Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My wife, Sleeps With Skunks, and I had talked for some about her hiking the last six and a half miles she had not completed in southeast Tennessee’s Savage Gulf State Natural Area. She had been hesitant since she slipped a year ago and tore a number of ligaments in her right ankle in a section of the Connector Trail that I’ve termed the “Grey Mile”, a section that rivals the worst rocks the Pennsylvania AT has to offer.

Having hiked this section solo, I knew there was a very rocky section for about a half mile as a hike heads east on the Collins Gulf Trail from Collins Gulf Trailhead. SWS agreed to hike this section with me if I would sherpa her pack over the one rocky stretch. Thus, with temperatures in the upper 30’s, we stepped off.

My ULA Catalyst was carrying the bulkiest, and probably heaviest, load I have ever challenged it with. Between hammock, quilts, underquilts, fancy cooking gear, winter clothing, a hatchet and saw, and Dewey Bear, the pack was maxed out.

We trotted past Collins West Campsite and began the minor descent into the upper edge of the gorge. SWS let me know how she felt about the rock steps.

The trail then leveled and we ambled on another quarter mile until we hit the rocky section I’d already warned SWS about.

At this point, I dropped my pack and shouldered hers and began hiking as quickly as I safely could manage. I was comfortable with the path, which trail builders diligently worked into an almost sidewalk of flat-tiled boulders. Still, the trail was tricky enough that I was glad to reach the bridge over the Collins River, which was flowing as strong as I could ever remember seeing it.

A couple hundred yards on the other side of the bridge, the rocks almost completely ended. I dropped my wife’s pack and headed back for my own. When I met her along the way, she seemed very upbeat. She was 2/3’s of the way through the rocks and feeling confident. I continued on back to my pack, hefted it weight, and retraced my route again. When I reached the point where I had met my wife, it was 26 minutes later. I figured I would need to move to catch up.

As it was, about an hour and a half later, I rejoined her. She was happy to see me and I was glad to watch her reach the intersection of Collin’s Gulf, Stagecoach Road, and South Rim Trails. At this point, Sleeps With Skunks had hiked all the marked trail in Savage Gulf State Natural Area.

From here, it was a mere .9 miles to Stagecoach Road Campsite. I headed onward while SWS took one final break at the intersection. I arrived at camp and set up my hammock, tarp, and underquilt.

I was just finalizing my rig as my wife arrived. I gathered water from the spring, as well as a bit of firewood as my wife finished rigging her hammock.

Our campsite was ready for a warm night’s sleep.

My wife took a nap as I fired up a feast of fried macaroni and cheese with chicken.

After dinner, my wife wasn’t in the mood for a fire so much as her hammock. The temperature was already down to 27 and ice was forming in our water bottles. I sent SWS to bed with a pint nalgene of hot chocolate. By 7:30, she and Orville Bear were down for the night. Not long after, I retired to my hammock with my buddy Dewey Bear.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The day started warmer than I expected at 7 AM. The thermometer read 34 and the ice of the previous night was gone from our water bottles. I rose, layered up, and cooked a breakfast of ham and eggs with MRE bread grilled cheese on the side. Despite a leisurely breakfast and packup, Sleeps With Skunks and I walked out of camp around 9 AM, ready for the 6.5 mile walk out to Savage Gulf Ranger Station.

I began to hear the pitter patter of rain all around me, but there was no rain actually hitting me. The stones in our path showed no moisture either. Eventually, the mystery was solved as I noticed the first tiny hail stone bounce off a rock nearby. At this point, we chose to don our pack covers. Dewey and Orville Bear grumbled that their views would be spoiled, but they ultimately accepted the need.

Of course as soon as our pack covers were on, the hail stopped…

Hail and very light rain made occasional mild appearances the rest of the morning as we enjoyed the half dozen excellent overlooks the South Rim Trail offered.

We also passed the historic remnants of at least three old moonshine stills on this section.

As we neared Savage Falls, SWS chose not to visit them, owing to the occasional light showers. Her car and a heated bathroom were only a mile and change away. We continued on. I was impressed at how easily she crossed the suspension bridge over Savage Creek. Two years ago, she was gripped with nerves as she crossed shorter suspension bridges in the area. Now she never even used the railing, crossing with ease and grace.

The last level mile flew by and we were soon walked into the Savage Gulf Ranger Station. After a quick bathroom break, we headed off to pick up my truck at Collins Gulf Trailhead and head home.