Deer – check
Wild pigs – check
Bear – check
Another bear, twice as big as the first one…..on the other side of me – check
Day 0 (0.5 miles):
After the 4th of July festivities (which included a 10k for me in the morning, a neighborhood parade, and a community poolside cookout) Jason (age 7.9) and I drove to Neel’s Gap, and set up a stealth camp 1/2 mile into the NoGA wilds on the Byron Reese trail. We finished dinner just as it was getting dark, and went straight to “bed”. Bed consisted of Claytor Expedition (x2) with CCF & Thermarest pads, 5×8 sil tarps on the diagonal.
Around 10 I heard footsteps in the dry leaves, deliberate slow footsteps growing nearer, with no lights, and no voices. Peeking out from under my tarp with a flashlight I was able to illuminate an eye floating in space several yards away. It quickly became two as it turned to face me, then turned and walked back the way it came, up a dry creek bed. Looking directly at it I was only able to see the eyes, but looking away , the rod/cone thing resolved itself and I could make out a large deer. Later a couple of hikers went by with flashlights.
Day 1 (1.1 + 6.3 miles):
The next morning we were packed up and on the trail by 8:15. I noticed that camp setup/takedown with 2 hammocks and mostly one setter-upper is at least twice as long as with one 2-man tent. A hot breakfast for 2, cleanup, takedown, and packup is now a full 2-hour exercise. May consider hammock skins as camping system evolves. As soon as we started to hike, it started to rain. We arrived at Mountain Crossings at 9:00 for a 9:30 shuttle ride to Unicoi Gap on the AT. Our driver Jen, a M.C. employee and former above-hostel resident, told us about “indian trail” markings to look for – oddly bent trees that are over 100 years old, pointing at water sources, and other points of note. She implied the mainstream world is largely skeptical, but she was a believer. We started up Blue Mountain from Unicoi Gap at 10:15, just after it stopped raining. Large snails were everywhere, and Jason counted 38 from Unicoi to Blue Mtn Shelter (where we stopped for lunch).
For our inaugural shelter log entry I dubbed him “Count Snail” as his trail name pro tem. As I tried to explain it was a triple entendre, inclusive of a noble title, a defining activity, and a commentary on the pace. (Han Slowlo is our fallback, but predates hiking). Shortly after Blue Mtn. Shelter we come to the first water source, and sure enough there’s this old bent tree pointing right at the spring. Hmmm… (For what it’s worth I could not find any discernibly modified tree at any further water source the rest of the trip, nor could I find any point of interest near any strangely misformed old trees, of which there were plenty.)
Yada yada, lots of trees, some rocks… we stopped for the night about 6 1/2 miles in, at one of the spurs of Horsetrough Mountain.
Day 2 (9 miles) :
Around midnight heard distant thunder & lightning north of camp, and got up to make sure everything was under tarp or plastic. Spent the rest of the night in fitful sleep with weird hammock dreams – so far I have had bizarre dreams directly related to hammocking on 3 out of 6 nights hanging. At 5 am was awakened to a biblical deluge, and spent 5 frantic minutes adjusting a leaking tarp on Count Snail’s hammock, getting soaked in the process. [ I might add that while larger (according to my calculations) than the standard Hennessy hammock tarp, I am only using 5×8 tarps strung on the diagonal, with the hammock tight as I can get it to the underside. If not perfectly centered under the tarp, one end of the hammock can easily be compromised by persistent rain. Apparently I was off by a few inches on his.] The rain petered off in about 30 minutes. After dawn I strung up a clothesline to let the soaked sleeping bag (synthetic slumber party special) and some clothes dry out some while we breakfasted and packed.
3 miles down the road there is a scurry off in the bushes. We glance up to see 5 or 6 4-leggers disappearing into the woods. Pack of dogs? Then I catch a silhouette of a rather large hog, as they paused before running off. Too fast for me to de-holster my camera. A few steps later we are at Low Gap Shelter, where we break for lunch. Then we begin the rather boring ridge-run to Hogpen Gap. It’s a cat & mouse game of Is-It-Raining-Enough vs. Trouble-yourself-with-ponchos, with the rain winning every round. Seems like it took forever to get to Hogpen Gap, and I wanted to push on so as not to have a full day of hiking on the 3rd day. Also a bit anxious about the gloomy sky and occasional distant thunder, with much-higher-elevation Cow Rock being the next stop. We took the yellow blaze shortcut from Hogpen to Tesnatee, and with our second wind summited still-dry Cow Rock by 5:00 PM.
(While walking along Hwy 348, an elderly man pulled over to persistently offer the “little fellow” a bag of chips because he “looked like he could use a snack”. How. Magical. )
One hour later we were setting up camp in light rain at Baggs Creek Gap. After dinner I heard a larger-than-squirell rustling in the brambles nearby. I went to check it out, and sitting just under my pre-hung bear bag rope was a black shape with ears, looking right at me. My first thought was hog, but a darn big one, and staring me down, which can’t be good. I yelled “GO ON”, waving my pole, like you would a stray dog, and it turned and scrambled off to the West – it was a bear. About what I expected, size wise, never having seen one up close & personal – a little smaller than a grown man, but much bulkier and obviously heavier. And a LOT faster over that terrain. We decided that although probably a coincidence, that the bear may be “on to” bear bags, and we should move the bag to a better location. I returned to retrieve the rope, and heard another rustle behind me. I turned to see a second, much larger bear, perhaps twice the distance away. Instantly it ran off, also to the West, but on the North side of our camp. It seemed to me to be twice the size of the first bear, and man was it fast!!. Based on the locations of the bears and the directions they ran off, our camp was *gulp* exactly between a very large and a smaller bear.
As we were re-hanging the bag a good 1/4 mile from camp, I thought of villagers laying out sacrifices in hopes that the dragon would leave the village alone. You want your ramen noodle scented empty ziplocks, instant coffee, and leftover trail mix? It’s all yours, just figure out the puzzle of my gordian knots and counterweights, way over here away from the swinging human burritos! Oddly, that night I had the most sound, anxiety- and weird-dream-free sleep. As if the bears were saying “mother nature and all of creation here , you can’t do anything about us, so you might as well relax and enjoy the splendor”, and it had sunk in. Next morning I found one more bag of trail mix in a side pocket of my pack. Oops.
Easy hike in to Neels Gap (4.5 Miles) over Wolf Laurel Top, Turkeypen, Levelland, etc. The best views and weather of the trip so far. Then a drive to Helen for a celebratory lunch of Wurst, Sauerkraut und Bier (spaghetti & meatball with Mr. Pibb for #2).