Monday, July 28, 2008

The Old Mule on the AT (Part 3 of 7)

The AT began an almost immediate ascent. We were, after all, starting in Newfound Gap, a gap being a low spot in a ridge. This uphill stretch would take us from 5,000’ to about 6,000’ at a rate of about 500 feet per mile, typical for a Smokies trail. The trees were mostly spruce and firs. Normally, this would create heavy shade even in the daylight. However, over the last couple of decades, most of the mature fir trees have been killed by the balsam wooly adelgid, a tiny insect imported from Europe that gradually poisons these trees. This has been a terribly sad event in the life of the Smokies, losing some of their most beautiful, distinctive trees. However, if there’s an upside to this tragedy, it’s that it has opened up the leafy canopy along the AT. The spruce will continue to grow and fill in the canopy, creating that dark, green forest with a Christmas tree smell that we all associate with a northern, balsam forest. In the meantime, walking through a sparse balsam forest under a bright moon is a magical, other-worldly experience.

Because the temperature was hovering right around freezing, we started out with jackets, but within 10 minutes we were beginning to shed clothing. The secret to cold weather hiking is to stay one step ahead of the sweat. Wear layers of clothing and begin taking them off as soon as you sense that warm, fuzzy feeling that precedes sweat. I actually spent most of the hike in jeans and a T shirt. It was a bit nippy, but it was the good, invigorating kind of cold that wakes you up and keeps you attentive. It may seem like a cliché to say that it “makes you feel alive,” but that really is the best way to say it because that’s exactly what it does.

One thing that had concerned me was the potential for ice on the trail. We all knew from past experience that these first 3 or 4 miles of the AT east of Newfound Gap were a very wet part of the trail. There are numerous springs that seep along the edge of the trail and trickle down the rut of the trail. After an extended cold spell, the trail in several spots becomes a 4 foot wide and 50 foot long patch of ice. With a steep slope to your right and to your left, there’s just no way to avoid these slippery spots. So crampons – small spikes strapped to the bottom of your boots – become necessary. For fast easy hiking, the best scenario is no ice – so you don’t have to bother with crampons. The second best scenario is lots of ice – so you can put your crampons on and keep them on. The worst scenario is occasional patches of ice – so you have to keep putting the crampons on and taking them off. Generally, in these patchy situations, if you keep your crampons on, you’ll break them to pieces in the ice-free, rocky sections. Luckily for us, the weather had been cold but not yet deeply frigid and wet. There were only a few, small, scattered patches of ice, and we were able to side step most of them. I never took my crampons out of my day pack.

The hiking order for the day quickly established itself. Greg in the front with Keith right behind him. I fell in behind them, sometimes just a few yards behind, sometimes a hundred yards or more. Mark was close behind me.

Mark was taking his time because he was only going as far as Charlies Bunion, so he was in no rush. He was the tortoise. Greg and Keith were the hare. I don’t know what I was, some sort of old, slow, plodding mammal, I guess. Actually, that’s a perfect description of a middle aged man, which is what I am, and I proved it all day long. In fact, by noon Greg and Keith were calling me “the old mule,” and I suppose that’s a fair appraisal, the main difference being the number of legs and the size of the ears. Other than that, the resemblance is uncanny. However, in my defense, I’m also the one most likely to stop and look at scenic panoramas, trees, and other small details along the trail. So, I prefer to describe myself not as slow, just easily distracted.

[To be continued.]

Monday, July 21, 2008

Balancing the Karma Wheel (Part 2 of 7)

Very early on a late November morning, four of us – Keith Oakes, Greg Harrell, Mark Harrell, and I – drove a few miles to the #407 exit off I-40 and continued through Sevierville and Pigeon Forge with impunity. A drive like this – 4 am on a weekday in the off season – is the only time I like these tourist towns. We all felt a bit smug at being able to drive quickly down this road which is normally the travelling equivalent of quicksand. You just can’t move quickly though Sevierville and Pigeon Forge unless it’s a time like this. I imagine it’s the same feeling you would get by tiptoeing past a couple of guard dogs who were asleep at their post. You feel like you’ve pulled something over on someone.

During the drive we traded manly stories, mostly about old hiking injuries and camping blunders, including a number of vomiting and diarrhea incidents. As I recall, it was Mark’s fast driving on some winding roads combined with our Hardee’s sausage biscuit breakfast that raised the subject of nausea. I told of my tendency toward car sickness whenever I combined lack of sleep, greasy food, and winding roads. Over the past 30 years I’ve puked in the early morning hours on most of the roads in the Smokies. Mark didn’t get the hint and continued to drive the car like he’d just stolen it.

We arrived at Newfound Gap parking lot about 4:45 am under the light of a bright moon, and we soon headed into the woods just to the right of the stone platform where FDR had dedicated the park in 1940, six years after it was actually established. Relying on the light of the moon assumed that we’d have a cloudless night – a fairly safe bet for this season of year, not to mention the fact that we were at the end of one of the driest summers in Tennessee history. And that’s exactly what happened – a clear, bright night. All the pieces were falling into place for a great day. The clear sky would give us bright moonlight by night and fabulous, panoramic views during the day. Mother Nature was cooperating beyond anything that we deserved.

So, of course, we were worried. We’d all been on enough fishing and hiking trips to have grasped the concept of “paying your dues.” You know the idea. If things are going well, just wait. They’ll get worse. Or, if things are going badly, they are just balancing out some brief, good fortune you had in the past. Because you’ve gotta pay your dues.

Sometimes in the cold of January, Keith will get antsy and need to go fishing in one of the nearby rivers. We both know the chances of catching some trout on a fly are pretty slim, and the chances of being warm and dry are even slimmer. On a typical January day, you’ll be frozen to the core if the day is cold and clear, or you’ll be wet if the weather is rainy and mild. The fish prefer mild and rainy, so that is our preference, too. However, like most folks, it’s hard to get away from work, so we fish when we can, not when we’d prefer. So, cold or mild, dry or wet, Keith will call me the night before and say, “Let’s go out and pay some dues. We might as well do it now so we’ll be all paid up when spring gets here.” Any fisherman knows that the logic is irrefutable. So, we go to the river to balance the karma wheel.

Only people with that kind of world view can step onto the trail on a beautiful, crisp, clear morning in the Smoky Mountains and wonder when “it” is going to happen. You know, IT – the sprained ankle or broken leg, the forgotten jacket or lost water bottle, the 33 degree rain or the iced-over trail. The closest we can get to being optimistic in such circumstances is hoping that whatever “it” is, it will happen on the way home at the end of the trip. So we walked into the forest, thrilled but uneasy at such perfect conditions. And, being the oldest one in the group, I probably had the most to be worried about because it’s usually the old deer in the herd that dies when conditions become harsh.

[To be continued.]

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Bad Idea Worth Trying (Part 1 of 7)

Several months ago in this column I wrote about a pre-dawn hike to Charlies Bunion in which I described the beauty and excitement of a four mile hike under a bright, crisp moon. One thing I didn’t mention about that hike was that after watching the sunrise from the Bunion, we didn’t turn around and hike four miles back to our car. Instead, we kept walking east for about 14 hours and 30 miles. Here’s how that little escapade started…

“Hey, Hoov. Let’s hike the eastern half of the Smokies. Can you get off work two weeks from Friday?”

I had some commitments on that Saturday and Sunday, so I simply responded, “Naw. I can’t.” And that was the end of the conversation.

A couple of days later Keith asked again, “Are sure you can’t get off that last Friday in November?”

“Friday, maybe. But Saturday and Sunday, I can’t.”

Keith’s quick comeback caught me off guard, “Great, then let’s do it!”

I paused for a moment, confused. “I can’t, man. I’m tied up on the weekend.”

Keith persisted, “Not a problem. Let’s do it.”

At this point I was beginning to feel like I was trapped in an Abbot and Costello Who’s on First routine. Neither one of us seemed to know what the other was talking about.

Keith continued, “You’ll only be gone for a day.”

“A day?” A pause as I let the weight of his last statement sink in. “Are you talking about hiking 30 miles of the AT in one day?”

Keith corrected me. “Thirty-one miles, plus the side trail to Cammerer.”

We had now stepped out of the Abbot and Costello routine and into the Twilight Zone. I had once read of a guy who day hiked the entire eastern half of the Smokies back in the 1930s. It took him close to 18 hours. The thought of hiking from Newfound Gap along the main ridge crest to Davenport Gap on the northeastern end of the park was intriguing, if not a bit misguided and unrealistic. So, of course, I agreed immediately. It sounded like a trip perfectly suited for a guy who occasionally feels the need to prove his manhood; although, there was a certain element of risk involved – the risk of failure and, therefore, disproving my manhood.

The most significant risk in this trip would be the length – 31.4 miles. None of us had ever walked that far in a single day, and we didn’t really know how long it would take. Our best guess was about 14 or 15 hours on the assumption that we could average about 2 mph, maybe even 2.5. That would be about typical for a day hike, including rest and scenery stops. Of course, there was also the possibility that we would maintain at least a 2 mph speed for the first half, but we might slow significantly in the last half. We simply didn’t know because this was all uncharted territory for us. Not the trail itself, mind you – we had hiked it before on backpacking trips – but the sheer distance in a single day.

The other problem was daylight. It was late November, and we were less than a month away from the shortest day of the year, so there seemed to be no way that we could complete the hike in the 11 hours between dawn and dark. Even the most optimistic scenario had us walking several hours in the dark. The only question was how many hours. Of course, waiting until the long days of summer wasn’t an option because…well, I suppose it was an option, and a pretty good one, too. However, once we got it into our heads that we were going to do this, we became like kids at Christmas. We got all wiggly and giggly and excited about it and couldn’t wait. So – bad idea or not – we’d do it in late November.

[To be continued.]

Old Trails and No Trails

It all began with a passing reference about a waterfall by Carlos Campbell. There apparently used to be a trail to it, but not now and not in 1967 when he wrote about it in Memories of Old Smoky. Although I am pretty well acquainted with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I’d never heard of this waterfall before. In fact, I’m embarrassed to say that I’d never given much thought to the fact that there might be some decent waterfalls and peaks around the park that didn’t have official trails going to them. I had assumed – without realizing that I was assuming anything at all – that if there was a dramatic or pleasant spot in the Smokies, there was a trail to take you there. But this reference by Campbell was the first crack in that wall.

I next read Out Under the Sky of the Great Smokies by Harvey Broome and found that his hikes were frequently to places that I’d never heard of. I wondered why he kept hiking to places like Woolly Tops or Drinkwater Pool or Mount Winnesoka. Why all those obscure locations?

Then it occurred to me that perhaps these locations weren’t so obscure back in the early days of the park. Broome and Campbell both lived in the Knoxville area and spent a great deal of their outdoor time in the northeast portion of the park. These obscure locations were their backyard, and they played in this backyard frequently and got to know it intimately. If the CCC and the NPS chose not to build trails to these places, that didn’t mean these places were unworthy of being visited. It simply meant that for some reason, men in offices in Gatlinburg and in Washington, DC, had decided that a trail would be built to site Y but not to site X. I began to understand that there were a lot of site X’s, and if we’d read the writings of men and women from the 1930s and 40s, we’d learn where some of these X’s were.

One thing led to another, and before long I found myself looking for that old 1973 Sierra Club Hiker’s Guide that used to be my Smokies Bible, but had been replaced by the more recent Hiking Guide published by the Great Smoky Mountains Association. I wondered if a 35 year old hiking guide might have descriptions of a few trails that had been decommissioned by the NPS. Yes, it did. I also discovered that the 1949 map of the Smokies that hangs on my wall had a few small, dashed lines that didn’t appear on recent trail maps. This was starting to feel like a treasure hunt. I was uncovering clues about a parallel universe or a secret kingdom that our forbearers had known about, but the secret had been somehow misplaced. Nicholas Cage could play me when the movie is finally made. They could call it something like, I don’t know, maybe National Treasure.

As I began to explore a few of the manifestations of this secret kingdom, I got spoiled. These places were beautiful, uncrowded, and quiet. My hiking partner and I were always alone – dirty, scratched, and bruised, but alone. I could get used to this.

Now this is probably the point at which I should start listing all these hidden, off-trail jewels. But I’m not sure I’m going to, at least not right now, for several reasons. First and foremost, I’m selfish. I’m reluctant to blab everything I know (even though it wouldn’t take very long). Second, the NPS discourages off-trail hiking. They don’t prohibit it, but they don’t especially like it, for reasons like soil erosion and potential injuries. I guess it’s their job to worry about things like that. Third, I don’t want to deprive you of the fun of finding old maps and trailbooks in search of old trails and sites. Fourth, I’ve about reached my 700 word limit.

So if you enjoy a good treasure hunt, here are a few clues to chase: Greenbrier Pinnacle, Mill Creek at 3,000’, Porters Creek and Dry Sluice Gap, Drinkwater Pool on Ramsey Prong, and Three Forks Pool in National Geographic, October 1952. And don’t forget the books by Harvey Broome and Carlos Campbell. Happy hunting!