Refocus

 

19 MAY 16
Appalachian Trail/Great Smoky Mountains Nat’l Park: Day 4
Newfound Gap- Icewater Springs Shelter
Miles today: ~4.5

“The soul usually knows what to do to heal itself. The challenge is to silence the mind.” – Caroline Myss


-My newest (and longest to date) trek- hiking the Great Smoky Mountains National Park end to end along the Appalachian Trail. All waypoint mileages are measured in the trip miles AND their northbound distance from Springer Mountain.-

I awoke at 7 am and wanted desperately to go back to sleep. For hours. The bed was so comfy and warm (I’d turned the AC on high so I’d bury myself under the covers). To buy some time, I went downstairs and asked the nice gentleman Tom at the front desk for a late checkout. He was the same guy who checked me in on Sunday, and upon recognizing me said of course. Kudos to Tom at the Travelodge in Gatlinburg! Now I had a few hours to gather my thoughts and make a decision.

It didn’t take long. I hadn’t spent all this money and invested all this time to quit now, so I got my things repacked, put my feet up for another hour or so, then checked out and hit up Luigi’s again for a big chicken parmesan sandwich. Hey, my body was yearning for protein! There were a few things I needed to get before I hit the trail again, so I got some more Motrin and water from Old Dad’s, and once again chatted with the lady at the register for a few minutes. I When we got in town Sunday, the Nantahala Outdoor Center had just closed, so I made it a point to stop in today and got a foot massage ball and a rain hat (forecast called for 60% chance of rain the next three days). It’s a really nice, full service outfitter, and although the prices are a little steep, had a great selection of backpacking gear.

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Tourist display in the hotel. Dolly rules these parts.

To my dismay relief, I had to make a last-minute “pit stop” before I paid for my items. I guess that burger from last night and the chicken parm from lunch did a number on my belly, which brings me to my next point. I didn’t know if I wanted to bring this up, but in the interest of fairness (and probably a few laughs), it may be warranted. It seems like every time I get ready to go on a hike, my insides lock up. It never fails. At first it was eerily convenient; most of my trips were only 2-3 days and it didn’t really bother me, I’d just take some Colace at the end of the trip and be regular again. But after a while it gets annoying. I mean, here I am on a 6-7 day outing, and as soon as I checked in the hotel on the 16th, everything went on lockdown. Suffice to say, after my burger last night, everything was “regular” again. I guess I’d rather have the problem of “too little” than “too much”, but anyway. Let’s stop talking about this.

Guess who I ran into outside the NOC? Harper! I guess he was having a harder time than I was, because he said he’d gotten to Clingman’s Dome right before it got dark and had trouble finding a ride down. The climb up really took its toll on him- it took 6 hours to go the last 4 miles from Double Spring Shelter (where he caught up to me, I forgot to add yesterday) to Clingman’s Dome. He said it had something to do with not being able to get his heart rate down, so he was done until October. Too bad, he was quite the interesting fellow. Much luck to you Harper “Mockingbird”! The “three amigos” (Paul, Micah, and Nora) ran into me at the hotel before I checked out. They were making their scheduled stop for food & a shower and asked if I was going home or hiking. “I’m still hiking”.

Once at Newfound Gap I headed northbound again. It was cloudy, foggy, dreary, and the trail itself was a little slippery. This part of the AT is heavily traveled by day hikers, and I met a good bit of them, all coming down from what must have been trips up to Charlie’s Bunion, a popular destination from Newfound Gap. It was pretty chilly, maybe 60 degrees, and of course there were folks hiking in jeans, cotton sweatshirts, and other various items of clothing and footwear not suitable for the conditions. I’m not trying to talk down about doing day hikes in cotton, but you have to remember a very important fact- when cotton gets wet, #1 it takes forever to dry, and #2 it loses all of its insulating preoperties when wet. So those really comfy jeans  and your favorite sweatshirt? If they get wet at high elevations where there are cooler temps, and the possibility of rain & wind, you could be setting yourself up for a bad day. I don’t even take day hikes in cotton clothes anymore. If I’m hiking, I’m wearing hiking clothes. But I digress.

The trail to Icewater Springs Shelter (elev 5935 ft; AT mi 210.1) was wide by AT standards, and that’s probably because of the number of dayhikers. It was very rocky in places, but  well maintained. I will say that most of the trail through the Smokies was very well maintained. When I got to the shelter, a former Army Captain “Rock Doc” was there. We were shooting the breeze before some more hikers and my other trio came up. Of course, the deer made their usual appearance around 7pm, hanging out until the area was overrun with people and tents.Nora and I took a few photos, and she said to me “it’s good having you back”. That made me realize I’d made the right decision, and it was going to be okay.

Icewater Springs Shelter

There was a group of about 5 young men who tented, a few LASHers, and a SOBO who started in January called “Mountain Man”. He was quite the character, with the traditional thru-hiker long scraggly beard. He and Paul settled in to swap stories of their thru hike. I wanted to listen, but didn’t want to intrude, so I spent most of the evening after dinner taking pictures and relaxing. I have to say that Icewater Springs shelter is so far the nicest one I’ve stayed in. Although I recall the floor of the top bunks being a little angled, it was a pretty cool spot. Two sets of bear cables, and a wonderfully spacious privy that I used to change my clothes. Mountain Man, Rock Doc, and a few others went out to get fire wood and came back with a lot of red spruce wood that absolutely made the fire smell wonderful. If you’ve ever burned cedar or piñon wood in a fireplace you know what I mean. I already love the smell of the boreal forest, and this took it to a whole other level.

trail heading toward Icewater Springs Shelter

The spring was right ON the trail just north of the shelter, which was very convenient. I could hydrate tonight and have my water for dinner and coffee in the morning, then I could camel up again and hydrate on the way out. You can’t really appreciate a close by spring like that until you’ve taken some steep, blue blazed trails down to water, equivalent to walking down 8 flights of stairs, then back up, only over rough terrain, or going over a quarter-mile to get to the spring.

The evening was relatively uneventful, save for a few guys that seemingly left their food on the benches out front. I ended up getting out of the sleeping bag to ask who it belonged to, because even though I hadn’t seen a bear yet, it was too inviting for wildlife to come snatch it up. I’d even considered getting my Go Pro ready to catch a night-time bear in the act of stealing food. It belonged to some guys who came up late & hadn’t finished setting up. And that was the most exciting part of the night, except the rain, that came down in buckets and lulled me to sleep.

 

 

Unaka

15 MAY 15
Unaka/Erwin Trip: Day 1
Iron Mountain Gap-Unaka Mountain
Miles today: 6.4

“Each fresh peak ascended teaches something.”Sir Martin Convay


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For once I arrived at my shuttle pick-up location on time. For the past couple of days, I’d been putting away a lot of water so I wouldn’t be dehydrated getting on the trail. It definitely worked, because I stopped 3 times between Charlotte & Erwin. I arrived at Uncle Johnny’s Nolichucky Hostel & Outfitters right at 0950 for my 1000 shuttle. Uncle Johnny’s was going to shuttle me, but they couldn’t get me out until noon, and I wanted to be out by 10, so I went with Tom “10K” Bradford.

10K was the shuttler whose info was on the business card I took down at Devil Fork Gap last September. I  had texted them that I’d taken their last card, and wouldn’t you know, he & his wife put 2+2 together and remembered me!. 10K (who has hiked the PCT) was a pretty cool guy. When I told him my plans to stop at Unaka & camp out instead of pushing on to Beauty Spot, he said that was the best thing to do. Beauty Spot has a lot of open campsites (it’s a bald summit), but there’s a Forest Service road & parking area right off of it, and with this being a Friday, no way did I want to contend with drunken locals. 10K suggested that I top off with enough water for dinner & breakfast at Cherry Gap shelter, since there wouldn’t be any springs until I come down Unaka to Deep Gap the next morning.

We arrived at Iron Mountain Gap (mi 362.1, elev 3,723 feet) at 1025. I got out, donned my pack, took a look at the white blaze across the road where I’d started my hike back in June last year, and set off southbound towards Erwin. The trail wasn’t bad at all; pretty well graded save a few uneven spots. I felt refreshed and eager to be hiking out here again, and with a base pack weight that was down to about 17 1/2 pounds, felt light on my feet.

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Shortly I arrived at Cherry Gap Shelter (mi 359, elev 4,012 feet). As I was taking a picture of it, I was startled by a man’s voice coming from inside that called out and said “Hey there”. I walked up closer and saw a middle-aged man sitting on the right side of the shelter in a sleeping bag, with a dog tied out along the rafter. “Hi there”. Immediately I wondered if he was a homeless guy- because he kinda looked the part- slightly disheveled, slightly slurred speech, with a crap ton of gear laying about.

Fun Fact: Cherry Gap Shelter was built in 1962 by the US Forest Service.

My plan was to sit here for lunch before heading up Unaka, but now I wasn’t so sure. This guy seemed a little “off”. He introduced himself as “Country Gold”, and his 1-year-old Plothound “Sunshine”, and said he was hiking from Erwin to somewhere in PA. When I asked him how long he was going to take, he said “Oh, I’ll get there when I get there”. I made some small talk, trying to be polite while I munched on a few snack bars and an Os-Cal stick (which, by the way, was pretty damn good). He noticed my MRE’s and said he was familiar with them, then went on to tell me Lillington about 15-20 years ago once he found out I was in the Army. He asked if I was hiking alone (stranger danger!) so I said “yeah, I have a few friends that probably stopped for an early lunch”. Why does everyone think it’s cool to ask a woman if she’s hiking alone? Stop it! Anyway, I noticed the reason for his slightly “off” sounding speech was due to the hearing aid he was wearing.

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I went down to the piped spring behind the shelter to camel up and was pleased to see it was a gusher! The water was so cold that it gave me brain freeze a few times when I was chugging it down. Talk about refreshing! Since I wanted to get on my way, I headed back up to the shelter to see that Country Gold had come out of his bag and was sitting at the picnic table, and tied Sunshine out to a tree. He talked about how he stayed at Curley Maple Gap Shelter for a few days, was going to stay here for a day or two,and keep heading north.

No way in hell could I zero at a shelter- that would drive me batshit insane, just sitting there, looking at the walls, watching the vermin scurry around the shelter, and worrying about one of them strolling across my face…Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy being out in the woods, sitting still, enjoying Ma Nature. I can do it for hours on end when I go hunting but I couldn’t just do NOTHING but that all day. I’d have to keep walking unless I was really sick or hurt, in which case I’d call for a ride back to town.

At any rate, we talked about trail towns, hostels, and how Curtis Owen from Standing Bear Farm (the first hostel you reach NOBO exiting the Smokies, or the last sign of civilization for 70 miles heading SOBO into the Smokies). When I mentioned Curtis had died from pancreatic cancer, Country Gold went on to tell me that when his mother had died of pancreatic cancer in 2009, he attempted suicide shortly thereafter, and then put everything he had in a backpack and thru hiked the AT in 2010. At any rate, after I perused the shelter register (someone said it smelled like poop!) I said goodbye and beat feet out of there.

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The hill leading away from the shelter was pretty steep, of course. Nothing gets your blood pumping more than stopping for food & water, and then being greeted by the trail’s omnipresent characteristic near vertical climb. As I wound my way thru the forest of blooming wildflowers, a dark ridge became visible through the treeline off to my right. I’d had a feeling that was my target; Unaka Mountain; looming ominously in the not-so far landscape. The Backcountry Navigator app on my phone confirmed it; once again I had a summit in sight, but this time I was ready. Pointing my pole at it in an authoritative manner and muttering I’m coming for YOU, Unaka, I set off.

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Bring it.

Unaka didn’t let me down; the elevation gain was hearty, but not a lung-burner. Remembering my bout with Big Bald last year, I promised myself the first available rock or downed tree I saw that I could use as a seat for a break, I was going to stop for a snack break. Of course, within 45 seconds of that thought, I came upon a perfect rock for that purpose. The trail provides. Halfway up to the summit, the terrain became a lot less steep, and the telltale spruces and firs were beginning to emerge.

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“Upon this rock, I will take a break”

Several hikers have done blogs/videos about Unaka, so I knew exactly when I was entering the dense forest at the summit. You’re walking along in a moderately open area, and as you approach you it looks dark as hell like there’s no light shining in there at all. I showed a friend the picture and he said no way in hell would he have walked in there. Instead of feeling any trepidation, my pace quickened. I was excited to finally be here.

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The doorway to awesome.

The top of Unaka (mile 355.7, elev 5,180 feet) was nothing short of enchanting. Yeah, that’s a corny description but it’s spot on. Bright green moss crept up the tree trunks, in stark contrast to the dark brown bark, and the forest floor was covered in pine needles and moss, making it very soft and spongy. I dropped my pack by one of the fire rings and just walked around, taking it all in. 10-15 years ago I would have never thought I’d be wandering around in a scary-looking forest by myself but this was absolutely cool.

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 Way cool indeed.

Fun Fact: The name “Unaka” (pronounced oo-NAY-kuh) is thought to come from the Cherokee Indian word unega meaning “white” or “fog draped”. The town of Unicoi and the county of Unicoi Tennessee are derived from the same name although pronounced differently.

I set up camp, sat down for dinner, which was an abysmal disappointment. I’d bought a Mary Jane’s Farm dehydrated Shepherd’s Pie meal, and was curious as to how it would taste. Take some dry dog food, let it sit in water for a few hours until it’s mushy, toss in some stale mashed potatoes, add a teaspoon of pepper, and voila! you have exactly what this abomination tasted like. YUCK! Believe me, I tried hard to cram it down, but uh-uh, it wasn’t going to happen. The other bad thing was I couldn’t just dump it out (Leave No Trace!) so I had to roll it up as tight as possible, put a piece of 100 mile an hour tape on it (Army slang for heavy-duty olive drab duck tape), and pack it out until I got to Erwin, so I ended up eating tomorrow’s lunch for dinner, putting me a meal down, Luckily I always pack an extra couple snacks stashed away in case something like this happens. Only low point of the day.

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Surprise! I managed to get a somewhat robust fire going (finally! hooray!), and I could smell some other campers had one going. While I was walking around after the horrendous dinner attempt, there was a loud SNAP that came from some unseen part of the forest. Oh shit, just great, I finally get to see this magical place only to be decapitated by Sasquatch. It was someone collecting wood for their campfire, stupid imagination of mine. The rest of the night was spent reading, stretching my legs that cramped up for no apparent reason and moving my tent around to keep the campfire embers from setting it ablaze (I just pulled the stakes and drug it around like a bag lady dragging her shopping cart down the street.

I’m camping on Unaka Mountain. Good times.

Unaka Campsite

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