Sunday morning and the prospect of a week of backpacking stretched out in front of me. I was excited. I also felt trepidation. My plans to attend a week long AT thru hike seminar had fallen through, so I made my own plan to prepare for next year’s thru hike. I decided to backpack the first 31 miles of the Appalachian Trail: Springer to Neels Gap. My initial pack weight was 30 pounds; including 4 pounds of water, 4+ days of food and all the gear I’d need for a winter hike. I hoped I was carrying more than I needed, since my pack weight goal is 25 pound. But then that’s what this hike was all about, really, finding what I needed to carry. The forecast said freezing overnight temperatures in the North Georgia Mountains and a good chance of rain by midweek. Perfect for testing my gear. And my abilities.
For the uninitiated a “thru” on the AT means walking from Georgia to Maine (or vise versa) for almost 2,200 miles and 14 states, following the “little white blazes,” trail markers on trees and rocks. I plan to do it next year and expect the journey to take all my energy and attention for 6 months. Maybe more. I expect to start April 1, 2014 and the weather will still be cold in the mountains, with freezing temperatures and perhaps a late snow. My winter camping experience is limited, so this was an opportunity to learn. To be fair, most hikers start in March. Some in February. And a few crazy souls start in January. What I was preparing for was really early season weather, not winter. I want to avoid the worst of the cold weather. According to statistics, the first week of November has similar weather conditions to the first week in April in the north Georgia mountains.
First I drove north from Atlanta to Suches, GA. The fall leaves were at their peak and it was a lovely, sunny day. I listened to a rebroadcast of A Prairie Home Companion until the station became static. I made a mental note to read more poems by the guest star, Billy Collins. I wonder if I could memorize poems while I hike? I turned onto the little road beside Tritt’s Country Store. The store hasn’t been open since I’ve been heading this way, but it’s been an AT landmark for decades. The Forrest Service road begins as 3 miles of winding, 2-lane blacktop. You pass small farms at a top speed of 35mph. The road abruptly changes to winding, single-lane, gravel, punctuated with sections of dirt and washboard surfaces. Top speeds of 20mph are rare for the next 16 miles. But that’s the way to get to a gravel parking lot at the base of Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the AT. This is where I’d leave my car.
I hoisted my pack (ugh!) and hiked south for one mile, to the top of Springer. I’ve been here before, but this time seemed ominous. Stretching north from my feet was an unbroken footpath to Baxter State Park in Maine. For northbound hikers (NOBO’s) the end of the trail is the holy mountain, Mount Katahdin. This was just a test trip, but the next time I stood here would probably be it. The. Real. Thing. I decided not to sign the hike register, hidden in a compartment in the rock. It seemed like my little test was too trite, too insignificant to document. “Next time,” I thought. “Next time it’s for real. “ I didn’t sign any of the shelter registers on the way.
And then I took a bold step north and kept going. With the drive and backtrack up the mountain, it was now early afternoon and there isn’t much daylight this time of year. My plan was to bypass the tiny Springer Mountain shelter and hike just 2.6 miles to Stover Creek. It’s a gentle downhill all the way and the path was strewn with newly fallen leaves, like a child had tossed watercolor crayons about. Bright red oak. Light yellow tulip. Golden maple, a few still spotted with green. Russet pine needles. And like paints mixed too well, the colors were already beginning to muddled underfoot. Ocher, burnt sienna, coarse browns and grays.
The smell in the air was of low-growing galax, a shiny evergreen which will bloom in the spring and make me sneeze. Even this late in the fall, the scent made my nose run, though I suspect it was only mental suggestion. Galax is one of the few things I seem to be allergic to. I preferred it when I rounded a bend in the trail and saw a hillside covered in American Ginger.
I was at Stover Creek shelter in no time and decided immediately that I’d fix my biggest meal and push on. I don’t like to cook in the same spot that I’m going to sleep since it attracts animals. Though I’ve never seen one in Georgia, there are bear in these woods. I like to believe that the reason I don’t see them has less to do with their low population and elusive behavior and everything to do with my precautions.
At the shelter was a man taking photos. He turned out to be from the Hike Inn, located behind me, near the start of the AT. As the name implies, it’s a hike of five miles from the top of Amicalola Falls State Park to the front porch of the Hike Inn. I stayed there once and loved the sustainable, spare accommodations. The eco-friendly hotel sports solar electricity, composting toilets and family style dining, with the leftover food scraps consumed by worms. Obviously, I’m OK with “back to nature,” but I won’t pay over a hundred dollars a night for a place with a shared bathhouse. Which explains why I’ve only been once.
The man from the Hike Inn was soon joined by his boss and they explained that they were documenting a gift package, to be auctioned off for charity. The package would include a guided hike on the AT and lodging at the inn. The organizer of the charity auction was Ted Turner’s daughter. As they were hiking out, two men from Melbourne, FL walked in. They said they had started at 4am and were much more tired from the drive than the short hike. I could believe it. It was great entertainment for my simple meal of spicy ramen noodles. The men pitched their tents while I visited the moldering privy. They looked like strong hikers and I fully expected to see them the next day, overtake me. (I didn’t!)
I camped that night just north of Three Forks (AT mile marker 4.5), alongside a stream. It was good water and in July I might have bathed in it, but now it was much too chilly to consider a dip. My new collapsible bucket and Sawyer squeezable water filter worked well in these conditions. I was feeling good after my 6 miles (counting the hike up Springer Mt and hike into/out of Stover Creek shelter) but I tried not to be smug. Except for the first mile, the hike had been entirely downhill, at a gentle grade with no rocks, switchbacks or streams to ford. I’d hiked only about 10% of the distance I needed to cover. Tomorrow I’d climb 800 feet. And since this was the AT, I could count on climbing it several times. Oh joy.
This was only the second time I’d set up my Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 tent and I was a bit clumsy. I’d made a last minute decision to switch to the two-person tent after a backyard test of the UL1 (Ultra light, single person). It was a bit tight to change clothes in and the vestibule didn’t quite have enough room to shelter my backpack (GoLite Jam 70) and shoes (Merrell, trail runners) while still affording a view outside. But mostly I feared claustrophobia in the event weather stranded me in the tent all day. But the two person tent also meant adding another 6 ounces of weight. I hoped I’d made the right decision.
While I enjoyed the ease of close water access, I was conscious that this would not have been a good spot in the rain. Low as it was, I’d be sleeping in a mud hole after even a brief shower. And it was likely to become a pocket of moist, cold air in the freezing temperatures forecast overnight. But the sound of water bubbling helped lull me to sleep and I told myself it was a better test of the tent’s ability to hold in my body heat.
Monday, November 4
I was up at about 7am, dawn. I didn’t sleep well, but that’s not unusual on the first night of a trip. Somehow I still feel pretty rested. I heated water for instant oatmeal and coffee and pack up.
I’m out by 8am. I climb 700 feet in the next 4 miles to reach Hawk Mountain shelter (AT mile marker 8.1). My long strides of the previous day are contrasted by slow, uphill plodding today. I am a flatlander at heart and it will take quite a while, much longer than I have on this hike, to accustom my body to walking up. A few sections are steep and I take several “ten steps/10 second stop” to catch my breath. The leaves are tumbling in the wind, hiding the trail. They cover roots that catch my toes and cause me to stumble. There are loose rocks that roll when I step on them. I am grateful for my hiking poles which save me from falling more than once. It was freezing overnight and the temperature doesn’t climb over 50F today.
I reach Hawk Mountain shelter by 11a, drink all the water I have with me while eating lunch, use the privy, and refill my water bottles. The good news is that for the first time I’ve got a tiny bit of connectivity on my phone when I turn it on. I send a short email to let my mom and a friend know I’m safe.
Glad I’m not stopping at this exposed spot overnight. The wind is relentless and blows almost directly into the shelter’s exposed side. As soon as I stop, I trade my light ball cap for a fleece hat, put on my down jacket and cover it with my rain jacket to block the wind. I’m chilled before I hike on an hour later.
One of the keys to cold weather hiking is staying dry–which includes not sweating, or more practically, sweating as little as possible. Once the mercury drops below 55F, your constant focus is on maintaining temperature control of your body. I can’t stop sweat forming on my back where the heat is trapped by my pack, but I try to maintain the rest of the body. Rolling up or down pant legs, zipping open a jacket or wearing it backward to block the wind. Covering or uncovering my neck with a bandanna. Hiking faster in blowing wind and slower on the leeward side of a mountain. I keep gloves handy, but only need them briefly.
Time equals distance to a hiker, but it’s easy to lose track of both. My only timepiece is my phone. That’s a mistake I need to fix because I have to keep the phone off most of the time to save the precious battery. I’m shocked when I’m only at Horse Gap (AT mile marker 10.5) since it felt like I had been walking so long. But it’s only 2p and I’m actually in good shape. Nightfall is around 5:30p this time of year and I’ll need to have found a campsite and set up before then. My goal is to camp about 2 miles away at Coopers Gap. That means a 600 foot climb over Sassafras Mountain. I decide to stop for my main meal and give my feet a break. I play the hiker game of “what’s the heaviest thing in my pack?” which turns out to be mac and cheese.
As the water begins to boil, a young southbound (SOBO) hiker approaches wearing shorts and a sleeveless shirt. Even in this sheltered spot, I’ve got my down jacket on. But he is making great time and probably generating a lot of heat. Hikers usually stop when they see another person going the opposite direction, if just for a moment. It’s a courtesy to make sure the other hiker is alright and it’s a great way to assess the conditions ahead. Is there water near here? How far to the next shelter? But, I suspect, it is also out of loneliness. This young man is excited to share. He’s seen a group of “weekend warriors” on practice maneuvers. As a former military man he cautions me not to engage any of them in conversation and get them in trouble. They are expected to stay off trail, but I might get lucky.
I wouldn’t call what I saw lucky, or at least the young man in camouflage that I caught squatting probably didn’t think so. The falling leaves gave me a fairly long range of visibility and he wasn’t as hidden off trail as he would have been just a few days before. As I topped the mountain, I saw him stand and pull up his pants, turning his back to fasten them. He pretended not to notice me. I pretended right back, just to be polite.
I was at Cooper Gap (AT mile marker 12.3) shortly after 4pm. It’s an uninteresting, dry spot along the gravel road I took to get to Springer. There was another hour of daylight, but my energy was low and I decide to save the 300 foot climb up Justus Mountain for morning. A party of three are camped on one side of the road, possibly a father and his 2 sons. They had a large campfire going and I found the smell comforting, though I never have one myself. But there is nothing like a fire to bring comfort on a cold windy night. Fire chases away the fears.
I cross the road and erect my tent just down a rise, giving me protection from the wind and making me invisible to road traffic.
My feet are weight weary and aching. It is easy to forget how difficult this trail is. I’ve only done 8 miles, but I’m tired. Still, I’m grateful not to have any blisters (except for the 3 week old blood blister I got from a new pair of dress shoes. Go figure.). Supportive, well-fitting shoes are worth their weight in gold on the trail and that’s about what they cost, too. I’ve gone with the tried and true, two-sock method to protect my delicate feet until they toughen up. I wear a thin liner sock next to the foot with a thick, hiking sock over. The system keeps me blister free for the entire trip.
The day has been hard, but there are also rewards. The red headed woodpecker that kept flitting from tree to tree, staying just ahead of me for a quarter mile. The 4-point buck that was startled, but not really frightened of me. He took a long look before effortlessly leaping a fallen tree and sauntering off, sure-footed down the side of the mountain. Oh how I envied his nimble feet. The grouse that burst into the air when I was only 6 feet away. I could feel the wind from his beating wings and still taste the adrenalin long after my heart beat returned to normal. And on one ridge I looked up into a sky so blue and clear it looked like it would shatter if only I could throw a rock high enough.