Tuesday, October 19, 2010
My wife dropped me off with my daypack and Dewey at the BMT Tellico River crossing where I had finished my last section hike in June. The plan was to meet her 9 miles north and 3000 feet higher where the BMT joined the Cherohala Skyway at Mudd Gap. I paused for a picture, then headed on.
I made surprisingly good time, feeling strong on the gently graded old roadbed the trail followed. In just a touch over two hours, I stopped for lunch.
Pushing on and feeling strong, I found some company from a circling airplane. The pilot made more than twenty laps, mostly within 300 feet of the treetops. It was pretty neat the first few times, but eventually became just plain annoying. The plane finally sought new air just as the trail joined a gravel forest service road for the walk up to Whigg Meadow. Whigg Meadow offered excellent views.
Fall colors were good from the 5000 foot meadow.
I then headed down the now-rocky single track trail to meet my wife at Mudd Gap.
Views along the Cherohala Skyway were fantastic.
As we headed downhill to our planned camp at Cheoah Point Campground, we made a side tour to see the huge old-growth trees in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.
We then headed home to our base camp for the night.
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
I slept late in the morning, riding out showers, hoping they would be gone by the time I began my day’s hike back up on the Cherohala Skyway. I began my walk at Mudd Gap, slackpacking the 3 miles that parallel the Skyway. I enjoyed one good view at the old rock quarry.
After that, the trail was a rough stretch of ups and downs with no views. Score one for future trips, where I would simply follow the Skyway, complete with several nice views. A bit after noon, I met my wife at Unicoi Gap and put on my full pack for the next 20-mile stretch.
Officially, I was entering the Citico Creek Wilderness, with no blazes for 20 miles as I entered North Carolina’s Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness. The strange thing was that the trail was surprisingly smooth, following an old roadbed. Despite the fact that maintenance may not be done in this area with any gas-powered tools, the trail was largely clear. I was happy and I moved on, making good time.
Of course, one interesting point is that while the BMT’s diamond blazes are not allowed in the wilderness, most trail intersections held many signs.
I wasn’t complaining though. I was competing against waning sunlight to make it to a decent camp and the ease of navigation the signs allowed kept me rolling along. Gorgeous fall colors greeted me as I walked.
I hopped off the trail at Big Stack Gap and checked out the water source. There was a stream, but the water was so shallow that I couldn’t draw any decent water. I pushed another mile to the intersection with Crowder Branch Trail. Following it downhill, I found a great campsite and a solid pool in the nearby stream.
Dewey and I settled in for the night.
Thursday, October 21, 2010
This day was one of the more interesting of my hiking career. I stepped off to cold crisp air and more bold colors.
In what seemed nearly no time, I stopped for a snack at Farr Gap. This was the only point along this section with nearby road access as it was on the edge of the designated wilderness. I continued downhill toward Little Slickrock Creek.
The trail in this section was very confusing as it crossed the creekbed many times, often following the creekbed itself for short stretches. An occasional blaze would have been very welcome, but since blazes are not allowed in wilderness areas, I had to simply do my best.
After a bit, I noticed a solid trail heading gently up to the left of the creek. I began to walk up, but stopped since the trail is supposed to head downhill along the creek. A quick map check showed there was one short stretch where the trail headed uphill, maybe 100 feet, on the north side of the creek. I figured this must be it. But I was sure I was climbing more than that 100 feet over the next half mile or so. I eventually arrived at a gravel road with a sign reading “Webb Gap”. There was no sign of this on the map, but I was clearly not on the BMT in the wilderness.
I began the trudge back downhill. A bit over halfway back down, I noticed a faint trail heading downhill. I immediately realized (incorrectly as it turned out) that this must be the return to the trail along Little Slickrock Creek. I headed down and the trail nearly tapered off. Then I hit a marshy area with a distinct trail on the north side. I quickly checked that the sun was to my right shoulder, meaning I was still headed east and took off.
An hour of so later, I thought I was about to reach Slickrock Creek and the major trail intersection there. Instead, I reached signs that this land belonged to the Alcoa Power Company. I now knew my trail was definitely NOT the BMT. I thought I was very near to the trail, however, on an unmapped series of parallel trail about ¾-miles north of the BMT, just north of the wilderness boundary. When I hit another intersection, my thought was to either rejoin the BMT or follow either Slickrock Creek or the Little Tennessee River, whichever I hit first, onward to rejoin the BMT.
After wandering onto a trail tread that was actually old pavement, overgrown with brush, I joined the Little Tennessee River.
I began to follow the river east, but any hint of trail disappeared. It was already after 1 o’clock, the time I was supposed to meet my wife for pickup, and I was stuck in heavy brush with large rocks underneath. I was managing at most ½-MPH and wasn’t sure how far I needed to go to rejoin the trail. Then the wind was knocked solidly out of me. I saw, on the other side of the river, a powerhouse. I then knew I had to be near Calderwood Dam, still a good 2 ½ - 3 miles from rejoining the BMT. The trail might as well have been on Mars with the barrier of bushwacking that lay ahead.
Just a bit past the powerhouse, I encountered a black snake. It was a jarring enough encounter, but what stood out was the frog in its mouth. I told Dewey we might be having a rough day, but it was better than that frog’s. I snapped a quick photo.
The flash surprised the snake so much it dropped the frog, which quickly hopped away. Then the frightened snake slithered away from me, in the other direction, no longer worried about dinner. I dropped my pack for a break and looked at Dewey. “Little buddy, if that frog could get out of that mess, we’re getting out of this one,” I commented.
Within 300 yards of the frog encounter, the river which had been so wide suddenly turned narrow and relatively shallow, with numerous large rocks along its path. On the other side was a gravel road from the powerhouse. I probed with my trekking poles and realized the water was no more than 2-4 feet deep through here with almost no current. How this was possible baffled me, but I knew what I needed to do. I stashed my camera inside my waterproofed bag in my pack and eased into the river.
The bottom was very slick, but with the help of my trekking poles, I made it from rock to rock. I sometimes had to literally pull myself out onto the next boulder as the bottom was too slick to walk up. After three such climbs, I was able to simply boulder hop the rest of the way. Climbing up the far river bank, I joined the gravel road and checked my watch. 3 o’clock. I had to get to some civilization before my wife panicked.
I pushed ahead and reached Calderwood Dam from the back side in about 10 minutes. I now realized why the river has dwindled to nothing. The dam was not flowing at all, effectively choking off the Little Tennessee River. Climbing up the steps, wet pack and all, was a chore. But the real kicker was that nobody was at the dam at all, and the access from the stairs was locked. So I began to scramble up and around the 45-degree slap of concrete where the dam met the hillside. It was exhausting, chimneying my way up and around. But on the front side of the dam, it was only about a 30-foot descent to the gravel parking area and the road to US129.
A little over a mile later, I arrived at a gorgeous overlook on US129, along the “Tail of the Dragon”, a heavily trafficked area famous for motorcyclists who love the 318 curves in 11 miles. I hoped I could catch a hitch the 12 miles to where my wife was waiting at Cheoah Dam. Unfortunately, the area was mostly motorcyclists and I had no luck getting a ride. I stepped off up the road around 4:30.
After about an hour of sticking out my thumb to passing cars, a yellow Mustang GT pulled over at a pullout. The driver, Eric, lived in the area, and he often drove the Dragon after work to unwind. The ride he gave me wound me up a bit, but it got me back to my wife a bit before 6 PM. I was thankful and just a little bit nauseous.
My wife was mad at me for about the first 15 seconds. After that, she was glad to have me back. We headed back to base camp for a shower and dinner while we figured out what to do for the rest of the trip.
Friday, October 22, 2010
We chose to stay an extra day, through Saturday, and I would slackpack back to where I made my wrong turn on Little Slickrock Creek. I took the BMT from the bridge near Cheoah Dam and followed the Stiffknee trail as it traced its way along Slickrock Creek. I was quickly joined by a number of bearhounds who would follow me for much of my day’s hike.
I rejoined the BMT just as it prepared to cross Slickrock Creek and begin its parallel of Little Slickrock Creek. Here I ran into Tipi Walter, a regular in this area, and one of the most knowledgeable hikers about the Citico-Kilmer-Slickrock region.
He had to chase one of the bearhounds out of his tent, and I felt bad for him. I then talked to him about my wrong turn from the previous day, and he shared a similar experience in the same spot from when he first started hiking the area over 20 years ago. Then I pushed on, crossing Slickrock Creek and heading up Little Slickrock.
I pushed on hard for a little over half an hour. The trail become increasingly tricky to follow as the water dropped and the trail was confused with the dry streambed. I never found the large trail heading northeast, but I was sufficiently satisfied that I had connected my missing dots to turn around and head home. The Slickrock Creek crossing offers actual signs to help hikers spot where the trail continues on the other side.
I couldn’t help but think this might have been helpful along Little Slickrock Creek as well. After re-crossing Slickrock Creek and waving a farewell to Walter, I pushed up to Yellowhammer Gap and back down to the 129 bridge beside Cheoah Dam.
I grabbed a late lunch of turkey sandwiches at the car and then pushed uphill to the dam overlook.
From there I crossed west over 129 and headed up an old dirt road. If I had not known from the guidebook to turn right off the trail, I would easily have missed the return to single track.
As I headed uphill, the trail tread virtually disappeared in the midst of a burn area. Fortunately, BMT maintainers have flagged the corridor with yellow tape, making it possible to stay found.
As I finished the 900-foot ascent, I dropped down to a very fast old smooth roadbed.
I put my head down and made the best time I could manage for the next 2 ½ miles. I could hear the rumble of motorcycles at least 20 minutes before I finally emerged onto US 129 at Deals Gap.
I hopped into the car and headed back for one last night at Cheoah Point SP.
Saturday, October 23, 2010
I had seriously considered yellow blazing the 3.5 mile roadwalk along US 129 and NC 28 due to safety concerns. But I decided after walking the main part of the Dragon on Thursday that I could handle the official roadwalk before finishing my section hike.
I stepped off from Deals Gap at 8 AM and made to the motorcycle resort in about 15 minutes.
I had breakfast there with my wife and moved on by 9 AM. In the morning cold, few motorcycles were on the road. I pushed on making excellent time.
I finally had to slow down for motorcycle traffic around 10. I would spend up to a minute at a time off the road, waiting for a string of motorcycles or cars to roll by. Fortunately, I rolled into 20-Mile Ranger Station around 10:15.
It had not been my smoothest BMT section, but it was certainly a memorable one as I headed home.
December will hopefully see me finish the BMT when I walk the length of Great Smoky Mountain National Park.