love-hate relationships with this trail, but they must have been going UP it.  Going down, it provided several hours of enjoyment with the exception of one moment when I apparently was looking off trail.  My left foot tangled on a root and instantaneously, I felt myself falling and landing with a thud on my side on the trail.  I didn't even have time to try to break my fall.  I think my hiking pole must have also been tangled which caused me to fall on my side instead of directly forward.  I fell straight on my ribcage under my left arm and caught a root that took the full force of my fall.  I instantly thought, "that's a great way to break a rib." But, I got up slowly, and everything still worked, thankfully.  The rest of the way down, I worried about the pain in my side and arm, but didn't mention it to anyone.  I think I'm ok, but I'm still not sure I haven't cracked a rib.  Guess time will tell.  This is my first major fall in probably more than 700 miles of hiking.  I knew it would happen one day, and I'm thankful it wasn't worse.  

Within the last half mile, we began to feel a light sprinkle of rain making it's way through the canopy above us, but we stayed dry.  It was only after we had crossed Big Creek and made our way back to the waiting vehicle that it really started to rain.  We had been lucky in more ways than one on this day.  

Friday, December 27, 2013

Another Lucky Day in the Great Outdoors

A clear, cold day was the perfect backdrop for a 3 1/2 hour stint standing shin to hip deep in the South Holston River accompanied by my brother and my 82-year old Dad. I couldn't have asked for a better day even if we didn't catch fish, but we were more lucky than that. I have no pictures from today's fishing trip, but I will share a pic of Dad on a trip earlier this year.

This is the man that had me in the waters of the North Carolina mountains when I was probably 5 or 6 years old. At that time we were spin fishing with a 3-barbed lure that was gold with red spinners (well, at least one of them was red--that part of the memory is a little fuzzy.) I can see it vividly in my mind's eye all these years later. It was this early exposure to the joys of outdoor activities that has impacted my life in such an important way.

We almost always caught fish then, and we almost always catch fish now, but our weapon of choice has changed. Today we exclusively use a fly rod, and casting it is a constant battle to produce that perfect loop and lay it quietly on the water with the precise upstream mend. Always a work in progress, but everything I know about fly-fishing, I learned from him.

I caught 7 browns and bows today, but the choice of bug was another continual challenge. We had to work for these fish today except right at the beginning of the day when they first turned the generators off and the water receded. Fish hit quickly during those first few minutes. At the time, I had on a blue-wing olive dry with a blue-wing olive nymph tied on below it. After a few of those hitting only the nymph, and one really nice fish breaking my tippet, I had lost the only two Dad had tied for me. After seeing a large sulphur on the water, I switched to a light colored sulphur with a zebra midge as my dropper. The midge caught the eye of a couple of fish too, but I never caught a fish on any dry fly I tied on today--and it wasn't for lack of trying!

I am so thankful for every day I get to spend on the water, especially those spent with my dad. I fully realize how fortunate I am that he is not only still here, but able to fish. Every outing could be our last together, but I will always treasure the time I spend with him and the skills and pleasures in nature that he has shared with me.


Thursday, December 26, 2013

Times, they are a-changing! Hiking Through History

Something unusual has happened to me since my last post of the video from our Appalachian Trail section hike in June.  I've had Change-Induced Writer's Block!  During the last 6 months, I've continued to hike--probably more than ever before, but I've been unable to write about it.  You see, during the Appalachian Trail hike a relationship between the bulk of the group and one individual was severely damaged.  It's strange how 4 days spent in the wilderness can exacerbate an already strained relationship and ill-advised and unsafe decisions prove to the elders of the group that it's no longer smart to continue to hike with that person.  The failure of that hiking relationship has been difficult to deal with and I've not felt like talking about it.  I still won't talk about it, but I DO want to share my hiking adventures again!  So, enough of that!  Times, they are a-changing, and that's OK!

To catch up with where I am in my quest to hike ALL the trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, here's the current number: 455.7 of 791.4!  My goal for this year was to be at 400 by December 31, so I met that goal with plenty room to spare--actually over a month ago.  I hiked over 150 miles just during the time I was out from school (I teach, remember, so I enjoy about 7 weeks of summer vacation!)

On the Monday before Christmas, we ventured back to Kephart Prong Trail to catch up one of the group who wasn't able to go the first time around.  Kirsten and I had done this hike in July as part of an overnight trip in the Smokemont Campground.
Our Smokemont Campsite during July
THAT was a great trip where we snuck in a Friday afternoon/evening hike to Kephart Shelter and back and then a 15+ miler the following day up Bradley Fork, Chasteen Creek, Hughes Ridge, and back down Bradley Fork Trail.

On Monday though, Jennifer and I were able to do only the Kephart Prong Trail.  At some point, we'll need to repeat the longer loop with her, but the days are too short right now. This was a leisurely trip back in time as we meandered along Kephart Prong leaving the trail to look at relics from the bygone days of the 1930s and 40s when this part of the Park was home to a CCC camp and a fish hatchery. What struck me as cool on Monday was how different this same hike was only 6 short months ago.  Relics that were covered in bright green foliage were laid bare by the winter chill and its effects on the plant life in the area.  Some things we did see during the summer, like rock gate posts and the entrance sign to the camp.

Other things like this hand-pump well mechanism (that's my best guess anyway), we never saw back in July.  The bare vines and trees were not enough to hide this and other remnants of what once must have been a busy community of men who were willing to do most anything for a check during the Great Depression.

Moving on past the CCC camp site, we made our way further up the trail and came to the location of a fish hatchery which was put here to replenish the overfished streams of this great Park which provided food to locals during a time when money to buy food was difficult to come by.

This large cistern was once the home to fry which were grown to a large enough size to release to hopefully survive in the streams and grow up to proliferate on their own in the waters that are the life-blood of this special place.

At the end of this two-mile hike in, is Kephart Shelter, named for one of the men most influential in the development of the Park in the 1920s.  This is a wonderful shelter that I hope to one day stay in.  It is located so close to the river that you would listen to the river music as you drifted off to sleep and wake to its cascades in the early morning light.  I could so do this!