Team Work on the Trail
I once heard a story about an engaged couple who went backpacking together and ended up canceling their wedding venue. It’s sad to think of that happening, but one thing is for sure – backpacking is no time for being selfish. The opportunity to watch out for other people, especially a friend, fiancé, or spouse, is one of the things I personally enjoy about the trail. My wife and I work as a team. We know many others are mindful of us, too. In return we look for small ways to help the hikers we meet. It’s a way to reconnect with nature and humanity at the basic level.
When you are stripped down to literally what you carry on your back, you learn a bit about the challenge to survive. Being properly prepared reduces fear and risk. My wife and I get better at preparing for our hike each time we venture out onto the Appalachian Trail. This time we decided to change the type of food we carried as well as the amount of clothes. We laid out our meals for each day and included more fresh items such as apple sauce and cheese sticks. I say fresh, but I really mean not freeze-dried. We took more snacks that are common in our household such as sunflower seeds and peanut butter. Denita could be a vegetarian if she wanted to be so she didn’t miss having meat in her meals. I took tuna, tortillas, and ramen noodles. We only wanted to heat water one time a day for the supper meal, so we planned no-cooking-required meals for breakfast and lunch. Apart from food, we took fewer clothes. The weather was supposed to be milder the last week in February than it had been on our November hike. We left the long underwear and extra shirts at home. We still took our jackets, but we left our rain pants at home. I started to take calf-high woolen socks, but I decided to stick with the ankle socks instead. Denita prefers the tall woolen socks if she’s wearing pants. She cut back on her cosmetics by taking a comb instead of a brush. We share deodorant, but we each pack a separate travel-size tube of tooth paste. I took a hand towel and one small container of powder. As an experiment, we left our Nalgene bottles at home and took plastic 1.5 liter water bottles with the thick caps as well as a platypus bag for dirty water. I say the Platypus bag or similar is the way to go. I had used Smartwater bottles in the past, but the Platypus bag can be filled with more water at once and prevented the necessity of unscrewing the filter to let air back into the Smartwater bottle to squeeze again. All in all, we felt prepared and more confident in our dietary and clothing choices.
We left our kids with grandparents and hit the road early on Thursday morning. Our destination was the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC). I had arranged to meet Beverly, our shuttle driver, recommended by Ron Brown from Ron’s Shuttle Service, between 1:00 pm – 3:00 pm. Denita slept most of the way since she was recovering from a slight illness and a hectic schedule including a fieldtrip to the Fort Fisher Aquarium the day before with our 5th grade daughter.
Traffic wasn’t bad. We had no difficulty finding the NOC, and the workers graciously let us park there for free without a pass since it was technically not peak season yet. Our plan was to start at Rock Gap and hike back to our car at the NOC by Sunday afternoon. We had a private room with 2 bunks in the NOC hostel on reserve. We were looking forward to exploring the NOC at our leisure on Sunday evening and Monday morning before loading everything back up for the trip home around noon. I had taken two weeks off work so that we could prepare and then recover after the trip before I had to go back to work and begin the powerplant’s demanding outage schedule that rolls around every spring.
Beverly met us and waited patiently while we checked our packs a final time and locked up the car. I took to heart the advice to leave no important valuables in the car. I even left my laptop at home. Denita and I said goodbye to civilization and let Beverly haul us to the trailhead. We had to skip 6 miles of the trail between Rock Gap and Albert Mountain because the access road to Albert Mountain is closed during the winter months. We plan to go back in May to hike those 6 miles with our kids on a day hike, just so we can say we didn’t skip any part. Beverly was a terrific source of information about the local area including the rivers. She even tried to ease my wife’s motion sickness by driving more gently around the curves. Denita usually gets super motion sickness on the curvy mountain roads, but she was only a little queasy when we said goodbye to Beverly and hit the trail. It felt good to be back.
That first afternoon was scenic and peaceful. We started out our hike with a bit of stretching. The first big mountain was an uphill battle that reminded us how much we missed the burning in our calve muscles and the challenge of it all. We only planned to hike about 5 miles that first day because it was already about 2 pm by the time we got to the trailhead. The beauty of February is the gradual lengthening of the days. We also noted how the trail was less leaf strewn and how the vistas were more breathtakingly visible since the trees were bare. We reached Wallace Gap fairly quickly and continued on toward Winding Stair Gap. The incline was moderately steep so our blood was pumping. We crossed a small creek with a nice little waterfall on our ascent. The forest fires from last year had scared some of the trees and rhododendron bushes on the trail, but it was clearly not as horrible as the burnt patches of forest on our last hike further south.
We took note of the double blazes on the tree right by the parking area at Winding Stair as well as the spring fed water pipe. Our driver Beverly had mentioned the water to us and said it was pure enough to skip filtering it. Locals apparently fill up water jugs there because it is such a pure source. We still had plenty of water so we just kept going, but it’s nice to know.
Around the 4 mile mark, we crossed a forestry road. There was a lush area with the tell-tale sounds of the creek and waterfall ahead. My wife got excited because she was still a bit tired from the day before, and the campsite we planned to stay at was less than a mile away on the bank of the creek. We took a few minutes to enjoy the wonder we always feel at the cascade of water rushing down the mountainside. The foot bridge across the waterfall was sturdy with a single rail that suited the beauty of the waterfall.
Unfortunately, we had to change our camping plans. We encountered a sign that said the camping area was closed for restoration. We were forced to keep trekking for another .5 miles to the next camping area. I said this was unfortunate, but it worked out. We managed to get there before dark.
In the fading light, we admired the wide area with several level spots for tents. The Moore Creek ran directly beside this campsite as well. Once we had set up camp, I lit a small fire in a stone fire ring. We relaxed as we ate our supper and enjoyed the peace and quiet of the woods only being interrupted by the equally soothing sounds of a crackling fire and rushing water.
Denita went inside the tent as soon as she had eaten, but I found myself eager to enjoy the dark. I also decided to take a quick shower, so I gathered some water from the creek and found a clear place in the woods. Why is it that stripping naked in the dark feels so good? I gasped at how cold the water felt on my bare skin, but I loved it, too. I slept so much better being clean and well powdered. The temperature dropped quickly after dark, but it was still above freezing. In the morning, I asked Denita how she slept. She claimed that sleeping beside the running stream was more restful than any other night we had spent on the trail up until that point. She also said the reduced number of active bears this time of year gave her peace of mind.
Packing up camp was a simple task on Friday morning. The air was dry so the dew was lighter than normal. The wind was calm and it seemed like it would be an ideal day for the trail. We started around 8:20 am and found ourselves headed to Wayah Bald Shelter for the night, a distance of 10.2 miles. Along the way we passed Swinging Lick Gap named for Wilson Lick. Vandals had fun with that name and one of the words – I’ll let you figure out which one.
We passed the side trail for Siler Bald Shelter and met a fellow hiker who was hiking the loop around Siler Bald after having spent the night there. Another hiker named Vagabond Jack later told us that he too had spent the night on the summit and how they both marveled at the amazing view that night. I didn’t really know why the guy was so impressed with the summit until we reached the base of it ourselves. Siler Bald Summit is reached by a simple path that stretches up thru a meadow until it is lost from view around a right curve. Denita and I ditched our packs in some bushes at the bottom of the hill and decided to go where the path was calling for us to come. We set off and quickly realized that it was a steep climb. As we reached the slight curve, we saw the true summit ahead. Awesome would be an understatement! Breathtaking is more like it. It was a clear patch of rock and grass that yielded a 360 degree view of the surrounding mountains. We took pictures and rested a bit before having to go back down and lose that “on-top-of-the-world” feeling. Denita said she would have been singing “The Hills Are Alive” like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music if she could have mustered the energy after the steep climb.
We made it back to the trail after a snack and a brief conversation with a few other hikers passing by. The path went down hill for a while, and we stopped for water at the piped spring before Wayah Creek Picnic area. The vegetation thickened as we went down the mountain and crossed the Wayah Road. We had planned to eat lunch at the picnic area, but there were families camped there, so we chose to go up hill and stop at a fallen log. I felt like I was starving since I had eaten a light breakfast. Denita was ready for a rest since her injured foot was hurting. We both took an ibuprofen. We knew we would be ascending the mountain to the Wayah Tower, so we enjoyed our lunch and set off with renewed energy.
We crossed the Wilson Dick Trail — pardon me — Wilson Lick Trail (Gotta blame those sign vandals), and kept climbing only to pass the Bartrum Trail as well. The Bartrum Trail is named for William Bartrum who explored the region in the late 1700s. At that time Franklin, NC was a Cherokee village, and white settlers were rare. Bartrum was impressed with the beauty of the area and publicized his experience.
We continued up, up, up…Until…The trail opened up to a paved road with bathrooms, trash cans, and an old stone fire tower. Welcome to Wayah Bald, part of the Nantahala National Forest. You could see evidence of the recent fires by the scorched bark of the trees and numerous stumps where trees had been cleared. We wondered if the trees had been cut in an attempt to create a fire barrier. The view was pretty amazing from the top of Wayah Bald.
There was a historical sign talking about the tower and how it was a gathering spot for the citizens of Franklin, NC. The tower had been named for John B. Byrne. As the forestry leader for the Nantahala National Forest, John Byrne was known for his charisma and work ethic. He had been in heavy combat during WWI as a marine officer. Despite lung trouble from mustard gas exposure, he lead the efforts to keep the forest healthy and accessible to citizens. The tower, dating to the 1930s, was originally taller, but water damage made it crumble at the top. The upper section was removed, and it was under renovations while we were there. We figured the recent forest fire had damaged the roof.
The overlook from the tower gave us a view of Albert Mountain about 10 miles away. A sign was posted to help visitors identify landmarks to the south. We took our time sight-seeing and resting a bit. Denita was happy to use a real bathroom even though the mice had chewed some of the toilet paper. We were able to empty our trash as well, which is always a treat to get rid of that extra weight.
After we got back on the trail, we were close to the Wayah Bald Shelter. Rather than sleep in the shelter with the other 2 or 3 people, we opted to put up the tent. It was early enough to see well despite the fading light. The water source was a nice little creek closeted in the trees. It was a .2 mile walk, but it was easy to refill our water. I wanted a shower so we filled up every container we had. The platypus bottle was worth its weight in gold for this. We use our Sawyer filter for these hiking trips since it is light weight and easy to use. We were ready for supper when we made it back from getting water. With a couple packs of Ramen noodles and peanut butter tortillas down the chute, we were ready to socialize and settle in for the night. I had an interesting conversation with “Lotus,” a guy who had recently retired and hit the trail at the beginning of February.
I hung a bear bag since there were no bear cables, mainly because of the other critters like mice, raccoons, opossums. We had a handy hollow stump in our campsite that we used to hold things for the night. After dark, I stripped down again for a brief cold shower. It was cold but not as cold as the water directly out of the creek. I also put a sheet I had brought under my sleeping pad. I squirm around too much at night not to do something about the noise from my sleeping pad rubbing on the tent bottom.
Part 2 of this Section Hike coming Soon.