9 women meet on a gorgeous Friday in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest for a three day backpacking adventure. We will hike the two mile Joyce Kilmer Memorial Loop and then Load two cars up and head to Wolf Laurel Trail, (4,590 ft. elevation), where we will take a leisurely one and a half mile hike to Bob Stratton Bald, (5,261ft. elevation) and set up a base camp for the three day trip. Day hikes will include, The Hangover and Naked Ground .
9 women meet on a gorgeous Friday in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest for a three day adventure, hike the two mile Joyce Memorial Forest Loop and find out the road to Wolf Laurel Trail is closed….meaning we will hike from the Joyce Kilmer parking lot (2,240 ft. elevation) to The Naked Ground Trail midway, set up camp for Friday Night, break camp Saturday morning and hike the remaining three miles to Naked Ground, (4,860 ft.) and then another one and a half to Bob Stratton Bald, (5,261 feet elevation).
note: If all those references to elevation mean nothing to you as it did to me, let me just tell you that hiking from 2,240 ft. to 5,261 feet in four miles is STEEP…ignorance is bliss for a while
Once the decision is made to alter the plan, I quickly scan my bag and toss out my extra pair of socks, pants, shirt, trail chair, several energy bars and miscellaneous items in an effort to lighten my pack. Like lemmings we file off behind our fearless leader, Joan, aka as Hemlock,
oblivious to what would lie ahead… The Naked Ground trail begins innocently enough. We pass a few green moss covered logs, cross a small bridge over the bubbling Santeetlah Creek, but quickly began a never ending ascent upward, becoming narrower with each step. We stop and marvel at the size of the trees and the beauty of the Creek that rarely leaves our sight. We travel along, rejecting a couple campsites until finding the perfect place to spend our first night.
We spread out like a small army, each woman carefully selecting a place to put her tent (or hammock). The busyness of setting up camp began. I love this ritual that goes along with camping. Unrolling my backpack, setting up my tent, inflating my sleeping pad, arranging my sleeping bag, organizing my space and filtering my water. It has such a rhythm and satisfaction to it that I will never tire of.
Gradually we congregate around the fire pit, where Shemeah, our resident fire builder, is honing her craft. A variety of stoves are lit and meals ranging from dehydrated okra, potatoes, chicken and rice to sushi are prepared. Conversation centers on meal resources and our gear. (We so love to talk about our gear, mentally making notes of things to put on our wish list!) We are a diverse group of women. All from different backgrounds and professions. Drawn together by this LOVE of nature and exploration. As we talk and laugh, night falls and we wait for the first peek at the near full moon. We are blessed with a clear evening and are rewarded with a beautiful bright moon shining through the Tim Burtonish tree branches. It is bright enough to walk to hang our food bags without our headlamps. Soon our talk is punctuated with yawns and we make our way to our evening shelter.
I snuggle into my sleeping bag and quickly fall asleep to the sound of rushing water from the Creek with a smile on my face. (Again oblivious to what would lie ahead….)
DAY TWO: Dawn breaks and one by one we crawl from our tents. Stretching our muscles, wiping sleepy eyes and patting down wild hair are the norm. Again, a quiet ritual, all at our own pace. I deflate my pad, stuff my bag into its sack, and quickly change shirts putting a couple of wet wipes to good use. I retrieve my food bag from its tree and enjoy a moment with my Freshette. My tent is taken down and loaded in my pack. Sleeping bag, tent, poles to the side, pad, and clothes go into the pack. I make my way to the fire pit and share breakfast and coffee laughing and talking about stiff joints and tent face. Quickly everything is packed away and it is time to move up the trail to our destination. I hoist my pack to my shoulders and make adjustments to the belts. As we climb the hill to the trail, I look back and can’t even tell we had been there.
The march, which will rise to a level of 5,692 feet, begins. We spread out from a tight group, to one or two hiking at a similar pace. Immediately the trail is steep with seventeen water crossings and several blown down trees requiring removal of our packs. It is a grueling slow pace. We are rewarded with tiny patches of wildflowers, hepatica, anemone, yellow violets and trillium. The rushing sound of the creek is rarely far. At times the trail takes on the form of the creek ending in a tight turn up, up and around the mountain. At times it appears to disappear into the forest. But it never stops going UP! And neither do we. We all manage one by one, step by step, over one creek crossing and tree at a time to reach the top of Naked Ground.
By the time I reach the top, my arms and legs are trembling and I think I made a statement similar to “If the end of this trail is not over that hill, I am stopping right here… “And after one humongous tree straddle, there it was…..
Denise and I reached the top together and were faced with what would be our ever changing living room window for the rest of the day. A beautiful wide view of the valley overlooking Lake Santeetlah, the Joyce Kilmer forest and ridges upon ridges of mountains all in shades of blue. We did a happy dance, dropped our packs and ate our lunches like we had been starved for days. This was followed by a pleasant stretch on a sunny grassy patch.
One by one our group arrived, doing the same happy whoop of joy, pack drop and crash into the grassy patch. On a note of hilarity, Leslie arrives, making the announcement that there is a new trail rating. (In hiking there is Easy, Moderate and Strenuous) The new rating is called “Are You Out Of Your Mind?!”(This is repeated to falling down laughter, over and over throughout the rest of the trip.)
The decision is made to spend the night here and the community ritual begins again.
We are fortunate to find a great water supply at Slickrock Creek and plentiful tree branches to hang our bear bags. Hydrated, refueled, rested and camp set up, a few of us decide to hike to Bob Stratton Bald. Happily we find this trail to be a gentle climb with amazing rock formations and ridge views from both sides in spots. The bald is huge, ancient and wild. A stark contrast to the green mossy forest with the creek. We lean on a downed log enjoying the view and munch happily on trail mix, the grueling climb up Naked Ground fading from our memory. Not wanting to hike back in the dark we grudgingly leave this beautiful place and zip down the path which is of course downhill!
Again, a fire has been started and meals are in progress. I quickly start my stove and add boiling water to a mix of red potato flakes, chicken and cream cheese. While it hydrated, I added cold water to a jello mix of cheesecake pudding. A cup of hot orange spice tea rounded out the meal. One of the best I have ever had. We all laughed about how we would never eat these things at home but out here they were AMAZING!
Again, darkness begins to surround us and we are rewarded with the reflection of the sunset in pink clouds floating above our valley. Our living room was lit up with color as day fades into night.
The evening was the occasion of the official “Super Moon.”, a full Moon of rare size and beauty rising in the east at sunset. A super “perigee moon”–the biggest in almost 20 years. We sit together, as the temperature drops, a cool wind blowing over, us waiting for the first peek. Patchy clouds move apart and there it is…the Super Moon. As the moon rises, we see the reflection in the lake below. Our reward, Indescribable….
I wake to my tent neighbor Kristen whispering that the sun was coming up and quickly grab my jacket, stick my feet in my boots, pick up my camera and crawl out of my beloved Ethel. We walk back to our living room window and watch as the pink morning rolls in. Reluctant to leave the view and begin the breakdown of camp, we linger as long as possible. One by one we return to our morning routines.I don’t know what happens to my belongings when I backpack. Perhaps they are like those little capsules you add to water and then they expand…. I struggle to cram everything back into its space, wrestling my tent, bag, clothes and gear back into place. Warm up some coffee and oatmeal and prepare for the day.
A quick stop for a photo and then just like that, we leave our temporary home and start back DOWN, over the log, through the switchbacks, over the water. We are practically flying and are giddy as we move down the mountain… The struggle of the day before a distant memory! After three of us take spills, we come to our senses, and carefully pick our way down like mountain goats. Still, the trip down was MUCH easier than the trip up!
We stop to rest and catch the group up at intervals, squeeze through fallen trees, identify more wildflowers and wonder if the fur we found was from a bear. We fit five women INSIDE of a dead tree, rock hop over the creek and marvel at how the same trail can look so different in reverse. The chatter centers on reviewing all the high points and favorite moments of the journey punctuated by laughter and moments of silence as we each soak up as much of the trail to take home with us as possible.
All too soon, the trail nears its end and the parking lot is viewed. Cars are retrieved and a lunch formed from anything that might have survived the weekend is shared. We laugh and talk, each hating for it to end. We all agree, as we all agree on each trip. This was the best trip ever!
Until we meet again girls!!