Alright folks. The Youtube video is for those without all evening to spend reading about our snowy adventure and the full details are beneath. Enjoy!
My friend Mark and I returned from our 3rd and best backpacking trip yet this past fall after a visit to Linville Gorge. Our friend Matt wasn't able to go and had yet to go backpacking with us. While the trip sounded great he was a little apprehensive about his physical ability to handle the Gorge. The Gorge is not walk in the park for me either so I figured an easy trip was in order to break him in and give him an idea of what its like on the trail.
I had read about the Neusiok Trail a good 8-9 years ago and have been interested in trying it ever since so this sounded like a good excuse and would be easy at least in the sense that there's little if any elevation change in Croatan.
After perusing the website for the trail and asking some questions on the forum I was feeling pretty good about the idea. The main complaints for the trail seem to be the insects and mud so I checked the NOAA database and determined that January is the driest month of the year in that region and with average temperatures of 30-55F the bugs shouldn't be a problem.
Gunner offered us a shuttle service which we were happy to accept and I began putting together the gear and packing after scheduling a weekend off from work.
The idea was to start a Oyster Point and finish at Pine Cliffs the next day. We'd hike till 3:30-4:00 and find a place to hang our hammocks and make camp.
As the target date approached I began checking the weather forecast. Weather.com has a 10 day forecast and as we got a bit closer I also compared outlooks on Wunderground, WRAL, and WITN changing the cities to Havelock, Morehead and Newport to get a general average. The forecast varied widely until about Wednesday when it settled on a low of about 24F for Saturday night and a 10% chance of a dusting of snow.
This was a bit colder than we were really planning on but still doable. Matt and I have been out in those temperatures on a few occasions tent camping on family property. For hammocks with cheap sleeping bags this sounded like it might be pushing it but it didn't sound dangerous per se, just chilly I conferred with my friends and we agreed to go for it. To hedge our bet I purchased an additional cheap Wally sleeping bag and sliced it into two top quilts for a bit of extra insulation, we packed some extra fleece blankets and jackets, I found a 20 pack of hand warmers on clearance I tossed in on impulse and we took a lightweight kukri to help with the firewood. I figured if the temperatures dropped too far below what we were expecting then worse case scenario we could spend the night huddled around a campfire. In addition since the middle trail shelter is about halfway anyway we had the option of using it as a refuge if we felt it was going to be too cold to hang once we got out there.
Saturday Morning I picked up the guys around 7 with a morning temperature of 24F which gave us a preview and didn't feel too bad. As I approached their houses the skyline was nice and orange but I could see a bank of clouds far in the distance. A last minute weather check showed temperatures along the same lines as already predicted but the precipitation was now a 50% possibility of an inch of snow along the beaches with lesser accumulations inland. This didn't sound like an issue even if it occurred and at the coast of NC this just didn't sound very likely.
We stopped for breakfast at the Food Lion in La Grange which has a small country restaurant setup near the deli section with some outstanding biscuits. Ham egg and cheese and a tenderloin and gravy biscuit that make my mouth water just thinking about them.
We hit the road for a while passing the time listening to comedy. A mash up of Dane Cook and Greg Geraldo that make the time fly. After a while I pulled over for gas and gave Gunner's son a call who would be running our shuttle. I estimated I'd be there about 10:15 and headed out again. As his car is a bit on the small side I dropped the guys and the gear off at Oyster Point to a very light snow falling on us. I arrived at Pine Cliffs at 10:11 to find Jeff waiting for me.
This is when things started to get interesting.
On the ride back to Oyster Point Jeff mentions that we may have to wade through knee deep water but he assures me nothing deeper than thigh deep. What? I didn't remember reading anything like that. I didn't know this guy and wondered if maybe he was mistaken, or possibly just screwing with me. In any event it sounded like any mud or water on the trail could just be walked around if needed so while I was a bit confused I didn't take it too seriously.
I am Jack's complete sense of skepticism.
Halfway back to Oyster point I look up from putting my phone into airplane mode to save battery life and notice the snow is now starting to stick in the grass beside the road. How about that.
We finally begin our hike and the snow continues but was rather pleasant at first and we felt sure it would taper off any minute and by nightfall it would have all melted away. That’s usually how it works in NC. We arrived at Blackjack shelter and figured our pace to be about 3 miles per hour and with the sign stating a bit more than 9 to get to Dogwood shelter we figured we'd be there around 3:00-3:30. Perfect.
Matt received a text while we were at the lodge from his dad checking on the weather. We were completely unconcerned at this point.
So far we had come across a few puddles on the trail but there was always a small strip through the middle or along one side that was dry so they hadn't posed an issue. Soon we were coming to puddles we had to edge around more carefully. It turns out that while some of the trail cuts through fairly open pine savannah, much of it is through very dense woods made up of what I believe was bay magnolia, wild blueberry and especially giant briars. Bushwhacking through this isn't an option.
At one point the trail extends straight ahead far into the distance and at this point there was a half inch or so of snow. This made it look like a tunnel through the trees with the branches arching over each side and a carpet of white as far ahead as you could see.
We crossed a gravel forest service road and things started to go down hill. The puddles came more frequently and appeared to be a good 6-8 inches deep. The sides of the trail closed in and we were having trouble edging around them without getting our toes wet. That morning I had opted to go with my ventilated Montrail trail runners over some leather and Gortex Patagonia hikers.
I am Jacks total sense of regret.
While Matt had found a hiking stick right at the trailhead and I had a set of poles Mark opted not to bring his. I offered him one of mine to help negotiate the puddles but was refused as he informed us he has 'impeccable balance'. At one point the trail curved to the left and we were able walk through a thinner section of brush and cut across the corner to avoid a large puddle but the next bend brought a puddle a good 30 feet long that we could see and then bending beyond site for who knew how far. We unpacked the kukri and I spent a few minutes attempting to bushwhack but was only able to get a foot or so ahead. With no idea long this wetter section would last I was getting concerned with the time we were spending doing this and also more than a bit aggravated with wet toes.
Finally fed up I put away the kukri, removed my shoes and socks, rolled up my pants and plowed right through the middle of the puddle. My friend in front told me I was crazy and I just told him to move out the way. I knew I was going to get cold quick if I didn't keep moving and I wasn't about to stand barefoot in the snow while he worked his way around a puddle. I began quickly marching forward. So long as I could see the next puddle I went barefoot and trust me, the water was far warmer than the snow. When the trail looked clear ahead for a while I'd slip my feet back in my shoes but didn't bother with socks or laces. This was far warmer than it sounds. As soon as my feet left the water and snow they just turned bright red and hot like your face does when you're embarrassed. I left the guys behind thinking they'd follow along. Apparently my example wasn't very compelling.
I knew at some point ahead the trail turned on to a gravel forst road and my plan was to wait there for my friends and we'd all have a bit to eat for lunch and check the trail guide I'd printed for what was ahead.
I didn't see my friends for the next hour or so as I furiously forged ahead. I was sure the gravel road was so close and I didn't want to stop till I got to it. In many places you can see the tree line change ahead as you pass by different stands of timber and these give the illusion there's a gap in the trees ahead that could be the road. For a while the path follows a ditch and rolls up and down a series of 3-5 foot high hills from the dirt that was dug to create the ditch. The snow was building up in he branches at this point as as you disturbed them you got dumped on.
At some point during this section I came across the ghost footprint.
As I walked through a puddle there was a shallow section where the water was just barely above the bottom and the snow had formed a layer of slush a good half inch thick. There in the fresh slush was a single boot print with a heal and toe outline pointing in the opposite direction we were headed. There were no side trails, no noise, and no other footprints in the snow.
Eventually I saw the trail and dropped my pack to confer with the GPS app in my phone and check the trail guide and after a few minutes Mark caught up. He told me that Matt was slowing down but he was starting to worry I was getting too far ahead when my footprints started to disappear in the snow. After several more minutes Matt showed up. Convinced I was perhaps a little insane they going barefoot they had opted to edge around all the puddles and so ended up close to half a mile behind me before I stopped. We discovered during our short break that we were all now wet enough that stopping was rather chilly. The distance to the next shelter was now composed of a bit over 2 miles on the gravel forest service road and 2.7 miles back into the woods on what is allegedly the 'wettest' section of the trail.
Aren't we just thrilled.
On the gravel road with no trees to break up the snow fall we discovered 2.5-3 inches of powder and a blowing wind heading right into our faces. Visibility was only a few hundred feet and looking ahead was hard to do simply because one flake after another flew into your eyes. This section felt endless as everything blurred into a hazy white with pale shades of dry oat grass along the sides of the road. Mark and I quickly realized Matt was falling behind. He was trying to tough it out but asked us if we'd be mad if he wussed out. We didn't really respond and I wasn't sure what to say. How exactly would we wuss out even if we wanted to? At that point I was determined to drag him along to the end but starting running through evacuation options in my head. Normally we do loop trips so if you get into the first day of a long trip and need to bail you can always head back to the vehicle before you're any further away from it. Since we used a shuttle we were nowhere near the vehicle and I wasn't sure if leaving the trail would be even slightly closer than staying on it. The only way back was forward and the only warmth was to keep moving.
After 2 miles the gravel road continues on but the trail turns onto a side road. I stopped under some branches and tried to shelter my phone from the snow as best I could to check our options while I waited for everyone to catch up again. Matt had ended up so far behind I couldn’t see him anymore and Mark was putting himself between us to try encourage him to keep up. My resolve was draining fast as there was now closer to 5 inches of snow on the ground. That kind of snow anywhere east of say Greensboro is rare to say the least and it was still coming down with no end in site. I was willing but not looking forward to stomping through puddles again on this wetter section but I knew they weren't going to. With this much snow I don't think we'd be able to tell where the edges of the puddles were either and end up soaking their shoes. In addition once we entered to woods again we wouldn't be able to see any trip hazards under the snow. Our pants were all now soaked and while Mark and I had on synthetic pants, Matt was wearing cotton kakis of all things. I knew we'd need a fire to spend the night but how would we find firewood on the ground under all that snow? What if this middle shelter was surrounded by impenetrable brush like we'd seen earlier? What if it was already occupied? We reviewed our options but I cautioned that while we could take the gravel road back out to the main roads in another mile, we'd be nowhere close to the trailhead. Aborting the trip was still the safer alternative and promised we'd at least sleep somewhere dry and warm that night. With little discussion we got back on the endless gravel forest service road and continued northward. After what I'm sure was only 20 minutes or so but felt like an hour we could see the headlights of cars going by in front of us and I started looking for a good place to ditch the packs. We found a large pine to halfway hide them behind and pulled some trash bags over the top to protect them. Since these were conveniently white the packs came close to disappearing beside the path. At the road there is a lodge hall with an eve over the front which we huddled under as I checked the phone one last time to try and guess the mileage. I guessed at least six miles to the trailhead and we hit the snow covered asphalt and began heading west down Hwy 101.
A good dozen cars passed and while we weren't sticking out our thumb or anything it should have been pretty obvious by our snowmen like coating of snow we probably needed to get out of the weather. Can't say we'd pick up anyone if we drove by them like that but we found ourselves a little annoyed regardless. Alas no one stopped and in a twist of irony we found ourselves walking past all the same vehicles as they came to a halt in a curve up ahead.
At some point about this time Matt slips on the ice and goes down much to our enjoyment. As we laugh Mark's feet go out from under him though he claims that doesn't count as falling since he caught himself with him hands. As I get halfway through a remark about his 'impeccable balance' I fall myself.
Good times, good times.
We weren't sure exactly what was going on. The on coming lane of traffic had a row of vehicles in it but no one was moving even though there was no wreck blocking traffic. The westbound lane creeping ahead very slowly and people seemed to be having trouble staying in the lane. As we got closer a guy in a green Chevy tried to floor his gas pedal which got him nowhere even though he was sitting straight in his lane. He stuck his head out the window and asked us for a push. I think we were all thinking the same thing, "sure, and then how about a lift". This was followed by the thought that perhaps he wasn't the safest choice to go with if he was stuck in the middle of his lane. Pushing and jumping on his bumper did no good and since he kept trying to give it full throttle the only thing that occurred was that he slowly turned sideways blocking off the whole road. We also noticed that his rear tires looked a smooth as racing slicks.
At some point he decides to stop blocking traffic and as we record his situation go from bad to worse he backs up out of the way taking his rear wheel drive tires off the road into the ditch.
He didn't appear to be going anywhere for a while and we pressed on. The traffic in front of us would move forward a few feet and stop, move forward and stop. The lead car of the oncoming lane was just sitting there. As we got closer we found the lead car in the westbound lane was an officer stopping at every car he passed to roll down his window and explain to them they wouldn't be able to pass the curve ahead where the green truck had been and they'd have to wait for the DOT to sand the road. He paid us no mind at all.
At this point we are now ahead of the officer and every driver in a line that stretches on for miles feels the need to roll down their window and ask us about the 'wreck' up ahead. Come on people, we've got places to go and things to do and the snow isn't even thinking about stopping yet.
After an hour or so we hear someone behind us yell out to jump in that he has plenty of room.
As we hop in to his SUV he asks me where we're headed. I try and explain where the trailhead is and he looks unsure and remarks that he doesn't know if Ferry Road is passable. Actually he states, isn't that right here? He apologizes for not being able to help any further and we get back out. Our ride was as far as perhaps one city block.
Turning onto 306/Ferry road I remember from the driving directions to the trailhead that we have 3 miles to get to Pine Cliffs rd and another mile down that to the trailhead. Walking north we are once again walking right into the blowing snow which is now at least 6 inches deep. As an added bonus, DOT starts scrapping the road which forces us to stand out of the way in the ditch where the grass adds another 3 inches or so to how far up our pants the snow goes and lets it easily work its way into the tops of our shoes.
Is that all?
Matt starts waving and everyone that comes up behind us. One person waves back to which Matt loudly explains to the guy’s license plate he wasn't waving at him followed by some colorful language. A lady in a minivan stops to ask us directions but she was headed the wrong way and I had no idea where she was trying to go.
It was obviously starting to get colder as mid afternoon came and went and I started to regret not grabbing one of the headlamps from the packs in case it got dark on us. We were also clearly starting to all slow down making matters worse.
We turned to see Matt speaking with someone heading our way and after a moment the guy drives on past us. Matt informs us he had a load of kids with him but was going to come back for us after he dropped them off.
In any event, the only way to stay warm was to keep moving so we continued on as I tried to look for landmarks to indicate we were close to Pine Cliffs.
We finally had some trail magic happen when after what felt like another 45 minutes we see the guy with the kids return. We didn't get his name but we gladly hopped in and he knew exactly where the trailhead was and quickly had us there. We thanked him and left him to crank my vehicle and after brushing the snow off the windows I jumped at which point we all began to shiver like you wouldn't believe since we were no longer moving. I was able to finally take off my wet clothes and put on some dry clothes I had waiting in the vehicle and eventually feeling camp back in my hands enough I could attempt to drive. The inside of my legs itched like crazy as they warmed back up and part of my hands began to prickle as if they'd been asleep.
Since we knew the road was closed anyway and it was going to quickly start getting dark and conditions were just going to get worse we decided to leave the packs where they were and head into town to find a hotel for the night.
By the time we drove the 11 miles to the Hampton Inn on hwy 70 it was dark outside and we were all about to starve.
We check in and finished warming up and ordered several pizzas which we had to venture back out to get ourselves since they weren't willing to deliver in that weather. We noticed that this part of town only had 3-4 inches on the ground. We spent the evening watching the Canes loose to the Penguins and eventually went to bed. At some point that night I checked the forecast for the evening which was now predicting a low of 19F. While I was much warmer than I'd have been sleeping on the trail that night, that bed has nothing on my hammock in terms of comfort.
We attacked the continental breakfast the next morning and killed time till about 10:30 at which point the roads were starting to melt and I'd seen DOT go by enough times I was sure I'd be able to get back to the packs without having to call a wrecker. For the record, when we got up that morning around 7 it was 14F outside, a full 10 degrees colder than predicted the morning before.
The trip from the hotel to the packs is only about 19 miles round trip but took the better part of an hour due to the ice on the roads. We were happy to find the packs where we left them with a few inches on snow on top and after tossing them in the vehicle we headed for home. Once we passed the hotel and starting moving west on Hwy 70 it didn't take long for the accumulation to drop to just an inch and then a dusting and then nothing. It was pretty clear this was a very localized snow event.
All in all it was a fun trip even if it didn't turn out anything like we expected. It became a cold wet adventure and while I wouldn't intentionally put myself in that situation again, I'm glad to say I've been through it. We don't get much snow in the south so this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I don't think any of us would have thought we could walk that far in those conditions at our current level of hiking prowess (or lack there of) so it was interesting to see how we faired during the challenge. The Neusiok itself is a very mild trail with some interesting an unique scenery although what we experienced of it was under special circumstances to say the least. One day we'll get back out there, start where we left off and finish the thing.