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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Best Laid Plans (Blah Blah Blah) Part II

So the October Smokies Loop did NOT go as planned (yes there was more than a little foreshadowing there). Instead of a 30 mile loop in 50 degree weather it was a 20 mile out and back in 30 degree weather with rain, snain, sleet, and snow. Its no big deal really as the goal was just to spend a few days hanging out and backpacking with an old friend and mission accomplished there. But it just goes to show that my last post about the unpredictability factor in backpacking trip planning was right on.

Due to heavy rains and delayed planes (hey - that rhymes!) on Friday, we decided to start out Saturday morning rather than camping at the trailhead (Cosby Campground is closed for renovation anyway). The rain, forecasted to taper off early Saturday stayed with us as we left Cosby and headed up the Low Gap Trail towards the Appalachian Trail.

On the 2.5 mile climb up to the ridge we followed well-graded switchbacks up through large stands of hardwoods and rhododendron alongside tranquil and picturesque streams as a constant drip and heavy mist kept us company. After about 1.5 miles we began to see small patches of icy snow which gradually spread, as we climbed, to fully cover the ground. By the time we reached the intersection with the Appalachian Trail the snow was two 2" deep. At this intersection we had a choice: head south on the AT before descending into Walnut Bottoms via a 7.5 mile scenic route or cross the AT and descend 2.5 miles to the campsite. As the constant sogginess began to settle into our gear and bodies we decided on the easy road and headed for camp passing a set of fresh bear tracks and several old homsestead sites along the way. The precipitation continued as we descended, but changed from snow back to rain.

Lower Walnut Bottoms Campsite is situated along the bank of the picturesque Deep Creek and is 1/4 of a mile downstream from Upper Walnut Bottoms Campsite - a horsecamp. There were 6 other parties sharing the sprawling site with us on Saturday night, but most stayed tucked away inside tents hoping for the end of the rain to come soon. We made a valiant attempt at getting a fire started, but it was slim pickings on firewood and 2 days of constant precip had rendered all deadwood soggy. The temperatures never made their way above 35 degrees.

The next morning we awoke to a welcomed lack of rain and with cautious optimism watched as patches of blue sky began to appear overhead. We packed up, geared up and headed west up the Deep Creek and Camel Gap Trails to the Gunter Fork Trail. The hike was along Deep Creek for the first mile and a half and pleasantly flat with streams and their cascades as our constant companions.

When we arrived at the Gunter Fork Trail we were greeted with a warning: "During Times of High Stream Flow Gunter Fork Trail Impassable." Only 50 yards into the trail we found out why - the first of several fords required wading the icy cold stream. This day the depth fell at mid-thigh for Zack and I (both a little over 6 footers), but in higher water it would have been REALLY sketchy. The first wade went off without a hitch and we were able to navigate the remaining crossings by employing extreme rockhopping techniques - saving us from having to brave the icy water barefoot again. Despite the frequent stream crossings, the trail was enjoyable as the scenery painted with autumn color was beautiful. As the trail gradually climbed we saw the return of the snow, lingering on the trees and ground from the previous days' precipitation.

We were blown away when we stumbled upon a breathtaking waterfall, unexpected and unindicated on the maps. The falls which we estimated at just over 100' overall consisted of a 15' falls at the top followed by 85-90' of smooth, sliding-rock cascade over red-hued quartzite. Framed by deep green Rhododendrons and the red, orange and yellow fallen leaves, it was quite the hidden gem.

After the falls the grade of the climb became more pronounced. In fact, over the next 2.5 miles we would gain nearly 3000' in elevation. With that elevation gain came colder temperatures and more snow. Breaks in the trees along the way provided dramatic views of clouds and snow blanketing steep ridges and valleys dappled with reds, yellows, and greens. Footing was slick, trees blocked the trail due to heavy snow and ice, the trail was steep and going was slow.

By the time we reached the ridge and the intersection with the Balsam Mountain Trail the snow was 4" deep and it was late in the afternoon - decision time. Option A was to boogie on as planned on the Balsam Mountain Trail, covering the same amount of ground we'd done so far (in 6.5 hours) with only 3 hours of daylight remaining on a 6000' ridgeline in 4"+ snow to reach Tricorner Knob Shelter. We'd then be left with about 9 miles out on Monday followed by a 5 hour drive back home. Option B would be to turn around and backtrack - a blow to my pride, but all downhill with only 2.5 out the next morning. The only barriers in the way being several stream crossings including that frigid barefoot wader and camping sans permit at the same site we'd stayed at the night before. I definitely felt the "Summit Fever" pull to soldier on and finish the loop, but I knew it was the wrong decision. We turned around and I was immediately relieved that we did - the pressure was off, concerns for safety were gone, and we could get back to just hanging out and enjoying the wilderness.

We chose a drier spot for our second night at Lower Walnut Bottoms - complete with our own private waterfall. This time we were able to get a campfire going and warm and dry ourselves and our gear.

The next morning the sun was out early as we headed back out on the Low Gap Trail. I came upon a Black Bear cub sitting in the trail, scratching himself. He noticed me and ran off before I could snap a photo. He looked like he had been born in the most recent spring and was getting ready to experience his first winter.

As we climbed back above the snow-line the sun was melting the snow and hoar frost off of the trees above and it was raining down on us in big, soggy snowballs. That, combined with steam rising off of the streams along the trail, created a surreal scene.

Once we reached the AT, the descent went very quickly and we reached the trailhead in good time, driven by the promise of a series of impending fast food binges on the way home.

All in all the trip was a success. While we didn't complete what would've been a pretty stellar loop, we got to spend 3 days and 2 nights in the Smokies which is always a treat. Above all we got to catch up and share laughs which was the main goal anyway. I also learned a little about myself as a trip planner and a backcountry guide, my expectations of myself, and of others. I really need to make a clear distinction between camping trips with friends where the goal is to hang out in the woods and my thru-hiker "death marches" where the goal is to tackle major miles on a backcountry expedition. Trying to mix the two rarely works.

My next trip I'm gonna untether my thru-hiker legs and cover some serious ground. I'm thinking about maybe a 50+ mile loop in a long weekend on the AT/Iron Mtn Trail in the Mount rogers NRA in VA. I'll keep you posted. Speaking of "posted" - I promise to be better with the posting frequency. I've been slack, but I've got another Smokies Loop report in the works that I'll try to get out ASAP.

Thanks for reading and Happy Hiking!

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Best Laid Plans...Get Eaten by Bears

"One of the best things about trip planning is having something on the horizon to look forward to and daydream about - makes the desk job a little more bearable. But as the saying goes, "even the best laid plans often fall through," and this week that aphorism slapped me twice like my pimp.

This week I'm headed to Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a 3-day, 3-night gear testing, GPS-mapping backpacking trip with good buddy Zack. The smokies pose a greater trip planning challenge than some other destinations due to the Park Service regulations therein: specifically that, like Yellowstone, Glacier and others, backcountry camping can only occur at designated sites and shelter, some of which require permits. I had several guiding thoughts as I analyzed the maps: First, my partner on this trip had never been to the smokies so I wanted to hit some cool spots as well as highlight the diversity of the landscape; Second, Zack's full-timer as a teacher at sea-level in Alabama rendered him mileage-shy and so I had to consider his plea for sub-ten-mile days. Upon identifying a trip that fit the bill with both Fontana Lake and Gregory Bald as scenic anchors I booked reservations for three sites in the southwest, "Twentymile" region of the park well over a month ago.

Original Itinerary

BUT, Friday afternoon I received a voicemail message from the NPS at the Smokies' Backcountry office indicating that my reservation would have to be cancelled as my destination for Sunday night, Sheep Pen Gap Campsite (#13), had been closed for an undetermined amount of time due to "aggressive bear activity." Two thoughts immediately crossed my mind: 1) Great, now I've got less than one week to re-plan, and re-reserve this trip, and 2) BEARS? COOL!

I worked quickly to identify no fewer than four additional 30-mile loop trips that did the Smokies justice: Cosby to Tri-Corner to Walnut Bottom, Elkmont to Double Spring to Miry Ridge, Chasteen Creek to Pecks to Cabin Flats, and Pin Oak Gap to Mt. Sterling to Petty Hollow. Each of these trips worked on 10 or fewer miles per day and offered great variability in terrain touching both lush, bio-diverse stream valleys as well as lofty mountain ridges. Monday morning at 8am I was on the phone with Buck at the Backcountry office rattling off campsite numbers and dates like I was relaying coordinates for a bombing run - ALL FULL, back to the drawing board.

I analyzed the five trips that had been shot down for any potential reversibility, knowing that Sundays are easier to score campsites than Saturdays - was it possible that I had a more popular site as my Saturday destination that could be swapped with my Sunday pick? Not really, mileage became the issue here and I didn't want to have a super-short first day and then have to rush to get out on Monday. But then I saw it: Cosby to Walnut Bottom to Tri-Corner and out via Snake Den Ridge. Mileage total is 29 with 10 and 10 Saturday and Sunday and 9 out on Monday. Stream bottoms and ridgelines galore! With my heart in my throat I called Buck back for the 3rd time of the morning and asked tentatively, "Hey, Buck it's Peter again - Is Tri-Corner open on Sunday?" He responded with a bit of a snort and, "I doubt it!" but then quickly rescinded his skepticism and rejoiced along with me as the reservation was locked and loaded.

So now all I had to do was satisfy my own curiosity: What happened at Sheep Pen Gap Campsite that required it being closed to Camping? I asked Volunteer Buck, but he didn't know. I checked on the GSMNP website under News, but found nothing. The campsite is listed as closed under the backcountry closures sections, but again no details. Finally I got ahold of Ranger Randy who was able to shed some light. Apparently the bears in the area had been conditioned enough by accessible human food that they were now taking things to a new level. Bears in the area were robbing tents in broad daylight and refusing to leave the site even with humans present and making a bunch of noise. A grizzly not being intimidated by humans is completely natural, but a Black Bear turning up its nose when confronted means one thing: habituation.

While Randy couldn't provide any further details on what had led to these bears being habituated,the duration of the closure, or whether the bears would have to be relocated, it was abundantly clear that my plans had been shut down due to the carelessness and irresponsibility of other backcountry visitors. So what can be learned from this:

1) Hang or store your food appropriately when in bear country. Bears have noses that are 2100 times more powerful than a humans and they are VERY motivated by their appetites. Don't leave anything that smells good laying around and certainly don't sleep with it.

2) Keep a clean camp. Learn and practice Leave No Trace Principles.

3) If you see a bear in the distance do not approach it. Keep wild things wild.

4) If you have a face-to-face encounter with a Black Bear do not run. Back away slowly, make yourself seem big and make lots of noise. The goal is to scare the bear away and that should not be difficult.

5) In the VERY rare event that you are attacked by a Black Bear, FIGHT BACK! Hit it with everything you can grab. Remember, you are 160,000 times more likely to die in a car accident that at the hands (er, paws) of a bear.

So now the plan is to explore the far Northeast section of the park instead of the far Southwest corner. I am reminded frequently by this pastime that flexibility is very important in life. Even now that out itinerary is set (let's hope) there are a lot of outside factors in backpacking that can have a big impact on a trip's outcome (see my article: Anatomy of a Beatdown to see what weather did to our recent Wind Rivers, WY trip). Hopefully we won't be eaten by bears as I'd look pretty stupid after offering all of this unsolicited advice.

While I'm at it, here's some trip planning advice: When planning a trip with others form a distance one really great way to share information with friends, family and trip partners is by making a map and itinerary in the form of a .jpg file which you can e-mail to people. If you don't have any fancy mapping software, simply search around the web until you find a map of where you want to go. Then you can use that button on your keyboard "Print Screen", that you, if you're like most people have likely always wondered, "What does this do?" When you push the "Print Screen" button it copies a photo of whatever's on your computer screen onto the clipboard (screenshot). Then open up whatever generic drawing program comes with your computer - for PC users it "Paint" stored on your Start Menu under Accessories. Now click paste and voila - your screenshot appears, map and all. Now move your screenshot around until only what you need is on the screen and reduce the width and height (image attributes) to fit your map. Use the drawing and text tools to edit your proposed routes and make notes and then save as a .jpg file. You can now e-mail this .jpg to friends as a small e-mail attachment.

Have I mentioned I'm available for trip planning for a small fee...?

Happy Hiking!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Good Ol' RockyTop (Hoar Frost Optional)

Sample some of the best the Smokies have to offer on this rugged 30-mile backpacking loop: from the lush forests in the Middle Prong Valley to the summits of RockyTop and ThunderHead Peaks. Whether you go on the coldest weekend of the year or not is up to you.

This 30-mile rugged loop begins from the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont on Middle Prong Road near Townsend, TN. Plan your arrival carefully as you'll have to come through some pretty tourist-choked areas surrounding Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge and traffic can be nuts. Equally grueling for us was convincing an overzealous ranger at the trailhead that I wasn't carrying any contraband. As we were getting packed at the car a ranger vehicle squealed into the parking area and out jumped a hyper-active and hyper-suspicious ranger. "What'd you just put in your pocket sir?" He challenged as he swooped down on me from his Explorer. "Umm, AA batteries for my GPS." was my response. After showing him I was not, in fact, carrying any grenades or cocaine he moved on to permits which we had covered, but still got a, "We'll see about that," and a call to headquarters to verify my reservations. Hopefully you can avoid this unpleasantry, but regardless, once you're permitted to get started, you'll head up West Prong Trail and continue onto Bote Mountain Trail, climbing 3000'+ over 9+ miles. Along the way you'll pass camping along West Prong and enjoy periodic views on the climb up the ridge.

On this Saturday in January it had been 10 degrees Fahrenheit the night before and even with periods of full sun it was cold. We hits snow about 2/3 of the way up, and it was several inches deep by the time we crested the ridge.

At the top of the climb we turned right onto the white-blazed Appalachian Trail (AT) and then an immediate left to arrive at Spence Field Shelter (keep a clean camp and be sure to hang your food on the provided cables - this shelter is frequented by some of the Park's 1500+ Black Bears).

It was nearing dusk when we arrived and the temperature was dropping quicky. We did our best to gather dry downed limbs for a fire in the shelter's stone fireplace, but nearly all surfaces were glazed with ice and snow. To this point only my brother and I had made in to the shelter. We had passed several parties on our climb who were descending having thought better of spending a night over 5000' in 10-15 degree temperatures. Just as dark fell though we were joined by a foursome of lawyer/outdoorsmen from Tennessee. They watched with skepticism as we attempted to get a fire started (they had gone without the night before), but rewarded us with grilled steaks, teriyaki vegetables and sips of scotch when we succeed. We all survived the night with the unfortunate exception of my self-inflating sleeping pad which was the victim of a burning Tupperware mishap at the hand of one of the Attorneys. He was gracious enough to trade out his identical, excepting the nickel-sized burn hole, pad for mine in the morning (yeah, after I slept flat on the wood floor).

Leaving the shelter the first thing to strike us was the sharp crunch that each step made as a thick crust of ice had glazed the ground. The shelter and ridge were engulfed in icy clouds.

Backtrack to the AT and follow the ridgeline up and over some of the better known (and better named) peaks in the park: RockyTop and ThunderHead.

The ridge through this section of the AT is spectacular. Even socked in by clouds the views were breathtaking as breaks in the clouds revealed dark and frosted ridgelines. In better weather views into North Carolina and Tennessee drift off into seemingly endless National Forest lands. The terrain varies between balds, rocky ridges and hardwood forests. The bitter cold and strong winds continued as did intermittent snow showers, although the temperatures eventually soared into the mid-20's and the sun made punctuated appearances.

Continue to follow the AT to Derrick Knob Shelter where a reliable spring offers a refilling point for water bottles. Not long past Derrick Knob Shelter turn left onto the well-graded Green Brier Ridge Trail. After descending Greenbrier Ridge, turn right onto Lynn Camp Prong Trail and continue to second night's camp at Campsite 28.

I thought that there was a chance that our second night might be at an elevation low enough to be below the snow-line, but it was not. The presence of the snow, however, allowed us to see tracks of coyotes, elk, and black bear that had all traveled the Lynn Camp Prong trail that day. We camped at the relatively small site, situated by the modestly sized stream that borders it. We had a good fire and warm tea as it snowed for the last several hours of the day.

On your final morning, backtrack to the last intersection and turn right onto Middle Prong Trail which skirts the Middle Prong of the Little River and showcases several of its cascades along the way. The trail here is flat, wide and leisurely and the river is beautiful and dramatic. Continue 4.1 miles on Middle Prong Trail onto the Tremont Road (gravel) and continue on the road an additional 3 miles back to the trailhead.

For this trip's complete photo album click here.
Permits: Great Smoky Mountains National Park requires a permit for all backcountry camping in the park. Backcountry permits are free and are available at Smokemont or any other Ranger Station or Visitor Center in the park. Campsite 28 does not require reservation and is on a first come, first served basis, while the Spence Field Shelter requires a reservation. If your itinerary includes a reserved site, you must call the Backcountry Reservation Office at (865) 436-1231 to make reservations. The Backcountry Reservation Office is open from 8:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. daily.
Contact: Backcountry Information Office at (865) 436-1297 (open daily from 9:00 a.m. until noon); Backcountry Reservation Office at (865) 436-1231 to make reservations (open from 8:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. daily); .
To Trailhead: From I-40 west, exit 386B to Alcoa Hwy/US 129 to Townsend entrance of GSMNP. Go to the Y-int and turn right towards Cades Cove, then left over bridge onto Tremont rd for 2 miles (cross 2, 2-lane bridges). Tremont Inst. (permits avail. here) is on left and the trailhead is across on the right.

Check Back! GPS Beta coming soon at:

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Panthertown Crown Loop, Nantahala NF, NC

Tucked in the southwest corner of North Carolina is a little piece of Nantahala National Forest land called Panthertown Valley that, with its exposed granite domes and myriad waterfalls, is often referred to as the "Yosemite of the East." This loop hike highlights all that this area has to offer including seven of its cascades.

Panthertown Valley is found at the headwaters of the Tuckaseegee River on the NW shoulder of Toxaway Mountain about midway between Cullowhee and Cashiers, NC. The valley is relatively flat at about 4,000' in elevation, with several exposed granite domes rising upwards of 600' from the valley floor.

Part of the Nantahala National Forest, the 6,300 acres comprising Panthertown Valley was acquired by the USFS only recently in 1989 and still has substantial adjoining wild private land. Prior to USFS ownership the land was logged extensively by the Moltz Lumber Company. Next ownership went to regional power giant, Duke Energy, who built high tension power lines through the heart of the valley before selling the land to the Nature Conservancy for $8 Million. It is this powerline that bars this region from being designated a wilderness area, however the trail system is still quite primitive and ample opportunities for solitude exist. Those attempting this loop should be cautioned that there are no trail markers and routefinding can be a challenge. Study maps of the area closely and bring a compass and/or GPS and know how to use them to navigate.

Trail starts at Parking on the west side and follows the orange track.

This hike starts from the Breedlove Road trailhead on the westernmost rim of the area. Leaving the parking area you'll climb along the ridge leading to the summit of BlackRock Mountain with occasional views of the valley and opposing cliffs and ridges. Upon reaching the summit you'll turn to drop into the second-growth forests of the valley which mix pines, hardwoods and rhododendrons along ridges and stream valleys.

After crossing the powerline cut you'll soon come to the first of seven cascades on this hike as well as the first of several fords. Use caution in crossing here as you are at the top of the falls and the wet rocks are very slick. Short, quick and obvious scrambles off the main trail will bring you to the next two (and increasingly impressive) falls.

Next, after crossing back under the power lines arrive at SchoolHouse Falls which boasts a sandy beach and Olympic size swimming hole before starting up the ascent of Little Green Mountain. The open summit of Little Green Mountain rewards the climb with sweeping views and blueberries in the late summer. For many, the open granite slabs of the summit are a destination for low-impact camping with sunrise and sunset displays.

The granite domes of Panthertown were formed as bubbles of molten lava cooled nearly one billion years ago forming the smooth granite which have been exposed by erosion.
Descending off of Little Green the next stretch offers ample opportunity for wildlife viewing as you pass through forest on a gradual traverse of the Southern section of the valley and a gradual climb up the flanks of Big Green Mountain. While the ascent and summit of Big Green are under mature canopy, exploration of short side trails can result in rewarding viewpoints and potential stealth campsites (if you bring you water). The descent from the summit is steep and ends at an old logging road in a campsite-rife pine flat.

Heading west you'll come across three more of the falls on the loop: the fifth is a several-hundred yard-long gradual cascade, the sixth is a 10 foot tall, six foot wide drop, and the seventh plunges a dramatic distance in a narrow, but steady stream.

At the top of the final falls its a short climb further to reach the wide, gravel roadbed which returns to the Breedlove Parking area.

At just about ten miles, this loop is an excellent weekend introduction to the Panthertown Valley, sampling both its peaks and valleys. However, given the nebulous network of trails, one could easily spend much more time here and explore all corners of this lush and geographically unique area.

For the complete Panthertown photo album click here.

The Hike: From Breedlove Parking Area:
Take trail 488 uphill from parking area (left of gate) * bear right at the 1st intersection to stay on trail * follow ridge and turn right near the summit of Blackrock Mtn * descend ridge to intersect trail 448A and turn left * turn right onto trail 491 and arrive at 1st ford and falls on the Tuckaseegee River * bear right on the first connector trail past ford * turn right on trail 486 and at !/4 miles and 1/2 miles descend obvious steep side trails to the right to reach falls 2 and 3 * continuing on trail 486 reach Schoolhouse falls with large pool and beach at its base * bear right just past the falls to ascend trail 485 to the summit of Little Green Mtn. * bear left at the summit to descend the south side * turn left on trail 453 * turn right at next intersection onto trail 469 and ascend Big Green Mtn staying right to continue on to the summit * from summit descend steeply to intersect trail 453 and turn left * take immediate left onto trail 450 and arrive at next falss within 1/4 mile * turn right at ford and quick left to continue onto trail 450 * bear left onto trail 449 and reach next falls within 1/4 mile * bear right at falls to ascend beside impressive final falls * connect with trail 448 and turn left to return to gate and parking*
Trailhead: From I-40 take I-26 East to exit 40. Follow NC-280 west to US-64 near Brevard. Follow NC-64 through Brevard to Lake Toxaway. Turn North (right) on Cedar Creek Road and follow for approximately 2.2 miles. This will be about 1.9 miles East of Cashiers. Turn right at the brown and yellow USFS Panthertown sign on Breedlove Road. Follow for approximately 3.5 miles to gate and trailhead parking. (Lat:35.16898 Lon:-83.04012)
Ranger Contact: US Forest Service, Nantahala National Forest - 828-526-3765

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Backcountry Lemmings: 'Into the Wild' Pilgrimage Blunders Continue

Since publication of the bestselling account of the travels and death of Chris McCandless, "Into the Wild," by Jon Krakauer and the release of the film by the same name directed by Sean Penn, a previously little-known corner of the Alaska wilderness has seen a boom in its backcountry traffic.

"Into the Wild" chronicles the inner conflicts, Kerouac-ian travels and ultimate demise of a well-to-do recent college graduate who abandons his worldly possessions to roam free and ultimately try his hand at survival in the Alaska wilderness near Denali National Park. His final destination was an old, abandoned, 1940's era bus that had been scrapped along the Stampede Trail near the borders of Denali NP. The bus had been converted over time by hunters and hikers into a makeshift shelter with a pipe stove and bunk and it was here, 22 miles from the road that McCandless lived for a short while before dying of starvation related to poisoning form foraged vegetation.

The "Magic Bus" Photo by Associated Press

The "Magic Bus" as McCandless dubbed it, has become a destination for fans of the book and movie who are curious to see the location or wish to pay homage to the story's protagonist, but many, like McCandless are woefully unprepared for the trip.

The most recent lemmings to demonstrate their backcountry ignorance on a national stage were 19-year-old Donald Carroll from Illinois and 21-year-old Jia Long He from China. They set out on the 22-mile trek in cotton street clothes with only minimal food and no equipment. According to a report by the Anchorage Daily News the pair set out on Friday and were last seen by hikers along the trail. On Monday, after being several days overdue, the pair were rescued via helicopter and were reported to be cold, wet and hungry, but otherwise fine. While the trip itself is not particularly arduous, it does require a level of preparation and skill beyond the typical looky-loo tourist. The crux of the trip is the Teklanika River which swells considerably in warmer months with snowmelt from the surrounding mountains and presents a significant challenge to hikers seeking to cross. In fact, it was this river that ultimately sealed the fate of McCandless who crossed initially when the Teklanika was only a small stream before the melt. When he fell ill and attempted to find egress from the wilderness the river had swelled considerably and presented as impassible.

Lessons to be learned?

  • First of all, know your ability level. Carroll and his companion clearly had no backcountry skill at all. These types don't belong beyond a car-camping tent-site until they gain some knowledge and experience, let alone in the Alaska Backcountry.

  • Second, dress for conditions. Cotton = Death. While synthetic fabrics such as polyester, nylon, and lycra and natural fibers such as wool continue to insulate when wet, cotton actually pulls warmth from your body when wet. This can occur even from perspiration. Hypothermia results from a drop in body temperature of only 3 degrees which can occur in even relatively mild conditions. Don't wear cotton (jeans, t-shirts, socks), even on a dayhike. The best bet is to dress in layers and add or remove layers as needed to prevent chill or sweating. Base-layer + insulating layer + outer shell (weatherproof) is the best formula for success (hey, its what the Navy Seals use!)

  • Protect your feet. According to reports, Carroll was wearing tennis shoes with plastic bags covering them for the 22-mile trek in wet conditions. During my 7-month AT thru-hike I learned repeatedly that there are times that there's nothing you can do about wet feet - it happens. Even Gore-Tex footwear gets wet. The key is to dry your feet out when you can and don't let them stay wet. Bring at least one change of socks and let your feet dry out in camp at the very least. Wet feet can draw heat from your core quickly, not to mention how quickly wet skin gets damaged while supporting a load over miles of rough trail.

  • Put gas in your tank. Bring adequate food and make sure that it includes carbs for instant energy, fat for stored fuel and protein for building and repairing muscle. One great ultralight and effective diet plan is one developed by Epic Adventurer Andrew Skurka for his 6,875 mile Great Western Loop (click for details).

Perhaps the most pathetic detail about this story is that this is not the first rescue for Mr. Carroll in Alaska....THIS SUMMER! In June he texted Rangers (yes, hes wa that close to civilization) for rescue after getting soaked while hiking near Mt Healy in blue Jeans and a Sweatshirt. The Stampede Trail requires no permit nor special arrangements for Backcountry Travel, so this will likely not be the last rescue story from the "Magic Bus." I personally think these people should be charged for the Search and Rescue effort including use of the helicopter. People who are reckless in the backcountry endanger not only themselves, but the professionals and volunteers that have to save them. Carroll has been warned by Alaska Rangers that if he's spotted hiking in Alaska again that he will be arrested. Sounds fair to me. Hike safe and happy trails.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Gettin' Loopy in Shenandoah: Rocky Top to Big Run

In the Southwestern section of Shenandoah National Park is a seldom-travelled loop hike that offers an incredible sampling of what the park has to offer (wildlife, rocky ridges, trout steams, lush forested valleys) without the crowds and traffic that can take the "wild" out of the Shenandoah wilderness.
This 14-mile loop begins and ends at the Brown's Gap Parking at Mile 82 on Skyline Drive. From there it follows the yellow-blazed Big Run Loop Trail for 1/2 mile to its intersection with the blue-blazed Rocky Top Trail (left). From here its approximately 5 1/2 miles of ridgeline before dropping steeply into the lush valley created by Big Run and a righthand turn onto the yellow-blazed Big Run Trail. Along this ridgeline section keep your eyes peeled for the numerous inhabitants of the park. We saw lizards (fence swifts), whitetail deer, black bear and timber rattlesnakes in this section, the latter of which can be a VERY unpleasant surprise if you're not paying attention.

Pack plenty of water as this ridgewalk offers none, but we did find a veritable bounty of ripe blueberries and blackberries (mid-August). Some of the terrain here is rugged and rocky due to an intense fire that burned this ridge in 1986 and apparently damage topsoil to such a degree that parts of this forest have yet to begin to recover. Other sections of the ridge have fully recovered and host a mature canopy with ample shade while still others have slowly begun to re-establish vegetation with low-shrubs and young trees. The result is an ever-changing canvas complete with fern-carpeted tree-tunnels as well as open rocky vistas. The descent to Big Run is a long, rocky traverse (1400 vertical feet) that is exposed to afternoon sun and gets hot in the warmer months and can make for sore feet by the time you reach the water.

Approximately 1/2 mile after turning right onto the yellow-blazed Big Run Trail is the only bridge on the trip and the intersection with the blue-blazed Brown Mountain Trail. Primitive campsites of varying sizes can be found up and down the streambank here with the larger spots located downstream from the intersection.

The next day is as dark, cool, and wet as the previous day was exposed, hot, and dry. Build time into your itinerary to fish (VA fishing license required - Creel limit is 6 trout over 9 inches), swim, and explore this area. At one point I bushwhacked up a ridge and sat quietly on a rock to observe the forest away from the trail. Within 45 minutes I was treated to a yearling male black bear who passed less than 50 feet in front of me while foraging on insects under rocks, hickory nuts, acorns and pecans. There is so much wildlife in Shenandoah that on my Appalachian Trail thru-hike I saw 5 bears in one 2-hour period one morning. Taking some time to sit quietly, watch and listen can yield some huge payoffs.

The trail crosses Big run a total of 8 times on its gentle climb to the intersection with the Big Run Loop Trail. Ample primitive camping opportunities exist within 1/2 mile of this intersection and an epic fishing hole (approximately 50 brook and rainbow trout with about 1/3 over the keeper size) at the second ford after Patterson Ridge Trail splits left from the main trail.

The final two miles is a steep climb on the Big Run Loop Trail (Yellow Blazed to the right) back to the original intersection with the Rocky Top Trail (straight) and back to the parking lot via Big Run Loop.

Entrance to Shenandoah National Park requires a $15 dollar per-vehicle entrance fee and is valid for 7 days. Backcountry camping requires a free backcountry permit that can be obtained at entrance stations and various other sites along the Skyline Drive.

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