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.