Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Georgia Loop

Georgia Loop

April 25 – 28, 2008

53 Miles with approximately one third each on the Appalachian Trail (AT), Benton Mackay Trail (BMT), and Duncan Ridge Trail (DRT). Trail Guide – The Hiking Trails of North Georgia. Trail map obtained at , probably created with someone’s GPS mapping software, downloaded and printed at Kinko’s, cut into 3 pieces for easier use.

We drove from Detroit to Blairsville GA on April 24 and stayed at the Best Western. The evening manager smoked and from her voice this must have been a life time habit. During check-in she mumbled about the new computer system and seemed surprised that our registration was processed successfully. She brought our extra blanket as requested on the internet reservation. The evening manager made an excellent suggestion of the steakhouse right next door. It didn’t look like much from the outside but was very nice on the inside and the food was excellent.

Breakfast at the motel was quite a different story. The orange juice machine seemed to be empty. When the owner/manager filled it, he left it on “purge” so then it was mostly water. Only two of the four slots on the toaster worked and the owner/manager, who was hovering about, had to track down the person who had toast in the slots that worked. After we toasted our waffles, he tried to fix the toaster by reaching inside the slots while it was still plugged in! No luck. There was no yogurt, ever. He was out of bananas, first blaming the construction workers who took them for lunch, and then he said he hadn’t been able to shop because he had a funeral to attend yesterday, and then said he wouldn’t have time to shop today because he had to use all of his time to learn the new computer system. Jerry was biting into a hardboiled egg when he saw the owner/manager dump another dozen from a plastic bag. Jerry’s vision of the owner’s wife boiling fresh eggs each morning was shattered. We managed to fill the void.

April 25 Mostly AT

We reached Wolfpen Gap via a very winding road and parked the car. There was plenty of space there to get it off the road. Starting and ending the hike at Wolfpen Gap allowed us to hike most of the DRT after we lightened the packs of most of our food (at least that was the plan). The only obstacle was Slaughter Mountain, the eastern most climb of the DRT, and the third largest elevation gain of the trip. Once we were done with that we would join the AT. We knew it would be climbing immediately. We didn’t know it would be climbing on trail that is about as steep as a human can climb without using their hands. It was a harsh wakeup call.

We joined the AT after about two hours. This junction and all the trail junctions were marked well with wooden signs. We took our lunch break in a likely spot with some fallen logs to sit or lean back on. Soon two men came by. They were training for a Grand Canyon hike within about 10 days. Small world. We have done all the trails they were planning on. Next we were joined by a solo fellow who was wrapping up a Southbound, 200 mile, four week trip. He had also hiked in the Grand Canyon, down to Phantom Ranch and back up. He was very interested in the Lost Coast, California trip and I encouraged him to Google my name with Grand Canyon to see our other adventures. He said we were inspiring. We laughed and told him he had fulfilled a goal of every trip, to get someone to tell us we are an inspiration. He traveled faster than we did but we saw him twice more. In all we saw about 20 people on the AT today, mostly men, one threesome of women.

Woody Gap was about our goal for the day. As we neared WG, we started to see clean people with no packs. We knew we must be close to a parking lot, water, and our goal. We filtered water from a small spring and had dinner at a picnic table. Lots of activity at WG with motor cycles, bicycles, and cars coming and going. There was a pretty good hiking stick leaning on a sign board. Two young fellows hiked out of the woods. One politely asked if that was our stick. When we said no, he eagerly swapped it for the one he had picked up earlier. After dinner we hiked about a half mile into the woods to the first campsite. We found a suitable tree and hung our food. We read our books and then played Trivia. We really stunk but once again, Jane Fonda was a correct answer to one question. Another party passed by after we were set up. Daylight was waning and they probably wished we weren’t there. It was cool enough that we slept in jackets and stocking caps. Lights out at 9. We had done about 10 miles, with a six mile stretch in four hours, which was pretty good for us in that terrain. It remained hilly but the AT is not nearly as steep as Slaughter Mountain was. We saw lots and lots of trillium. Most of it has small tiny dark red flowers but a few had the white blossoms we are used to in Michigan. Millions of tiny violets right along the trail. Saw a scarlet tanager washing in a small pool, really bright red. We had a cell phone for the first time in 17 years and checked in with our wives.

April 26 (All on the AT)

We met about 22 people today, mostly singles but one group of 5 women. Most interesting person – “20 something” fellow named Chicago, who was being accompanied by a medium sized dog. Chicago had a shoulder bag with a leaky water bottle, and a small backpack. What was most interesting was the list of things he didn’t have like a sleeping bag, shelter, a few days worth of food, a stove, a dish for dog to drink or eat from… We couldn’t see what was in the small backpack but it couldn’t have been more than a day’s food and another shirt or change of underwear. We assumed he was on a day hike but he assured us he was on his way to Maine. This was day four. We occasionally wonder what happened to this fellow and his dog, who was reported to “be good company when he cooperates”. Second most interesting person – “55+ fellow” who takes two months each year to hike the AT. The thing that makes him interesting is that he starts over every year. He said he hoped to make it past some particular town in Virginia this year. He says he has never gotten past that point. If he had just picked up where he left off each year, maybe he would be done by now? Third most interesting was strictly based on physique. He was built like a bowling ball, probably “50+”. Based on the effort we had put out to get up the climbs, we couldn’t imagine this fellow’s efforts.

Today started reasonably horizontal but most of it was up or down steeply with moments of level ground on the mountain tops. The guidebook didn’t make it sound like that and we were on a portion of the trail which our map didn’t include so we couldn’t study the closeness of the topographical lines. We had plenty of water and multiple sources until we left Justus Creek. Unfortunately, we didn’t notice in the guide book that there was no water after Justus Creek for 6 miles, until we reached the Hawk Mountain Shelter. We were about two miles past Justus Creek when we noticed that oversight. If we had filled up at Justus Creek, we would probably have stopped at 9 or 10 miles. We ended up doing over 11 to get to water. We camped on a site right next to the trail and right at the side trail to Hawk Mt. shelter. We dropped our packs and walked back past the shelter to get water. The spring is a bit of a walk but is flowing quite freely. Someone added a length of PVC pipe which makes it easy to fill a bucket or pan. (In the morning we found that the creek crosses a creek just up the trail from our camp site.) Seeing the shelter “community” was interesting. There were people in the shelter and then maybe 8 tents around the shelter. There was lots of conversation as if people got to know each other after arriving or maybe at previous shelters. We were happy to be away from the shelter, out on the trail where we were alone.

We saw several millipedes on the trail. Some black with yellow dots. These seemed easy to spot is you were a bird. We saw others that were exactly the same color as last year’s oak leaves. Met two fellows with a dog. These fellows had serious packs and so did the dog. Got some trail tips from a gentleman who was with his wife and son. Based on his pronunciations, he was definitely from the South.

New this year.

Rivulet – They look like creeks to us but the guide book says they are rivulets.

Bingo Bango Bongo – Used to describe any process that goes quickly and easily. Example, putting out your sleeping stuff if you leave your sleeping back inside your bivy sack and can cram the combination into your sleeping bag stuff sack or roll your bivy and mattress up keeping the mattress inside the bivy.

We made every climb today without stopping until the top. All the conditioning we did made a real difference. We did more hill climbs, 20, than ever before. There was still plenty of work but we didn’t have to stop to catch our breath just to keep going. Norm thought about the 3 sets of bench step-ups he did twice a week. 20 sets wouldn’t have been too many.

For an hour of the hike there was very light rain but not enough to justify the rain jackets. It was warm and we were wet with perspiration anyway. We had blue sky again at supper time. Jerry made a fire that drove off the gnats. We hung our food again. We read and played Trivia, this time from the multiple choice book. We did a little better.

At bed time Norm heard a movement in the leaves near his sleeping bag and pack. In prior years that had meant mice. This year it meant a 4 inch salamander, cute as could be. After we laid down, we heard an owl call. After several calls, there was an answer. The answerer got closer and closer, and the calls changed to a higher pitch and frequency. Finally the caller flew to the callee and there was a brief flurry of activity, then silence. It rained lightly for a short time. We both adapted our bivy sacks in different ways and went back to sleep. That was a sign of things to come.

April 27 To the Toccoa River and beyond.

Of all the people near the shelter, only two women left before we did. We were on the trail by 7:54 which is not very early for through hikers who are supposed to be making 20 miles per day. It was fine for us. It always takes two hours; get the food down from the tree, boil water, mix breakfast, eat breakfast, fold sleeping stuff, nature call, change clothes, brush teeth, put on sun tan lotion, pack your pack. Shouldn’t take two hours but it always does. We made good time to Three Forks where we picked up the Benton Mackay Trail (BMT). We hung around Long Creek Falls and pumped some water. Met a young fellow who was beginning a Through Hike, but it was only the next chapter in a series of adventures which had started three years ago, including bicycling cross country, traveling to New Zealand and Australia, and Asia, and bicycling back cross country.

The first part of the BMT has some steep climbs but then it levels off and is down, down, down towards the Toccoa River Bridge. Going down is nice while you are doing it, but we knew we’d pay the price soon enough as we had to gain it all back. We got water at a spring today and then topped off at a side creek next to the bridge. A troop of Boy Scouts caught up to us while we were resting but then they rested just we took off. We didn’t see them until we arrived at the bridge. One of their chaperones talked about how he used to love his external frame pack and how he didn’t want to switch, but he eventually found an internal frame pack that he likes even better. He said he waited to go to the dark side until the internal frame packs included external compartments.

We rested and had dinner at the bridge. The suspension bridge sways about two feet side-to-side, but Jerry made it. He waited until he could be alone on the bridge so at least he only had his own motion to get the bridge moving. We hiked another mile and a half before we found something resembling a camp site. The BMT doesn’t get the traffic the AT gets, and so there have been few camp sites worn in. This site worked just fine but we wouldn’t have called it a camp site. Jerry’s sleeping stuff was right next to a poison ivy plant. He planned to just avoid it. Norm thought a more direct approach was appropriate and used some TP to pull it and toss it away. Jerry has gotten bad poison ivy on other trips. From our humble mountain top camp site we can see idyllic farms on both sides and the mountains we will have to climb tomorrow. It should be going level or down first thing in the morning. Too often we have to climb right away. We hiked about 11.5 miles today.

4-28 Walking in the rain on the DRT.

It rained last night. Jerry couldn’t get his stuff organized and ended up with a wet pad. Norm just pulled his ground “cloth” out from under himself and put it over his face and head. He and his stuff were dry. We got up later and left earlier (7:46) than any other day this trip. Go figure. It started raining after about 20 minutes. Surely glad we broke camp before it started raining again. It rained until 3PM with only two short breaks which we used for lunch and a rest. When it’s raining, we just walk. Breaks are so miserable we don’t take them. Getting out your food just exposes the rest of your stuff to the rain. Consequently, we cover a lot of ground on a rain day but don’t get much pleasure out of it. The temperature was on the border line: warm enough to sweat through the spots that don’t get rained on, too warm to put on rain gear but almost too cool to be in wet shirt sleeves, and definitely too cool to stand around. Norm got chilled quickly and so he had to keep moving. He changed into dry things for lunch but back into the wet things to keep going. Leaving the dry things on would have made them wet and left him with nothing dry at tonight’s camp.

From the moment the BMT split off and we were on the DRT it got STEEP, and the trail is much fainter due to even less traffic. The trail simply goes straight up each mountain and straight back down to the next gap, with only rare switch backs. The slopes are just about as steep as is humanly possible to climb flat footed. If they were any steeper, it would require walking on one’s toes and those muscles would wear out on the first hill. We got off the trail near the top of a mountain and sort of wandered around looking for the markings for about 15 minutes. One of those places where your intuition says “It must go this way”, but it actually goes some other way. It was adequately marked. We should have just ignored our intuition. The DRT has some old blue paint on trees, some nice new blue metal blazes nailed onto trees and thankfully someone has sawed through hundreds of fallen trees. If you look for both varieties of blazes and the “chain saw” tracks, it’s pretty easy to stay on the trail. Just about the time you think “Man, I haven’t seen a blaze for a good while” just look around and you’ll see something helpful.

When the rain stopped at 3PM, we happened upon a much needed spring at Sarvis Gap, and life was good again. We weren’t ready to stop for the night but we knew we had to fill our bottles before that time could come. It was about 100 yards down into the woods but we found the spring and a spot with nice steady, moving water, flow. The trail guide is very sketchy about where you can find water. There was also a spring just before the BMT and DRT split. There is a store just down the road where you cross highway 62, also. We didn’t explore it. There is so little detail in the trail guide that Norm suspected it was just written from looking at the map rather than based on any first hand hiking experience.

The DRT has even fewer camp sites than the BMT but we found a very large one at the end of a road just at the necessary time. We covered about nine demanding miles. We hung out our wet stuff and changed into all the dry stuff we had. It was still chilly due to the wind. Spaghetti hit the spot, with crackers. Jerry built a nice fire to dry out his boots and socks and Norm dried out his wet shirt. That made it possible to wear everything to bed that he had brought. (Backpackers Rule of Thumb - If you don’t wear everything to bed that you brought, you brought too much.)

After an hour or so, it rained very hard for a long time. Norm again put his ground “cloth” over his face and head. Due to the wind he had some big rocks strategically placed and they were essential to hold the plastic sheet in place. He managed to get through the night with only one “get up”, which is a record for the modern era. That “get up” happened during a break in the rain. Norm felt a bit claustrophobic but giving in would have meant getting his clothes and sleeping bag wet, so he talked himself through it. Jerry didn’t have anything over him except the bivy cover and his claustrophobia overcame him twice when he had to just sit up and extend his arms to the sky. Norm’s stuff all remained dry but Jerry’s dry socks got wet again in his pack.

April 29 DRT all day

We hustled to get our stuff packed in case it might start raining again. We then had breakfast as the last act at the camp site. Norm was willing to forego anything hot but Jerry insisted. We got out of camp without being rained on. It was cooler, windier but foggier than yesterday, but still warm enough to sweat on the steep climbs. To insure our discomfort it rained for about 5 minutes, enough to completely soak us. The only hints of sun came on the mountain tops, presumably near the tops of the clouds which we were in. Due to the fog there were no “views”. Eventually Norm put on his rain jacket to keep warmer. He knew that when he took it off, it would be completely wet on the inside as well as the outside, so that meant one less dry garment for later. He did get warmer but did not get hot as expected. As the morning wore on, Norm realized that we could save some time by getting off the trail and just walking back to the car via the road which we would intersect in a few more miles. He further realized that we could potentially get to the car today, meaning we could sleep in a dry bed tonight! Mentally he gave the weather until 10:30 to break. At 11:00 we got to the road and there was no break in the weather. Based on being wet with little dry clothing and based on news about events at home from the cell phone calls, we elected to get to the car via the road. Norm had the unfortunate idea of dropping the packs and coming back for them with the car.

After about 30 minutes of walking, we were picked up by a fellow in a full sized van. Based on the condition of the road, this was pretty amazing. There must be many days when the road has no vehicles. The fellow said he missed his intended turn and took this road as sort of a lark. He took us the final six miles to the car. He was going pretty slowly but we were being tossed around the inside of the van. Norm was quite apprehensive about driving the road out and back in his van. Dropping the packs was definitely a mistake. As Norm drove, Jerry would jump out and throw rocks and branches off the road, and in a few cases guide Norm over or around larger bumps and rocks. It took 1:45 to get to the packs and 1:30 to get back, that’s about 2.7 mph. The parts of the car required to get us home remained unscathed but the sides were totally scratched up and the front bumper cover was a bit cracked on the bottom. We must have bottomed out on the back too because the trailer hitch wire was cut in two places.

We had a sandwich in Blairsville and headed for home, getting a motel north of Knoxville.

If we had stayed on the trail, we would still have finished in five and a half days, which would have been a full day early. We made some extra miles on early days in anticipation of fewer miles on the DRT at the end. Due to the rain, we made more miles each day on the DRT than expected. We also did more miles on early days due to poor water planning. The extra training hills really did have a positive impact on our condition.

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