Perhaps I have been affected by the post Trail Days ‘Summertime Blues’, but sometimes it is difficult to know what to write about for these trail-blogs; I get a bit tired sometimes of saying ‘I did this’ or ‘I did that’, ‘I went here’, or ‘I went there’. It is easy to become uninspired and apathetic—I get bored talking about myself, the things that I do, and places that I go. However, there are a few people who do read this stuff (for which I am grateful, and I thank you all), and if this trail-blog helps to inspire someone to greater awareness, increased appreciation, or become a better Steward of Nature, then I suppose it is well worth the effort. So, are there any trail adventures to write about? You betcha…
The hike to find ‘Ephraim’s Place’, an elusive, supposedly scenic, view overlooking the Nolichucky River Gorge from the furthermost southern ridge on Unaka Mountain, was a bit of an adventure. Situated along the Tennessee—North Carolina border, my plan was to hike up to the southernmost Unaka Ridge via Curly Maple Gap and the Appalachian Trail from the trail-head at Jones Branch. Despite having gotten up early, it was already quite hot by the time I started trekking up the trail into Jones Branch; fortunately the woods were shady and still holding in some of the coolness from the previous night, and I was able to reach the shelter at Curly Maple Gap in good time. There, I was greeted by a black dog with white markings (which reminded me quite a lot of my old dog, Buford) along with three section hikers, ‘Duct tape’, ‘Chainsaw’, and ‘Bug’. I spent some time in friendly trail-conversation with them before hiking up to the old gap-trail that intersects the Appalachian Trail at Curly Maple Gap.
Turning south upon this trail, I began the long, steady ascent to the top of the ridge. After about half a mile, or so, I saw a boot track in a marshy place on the trail, and since I didn’t think anyone ever walked this trail, I had to wonder if I was somehow walking in circles. Past experience on this end of Unaka Mountain has proven to me how easy it is to get lost there—it is like the ‘Bermuda Triangle’ of mountain ridges, or so it seems at times. Before long, however, I encountered a fellow hiking down the trail, he seemed to be as surprised to see me as I was to see him. Anyway, I soon found out that this fellow, Wade Franklin, lives near Martins Creek Falls, where the gap-trail begins in Erwin (to see Mr. Franklin’s Flickr photo page, click ‘here‘). He informed me that I was only about a quarter mile from the top, which was good news.
The view from a prominent knob on top of the ridge wasn’t nearly as good as I had anticipated, having grown up in trees along the state line; I believe the view would be much better during the winter months, when the leaves are off the trees. I did, however, salvage a view of the river gorge and the mountain ranges to the south by descending off the edge of the ridge (onto the North Carolina side) where I found a small, and steep, open area. It was difficult terrain to negotiate, but I managed to get a couple of photos across the gorge of Flattop Mountain and the Bald Mountain Chain, including the Hogback Ridges in the distance, all while trying to swat sweat bees and the kamikaze eye-gnats that can be so irritating. I had thoughts about moving down the ridgeline to the actual place that is designated on the map as ‘Ephraim’s Place’, but I saw a couple of ‘No Trespassing’ signs, and even though I was technically on the state line, the boundary between the private land of Tennessee and the wilderness area of North Carolina, I thought (unhappily), perhaps I should consult the Forest Service, or current land owners, as I try to be respectful of property rights. One would think that would be the end of the adventure, but to my complete surprise, when I had returned to Curly Maple Gap Shelter, sitting at the picnic table was my friend and former thru-hiker (1997, I think) John ‘Haney’ Tackett (‘Nice Guy from Alabama’), whom I had met on the trail to Curly Maple Gap just last fall while taking photos of the autumn colors. I stayed at the shelter and talked with him for at least two hours. When I finally did leave to hike back to the car at the Nolichucky River, the entire walk back I just had to smile and wonder ‘did that really just happen?’ I mean, what are the odds of running into ‘Haney’ twice on the same trail section—the only 2 times he has been there in the last year? Anyway, meeting the 3 section-hikers, Wade Franklin, and having the unexpected opportunity to converse with my trail-friend ‘Haney’ certainly did brighten my day considerably, and took much of the sting out of not getting to go to the increasingly elusive ‘Ephraim’s Place’.
There was another extraordinary hike to write about: The hike to ‘Joe Lewis Fields’ on Flattop Mountain. Having failed to get a view from the ‘Ephraim’s Place’ on Unaka Mountain, I decided that perhaps I could get a somewhat similar view of the Nolichucky River Gorge from the fields atop Flattop Mountain. I had been there once before, probably 20 years ago, having climbed up there from ‘Lost Cove’ (a deserted mountain community) during one of the trail club’s (Rat Patrol Hiking Club) adventures ‘back in the day.’ I parked the car at just below a meadow in ‘Devil’s Creek Gap’, near the intersection of several trails, including the Appalachian Trail, The Devil’s Creek Trail, and the Lost Cove Trail (and of course the Forest Service Road (#278) I drove in on). Beyond the meadow was a gate that blocked the road access onto Flattop Mountain, but that wasn’t a problem since, no longer having a 4-wheel drive, I had anticipated walking from there anyway.
It is a long story, about how I saw several wild turkeys, and passed by a couple more nice mountain meadows, and yet was never able to find the ‘Joe Lewis Fields’, instead only managing to wander around lost over the Flattop Mountain, so you should hopefully consider it a ‘mercy-edit’ for me to boil all that down to just this one sentence– okay, that is not possible, but I did try. Although it was quite interesting being lost upon this mountain, and witnessing some of the amazingly twisted trees that still stand there, it was also quite humbling, and the realization of walking around with a map and a compass in my hand is almost always ‘a bad thing.’ Fortunately, along with the safety features of telling someone where I was going, and not panicking, I had paid close attention to my route on the way up to the top of the ridge, always veering ‘up and to the left’ at every split in the ever-diminishing trail, so on the way back down, I did the exact opposite (heading due south) and before too long was able to find the 4-wheel drive trail, connecting with it just above the 3rd meadow.
Once again, one would think that would be the end of the adventure, but it wasn’t. For some reason, I decided to take a short-cut through the last meadow, stopping a couple of times to take photos of meadow flowers; somehow I managed to pause in this capacity only a few feet away from a creature, who’s sharp, loud cries startled me quite a lot. Thinking that I was about to be eaten by a hungry mountain lion, perhaps, I turned to see what at first glance appeared to be a baby fox. The second glance, however, revealed an abandoned, scared and skinny orange tabby kitten. It took a couple of minutes to coax the poor kitty out of the meadow-jungle, where I could grab a-hold of him. The ride back to town was also an adventure, having to keep the windows up (the a/c is broken) while having a kitten climb all over me and the steering wheel. Fortunately this kitten, who has since been named ‘Shere Khan’ for his tiger-like features and tiger-like gait, was adopted by a friend of mine just a day later. Anyway, from these two adventures, I learned that sometimes finding what you aren’t really looking for is sometimes better than finding the things you were actually trying to find.
There was another hike on the opposite end of Unaka Mountain, in which I walked in from Iron Mountain Gap to the Shelter at Cherry Gap. It had been a few years since I had been there, and I was seeking a little more variety in my hike locations. Also, I was aware of the new Appalachian Trail relocation last year, and really like what the Konnarock Crew and the ATC have done with the trail through there—it is so much nicer than the old trail. I was about halfway to the shelter, walking along the top of the ridge, when a big rain storm blew in quite suddenly. I had seen an overhanging rock ledge just a few minutes before the storm hit, and re-traced my steps back to there; of course, I was already soaking wet by then, but didn’t mind because it was altogether refreshing, but sat under the rock ledge for the rest of the rain shower, nevertheless. The storm blew over rather quickly, and I continued on through the fresh breeze to the shelter just beyond Cherry Gap, where a group of Boy Scouts from Columbus, Ohio were already making camp. I returned to the Iron Mountain Gap along the rain-soaked trail, at times walking within a cloud—it was very peaceful and the air was cool and fresh.
The hike from Sam’s Gap to Hogback Ridge Shelter was also a good time. The trail was still wet from a recent shower, but mostly what I remember about this leisurely walk was finding a patch of delicious wild strawberries on my way back. They were awesome.
Just one other mountain trek to document here: a loop hike over Buffalo Mountain. I had the intention of taking photos of ‘pink lady slippers’ (exotic wildflowers) but never did find any. Having heard reports of rattlesnakes being spotted up there, I was also somewhat hoping to get a photo of one of them, as well, but again, did not see any. Instead I hiked up to the summit and around to the White Rock Cliffs, stopping occasionally to eat ripened blueberries. The blueberries in the higher elevations were much better, as the berries on the lower portion of the park trail were inexplicably crunchy—perhaps they were over-ripe.
I want to thank Rat Patrol for sending in all the cool photos of the Trail Days Parade, and all the other photos, as well, and hope that he and his ribs are healing and able to get back out on the trails before long. I also want to express my condolences to the friends and family of ‘Brother Dave’ Jackson, who was a one-of-kind bluegrass aficionado, and friend to many. Also, condolences go out to the friends and family of a great family friend and neighbor, Dr. Mark Airhart. I would also like to pay my respects to the family and friends of Senior Airman Benjamin White, an American Hero, who was killed in action last month in Afghanistan…none of us should forget the sacrifice this young man made for our country.