Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Away From It All

Now that I have had a couple weeks to recharge, it’s about time I got back to blogging. And what could be better to blog about than the hiking trip I mentioned in my last post?

Much like last fall’s trip, this one started with a lot of people planning to go, only to see their numbers dwindle until it was just me and my friend Mike. For the last few weeks it looked like there would be three of us, but a flare up at the office forced Allan to bow out at the last minute.

Also like last fall, we left around 4:00 a.m. and refreshed ourselves on the way up by stopping in Sylva, North Carolina, for sandwiches and beers. After eating outside at Mill & Main Restaurant, in 68-degree temperatures under a cloudless sky, we walked to the following establishments and purchased some vices for the week:

Unlike last fall, we decided to go through with the backpacking part of the trip, and the next morning we chose our route. Then we spent the afternoon storing up energy by lounging on the deck in our hammocks and reading books. And, of course, drinking beer.

The next day (October 1st) we drove to Twentymile Ranger Station in the western reaches of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Once there we gulped down Gatorade, shouldered our packs, and walked into the wilderness. The going was fairly easy for the first 1½ miles or so as we followed the upstream course of two streams. At the ½-mile point we reached a fork and went left on the Wolf Ridge Trail. We proceeded to cross Moore Springs Branch five times, on each occasion benefiting from log bridges. Here I am on the first one:

But when the trail started climbing, it really climbed. I have ascended a number of mountains in my day, and have never had anywhere near as hard a time as I did on the 3.6-mile haul between Backcountry Campsite 95 and Parson Bald. I became drenched with sweat and my left calf and right hamstring cramped up a few times. At one point we startled a pair of young black bears who dashed into the underbrush like bats out of hell. I was very grateful when the trail finally leveled off somewhat at the bald.

Historically, in the Southern Appalachians a “bald” is a mountain whose summit is treeless for unknown reasons. Over the past several decades berry bushes and young trees have grown on Parson Bald, robbing it of its views and causing its name to mislead.

However, 1.1 miles past it, along the same ridge, is Gregory Bald -- and it is an entirely different story, with 10 open acres dipping down each side of the ridge’s spine and offering up expansive views in every direction except for due-west. That was our destination, so on we pushed. Because the trail marks the state line between the balds, I was able to walk with my right foot in North Carolina and my left foot in Tennessee.

Four-tenths of a mile from Gregory Bald, we came to Sheep Pen Gap where Backcountry Campsite 13 sits on the Tennessee side of the path and the Gregory Bald Trail intersects from the north. We stopped, pitched our tents, hung our packs on bear cables, and continued onward, blessedly free of the weight we had been lugging for almost seven miles.

Four or five minutes into our weight-free push to the summit, a loud, scraping sound rained down from above. Glancing up and to the right, we saw bear number three -- another young ’un -- race head-first down a tree trunk, sending a spray of splinters into the air as he went. He fled and vanished as soon as he hit the ground.

Not long afterward, as the trail led through an especially dense tangle of brush that obscured all ground-level visibility, we were startled by a sound so loud that I won’t even try to describe it. But, we’re sure that it too was a bear.

Finally, we reached Gregory Bald and heart-stopping views of the mountains unfurled around us. I broke out my camera and started shooting. Below me in the first of these pictures is Cades Cove, a picturesque valley I wrote about in May. The second picture is an east-looking view of the Smokies. We were standing on a 4,949-foot summit that would be the highest point in 11 of the 17 states through which the Appalachians run.

We backtracked to Sheep Pen Gap and ate dinner, and before long the sun disappeared behind the trees. Thinking there was a chance it might still be visible from the higher, treeless vantage point of the bald, I decided to head back up on the off chance of viewing the sunset. Mike opted to stay behind and read in his tent.

I found the idea of encountering a bear all by myself in fading light to be unappealing, so, thinking that noise might scare them off, I sang the whole way up. I was certain my off-key renditions of the Auburn fight song and Rawhide theme song would do the trick, but I was wrong. Right at the spot where the trees started thinning out in prelude to the bald, I saw a full-sized adult bruin standing smack in the middle of the trail. He had to have already heard me, and he still didn’t flinch now that we were within eyesight of one another. After literally telling him that he could have the woods to himself for the night, I retreated to the campsite where a beautiful moonrise soon appeared:

As I lay in my tent, a windstorm swept in and proceeded to blow across the mountain all night, sounding like an airplane circling the ridge. It never rained, but we were enveloped in a cloud come morning, and the temperature was in the thirties as we broke camp and headed across the bald. On the other side we hooked up with the Long Hungry Ridge Trail, which served as our route to the bottom. It was every bit as steep as the Wolf Ridge Trail had been going up, and on top of that, its stream crossings came without benefit of bridges:

Although, one of the crossings did come with an accidental bridge, courtesy of a fortuitously fallen tree. Mike used it to demonstrate why he called himself “The Great Wallenda” when he was a kid:

8.7 miles later, we were back at the car guzzling Gatorade. The next night we were back in Florida, thrilled to see our families again but already thinking of our next wilderness adventure.

Everybody asks if we got pictures of the bears. No, we didn’t. They moved too fast for us to get our cameras out -- with the exception of the one I saw near the summit at twilight, and in that instance, snapping a photograph was the last thing on my mind. However, I will leave you with one last picture of the view from Gregory Bald, and I recommend you make the journey there if you have the time and energy.

1 comment:

Scott said...

Great Pictures!