Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Experience Your Smokies---Experiences Extraordinaire!

Earlier this year, my husband and I were selected to participate in a wonderful program called Experience Your Smokies.  Already, the sessions we have attended have had us participating in fish population sampling in Middle Prong working alongside the acting Park Superintendent, discussing preservation of the Park's historic structures with the men who actually do the difficult preservation work, gathering seeds from native grass fields in Cades Cove to enhance the native grass populations in other fields in the Cove and other locations around the Park. We've heard from experts in Wildlife and Fisheries Management, Search and Rescue, Air Quality Control, Invasive Species Control. We've been taken inside the Twin Creeks Science and Education Center to see the extensive collection of animals and plants that have been preserved for future generations to be able to see.  Last week, we experienced Tremont Institute through the eyes of a student, taking a quick course in salamander ecology and winter tree identification.

If you have a keen interest in this most precious national treasure we call the Great Smoky Mountains, I highly recommend that you look into and apply for this special program.  The views into the behind-the-scenes functioning of this park will awaken an awareness you didn't even know you needed.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Camping and Fly-fishing in the Smokies

My husband and I are going camping this weekend with the express purpose of fly-fishing in the small streams of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  We've not used our 1966 Cox Camper in a couple years, but I absolutely love camping in the trailer that I grew up in.  It's still in amazing condition because a: they don't make things like they used to, and b: it's been very well taken care of for the last almost 50 years.  Hopefully it will serve us well again when we haul it up and over Newfound Gap to Smokemont Campground near Cherokee, NC.

The plan is to fish above the campground in Bradley Fork, possibly even moving up into Chasteen Creek.  We will probably give the larger Oconaluftee River a go while we're there, but we'll stay in the Park to fish because hubby doesn't have a NC fishing license (a TN license is valid as long as you stay in the Park).  Anyway, much of the Oconaluftee that isn't in the Park is on Cherokee Reservation land and that requires a different type of permit altogether.  I've also heard that Raven Fork is a nice stream, but I'll have to ask someone once we get over there how to get to it if we decide to fish that stream.

In preparation for this trip, we've been trying to learn more about fishing techniques that are particularly effective in the small streams we'll be in over the weekend.  An excellent resource that we've found valuable are some online videos (from YouTube) created by R and R Fly Fishing, a husband and wife duo that runs a guide business in this area. They have their own YouTube "channel," so you might want to check it out.  They both seem knowledgable and eager to help other anglers improve their techniques and thus, their success.  We've learned much about how to hide and not disturb the water any more than necessary in order to entice these native trout to take what you present to them.  We've also learned a bit about presentation and what types of flies to present at various times of the year.  I hope that we are able to schedule a trip with them in the fall, but for now, we'll just try to apply the lessons we've learned in their videos.

Another thing I wanted to share in this post is a wonderful Car Camping Packing Checklist that I stumbled on this week. This has definitely helped me gather our gear as we get ready to use the trailer that I don't get to use often enough. Most of my camping the last few years has been quick tent setups or backpacking trips and these gear lists are very different.  I thought others might find this list helpful and it's printable so you can literally use it as a checklist as you pack.  Just click HERE to see the entire list in its printable form:

 I'd love to hear about your adventures camping and fishing in the Smokies.  What are your favorite streams and/or places to camp?

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Window to Heaven On the Appalachian Trail--A video blog post

Once in a while, one of my hikes is so special that it literally defies words.  It has happened once before--last summer when I spent 4 days on the AT in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It has now happened again, and again the hike was on a section of the AT, this time near Roan Mountain, Tennessee from Carver's Gap to 19E.  This trek was supposed to be 14 miles, but by the time we were done, my Fitbit (and my hamstrings) told me it was a 17.2 mile hike completed in one glorious day.  As I said, words cannot come close to describing the vistas that surrounded us the whole way across those Roan Mountain Balds, so instead, walk with me here and enjoy a small window onto Heaven!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Close Encounter of the Black Bear Kind

The Cataloochee area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park contains many trails I have yet to hike, so one recent Friday, my husband and I got up really early and drove the two hours to the Cataloochee Campground where our chosen hike of the day would begin.  I was glad to be in his Toyota FJ as opposed to my Mustang because the road to the campground is a bit of a challenge.  This road closes frequently in the winter, and for good reason!  He never put the FJ in 4WD, but it was nice to know it was there if we needed it.

My hiking partners and I had tried to do this hike back in the winter, but had arrived at the trailhead to find the footlog which crosses the river washed away.  Later, we read that there were no plans to rebuild, so we decided at the time to attempt this hike in the summer when the fairly long crossing wouldn't leave us cold and wet at the very beginning of the hike.  However, as we pulled up to the trailhead on this day, there was a brand-spanking new footlog stretched across the river.  This is reportedly the longest footlog bridge in the Park.  Thrilled that the only marked crossing on this trail had been spanned for us by this awesome bridge, we chose to leave our water shoes in the car--a mistake, for sure!
The brand new bridge replaced only a couple days before we got here
Our itinerary on this day was to go about .8 miles up Caldwell Fork Trail to the intersection with Boogerman Trail, take it up and over the ridge and return a few miles later to a more distant intersection with Caldwell Fork.  From there, we would do the .4 miles on Caldwell Fork to the next trail intersection, then turn around and walk back to the car on Caldwell Fork Trail.  That would make for about 8.4 miles, a nice length hike for my husband, who hikes only occasionally with me because of his work schedule.  The only other major crossings noted on Caldwell Fork were on a much more distant part of the trail which we would not cover on this hike, hence the justification for not carrying the added weight of water sandals with us.

Within the first mile, though, we came to a deep water crossing with no bridge.  We were close enough to the car I could have gone back for shoes, but didn't want to add almost two miles to our hike because I really want my husband, Bunk, to keep hiking with me.  I choose my trails with him carefully to keep it fun and enjoyable for him. That's very important to me.  So our only choices were to take the boots off and enter the water, unable to see what lay on the riverbed, or just push on through with our boots on.  We chose the later knowing that would mean wet feet for the rest of the day.  
One of many unbridged crossing on this hike

Almost immediately, we came to the first intersection with Boogerman Trail and turned left to begin the fairly gentle ascent up to the ridge.  Caldwell Fork Trail, being a horse trail, was fairly well travelled it seemed, but not so with Boogerman Trail.  There was some slight overgrowth along the way, but it's still pretty early summer. I'd say by the end of July there'll be some significant overgrowth.  But it was an enjoyable trail nonetheless.  It did not contain the muck and mire typical of horse trails like Caldwell Fork, and the pine needles and deciduous leaves that had fallen on the trail made it fairly soft underfoot. Only minimal rocks and roots were present, so tripping wasn't such a distinct possibility.  I spent my time watching for snakes, but thankfully, none made an appearance! 

What we did see along the way were a few rhododendron still in bloom, some fairly interesting mushrooms, lots of snails, and a couple of toads. It's these little things that you simply don't have time to see if you're pushing at a frantic pace like some people seem to like to hike.  That's one thing I like about hiking with my husband. We are not in a hurry, so we take the time necessary to enjoy the scenery that we see around us.

There are some interesting sites along Boogerman Trail too.  At one point we passed what looked to be a very old tulip poplar (I could be wrong on the identification though.  Tree ID is not my thing.) Not long after that we came to a VERY long rock wall built by early settlers of this region.  There was no mortar used in this wall, but I bet it had been here since the 1920s or 30s, if not before, and still stood tall and proud.  It's hard to imagine the amount of work it took to build that structure, and I tried not to think of what it must have been like to be forced to leave an area that had been your home as these settlers had been. As I hike these trails, I am often reminded of their sacrifice so that I can enjoy the park that was set aside for the use of all Americans on land that had once been their own homeplace. I experience a dichotomy of feelings, that's for sure.  

One of the most interesting sites along this trail was a huge tree that is hollowed out at the base, presumably by lightning.  This tree still lives, but with a hollowed-out crevice in it large enough for people to stand in.  I didn't go in (I don't like spiders or snakes), but you could tell others had. This, to me, is just another example of the tenacity of nature, the doing whatever it takes to survive.  Adapting to unforeseen and unfortunate circumstances seems to be the norm in nature, something that comes in handy for us as humans too, it seems.                                                                                                                                       Shortly after seeing the tree and the rock wall, we came to the end of Boogerman Trail and the intersection with Caldewell Fork.  Here, we took a few minutes respite to eat a snack and rest our feet. I was in the middle of changing into dry socks when we heard a huge crash in the woods.  I called out, hoping it was someone coming down the trail from the other direction, but got no response.  I thought it was probably a bear, but we tried to convince ourselves it was a limb falling from a tree. We packed up pretty quickly at that point and headed up the short piece of Caldwell Fork to the next trail intersection.  I needed to do that little piece to make the next jaunt in that area a little easier.  After doing that short piece up and back, we returned to the intersection where we'd had our lunch.  Walking now back toward our vehicle on Caldwell Fork, we again encountered the muddy stretches commonly found on horse trails. However, now there were large prints freshly made in that mud.  My first comment to Bunk was I hoped that was just someone's large dog. Although dogs are not allowed on trails in the Smokies, it is not unusual to run into people who ignore that rule and hike with their dogs anyway.  I was hoping that's what it was, but deep inside, I figured it might not be.  Soon we came upon two sets of tracks, one the large ones we'd previously seen and one much smaller. This time, the claw marks on the toes were clearly visible, leaving us with no doubt that this was a large female black bear and her this year's cub alongside her.

 Immediately I began blowing the whistle I keep attached to the chest strap of my pack, alerting momma bear to our presence and exact location.  The last thing I wanted to do was to surprise her or get between her and her cub by accident. We also took a moment to arm ourselves--hubby pulled out his 38 Special and I pulled out my bear mace and removed the safety latch.  But most importantly, I kept blowing that whistle. I didn't want to use the mace and certainly didn't want to have to be in a desperate enough, last ditch situation for Bunk to have to use the .38, but we also didn't want to become a statistic. Since momma bear and cub were going in the same direction we were (back toward our vehicle), we gave her some time to move away from us and then began to make our way slowly up the trail constantly watching for new tracks.  Finally, after about 1/4 mile, we saw her tracks make a left turn, escorting baby up into a thicket of dog hobble.  Those were the last of her tracks we saw in the mud of the trail, thankfully.  I fully believe that blowing the whistle repeatedly and letting her know where we were at all times kept what could have been too close of an encounter from escalating into a bad situation.

It does seem that the bear population in the Smokies is particularly unpredictable this year, especially in the last few weeks.  There are multiple closures of trails and shelters in the Park because of aggressive bear activity. You can find that list HERE. If you're heading into the park anytime this summer, be sure to check that site.  It begins with road closures, but scroll down a bit to find facilities closed or on alert due to aggressive bear activity.  I read an article in a Sevier County online magazine the other day that said now is the time for mating of the black bears, so males will stand their ground to protect their territory even from people.  Usually, they will run away at the sight or sound of hikers, but not during this time.  Also, right now is the time when momma bears are weaning their yearling cubs, so it's not unusual to see those half-grown cubs in the woods alone, looking somewhat confused.  They, too, can be somewhat unpredictable according to those reports.  I highly suggest that if you're headed to the Smokies, you take a few minutes to watch the video on bear safety located on the Park website.  You can find it and other information you need to know about being in bear country HERE. There's also a good video HERE put out by Orvis on how to use bear mace correctly. It's worth watching too. What you learn there could save you from an unfortunate encounter, and also might save the life of a bear. Bears who are caught up in encounters with humans, even if those situations are caused by poor behavior of people, often have to be put down.  So, please, know the rules and safety regulations that can prevent such unhappy situations from occurring.  A photograph just isn't worth it.
Young bull elk on Cataloochee Campground Road

The rest of our hike was uneventful, but as we were driving back up the road out of the campground, we were pleasantly surprised by the presence of a young bull elk grazing just on the side of the road. He was adorned with huge antlers which were "in velvet." When antlers are being regrown each year (elk and deer lose their antlers after the "rut" or breeding season), they are covered with a soft, velvety covering that is accompanied by rich blood flow to the growing cells.  Once the antlers are fully developed, that velvety covering will be rubbed off and the antlers become hard. Anyway, he was beautiful! We did not get out of the car because we were too close, but snapped a few pictures as we moved on up the road.   

What a day this had been! I absolutely love sharing days in the woods like this with my husband. It seems the cares of our normal daily lives just vanish in the splendor of what has become my favorite place on the planet.  I am so blessed to live close to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and to have a husband who will hike in it with me!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Gregory's Bald--Go NOW!

Lace up those hiking boots and head up to Gregory's Bald in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park RIGHT NOW for a spectacle you will never forget. Gregory's Bald is home to one of the most extravagant showings of flame azaleas anywhere in the world. Many varieties thrive up there and have actually morphed into cultivars that exist no where else on Earth.  I have not been since June 2012, but some "Twitter friends" of mine went up yesterday and posted phenomenal pictures.  These pictures are from the trip I did a couple years ago, and you can find the blog post on that trip HERE, but I did not hit it at exactly "peak" that year.  It was still extraordinarily beautiful and indeed breathtaking even then.  From what I saw on Twitter yesterday, this week will be prime time to go take a look for yourself.  Due to some responsibilities at work, I'm not sure I'll get up there this week, but if at all possible, especially if you've never been up there before, you should certainly try to go.  

There are two trails that go to the top: Gregory Ridge Trail and Gregory Bald Trail. With a well-planned shuttle you can go up one and come down the other, but going up and back either one works just as well.  My favorite of the two trails is definitely Gregory Bald Trail which rises steadily through an old growth forest to the summit where you step out of deep woods onto the clear area for which this mountain gets its name.  It's an 8.8 mile round trip hike to the bald which lies at almost 5000 ft. in elevation and provides 360 degree views of Cades Cove and the surrounding Smoky Mountains. Even without the azaleas in bloom these views would be worth the trip.  While they're blooming, this is a life-changing hike!

Just so you'll know though, Gregory Bald Trail passes right by Backcountry Campsite #13 which is currently closed due to bear activity.  If only people would follow the bear regulations and pack out their trash, this would probably be unnecessary. If I do get to go, I'll have bear mace handy, but hopefully closing the site has sent the bear to other areas in search of food.  With as many hikers as there will certainly be this week, I cannot imagine there will be a problem.  But hikers should be cognizant  of their surroundings and aware of what they should do if a bear is encountered.  It's also important to know that the road that accesses this trail almost requires that you have a four-wheel drive vehicle.  If you're taking a 2WD vehicle, I'd suggest you go up and back on the Gregory Ridge Trail which is approximately an 11 mile round trip.

If I am able to hit the trail myself this week, I'll certainly take and post pictures, but just in case, if you do get to go, I'd love to hear all about it!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Comeback Hike: Meigs Creek Trail

Sunday morning dawned clear and warm, so hubby and I made our way up to "The Sinks" parking lot in the Great Smoky Mountains to begin a short hike to test out the progress my previously injured knee was making.  This was the first time I'd been on the trails in several weeks, and I was anxious to strap on the trail shoes.  We arrived at the trailhead about 9:40 and started the walk up the path behind the viewing area of one of the most popular spots in the Park. The rushing cascades that make up "The Sinks" had much less water in them than usual which was a good sign for us since there are 18+ crossings one way on this trail that we were going to do up and back.  That meant at least 36 times we'd cross Meigs Creek on this 7 mile round trip hike.

The first 1.4 miles of this trail are dry, passing through lush vegetation within earshot of the creek at times and of the highway at other times. The path rises fairly gently for the first bit up a dry southward facing bank which is known to be home to timber rattlers who like to warm up in the sun. Luckily, we never saw one this time although we were surprised with how quickly black snakes can come out of a tree and slither into the depths of the forest. We also surprised a black bear who leapt out of a tree so hard and fast that the tree swayed back and forth for quite some time without its prior inhabitant.

Once the path descends to the creek after that first 1.4 miles, you stay with it for the majority of the rest of the trek.  At this point, the scenery takes on the mystery and magic of the deep woods and the serenity of a lovely mountain stream.  From here, the creek and the trail cross paths too many times to really count.  It's not even worth trying! On a day like the day we were there, most of the crossings can be managed with rock hops.  Eventually though, I decided to simply put on my Keen sandals and just walk right through the majority of the crossings.  Bunk, my husband, kept his hiking boots on and maneuvered the rock hops quite well with no incidents--no water in over the tops of his boots at all. 

 After you make first contact with the creek, even if you don't want to or have time to do the whole trail, keep going another quarter to half a mile and you'll come across a maybe 20 foot cascade that is definitely worth the walk.  In fact, we ran across a family who had done just this.  They weren't carrying packs or even water, but had just made their way up the path in search of the falls they'd heard of.  It's certainly a pretty little falls and on days when more water was in the stream, it would be even better.  This is NOT, however, the Meigs Falls that can be seen from Little River Road.  That is one of my favorite falls in the park, but I've been told no trail goes to it.  I bet someone knows how to get there off trail, but that someone isn't me! 
 This was one of the most enjoyable hikes I've done in a while that lacked high vistas.  I believe during the winter there would have been some nice views along some of the ridges, but all that water would certainly be cold in the winter too, so it was a worthwhile trade-off for us.  Those rocks would have been slick as glass if they'd been icy.  

After all those crossings, the trail rises above the creek and finally passes through some rhododendron forests and some fern banks that shimmer in that new growth green that you really don't find anywhere else.  Another switchback or two and you find yourself at the trail intersection with Meigs Mountain and Lumber Ridge trails. There are a couple nice logs downed here for you to sit on while you snack and catch your breath and either turn around and go back down the way you came or turn right or left to go to Tremont or Elmont along either of the other trails. Really it's only one crossing trail, but the name changes at this intersection for some reason.  Since we were only in the one vehicle, we returned the way we had come, back to the Sinks.  It felt great to be on the trail again, and I was quite pleased with the way my knee behaved.  This one was short, but was new miles nonetheless--never a bad thing!

Friday, May 30, 2014

Sometimes, you just gotta play it smart!

I had a really tough decision to make this week.  I've been nursing a swollen knee that my physical therapist assured me would be better by Tuesday, just in time for my scheduled 3-day hike on the Appalachian Trail.  I had iced and babied it for weeks and had told myself it was getting well enough to go on the trip because that's what I REALLY wanted to do! This hike would have finished me on the AT in the Smoky Mountains since we had done the other half last summer.  The video of that hike can be found HERE.

On Monday morning, the day before the hike, I finished packing my backpack. I had gotten the weight down to only 23 pounds in an effort to make it easier on my knee.  That's almost 10 pounds lighter than last year! Just to be on the safe side, I shouldered my pack, tightened up the hip belt and shoulder straps and headed out the front door of my house for a quick trip around the neighborhood as a test run for the knee.  It felt pretty good on the road and I didn't think the distance was going to be a problem. However, just to be on the safe side, I looked for and climbed some neighborhood hillsides and immediately, I knew I was in trouble.  These grassy, smooth hills were nothing like the intensity of the rocky climbs and descents I knew full well the AT would throw at me. But with every step on them, my knee let me know it simply wasn't ready. Devastated, I came home, informed my hiking buddies that I could not go on Tuesday, but immediately offered to provide the shuttle they would need anyway.

They don't call them the Smoky Mountains for nothing!

On Tuesday morning, we traveled up Newfound Gap Road and then up Clingman's Dome Road to the trailhead where I would leave them to hike without me.  Was this difficult? It may be one of the hardest days I've had associated in any way with hiking.  But, I did it for the good of the group.  I could have gone and then gotten part way to realize that I had to turn back.  There's no way they would have let me hike back alone, so I would have ruined their trip too.  I just wasn't going to take that chance. Instead, I said goodbye at the trailhead and wished them a safe and enjoyable journey, fighting back the tears that had come so readily on Monday.  I did stop at an overlook or two on my way back to civilization to snap the shots in this post, and the views were pretty enough to be some consolation.

Also, on the way back, I stopped to pick up my 500 Miles Hiked pin from the rangers at Sugarlands Visitor Center and let them check me off in their register.  That was the suggestion of one of my hiking buddies. She knew that would help me feel a bit better, and she was right!

I will hike again! I'm just not sure how long that will be.  In the meantime, I plan on making a few short, low-key hikes to strengthen the knee and reclaim the sanity that I lose if I don't go to the mountains on a regular basis.  In a couple weeks, I'll know if surgery is in the picture or not.  I'm definitely praying that it won't be, but if it is, I'll still be back!

I'd love to hear about your hardest moments relative to hiking! Would you be willing to share?

Friday, May 23, 2014

What Makes a Good Hiking Partner?

As I look back on the last couple of years, I think about how my hiking partners have changed and what I've noticed makes for long-lasting hiking relationships.  When I first began hiking, I went once or twice with a neighborhood friend who I can probably thank for getting me started on this journey when my daughter went off to college. I seriously needed a diversion and hiking proved to be the perfect way to heal a hurting heart.  Lynn was great to hike with as a newbie.  We were about the same speed and same age so we had a lot in common.  However, Lynn experienced some health problems and had to quit hiking, something I hope never happens to me.

Shortly after that, a dear friend from work made the statement to me that she wanted to hike up Mt. LeConte before she turned 60 which was only a couple months away.  She and I and one more woman I didn't know very well, but still worked with, decided we would do just that.  The account of that first trip to Mt. LeConte can be found HERE.  We had such a great time, we just kept on hiking!  Since that time, I've hiked with many different folks and have settled into a small group of regular hiking companions.  Together we've had many wonderful and a few trying experiences, but we've faced them all together and are better (and closer) for it. Along the way, I've found the value in certain characteristics that make good hiking companions and will try to delineate them here to help others be better hiking partners.  A good hiking companion:

  • Puts other members of the group (and the good of the group itself) before themselves instead of demanding that selfish goals be put before the interest of others in the group.  Make a commitment when you decide to hike with a group that the interests of the group will be equally as important as your own interests.
  • Will never go off and leave other members of their hiking group alone or go off alone by themselves unless agreed upon by the group.  We have had times when we've had to hike an extra ten miles because one group member was so far ahead of the others that when we realized we'd taken a wrong turn, we couldn't get up with her regardless of how loudly we yelled or blew the emergency whistle.  That same individual once was hiking so far out that when the only other person on the hike that day fell and was cut and bleeding, she was nowhere to be found to lend aid.  Make it a point to stay within earshot (or at least whistle distance) of other members of your group.
  • Prepares fully for a hike by knowing and understanding the route to be taken.  It's important that everyone in the group knows enough to get out of the backcountry to go for help if someone is injured.  Sharing the responsibility for knowing the route makes it safer for everyone in the group.  
  • Abides by the "rules" of the backcountry.  In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park where most of our hiking adventures take place, there are safety rules one is expected to follow when staying in the shelters or campsites, specifically regarding bear precautions.  It is only fair to the others in the group if everyone follows those rules to keep from putting everyone staying in the campsite or shelter at risk of an unpleasant or even potentially dangerous encounter. 
  • Shares the load and the expenses.  When backpacking with a group, some items don't need to be carried by everyone and dividing the load up amongst all members of the party can make sharing equipment more fair.  Packing your own pack so full that you have no room to carry shared items is totally unfair to those with whom you are hiking. Also, getting to and from hikes can be an expensive proposition if you go very frequently.  Be sure to either do your fair share of driving or be ready and willing every time to pay your part of the travel expenses.  Others in your group will not want to carry you financially for long.
  • Shares camp responsibilities.  On a backpacking trip, getting to the shelter or campsite is only part of the work involved.  Once the group arrives at the destination, much work remains to be done and everyone is already tired. Be sure that you are actively involved in gathering water or doing other necessary tasks, not simply lounging on the top bunk watching everyone else work. Believe me, that gets old quick!  Be committed to doing your part.  Not only is it the fair thing to do, but those little jobs make great memories together to make the group stronger and builds those lasting friendships.

A long-lived hiking relationship develops into a deep and abiding friendship.  Like most other relationships that are meaningful, hiking buddies put the needs of other members of the group ahead of their own, but all members are also doing the same thing.  Once that happens over a period of time, bonds are created that are tight--almost as tight as family.  That, my friends, is worth the extra effort!

Did I leave out any characteristics of good hiking buddies YOU've had? Feel free to add to this in the comment section!

Sunday, May 18, 2014

500 "New Miles" and Counting!

It hasn't been too terribly long ago that I wrote that blog post titled "GSMNP 900! No Promises, New Miles," but as of yesterday, I've reached the 500 "New Miles" milestone.  Once I started keeping track of this journey on the spreadsheet provided by Liz Etnier, author of the book that we use as one of two major references toward our goal, hiking all the trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has become an obsession. Counting the miles has been an impetus to get us out there more frequently than we would have without marching steadfastly toward our goal.  An occasional hike in the woods is one thing, but this drive toward a group goal is something quite different.

Do I let the goal ruin the journey? No! Being in the wilds of the Smokies with two of my best friends I've ever had in my life and enjoying what nature has to offer us is still the best part of every hike we do.  I love walking in these woods, along these ridge lines, listening to the calls of the birds or scampering of the boomers, taking in the breathtaking vistas, and listening to that still small voice inside me.  Putting one foot in front of the other when striving to reach the top of some steep climb, encouraging each other that we can DO this because we've done it before--those are small treasures provided by this quest.

And we ARE purists! We never take credit for having walked even any small distance that we haven't really walked.  If we get off the trail to look at a rock outcropping or whatever, we don't come out the other side and continue on.  We will even double back to the same spot we left the trail just to be purists in the effort.  I've hiked with one person in the past who, if she sees a trail sign, she's done that trail--her record keeping is terrible so her claim to have finished them all will be meaningless, no matter when she "says" she's finished them all.  Not us! Meticulous record-keeping is a part of the process for us.  There are many small snippets of trail that can easily be missed unless you're very careful and purposeful in this effort.  This book can help you in that in case you're interested in pursuing a similar goal.

According to Ms. Etnier's book, there are 791.9 miles of trail in my beloved Smoky Mountains.  I am fortunate to have hiked 500.6 of them to date.  Hopefully, the Lord will allow me to finish, but even if I don't ever finish, I have been blessed by every step in ways I can never relate here.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Lightening the Load

After struggling to haul my much-loved Deuter Futuro 26 up McKee Branch Trail a few days ago, I finally listened to the advice of friends and husband and bought a smaller, MUCH lighter day pack that will be perfectly fine for spring and summer hikes.  I'm one of those folks who has to "be prepared" for anything, but that means I carry a lot of stuff with me every step of the way that I simply never use.

The pack I settled on is the Mountain Hardware Fluid 12.  I found it at Blue Ridge Mountain Sports which is definitely my favorite local outfitter, but looked at every other pack in town before making the final decision. This pack is small and ultra light, but still has a full waist belt including two zipper pouches for carrying items you want easy access to at all times.  Of course, it has the hydration pouch and access for the tubing on either side.  It also has the top pocket for items such as food in addition to the central space for most of your gear.  I like the cording on the outside for easy replacement of a jacket without having to get into the middle of the pack.

My other purchase today was a new pair of trail runners.  I'd been thinking about this for a long time, but since spring is finally here, I thought I'd go ahead and take the plunge.  My tennis shoes are wearing out anyway, so I thought I'd buy trail runners to wear some for everyday wear, but also for hikes on nice spring and summer days.  After trying on numerous pairs, I used my REI dividend to purchase these beauties--the Salomon XA Pro 3D Ultra.

These waterproof lovelies weigh in at an amazing 1 lb. 9 oz. for the PAIR!  They feel amazing on, so I'm thrilled to step out into a totally new venture for me. We will see how they do on the trail, but if I don't like them, I can always send them back to REI for a full refund.  I'm not sure how they have a guarantee like that, and I've never used it before, but on something like this, it's a nice feeling of assurance.

It's a good thing Spring Break is about over.  I've got to go back to work to make some money to pay for my habit!  I guess if one has to have an addiction, though, hiking isn't too bad of a vice to have!

This Proves It! It's Finally SPRING!

After such an arduous winter, it seems even the wildflowers are slow to make their appearance out of their warm beds of leaf litter, but they have finally begun to pop their beautiful heads out.  My daughter, Kacey, and I drove up to Chestnut Top Trail across from the Townsend Wye yesterday to see what we could find.  We've been making this trek almost religiously since she was about 8 years old (now she's 22) to search for the tiny treasures found on the lower quarter mile stretch of this trail.  Our fascination with the wildflowers of the Smoky Mountains began when we went to our first Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage held annually in Gatlinburg.  It includes short guided hikes during which we began to learn where to find the flowers, what their names are, and developed an intense appreciation for what many people simply walk right past every year on trails without even noticing their existence.  For us, the yearly treks in search of these tiny beauties built a stronger mother-daughter bond and helped develop a love of photography in my daughter.  She has a knack for noticing things I walk right past and being able to capture them on film (well, not really film, but in megapixels, I guess!)

So when, at 22 years old, she called me the other day to ask if I would go with her to look for some wildflowers, I jumped at the chance to spend a little time with the treasure of my life.  Since she's out on her own now, that time together is increasingly precious to me.  This little stretch of trail was our choice for today because of its lower elevation and the fact that it's sunny bank leads to some of the earliest appearances of our day's quarry.

Spring Beauty
What we found today was Bloodroot (pictured above), Hepatica, Long-spurred Violets, and Spring Beauty.  The yellow trillium was almost ready to bloom, but we were a little early for that one.

Hopefully, we will return repeatedly over the next month or so in search of more Smoky Mountain Wildflowers, but I feel blessed to be able to take part in these quests with her and to have passed along my love for these mountains to her.

For more information about the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, check HERE.
Yellow Trillium

Friday, March 21, 2014

McKee Branch and Cataloochee Divide

On the first gorgeous day of Spring following the winter of Polar Vortexes, we went across state lines to the Maggie Valley, North Carolina area to come in the back side of the Cataloochee Valley.  I had made some phone calls and determined that we could park a car at the gate of the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center even though they don't open until May.  Parking there meant we had to hike up the road a full two miles before we ever got to the trailhead to begin the day's "new miles."  The first thing we noticed as we approached the gate was a young black lab who obviously wanted to go on a hike with us.  Although dogs aren't allowed in the Park, we had no way of preventing him from accompanying us except by being mean to him, and we certainly weren't going to do that to this sweet thing!  So, after donning boots and packs, we made our way up the gravel road toward the Science Center and the access trail that would lead us to our trailhead.  When the road reached Purchase Knob (bought by the Park in 2001), we took a left toward Ferguson Cabin, a lovely homestead with a nice view of the Knob.
After exploring the well-preserved inside of the cabin, we found the access trail that lead us right to the intersection of McKee Branch Trail and Cataloochee Divide Trail.  We had lunched at this intersection a few weeks ago when we hiked Cataloochee Divide Trail in to this point from the road that goes to Cataloochee Campground.  Our plan on this day was to hike the remainder of Cataloochee Divide Trail and also do McKee Branch Trail.  After considering elevation changes, we decided to do the most difficult trail first while we were at least somewhat fresh (even though we'd just finished a two-mile ascent from the car to the trailhead).  That decision almost cost us either my backpack or our planned two trail day.  

We were aware that the elevation change on McKee Branch was intense, rivaling Chimney Tops Trail. What we were UNaware of was the condition of the trail we would find on McKee Branch. This is a horse trail that is apparently oft-used. Not only was it steep, but going down was tricky to say the least due to deep cover of leaves masking the dangers of roots and rocks which could so easily trip up even the careful hiker.  At some places the leaves were almost knee deep! We had a couple of near misses and one fall, but we did make it down this trail to the intersection with Caldwell Fork Trail.  We debated not going back up, but instead making a loop up Caldwell Fork toward Hemphill Bald to prevent having to go back up what we had just come down.  No one in the group was looking forward to that ascent.  However, we knew that there were two deep water crossing with no bridge on this section of Caldwell Fork and we were trying to wait for warmer weather to do those crossings, so we dug in our heels, gathered up our fortitude, and headed back up that trail.  I must say, I don't know if it was because we've only hiked about 3 times since December, or because I'd been sick with either a stomach flu or food poisoning earlier in the week, but this was the toughest 2.3 miles I've done since I started hiking. There was so much slipping on rocks or roots and climbing up onto rocks that made for too tall risers that it was exhausting.  I also decided on that stretch of trail that I carry WAY too much stuff!  My Deuter Futuro 26 pack is unnecessarily heavy for a day hike in all but the coldest weather.  There was one point along this section that I considered heaving it off the side of the mountain and into the valley far below us.  I'm currently looking for a smaller, lighter pack that won't enable me to carry everything but the kitchen sink with me.  I'll update when I find the right pack.
After finally making our way to the top, we and our four-legged friend stopped to rest back at the intersection that was our starting point.  

Resting on the planks the Park had put down to walk on to avoid damp areas on this horse trail was the difference between me being able to finish the second trail or not.  That stuffed, heavy pack did make a pretty good pillow.  After a rest and lunch, we had enough strength to don the packs again and head up Cataloochee Divide Trail toward The Swag.  We had no idea what awaited us! I am so very glad we didn't quit for the day before doing this trail.  I'll let the pictures speak for themselves:

We ended our "new miles" at the base of Hemphill Bald where Cataloochee Divide Trail ends.  We'll save that loop for another day.  

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Road Prong Trail--Where the Creek IS the Trail

A clear, cold morning dawned as we drove up Newfound Gap Road to our destination on this second pretty Saturday in a row! That has been rare this winter, and we were thankful for the opportunity to hike back-to-back Saturdays.  Because the road to Clingman's Dome is closed until April 1, we parked one car at the Chimney Tops Parking Area and finished the climb to Newfound Gap.  That's where we had to leave the second car so we could hike up the Appalachian Trail toward Clingman's Dome in search of the trailhead of our chosen "new miles" for the day.  This is a delightful stretch of trail as the AT rises up toward the summit of the highest peak in the Smokies and the highest peak on the entire length of Appalachian Trail.  On this day we would only walk 1.7 miles of the AT, but we would still have the opportunity to meet and talk briefly with two of the first thru-hikers of the class of 2014.  The couple had left Springer Moutain, Georgia on February 14.  As they said that, I remembered back to all the bitter cold and difficult weather we've had since February 14 and felt, honestly, a bit awestruck by the fact that they had been hiking through all of that!  We chatted for just a moment and then they went on.  The young man was going to hitchhike down to Gatlinburg while the young woman was hiking on.  Not sure if he was resupplying and then would catch up with her or if they were going their separate ways at that point.

It is along this stretch of the AT where you come across an unusual area--unusual for the Smokies anyway.  Without warning, the hiker comes to a metal grate and a hogwire fence and a sign that explains this somewhat curious phenomenon.

This exclosure (yes exclosure, not enclosure) holds so many botanical treasures that it has been protected from the digging and rooting damage that you sometimes see in other places in the Smokies backcountry inflicted by the feral hogs brought into the region by settlers long ago.  Descendants of hogs which escaped into the wild now present a difficult problem for those who are entrusted with protecting the beauties and rarities that exist in this fragile ecosystem--hence, the fence.  This fence keeps OUT those hogs which would otherwise devastate this beech forest.  If you get the opportunity to walk through this little piece of heaven in the spring when the wildflowers are blooming, you will instantly understand and appreciate the presence of the fence.

Not long after walking through this area, we came to Indian Gap where Road Prong and the AT intersect.  There's a parking area here that you can drive to when Clingman's Dome Road is open, but until April 1, that road is deserted.  It's rare indeed to see that heavily travelled thoroughfare vacant of any moving vehicles and be able to stand in the middle of it to take pictures or to take in the spectacular views of the distant peaks.  

Now that we've come to the beginning of new miles for this hike, we turn right and begin to head down the mountain toward our waiting car.  I knew from the trail descriptions I had read that this trail intersects numerous times with Road Prong (creek) as it gathers water and increases in size while travelling down toward the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River.  However, the trail books I had read were apparently written before the storms that have impacted this part of the Park in the last couple of years.  There were long stretches of this creek that passed through blowdown areas that afforded no other passage except to walk directly down the middle of Road Prong itself.  This was rock-hopping at it's finest--not only rock-hopping to go across a stream, but actually finding a path downriver to a place where, eventually, the trail would re-emerge.  It was definitely challenging and a tiny bit unnerving, but it was the most fun part of the day.  I couldn't help but be in awe of the power of nature that would drop so many massive trees during a storm and then stack them up in a log jam at one point down the creek that looked like a pile of pick-up-sticks.  The small creek was undeterred though and simply meandered through, under, and around the trees that attempted to block it's path.  Once the trail opened up again through more open terrain and lovely rhododendron thickets, it looked like more familiar sections of this Park.  However, without warning at one turn in the trail we were literally greeted with a jaw-dropping sight.  Rounding a curve in the trail with not even an auditory warning from the falls, we gazed upon this: 

This magical, deep pool and cascade took one's breath away by both its beauty and its unexpected appearance. Pictures absolutely do not do it justice. Had it been a warmer day, I might have attempted the treacherous, steep path that descended to it, but I probably shouldn't have any way.  I simply appreciate having had the opportunity to stand on the trail and gaze at its splendor.

The rest of the trail was a pleasant descent to the intersection with Chimney Tops Trail where we were instantly struck by the presence of masses of humanity that have returned to my park now that spring is on its way.  I must admit I felt a twinge of sadness to know that the solitude of these great mountains will now be accosted by these "visitors."  We spent much of the remaining trip picking up trash--orange peels, energy bar wrappers, even a wine bottle--that folks had carelessly dropped as they ascended to one of the most visited summits in the Smokies. I was jolted by the lack of respect they have for this place.  I am unsure how one visits such a spectacular venue and acts with such utter disregard for its almost holy ambience.  I am, however, aware that it is the very presence of these millions of visitors that gives me entrance on a routine basis to one of the most special places on Earth.  For that, I am eternally grateful.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Winter of Little Hiking

This winter has been tough, not only here in Tennessee, but really across much of the country, so I'm not really going to complain too loudly, but as a result I've been able to do very little hiking.  It seems that what little pretty weather was to be had in our region always came during the week.  Weekends were cold and rainy or even found the mountains blanketed in deep snow during bitterly cold temperatures that, honestly, I was a little afraid of.  In hopes of finding the opportunity to do some hiking in the snow, I purchased some microspikes, but road closures and my ability to get TO the mountains impeded my best intentions and I've been unable to test them out.  I did carry them with me on December 31, 2013 when we did a little jaunt in the Cosby/Big Creek area though. It was during this hike on Low Gap I and Low Gap II that I experienced a winter fairyland at Low Gap unlike anything I'd ever seen before.
Suddenly, the fog above us began to lift, as a cold wind began to blow, forcing us to stop and put our coats back on.  We had shed them earlier in the hike because, as usual on a steep ascent, we were beginning to sweat.  Perspiration was no longer an issue as the cold wind blew through us.  Walking up the last quarter mile before Low Gap, you could see the surroundings change from green to sparkling ice.  The sun's rays glistened through tiny prisms of crystallized water vapor literally clinging to everything.  
As we approached the top of the trail at Low Gap, bitterly cold winds blew so hard it was all we could do to operate our cameras to capture the sight.  Staying for long, in spite of how much we wanted to tarry and take in all the splendor was simply unwise.  Stepping a mere 15 feet down the trail and off that high point where trails meet was enough to protect us from immediate hypothermia, but that experience drove home the intense respect one must maintain for these mountains.  

It never snowed or even rained on us that day, but it was the coldest I've ever been in all my hiking in these mountains.  I never did really get warm again until I was home even though we still had another 7 miles or so to hike on that day.  

Since that hike, I've only hiked two other times this winter.  One hike was just a short jaunt into the mountains to stretch my legs on a trail I'd already hike twice before--really just an opportunity to spend some time with good friends.  The only other hike happened this past weekend and there's a blog post to come on that one.