Night Hiking, The Tower of Death and the Eternal Trail

DSC_0185We pack quietly and quickly in the darkness. Using our headlamps to piece together our possessions, we carefully load our packs, hoist them on our backs and off we go. It is very very dark…



BAD JUJUBE SIDEBAR:  The crew who came into camp after midnight are sprawled around the site on the ground in only their sleeping bags. This same crew used bad camper etiquette and while they hung all of their packs and food on the ample bear cables and then TOOK OURS DOWN AND LAID IT ON THE GROUND….. Who does that?!!!! Bad campers do that. Very bad and while it was tempting to take their food and dump it in the creek, we did not. We hoisted our packs and hiked our happy butts up the trail not looking back . . . These things have a way of working themselves out.


Back to the hike. The trail lit only by headlamps,  we make the turn up Swallow Fork Trail and immediately start the climb. It will be 5.5 miles to the Prize~ Mount Sterling. Trees blown down from the night before slow our pace as we climb on, over and through. (did I mention it was DARK) The creek roaring beside us, I made a conscious effort not to fall in.

Our first creek crossing is over a narrow wooden bridge with one slanted rail. Rickety but did the job. Our second creek crossing makes us both stop as there is no bridge, just underwater rocks above a rushing portion of the creek. Envisioning myself swooshing down the creek, I grind my poles in between the rocks and step by step follow Harriett as she leads the way. So much for dry boots and we continue to climb. At some point we realize that it is snowing and have to stop to put on our rain jackets and keep climbing. I discover that night hiking is a lot like day hiking…..

Another wet creek crossing, another painfully slow mile up the traiMaking Coffee...l, night turns to dawn and the snow stops. Finding a spot out of the wind we take a break and have breakfast. Harriett has broccoli and meat and beef jerky and I have beans and rice with half a pro bar. Remnants of last nights meal ,cold but necessary to hoist us the remainder of the climb.

Funny thing about hiking elevation. You simply lose all ability to judge the distance. Surely we are halfway there. The sign must be around the corner or maybe we passed it… Lungs are burning, legs are burning, the trail continues and you just keep moving. Back in the snow again we eventually make Sterling Ridge. BUT there is still 1.5 miles to go. Deep snow, frozen slush, ice covered rocks and steep climbs. The reward, glimpses of the mountain ridge and the sun is out.

Your reward after climbing 6.1 miles....6 storiesFINALLY! After an attempt on Day One and after five hours of climbing on Day Three we reach the top of Mt. Sterling all 5,842 feet of her……. Scanning the small area on top of this mountain where the view is limited , it is obvious that the fire tower is the main feature. This tower was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935. Mt. Sterling lookout has the highest elevation of any true fire tower left in the eastern U.S. 

This is what we came for….the panoramic view of The Great Smoky Mountains. So we started our climb on a structure that has been pounded by wind and weather built in 1935… I climb CLINGING to the metal railing taking one step at a time. Stopping only to control my hyperventilation and trying not to look down, one step at a time, hand over hand, I finally reach the trap door and pull myself up into the tower. (Note to the Park: The floor needs some work)

DSC_0192DSC_0193DSC_0194Inside the Fire Tower of Death....DSC_0196DSC_0198DSC_020010154036_437074776438023_1649213869_n

The view was amazing and we take pictures in all directions all the while never releasing my death grip on the tower . . According to a good post from Hiking in the Smokys Blog, “On a clear day you’ll be able to make out Balsam Mountain and Luftee Knob towards the west, Mount Guyot to the northwest, Max Patch to the east, and the Cataloochee Valley towards the south. If you have a very good eye you may even spot the Mount Cammerer fire tower, which lies due NNW from the mountain”  It was a good day, but after a few pictures the wind picked up and we started DOWN.
Can you spot the campers... we are VERY high up!!!

This is a shot of Campsite 38 from 60 feet up in the top of the tower. Can you spot the campers? eek

Standing in the snow….at the top of Mount Sterling, next to the Fire Tower of Death , next to the marker and the sign we adjust our packs for the long steep trek down. The snow is still deep and it takes  concentration to keep from falling or twisting a knee. Ahead of us is 6.5 miles of steep downhill laced with roots and rocks. After rising at 4:00 am and climbing to the top of the tower we are women on a mission. GET TO THE PARKING LOT. (preferably without a serious injury)

So much like our trip down on Sunday, (remember the whole STRATEGY was to avoid hiking DOWN THIS MOUNTAIN and we did it twice)  I’m not going to lie. This trail seemed ETERNAL. Like FOREVER ETERNAL. It seemed that it would never end. We went DOWN, DOWN and more DOWN. Climbing over fallen trees, snow turned to slush, slush turned to mud and mud turned to dirt, winter turned to spring and miraculously 13 hours and 12 miles after we started our day, we spot the bridge that would take us across Baxter Creek to our car.

Harriet and I take turns changing our clothes behind a big rock in the campground.  (where I am pretty sure I traumatized a couple who happened to walk up on me. ) We toss our packs in the trunk and ease our aching bodies in the car. Recapping the trip we laugh at all of the events from the last three days.

Funny thing about hiking…it is a lot like labor. While you are in the middle of it all you can think of is the pain and that you are never ever going through that again. But then as soon as it is over and you have on a clean t-shirt and dry shoes you start to think about where you will go next…DSC_0233

 

For the rest of the story start here:

Day One: Girls Gone Wild SB2014

Day Two: Redemption, Big Creek Trail and GSMNP Fitness

Day Two: Redemption, Big Creek Trail and GSMNP Fitness

It is absolutely amazing what you can do to your body and how fast it can recover over night. We rise to a beautiful but very cold morning to find our water frozen. We quickly eat our breakfast, pack our gear, fluff the dirt around our site and hit the trail. Today the plan is to hike to Big Creek Campsite 37 where we will spend the night. Warming quickly we shed layers to t-shirt and marvel at the difference a day can make.
Big Creek Trail is a nice wide trail allowing side by side hiking so we happily chatted. About everything. A buddy trail. Nice change from the narrow pass of death we were on yesterday.

1601525_437074786438022_1950286522_n_thumb[1] There is something that happens when you get off the concrete and outside that is hard to describe. The temperature that you can hardly make it in from the car to your front door, you spend three days in. Food that you would NEVER eat, becomes delicious. Dirt, sweat, scratches and bruises are badges of honor. Wearing the same clothes, no makeup, no hair to fuss with, NO mirrors. Apart from the twinges in your back or knees, you become ageless in a way. Priorities are simple. Water, shelter, nutrition. Your mind is clear. The colors, sounds and textures of the outdoors irons out all the stress wrinkles in your head. I love it…I crave it…

Our hike carries us alongside the rushing Baxter Creek past Midnight Falls and soon to Mouse Falls, full and rushing with the snow melting from the mountain top. Continuing on, we spot snow in the shadows and appreciate our sure footing on this glorious blue sky day. A family coming down the mountain gives us some advice on choosing a dry campsite and we enjoy the rest of the five and a half miles to #38.

 

Spotting the shiny new bear cables hanging beside the creek, we know we have reached our destination. Scanning the area and heeding the advice of the family, we cross over the creek via a log and find our spot beside the rushing Big Creek. I find two perfect trees for my hammock and Harriett settles on a sunny little patch and the work of cDSC_0164Harriett's Houseamp begins. Each in our own little world, efficiently we make our home for the evening. Water is gathered and filtered. Lunch is prepared and we sit in the makeshift kitchen for lunch.

DSC_0138_thumb[1]DSC_0141_thumb[2]After a nice break, we head up the trail to explore and come across what I thought looked like treadmills on the side of the trail. The GSMNP Fitness Center… Of course the fitness center back at home doesn’t come equipped with a wheelbarrow and shovel…extra cardio.

Our exploration ends as the trail crosses a deep rapid and we decline crossing and decide to shed our boots and soak feet that have marched close to 18 miles in the clear icy water of Big Creek. What a gift to sit on a rock in the sun surrounded by the Great Smokey Mountains next to a good friend. (are you getting it yet?)
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The sun starts to drop and we head back to our campsite for dinner, a small fire and a strategy for tomorrow begins to form. I want to see the top of Mt. Sterling…..This will require an eleven and a half mile hike. Five and a half strenuous up Swallow Fork Trail to Mt. Sterling Ridge and six and a half miles back down the wickedly steep Baxter Creek Trail that we have already slid, bounced and pounded down once (which we had wanted to avoid all together)… FOLLOWED by a four hour drive home….

Harriet says, “Have you ever hiked in the dark?” I say, “ Not if I can avoid it….” and the decision is made that we will wake at 4:00 am, pack up in the dark and hike up to Mt. Sterling Ridge to reach the summit of Mt. Sterling and the famous Fire Tower. Then we will descend once again 6.5 miles of bone jarring, knee dislocating trail to our car. Sounds like a good plan to me…..

THE STRANGE NIGHT

DSC_0130I am a cold sleeper. I hate being cold. Sleeping next to water is cold. So determined to stay warm for the evening, I climb into my hammock,into the Lost Ranger Big Agnes down bag, with my down under quilt, wearing smart wool long johns, montbell down pants borrowed from Dave, my Arc’teryx down jacket and for good measure stick two hand warmers in the pockets along with a giant big square warmer on my tummy. I lay swaying between the trees imagining a government aircraft flying overhead using heat seeking technology seeing this glowing thermal cocoon, which makes me smile and start to drift off to sleep.

Something wakes me. I see a flash through my sleep  and open my eyes to pitch black. Then SOMETHING BUMPS ME! Under my hammock SOMETHING HAS BUMPED ME! My hammock is moving so it is not imagined. My body flooded with adrenaline lies rigid and frozen. Unable to hear anything next to the loud water I lay and wait. For what? I don’t know.. To be eaten, abducted by aliens or Big Foot?  None of these things occur and eventually my body starts to relax, eyes drift closed and flash…the light again… Strange images fill my head and I consider maybe I need to lay off of Bates Motel when more lights start scanning the campsite.
Grabbing my glasses, I hang off the edge of my hammock and peer beyond my tarp and spot four headlamps across the creek. It is after midnight and four people are attempting to set up camp…. Eventually they settle in but I never quite get back to sleep and soon Harriett calls out and we rise. IN …. THE…. DARK….

DAY THREE: Night Hiking, The Tower of Death and the Eternal Trail

Girls Gone Wild…SB2014

Multi day backpacking trip discussions for Spring Break began in February. Freezing temperatures, multiple cold, gray rainy days, snow and ice storms increased the longing for warmer days on the trail. My friend and outdoor junkie, Harriett of She Moves Jewelry,  came up with a plan to head to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and the Big Creek Loop via Mount Sterling. Despite a trail description that this was one of the more strenuous hikes in the park, it sounded good to me…

DAY ONE: Walking in a Winter Wonderland

Leaving early Sunday morning, while the rest of the world slept, we rolled on to our destination, happily chatting about life, gear, and past and future trips . As we neared the park,  the top of the mountains were dusted with snow. We wondered if we would see any… Checking our weather apps, snow had been forecasted the night before  but the next three days looked warm and sunny.  Perfect.

6.2 miles to go!So it began, once in the parking lot, we loaded, tweaked and adjusted our packs and crossed the bridge to begin our ascent 6.5 miles UP the Baxter Creek Trail toward Mt. Sterling and campsite 38. There are several routes that will take you to the summit of Mt. Sterling; however, the toughest route to the historic fire tower is the Baxter Creek Trail. In fact, the Baxter Creek Trail to Mt. Sterling is one of the toughest day hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains.  The trail climbs roughly 4200 feet in just 6.2 miles. Its important to emphasize our reasoning here. The STRATEGY (a word that should be removed from backpacking vocabulary)was to take on the toughest part of the trail FIRST and CLIMB UP to prevent the pounding our knees would take coming  DOWN such a steep descent.

Silly girls…..

The green mossy beauty so a part of the GSMNP greeted us almost immediately with an early crossing of Baxter Creek. Numerous wildflowers had already braved peeking out of the ground and the trillium were unfolding all around us. We climbed…rewarded early by a view of the layered mountains old as time and serenaded by birds calling back and forth.  Life is good.

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About a mile in we saw our first dusting of snow and wondered what would be ahead. We climbed…passing huge rock formations, just soaking in the morning and warming up our legs. More snow…truthfully, I was almost giddy, giggling and laughing at our good fortune to actually get to see snow on the mountain…

As we climbed higher, the temperature began to drop, the wind picked up and the amount of snow significantly increased, slowing our pace. Wet snow blowing and falling all around us glistening in the sunlight. Soooo pretty, deceptively beautiful. Did I mention we were CLIMBING? Downed trees and limbs to cross, along with a combination of frozen slush, deep pockets of snow and increasing incline started a number of thoughts running through my mind. Mileage was impossible to calculate but we had been on the trail around three hours when a trio of wild eyed, very wet, snow covered young people came around the bend with their gear haphazardly hanging off of their packs.DSC_0040

As we later reflected on this meeting, they most likely were in shock and possibly early stages of hypothermia (which can KILL you) . Asking about their night, they told us the winds had reached SEVENTY MILES PER HOUR and that there was TWENTY INCHES of snow on top of the mountain…. We wished them well and continued trudging UP the mountain toward the prize. The top of Mount Sterling. (small voice… “are you insane?!)

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Now we were stepping into the trios footprints, several inches deep into the snow piled high on the sides of the trail. Huge wet masses of snow falling off the trees in the wind began to soak us and our packs.  The trail narrowed by the drifts and nowhere to stop, we continued to plod along , alternately amazed by the beauty of the Christmas card scene surrounding us and seriously wondering how much more snow was on TOP of this mountain, how much longer I was going to be CLIMBING this mountain, how WET my feet were, how COLD my feet were, HOW MUCH snow there really was, how COLD would it get, WHY did I swap my beloved 0 degree Ethel for the 15 degree Lost Ranger because it was lighter and if I was going to DIE (okay, so I am dramatic but those were my thoughts)

Climbing around a fallen tree and sliding on my fanny, we spot an abandoned cotton sleeping bag. The kind that would not keep you warm in your friends basement. (NOTE: If you are going to backpack into the mountains, NEVER carry or wear COTTON. It is not your friend. It will kill you.) Tossed to the side of the trail, we figure the trio had dumped it. Following the drag marks in the snow up we continued into the snow bombs and wind. We will never truly know how far we went up the mountain. We have been hiking five and a half hours so our closest guess was five to five and half miles. All I know is we were grinding down to the slowest pace possible trying to keep our footing in the deepening snow and the frozen footprints and ignore the burning, now exhausted muscles in my legs.

DSC_0041After a particularly deep stretch of snow sinking up to our mid calves we stopped to strategize. Neither of us wanted to call it.  AND neither of us wanted to go DOWN that mountain. We tossed out pros and cons, trying to hang on to common sense and let go of pride, trying to determine how far we had to go, when suddenly a huge mass of snow drift drops off of a rhododendron above us and plops right in the middle of my head. It’s a sign….. So reluctantly and relieved the decision has been made, we turn around and even the though the STRATEGY was to AVOID going down this steep mountain…. DOWN we went.

Slipping, sliding, twisting and of course, falling in the SAME SPOT, making our way back toward the parking lot we go. Neither of us talking, focused on one step, one step, one step until we reach the other world of brown trail, slush turned to mud, mud turned to dirt, stones and sticks and normal trail. And after seven hours of hiking, climbing, clinging, slipping, sliding, sinking and falling we finally stop for a break on a rock in the sun. Did this just happen?DSC_0032

We cross the bridge back to the parking lot near five o’clock, the sun dropping behind the mountains as we crank up the car heater attempting to dry our socks and shoes. The nearest open campground is Smokemont over an hour and a half away so we decide to stealth camp in the campground which was still closed for the season. (don’t judge,  a donation to the GSMNP is already on its way and we left no trace. Desperate times call for desperate measures) After a warm dinner, a cup of hot tea, exhausted, I crawl into my hammock, relieved that I did not die, (grateful that I am not 4200 feet above ground surrounded by 20 inches of snow in 20 degrees), nested by down and fall asleep to the sound of the creek rushing beside me.

Day Two: Redemption, Big Creek Trail and GSMNP Fitness

26 Years and Still Getting Lost Together……

DSC_0029January 11th, marked 26 years of marriage for Big Yahmo and I. We celebrated the evening by going to Lowes and looking at a dishwasher and  a garbage disposal to replace the ones that conveniently exploded two days before Christmas.. (Of course, being married 26 years allows those kinds of things to just roll off your back.)

For the weekend, however, I had other plans. Our dear friends, Chris and Patti Leppo, graciously shared their sweet cabin located outside of Blue Ridge on Fighting Town Creek. So, Friday after work, we loaded up and headed to the hills. By sunset, we were sitting in front of the fire, eating tortilla soup, with a glass of wine, listening to the water roar below.

IMG_0232Morning came quickly and after some hot tea  and blueberry buckwheat pancakes , off we went. The plan was to head to Section 5 of the Benton MacKaye Trail. While the temperature was reading around 27, the sky was brilliant blue and cloudless as we neared the pull off. . .Now, this is where the story gets kind of interesting.

According to Tim Homan’s North Georgia Trail Guide, the trail began at an old logging road across from the gravel parking space. Now I have never hiked the Benton MacKaye and really didn’t  know how it was blazed, if it was blazed or anything about it.  Right at the logging road entrance we saw two girls with backpacks getting organized, so we took off ahead of them.

 IMG_0244The trail started as described with a reasonable climb and before long we had glimpses of the mountains beyond and the valley below. Little sparkles of water, assumed to be Lake Blue Ridge mentioned in the trail description were visible. After the first two miles, the trail became rather challenging. Many blow downs, several overgrown patches made us call laughingly call it the “Duck and Bob” trail. (we should have called it the Dumb and Dumber Trail, but more on that later…)

IMG_0235At the 2.5 mile point according to my trusty FitBit,we came to a hard switchback….. just as described in the book….(Due to the overgrown nature of the intersection, we left a couple of good sized sticks to point us home on the way back.) Have I mentioned that we are not known for our navigational skills?
 
We followed this along the ridge wall of the mountain crossing a dry creek bed a couple of times for another mile and suddenly there was nowhere else to go……. We should have been in full view of the fire tower but truly, there was nothing that even resembled a trail…

After scratching our heads, consulting our trail guide, taking a  break, making some tea and eating a bite weIMG_0246 decided to turn around and and call it a day. Seriously, I was wondering who, if anyone, maintained the Benton MacKaye Trail and how was anyone supposed to find their way around…So we made our way back, over and under and through the overgrown trail. Soon we caught sight of the road and as we walked around the gate over the logging road I looked to the right…..

OH, there is the trail!!!The starting blaze...

On a tree…..up the hill….to the right of the road…..in the woods…. was a small brown sign , as I looked up from the sign, I caught a glimpse of a post with a small familiar sign about 20 feet up the TRAIL. Yep, Section 5 of the Benton MacKaye………

We had just spent the last 8 the blazemiles hiking on what is most certainly NOT a trail and who knows where we were heading!!! In disbelief, we hiked up the trail a bit and then saw the prominent white diamond blazes on trees beyond.

Now I am pretty sure that this confession would qualify for being evicted from the Trail Dames, Southeast Women Backpackers and the O.G.G. ! However, this is a pretty typical adventure for David and I. We have a long colorful history of dirt roads, leaking tents, flooded trails and worm attacks. We have stumbled upon cult families in the woods, had equipment malfunctions and have experienced a few “Deliverance” type moments over the 30  plus years we have been exploring life AND the woods together.

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But through it all we have persevered, found the humor and leaned on each other to weather each storm and trial. Getting lost on a logging road is not life threatening but could have ruined the weekend for some. After our hike, we retreated to the cabin, showered, gussied up and had a fabulous dinner at Harvest on Main in downtown Blue Ridge. (Thank you Teresa for being an outstanding server) We came back to the nice warm cozy cabin appreciative of the opportunity to spend time together.

Sunday morning, bright, cold and blue came and we headed back once again to the Benton MacKaye Section Five trailhead. IMG_0291Lake Blue RidgeIMG_0311
This time, we chose the right path and enjoyed a spectacular hike. The sky could not have been more blue,  a dusting of snow on mossy green logs, gorgeous sculptures of trees not visible during the summer months and the deep blue reflection of Lake Blue Ridge kept us company as we hiked.

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Fabulous 360 degree views from the top of Tipton Mountain, a mysterious rusted bleacher surrounded field and Brawley’s Mountain  fire tower (in a scene straight out of Lost, complete with mysterious radio transmissions..) made the second attempt more than worth our efforts. It was a perfect winter day, filled with the quietness that comes with the season and we had it all to ourselves..
 
IMG_0338the trashman...
Satisfied that we had finally actually hiked Section Five of the Benton MacKaye , we turned and headed back to the car victorious. We ended our more than fabulous weekend with a stop at the famous Panorama Apple Market, where we picked up a bag of Pink Lady’s and went around the sample table a couple of times before heading back to reality…….…

Happy Twenty Sixth to us!
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Tray Gap to Dicks Creek Gap and Type Two Fun…

The first day of October proved to be perfect for another Trail Dames Adventure! Greeted by temps hovering around fifty with a brisk wind we gathered in the parking lot of Dicks Creek Gap to begin the shuttle. After a few glitches involving lost dames and me leaving my hiking boot insoles at home, we eventually made it to the Tray Gap trailhead by mid morning.

We had three Dames new to backpacking, LaCelle, Jay and Indra,The Trail Dames Crew (who was also trying out a hammock!) so everyone pitched in making sure their gear was secure. With the first freezing temperatures of the year predicted, I was anxious to try out my new full length under-quilt and silently prayed that the wind would subside.

With brilliant blue skies overhead, we all headed down the trail. Finding my hiking rhythm climbing the first mile, my thoughts drifted to just how much I loved Fall. The colors were so vibrant and rich, with leaves already changing in these mountains. Reaching the top of Tray Mountain, we stopped and enjoyed the 360 views before moving on for a short stop at the shelter to readjust equipment.
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Leaving the shelter, we crossed paths with a couple of young guys, one of who was carrying a large wooden SPEAR!! When asked what it was for, he explained “It was for the bears…” We would meet up with “Spear Boy” later at our water hole and again at the end of the trail. The entire time he carried his spear, but apparently had no occasion to use it!
HighLife, 2 time Thru HikerIMG_3726Speer Boy....
Kristen and I then came across “High Life”, a South bounder wrapping up his second Appalachian Trail journey. We had passed him hitching a ride in Hiawassee earlier but had no room in our vehicle for him. He was anxious to finish up and get home to a real bed and refrigerator. I really don’t think I could imagine spending from May to October on the trail… His photos from flickr are located here.

IMG_3738IMG_3745IMG_3746 We continued on, enjoying a good pace, stopping occasionally to take photos, catch our breath or drink a little. Our plan was to get to camp and hike the extra 1/2 mile down and then back up to filter water and gather some wood for the fire that we knew would be needed! Monica and Carrie soon joined us and we stopped for a break at the “Swag of the Blue Ridge”, which amused me for some reason and took a few photos.
My “miracle foot inserts from Rite Aid” were beginning to make my feet feel like they were on FIRE, so I was more than happy when we made it to Addis Gap.  Scouting the site, we were comfortable that it could handle the Hubba City that was on it’s way and we headed into the woods to find a place to hang our hammocks. We selected an area and were hopeful that the trees would break some of the gusts of wind that had persisted all day and seemed to be getting stronger.
Our CampIndra's Flying Squirrel...Aprils Luxury Item...Carrie and her HubbaPlus 1 and JIMG_3766
After filtering the water, the rest of our group began arriving at camp and the work of setting up began. We found trees that would accommodate Indra’s Eno and the “Flying Squirrel” tarp. One more hammock in the north forty, Four Hubba’s, a Big Agnes, Coleman and REI tent later and the Dames had made Addis Gap their home. Kellye, our firemaster, soon had a nice fire going and everyone started gathering with a variety of meals soon in progress.
With darkening skies and the relentless wind, the temperature dropped at a steady pace. I added another layer of fleece and my smart wool long johns and still felt the chill. Hanging bear bags, taking care of business and chatting around the fire filled the rest of the evening.
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After making it to hikers midnight, everyone soon retired to their sleeping quarters. This would be my first real trial for my new Incubator under-quilt, which was hanging beneath my wbbb hammock. I crawled in, pulling my Big Agnes Ethel sleeping bag around me, adjusted the hood and chicken cutlets (LOL), assumed the position and quickly fell asleep.

ONLY to be abruptly awakened around midnight to the sound of freight train winds that were moving the base of my trees back and forth and whipping around my tarp. Laying still, tensely absorbing the power of that wind all around me, I felt a slight chill in an area beneath me. Slapping one of my body warmers in place until it moved to another spot and then moved it again, I played a checkboard game with the cold for the next few hours. Around 3:30 the wind subsided a bit and I drifted back to sleep until daylight. (After consulting with Adam from Hammock Gear, I concluded that I had cinched the ends of my under quilt too tightly, causing an air pocket keeping the UQ away from my body and allowing the cold air in.) Its all on the job training with a hammock!!
The good news was that everyone survived, despite some gear deficiencies. Spirits were high and the day proved to be just as blue sky as the one before it. Breakfast was made, stoves and fuel shared, camp was packed, keys exchanged for vehicle retrieval and we hit the trail heading to Dicks Creek Gap.
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Ratchet, Salt, Carrie and myself kept a brisk pace as we climbed out of the Gap, followed closely by April and Nancy. We stretched out a bit enjoying some quiet hiking time on another beautiful day.
Spotting a IMG_3817Vista” sign, I veered off for the view and it did not disappoint. (Of course, dropping my hiking pole off the ledge gave me a small heart attack…)
I caught up with my hiking buddies a couple of miles out and after shedding my long johns and mooning Kellye, enjoyed the rest of the trail, talking and laughing about our trip. IMG_3845After piling into the parking lot and having a snack, we drove the forty five minutes back to where we started and turned around and brought all the cars back to the Gap.
Our timing was perfect, arriving just as the last of our spear boygroup finished.
(and there was Speer Boy!!)
As usual the Trail Dames with their great camaraderie, giving spirits and encouragement were a joy and special kudos to our new backpackers and to Ratchet and SHOE for leading the trip.
Until next time, Happy Trails……



 

Up the Hill, Bears and Tomatoes……..Oh MY!

Awake before my 4:30 alarm, I slip out of bed, take what will be my last shower for three days, get dressed and make my way downstairs. Last minute additions (and deletions) to my backpack, a quick bite to eat and off I go to meet Salt.

In less than an hour we are speeding toward the Smoky Mountains and another Trail Dames adventure. (For the record, the Ellijay Starbucks doesn’t open until 6:00am) A cup of coffee,  and a beautiful sunrise later we arrive at Fontana Dam Visitor Center to wait for the rest of our party.
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S.H.O.E., Hemlock, Still Waters, Ratchet and Monica soon arrive, gear is consolidated and we pile into cars and head to the Twenty Mile Trailhead to begin our journey. It is warm and sunny when we start but the trail is wide and climbs gently as we all work out the kinks, shifting our packs, tightening straps and stretching our legs.
We soon come to the Wolf Ridge Trail and begin our “have you lost your mind” 3000 foot climb to Gregory Bald. It isn’t long before the heat of the day climbs into the 90’s and the repetitive movement of nothing but up starts to have an effect on all of us. Activity ranging from discarding clothing, laying in the middle of the trail, yoga on our magic silver carpets, cursing, heavy breathing and sheer grit propel us forward.
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As we press on, we are warned that there is a Mama Bear and two cubs on the trail about a mile from Gregory Bald and sure enough as that point is neared we begin to see evidence. Logs rolled over, dirt pushed around and ginormous piles of bear poo. (this makes me want to poo…)  I check carefully for signs of seeds, berries or …hikers and see none…..
The answer to the question...Does a Bear Poop in the Woods?Still Waters leads with myself, Monica, Hemlock and Salt close behind.. and suddenly we hear, “GET YOUR CAMERA!!”  AND there it is, a real…….live…….BEAR sitting up to the right of the trail…..and she is watching us…. We all stop in a bunch and watch. highres_53615652 As we holler and bang our hiking poles, (in accordance with instruction from the official park service video) she is not impressed and lays back down. Not spotting her cubs, we are unsure whether to take the high road or the low road and stand in the trail waiting for the rest of our group. Thunder begins to rumble in the distance and  alternating between mild panic and the urge to take more pictures and video, we back up as a group,  when she stands up and crosses the trail to scratch her back on another tree. As we look up, the two cubs are spotted high in the foliage!

As SHOE and Ratchet approach, we share the news of the bear and make the easy decision to take the low road , giving wide berth to our bear friends and pick up the trail further down.
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Adrenaline propels us to Parsons Bald, an unmaintained bald taken over by blueberry bushes and bramble and finally we are on flat ground. The unmaintained trail grabs at our legs with thorny bushes and we fly trying to outrun them as well as the thunderstorm on the horizon. Another mile and we make it to Campsite #13.
Exhausted from climbing for over 7 miles in 95 degree heat,highres_53615822  (those little words just do not give it justice!) we empty our packs and set up camp. Our site is visited by a doe and her fawn who are oblivious to our activity and the group camping next to us announce the entrance and unfortunate demise of a large rattlesnake. (I make a mental note, to potty early while I can still see what might be lurking beneath me!) Water is retrieved from a thin trickle a quarter mile away and dinners are picked over as we have little appetite from the days climb and heat.

IMG_3204I barely make it to “hikers midnight” before climbing in my hammock for the night. The wind is brisk and wakes me after midnight as the tree I am attached to is swaying, but my tarp doesn’t budge and my new Incubator under quilt keeps me warm and toasty and soon am drifting back to sleep.
Morning breaks, a bit cloudy and cool and we all go through our routines, some breaking camp, some eating before we all load our packs to begin day two of our three day trip. We start again by going UP heading to Gregory Bald and are rewarded by the sky clearing and views of the mountains and valleys below. IMG_3246There is the usual singing and dancing and a wonderful discovery of magical trees which we all climb. (How sweet to be able to enjoy childhood activities and not be judged. ) We spend a good bit of time on the bald but finally head down the trail. AND just as yesterday was all UP today is ALL DOWN the Long (itchy, scratchy, brambly, briar filled) Hungry Ridge Trail. We pass several backpackers heading up and say silent prayers for the pull that we know is ahead of them!
IMG_3299IMG_3309IMG_3333 Five miles down the trail Campsite 93 is reached. Our swollen blistered feet are dipped in the cool stream,  we watch the blue butterflies dip and twirl, observe a strange little band of campers who thought it was a good idea to set their tents up directly UNDERNEATH the bear bag cables…….and decide to go a little further(3 more miles….) and spend our last night at Campsite 92. Thankfully the trail spreads out and the grade is not so steep. We soon pick up the creek and crisscross  as it switches sides with the trail. 
Campsite 92 sits right on the Creek making for easy water access and soon three hammocks and two Hubbas had made it home. Ratchet and S.H.O.E. soon catch up with us to complete our family. Kellye, a victim of the heat exhaustion from the day before (the one who tore her clothes off) and the weather predicted to become severe was a factor in their decision to continue to the car. We remain….5 crazy women…….
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As the sky darkened and several more hikers passed us due to weather concerns, we tightened our tarps and discussed an action plan in the event of a storm. The safest place for protection was deemed to be the bridge underpinning and a drill to make sure we all knew where to go was practiced. Still Waters was our “emergency management leader” and at some point went to filter water and started yelling “Tomato, Tomato!!” (actually it was tornado tornado but we all missed that!) A slow drizzle began that would alternate between  showers, annoying mist and downpour for most of the evening. In spite of the rain, Still Waters manages a small fire and we gather round enjoying its warmth.
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Around dark we are joined by a lone hiker, exhausted from his 1.5 mile trek from the parking lot, carrying a huge pack. He is beyond thrilled to see us and after setting up his tent joins us at what is left of the fire. We share with him the “emergency “Tomato” plan” and he seems relieved. As the rain picks up we all drift off to our sleeping quarters where I spend a fitful night tossing and turning, checking to make sure water is staying on the outside and contemplating lowering the foot of my hammock…..
IMG_3363As soon as the first light of day is apparent, I see that I am not alone as everyone is crouched beneath their tarps, packing up gear and it is not very long before we are all ready to head back to the car. It is raining but the trail is again, wide and easy and we enjoy the green of the forest accentuated against the dark wetness. We walk along water most of the way back and are grateful for the rain, our trip, the challenge and the experiences shared. I read this quote on the Section Hiker blog this week and thought it very appropriate.

”It’s moments like these that I savor on backpacking trips. When my wonder of the world around me becomes more absorbing than my other thoughts about the past or future, I know I’ve reached my destination……”

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Behind the curtain…..

Have you ever stumbled upon some information that you’d rather not known about, seen something that you would be better off not having seen, heard a conversation or pried into something that in retrospect you wish you had left unopened…
Alice_behind_the_curtainMotherhood seems to be fraught with these situations… All in the name of protecting your child, you seek to peek behind the curtain. To know what is really happening in their life. You hope to head off bad jujubes before they happen……
True faith, tells us, to trust, to be confident that all things work to the good of those who know HIM.
That, is a hard reality to grasp when you are a Mother. You feel like you, through your “Mommy Super Powers” can intervene, advise, protect…. when in reality, all the stress, the sleepless nights, the worrying are worth nothing…. They protect nothing….  They do not prevent accidents, or bad decisions or mistakes made…They do not provide a force field or silver bullet…

Free will prevails and some things  must take their course, consequences and all. We are not in control. But I am blessed to know the one who is…..

I will find my rest in God alone.
He is the One who gives me hope.
Psalm 62:5

Do not fear, for I am with you; do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.’ Isaiah 41:10

The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms” -Deuteronomy 33:27