Monday, May 28, 2012

Silence in the Middle Prong Wilderness

 I set up camp as the sun is setting. The time is alive with birds calling and fluttering about. I sit alone and 
notice a few minutes later under the moon and in the crepuscular light: silence. Stillness. Sereneness. A lull in the commotion that builds up to the nightfall. Every few minutes this blankness is broken by the BZZZZT of the bugs flying by. Then the silence returns. In the quiet moments more stars appear slowly. As the night comes on it will bring the night birds, insects and all the calls and clamor they come with. But for now: silence.

I started this last minute trip by hitting the Mountains To Sea trail around 5 in the evening. I followed the trail through the evening sun. I set up a spot to sleep at the junction with the Green Mountain Trail. This was my first experience in the Middle Prong Wilderness. I was hoping for a much less traveled version of the Shining Rock Wilderness that it shares its border with.

I awoke with the morning birds and decided to stay and rest until 630. I was up and walking by 7. Heading north on the Green Mountain Trail I soon found out that "trail" was a bit of a stretch. I pieced together overgrown sections of hiker trail, game trails and bushwhacking along the Fork Ridge. The slow and challenging ridge walk was making me nervous that the next ridge would be just as bad and I might be night hiking to make it too my car. The trail eventually reappeared and stayed in sight, but much of it was duckwalking under 4-5ft tall rhododendron tunnel. Breaking up the challenge to my knees were only the scent of the azalea and an encounter with a group of feral hogs.The last mile dropped (straight) down about 1000ft to the river. I ran into a couple later that know the area better than anyone I have ever encountered and they mentioned "...oh that trail was put in before switchbacks were invented!"
After I crossed the road and the refreshingly cold West Fork Pigeon River (the cold water being the best thing to ease my stinging and scraped up legs) into the Shining Rock Wilderness I headed up the Fork Mountain Trail. The previous ridge was higher in elevation, but I still had almost 2000 ft to climb up. I climbed up easy switchbacks through rhododendron, flame azalea and mountain laurel on all sides. The ridge was a bit overgrown, but the trail wasn't too hard to follow. I had spent all morning doing what I despise: walking through spider webs face first, but its a hefty price to pay for solitude.  I came upon a napping couple at a gap near the end of the Fork Mtn Trail. They came out of their rest when I approached and I talked to them for probably half an hour. They have been hiking the area for 35 years and gave me lots of great information, history and showed me some good off-trail sights on my map for future trips.  Near Tennet Mountain I jumped south on the Art Loeb trail and immedietly ran into large crowds of day-hikers and other weekenders. After giving a nice group of dayhikers directions back to their car I continued on my way knowing I was almost back to where I started. At this point my right knee began to hurt. Not just hurt, but start to fail me. I was less than a mile from my car and was limping along.  About 24 hours, several thousand feet of elevation change and a decent amount of miles I was back at my car ready for the drive home and less ready for work the next morning.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Roan Highlands: or how I almost injured my friend John

"YOU DA MAN, WIND!" I scream into the clouds as the words whip away into the air before anyone has a chance to hear them. I turn and wait for the sight of John's foggy figure to emerge from the rain cloud we're currently walking through. I'm impressed with his cheery mood as he labors up the Little Hump Mountain and the wind knocks him back and forth out of the rutty trail. The mist we left at camp this morning has turned to a light rain. The high wind has turned that rain against us as it stings the right side of our faces. It puts my mind on the sand blown evening wind biting my face in Arches NP, the rain and wind blowing me off my feet on Franconia Ridge in the Whites, and of course the second time I made the walk across these same balds with sideways hail.  This is probably one of the strongest winds I've felt in this part of the country and rivals the strongest I've ever felt.

John's going strong. We haven't taken too many breaks today, even though we're well behind my usual pace, its nice to hike with a friend after going solo the past few years. We're on the second day of John's first backpacking trip. I tried to pick an easy one, but will later find out how poor my judgment was.

Yesterday we started at Carver's Gap. We're both very familiar with the place, but we'd be going a bit further than John's been before. He's more knowledgeable than most from Carver's Gap to Grassy Ridge, but beyond that its all new territory. 

Taking an easy pace we get to Overmountain Shelter just before the rain hits. An easy going 5ish miles. We're both feeling pretty good after dinner and in the social spirit of the weekend we chat it up with the other 30 people sharing the area with us for the night. This shelter has a way of making a traffic jam of thru-hikers, but luckily it can support the number. As a former thru-hiker I love being around people going through the journey, but usually I leave the social talk to the trail and camp alone. It was nice to meet new people, have a fire and listen to a few musicians (of varying talent) play through dinner. 

The next morning we stay late and rest up as John didn't sleep so well that night. Shelters always take some getting used to before one learns how to sleep solidly. I think the lack of sleep is one of the many factors that would come to haunt my friend later. John's a strong guy, but as a grad student he spends much of his time sitting in front of a computer. This is something I failed to take into consideration when I planned this weekend out. I figured he'd feel rough, spent and worn out at the end of it, but didn't realize just how much it would take out of him. It all went pretty well up until about 5 or 6 miles in the last day. John had a cheap pack that couldn't handle its load and him straining to stabilize it in the wind had worn him out and he started getting muscle spasms in his sides. We took frequent breaks for him to take his pack off, stretch and rest up. I gave him some electrolytes hoping maybe it was just cramps. The last few miles were slow going at less than a mile an hour. It got to the point were he wasn't just hurting, but at the risk of getting hurt so I offered to switch packs with him. With little food in my pack and me wearing almost all the clothes I brought my pack was probably less than 5 lbs where his was more like 40. It took some convincing, but he finally decided it was a good idea to switch up. (note: I'm a firm believer in carrying your own stuff even if its too heavy. Its a good way to learn what you need and don't need, but when its a safety issue I will do what I can to help) It was tough to watch John the last couple miles, but it was also inspiring. He wasn't letting it get the best of him and he wasn't giving up (well he had no option to give up). Its always impressive to watch someone push beyond the limits they thought they had before. He could've turned into a death march and I'm sure at moments it felt like that, but as John fought through the pain and struggled over every obstacle he powered through it and didn't let it take over his attitude. Don't get me wrong he was cussing, but not complaining or feeling sorry for himself.

John texted me the next couple days to tell me he was feeling much better and saying we should do a long day trip soon and some shorter over nights this summer. Which made me feel good until I ran into his roommates on Friday and scolded me for "crippling" John.

A lone Iris standing tall near the shelter

Some type of violet

 John Hiking out with the shelter in the back ground. 

Its beautiful what thrives in a landscape that has such harsh weather so often.

My best guess is some kind of Waterleaf?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Rainy Days in the Gorge

I drive across the state line and the rain isn't letting up. Visibility is decreasing and the roads have more and more standing water. I'm thinking "I'm supposed to be fording a river late this afternoon?"  Maybe the rain will make things a bit more exciting. I'm after a challenge today. 

Its my first visit the Linville Gorge and I'm not sure what to expect. The rain is easing up, but still ever present when I hit the trail. I drop down Babel Tower into the gorge. When I get my first good look at the swollen white water of the rocky river below I begin to rethink my plans. "I'll get to the crossing and decide then. I'm alone and not taking unneeded risks."  So I head down the Linville Gorge Trail following the river unsure of how the trip will end up.

Wild Bleeding Heart in the rain

"FUCK!" I go down hard on the rocks and start sliding.  I don't stop when I think I do and continue down the gorge towards the river for several more feet before I finally come to a rest. My adrenaline is going, but my elbow is hurting. I manage to get up back on the trail and see a dry cave ahead of me. I decide to stop, eat and assess the situation. A couple more steps and the ground gives way again. This time I go down on my wrist and knee before I start sliding down taking part of the muddy trail with me.  I sit down under the rock overhang and wipe the mud from myself to inspect the damage. Just a few bumps and bruises. After I eat I check the map. The rain and the slippery rocks and unstable mud that make up the trail have cut my pace to half what I expected. Add in the late start I got and I decide to be open to the possibility of just an out and back instead of the loop I planned. Feeling better after some salmon and potatoes I head back down the trail. A few steps later I go down again and keep sliding...

I believe this to be Sweetshrub (aka Bubby Bush), but it could be Anise

At one point I miss a turn and am off the trail. I know exactly where I am and consider to keep going until I meet back up with the trail, but I'm alone down here on a Wednesday. Even if someone where to pass by we would never hear each other over the roar of the river so I decide boulder hopping in the rain is a bad idea. 15 minutes later I find locate the trail and keep heading south.

A mile or so later the trail really opens up and I'm able to pick up the pace to try and make up some time. The skies begin to clear and the gorge begins to widen up a bit. Its getting lighter out so I can see better. 

To say this area is highly impacted would be a huge understatement. With the exception of a few stretches of overgrown and difficult to find trail you never go more than a couple  minutes without walking through or past a group of campsites filled with garbage, camp equipment, fishing gear, heaping fire pits, and more. Its not exactly the Wilderness Area I was hoping to find.  It would take a large effort to clean this place up and years more for the area to heal from the damage done.

I find the "unsanctioned" and unmapped trail from the LGT up to the Mountains to Sea trail. I want to thank whoever put this in for not messing around. TN/NC have been putting in too many switchbacks lately and its good that people are still building trails straight up the mountain. I haven't been on trail this steep since the Flume Slide in The Whites.

I hit the MST and really start flying now. I don't have much time before dark and would like to get across the river. The trail crosses at a really wide and slow spot and after all day of wondering I'm pleased to be able to make it across with no issue beyond the wet socks and shorts.

I grab a spot to sleep near the river and as soon as its dark I'm ready for bed. I'm lulled to sleep by the river, the whippoorwills, and the geese. 

I hit the trail at sun up and start climbing through evidence of fire. The fire cleared out and made room for the flowers who are happy to soak up all that available sunshine.

If you haven't been to Linville Gorge I feel like I should tell you at this point to do the MST section. I don't recommend the LGT unless you like walking through other peoples trash. Its true its a unique area, but there are better river walks in Western NC.

I'm able to take my time and still make good miles on the MST. The weather isn't slowing me today. Its a beautiful day and I'm taking lots of photo stops and snack breaks along the way. I eventually hit Table Rock and head down the gorge and hit Spence Ridge to the only bridge across the river. I head north on the LGT to find Babel Tower and back to my car. 

Starving, smelly, muddy and banged up all I want to do is find someone to eat lunch with, but who would want to share a table with a dirty hiker? I do the only reasonable thing and pick up some Thru-Hikers on my way through Roan Mtn and grab some grub with them at Bob's Dairyland.

Goat's Rue

Mountain Laurel letting us know summer is coming!

Fly Poison above the water

I was loving the Mountain Myrtle along the MST!

The Rhododendron were coming on along the rim 

A few years ago on my thru hike I was reading a flower book that a friend had. The next day I recognized a single Lilly of the Valley on the trail. It was raining and I didn't get a photograph thinking I'd see more later. This is the first time I've seen them since. I was pretty excited.

The beautiful Flame Azalea