3 Days Backpacking the Appalachian Trail

I didn’t think that the autumn season here in the Red River Gorge was going to be as busy as I had thought back in the summer. On a Saturday in October, Gladie Visitor Center tallied over 800 people for the day; according to a seasonal employee, it was the highest number of visitors she had recorded whilst working there. On the trails, the activity was just as high and demanding for my coworkers and myself.

Spring and autumn are our fire seasons here in Kentucky. Relative humidity is low, precipitation is (generally) less than winter and summer, and thus fire danger is often greater. I have extinguished as many as 6 abandoned campfires in one day, left behind by careless people who are completely oblivious to their surroundings. On one such day, I picked up a half-full 24 fl oz bottle of charcoal lighter fluid that some thoughtless fool left behind at their (illegal) campsite…their campfire was also still hot and smouldering when we got to it (big-time no-no). But two more nearby abandoned campfires proved to be the icing-on-the-cake of human stupidity, for these sites on Auxiere Ridge were located in an area that had previously burned the year prior. You can still see the scattered remnants of that blaze, the charred snags and blackened, live trees, standing like stark, foreboding shadows wearing the brand of someone else’s recklessness. Scanning the ground for more clues, you might even see where firefighters cut the control line. At the time, I was with a coworker who fought that very fire and was part of the crew who scratched that same control line into the soil. Needless to say, he was not in a good mood.

Seeing things like this on almost every weekend for two seasons can be rather depressing, as it can greatly lessen one’s faith in our species. Being a ranger is not about hiking the trails and enjoying the views of the natural landscape, and then going home to a rustic cabin beside a mountain lake, as many people romanticize. It is both physically and mentally demanding – restoring the Resource from abuse and misuse, whilst also trying to educate visitors about the Resource, so that they may be more prepared, and carry a greater respect for the land. Every time I find solitude, come across a natural wonder, or see some outdoor educators lead a home-school group’s Nature walk, I feel rejuvenated….and I soak it up as much as I can, for these are the things that keep me going.

Recently, I have been reading a wonderful book by Kyle Rohrig (“Mayor”), ‘Lost On The Appalachian Trail‘. I started reading it whilst house-sitting for a coworker – whom I will henceforth refer to as “Ed” –  who had left his copy on the dining room table. I was drawn to it like a bear to honey, and after the first pages, I was sucked in. I highly recommend it for anyone wanting to section or thru-hike the AT…it is a incredible odyssey. Some weeks after house-sitting for Ed, he invited me to join him on a backpacking trip on the AT. Of course, I couldn’t refuse, and my supervisor generously allowed me the time off.

The whole trip was spread out over 5 days. Ed and I stayed at the Mountain Harbor hostel on the first night and arranged for a shuttle to take us to Carver’s Gap. Our plan was to hike up Roan Mountain to the High Knob shelter, and then head back to Highway 19E. Here’s a look of the area on a topo map: http://www.appalachianhighcountrytrails.com/appalachian_trail_-_roan_mountain-topo_map.html.

 

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Ed checking the kiosk map at Carver’s Gap.

Our shuttle dropped us off at around 0930 on the morning of the 2nd of November. It was a beautiful day, and we checked out Round Bald before ascending Roan Mtn. I am glad we took the scenic route…

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Sharing our company were Hemlock and Maple, Ed’s two pooches.

The balds were home to a number of interesting plant species, some of which were unfamiliar to me. There was a lot of blackberry, wild strawberry, and tons mixed Native grasses, as well as numerous stalks of some member of the Carrot family, Apiaceae, which I could not identify at the time. I later found out that this particular plant is Mountain Angelica, Angelica triquinata. Every now and then were clumps of Catawba Rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense), sometimes sheltered by Red Spruce (Picea rubens) and Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri).

From a distance, Red Spruce and Fraser Fir can look similar. I differentiate by examining the needles. Fraser Fir needles are flatter and distinctively bluish-green on the undersides. Red Spruce has short, pointed needles. Fraser Fir also has numerous blisters on its bark, much like that of its more northern kin, Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea), which are filled with fragrant resin. You can also crush the needles to release this scent. Here’s a comparison of the two:

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Both species were much more plentiful on Roan Mtn.

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As soon as the gradual climb began, you could smell that opulent aroma of Fraser Fir. With every breath I inhaled crisp mountain air, accented by the essence of its rich forest…it was intoxicating.

In a short time, we reached the Roan High Knob shelter, which is the highest shelter (in terms of elevation) on the entire AT.

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The shelter is situated next to the base of an old Forest Service fire tower. Nearby is a USGS survey marker. Unless I am mistaken, this is the highest point on Roan Mtn.

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We set up camp in the surrounding forest before making dinner. I brought both my tipi tarp shelter and a bivy bag. I chose the bivy for the night, with my Snugpak sleeping bag and two liners for extra warmth. The weather forecast at the hostel was favourable for our trip, but mountain weather is not known for “agreeing” with reports from the valley. I was prepared for a 10 F difference in temperature, and in the back of my mind, I had a feeling that the clear weather wouldn’t last.

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I brought three stove systems with me…my Emberlit, DIY Esbit burner, and the canister stove. Looking back, this was overkill and extra weight. I didn’t use the Emberlit or Esbit burner once, but I brought them thinking that the temperature would plummet. Canister stoves like mine aren’t ideal for colder conditions, especially with the butane-propane fuel I had. Nevertheless, it functioned just fine for the trip…daytime temperatures never dropped below 40 F. For convenience, most of my food was the dehydrated, boil-‘n-bag type, except for some granola mix and several energy bars.

After consuming a meal of re-hydrated enchilada, I brewed some Fraser Fir needle tea. It was captivatingly delicious, more pleasing than any other wild tea I have made before. The tricks to a great wild infusion are to brew it like Oolong, and use twice as much of the green plant as you think you need (or 1/4 cup chopped plant to 1 cup water ratio). With Oolong tea, you don’t use boiling hot water. As soon as small bubbles rise, take it off the burner, pour, and let it steep. I don’t bother trying to filter out conifer needles from my tea. I rather like to chew on them, and they are rich in Vitamin C.

After making camp and stuffing our faces, Ed and I decided to explore the area around Roan High Bluff trail-head. The recreation area, accessed by Forest Road 1348, was closed for the winter season. This bald (below) used to be the site of the Cloudland hotel almost 100 years ago. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Here and there were patches of snow and ice, leftover from 3 days before.

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We took the Cloudland trail to Roan High Bluff for a view of the sunset. It was spectacular…we were literally at cloud level.

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At around 1815, the clouds rolled in all around us, and I managed to capture the moment of the sun’s rays piercing the darkening sky. It was stunning to behold.

By 1830, it was getting dark fast, and the wind was picking up, so Ed and I headed back to camp. We received a sprinkling of rain for maybe 2 minutes during the night, though the moisture of passing clouds saturated everything. By 2100, the sky above us had mostly cleared. I stayed nice and toasty in my bivy, soaking-in the mesmerizing experience of wind whistling through the canopy of aromatic conifers.

The next day we descended Roan Mtn, and made for the Overmountain Shelter. Being that it was Friday, we saw a lot of people around Round Bald. The clouds returned, shrouding the landscape in a misty cloak. Below is the view of Grassy Ridge and Jane Bald in the distance from Round Bald.

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Here’s the view looking back at Round Bald and Roan Mtn (behind the cloud :P) from Jane Bald.

Further on, we passed-by some southbound thru-hikers, “Halloween” (who complimented my “very good” uphill stride), and “Barbecue”. We also ran into “Dolphin”, and her hiking “pod” of ladies, making their way to Overmountain Shelter. In her group was an older woman who had thru-hiked the entire AT back in 2012…and for the life of me, I cannot remember her trail-name.

 

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After passing the Stan Murray Shelter, we reached Overmountain Shelter at around 1600.

 

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Dolphin and her pod arrived shortly after us, setting up for the night inside the shelter, whilst Ed and I pitched our own shelters in the adjacent grassy field. As the afternoon wore on, some more section hikers arrived, as well as another thru-hiker (whose name I cannot remember). It became a merry gathering, and I enjoyed the camaraderie. I picked up the trail-name “Free-Ranger” after describing my job and for being a “free-spirit”. I soon started the campfire preparations, and by 1715, the weather was changing again as a cloud spilled into our valley. After dinner, a passing rain shower came through, putting a damper on the campfire plan in the eyes of my fellow hikers, but I do love a challenge, and I had a secret weapon.

Dolphin offered me two pre-made paraffin wax fire starters, but I politely declined, as I prefer to start all my fires with natural materials. It’s more of a learning experience and teaches you to adapt. Once again, the graceful Fraser Fir provided what I needed…resin. I simply took a small, sharpened stick, popped some bark blisters (collecting the resin onto the stick), and lit it with my Bic lighter. It dried out and ignited the damp tinder and kindling – soon enough, we had a campfire.

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For my efforts, I was rewarded with a cup of hot cider and a splash (or two) of Fireball. I stayed up chatting until 2230. The night was very windy, with frequent light rain showers.

I awoke rather late in the morning at 0930, just when Dolphin and her pod were starting to leave for Highway 19E. Ed and I got going at around 1100. It was a steady climb up Little Hump Mtn, and I soon took off my outer layers. The wind picked up again, and by the time I reached the top of Big Hump Mtn, the gusts were probably close to 45 mph. The slick, muddy trail combined with the strong winds made the going slow and treacherous. At around 1315, I found a sheltered spot back in the tree-line to boil up some lunch. Ed caught up with me, and I began the even more treacherous descent down Big Hump Mtn. I almost slipped on my arse twice, one time skidding 5 ft in the mud. When I reached Doll Flats, the mists parted, revealing an otherwise peaceful day. From there, it was an easy descent back to 19E and Mountain Harbor hostel.

Dolphin and her pod arrived about an hour after Ed and I. We agreed to stay at the hostel for another night, and planned on going out into town for dinner. We chose a small business pizza place, and were soon joined by the Dolphin pod. We enjoyed a fine meal in each other’s company before departing. It was a superb way to end our hike.

I sure had a blast. We trekked around 23.5 miles total, and the experience seems to have planted a seed of inspiration in my mind. The weather may have turned foul in the mountainous terrain, but it only added to the challenge. I remember laughing at the top of Big Hump Mtn, the wind and mists whipping across the bald summit. I was reveling in the spontaneity of it all, joyful because the mountains taught me to be flexible, and for the first time in months, I felt free…I had risen up from myself.

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