Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Woody Gap to Springer Mountain 20.5 Section Hike

Day 1: Wed. afternoon, August 17th
Bill K. drives his loaded down vehicle with Reggie, Janet, and J.D. past Suches, Georgia, to Woody Gap where they jump out and quickly heft packs on to their backs. It is a perfect temperature at 5 o'clock as they start southward; the air fresh and spirits high. Bill sets the pace and his female devotees stay close on his heels. Cresting the ridge of Ramrock Mtn. they enjoy the splendid view!

Now beginning to climb, an undulating path takes them deep within a hardwood forest with soaring, stately trees. Here and there a chipmunk scampers or poles click on rocks, but words are scarce as they push toward Gooch Gap and then beyond to Gooch Shelter- 5.5 miles.

 Janet shows Reggie how to hoist her
'ghostly' looking pack (covered with a poncho in case of rain). A cacophony of tree frogs and a mournful hoot howl kee them company as night closes in.
Day 2: After a fitful rest by the 3 females, they arise in the early morning to find the packs weren't safe from the critters after all. Janet and Reggie both have evidence that something was in their packs. Note the pictures here:!
The damage to Reggie's water reservoir mouthpiece proves to be a huge problem as the day wears on. Bill kindly offers her the use of one of his water bottles since she only has one other. On the trail by 8:00am and within a mile+ finds them on a slight descent to Justus Creek a/k/a Devil's Kitchen, a scenic junction with campsites and the last water source until the destination of Hawk Mtn. Shelter. 
Then it is a climb up Justus Mtn., a foreshadowing of what is to come! (climb, descend). Descent to Cooper Gap, a tougher ascent of Sassafras Mtn., descent to Horse Gap where they run in to an Army ranger scouting for maneuvers. (The guide books inform you that you are close to Camp Merrell, a training ground for the Rangers.)
Crossing a FS Road and another climb up Hightower Gap. Now, it's really getting tough. Reggie is on her second bottle of water that Bill has lent her. Each take turn leading, stopping to rest at intervals, until arriving at a level plateau.  Here they meet John and Carl, buddies of Bill's who took his car and left it at FS Road 42 where the group is to retrieve it. John and Carl are headed to Neel's Gap. Passing off Bill's keys, they also give bad news: this climb isn't over. There is almost an hour more of hiking, 2 more climbs, before Hawk Mtn. Shelter. With dread, they take off to get there before eating lunch. It's now after one o'clock. They've been hiking 5 hours with heavy boots, labored breaths, and Bill is now is out of water.

J.D. and Reggie force themselves to a faster pace, racing toward the shelter. Finally there, they throw off packs and head off in the direction where Reggie thinks the sign points toward the water.  About 1/2 mile later, she knows she's hit the wrong trail! Retracing steps, they find the right trail, get to the water, and begin to fill water bottles. Janet arrives to let them know that Bill is at the shelter. Sending her back with water, they finish filling water containers and then each clean up while they have the chance!

Altogether at Hawk Shelter now (7.5 miles), they rest, taking stock of the tough day. It takes a while to recover, but eventually, they decide to forego lunch and eat an early dinner. A couple of firefighters from Florida join them, but decide to tent camp nearby. Reggie and Janet think sleep will be better in tents also and set up. However, thunder rolls and sprinkles convince them to move the tents inside the shelter!

After good conversation and laughter, they all settle down for the night. Rain never comes, but the night sky is soon crowded with helicopters swooping back and forth: the Rangers are playing! Reggie announces to the others that it stinks in her tent. Hmnn?

Day 3: The group had agreed to wake up by 5:45am and get started early, but Bill jumps the gun a bit and is up by 4:15am. Soon, the group has on headlamps, quietly preparing coffee, hot chocolate, oatmeal, etc.  By 5:50am, they wait for a bit of light so they can start off safely. Bill hints it is sometimes nice to hike in the dark, and that is all it takes for them to get boots on the trail.

It is surreal. For long stretches, soft mist plays on the profusion of ferns spied by the bouncing light of the headlamps. Bill points out the interesting half-white ferns in one area which we think is due to the effects of drought.

This 'flowering fungus' is on a log.
Janet and J.D. both have taped up blisters on their feet, but bravely keep the pace on the gradual descent to Long Creek Falls. Then at Three Forks, a picturesque spot by a FS Road and a beautiful creek, they take a break where J.D. treats her feet again. Crossing the creek, a gradual climb takes them to a re-routed trail which led to Stover Creek Shelter. Climbing more, their tired feet finally find FS Road 42 and Bill's car! 7.1 miles. While Bill moves the car closer (walking across the parking area seemed sooo far), the girls debate  the necessity of finishing the .9 miles up to the top of Springer. In the end, they all head up...even J.D. and her blistered, taped feet. And it is worth it. 7.8 miles.

Coming out on that rocky precipice the view spreads out before them with the rolling hills far below. It seems as if the air itself swirls with the hopes and dreams of the thousands that have tromped there before. A niggling wistfulness settles in Reggie's heart when she ensconces herself on that big rock atop Springer Mtn. She pulls from the metal lockbox the plain composition notebook with entries from folks from all walks of life. The moment is full of both promise and tenderness; yearnings of each individual standing there could not possibly be written in ink on those pages in a couple of short lines. So, she settles on a few words from Ullysses by Tennyson. 'Life to the Lees' four words that encompass a lot. (Reggie would like to officially acknowledge her appreciation to Bill Kinnaman. He helped instill in her the confidence to pursue the dream of following that elusive, long path called the Appalachian Trail.) And she couldn't have done it with any better hiking buddies than Bill, sweet Janet, and encouraging J.D. The first of what the Chronicler hopes is many sections hikes on the AT!

A happy, satisfied, stinky, motley group  rides back home!