Autumn is now upon us, here in Tennessee, and the harvest season is mostly past, while winter lurks ahead in the winds and shadows–awaiting to pounce upon and shred our fading dreams of summertime. For me, it has been a great year for hiking in the southern Appalachian Mountains, harvesting the good experiences as well as dealing with adversity at times. As ever, I am learning new things about the mountains and trails, and attempting to adapt these fresh outlooks into a lighter weight, more efficient, yet ‘fun’ctioning approach to hiking.
Anyway, if we can just skip the long introduction, there is several trail stories to write about, including a maintenance trip to Big Bald with ‘Rat’ and Doug, a pair of Unaka Mountain hikes, a couple of Sampson Mountain Wilderness hikes, trips to Sam’s Gap, Spivey Gap, and Cliff Ridge.
First of all, the maintenance trip went well, for the most part, I thought. There was a lot of early morning driving going on, but clear skies made for sunny and warm conditions, despite the widely scattered patches of snow, and we (Rat, Doug, and myself) managed to clear several fallen trees out of the trail and dig out quite a few water-bars that were clogged up on the trail between Big Bald and Spivey Gap. Not only did we get something accomplished, but we also had excellent views from the summit of Big Bald that morning and fair views from Little Bald and High Rocks later on that afternoon and evening.
The ‘Konnarock Crew’ had recently built a new rock stairway leading up High Rocks that was very nicely done, by-the-way. We talked a while with a couple of south-bounder thru-hikers –‘Bacon’ and ‘Gooch’ from Wisconsin–at the High Rocks, before hiking into Spivey Gap where we had a car waiting. Thanks to Doug (who now maintains the trail section from Big Bald to Little Bald) for driving us up and around the mountain. That saved Rat Patrol and I at almost 3 miles of walking and a couple of big hills to climb.
The Unaka hikes were very nice, not only because the autumn leaves were beginning to flourish in beautiful colors and both the Jones Branch and Martin’s Creek were flowing vigorously, but I also met an interesting fellow from Alabama, named ‘Haney’. The trail is more than just dirt and rock, you know. Anyway, as I later found out, after trading a couple of stories, Haney had hiked the entire Appalachian Trail after his retirement in 1997, where the population of hikers had somehow named him ‘Nice Guy’ because they had accidentally forgotten his real name, apparently. However, it is quite easy to see how he received this well-deserved name.
As I recall, it was raining off and on that day and the trail was wet with fallen leaves and mountain mud, while the clouds gathered and shredded in among the brightly colored mountain ridges. I had just turned the corner on the big switchback, away from the Jones Branch, to begin the mile-long, side-ridge ascent toward ‘Curly Maple Gap’. I looked up from the trail and there was Haney, just standing there in the rain with a pleasantly amused expression. At first I thought he was a ‘south-bounder’, because October is generally the time of year that they pass through this area on their way to Georgia from Maine, but instead, I found out that he was section hiking from Sam’s Gap to the ‘Greasy Creek Friendly Hostel‘ just north of Iron Mountain Gap. That intrigued me, of course, since not only didn’t I know that there was a hostel in that area, but I apparently had somehow just missed meeting him a couple days earlier near Sam’s Gap. Also (having witnessed the unhappy group of hikers with their custom Gore-Tex rain-suits on Snowbird Mountain back in August) I couldn’t help but be intrigued by his blissful attitude.
Indeed, despite the chilly rain and clouds, only a plastic rain poncho for his pack, and an umbrella for himself, Haney exuded happiness, and his agreeable nature seemed contagious. Perhaps being married to the same woman for 52 years will make you that way, or having children to love unconditionally, but it was also obvious that he truly enjoyed life and communing with Nature. I talked with him all the way to the shelter at Curly Maple Gap, and another hour after that, perhaps, listening to his amazing stories, and trying not to laugh while he choked down his Spam dinner, until it seemed like I wouldn’t get back to the river before dark.
At 73 years young, I take my hat off to Haney, not only for his physical prowess, but for his gracious attitude, as well. I remember what Sam Waddle, the legendary trail maintainer of the ‘Jerry Cabin‘ section of the Appalachian Trail for 27 years, told ‘Rat Patrol’ and myself one time while we helped him on his trail section; When we had climbed out of his old jeep and hiked up the last hill to the trail, he paused for a reflective moment, and said ‘Boys, you’re standing on Holy Ground’–It is nice to know that he isn’t the only one who feels that way. I remember giving Haney some of the drinking water in my pack and walking away somewhat reluctantly, down the hill from the shelter in the rain, realizing I had been in the company of the truly blessed—and I felt blessed as well, enjoying the autumn rain and fresh air as if discovering it for the first time. It was a very scenic and well-spent 6-mile hike.
The Sampson Mountain Wilderness hikes were also very nice, with impressive creek cascades and festive autumn colors, particularly the hike I took up to one of my favorite waterfalls in the area. It isn’t very easy climbing up to the wilderness falls, but their seclusion is part of their charm, I suppose. The falls are also very steep and majestic, and somewhat imposing, if you should want to climb them, but all in all, they are an awe- inspiring place to spend an hour or two, regardless of the season.
There was a 6-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail from Sam’s Gap, where I found a couple of apple trees just off of the trail, and an old, run-down shack near a spring, and a small pond in another location. The weather was marvelous, as were the autumn colors.
The 6-mile hike from Spivey Gap to whistling Gap and back was quite memorable. Not only did I meet an attractive, young south-bound thru-hiker from
Pennsylvania–her trail name is ‘Threshold’– near High Rocks, but I also had a rather unusual bear encounter not far down the hill from there. I first saw the bear as I rounded a small ridge-point of some side-hill trail as I descended down toward Spivey Gap. I was only 25 to 30 feet away, but the bear somehow didn’t seem to notice I was there, for some reason, perhaps distracted by the people with the dog that I met a little while later. Anyhow, despite knowing that the ‘new’ batteries that I had found for my back-up batteries were no good, and the camera was powerless, I attempted to get a photo anyway, but it was useless without ‘real’ batteries. Meanwhile, the bear, despite looking right at me several times, still did not seem to notice me. I stood there in the trail watching the bear for a few seconds before looking down at my camera and saying ‘…dang’. At which point, the bear heard me, and with a very startled expression sprang off into the draw and up the hill, completely vanishing and invisible within 5 seconds, as if by magic. Anyway, it was an exciting moment, being the second bear encounter for me this year.
The hike up Cliff Ridge from the Nolichucky River toward Temple Hill was notable not only for the nice, pre-autumn, views of Unaka Mountain and the Nolichucky River Gorge, but for the ‘gorgeous’ copperhead stealth-snake I found in the trail on my way back down from the top of the ridge. Besides being poisonous, copperheads are very well camouflaged among the mountain dirt and rocks, but fortunately for me, she was still moving and I saw her as I rounded a corner on the ridge-top. I was able to get a few photos before she bolted like lightning out of the trail—she probably thought that I was about to perform a ‘Steve Irwin’ maneuver, or something. Although I had no problems with the mountain snake, it is always a good reminder to watch where you are walking in the backcountry.
On a personal side-note, I want to say ‘congratulations’ to ‘Jonny Bluegrass’ and ‘Mary Monkey’ who are expecting their first child, which is due around ‘Trail Days’ next year, I am told. I first met them while they were ‘Children of the Trail’, hiking the Appalachian Trail in 1993. They are wonderful people and it is nice to know that there will be more ‘Children of the Trail’ on the trail in the future. Also, congratulations are due to ‘Okeepa’ and Bev, who were recently married. I hope everyone is sending many positive thoughts their way, as well.
‘Stay tuned’ for more Appalachian wilderness adventures…