Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Trying New Things

    I guess a week was a little long to go without an update.  I’ve gotten word of rumors that I fell off a cliff, was eaten by a bear, and was kidnapped by the Chinese space program.  I intended those to be separate rumored fates, but I suppose I could have been kidnapped by the Chinese, thrown off a cliff when they found out how little I knew and then eaten by a bear at the bottom of the cliff.  Regardless, I am alive and well.
    Something happened early last Tuesday morning that happens often to me when I’m sleeping in a tent – I get my dreams and reality confused (perhaps I need some object to keep in my pocket that I can hold to know for sure).  I dreamt that I was walking around the woods performing some task that I needed to do before I left (that’s not code for something – I just can’t remember what the task was).
    On my drive from Tennessee to northern Georgia, I stopped at a public beach in the Cherokee National Forest.  There were a few families there and the cool water felt nice after so many nights of sweating myself to sleep.
    Along the drive, I had been using my fancy phone to try to find a place that sells bear spray (basically pepper spray on steroids).  It’s something I really, really wanted to have before I set up camp in bear country.  After a couple failed attempts, I found a place in Blue Ridge, GA that had it, but by the time I called them they had closed.  Luckily, they were staying after hours doing some remodeling and let me in to buy some.  They were quite nice: they offered me a beer and gave me directions to some local campgrounds.  I’m starting to learn that hikers are very trusting of and very generous to each other.
    It was pouring down rain when I left the store, but I had set a goal to tent camp for a week straight before I got a motel to sort of get me adjusted to the low budget road life, so I set out toward Morganton campground in the Chattahoochee National Forest.  I camped on a small, forested peninsula surrounded by a rock and clay beach.
       I awoke the next morning to see two dogs looking at me through my mesh tent door.  I wasn’t happy to see them, but they didn’t stick around very long.  The real animal show of the morning was the ducks.  As I was packing up camp, this mother duck and 7 or 8 baby ducklings cautiously approached me.  Because their tactics were less aggressive than the kitten, I was okay with them.  Anytime I got close to them in packing stuff up, the mother would call back the group.  They moved as an organized unit when following me back to my car.  After I was packed, I threw them a piece of bread and they turned into a different group of ducks.  All of them rushed to grab the piece and when a duckling grabbed it and sprinted off with it, the others rushed after him.  I threw a few more pieces and chaos ensued as all of them fought each other for a piece, mother ripping a piece away from her offspring.  I was glad all my stuff was packed because I was afraid these ducks were about to turn on me.  After I made sure each greedy duck had a piece, I got in my car and left.
       I had breakfast at one of a few places in the sparsely populated areas of Georgia and Tennessee that I think I would be afraid of were I not from the South.  Really country places with only a few beat up pickup trucks in the parking lot.  The food is always good (taste wise, not for you) and the conversations interesting: “I’ll tell you what they should do when they catch em’ crossin’ (one man in the restaurant said as a Fox News program was talking about illegal immigration in Arizona).  They should put em’ to work for five years for free and then throw em’ back.”
       Later that morning I drove to Woody Gap which is one about 27 miles from the Appalachian Trail start point.  I saw it was 3.5 miles to the next gap, so I decided to go there and back to get a taste of what hiking the AT in the mountains was like.  Before I left, I chatted three guys in their early twenties who were in the middle of a two week AT hike.  Apparently one of them almost stepped on a three foot rattlesnake earlier in the day.
       At the start of the trail was a big warning sign of the bears in the area.  My plan was to make a lot of noise as I hiked and keep the bear spray in my right front pocket.  My initial noise plan was humming, but when that interfered with breathing, I switched to clapping.  I thought of it as applauding nature for being so beautiful while at the same time letting bears know I was in the area.
       The first part of the trail didn’t have much elevation change and I was getting a little cocky at how easy it was (I had ~10lb pack on).  The first big uphill section was very steep and very hard on me.  After the second big uphill, I was bending over huffing and puffing and decided to take a snack break at an overlook.  I made it to Gooch Gap and back in about 4 hours.  Only saw a few squirrels.
       After some dinner of pizza and my first road trip beer (Sam Adams) at an Italian place I had been to on a road trip in February, I drove to the top of Black Rock Mountain State Park.  This was the first place I went where more than half the tent campsites were full.  It started pouring down rain after I had set up my tent, and I thought I was golden since it was set up, so I hung out under a porch near the bathroom.  About an hour later when the rain softened, I found that I had left the rain fly open on one of the doors, so that side was soaking wet.  I slept without wiping it up.
       The next morning I hiked a 2.5 mile loop in the park that lead to the top of the mountain and what I believe is the highest elevation in Georgia (I’ll have to check pictures).  When I started my car to leave, a warning beep sounded and a light flashed on dashboard.  Low coolant.  I would have suspected a leak had I not run out of washer fluid a couple days ago.  Somehow I get the feeling that some of the steps on the 29 point inspection I got done on my car before the trip turned into the mechanics picking each other’s noses (I G-rated that one, but no promises for the future).
       I spent late morning and early afternoon at Foxfire Museum which is on the mountain.  The whole Foxfire thing started back in like the 50s or 60s or so when this high school English teacher was trying to get his kids to want to learn.  He gave them an assignment to interview their grandparents to find out how life was back when they were young (all around the southern Appalachian area).  It worked.  The kids turned their interviews into a magazine which turned into a book which is currently on like edition 15 or so.  The museum is sort of an outdoor self guided walking tour where you can see buildings from the late 1800s and early 1900s and some of the tools that were used then.  Things like blacksmith shops, hog butchering stations, churches/schools (one building for both – apparently the church used to be the first building built in every town), meat storage, and a linen making room where there’s a lady making scarves and blankets.  As usual, I found reading the quotes at the end of the tour the most interesting.  Things that stand out in my mind were people saying that they would never live in the city even if someone gave them the whole city (even though they never lived in the city), that back then people would talk to you for half a day if they ran into you and you wanted to talk, and that if you got sick, people would take care of you better.  Lesson of the day: talk to your grandparents about how things were when they were younger!
       Since I’d made my 7 nights of camping in a row, I stayed in a motel in Bryson City, NC.  You plannermaniacs would be proud of me: to find somewhere to whitewater raft, I picked up a few brochures, made some phones calls to get start times, prices and even the location of the place I wanted to go!  Because of this, of course, I was a nervous wreck the next day making sure I got there on time.
       I ended up doing a guide-assisted rafting trip.  Everybody else in my group was in a raft with a guide, but I was in a single person “funyak”.  I didn’t want to be in a six person raft with a guide doing all the steering and didn’t want to go totally unguided and end up in a class 5 rapid (this was my first white water rafting experience).  The lady on the phone indicated I would probably fall out a lot if I chose this option.  It worked out well though.  I really enjoyed it and didn’t fall out (even in the short class III rapid section at the end).  The one time I did hop out to swim, it was icy cold (like 47 degrees) and I got right back in.  I spent a lot of time laying down and coasting along (much easier than a calm river where you have to provide power and steering).  Perhaps my next rafting adventure will be down a class III-IV – we’ll see.
       After I dried off and ate lunch at the local burger basket where I got to see a live hillbilly catfight in the parking lot, I headed to Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  I wanted to do some backwoods camping, perhaps a 1-2 night loop.  After talking to one of the guys at the visitor’s center and looking over the (non-topological) trail map, the route that best fit my needs (full loop from parking area that didn’t involve hiking down roads or backtracking down same trail and included hiking some part of the AT) was a 3 night, ~40 mile hike.
       I had only backwoods camped once by myself and the trip did not go well (it was in De Soto National Forest, MS).  Camping and hiking alone can be terrifying at times.  I spent around 2-3 hours laying out all my backpacking gear on the picnic table at my campsite at Smokemont campground which was at the start of my hike.  I planned to leave early the next morning, but knew I would need all evening to sort out all my gear.  I had used my stove a few times and only tested my water filter (never used it in order to survive).  I had never hiked in the mountains with a full sized backpack (mine weighed ~45lbs).  My route called for about 10-12 miles of hiking each day which I remembered was about what an (experienced) AT through hiker did in a day.  I did not study what elevation changes I’d be experiencing (possible foreshadowing here), only glancing at the model of the mountains in the visitor’s center to see that I would indeed be going uphill at some point (I wanted to experience some good uphill hiking).
       That night I walked around the campgrounds with my loaded backpack on to test how the straps were set.  There were dozens of groups camping – mostly families with tons and tons of gear.  I couldn’t believe how many people brought crates and crates of gear.  The guy next to me had a big trailer for all his gear.  Air mattresses, barbeque pits, giant tarps that blanked whole campsites, shelters just for picnic tables.  I felt kind of out of place.  I saw one group of a man and two teenage boys with some backpacking tents and asked if they had backwoods camping plans.  The man said they did, but got soaked today.  They were going over some maps.
       I was pretty scared about my hike before I had organized my gear because I knew I was undertaking a fairly large challenge, especially for a beginner.  I felt better once I laid out all my gear and double checked to made sure I had everything and my pack felt good.  I slept fairly well that night, got up early, ate a quick breakfast and headed to the start of the trail.


cholton said...

Shades of dueling banjos, Ryan has only been gone only a couple weeks and he already has hillbilly girls fighting over him. Next we hear from him will be by direct TV (there’s no cable in the back woods) and it will be Ryan plus 8. Those hillbilly girls are durable, plus one of those dads with the beat-up pickup truck at the eatery probably has a double barrel shotgun in it. Probably have to spray himself and everyone else with his bear spray to get away. Girls get kind of clingy at times. Take care and enjoy your trip. Chuck

Chad said...

We were in this area last spring, and we went white water rafting too. It was cold (50deg)!

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