This past weekend, we finally completed our border crossing into NC. On this trip, we managed to brave and survive nearly constant rain, steeper climbs than we’ve seen in trips past, and a more aggressive itinerary
than we’ve ever planned.
Since we knew we had a long drive to contend with, I figured it was probably unwise to try to shove the drive into the wee hours of a Saturday morning and then try to hit the trail. For previous trips where we’ve attempted this, it has always put us on the trail later than we expected. Given the miles we needed to put on for this trip, I decided it best not to risk a late start. So, instead, we left after work and headed up there, placing us at the trailhead around 8:30pm. Believe it or not, this was actually planned for. What wasn’t planned for was the creek we were required to cross just to get to the trailhead in the first place. A quarter mile or so down the road toward Tray Gap, I grinded my car to a halt in front of what appeared to be a small river cutting across the gravel road. After gunning it across the runoff, we grabbed our lights and hiked about a mile up Tray Mountain in the dark. We passed a larger gentleman and (I assume) his son, both in boy scout attire. I’m not sure where they came from, but I was a little worried they were both going to pass out before either of them arrived at their destination. They said they were headed for Tray Mountain Shelter.
Unfortunately, this was also our destination. Where two scouts go, more follow. In this case, these two were bringing up the rear. A gang (complete with bandanas) was already gathered at the shelter at the top, so we tented up at a clearing nearby. The whole area was hopping actually. There were several other campers tented alongside the trail near the shelter. It’s a fairly popular area due to its proximity to the road. Fortunately, we’d be leaving roads behind for a while, starting early the next morning…
The next morning we woke up to wet conditions… conditions we’d have to get used to over the next couple of days.
JD checking out the campsite during break down. He has no idea what he’s in for yet…
Spring was in full bloom in the mountains. Everything was unbelievably green. Everything was also, unfortunately for us, unbelievably wet. Like it always does in spring in the south, it rained off and on throughout the trip. By mid morning on Saturday, we were about as wet as we could get. Clothing, pack contents, dog… everything was drenched. Yet even in these conditions, we made decent time. We stopped off and on to assess our pace and try to gauge when we might make our destination. By midday we realized we were definitely on course. Worst case scenario would be us making camp in the dark, and we’d already done that the night before so it was nothing we couldn’t handle.
At one point on the trail, I stopped to let JD get some water at a spring just down the hill.
The small trail behind JD leads down the hill to a spring.
I stripped my pack off and left it behind with my poles to go down the hill with JD and check it out. The spring was nice. A good flow of water out of some rocks under a large tree. Curiously enough, there was a wooden sign above it with “John’s Spring” burned into it. After JD had his fill, we climbed back up the hill to where my pack was. I heard voices coming toward me and a small group of people came around the corner.
They stopped and asked me how far I was heading and we made small talk. An older gentleman asked me if I had checked out “John’s Spring”. I told him yes and mentioned that it was one of the nicer ones I’d seen and that I was glad the trail down to it was clear. He mentioned that “John” was his brother and recently passed away. Apparently this man’s brother used to maintain this section of the trail as a volunteer. When he died, a group gathered a collection in his name and used the funds to do some work on the trail in that area. They cleaned up the trails and the nearby campsite and made a sign in John’s honor, naming the spring after him.
They asked me where I was from and I told them Alpharetta and they all just laughed. When I asked what was funny, several of them said they were also from Alpharetta. One man was a dentist (he gave me his business card) who has an office right around the corner from where we live. Two women asked me what vet JD goes to and I when I told them they just started laughing again. Our vet is their cousin.
John’s brother (from “John’s Spring”) is on the far right. The guy in the sunglasses on the left is the dentist (you could tell, couldn’t you?). I can’t remember which two of the three women said they were cousins of our vet, but you get the idea.
Right as we were about to part ways, Wanda radioed me. It was a little garbled but what I heard was something about “a lady’s slipper” and “rare” and “picture”. I laughed a bit and told her “ok, I’ll take a picture of the shoe”, thinking she had spotted a really unusual shoe up the trail and wanted me to take a picture of it. The older gentleman (who seemed very knowledgeable about the trail in this area) corrected me. Wanda was talking about a pink lady’s slipper, a type of flower related to the orchid. Apparently the man had pointed it out to Wanda before he bumped into me and she was radioing me to let me know she wanted a picture of it.
Much more interesting than an actual lady’s slipper.
Wikipedia has this to say about the pink lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule):
If the plant’s blossom does not cycle through, it will not regenerate; for this reason, it is recommended that the flower not be picked. … The United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service, Beltsville Area Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN) lists Cypridedium acaule as “SPECIES RESTRICTED BECAUSE RARE OR ENDANGERED.” In the United States, it is endangered in certain states/regions due to loss of habitat and exploitation (USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service). Georgia: Unusual Illinois: Endangered New York: Exploitably Vulnerable Tennessee: Commercially Exploited, Endangered. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cypripedium_acaule)
There was actually a little clump of them up there. After taking a few pictures of them I continued on.
We had some decent views throughout the trip, although much of it was obscured by fog, rain, or spring foilage.
One of the few unobscured scenic views we had.
Close to the top of mountains, the trail tends to get tunnel-like from growth.
Our guess as to when we would finish out our 15 mile Saturday was pretty accurate. We were on the last mile or so just as the sun was beginning to set.
The sun starting its descent behind the ridge line.
We bumped into a couple (by appearance I imagine they were either UGA students or recent grads) on the way down the hill to our intended camp site. They warned us to avoid the shelter due to the presence of a “rough crowd.” I asked how rough and the guy replied, “oh you know, nose rings, dreadlocks, stuff like that.” The girl added, “oh, and the smell… it’s awful…”
We decided to heed their advice and made camp close to the trail at a nice clearing instead of heading over to the shelter. Fortunately, we still had some light still left in the day. Ben and I walked down to refill our water from the spring just a short hike down from our camp site. As it was starting to get dark, we decided to fail miserably once again at making fire and I boiled water for our inexhaustible supply of backpacking lasagna. I’m not sure if it’s really as good as it tasted that night. I’m sure it tastes fine, but after 15 miles of hiking up and down mountains in the rain, it tasted gourmet.
It poured rain on us that night and the wind picked up a lot. Our tent held fast, thankfully, and we stayed dry and comfortable through the duration of the night.
Sunday we woke to gentle rain. We slept a little later than we intended to, but we knew we had fewer miles than we hiked on Saturday. I imagine part of it was laziness, and part of it was the desire to stay dry for as long as possible. After delaying for about as long as we could afford to, we got up and about and broke down camp in the rain.
I walked toward the shelter to use the privy. In order to get to it, I had to walk right in front of the shelter. I smelled them before I saw them. The couple we bumped into the evening before had described them accurately. I smelled them from a distance and said a quiet “thank you” for the warning we had received. None of us would have slept with that smell looming.
In my attempt to stay positive, I might have, at some point, said Sunday would be an “easy” day. What I meant, was that it would be shorter in mileage.
Ben radioed me at one point to tell me that we should change our nomenclature and reassess our use of the word “easy”. We put a lot of miles on Saturday, but to be honest, they were easy miles by comparison to Sunday.
We got to the GA/NC border easily enough (our primary mission for the trip). After about 4 miles or so of mild terrain, we reached a large rockface on the left with a tree to the right marked by a modest wooden sign with “GA/NC” burned into it. The border is in a gap known as Bly Gap, which is marked by this cool gnarled oak tree in a natural clearing with a decent view to the north.
This tree marks Bly Gap on the border of GA and NC.
As if to say “welcome to North Carolina,” the trail seemed to suddenly change on us. What we once thought were difficult ascents now seemed almost laughable. We had a series of strenuous ascents and descents over the next 7+ miles that, combined with our soreness from the day before, made the going slow.
We bumped into the hippies again at a shelter along the way. The following exchange was observed:
Hippie Dude is stirring something in a small pot. His mouth is completely full with food, muffling everything he says comically. Hippie Chick is opening a package of ramen noodles and is making them… without the seasoning. Both individuals smell funny.
Hippie Dude: muffled, with mouth full “Mmmm… mashed potatoes.” looks up at Hippie Chick “want some?”
Hippie Chick: with an almost offended glare at Hippie Dude “No.”
Hippie Dude: “Why not?”
Hippie Chick: “Because I don’t know what’s in them.”
Hippie Dude: looks down at pot, then, flatly and deliberately “Po-ta-toes”
Hippie Chick: with a tired, emotionless expression “Yeah, but what else?”
Hippie Dude: looks around at others standing nearby, then, with a snicker “Man, I get so tired of people trying to bum food from me.”
Meanwhile, another person (of the non-hippie variety) was sitting in the shelter in a Very Expensive Jacket. He had an array of other Very Expensive Items nearby including his backpack, boots, etc. When asked how far he was going, he replied, “I dunno… Katahdin… maybe… I dunno.” Now, it’s May. He’s sitting in a shelter in great gear saying he might be thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail all the way to Mount Katahdin in Maine. He said that he needs to pick his pace up if he plans on making it. I agreed. He said he was considering dropping some weight. Then he proceeded to talk about his awesome tent, right after saying he might just ditch it altogether to cut the weight down in his pack. I asked him how far he was going on that particular day, and he said he didn’t want to get soaking wet so he was going to stay in the shelter and wait out the rain.
Ok dude. If you want to pick up your pace, here are a couple of good options for you. For one, you could hike in the rain like everyone else. I guarantee you that mild temperatures and a little rain will not be the worst you will encounter if you plan on thru-hiking. Alternatively, keep sitting out weather in shelters, but lower your pack weight by getting rid of, like, all your gear. If you just plan on sitting out bad weather in shelters, you can hike in shorts and sneakers. Just make sure Hippie Dude is nearby so you can mooch his po-ta-toes.
We continued to press forward through the sloshy terrain. One of our two radioes crackled to life (mine was dead from waterlog) and Ben chimed in that we should hurry because storms were moving in. We hustled as best we could to get down the mountain to where our car was waiting. We made it back just as the skies began to unleash their fury.
We drove back nervously in the storms, braving 12+ miles of shifting gravel and mud roads. Then Ben managed to get us lost trying to find a Waffle House, before we managed to regroup at our usual spot in Dawsonville.
All-in-all it was an awesome trip. We met our goals and nobody was (seriously) injured. The next milestone should be the 100-mile mark. We’ve done right around 82 miles so far, not including the 8-9 miles of approach trail going from Amicalola Falls to Springer Mountain. Not a bad start!