AT September 2019 Fontana Dam NC to Dick’s Creek Gap GA

Introduction

As my good friend Geoff Kelleher said to me at breakfast this past week, “Well, I think you definitely qualify as a ‘Trail Rat’ now.”  How true.   A hike is like one good golf shot in a poor round – one beautiful vista or one perfect morning keeps you coming back for more.

My AT goal has been expanded  by two recent occurrences.  First, upon finishing this 97 mile trek I realized I was only 69.5 miles from the southern terminus at Springer Mountain GA.  This is a 6-day trek similar to the  Damascus-Mountain Home route.  Definitely doable.  I was forewarned on the trail by a  Nobo (Northbound thru hiker) about Blood Mountain, GA but it looks to be no worse than what I’ve already passed through.  Second, Nathanael, my oldest, has just relocated to Falls Church VA, which is within striking distance of Harper’s Ferry WVa, the halfway point in the trail, to use as a base of operations and an excuse to get over there.  So that is the new goal – finish GA and then finish WVa and VA.  I figure I have about 3 more years in my legs to get it done, and have 375 miles in VA left after GA.  We’ll see how this plays out.

Day Minus 1 – Sunday, September 8, 2019

Every trip south from The Bend involves a stopover in Avon to visit Jon, Anna, Sarah and Tommy.  It cuts 2.5 hours off the trip and besides, we miss seeing them.  This stop it was furniture assembly mode – both grandkids were getting new bedroom furniture from IKEA.  The old stuff was still sitting everywhere.  Things were a bit more cluttered than normal.  We left after the People of Praise (PoP) meeting, ate dinner at the southside Wendy’s on the way and arrived about 2045.  So we were only there a short time but helped them out with the project.  Retired for the night at 2230

I left town a bit bent out of shape because my 6-string developed a serious hum before the meeting started and eventually Roy Sommerville just muted my channel for the last song for the good of the cause.  Something else to stew about on the trail.  I isolated it to the guitar pickup.  Looks like I’ll  be needing a new pickup.  To my credit I wasn’t too distracted from the prayer; just cut the guitar out of the system between songs and it wasn’t noticeable to me when we were all playing.

Day 0 – Monday, September 9

Ate breakfast with Anna and the crew and then drove to Robbinsville NC, arriving at about 1700 as expected.  I-65 was really torn up north of Louisville, which didn’t speed us on our way.  For a ten mile stretch one whole side of the road had been torn out and it was one lane each way.  A consolation was that I knew that I-74 was just as torn up west of Cincinnati.

We ate lunch at the Jimmy John’s on the east side of Lexington KY.  We’ve been there before.  Mary Ann is having trouble with her back; bad timing.  So after eating we found an AutoZone and got a DC/AC converter to plug in her heating pad in the car, plus I wanted to get new windshield wiper blades.  The store clerk, I took him to be the Manager, was very helpful, with the wiper blades especially.  It brightened our day considerably.

The route beyond Knoxville was new and different, going to the west of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (the Smokies or GSMNP).  We stayed in a Quality Inn.  It was a small room but we crammed in and managed,  On recommendation from the desk clerk we walked uphill into town and ate at Lynn’s Place (pronounced Lee-ins, y’all).  The food was good Americana and the place was packed.  The hostess said that was because it was a home HS volleyball night, a big deal for the town of about 1,500 souls.   Learned that Country Music singer/songwriter Ronnie Milsap is from Robbinsville.

Afterward it was back to the room to sort the food and double check the equipment.  I have 20 meals for the 8 days on the trail.  Mary Ann will pick me up at the end of Day 4 and of course Day 8, and I will be in a hostel overnight after Day 2, so this took away 3 dinners and 1 breakfast besides my Day 1 breakfast at the Quality Inn tomorrow.  Otherwise it would have been 24 meals.  Yeah, I know the math is difficult, and the story gets better later on.  Repacked the gear and went to bed around 2230 again.

Day 1 – Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Up at 0600 and down for breakfast.  It was about a 30 minute drive to Fontana Dam and the trailhead at the picnic area/trail shelter.  We arrived at 0750 and had time for morning prayer before I set off.  Ran into a section hiker trail name Backhoe who was taking a shower. – a pretty nice set up from the usual shelter for sure with hot running water.

Gave Mary Ann a kiss and immediately went the wrong way to the trail – a steep downhill to the edge of the lake.  Backtracking I found the trailhead, but knew I would need that leg strength later on for sure.  Except for this I had an uneventful, but uphill, 3.5 mile jaunt up to Walker Gap and eventually to the Cable Gap shelter.  I noticed right off that I had poor Life360,  phone and text reception.   I  started putting times at the start of each text because they were being sent out of order whenever I got reception – the times kept them straight for the viewers.

By 0900 I had crossed through the Marina and, was headed up to Higton Ridge and had reached Black Gum Gap by 1130.   By now I had abandoned Life360 completely in favor of texting.  The weather was cool and clear, just like I ordered.  I ate lunch at the Cable Gap shelter at 1255.  Haven’t seen one soul on the trail yet.  Crossed NC1242 at 1445 and went through Cody Gap at 1530.  A pop-up thundershower showed up, as predicted and told to me by Mary Ann yesterday, and the rain started falling just as I got to Brown’s Fork Gap shelter at 1730 – perfect timing.  The storm was behind me and I heard the thunder as I crossed the highest points on the ridge;  it came from my right (west).  When it let up I went down for water.  This was about the slowest I’ve ever seen a spring flowing and it took 5 minutes or more to fill one 32oz bottle..  The rain passed quickly and didn’t return.

I then  headed to my planned destination of Sweetwater Gap.  It was a steep ascent and a steeper descent down, down, down to – what! –  no campsite..  So tired as I was I decided to push on and prayed for a flat campsite, expecting to take the next one that appeared.  I was ready for a dry (no water source) camp, so I had no restrictions in that regard.  There was a flat stretch on the profile map just above Stecoah Gap, and that’s where I spent the night, about 0.7 miles above the Gap and NC143, arriving at 1908 with about 90 minutes of daylight left.  I decided to eat first and set up after.  Sundown was at 1950 and dusk 30 minutes later.  Had the hammock and beanbag setup  before dark.

I fell twice today but only one was my fault, if that matters.  And still no mosquitoes.  I have no bites, but maybe it’s just my poor ears and very tough skin.  Things are dry and the springs show it.  Talked to Mary Ann for an extended time, so I had good connectivity here.  Her back is not cooperating but she is toughing it out.

Distance today – 14.6 miles

Day 2 – Wednesday, September 11, 2019

I had a fitful sleep, normal for the first night in the bag.  Leg cramps, imagine that, after 15 miles yesterday. Duh!  Walking by about 0800, ambling down to the road at Stecoah Gap.  This was followed by a monster 1,700′ /5.5 mile uphill to Cheoah Bald  including several intermediate smaller peaks.  Made it to Simp Gap by 0945 but the trail is poorly maintained, overgrown in spots and poorly/sparsely blazed from the north.  I was through Locust Cove Gap at 1022 and the spring was flowing – a small drizzle but bigger than the one at Brown’s Fork yesterday.  Took a morning snack break.  I’m hearing warnings about no water but I think you just have to know how and where to find it.

Crested Cheoah Bald at 1230 and ate lunch at a better spot 0,1 mile further on in the bald..  Met the first soul on the trail – Michael.  My lunch spot in the shade looking out on the bald was very pleasant.  The flies were very interested in the salt and perspiration  on my legs, so much so that it made them easy targets.  After i dispatched five or so no more came around.  I was so sweaty wet I could have rug my shorts out.  Got a water report from Michael and gave him mine.  I didn’t really need any since I was headed downhill  to the hostel at the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) for the night..

So then up and over Swim Bald and then what looked to be a stroll 6 miles down to the NOC.  But the trail continued to be poorly maintained.  The stretch never seemed to end.  By the time I got to Wright Gap I was ready to stop, unfortunately with two miles left to go.  The problem with this section was the frequent loose rock scree stretches under the the Nantahala gorges rock faces that made it like bouldering.  Talk about tedious.  It reminded my of Cloud Peak (see that Blog) but on a mini boulder scale.  There were trip hazards galore but I didn’t trip or fall.  It got to be mind numbing with the concentration required.    I finally did fall once, facedown in a pile of limbs off the side of the trail saving my left ankle from a sprain, but not in the rock scree.  The pile was so loose I couldn’t find a way to push myself up and finally had to kind of roll and crawl back up to the trail with only minor scrapes on my left shin.  They could really use a stone mason like the gal that laid out the steps on Fire Scald Knob up in Tennessee.

My aforementioned fall was just before arriving at a clearing and saddle-looking area I took to be Grassy Gap, but there was no sign like in all the other gaps.  Thirty minutes later I got to Grassy Gap.  It was that kind of afternoon on the trail that never was going to end.

I had met a group of three hikers up at Sassafras Gap earlier with no trail names and another single guy wearing an Isle Royale hat that looked pretty wiped out by the uphill with a long way to go.  I had my afternoon snack at Wright Gap and to add insult to injury I was passed by a trail runner.  He was only doing a short section I told myself.

Soon after getting past Wright Gap I started hearing the traffic on the road (US19/74) and getting glimpses of the river but still the trail wound on downward.  And then they threw in a couple more rock jumbles for fun that succeeded in officially pissing me off.  But the end came and then there was a fork in the trail.  One went down into the NOC compound and the other continued straight and looked to go up to the hostel.  I chose to go down and across the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad (GSMRR) track into the parking area.  The Adventure Center building was closed since by now it was 1730.  So then I had to carry my tired butt back uphill toward what I surmised would be the hostel.  Thankfully I guessed correctly.  It was called the Basecamp.  I finally found someone to talk to.  He appear to be a fellow hiker and I asked him where to sign up for a room.  He said, “Oh, that’s back downhill and across the road at the General Store.”  Crap.  I dropped off my pack and poles right there at the stairway and headed the 1/4 mile to the store.  They were friendly, and could afford to be with the $40 cost for the room (twice the going hostel rate), plus a rented towel for another $3.  But the Lord Jesus intervened when the older of the two gals said, “The Wesser (restaurant) is closed and the River’s End will only be open until 7 so you should go there first before going to your room .”  I said, “Looking and smelling like this (I was rather a poor sight)?”  She said without hesitation, “Honey, they’ve served a lot worse look’ folks than you.”  So off I went straight away across he highway to the restaurant and they sat me no questions asked in the main room, even though I requested, with a smile,  someplace out of the way.  Then a small miracle that chokes me up as I type this – they had beer and it was Yuengling.  God’s great mercy shows itself once again.  I was immediately in my happy place.  I washed up in the Men’s Room – face, neck, arms – and combed my hair.  I order two entrees – a Greek salad and a Route 129 (Tail of the Dragon) burger and fries with sliced  jalapenos as the garnish .  I had no problem finishing both while I watched the Nantahala River bouncing by.  Got the burger without the bun of course.

About this time I remembered that my pack with maybe $500 of equipment was sitting out in the open back over at the hostel.  I said a quick Lord help me prayer and continued eating as quickly as I thought reasonable while I enjoyed sitting and watching the river.  It was nearly dusk when I walked over the rise ahead of the hostel and saw my gear sitting there just as I had left it.  Thank you Lord for honest folks.

My room appropriately enough was in the Kephart building, the well known GSMNP naturalist whose writings were instrumental in getting the park created.  Kephart #4; it was down three flights of stairs from the common bathroom.  I had two electronic keys.  If I locked them accidentally inside the room I had a half mile walk roundtrip to the General Store that probably was closed by now. Instead of closing the door all the way I left it ajar.  And I needed a key to get into the common bathhouse, too.  I was stressed out about it.  My inspiration then was to take a shower and afterward just wash my clothes in the shower as well.  Since absolutely no one was around that’s just what I did, hanging my shorts, shirt, socks and underwear on the hooks outside the shower stall.  The hot water felt very good.  I wrung everything out real good and toted all back to the room where I draped them over the A/C outlet and on the bunk bed ladder to dry.  The blessing of fast drying polypropylene and nylon fabrics was much appreciated.  Only the outer socks were wool and I had backups for those.

I settled into my room and had a cup of hot tea with a Larabar for desert  before bed.  The bed was a nice 3″ foam mattress on a plywood bottom.  It was a bunk bed arranged as an L in one corner of the room, with a full length bench seat on the facing wall and the A/C and door to the left.  It was clean and comfortable.  It was a hostel after all, albeit an expensive one.

Went to bed at 2200 and woke up at 0400.  I was too lazy to go up the three flights to the bathroom so I just peed over the railing into the woods and went back to bed.  No one will ever notice and it let me get back at the trail.  Two 14+ mile days in a row was not a good idea.  I was really wiped out by day’s end.

Distance today:   14.1 miles

Day 3 – Thursday, September 12, 2019

Today was Matthew’s 42 birthday.  Maybe he would have been my hiking buddy.  Nate’s knees are already bad and he is working, Will doesn’t like spider webs in the face and he is working,  and Anna, my one hope and earlier trailmate, is now working full-time.   What’s with all the working, working, working?

My clothes were sufficiently dry to wear out in the morning.  Just the outer socks needed to be hung out to dry on the pack to dry.  Another 15-mile day planned for today.  I was up and out of NOC like Sonic the Hedgehog this morning.  Knowing that the restaurants woulds not be open early enough to suit me I had already planned to eat breakfast  at the Rufus Morgan shelter a mile up the trail.  I was at the uphill across the road by 0715 and headed on, after dropping my keys off in the box as I passed the General Store (it was a gas station actually, operated by NOC).

Unfortunately I hit a clearing at about 30 minutes uphill but didn’t see any sign or blue blaze indicating the shelter and blew right past it.  What threw me was that every past shelter or gap clearing had a n obvious sign.  It was about another 30 minutes up the trail that I realized I had passed by the shelter so I found a flat spot on the trail as it crossed over the ridge with a good log seat and made my scrambled egg breakfast.  I was about 1/4 of the way between Rufus Morgan shelter and the Jump-Off.  I ascertained my location by the number of flat stretches I’d gone thru and the topo map contours, and for once I was right.  Once again low expectations – thinking I was not as far along as I was – turned out to be the key to happiness.  I had a different attitude today – no time line, took my time and enjoyed it.  Why else am I out here, anyway?  I was probably going 1.5 miles per hour uphill and averaging 2.5 mph overall through the day.

 Below the Jump-Off had to navigate a major blowdown blocking the trail on the low side of the trail with a tough slope and poor footing in the loose dirt.  I  expended more time and energy than I wanted..  Got up to what is called the Jump-Off and indeed it was rocks and hand over hand in one short section, but it was different from what I expected as well.  It had its rocks but it also it had log retaining steps all the rest of the way, like a big stairway.  Met a Nobo named “999” who had just come down who said it was “a real bitch”, but I got through it going uphill in better shape I think.  So I was encouraged that I had passed the worst this trail section had to offer.  After that things just got better and better all day.  Went through the Jump-Off at 1044 and was at the Wesser Bald shelter at 1145.   The shelter had a nice privy, which I didn’t need, but I couldn’t locate the water.  Then 1/10 up the trail at the first switchback was a sign for water 2′ off the ground (a bit strange) and the trail guide amazingly listed it just 75′ from the trail.  And there it was, the best spring on the trail.  It looked to have been an original CCC with a large poured concrete basin that had since settled and was leaning considerably forward separated from the pipe.  I  really need to get watered up.  It was perfect.  I ate lunch trailside at the crest of  on Wesser Bald shortly thereafter. at 1245 The bald looked to be rather small but I didn’t take time to explore it.   It had some nice scenic views just the same.

Made it to Tellico Gap by 1400.   It is likely named for the large powerline that ran through it as in “Telecommunications” or “Telephone” Gap.  It was surely ugly and in a narrow strip of non-NFS public land.

Water on the trail has been a point of discussion  with those I’ve passed.  “999” said the water at Cold Spring Gap shelter was very good but said nothing about the spring at Wesser shelter..  I don’t think he even saw it coming downhill.

 

I was just taking my time.  The next major uphill of the day was going over Copper Ridge and Rocky Bald, another 500′ above the Wesser Bald.  Then downhill to Cold Spring Gap shelter.  Here there was a mileage sign at the gap but no indication of a side trail to the shelter.  So I went down the trail a couple 10ths and back up again looking around.  Finally after checking the topo map it was clear that the trail was at a bend in the trail on the left and I was still on the straight stretch, so I tenuously pressed ahead.  Heck, the shelter was on the trail an other few 10ths down.  And the spring was right in front of it going across the trail, pipe and all.  What a beautifully restored original 1933 shelter.  I filled up for the last 5 miles into camp, talked briefly with a Nobo, my third person of the day, and pressed on..  I had met a gal up towards Wesser Bald earlier.  Very few of these people have trail names, which I am continuing to find rather odd.

So one more sag down through Burningtown Gap and then a gentle up (by AT standards) and over into Licklog Gap for the night.  I pulled in at 1814, earlier than at Stecoah and about the same time as at NOC, and had plenty of time to get all set up and eat before dusk..  What a great campsite, with the possibility of water about 1/4 mile behind it through a field.   I was prepared for a dry camp and decided to check on the stream in the morning.  Had my first fire to dispose of my trash and relax a bit.  The candle stubs and birch bark worked wonderfully to get it started.  It was a very flat, spacious site with two perfect hammock trees and a place to hang the pack.  Put the bearbag up across the trail.

Distance today:  15.0 miles

Day 4 – Friday, September 13, 2019

Day broke crisp, cool and clear.  Overnight there was a steady hailstorm of acorns from the oaks in the vicinity.  None hit the hammock canopy.  This will be a shorter day, as will the rest for the remainder of the trip.  Not a day too soon for me.

My route for today took me up and over Wayah Bald, then another hump and down across FR69 to Wayah Gap, back up and over Siler Bald and past the Siler Bald shelter with water, then lastly down to Winding Stairs Gap at US64 for pickup by Mary Ann.

Today is pickup day and so the lightest breakfast is what remained – instant oatmeal with raisins, half & half and honey, and then dried fruit for later.  After breakfast and packing up I checked out the creek.  It was an easy hike down an old road lined with orange jewel weed in bloom.  It was flowing barely but sufficiently.   I had to dig a depression for the bottle so I could get the mouth of it into the flow.    This is where I decided to add a short piece of 3/4″ PVC to my pack so I can make my own spring pipe when needed.  I topped of my water and headed out toward  the Wayah  shelter and Wayah Bald beyond it with its observation tower.   It was steep but short.   Wayah in Cherokee means “wolf”.  The trail continues to be better built, marked and maintained than on the other side of the Nantahala.

It’s Friday and I passed many more people, as I had anticipated.  A couple of brothers reported that water ahead is a bit sparse so I was glad I tanked up at the creek.  Met “Dijon” and “Crachel”, thru-hiking Nobos coming from Wayah shelter.

The Wayah tower, a former fire watch station, was neat.  It was made of stone and had been restored.  The lower two floors were left but the top floor, which was the fire spotting deck had been removed.  Mary Ann was here yesterday by car.  The tower was dedicated to John D. Byrne, the youngest Nantahala Forest Superintendent when appointed in 1931 at age 35.  He died three yers later of natural causes.  There was a great 180° view.  The William Bartram trail intersects and follows the AT to the south below the tower, named after the 18th century naturalist who explored much of what is now NC, SC, GA, FL, AL, LA, MS and TN from 1773 – 1777.

Crested Siler Bald at at 1420.  There was a side trail leading to the shelter, which I decided not to take since i had enough water.  As it turned out this trail joined back into the main AT about 1/2 mile  further down so I could have seen the shelter; oh, well.  I reached Panther Gap at 1530 where I called Mary Ann with my pickup time of 1630.    Got down to Winding Stairs Gap about 10 minutes early.  I had been dreading this passage because the name gave me a picture of steep, winding rock stairs in my mind.  As it turned out there were indeed winding stairs in and out but they were long log erosion control steps that were not a problem at all.  I was greatly relieved.

Now the excitement for the day.  The weather was hot in the valleys and cool on the ridge where I was.  The forecast was for pop-up thundershowers caused by the moisture evaporating in the valley then rising to the ridge where it condenses and produces scattered showers with lightning.  This is really a problem when one is on a bare ridge, as mentioned earlier.  Thankfully today I was down off the higher ridge elevations by the afternoon when the rumblings began.  I didn’t pay much mind to it because I was due to be picked up an d how wet could I really get anyway?  At the gap there was a creek and maybe 100′ in from the road it had a nice waterfall.  I stopped and took a picture.  A drop of water hit me in the right arm.  Hmm, probably a splash from the falls. (you have already guessed where is is going.)  At the near edge of the road I stopped again and snapped a picture of the trail exiting the woods.  As I turned back to cross the road the rain started.  By the time I was across the road it was as if I had just walked under a bucket propped on top of a doorway.  It was coming down in buckets.  I made for the parking area 200′ ahead.  The rain was cold but was actually refreshing at the start.  I got to the lot, took down my pack, got the cover on it and was putting on my rain jacket when Mary Ann pulled in.  Gave her the high sign, she popped the trunk, I tossed the pack in and hopped into the passenger seat.  It gets better.  So we greeted each other and Mary Ann got back on the road toward  the motel in  Franklin NC where she had relocated.  We had gone not m ore than 1/2 mile and the pavement was dry.  It was a really scattered shower, just for me apparently.

God bless Mary Ann.   I had sprung a leak in one of my Sawyer Squeeze water purification bottles, was wondering how to replace it and had mentioned it to her when calling in for my pickup.  Mary Ann said, “I’ve checked out the hiking stores in Franklin,  There are two, plus the Wal-Mart.”  So we headed to Three Eagles Outfitters on the way into the motel.  All I needed was one collapsible 32oz bottle, not $30 for the whole setup.  Not only did Three Eagles have a single bottle for $5 but they also had an AT stamp for my passport.  Then we had an adventure putting air in the tires to cancel the low pressure warning light.  The adventure involved crossing a steep and busy 4-lane highway and getting change for the air machine.  After that it was on for a shower at the Comfort Inn.  And bless Mary Ann a second time. “I’ve checked out the BBQ restaurants in town, because I assumed you’d want that.  There are two, and one is walking distance from the motel on the same road.”  Willies BBQ was good, and they had beer, which is not always a given in the formerly dry state of North Carolina.  I ate my full rack of St. Louis ribs, the two sides that came with it, a full order of fries and then proceeded to clean off any leftovers on Mary Ann’s plate.  A perfect ending to a great hiking day.  Well, I think sleeping in a nice soft bed was really the perfect ending.  I also noticed that as the evening wore on I drink the 12oz beer and 16oz of ice water at the restaurant, 2-12oz Disani flavored waters and 2-8oz cups of decaf coffee before bed.  Apparently I was a bit under-hydrated.

Distance today:  12.3 miles

Day 5 – Saturday, September 14, 2019

Took some time last night to wash clothes in the bathtub, primarily socks, and restock the food for the last 4 days on the trail.  Let’s see as I laid out the ziploc bagged meals on the bed – Meals 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 18, 19 and 20.  Where in the heck is Meal 15?  Rechecked the tiny refrigerator.  Nothing,  Checked the bags we moved them in.  Nothing.  Are you kidding me, we left it in Robbinsville?  How far away is it  Too far!  Now what?  Hey, we had an extra freeze dried meal, where is that?  OK, add a Larabar to it, put some cashews and raisins in a sandwich sized ziploc, pilfer some coffee from one of the others and I’m good to go.  Saved by the bell.  Now to pack up the clean(er) clothes and get to breakfast.

The day dawned overcast down in the valley.  After a peaceful breakfast of pre-cooked eggs and sausage patties at the motel and a final check of equipment Mary Ann dropped me back at the parking lot of Winding Stairs Gap.

Yesterday was a shorter distance day, and that was my plan for the next four.  It was definitely more enjoyable.  My plan was to add a little extra each day while keeping the distance below 14 miles and in so doing make sure I would finish at least by mid-afternoon on the last day.

So I eventually got above the clouds and had some really great vistas and got some great pictures.  The high point elevation-wise today was Albert Mountain at 5,200′ near the end of the day.  But first it was up and over Rocky Cove Knob and Glassmine Gap (funny name for a peak I thought but it had a sag of sorts).  There was plenty of water and many more hikers since it was the weekend.At Wallace Gap cross Old 64 and met a couple in their car who were really excited to see me on the trail,  They were very encouraging, having done a thru-hike a few years back.  Thee was a major spring coming into Wallace Gap from the north that looked to be another CCC original.  I could only think that these pop-up showers were really good for my water supply.  I stopped at Rock Gap shelter for a snack break and watered up from a spring crossing the trail.  Bypassed the side trail to the  Long Branch shelter, which joined back in further up I discovered, but that was my plan as I was able to replenish my  water from an unmarked stream crossing the main trail.  I had noticed that Albert Mountain looked like a toothbrush in the profile map, meaning that the approach and descent were steeper than I cared to mess with, and I also noticed that there was a foul weather bypass around the summit.  That was a no-brainer after the Fire Scald Knob incident of last September and I took it.  It was about as flat as one gets out here and I joined back into the main trail at Bearpen Gap.  After that it was mostly downhill to camp for the night at Betty’s Creek Gap.

As I said it was Saturday and a bit crowded.  Stopped for lunch on the Albert Mountain uphill at 1230 and was soon passed by a Georgia boy named “Buddy” who was out training for his second thru-hike.  He had done this section before.  There was another Nobo couple “SF” (Giants hat) and “Slim” (the gal) from Atlanta out for the weekend.  After lunch the trail was flat for about 3-miles that included the bypass with endless rhododendron tunnels.  A coed column of six 20-somethings also passed me as I was finishing lunch.  It didn’t take me long to run up behind them and eventually passed them as they politely stood aside.  Once I took the bypass never saw them again.  It was also in this stretch at around 1300  that I came across bear scat in the trail.  It was full of berry seeds and such, so it was from a bear eating the right kind of diet and not acclimated to human trash.

Shortly after Bearpen Gap I had a spectacular, slow motion fall avoiding an ankle twister that only tired legs can produce.  It must have been pretty funny to watch.  Wait, if a hiker falls in the woods and no one else sees it, is it really a fall?  I was glad shortly afterward because the trail to Mooney Gap deteriorated into a boulder and rock scree hopping event along the eastward facing rock face.  Didn’t want to lose my balance here.  It was tedious, treacherous and slow like Day 2.  Got to Mooney Gap, where the spring was dry and there wasn’t much of a campsite, at 1450.  Passed a group of 4 preparing to go north.  This was my original intended stopping point but with the spring dried up I present on toward Betty’s Creek Gap hoping that the key word was “creek” but prepared for a dry (i.e. no-water) camp.  Arrived at Betty’s Creek Gap at 1520 and set up in the first campsite on the left midst rhododendrons.  A pop-up shower had been building all afternoon.  Now the wind was picking up and the thunder was closer, so I got to it getting the hammock up.  Got the pack hung on a limb and covered, slide my boots under the hammock and crawled inside just as the shower hit.  It was light, and attenuated by the thick rhododendron cover.   The rain left up at the right time, so I got out and made dinner – it doesn’t really take very long to cook and eat freeze dried.  The rain started up during dinner but it was not heavy enough to penetrate the rhododendron cover and get me wet; I had my raincoat on.  Afterward, when the rain stopped, I took the water bags and hiked down to the creek.  The trail was flat (again, for out here) and not that long (it always seems twice as long going rather than returning).  And the  water was flowing well enough, so all was good.  Had another trash fire to lighten my load.

With my descent into Mooney and then Betty’s Creek gaps my cell phone connectivity dropped out.  Down off the ridge in the rhododendron thicket I had no reception for the first time since leaving Fontana.

My new attitude is bearing good fruit.  I’m happier and enjoying the hike much more.  This was a very, very fine day, perfectly timed with the rain and only the comical slo-mo fall.  Pushing on to Betty’s Creek Gap added 0.9 miles to my distance today, thus shortening the remainder of the hike.  I planned to do the same each of the next two days and get to Mary Ann by lunchtime Tuesday.

Distance today:  12.2 miles

Day 6 – Sunday, September 15, 2019

Went to bed last night at 2130 (9:30 pm), got up at 0430 and was eating by 0530.  With daytime highs in the high 70’s and nighttime lows in the mid-50’s  I was in the thicket with dew steadily dripping from the leaves overhead but not affecting me at all.  I ate my breakfast by moonlight.  

I should say more about the full moon that has been my constant companion the entire trek thus far.  But it was not just any full moon;  it was a once in 40 years full moon, with the Moon being closer than normal.   On these clear nights it was like a street lamp shining into the hammock.

On the trail by 0715, just light enough to see.  Today’s hike didn’t appear to have any serious challenges, just two steady climbs, one up Ridgepole Mountain and the other up and over Standing Indian Mountain with the /carter Gap in between.  Water did not appear to be a problem from the number of springs shown on my map.  As soon as I got up on the ridge a bit I texted my whereabouts to Mary Ann.  She had already figured that I had stopped at Betty’s Creek.   Smart girl.  Right after the sidetrail to the Betty’s Creek area I passed into the Southern Nantahala Wilderness Area.  Remember this for later.  

Yesterday at about lunchtime Mary Ann texted me that she had found Meal #15.  She found it in the fridge stuck under the shelf and above the lower drawer.  Why it didn’t fall down when I pulled out that drawer I don’t know.  The mystery was solved and I felt redeemed at not having left it behind in Robbinsville.  The problem was she didn’t have the cooking instructions since I was reusing the pouch for one of my dinners.  So in a fit of High Tech prowess on Ridgepole Mountain  I accessed the Mountain House Foods website found the instructions, downloaded it to my phone and texted it to her.  That  in itself took a lot of the mystique away from being out in the wilderness incommunicado, as I was just the previous afternoon, evening and overnight.  

On the way up Ridgepole passed “Ted” with his two chocolate labs.  He finally explained that all the dead rhododendrons were from a forest fire a few years back. – killed the trees but didn’t burn them up.  And after that thinking back down the trail and looking around I was saddened by the nearly continuous  rhododendron tunnel that was obviously here on this portion of the trail.  Also passed “Justin” a Nobo headed for Damascus VA finishing NC from south to north.  I

reached the Carter Gap shelter at around 0915 and found a trickle of water sharply downhill across the trail at 0930.  It took some hunting because the pipe was so short.  I had to dig a depression below it to get the bottle at a fillable angle.  I had overshot the shelter and backtracked a bit to it for my morning snack.  Watered up for the climb over Standing Indian I was off again.  At this point the trail made a 90º bend to the west for the next 10 miles.  As I’ve mentioned earlier this tends to mess with the north-south orientation of the Trail Guide notes.  Pretty funny if it wasn’t so ______ irritating.  Come on., people, get it right!  And coincident with the turn was a traverse of the ridge from the Nantahala Mountains to the Blue Ridge Mountains on Ridge pole Mountain.

I was headed for the Standing Indian shelter, intermediate between the mountain crest and Deep Gap.  On the way up to the crest I passed a  diamond shaped sign posted on the side of the trail, “North Carolina Wildlife Bear Sanctuary”.  That got my attention, especially after passing the bear scat on the trail yesterday afternoon.  My mistake was texting the picture to Mary Ann and all those following my thread.  A high anxiety shock for everyone.  So I was gonna be careful to hang the food away from my hammock and gonna put my clothes from the day that I ate in on the other side of camp, and sleep in my sleep only clothes.  Actually I was going to be setting up camp near the Standing Indian shelter and half expecting to find a bear bag hanging set up or bear-proof food bin to use.  All AT shelters are famous for being bear diners during the peak hiking season.

Had my lunch break at Beech Gap  around 1230.   Didn’t see any beech trees and the spring was dry.  I ran into the aforementioned directionally challenged Trail Guide problem here in spades.  The trail ran south-north through here and the spring was on the east side (actually the west side) – I had my compass out.  Spent some time unwisely exploring for the spring that wasn’t.  Passed “Mile Back and “Two Mile Back”, the older of the two, at the crest and a bit later “Old School Moose”, who was headed for Maryland

Well I crested Standing Indian and got to the shelter by 1515, which was very nice with a newer privy and all but no bear-proof food hanging or storage.  So I used my usual methods.  The food was hung to be raccoon , opossum and skunk proof but there for the taking by Brother Bear.  I stashed my clothes in my pack well away from the hammock and wore my sleep only clothes to bed, in this case my long johns since it was a bit brisk.  The spring was flowing and the sky was clear and I was loving every minute.

It was another beautiful evening with its fullish moon and another trash/camp fire.  The candle stubs with birch bark and a storm-prof match do the trick every time.  And so Day 6 ended well.

Distance today: 11.3 miles, now 1.5 miles ahead of schedule

Day 7 – Monday, September 16, 2019

No bears, just hoot owls and a whippoorwill , overnight.  Awoke at 0500 and after prayer in the hammock walked over with my headlamp and used the two-hole composting privy.  One hole is open and the other was locked to allow an alternating use and a rest for composting in between.  You’re supposed to throw a handful of dry leaves, which are in 5-gallon buckets for the purpose, in on top of your business to aid the composting process.  Maybe too much information for you.

I had been anticipating today’s hike since last Saturday.  It has two peaks on it that look a bit like chimneys, similar to Albert Mountain, but no bypasses. – Courthouse Bald and Sharp Top.  The name of the latter is worrisome in itself.  Plus there was a very steep descent to the GA border near Bly Gap after them (yes, I’m that close now).  In the midst of my anxiety about this challenging section in morning prayer the opening psalm was the Canticle of Isaiah (40:10-31): “He gives strength to the fainting; for the weak he makes vigor abound; Though young men faint and grow weary and youths stagger and fall, they that hope in the Lord will renew their strength; they will soar as with eagles’ wings; They will run and not grow weary, walk and not grow faint”.  I cried as I read this and took much courage.

I was on the trail at 0740 and at Deep Gap at 0800.   This is where I found the “Wanted:  Yogi Bear” notice.  The Standing Indian shelter had been raided twice in May on successive nights, I think the 16th and 17th.  My take away was that the bears are smart enough to know when the pickins’ are slim on the trail and when they are fat.  I saw and heard nothing except the owls and whippoorwill.

I stopped at Muskrat Creek shelter to water up at the creek that crossed the trail there before the ascent through Sassafras Gap,  Used the privy and got stuck with no TP; haven’t had to use leaves for yeas but they still work.

Then with this psalm on my heart I headed up through Wateroak Gap and White Oak Stamp (didn’t notice any bald there, however) past the Chunky Gal trail.  Met couple from Mobile there.  Chunky as reported in the guide is probably a gloss from the Cherokee term “chuckey” used like “place”, i.e. Nolichuckey River.  On the approach to Courthouse Bald I ate the first half of my lunch to carb up.  I’ve found that when the hike is strenuous my stomach doesn’t digest a heavy lunch well,

In the end the most challenging part of the hike was the downhill after Sharp Top into Bly Gap.  Earlier cautions about the trail being too overgrown to find and yellow jacket stings were unfounded by the time I got there.  I didn’t bother to water up at Bl;y Gap, although I wasted a good 15 minutes on he blue blazed side trail (without my pack).  Once again the Trail Guide’s use of the English language was found wanting.  The border was 0.1 mile beyond the gap, and marked, contradicting the Trail Guide yet again.  Met “Mike”, a Nobo engineer from Lafayette IN – had a Purdue visor on but was a Rose-Hulman CHE grad.  Pressing on downhill I ate the remainder of my lunch at the campsite at Rich Cove Gap.  This was to be my original stopping point, and it would have been good, but it was too early with the extra distance from the last two days.  I pressed on downhill, more or less, to Plum Orchard Gap for the night.  Mary Ann and I were reading it Plumorchard Gap, some kind of French word, but the sign and the map on closer inspection both had it as two words.  we had a good laugh, and it has entered our vocabulary as “Plum Or’Chard”.

I smelled campfire smoke on my way down to the Gap and fully expected to have to share my campsite for the first time.  But when I arrived I discovered it was far worse – the campfire was still smoldering from the previous night.  I knew how dry the weather had been and this was totally unacceptable.  It took me 10 minutes to finally get the smoldering wood out of the fire ring and stomped out.  Yes water is far away and hard to get, but preserving the forest comes first.  I had hiked through way too many dead rhododendrons yesterday.  And thinking back over who I had passed earlier I believe I knew who it was – a trio of folks that appeared to have fallen in together.  “Hardhat”, an older woman wearing a bicycle helmet , “Greens” the woman spokesperson and “Prepper”, a younger and not too outdoorsy looking fella.  Of course short first impressions can be way wrong.  But they were the last I’d met an d from what they said their rate of travel was about right for where I met them to this campsite.

I arrived at the campsite close to 1600.  Dropping my pack I went exploring.  There was water steeply down from both sides of the trail at the gap.  On my side the trail went down sharply for what seemed to be 1/2 mile but was probably 1/4.  It crossed the creek and then sharply up a short distance to a double-decker shelter sleeping 20 according to the guide.  Evidence of the major traffic jam during the peak season this close to the southern terminus.  I got my water and by the time I made it back up to my campsite I was winded, even without my pack.  Man, I was tired.  But I made the mistake of checking for the water on the other side of the trail and it was equally as far and steep but the water access was not as good.  I’ll never learn.  I set up camp and ate dinner at around 1730.  After dinner, a bit more life back in my legs I decided to hike back down to the creek with its spring pipe and take a bandana bath trusting no one was around.  I was au naturel only briefly and it felt so, so good.  Meeting my honey for lunch tomorrow, my friend.

Then perhaps because I was so tired I couldn’t find two items – my comb and the bearbag rope.  I really was bummed by this because I try to be very careful looking over a campsite for unpacked items before I leave.  And now my hair was all tangly, although clean, and I needed to get my last two meals into the air..  I solved the bearbag problem with a length of cord I had added to my  hammock fly ridge cord.  The two trees were close enough together that I didn’t need it added to this line.  I just bent a tall sapling down to my outstretched hand and tied the bag to it.  The food bag was very light by this point.  But the comb presented a harder solution.  Then I solved them both.  The comb was in my toiletries stuff sack and the bearbag rope was on the ground under my pack when I moved the pack under the hammock for the night.  So then I was totally redeemed having not forgotten anything in the first place.  It was too late.  I combed my hair but left the bearbag as is – it was good enough.

With the extra distance each day I was now only 4.5 miles away from Dick’s Creek Gap and lunch with Mary Ann..

Distance today: 12.2 miles (2.5 miles ahead of schedule)

Day 8 – Tuesday, September 17, 2019

It’s pickup day.  Always bittersweet.  There always a chance that I may not be able to hike again.  Remote, but possible.  It’s a short hike today but uphills are still uphills.  Up at 0500 for the toilet then back into the hammock for prayer.  Don’t want to start too early.  At my established pace of 2.5 mph I only needed 2 hours max to the end.  I was back up at 0600 getting things packed up.  I slept really well finally (it’s always this way on the last day it seems)  with no leg spasms.  Another perfect morning and really, really quiet without the katydids.  Not in any hurry I hiked back down to the creek for a supply of water to put out the fire correctly.  For only 4.5 miles I didn’t need a full supply of water, either.  Again it was the last and lightest breakfast – oatmeal and coffee.

After a leisurely morning and dowsing the fire I was on the trail by 0830.  I left the signature Boy Scout dead fire indicator – a limb jabbed into the ground in the center of the fire ring.  In case there is a fire the portion of the stick in the ground remains unburned, if indeed the fire was dead out.

Yesterday I went over As Gap and Bull Gap.  Bull Gap caught my interest because it looked like two cheeks with a crack between them.  So with some minor editing I thought it was more likely (you guessed it)  Ass Knob and Butt Gap.  I was out here too long I guess.  As Knob, really?  Looked like a typo to me.

Hit Tom Cowart Gap at 0940.  The trail rose 350′ coming out of this gap in 0.4 tenths mile – saving the worst for last.  It was nearly all log steps, with varying heights.  I suppose it was better than an eroded trail.  That’s a 16.5′ per 100′ slope, nearly twice that of any trail section to this point and for that long of a stretch.  And I was indeed stretched.  Awful steep in my book.  And of course another 1/10 of steep before sliding down steeply into Dick’s Creek Gap.  Glad I only had 4.5 miles of this.   Got there 5 minutes early.

Had a wonderful lunch with Mary Ann and then ended up in Hiawassee GA at an outfitter called Trailful  to get my AT passport stamped.  Bought a waterproof spiral notebook for next time, some boot laces and some nylon cord to replace my present fly ridge line.  Then back to Franklin, the Comfort Inn and more BBQ.  Only 69.5 miles to the end at Springer Mountain GA and 77.5 miles to the access point at Amicalola Falls SP GA.

Back in town got cleaned up at the Comfort Inn and sorted out my equipment before dinner.  We went to the other BBQ place – Fat Buddies.  Liked it better than Willies and the prices and bear selection were the same.  Mary Ann had really done her homework on places to get the passport stamped and places to eat.

Distance today:  4.5 miles     Total for the hike:  96.2 miles

Day 9 – Wednesday, September 18, 2019

This was a bonus day to sort of pay Mary Ann back for he love and dedication.  We took an excursion on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad from Bryson City through the Nantahala Gorge, with a layover at the Nantahala Outdoor Center where of course six days ago I had stayed overnight and hiked through.  We chose the middle cost passage, which is our normal style, in the open air car with bench seats and a box lunch.  We didn’t know what one did if it was raining and blowing since there was no glass in the windows of the converted baggage cars.  But we got more than we expected when a very talented claw hammer banjoist got aboard and entertained for a good portion of the ride.  At the end of the line past the NOC they disconnected the dual engines and rand them down the spur past us and hooked up at the opposite end for the return trip.  On the return we had an hour layover at the NOC.  Had we to do this again we would skip the lunch on the train and eat at one of the NOC restaurants.  I enjoyed showing Mary Ann my hostel berth and how the trail ran through the place.  She was not thrilled by the up and down, no more than I was on upon my arrival during the hike.  But I did manage to get my passport stamped at the Outfitters Store and got a nice AT logo ceramic mug to remember the trip.

I learned from the Car Attendants monologue that the Kudzu Vine, the “Vime that Ate the South”, was brought from Japan forv eroision control but soon discovered to have no natural predators in North America and overran everything.  The solution – bring over its nemesis the  balsam woolly adelgid to control it.  And of course in the process kill all the balsam fir trees in the southern Appalachians.  How sad.

At the end of the ride back at the Depot we had free -passes to the Lionel Train museum.  Could easily have been the world’s largest.  What a marvelous layout.  The Engineer said that besides the engines and roiling stock on display lining all four walls floor to ceiling and that on the display there were another 2,000 units in the attic with no room to display them.  Ah, if only I had a giant outbuilding back home.

Our return trip to Franklin from Bryson City was livened up by missing a turn and having to backtrack, plus two attempts to fuel the Jetta, the first with the diesel pumps out of order and the second with the wrong size nozzle.  We haed plenty of fuel but the prices were attractive.  Once back in Franklin we returned to Fat Buddies for a second round.  I tried their brisket, always the measure of a good BBQ restaurant, and it was excellent.  We bought some of there Georgia Mustard style BBQ sauce as a treat.

Day 10/11 – Thursday & Friday, September 19/20, 2019

It was an uneventful trip back up I-75 through Cincinnati to Avon.  We made our normal stop at Kroger and Lengen’s Meats in Harrison for goetta and leona sausage.  I made a blunder and got half hot goetta and half regular.  But Jon was happy to take half of it and I was happy to take the rest.

We left after breakfast Friday for the last leg, as I had a Scout hike the next morning and we had the PoP Celebration Lord’s Day that Saturday evening.  We were gone a long time.  We returned refreshed.

 

 

AT June 2019 – Damascus VA to Mountain Harbor TN

Introduction

Since 2002 when my friend Rich Preuss organized the first Troop 325 high adventure on the Appalachian Trail at Erwin TN I have been infatuated with the mystery of this trail.  With its beginnings as a series of unconnected hiking club trails in the eastern seaboard states at the turn of the 20th century, through the visionary energy of Benton McKaye that linked these clubs into what is now the Appalachian Trail Conservancy this trail captures my imagination.  Currently 2,190 miles long, from Springer Mountain GA to Mt. Katadin ME, when I step on it there is always the trail stretching before me, seemingly without beginning or end.  I am in awe of Earl Schaffer, who in 1948 was the first person to hike it continuously from end to end , and who did it a third time at age 83.  Heck, if ol’ Earl could do it at age 83 then I can do it a section at a time as a youngster at 71-1/2 

The first hikes were always for the Scouts, partly because Mary Ann was willing to let me go to serve them rather than just to do it for myself, and there was more security in numbers.  Spivey Gay near Erwin TN to US-19E near Elk Park NC/Mountain Harbor TN (2002), Reed’s Gap to the James River VA (2005) and the southern half of Shenandoah NP VA (2012) were great Scouting adventures,  Then I started filling in the gaps by on my own – northern half of Shenandoah NP (2012), Rockfish Gap to Reed’s Gap (2013), trans-Smoky Mountain NP (2014), Allen Gap to Davenport Gap (GSMNP northern boundary with Anna, 2018), Spivey Gap to Allen Gap (2018) – and now Damascus VA to Mountain Harbor TN (2019).

Except for that first Spivey Gap – US 19E in 2002 run all the others have been north to south.  This has become my preferred direction fro two reasons.  First, only 10% of through hikers go this direction so it is less crowded at campsites normally.  And secondly, I pass more people and so am more likely to find help if I get in trouble.  The trail seems to be easier in this direction, but this may be a misconception.

Since the adventure on the edge of Hurricane Michael in October 2018, we have upgraded our tracking capability by adding the Life360 app to our cellphones.  Experience has shown that only in the deepest, most forested hollows do we lose connection.  This is a comfort for both of us and an additional safety feature when hiking alone.  To date my experience has been that on the AT ridge in eastern Tennessee cellphone connectivity is not as issue.  Corollary to this I have carried a  recharge unit for the phone with a 3-day capacity beginning with the Allen Gap – Davenport Gap hike with Anna in 2018.

Day 1 – Sunday, June 9, 2019

After the PoP meeting we drove to Avon for an overnight with Jon & Anna.  This always shortens the trip south.  We tried to eat at KFC in Plymouth but they didn’t have the grilled style so we ended up at Jimmy Johns for a lunch dinner.  We rolled into Avon around 2000 and hung out.

Day 2 – Monday, June 10, 2019

Up good and early for breakfast and no complications with the trip to Damascus.  Decided to take the route suggested by Goggle Maps SE from Lexington KY on I-64 toward Winchester and KY-15, the Mountain Parkway and US-58 to Damascus.  Ate lunch at Yawnie Burton’s Cozy Corner Cafe in Jackson KY.  Got to the Dancing Bear B&B in Damascus around 1500 in the rain.  We were upgraded to the Mama Bear suite upstairs because some hikers in the Papa Bear suite wanted to stay over an extra day, likely because of the predicted rain.  This worked out fine for us – a bigger place at the same cost.  Got unpacked, situated and then to the Cracker Barrel in Abingdon VA for dinner.  Made one last check on gear and packed up for an early start.

The Dancing Bear B & B, Damascus VA

Day 3 – Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Ready to hit the trail

Up at 0600.  Had an egg & bacon breakfast, prayer time together and walked out on the trail down Main Street.  The rain had ceased overnight but things were a bit moist, and Beaver Dam Creek was full.  The stroll down Main Street reminded me of Hot Springs last fall.  The trail crossed Beaver Dam Creek on the highway bridge and then departed town through the

Right down Main Street in Damascus

City park under a welcome arch built as a Troop 23 Eagle Scout project.  I thought it fitting.  I was braced for a 6 mile 1,880′ climb to the crest of Holston Mountain.  But as is usually the case on Day 1 my adrenaline was high and the climb didn’t really faze me.  I was on the trail at 0738.  It was a beautiful day for a hike as well.

into TN at mile 3.7; beginning my final 70+ miles for this state

As bad as the weather was on last October 10 on the edge of Hurricane Michael it was the exact opposite today.  It was so good in fact that I got to the Abingdon shelter at 1220 and realized I had already covered 10.6 miles.  OMG !  This changed my plans for the rest of the day.  Somewhere after lunch I realized that I broke through the “wall” referred to by marathoners and I was in a groove.  When I stopped for the day at around 1700 I had gone 16.0 miles, about two miles further than I had planned.  I camped about 1 mile west of Low Gap (US 421).  It so happened that US 421 was the local motorcycle racetrack.  Thanks be to God they quit at sundown.  Had chicken and rice with green beans and coffee and a Larabar for dinner.  Yum.

 

Two miles beyond Low Gap/US-421 for the night

I never found the campsite shown on the trail map and my experience with the accuracy of this aspect of these maps has been mixed.  So I gave up my search and backtracked on the trail to a level spot with the least undergrowth, particularly no nettles.  It had plenty of ferns and stickers.  After a bit of first day confusion getting ready for the night I got settled down by the 2045 sunset.  The bear bag is set up using the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) method.  It works pretty well except you can only get it as high as you can reach.  Ended up having to get out of the hammock, traipse across through the stickers and bring the bag back down so I could wash the bug repellent off of my lips.   My shins and ankles got pretty beat up.  A positive is that I could lean out of the hammock and get into my pack to retrieve my beanie and this notebook.  Now I’m all set.  My day ends snug in my hammock listening to the Reds play the Indians.  There should be no rain overnight.

Another weird phenomenon – No mosquitoes.  Plenty of pesky gnats but no mosquitoes.  I’m not complaining.

Day 4 – Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The day started with prayer at daybreak (0608) and then fetching down the bear bag.  Had warm granola, fruit and coffee for breakfast.  On the trail by maybe 0810.  I’m still not organized.  And right off the bat I hiked maybe 4 minutes and came to the campsite I was searching for last night.  Rats.  It would have been so much more comfy.  I need to learn how to translate this map.

This was a momentous day for prayer.  A 59 year old northbound through hiker with trail name “Wild Doc” (he’s an EMT carrying a full 1st Aid kit) and I met.  We talked about what a great day it was for hiking and he said it would be even better if he wasn’t having trouble with his knees.  He was a believer and so we prayed and parted ways.  This was somewhere south of Double Springs shelter.

I met a number of through hikers today.  I passed a total of 18 people.  Besides Wild Doc there was “Chuck Wagon”, “Christian”, “Wandering Kilt”, “Gronk” (from the BC comic strip), “Unc” and “Kodachrome”.   Each has a story.  The craziest one for the day, however, was “Indiana Jones”. I laughed and said, “I’m from Indiana, too.”  He asked, “Where?”  I said, “South Bend.”  He said, “You’re kidding.  I’m from South Bend, too, and I teach at St. Adelbert’s.”  I said, “then you know Lou Gionfriddo.”  He was blown away by that.  He gave me his email, Kevin Hite,  and I emailed Louie from the trail.  It’s a small world.

Near Turkeypen Gap with spring right across the trail; trail behind me in picture

I pressed on toward Turkeypen Gap for the night and of course with all the rain last week the intermittent spring across the trail from the campsite was flowing gobs.  13.5 miles today, up over Holston Mountain, past the Grindstaff Monument.  The Monument is the gravesite of Nick Grindstaff with the fireplace as the headstone.  He was orphaned at 3 years old.  Later  traveling further west he was robbed and beaten.  He decided to retreat to this spot where he spent his last 45 years with his dog companions.  The epitaph reads, “Uncle Nick Grindstaff, born December 26, 1851…died July 22, 1923 – lived alone, suffered alone, died alone”.  Pretty somber and sad in a way.  Ate lunch there.

Rain was due at about 2000 so kept moving.  Got to the campsite at 1615 and was set up and had eaten dinner before anything happened.  Ended up at a campsite about 1.5 miles beyond (west of) my planned stopping point, near Turkeypen Gap.

The greatest thing about today was that granddaughter Sophia Mae Barnes was born while I was having dinner at 1841 Texas time.  Got a picture shortly thereafter.  What a cutie.  Emma and Zach conceiving was one of my three major prayers during last October’s hike.  Only fitting that the birth should happen while I was on the trail again.

On the first try with less than ideal tinder

Learning from past failures I brought a few candle stubs along for fire starters.  Candles have the advantage of burning for a long time after you light them so that even mediocre tinder will eventually dry and ignite, and they also give you time to get the tinder and next larger twigs onto the flame.  In this case I was able to get my fire going after a week of rain with very little trouble and only one try.  Learn something new every hike.

During the night I was serenaded by a pair of hoot owls.  They sounded to be right in the campsite.  I have never heard many of their call variations before, and they were actually serenading each other.  It went on for 10 minutes or more.  13.5 miles today.

Day 5 – Thursday, June 13, 2019

Well it had to happen.  I woke up to rain that started just before daybreak but didn’t stop as I hoped so that I could break camp in the dry.  It wasn’t a driving rain, just a steady drizzle, but with gusty wind.  I hate waking up to rain.  I stalled things as much as I could by finishing my prayers and waiting for it to subside.  I got dressed under the hammock fly, got the rainsuit on and retrieved the bear bag.  Then went right to it with breakfast.  It was instant scrambled eggs with bacon, one I’ve done before and like.  But today my 1 cup of boiling water measure was a bit long and what I got was a fairly soupy result.  Ate what I could and drank the rest.  Gotta keep hydrated ya’know.  The hot coffee made up for most of the freeze dried failure.  Broke camp at 0820 in my rainsuit with the hammock as the last item.  I’ve done this before complete with the hammock being blown out sideways by the wind when I took out the moorings, like last October.  Will have a bit more weight in the pack today.  The good news is that Mary Ann picks me up for the night at the end of the day and I can dry everything out.  All my clothes were already in ziplocs so I had no real wet clothes problem.

A wet start to the 3rd day on the trail

So off I slogged mostly downhill toward Vandeventer shelter.  The rain was coming as a series of scattered showers with high wind punctuated by sunlight.  All the undergrowth was thus dripping wet, as were my rainpants from the knees down and my socks.  These boots are not goretex-ing well at all.  And my heels are still painful.  Met some hearty northbound souls along the way – “Doright“, “Missmatch“, “Jellybean”, “Nickels” and “Stray Cat”.  Got to Vandeventer shelter at around 1015 where I ran into an outward bound group of girls and their guides.  Must have been 10 all together.  Once they left I had the place to myself.  Took off my rain gear as the sun had come out just  before I arrived.  This turned out to be a bad idea because I got caught by a flash shower with my sweater and wool shirt hanging in a tree to dry in the sun.  So I was a little bit wetter.  Ate my morning snack then packed back up and hiked a bit further, where I stopped in between showers to doctor my heels.  They are not doing well.  I abandoned my rain pants about then and decided wet lower pant legs were no problem since my boots were soggy anyway.  Then it started raining again and I was really wet below.  Stopped for water  in the rain at a sag about 2 miles beyond the shelter.  Took off my lower pant legs and put my rainpants back on.  Then encountered a northbound dude at the spring that had decided to abandon rainsuits altogether.  I thought, well that’s OK as long as the temperature stays high enough; but too risky for me.  By then I was only 7.5 miles from my rendezvous with Mary Ann and on he downhill.  The sun came out for good at 1300.  I stopped for lunch around then and northbound “Lupus” passed me.  We had a nice conversation.  There were still some rhododendrons in bloom.  So it was mostly downhill toward Watauga Dam and then the usual AT trick – a useless hike up and over a steep hump from one road to another that I could have hiked around on the road I think.  By now it was warm and sunny as I reached the dam on the access road.  I texted Mary Ann my adjusted arrival time, changed into some cooler clothes and crossed the dam.   

crossing Watauga Dam

So I was following the lakeshore around toward US 321 and Mary Ann.  A gal northbound gave me a heads up that the trail ahead was underwater in a couple of spots and to look for the detours in the woods.  There were three.  The first two turned out to be short and easily navigated.   A last underwater section threw me because I couldn’t find an obvious detour.  I backtracked to a fork in the trail and took the upper route.  This intersected Oliver Hollow Road, which paralleled the trail around to US 321.  I had a half mile hike then on US 321 down to the waiting  Mary Ann  at the junction with Shook Branch Road and reached her by 1630.  By 1730 we were settled into Cabin 12 at the Watauga Lakeshore Resort.  Didn’t do any praying today with the rain and all.  The day ended sunny.  12.5 miles today.  

I unpacked my gear to get it dried out.  The wind was howling up from the lake, maybe 30 mph.  I strung the hammock on the balcony and it dried quickly.  Likewise the boots went on the deck table to dry.  The socks and underwear, once they were washed in the sink, went on the table in the sun and wind as well.

at the Watauga Lakeshore Resort for some R&R

We grilled burgers for dinner and everything worked out to the good.  It was nice to have a bed to sleep in.  Spent the evening with showering, repacking all the dried out stuff and sharing stories.

My heals are becoming a mess because I changed to a “better” insole for the boots.  Unfortunately they raised my heals about 1/4″ and they are wearing raw.  My left foot is bad; right foot not so good.  So I spent some time after my shower re-bandaging them as best I could and using a little antibiotic cream.

Day 6 – Friday, June 14, 2019

on the trail again, once Mary Ann found the trailhead

Back on the trail this morning after a wonderful evening with Mary Ann.  Rose

at 0600 and had a hearty breakfast of real eggs and bacon.  The drive back to Shook Branch road and the trailhead took 10 minutes.  She actually found the trailhead and got me going in the right direction.  I was 180° off.

a look back down during the ascent at the Watauga Dam

This is my hardest day for total vertical climb with two major uphills and a descent to Laurel Fork of the Watauga River in between.  I started to pace myself from the beginning for the first uphill to Pond Flats using my 376 – 72 – 110 pace intervals for each 1/10 mile.  My pace is 5′ roughly.  When it’s really steep I switch to a  28 – 56 – 84 – 110 sequence.  It really works to take my mind off of the fatigue and if I know the distance to the crest I am encouraged knowing exactly how much remains.  So before I knew it I had crested Pond Flats.  And the top was indeed quite a stretch of flat.  The downhill was typical AT – the CCC didn’t know much about switchbacks.  Only passed 4 people all morning.

At the bottom I merged with the local trail from US-321 to Laurel Fork Falls.  The falls as it turns out was spectacular what with all the rain but getting to it was an adventure.  The opening two miles were flat, broad and uneventful, and then there was a fork.  I knew from the trail guide that there is a lower trail along the river and an alternate upper trail for use during flood stage.  Was this the fork or not.  The river path was not blazed and after I had walked it for a distance I backtracked and took the left fork and found a white blaze.  This

the Laurel Fork shelter sitting like a castle on its precipice

portion of the trail was incredibly bad.  It went up the backbone of a flinty rock ridge.  The trail guide described it as “narrow, ungraded, rock ribbed “.  You don’t know the half of it.  In hindsight I guess my main mistake was wanting to get to the Laurel Fork Shelter and its spring for lunch.  In my defense the map and guide did not say which trail the shelter was on.  I had assumed it was the lower one.  Right in the middle of this narrow, ungraded, rock ribbed flinty ridge was a double blaze indicating a turn, and the trail descended rapidly back toward the river.  What I missed was the blue blaze on the fork at this turn leading steeply upward to the shelter.  I ran into a local photographer at this point who said that if I wanted to get to the shelter it would be better to backtrack to this fork instead of going forward to the junction above the falls.  If I would have ditched the shelter idea I would have gotten to the falls straight away, eaten lunch at its base,could have refilled my water from the stream and been on my way.  As it turned out I took a short but killer ascent to the shelter, found a wonderful spring fed stream for water, and then after another mile of edgy ridge side trail got to the top of the falls and had the privilege of climbing down the 100 or so rock stairs to its base and then back up again.  By the end of this I was really beat, and still had the second major climb head of me.  The falls were worth the climb, however.

Laurel Fork Falls in full flow

Now the Lord’s purpose with all of this was revealed to me.  After climbing back up to the trail junction above the falls the trail eventually leveled out into a well worn, wide local access trail for the falls starting at Dennis Cove road.  But the further I went the more concerned I became about the absence of AT white blazes.  Finally I spied one on a post marking the Cherokee National Forest boundary.  I was so glad to see it that I hugged the post.  It was one of those days.  As I continued I noticed in the distance a small woman with that same puzzled look consulting her map.  When I got to her I told her about the post and reassured her she was on the AT.  She was short and looked to be Filipino or SE Asian.  With this as an opening we started talking and I learned she was a thru-hiker but had a pulled ligament in her right knee and had just gotten back on the trail, and it was giving her trouble.  I asked if we could pray over it and she agreed.  Her trail name was “Slip N’ Slide”.  We prayed and as we finished I had the idea to share with her that right after Jesus teaches the Lord’s Prayer he teaches that for our prayers to be answered we must first forgive those who have wronged us.  She looked at me with wide eyes and said, “How did you know?”  Apparently she had someone to forgive and had been thinking about this as she was hiking.  And then off we went in our opposite directions again.  Had I not taken so much time finding my way at the Laurel Fork shelter I would have missed her altogether.

coming into my White Rocks Mountain campsite

I continued on the Dennis Cove road and began my ascent of White Rocks Mountain.  I crested the front peak and camped at the bottom of the following downhill beside a dear browse field.  The campsite was full already with a father and son so I took a sight in the nearby woods 100 yards away.  The nearby spring was what I was really after.  A little later four 20-somethings arrive and added their tents to the main campsite.  I had gotten into camp about 1820 but had enough time to get set up and fed before dusk.  It was a long day.  12.8 tough miles today.

Hanging the bear bag was another adventure.  I broke off two limbs before finding one that would work.  When I had the bag up I realized it was adjacent to a dead 4″ tree leaning on a much larger tree.  So rather than move the bear bag again I chose to move the dead tree.  I had to pull it out of the ground and tug it by fits and jerks until its top fell out of the other tree.  By now it was dark and I didn’t have much left in the tank.

Day 7 – Saturday, June 15, 2019

sunrise over White Rocks Mountain

A beautiful sunrise on White Rocks Mountain.  No rain in sight and that’s good.  Finished my prayers in the hammock.  Did my morning toilet and made breakfast.  Crept through the other campers to the spring.  Ate and broke camp by about 0730 and was off up White Rocks Mountain toward Moreland Gap shelter.  I stopped here for a snack and to get water.  This was a very well built trail to the spring with a 4″ pipe.  Glad I stopped.  Before leaving I checked the logbook for trail names I had forgotten.  Then off again upward.  Ran into St. Louis “Archie” near the crest.  He had a shin splint problem.  We prayed much like with “Slip N’ Slide”.  Then off we both went.  Up and over the last hump and down toward the Upper Laurel Fork.

The problem with the AT guidebook is that it will say, “cross small stream”, which is fine but then there will  be multiple small streams.  So which one?  The one with the footbridge or the one without.  This one or the one before it?  Several times today I put myself at the wrong spot on the trail because of multiple footbridges and stream crossings when only one was listed in the guide.  Need to find a better guidebook.  Anyway, I ate lunch at what I thought was the Upper Laurel Fork crossing with the footbridge washed away (this does happen and goes unreported) but in hindsight I was really at Hardcore Cascade, which of course isn’t even mentioned in the guide.  It was however, a nice place to stop.  I doctored my heels which were getting worse and then pressed on.  Only later did I realize that I was still east of FS293, putting me 1.5 miles behind my expected arrival at Elk River for the night.  Once back on track there were still guidebook problems.  My eventual anchor was the gap in the trees with a bench looking south toward Hump Mountain.  OK, great, this is in the guidebook and unmistakable.  The guidebook made no mention of the bench.  Then I came to Walnut Mtn. road (at least I figured so, but no sign of course) and after that I was really on the downhill toward  Mountaineer shelter and the Elk River. Took a picture and pressed on.

On this trip I had passed several hikers with dogs.  The dogs typically were carrying their own food in packs on their backs.  What was really impressive was how well they were trained.  No need for their masters to say, “don’t worry he’ll not bite”, the dogs were not on leashes but didn’t even acknowledge my presence as they passed and didn’t bark.  That is until this stretch of trail down from Walnut Mountain.  First I heard barking from around the corner ahead, of more than one dog.  I thought, “O boy, here we go”.  Around the corner rushed three mutts – a big one, a medium and a little one, like the Three Bears.  No leashes.  The big guy looked like he meant business, and so did my carbide tipped hiking poles.  I froze at the ready and they stopped just short of me.  The big fella was barking.  Behind came their mistress – full length skirt and no backpack, so I took her to be a local on a short excursion.  You can guess her introduction, “O they won’t hurt you”.  Sure, Lady.  And just as quickly they were past, well not before the big one came up behind me one more time.  I was glad that I was not packing heat and faced with the temptation to shoot.

Mountaineer Falls shelter

Now my adrenaline was flowing.  I got to Mountaineer Falls shelter looking for the spring.  A gaunt, weary thru hiker came in a little after me complaining about having a bad day and his lower back.  I mentioned that I could pray with him, but he said, “Nah, I’ll be alright”.  So not finding a blue blaze for the spring I headed back up to the main trail and continued on.  As it turned out Mountaineer Falls was the spring and it crossed the main trail just below the shelter.  I watered up.   Another hiker arrived, greeted me and asked asked how much further it was the Dennis Cove road.  It took me aback.  I told him I had gone through there yesterday just after lunch and it was about 15 miles.  He said that was not what he had figured as he was on a day hike and due to be picked up there that evening at about 1700.  It was  1600 already.  I showed him my map.  His appearance reminded me of comedian Will Farrell with his headband wrapped around his tight curly hair.  Then I said, “let’s pray”.  I recommended that he hike up to Walnut Mtn. road to get to a high point for better cellphone reception, seeing as we had none where we were standing, and call in for help.  I noted that he crossed himself when we finished the prayer.  As we parted I asked his trail name.  He said “Weathervane”, gave me a wry smile and said, “and today apparently I’m only fair”.

On toward the Elk River campsite.  I arrived at by about 1730 and was set up for the night and had eaten by 1930.  This is my last night on the trail for this excursion.  The bear bag was a bit of an adventure but I didn’t have to tear down any trees for it.  Successfully lit another trash fire to lighten my load.  There was a large dead leaning tree that creaked in the wind against its supporting tree, but it was facing away from the hammock and fire ring, so only a bit annoying.

There had been no rain today but it had been getting steadily warmer all day.  I could hear but not see the river from the .  The campsite  campsite was above the trail and on the opposite side of the trail from the river.  And keeping with the trail guide and map problem theme, two campsites were shown on the topo map, only one on the elevation profile and none were listed in the guide.   There is a brilliant full moon tonight.  14.1 miles today.

Day 8 – Sunday, June 16, 2019

packed up and ready to go on Sunday morning

Last day on the trail and last miles in Tennessee.  Also Father’s Day and I was exchanging blessings on the trail with the children and sons-in-law through the day.  Even heard from Geoff Kelleher.  It was hotter overnight and I slept with in my long johns outside the mummy bag.  Two nights ago up on White Rocks Mountain was very brisk.  Also down here by the river it was very damp in the morning.  This was my most organized day yet for breaking camp.  No rain helped.  Rose at daybreak, did my business, dressed, retrieved the bear bag and fixed breakfast.  There are nice blue skies and it’s supposed to be in the 80’s.

So out on the trail with my feet doctored one last time.  I had left them unbandaged with antibiotic ointment and liner socks on them last night while I slept to let them air and dry out.  This had a very beneficial effect.  With new bandages it will be OK on downward slopes with the trail benched (draining) to my right as this will keep my left heel, which is the worst, away from the sides of the foot cup.  Today has its crest on Buck Mountain around 2/3rds of the 6.5 miles back to Mary Ann.  Starting out the trail followed the river nice and flat for a mile or so.  Then a sharp right hand turn and up toward Jones Falls.  In this stretch I was actually in North Carolina for approximately 2/10ths of a mile.  This will be important whenever I  decide to finish my last 88 miles of North Carolina south of the Smokies.

Jones Falls on the way up Buck Mountain

Jones Falls was well worth the 0.1 mile side hike, as I’d been told by northbound hikers.  It was in its own way more beautiful than the Laurel Fork Falls,very delicate and tall.  I had dropped my pack at the trail junction.

Then back upward on switchbacks toward the crest.  I went up and down over the ridge at Campbell Hollow and met “Father Time” and his 12 year old son “Tesla”.  They were section hiking and had covered the trail from Springer Mountain.  We prayed together for “Father Time’s” knees.  Wished them a blessed Sunday and they told me there was a Baptist church up on Buck Mountain road near the trail crossing.  When I got to Buck Mountain road I checked it out but they were not in session.  Do I pressed on past their cemetery, then up one of those classic, steep AT no-switchback trails (still not as steep as the one up to the Laurel Fork shelter) to the crest.  It opened onto a grassy field looking south.  It was lovely.  By now it was lunch time.  I quipped to the Lord that it would be nice to have a log to sit on looking down this field to the valley, as I hadn’t seen one, then turned around took two paces further down the trail and there it was

my lunch spot

– a 4′ long good sized diameter log in a shady little grassy spot.  He is too good to me.  I enjoyed a leisurely lunch greeting several hikers as they passed.    I read some of my St. Augustine.  I gave Mary Ann an update on my location and  arrival time, which I judged to be 50 minutes for the remaining 2.5 miles downhill, and off I went.  Down through long grass in sunny fields, then through a section of   woods and then back out into another sunny field.  You never seem to get there but I was moving quickly.  But of course I intersected Buck Branch road and another of those useless humps into the section trailhead.  Wanted to take the road left down to US-19E which I could hear but the purist in me made me hike the last half mile of the trail.  I was a tad late to my rendezvous at 1215.

view from my lunch spot southward over toward Hump Mountain south

We drove the 20 minutes or so back to the resort, spent some time unloading and unpacking the gear.  It being time to celebrate I was looking for a beer.  It being a Sunday in Tennessee this was highly unlikely.  I decided to Google the alcohol sales laws  and to my delight learned that last April the Governor had signed into law a new law allowing beer and wine sales on Sundays, with some restrictons.  So

it was a good hike and great trip

down to the corner Shell gas station for some Yuengling.  On the way we drove up to the Boots Off hostel on Shook Branch road and the proprietor kindly stamped my AT Passport even though I hadn’t stayed there.  I told him that folks on the trail spoke highly of his establishment and that I would certainly give him some free advertising.  This was a bit weird thinking back on it, but Mary Ann had already gotten one from the outfitter in Damascus for me.

Then back to the cabin for a beer, shower, and  burgers on the deck.  Talked to Nate and Will for Father’s Day, good sons that they both are.  Mary Ann and I then caught up with our separate adventures.  6.4 miles today in about 4.5 hours with stops.

Day 9 – Monday, June 15, 2019

Hoighlights of the trip tp Avon.  Stopped at Cracker Barrel in Johnson City for breakfast and for lunch at the Gold Star Chili in Berea KY for lunch.  Then the mandatory stop at the Harrison OH Kroger for goetta and Langen’s Meats for leona sausage.  For dinner with Anna and the kids (Jon was away for work) we picked up City BBQ.

Day 10 – Tuesday, June 6, 2019

Nothing unusual.  We left at about 0800 and were home for lunch.  I have plenty of projects waiting to get done before leaving for BSA camp on Sunday.  Found the water softener broken on our arrival and that became my highest priority.

Cloud Peak Wilderness Trek – July 2018

It is now late March 2019.  I have been planning to write out the details of this BSA Troop 325 High Adventure since we finished in July 2018, but my map was misplaced and I need it for details.  Actually, my brother John Lee had it, buried in a box of stuff left from the trip and finally found it last week.  So that is my impetus to start.

Our destination was the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area of the Bighorn Mountains in north central Wyoming.  The trip ran from July 13 through July 22, including two days of travel in each direction.  The nearest town is Buffalo WY, and it is fair sized.  The contingent was divided into three Crews of 6 persons – 4 Scouts and 2 adults.  My Crew members were John Lee (adult), Ian Kurdelak (15), Peter Loughran (15) and brothers Henry (15) and Liam Lee (13).  Our Crew leader was Henry Lee.  The other two Crews were:

  • John Loughran (adult), Brian Peterson (adult), Liam Peterson (13), Michael Loughran (13), Josh Rose (13) and Nick Kottkamp, Crew Leader (14)
  • Dave Niswonger (adult), Pete Sgroi (adult), Andrew Berzai (15), Eddie Sgroi (14), Peter Rossi, Crew Leader (16) and Owen Linczer (16)

We traveled by van from South Bend IN to Buffalo WY via I-90 over two days.  Our stop en route outbound and on the return was at Lake Vermilion State Recreation Area near Mitchell SD.  We tent camped from the vans here in good weather, thankfully, and made good use of their showers and running water.  Driving came close to two 13 hour days.  The Lees came directly from their trip to Oregon and met us at the trailhead.  Outbound our timing was perfect for getting to church in Buffalo WY at St. John the Baptist CC on our way to the trailhead.

Day 1 – Friday, July 13 – Driving, Driving

Sgroi Van Occupants (L-R) – Berzai, Linczer, Sgroi; not shown Kurdelak, Rossi & Linczer

We divided into our two vehicles – the Sgroi and Peterson vans – and off we went onto I-80/90 westward.  Dave, Pete and me with 6 of the guys and the rest of the troops with Peterson.  I arranged for and brought four 3′ subs from Wal-Mart for lunch, which turned out to be even too much for 12 teenage Scouts, but we made do at a rest area on I-90 somewhere in

Subs on the run

Wisconsin.   We drove upwards to 13 hours to Lake Vermilion SRA just before the Mitchell SD exit, my pheasant hunting Mecca.  This turned out to be a bit buggy but comfortable, including a shower house and running water.  It was classic tent camping.  Peter Rossi’s Crew brought the in-transit food for dinner and breakfast and the Scouts whipped it up into something edible in reasonable time.  Just have to let them handle it, which is best done with all the adults distracting themselves with something else, keeping an ear open for grease fires and such.  The group had grilled hamburgers with the usual sides.  For my Crew since the Lee’s were coming from Oregon, and bringing the Loughran boys with them, it was just Ian and I for meals on the way out.  So things were simple – I just had Ian eat with the other Crews and I had my freeze dried trail food.  Tonight it was Italian pepper steak and sub leftovers from lunch.  Weather was clear and balmy with a heavy dew in the morning.  All the campsite arrangements worked their ways out well on this first night.

Lake Vermilion SRA, South Dakota

Day 2 –  Saturday, July 14 – More Driving, Driving and Presto Church

We made a quick breakfast of instant oatmeal, bagels and such with minor cleanup and hit the road again.  I had my breakfast skillet freeze dried eggs with sausage.  We had a stop at the Mitchell SD Wal-Mart for a second round of sub sandwiches, only three 3′-ers this round, and kept heading west.

More Wal-Mart Subs on Day 2

This is one big country we live in, really.  The miracle today was that we pulled into Buffalo WY in perfect time for the 5pm church service at St. John the Baptist CC.  Everyone was Roman Catholic except the Petersons, but Brian was delighted to be there.  I sat next to Rev. Brian and he was singing his heart out.  The priest was a native of Long Island judging by his accent but his theme for the sermon about how the Apostles were just all common “schmucks” like us when they started out, without the Holy Spirit, still inspires me today.

St. John Baptist CC, Buffalo WY

After church we had a bit of a drive, maybe an hour, but I wasn’t driving so I don’t remember, to the Hunter trailhead camping area at the edge of the wilderness area off of US Route 16 and USFS 19.  This was primarily a horse camp and it was already pretty full of trailers and horses.  But the tent area was separate and attractive, along French Creek.  The only problem was that it was 1/4 mile away and seriously uphill. The water was back downhill where we parked of course.

a confab amongst the adults at Hunter trailhead

My main concern was finding two trees 12′ apart for the hammock, which were easy to find.  We camped in a pine forest that was fairly new growth.  The Lee’s with the Loughran boys were there to meet us and had established our campsites up the hill.  We had plenty of time before dark to get the tents (hammock) set up and cook dinner.  The Lee’s were in charge of our in transit dinners but I had my own menus as you can tell throughout.  I had a chicken fajita bowl (freeze dried).  There were no subs leftover today.  We had a brief shakedown talk from John Loughran and hit the sack.

 

my setup for the night
pre-flight briefing before bed

Day 3 – Sunday, July 15 – Finally on the Trail

John Lee in Soldier Park

It was an instant oatmeal morning for everyone but me – I had the second half of my Breakfast Skillet FD meal.  We picked our routes for the assault on the Seven Brothers Lakes. We had two choices:  along the Ditch Trail through Soldier Park on USFS 394, into the wilderness area on USFS Trail 024 then up into the Seven Brothers Lakes plateau on USFS Trail 044 from the northeast (5.7 mi); or west on USFS 395 through Buffalo Park to USFS Trail 045 and up to the lakes from the east (6.7 mi).  It didn’t take very long to realize that these were all horse trails, and that Wilderness Area should be read Horseback Area.  Soldier Park was named for the two Civil War era soldiers graves on the trail side outside of the Wilderness Area.  And out this way valleys or coves are called parks.

 

John and Henry check our bearings; not my job 🙂

The USFS roads were four-wheeler gravel quality that were fine for hiking.  The trails were horse paths, however, with all the attendant rutting and loose stones and rocks, steeper than a good footpath should be.  Hiking these was a real chore.  And since horses don’t need them there were also no bridges or even foot logs over the streams.  Our route required two boots-off crossings, one at French Creek Ditch and the other through North Clear Creek.  The other route had one for the less nimble through North Clear Creek near its junction with Seven Brothers Creek further south.  The other two Crews chose this route.  You skipped a creek crossing and had a more gradual but longer climb up to the seven lakes plateau.  So going was slow.  The weather was partly cloudy and on the cool side.  But with a starting elevation of 8,000′ the sun was intense. 

Boots off for North Clear Creek

The final climb up to the Brothers Lakes was 500′ up to a plateau, but once up it was beautiful.  Our campsite elevation at the northernmost lake was about 9,700′, a gain of 1,770′ in about 6 miles.  Campfires were prohibited above 9,200′.  Later in the trip we concluded we could use a stick-fired cooking stove that we had along for a respectable and technically legal fire, however.

We generally retired at dusk, except that a rather spirited poker game broke out in the tent next to my hammock.  Obviously we didn’t run them hard enough today.  But the day ended well.

Day 4 – Monday, July 16 – Rest and Regroup Day

Morning Sunshine. In the hammock.  Morning glory!

Yesterday the three Crews arrived in sequence.  We (Lee Crew) were first in and took a site up a couple hundred yards from the first lake.  The Kottkamp Crew was next and camped a little further along the trail next to us and finally the Rossi Crew took a site a bit further up the trail.  We were in a line with a path between us that paralleled the main trail that ran down past all the lakes.  The main trail dead ended into the beach at the last of the Brother lakes.  There were plenty of trees for the hammock and nice clearings for the common areas.  We were basically out of site from each other.  The weather was about as perfect as you could have.  It was obviously a dry climate and the wet season was the winter judging by the snow that was still at the higher elevations.

John Lee and our dog Suka

Our Crew was distinctive in that we had Suka, the Siberian Husky, with us.  She kind of eliminated the need for a bear bag, ya know, at least for early warning.  A great dog – never barked, carried her own food, wasn’t wont to chase every critter she caught scent of.  She managed to catch and eat a bird that made the fatal mistake of landing in the bush to which she was tied.  I was apprehensive of taking a dog at first and John Lee at first decided against it, but then showed up on Day 1 with her.  As it turned out it was perfect.

 

It also became clear early on that yours truly had not thought seriously about the number of calories hiking at 9’000 to 13,000′ required, especially for teenage boys.  God bless Dave Niswonger and Peter Rossi, whose Crew brought enough food to feed us all once over with leftovers.  His cooks attracted a lot of attention and finally our Crew’s allegiance away from our humble offerings.  Everyone knew where the seconds were.  With my no wheat and low sugar choices I was, in hindsight, under fed for most of the trip.  More on this later.

So Day 4 was spent exploring the chain of lakes and trying our hands at fishing.  The lake chain involved about a mile of trail, so John L,  I and some of the others hiked it to the end just exploring.  We found a lone guy with his hammock camped at the end of the trail at the last lake.  I learned some things about hammocks from him.  He slept in a hammock even at home, which I found interesting.  His was also slung very close to the ground.  As I surmised from our conversation Hennessey hammocks like mine don’t hold up too well when you weigh about 250# and when they fail you fall.  Not one of my problems.  The Rossi Crew discovered that the far end of Lake #7 had a sand/gravel beach.  As any good Scout would they tried a very brisk wading.   The fishing was fair to poor.  As I expected only the Master Angler John Loughran had enough success to eat, but it was meager.  His biggest catch was while we were away at Mistymoon Lake and Cloud Peak.  All of our fishermen’s expectations were much higher.  

Overnight a storm rolled down Soldier Park from the west, with wind, thunder and lightning.  As I normally do I was timing the delay between flashes and thunder, tracking the storm’s progress.  Sound travels at 1100 feet per second, so a mile takes roughly 5 seconds.  It was clearly coming our way.  This is why one battens the hatches regardless of what the sky looks like on retiring for the night.  My stuff and our food were well stowed.  So on it came – 25 seconds – 5 miles, 20 seconds – 4 miles,  15 seconds – 3 miles 2 miles, 1 mile, flash-bang and then off it went to the east.  I gauged it out to about 5 miles the other way before falling asleep.  And amazingly not one drop of rain hit our assembled campsites.  I’d never experienced that before.  God’s creation is so fascinating.

our campsite at Brothers Lakes
Brothers Lake #1 near our Campsite

Day 5 – Tuesday, July 17 – Off to Mistymoon Lake

Now for some real hiking.  Starting at 9,700′ we first descended into Soldier Park at 9,200′, crossed North Clear Creek (again) and headed west – northwest up towards Florence Pass (my Mom’s middle name).  The weather was gorgeous.  North Clear Creek was a bit deeper than the day before yesterday due to the rainstorm upstream.

Not everyone came on this excursion.  The Kottkamp Crew plus the two Loughran boys decided to stay at the Brothers Lakes and try some serious fishing.  So this left our Crew (Lee Crew) minus Peter Loughran and the Rossi Crew with Dave Niswonger and Pete Sgroi.  So we were eleven – John Lee, myself, Ian Kurdelak, Liam Lee, Henry Lee, Dave and Pete, Andrew Berzai, Peter Rossi, Owen Linczer and Eddie Sgroi. 

This horse trail came complete with horse-sized switchbacks and their attendant boulders and ruts.  On the AT at 4,500′ or so these are not so much of a problem.  At 9,500′ a bit more of a challenge.  I weathered it well, but John Lee and I with Suka were the tail end of the column from the get-go.  The three creek crossings kept us bunched up a bit, which was good.  The first one was boots-off but the

North Clear Creek again
….and again

 

 

 

 

 

second to my surprise, had a double log foot bridge of sorts that we all managed to navigate without incident.  Suka had a bit of a problem and John just retrieved her with the leash and harness.

This was an amazing hike for the sheer beauty of the bare naked peaks on both sides with their snow cover and rivulets cascading down.  To top it off there was still snow across the trail in two spots.  This was a bit testy because the trail was bouldery and one couldn’t be sure of the footing hidden under the snow, plus we were on narrow switchbacks and the trail sloped outwards down the slope.  Good to have the ol’ hiking poles along.  The snow tended to be packed down and on the icy side.  We were just extra cautious and we had no mishaps.  The crown jewel of the scenery was Medicine Park with its carpet of lavender from one end to the other.  My, oh my, this was breathtaking.  And green grass around the edges, a

from the grassy field overlooking the gap between Medicine Cabin and Medicine parks
Medicine Park and its sea of lavender

 

 

 

 

 

 

Florence Lake and Bomber Mountain

couple red paintbrushes and a dash of bright yellow to set it off.  Made me forget about the  difficulty of the trail.  Then out of Medicine Park into Florence Canyon (too narrow and rocky to be classified as a park I guess) and up to Florence Lake and the pass.  We took a well deserved fishing and lunch break at the lake below the pass.  By now we had hit 10,860′.  Fishing was so so.

a break at Florence Lake
by the way, did I mention snow across the trail in the pass?

It was partly cloudy and cool, but comfy in the sun.  There was a constant breeze since after all we were in a pass.  The trick was to lay on the ground on the leeward side of some rocks and the wind went right over you.  After a considerable rest we trekked off uphill  through Florence Pass (10,930′) and then down down down to Mistymoon Lake at the base of Cloud Peak ( a mere 10,200′).  All-in-all a 9.1 mile mostly uphill trip today.  Mistymoon Lake is only about 2 miles down beyond the pass.

part of the Cloud Peak Ascent Crew in Medicine Cabin Park
view down from Florence Pass toward Mistymoon Lake (not yet visible)

 

 

 

 

 

We set up camp at the first flat ground we could find on the south edge of the lake about 300 yards from the shoreline.  I was rewarded with a tussock of spruce trees well suited for my hammock on a ridge overlooking the rest of the campsite.    Its downside was that it looked to be where the horses were frequently tied.  The barnyard apples were all dried up but it did have a bit of a barnyard aroma about it still.   Part of the contingent was below me and the rest of them went downhill to a grassy field further south – a kind of split encampment.  

my spot in the upper camp

The common eating area was in the upper site just below my hammock area.  And here is where the Rossi Crew shone the brightest.  By the time my Crew got their much needed extra carbs for the day from the Rossi leftovers there was nothing left.  At about this time I began to wonder if I had misjudged the calories in my own meal plan.  I was eating my own stuff, which for the AT was fine from my experience.

Common area of upper campsite

Fishing apparently was not on the agenda after our hike.  Like clockwork a storm came up at sunset and blew right over us with just a sprinkle.  Overnight things were dry and cool.  There is a chain of lakes downhill to the south along the Ten Sleeps trail from the head of the valley where we were.  Another spectacular view.  The Ten Sleeps trailhead to Mistymoon is a much

lower campsite and the chain of lakes leading downward toward Ten Sleeps trailhead

shorter and gentler route into Mistymoon.  The two trails together make a “C” shaped loop with US Route 16 tying the two trailheads together.  It is something like 50 miles on the road between them, however.

Day 6 – Wednesday, July 18 – Assault on Cloud Peak

I will remember this day and hike for a long, long time, because on it I met my match.  While at Seven Brothers, Dave Niswonger had run into a Ranger

the column begins its assault

making his rounds, having hiked down from Florence Pass.  From him he was able to ascertain approximately where the trail up Cloud Peak came off of the Solitude Lake Loop trail, maybe 1.5 miles west of Mistymoon.  This really helped get us started.  The hike to the jump-off point was easy enough and I managed to get some really good marmot pictures as they eyed our passing – the male on a rock nearer to us and the rest of the family closer to the lakeside peering from behind another rock.  These guys are hard to find above ground, but the spring is the best time.

Father Marmot keeps a wary eye
Mama and the kids look on as well

So from the beginning of the trail we went down maybe 200′ and across a park to the Paint Rock Creek crossing, with no footbridge of course.  There was a waterfall with a leap over point below it.  I didn’t trust myself for the leap, so I scouted downstream to where the horse trail crossed.  My first screw up was slipping off a rock midstream and dunking a boot.  Rats, but no harm done except to my pride.

Paint Rock Creek coming down – just wet enough to fill your boots
the trail had some definition in the beginning

I then retraced back to the base of the falls and scaled up the rock face like the rest to hit the horse path.  I was logging the waypoints with my phone at this point and after the adventure saw that I had more than 1/2 of the route marked.  But my battery crapped out at this halfway point and that was that.

beauty hiding in every nook and cranny

In hindsight the lower half of the trail was not difficult save for the elevation.  We were at 11,000′ and climbing.  It was still a horse path and easily seen most of the way, going through a low rocky ridge and into another grassy park.  But things changed at the uphill edge of this park as Paint Rock Creek petered out and the terrain turned into large, flat boulders and ridges.  The Crew split (first mistake) with most of the Scouts taking a flatter path closer to the stream.  John Lee and I and a couple others wasted a lot of energy navigating over and around a hillock.  Also at this point the trail dissolved into fingers of grassy gravel alternating with fingers of jumbled boulders.  As John and I fell further behind the Scouts spied a high point that they figured was the peak (wrong guess) and were soon sitting on the ridge looking down at us.  When they took note that we were continuing up this fingered swale they noted that their ridge line intersected up a ways with our general trajectory and so started moving to meet up with us.  At this point I think John was distracted with Suka pulling him ever onward and upward and stopped checking on me.  We lost sight of each other, and my real adventure began.

adding to the cairn mania; of course ours was correctly placed; later we were tearing them down to lessen confusion

I should at this point mention the cairns, more specifically the multiplicity of cairns.  There were little piles of rocks everywhere.  They tended to go up and down the swale but obviously there were many more than one route to the top.  As our trail improvement, a traditional Scout endeavor for the hiking MB, we disassembled some of them as a service to future hikers.

 

Back to my adventure.  I caught site of Pete Sgroi up on the aforementioned ridge and we made eye contact, so I took a bearing on where the rest of the Crew was stopped and set course for it.  Two things were in my way – a snow

there’s a trail here somewhere
not the snow field I got stuck in – I was too busy surviving to take a picture of that one

field and the fingers of boulders.  And the two of them were coincident across my intended path.

 

So I made a move to skirt the snow/ice uphill in a realized that I would have to cross it.  My legs were a bit wobbly by now and my balance was suffering from low carbs for sure.  On my second step into the ice field my right leg went through to my crotch (I always lead with my left, an old military habit).  I had pause for thought – “I could die out here, really”.  I extricated my leg, no worse for the wear and devised a method across the snow using my hiking poles to probe each step in the snowfield.  OK, got that behind me.  Now just up this steep ridge of compact car sized boulders.  That’s when I missed my mark and managed to wedge my right boot into a V-shaped

one of the less fortunate – not human, only an elk, but it got my attention

crevasse.  Not going to get it out vertically or to the front.  I was by now getting a bit tense and much more prayerful.  My conversation with Jesus was that I didn’t think He had gotten me all this way to have me die here.  I remembered the pile of Elk bones I had passed a bit earlier.  So I tried kicking to the rear and it popped free.  Did I mention that both of my shins were bloodied by now.  My balance at this elevation and with this much exertion was not good.  Finally, finally I crested the ridge to find Pete and Eddie Sgroi and Peter Rossi in a little hollow among the rocks.  I sat down, relieved.

as far as I went; Suka has returned from the peak and we really tired her out

The approximate elevation where I was sitting was about 12,400′.  I am happy to say that I had enough sense at this point to realize that I was not going to get to the peak at 13, 170′.  Pete and Eddie headed out.  Peter stayed with me.  I’m not sure of his motive, but he told me he had no desire to get to the peak.  I had to believe him.  Everyone returned about an hour and a half later.  Dave N still had food, bless him, and gave me a tub of peanut butter and some crackers, as I remember.  I had not run out of water thankfully.

… but the view was still outstanding

After a quick rest we began our descent.  My bloodied shins and the tale of my ascent had caught the attention of the Scouts and I assume the adults.  I was not privy to whatever conversations were being held about my general well-being but Peter Rossi and Owen Linczer, the two ranking Scouts, approached me and offered to sandwich me front and rear on the way down.  That was a noble gesture and I was smart enough to accept it gladly.  They also helped pick my route.  I was definitely not steady on my legs.

Dave and Andrew going the last 1/2 mile; the actual peak was not visible from where I was

I was attempting to hop from boulder to boulder like the others but it wasn’t going to work unless the gap was small and the landing level.  I just couldn’t catch myself on landing.  Almost as soon as we started I made a hop, lost my balance and in catching myself got my right hiking pole wedged between two boulders and snapped it right in half.  I also managed to do

 

on top of Cloud Peak
Andrew and Grandpa (not so old) Dave on top of Cloud Peak

 

 

 

 

 

and back down we go with me fronted by Peter and backed up by Owen

at least one face plant but somehow got my left hand in front of my face to pad the blow without any injury.  My shins, however, were taking a beating at every turn.  This is about when I decided, and informed Peter Rossi in front of me, that I wanted to walk around the various boulders, not hop between them, even if it meant climbing up and down.  This worked much better.  We were out of the boulder fields soon enough and after we went down a couple of 10′ rock faces we were at the creek bed.  From there it was not a big problem after negotiating the muddy headwaters area.  At one spot further down I lost my footing on some gravel and was starting to fall backward.  Owen caught me, he was that close.  This singular act of extreme kindness by Peter and Owen has meant more and more to me as time has passed.  It was done without fanfare, pretense or condescension.  These are two future Eagle Scouts for sure.

Adding embarrassment to injury, now that I had only one functioning pole, I did more than dunk a boot in Paint Rock Creek on the recrossing.  It was both boots and part of my left side.  By God’s grace my cell phone in my left pants pocket did not go for a swim.  You would think I would have learned by now to get help, but no, not yet.  Two miles later I dunked my right boot crossing the creek at the outlet of Mistymoon as we approached camp.  All in all the assault took us 12 hours for the 10 mile round trip.  It was surely tough sledding.

my shins tell the story, ‘
and my face shows just how intense the sun is at 13,000′

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arriving back at camp we had just enough time to enjoy dinner before dusk faded into darkness. There were no leftovers from dinner, and the pots were licked clean.  I patched up my shins with a couple of band-aids.

Day 7 – Thursday, July 19 – Return to Brothers Lakes

It was another crisp and breezy day at Mistymoon.  We were up at first light and busy breaking camp.  We were visited by two mounted Rangers with their two dogs.  We exchanged our information and had a nice talk about the Cloud Peak adventure.  Neither dog barked once and both were content to just wait the signal to go.  When we parted they headed up the trail toward Florence Pass, our intended route, and we never saw them again.

We made it back up to Florence Pass with no difficulty at all.  My legs were back under me after a good night’s rest.  We broke for fishing and a breather at Florence Lake.  The boys had some success fishing, too, but not enough to pack them (actually it – one fish) out.  Of this group, Ian Kurdelak is the most dedicated, just like his Uncle Jim Barrett, one of our Eagle Scouts who is Will’s age.

As you may remember I was now down one trekking pole.  I generated alot of laughs as I spent an hour in camp the evening before using Dave’s stash of Gorilla tape (he had everything with him) attempting to repair the shattered carbon fiber pole, which in the end, of course, couldn’t hold any weight at all.  So my first test in mono-pole mode was crossing North Clear Creek at its origin coming out of Florence Lake.  Not too deep, but very wide here for sure.  Bless Dave Niswonger, he negotiated across then passed one of his poles back to me via some more surefooted Scouts.  My pride was definitely an obstacle to the cause and it was at this moment that the whole ascent/descent of Cloud Peak, the Scouts sandwiching me front and back and the need for a second pole came into focus.  This is part of what Scouting is about for me.

back down through Florence Canyon

Then back down over the snow field crossing the trail, Florence Valley and a stop for lunch at the quarter acre shelf of a field at the eastern end of Medicine Park overlooking Medicine Cabin park (see the reference to it in the earlier picture).  Somehow, I was short on water and took some from one of the Crew, only to have most of it leak out the bottom of my pack.  I have since verified that the bladder is fine.  I have only recently realized that I likely squeezed it out of the bite valve while using the pack as a backrest during lunch.

the patchy snow on the trail is still ahead on these switchbacks

At the time this was another worry among several for the day.  The hike was downhill from here until the last half mile, with two boots-off crossings and the one ramshackle foot log bridge we negotiated on the way up.  Having learned my lesson by now I used one of Dave’s poles for the foot log and the first boots-off crossing.  By then we were back into the forest, and one loving Scout scrounged me a walking stick from among the fallen limbs. It was serviceable enough for a ways but then I replaced it with one more to my liking with smaller diameter, lighter and straighter.  I am happy to report that I didn’t dunk a boot on the return trip due to these great kindnesses, and that my provisional extra pole now occupies an honored place in my man cave to preserve this memory.

The second boots-off crossing was through North Clear Creek at the base of the ascent up to the Brothers Lakes plateau.  After 8.6 miles of travel we all were more than a little tired but excited to share our adventure with the rest.  In the last 200 yards I caught a rock with my right toe and caught myself with the replacement pole but not before I put the handle up into my left cheek just below the cheekbone.  It drew some blood and I was mad that I hadn’t whittled down the broken end to a smoother surface, which would have lessened the injury.  It is still tender there when I poke on it near the top of the roots of my teeth after all these months.

Back in camp we shared the tale of our three day adventure and I showed everyone my scabby shins.  The others regaled us with their fishing saga, which met with only moderate success.  It was hard fishing from shore and the water was still very cold.  That evening was the time when John Loughran came up with the campfire arrangement using his wood fired backpacking stove.  That was very pleasant.  And our Crew had dessert with the Rossi/Niswonger Crew, for which I was glad.

Day 8 – Friday, July 20 – To the Hunter Trailhead and Beyond

sunrise on the last day on the trail

It was another dry and starlit night and day broke crisply.  As has been the modus operandi for this whole trek the Lee Crew was up and at it and on the trail first.  There is an advantage to very simple, albeit insufficient at times, food.  At the trail junction we decided for some change of pace, and largely to avoid the North Clear Creek and French Creek ditch crossings yet again, to take the alternate route back to Hunter on USFS Trail 045 and USFS 395.  This way we had only one crossing and had heard that it was fordable for the nimble footed with boots on.

a final backpacker breakfast

So down the eastern horse path we went with the expected loose boulders and steep slopes.  The trail at the wilderness area boundary opened into an enormous pasture, Buffalo Park, where the other Crews had encountered a herd of cattle on their way in.  Today they were not to be seen.  It was coolish but the sun was still piercing.  The Crew held together pretty well.  We

on through Buffalo Park
and then the long USFS 395 gravel road

had a couple fence breaks to go through and a bit of up and down.

We had lunch in a grove of trees at the far side of the North Clear Creek crossing.  I made the tricky crossing without taking on any water.  My legs were in much better condition by now.

I remembered to recover my unneeded fuel canister that I had stashed at our original campsite on Sunday as we passed.

Brian and Liam Peterson bringing up the rear arrive

Once everyone was back at the vehicles and since it was still just after lunchtime we had a pow-wow about our evening campsite.  The decision was made to drive towards our planned destination of Devil’s Tower National Monument and find a campsite at Custer State Park SD near Mt. Rushmore, our planned stop the next day.  Now a bit of background.  Only those with Verizon phone coverage had any reception on the trip west from Mitchell and at Hunter.  It was so irritating then that John Loughran, when he finally did get a connection, negotiated a rebate on his monthly bill from whoever he was with.  So now with the chips on the table it fell to me to find and reserve a campsite for the evening from the backseat of the Sgroi van.  By a minor miracle and the grace of Almighty God I got to the central reservation desk for the South Dakota parks.  No room at Custer State Park.  What about this place Keyhole State Park?  There is, great, let’s book it.  Done in about 30 minutes of map reading and travel time ciphering.  Once the last of the Kotttkamp/Loughran crew hiked in we were pretty much ready to roll.

Now for lunch plans.  The Lees announced that they were headed for the Twin Cities after lunch, so we would be down 3 after that.  Since I wasn’t driving I was on Google searchingrestaurants  as we drove for a final celebration meal  and also with something for my wheat-free diet.  Found a steakhouse near Gillette WY on our route and everyone followed us there.  John had realized that the place was closed but his text didn’t get to me in time.  We pulled into the parking lot and he rolled down his window and filled me in.  “You have any ideas”, I asked.  There’s this barbeque place down at the next exit.  Say no more.  We found our way to Pokey’s BBQ.  It was an unassuming storefront in a strip mall.  John disembarked to check it out since we had two vans full of minors and it had the outward appearance of a bar.  When he emerged he brought news that he had negotiated a flat price per person, all we could eat with sides.

closest thing to Heaven so far on this trip
and everyone knew it, too. The highlight of highlights for me

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whoa!  In we went, leaving Suka tied up on the porch.  What ensued from this point is bringing tears to my eyes even now.  We were all seated at one long table with a bench seat on one side.  The waitresses were classy, the food was outstanding, and the price was very, very fair.  A question for which all adult eyes turned to me was, beer?  My proclamation – no, ’cause we are on Scout time now .  There were no arguments.  But what really did it for me was the picture of Willie Nelson with an autographed apron on hanging on the wall behind me.  Then I noted some platters on the wall autographed by ZZTop, John Conlee and others of Country music fame.  I was moved enough to sign and present my scarf to our head waitress to put up there with these.  Only other place that I’ve ever done that is at Philmont.

After this very fine lunch we said goodbye to the Lees and Suka, then set course for Keyhole State Park near Moorcroft WY, about 45 miles.  We got a lakefront site with lots of room.  Everyone took a swim.  The downside was that there were no showers to be had.  The lake worked with our biodegradable soap.  Set up my hammock and had a great night’s sleep thinking about BBQ.  Big day of sightseeing planned for tomorrow.

Keyhole State Recreation Area, WY lakefront campsite
bath time in Keyhole Lake

Day 9 – Saturday, July 21 – Bear’s Tipi and Mount Rushmore

at Bear Lodge after the Visitor Center tour

Up at daybreak and packed myself up.  Roused the Troops and we broke camp after breakfast.  Warm and rainless.  Our first stop today was what European Americans call Devil’s Tower, but the plains Indian tribes prefer Bear’s Tipi or Bear Lodge.  The nearby mountain range is in fact named the Bear Lodge mountains.  The devil so the story goes came from a mistranslation by Col Richard Dodge’s assistant from the legend surrounding this amazing pinnacle of lava.  There are three theories on its formation, but all three involve molten magna cooling underground and eventually exposed by massive

Bear Lodge

erosion.  It may be simply an underground bulge, or a laccolithic intrusion or the plug of a former volcano.  This latter idea seems least likely since there is no evidence of volcanic lava flow or ash anywhere in the area.  This is the first of the national monuments .  It was established by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906 using his power of Presidential Executive Order during the national parks conservation era, much to the chagrin of his opponents.  The legends of the native  northern plains tribes are similar in that they all involve a huge bear with evil intent that claws the sides of the tower, but the details vary a bit, either trying to get at Indian braves (an adult moral) or in the case of the Arapahoe a selfish sister turned into a bear trying to steal a ball belonging to her sister (child moral).  The evil bear common to these legends would explain the entry of

there is a climber just above left center

devil” into the incorrect translation and naming.  One of the stories includes the Great Bear constellation that is visible seasonally during the year over the tower, which is an interesting link to Greek mythology.  So for the native Americans this is known as Bear’s Tipi or Lodge, and the inclusion of reference to the devil is not appreciated.  It is their most sacred site in the plains.  Tribes from as far east as Oklahoma revere and visit the site regularly.  It was normal for migration to Bear’s Tipi annually in former times.  The rock is certainly impressive.

Then on to Custer SD for lunch before touring Mount Rushmore about 130 miles to the southeast.  We split for lunch between a Subway and the next door pizzeria.  There was a Frontier Days festival in full swing and the place was packed.  We must have taken the longest route to the monument. It seemed to take forever, but once there we took it all in.  From when the family was there back on our trip to Yellowstone in 1990 they have built a mall with shops and moved the museum to its lower level.  What I wanted to revisit was the original model to confirm the additional faces that were omitted from the final work due to a fault in the rock face.  There is no info on the internet confirming this, however, so maybe I remember incorrectly.  They were all supposed to be sculpted down to their waists, but this was never finished.

everyone but the photographer
and here he is

We didn’t have too much time to spend here, but we had enough.  Then back into the vans and through Rapid City to I-90 and eastward to Lake Vermilion SRA at Mitchell.  We arrived with enough time to make dinner and set up camp before dark.  We had the same campsite as on the way out.  Still no rain.

late evening dinner back at Lake Vermilion SRA

Day 10 – Sunday, July 22 – Homeward Bound

Up at daybreak, showered, packed up, ate breakfast and took up my spot behind Pete Sgroi in his van for the return trip.  Not much to report today except that nothing catastrophic happened, like a crash or car trouble.  For lunch we ended up at a Burger King in LaCroix WI.  I gathered up my food at

breaking camp one last time

the adjacent gas station quick mart – jerky and an iced tea – which I added to the remains of my travel meals.  We ate on the move.  Traffic around Rockford and into Chicago was normal, without backups but plenty of construction slowdowns.  We arrived back at the PoP Center in time for dinner.  It was a great trip.

back to civilized living

Smokies Trip – February 2019

Day 1 – Tuesday, February 5

Morning farewell in Avon

We left for our 48th honeymoon trip after Larry’s cardiologist appointment at 9:30 this morning.  It was a regularly scheduled annual checkup but he has been having some issues with lightheadedness.   He is scheduled for a carotid ultrasound on our return to check things out.  So we pressed onward for our overnight in Avon at Anna’s.  The trip was overcast but balmy, in the 40’s.  A good stirfry and a game of Mouse Trap before bed with Sarah and Thomas.  Jon was working overtime on a project at Lilly, so we didn’t even see him – came in after we were in bed and was gone again before we got up.

Day 2 – Wednesday, February 6

As expected we awoke to rain.  There was some serious lightning and thunder overnight.  Ate breakfast, gave Sarah and Thomas hugs and were on the road at 8:05.  Then we turned around to retrieve Mary Ann’s water bottle after Anna called and were back on the road at 8:20.  Rain all day, all the way except for the last 30 miles.  Lunch at a Jimmy Johns in Lexington KY.  We took the I-65/I-64 route.  The upside of the rain was two-fold – first, it wasn’t snow and second, the temperatures were in the 60’s.  On arrival at the Pigeon Forge Kroger it was 73ºF.  We’ll take it.  Got to the Tennessee Rose around 4:30 after collecting a few groceries and set up house.   It was a very pleasant ride, albeit wet.  We listened to Bob Dylan’s Christian albums and Larry’s latest, plus some Allison Kraus and banjo tunes to get into a “mountain” mood.  Passed our hosts, the Voisins, on the road in doing litter patrol.  We’ll be having dinner with them Friday evening.  

the final answer after eleven years of wondering

This picture answers one of our continuing questions, “What do you call this place?  Wear Cove, Wear Valley or what?”  So it is Wears (as in what are you wearing today?) Valley.  Finally an answer after ten years.

the Tennessee Rose; our 3rd visit

Before dinner we sat out on the deck.  You could hear the tree frogs in the distance.  Larry took a few minutes to rent the car from Enterprise that we’ll use to spot at the end of the trail each day so we can hike point-to-point.  Dinner tonight was chili and chips.  Then after dinner we went back out on the deck with our dessert – a blueberry crumble that Mary Ann whipped up after we got settled in.  Very tasty indeed.  This weather is easy to get accustomed to.

very balmy for FebruaryAfter dessert we planned tomorrow’s hike and then played a round of our new “Trekking the National Parks” game from Christmas.  Mary Ann won again.

Caught up on the blog and hit the sack.

Day 3 – Thursday, February 7

the white Nissan Versa rental

Time to get up and go get the rental car at Enterprise.  Our showers were taken care of yesterday, so it was prayer, breakfast, pack the lunch and out the door.  It really helped that it was already 68° and mostly sunny when we were leaving.  After getting the car in Sevierville (2019 Nisssan Versa) we dropped the Jetta back at the cabin and headed for Elkmont.  Today’s hike was from the Little River Trailhead up through Daisy Town on  the back way to the Jake’s Creek Trail, then to the Meigs Mountain Trail and a short jaunt to the Cucumber Gap Trailhead.  We’ve been down here alot and know all kinds of trail connections.  The Cucmber Gap Trail ends back at the Little River Trail

ready to hike from Daisy Town

2.4 miles upstream from its trailhead where we started.  A total of about 5.8 miles.  And we’ve lived to tell about it.  It has one medium difficulty stream crossing over Huskey Creek, but when the air temperature is in the low 70’s what’s to worry about.  At lunch at the crossing and since it was so warm we just had sandwiches and tea/water.  Hiking in t-shirts in early February was fun.

we need to walk along the Little Rover at least once a year for refreshment

 

 

one of the Daisy Town buildings being restored

After the hike we took a drive on the newly completed section of the Foothills Parkway from Townsend over to Wears Cove.  It features a series of  “flying” curved bridges with a marvelous panorama of the Appalachian Ridge to its south.  We took pictures, backtracking to two overlooks to get them.  We have been driving under the overpass built for this at least 10 years ago, if not longer, and to find it finally finished was super.  So the Foothills Parkway runs from the west side of the park around to about the north center at Wears Cove, and then picks up again at the northeast corner and runs over to I-40 on the east side.  No right-of-way available through that good-as-gold real estate at the park entrance.  We still have to drive on the state routes from Wears Cove through Pigeon Forge to get to the northeast part of the park.  We go in the back way to get to the heart of the park and bypass Gatlinburg.

one of the “flying” sections of the new Foothills Parkway section and a panorama of the Appalachian ridge
Tennessee in February – gotta love it!

Back home we have the windows open and are grilling buttermilk chicken on the deck after cocktail (beer with nuts and water) hour. 

And it’s a hockey night as the Pens take on the Florida Panthers.  The Pens lose in OT 3-2.  This is getting routine.  The team hype isn’t clicking with the reality, although they are still in the playoff picture.  Larry picked up hockey as a diversion from the Cincinnati Reds being so poor.  To be entertaining a sports team needs to be winning.  Oh, well.

Tomorrow another day, another hike.

Day 4 – Friday, February 8

Another beautiful, sunny day, but not quite as warm – like 45° chilly.  But sunshine makes a big difference.

the traditional picture at the junction of the Schoolhouse Gap and Turkeypen Ridge trails

We decided on a point-to-point hike from Schoolhouse Gap uphill on the Turkeypen Ridge trail to Lead Cove.  Last time we did this was last April and we went the other way, more or less downhill.  Really we couldn’t tell much difference in exertion level and that was good.  Our lunch spot has become “the Rock”, a rock overhang with a small creek running beneath it.  For snowy or rainy weather this is rather ideal, but on a

the Rock – our usual lunch shelter spot on the Turkeypen Ridge trail

sunny 45° day it kept things a bit brisker than sitting in the sun.  Tradition, however, won out over comfort.  The 4.7 miles took us 4 hours including the lunch stop.  We took our time.  And this time we managed to keep from leaving all the keys for the car at trail’s end in the car at the  beginning of the trail.  On the way back to the cabin Mary Ann took the direct route while Larry wanted to drive the new Foothills Parkway again.  It took him an extra 20 minutes and the vistas were worth it.

us with the Voisins – Christine and Kent – for dinner

Our treat for this evening is having dinner with Kent and Christine Voisin next door, owners of this rental and fast becoming good friends.  They do the music for the 5pm Saturday Mass at Holy Cross church in Pigeon Forge, which is where we met them two years ago.  As we suspected we share so much in common we were instantly bonded.  We talked about our music ministries over wine, which carried into a wonderful dinner of shrimp and gumbo.  And not just any gumbo.  Since they are both from Houma, LA, it was about as authentic of a gumbo as you can get.  My was it good.  And the shrimp were from Christine’s side of the family, who are shrimpers.  They built a fishing camp recently in Dulac LA, which is south of Houma, which is south of New Orleans, and might as well be in the Gulf.  We talked about Mary Ann’s kidney cancer and Christine’s kidney donation to a complete stranger.  We found out they had been part of a country-western band for 12 years and Larry regaled them with tales from his Oblates of Blues days.  Kent is very handy and built the rental we are in, their house up the hill and another rental cabin below ours.  They have been making a living managing their rental properties, but are really ready to fully retire now.  We are all committed Catholic Christians and music is a big part of our lives.  The ancestral and cultural backgrounds are completely different – Cajun French versus German immigrant.  We arrived at 5pm and left to walk back down to the cabin at 11pm.  It only seemed like a couple of hours.  We hope this relationship continues to grow.  We’ll see them playing at Mass tomorrow

evening.

Day 5 – Saturday, February 9

Today was a repeat of yesterday weatherwise – sunny and brisk.  We did a point-to-point hike up Bote Mountain and then down the West Prong (of Laurel Creek) back to Tremont Institute.  The total hike was 3.9 miles, a shorty today.  This route starts from the same parking area as yesterday’s trek.  There

negotiating one of several blowdowns on the trail

were some interesting blowdowns to negotiate through.  This was our experience of the US government shutdown in January.  The trrail maintainers were not working apparently.  We had a leisurely lunch at Campsite 18 and then a somewhat challenging stream crossing shortly after getting back on the trail.

lunch at Campsite 18 with Chef Lawrence

This was to be church day and we got back to the cabin with plenty of time for Mary Ann to get her shower in and to get ourselves in to Holy Cross church in Pigeon Forge for Mass.  The Voisins were doing the music and did their usual great job.  Next day they were leaving to go back home to their fishing camp in Louisiana.  We gave them a copy of Larry’s latest CD recording, Songs From the Heart – Volume 3, to see what they thought about it. We’ll wait and see.  Franciscan Father David Mary gave a rousing sermon on the Eucharist that moved us.  Larry realized afterward that he had heard him preach at one of the Rekindle the Fire conferences in South Bend several years ago.

the Voisins after Mass in Pigeon Forge

We celebrated our 48th anniversary with dinner at Calhoun’s after Mass.  Conveniently the church is about 2 blocks from the restaurant.  Then we made a quick stop at Kroger for a couple items before returning to the cabin.  After that not much happened, except that the Pens lost again, before bed.  Rain is coming in tomorrow and probably for the duration of our stay, so we’ll see how it goes.

Day 6 – Sunday, February 10

As predicted the day dawned gray and wet.  It was trying hard to rain but was mostly spitting at us.  We decided to take a major hike today.  Actually no one had a better argument or hike to trump Larry’s idea, so we were stuck with it.  We dropped a car at the Sugarland Mountain trailhead and then started from

the Rock #2, our shelter on the Huskey Gap trail

the Little River trailhead at Elkmont.  The circuit ran 7.9 miles up Little River, across the Husky Gap trail and then down the Sugarland Mountain trail to the car.  The rain never did come in full force and we were blessed by a rocky shelter fro lunch, which we will call “the Rock #2”, on the Huskey Gap trail.

lunchtime at the Rock #2

The rain was on and off all day.  We did the 7.9 mile hike in 5 hours 15 minutes including lunch.  Not bad for a couple oldsters.  The compromise with Mary Ann was that we would not hike tomorrow but do the scrapbook.

Back home we grilled burgers for dinner and nursed our sore legs.

 

Day 6 – Monday, February 11

hard at the scrapbooking this morning

The weather prediction for today was correct – warmer but rainy.  Our plan was at least to start into the a scrapbook work and then see how the weather panned out after lunch.  So Larry had eggs & bacon and Mary Ann had oatmeal and sausage links for breakfast, and then we tore into our memorabilia accordian file for 2018.  This cabin only has one table, so it encourages one to clean up before moving to the next event.  That meant cleaning up after breakfast.  Then we bunched the coffee table and extra dinning chair around to set stuff on.  We didn’t seem to have as much as in earlier times or maybe we are just more efficient, and perhaps more ruthless about what to pitch, but we worked up everything through October before lunch.  At that point the weather looked to be clearing in the afternoon so we picked a short hike for after lunch and packed a snack.

Mary Ann contemplates how to cross, that is if we wanted to

We headed off to the Sinks and did the first 1.5 miles of the Meigs Creek Trail.  That is over the ridge and down to the first crossing.  As we expected with the wet season there was no easy way to cross the creek there, so we were content to brew our tea and have our snack on the near bank.  The sun even came out and the temperature was a balmy 52°.  Very pleasant.  It was 45 minutes out and a bit less back to

gluing up a page

the car since there was more downhill than uphill on the return.

Back at the cabin we had about an hour before having to fix dinner so we started gluing up the scrapbook pages on the billiard table.  We are sure glad all these cabins have billiard tables.  Where else could we spread out the newspaper and use the spray glue?  These cabins all have hot tubs, too, but these are way less useful.  We always laugh about the billiard tables and hot tubs.  What wastes of space ad energy to us.  We are who we are.

It’s another Hockey Night in Pittsburgh.  Larry was ready to chuck it all and start watching baseball spring training games after Saturday’s loss, but son-in-law Zach sent an insightful email that softened his heart enough to tune in tonight.  And, hey, the Pens won.  Twenty-six more regular season games left now before the playoffs.

Into bed at 2330 (11:30 pm).

Day 7 – Tuesday, February 12

gutter overflowing during this afternoon’s rain

And the rain came.  And plenty of it starting about noon.  By then we had already finished up what remained on the scrapbook and were sitting down for lunch.  It was almost warm enough to eat out on the deck under the eave but a mite too windy.

Before that Larry had time to practice his banjo pickin’.  You can only practice so long before there is no further improvement for the day.  Then it’s time to put the instrument down, go on to something else (i.e. this Blog) and let your muscle memory do its thing.  A little bit of repetition every day

finishing up the scrapbook gluing

does the trick.  He has a song that he has been working ever since finishing building the banjo.  It is sounding good (enough) and close to recording quality.  He also has an invite from the Voisins to put a banjo track onto one of their songs to use at church.

Now it’s time to run some errands and return the rental car, preparing for departure tomorrow morning.  We need some eggs.

Day 8 – Wednesday, February 13

Cincinnati skyline

Travel day.  All good things come to an end it seems in this life.  Sigh.  The alarm went off at 6:00am.  Dad gives Mom at least 30 minutes headstart 🙂 So around 6:30 Larry is up and around.  We had gathered stuff pretty much together last night and so were loaded and on the road at 7:45 under a cloudless sky.  The route today is through Cincinnnati for our annual goetta and leona sausage run.  We made good time and decided to eat lunch at the West Harrison Skyline before going to Kroger to stock up on goetta and leona for Anna, Emma and ourselves.  At lunch Larry called his brother Bob,  who

the other Skyline

lives just up the road, and as they were talking he recommended Langen’s Meats just down the road past Kroger for these items.  So we got most all the goetta at Kroger plus a pound of the leona (all they had) and then had a nice visit with the guys at Langen’s who have their own goetta and leona sausage.  We got the other half of our leona there and the rest of the goetta for Anna and ourselves to try.  Then we were off to Avon,

Arrived in Avon just after the school bus at around 4:10 and unloaded what we needed.  Dinner was pulled pork and cole slaw.  After dinner Larry went with Jon to Thomas’ Cub Scout meeting.  It was about recycling and first aid.  OK but too lame for kindergarteners, who need to be running around.  Or maybe wrapping each other up in gauze.  Larry has been doing that kind of crazy stuff for a long time.

Jon was home and while Larry was watching hockey (Pens won again over Edmonton) he demonstrated his new vinyl cutter/plotter making an OSU logo for his RC toolbox.  Nifty.  

Then off to bed.

Day 9 – Thursday, February 14

Thomas and Anna in a pre-school bus board game

Happy St. Valentine’s day!  Up pretty early again today.  Cooked and ate our breakfast, loaded up and were on our way around 8:30.  Another rain-free, but overcast day with temperatures in the high 30’s – low 40’s most of the way.  Drove straight thru and were home by 11:00.  There were around 4″ of slushy snow on the drive to welcome us.  Unloaded and

taking the chill off on our arrival at home.

ate lunch.  Larry fired up the woodstove.   And so it ends for another year.  We may be down that way again in May if Larry’s plan to hike his last section of the AT in Tennessee materializes.

WinterWarm 2100 Re-Build

The finished product, just in time for our all-time record low of -24°F in the Bend

Background Story

As the 2018 heating season began it became painfully obvious that our 30 year old Vermont Castings WinterWarm 2100 was having problems with the damper.  Now looking back it was having damper problems several years before this.  The damper was not seating across its length.  I tried using fatter gasketing, but the gap on its left was still too wide.  Besides that it was binding when opening and closing.  My solution as always was a little more force. 🙂 Needless to say this lasted until we couldn’t get the damper opened or closed.

Over the past month I’ve learned a ton about the workings of this unit and didn’t find anything directly applicable on YouTube, so this blog may be helpful to some poor soul freezing it out somewhere.

My early experience includes disassembling the throats, lower fireback and the ash grate to replace the catalytic converter and refractory assembly (very pricey, indeed!)  I managed to break the upper sides of the refractory box working to install it without taking out the upper fireback first (much more on the upper fireback below).  Some gasket cement fixed this problem mostly since the back panel was still intact.

Anyway, after I let the unit cool down I crawled inside to see how to get at the damper arm.  Actually I first thought I could pull the whole shebang out a bit and access the damper arm linkage, which I figured might be the problem.  Of course that wouldn’t work unless one disconnects the chimney adapter, which is above the damper, which in turn is above the upper fireback.

Disassembly

So after removing the ash fettle, ash grate, ash bin,  the refractory box, both throats and the lower fireback (there is one nut to remove from the throat clamp that holds all of this together) then laying on my back I peered into things.  The base problem was that the upper fireback, into which the damper closes, was severely warped on its left.  I wasn’t sure about the damper itself, but the upper fireback needed to be replaced.  This piece, which includes the damper door and is thus VERY heavy is held in by 2 – 7/16″ head bolts with flat square nuts that fit into slots in the stove frame on each side.  With a bit of PB Blaster and waiting overnight these came out easily enough.  But my discovery was that the door air manifold that sits in front of the upper fireback needed to come out first.  This is held with one bolt on its left and a gasketed slot on its right.  It is also heavy.  OK, so the disassembly was complete.

the old upper upper fireback with damper removed.  As we say around here, “Just a little bit warped”.

The next thing I wanted to look at was the damper control arm.  It was puzzling that it was slipping on the vertical shaft that went back to the front damper control on the unit.  I tightened the 7/16″ head bolt in the bottom to snug it up but with no effect.  So off it came and as I had guessed at about the same time it had a pin through the shaft, or rather, it used to have a pin that had sheared off sometime ago and in fact was completely missing.  I had probably vacuumed up its remains during my annual cleaning in a previous year.  So there you go.  These findings pretty much answered the damper operation question.  And I was painfully aware that I had been running it with the damper effectively cracked open for maybe 5 years, with the resulting poor efficiency.  Arrgh.

Parts is Parts

I ordered the upper fireback, a new refractory box and bought a new damper (just in case it was also warped) that they had in stock .  I kept my self calm reminding me of all the money I had saved over 30 years (minus the last 5 to a lesser degree).    I also got a new left throat to replace this warped one.  It turned out that the damper door itself was in mint condition, which saved me $41.  Altogether these set me back $380.   Add in a broken lower fireback (explained later) an it comes to $454.  Cast iron is not too pricey.  Calcium silicate refractory board is very pricey.  The refractory box was $281 of the $454.

Everything out of the way – that’s the damper arm coming in from the right

Reassembly

There is a whole bunch of stuff no one told me about how this unit goes together, but taking it apart really helps.  There is an order to it.

Damper Arm

First the damper arm.  The dealer wanted $6 for the 1″ x  3/16″ diameter damper arm pin.  I got a 3/16″ SS bolt at Menard’s for $1.65.  Come on, dudes!  I trimmed off the bolt to fit and used thread lock on the nut on its threaded end just in case.  This pin actually fits in a slot on the top of the arm.  So it was easy enough to set the pin thru the shaft and work the arm up to it, then tighten the bottom bolt.  I used some Never Seize on the vertical shaft thinking of possible future issues.  How it gets engaged with the  bracket on the back of the damper is another story later on.

damper arm with its new SS pin – note the bolthead on the left for later
Damper Door and Upper Fireback

Next it was time to assemble the damper on to the upper fireback.  I kept the bolts, washers and tiny hinge plates from the old one (they didn’t come with the new piece – probably do with the damper door itself).  Well actually, I twisted off one of the original bolts, managed to extract its remains and replaced it.  I mostly straightened the hinge plates and on reassembly flipped them over so that they had a slight downward bend that corresponded to the damper hinges.

Next was refurbishing the damper, the damper arm bracket and its adjusting bolt.  I disassembled the entire bracket setup.   I had guessed that I would need to replace the damper, but when I finally got the new upper fireback I assured myself that the damper door was not warped.   Happily the hex head bolt holding the bracket on the damper door came out without issue.  The adjustment bolt took some  PB Blaster and patience but eventually came out.  This bolt I discovered allows one to adjust the damper closure so that the front control lever locks it into place and adjusts for the gasket compression.  Cool.  But the old one was in bad shape having been immersed in the flames for 30 years.  Even PB Blaster did nothing to loosen its locking nut.  So into my parts bin I went for a 5/16″ Phillips head bolt and nut.  The old bolt had a shallow point on the end that engages the damper bracket, so I ground one into this new one.  I had to re-tap the threaded hole for the threads of this new bolt.  I put the damper into the new upper fireback, complete with the bracket on the chimney side and the adjuster protruding from the stove side.

the damper arm bracket reinstalled
the newly fabricated damper adjustment bolt/screw; needed to re-tap the threaded hole for it

I then happily installed the 3/16″ gasket for the damper into the fireback.  It is way easier doing it with gravity on your side removed from its angled position in the stove.  After that I forgot to install the 3/16″ gasket into the slot down both edges of the fireback (more later).

damper door gasketed and installed in the new upper fireback; note the residual PB Blaster on the door from disassembly
Refractory Box and Catalytic Converter

The refractory box and I were not on friendly terms after my earlier incident.  No one told me however, that you just can’t get this thing into the stove without first removing the upper fireback.  In the present case, again, the bottom of this piece wouldn’t fit through the opening provided.  I took a rasp to it and carefully skimmed off an 1/8″ on each side up far enough to match the high of the short rear wall that retains the lower fireback.  OK, didn’t break anything (also don’t mess with calcium silicate, an emphysema causing particulate; I used a high efficiency shop vac to keep thing clean).  I decided once the cost of this fix passed $200 that I was going to reuse the converter.  It was in pretty good shape.  I just flipped it over since it was losing some of the honeycomb from the bottom.  Jumping ahead a bit I also ended up using the old refractory front piece for the converter opening because of issues fitting in the new lower fireback.  So I was now EPA compliant (they really don’t know much about woodstove density in northern Indiana and its non-impact, but hey, the stove runs slightly more efficient with it installed and I made a living helping companies comply with far more esoteric EPA regulations).

refractory box fitted in place
refractory box with catalytic converter installed

Heavily Lifting – Wrangling the Upper Fireback & Door Air Manifold

As I said above the upper fireback with the damper installed in it is hefty – probably 30#.  The event is to lay on your back inside the firebox, lift the fireback overhead to mate with an inclined frame and simultaneously get the one bolt on either side engaged with its slot on the frame.  After a few tries and then recovering from arm fatigue while eating lunch my prayer for inspiration was answered with two 2×4 blocks.  Snugging these into the bottom of the piece while holding it up with the other hand they held it hands-free in place so I could manipulate the bolts into the slots and tighten them up.  Glory!  Then I realized that I had forgotten to install the gaskets along the edges.  I figured there had to be away to get these in above the fireback without removing it, and miraculously I could just slip them in with the bolts loosened.  Great.

the trick for getting the upper fireback in place – blocking it up with 2×4’s while bolting; converter was put in after the fireback but I forgot to take the blocking picture

The door air manifold that sits it front of the upper fireback is an engineering marvel to me.  It is held in place with a gasketed slot on its right and one bolt on its left.  I installed the gasketing first this time and with a bit of fist banging due to the new gasket on the right got it up into place and bolted it up.  Things are looking pretty good here, now.

Now I had to figure out how one gets the damper arm to engage with the damper bracket, both of which are out of sight behind the upper fireback and damper.  Hmmmm.  Finally, working with the damper open (the only way to access the arm and its shaft), I unbolted the damper arm from the vertical shaft, pulled it down and off, then wiggled it around behind the damper until I could feel that it was resting between the ears of the bracket.  Then I worked it back up the shaft and re-bolted it.  Great, I thought.  But now the damper was binding on the head of the SS bolt I used for the shaft pin.  Remember that?  Inspiration struck in the form of my Dremel tool and a hacksaw blade.  I just cut it off, more or less.  I was in some sort of yoga position for quite a while.  The last step was to run the adjusting bolt into the damper door enough to tighten the damper arm bracket so that when closed and locked the damper was tight against the gasket.  In the end it worked “like butter”.  

Lower Fireback – Other Issues Arrive

The next steps were all routine, or so I thought.  I do them every year for maintenance.  First up is the lower fireback.  I replaced the old edge gaskets.  I had left gasket hang down from each side of the upper fireback but realized that it should be trimmed off and glued into the lower FB grooves.  OK, no big deal.  Then you just lean the lower FB up in front of the refractory box, drop the ash grate down in front of it – this baby is the heaviest part –  and then tap the throats into place.  In putting in the throats, this forces the lower FB into the refractory box to hold everything nice and snug.  In the present case this was too snug.  First I had trouble getting the lower FB to fit back past the side tabs for the throats.  Figured this out but then the old lower FB just didn’t fit back flush with the newly installed upper FB.  Gave it some wacks with the heal of my hand that helped.  Then I grabbed the rubber mallet.  That was a bad idea.  See picture.

the problem with cast iron – don’t wack it with a rubber mallet – add $74 for s new lower fireback to the price

I called the stove shop.  They had one in stock.  Off I went into the -17°F snowy wonderland and was back in maybe 30 minutes.  The new one fit past the throat side tabs easily but the top was still not mating with the bottom of the new upper FB.  Wait a minute, maybe the upper FB is a tad too low.  Those T-bolts had some play in them.  So back in went the wood blocks and I loosened the bolts.  I then tapped in the blocks nice and tight and rebolted the upper FB.  Presto, magically everything fit.  That’s why the old lower FB broke – I was trying to jam it past the bottom of the upper FB.

With the lower fireback in place then next things are, in order:  install the ash pan and its frame, then  install the ash grate; this holds the lower FB in place for installing the throats.

And now on to a newly learned trick for installing the throat pieces.  For 30 years I have been holding the loose interior ends of the two throats while at the same time threading the center retaining bracket onto the stud bolt coming out below the damper and screwing the nut onto the stud, and all this by feel only due to the killer angle on my back.  Hey here’s a novel idea.  Put the retainer bracket on the stud with the nut loosely and then swing the throats one at a time in behind the retainer and then tighten the nut.  Simple enough but someone else had to write down for me on YouTube.  The other complication, which I already knew, is that the head of the stud no longer keeps it from spinning while I try to tighten the nut on the retainer, so I have to jam a small slotted screwdriver in by the head of the stud to hold it from turning.  I plan to glue that in with gasket cement next time.  But in the end I got it together.

And last of all drop in the ash fettle out front.

new lower FB in place

So now it is an hour later and I am just finishing up getting the front of the stove and the whole firebox insert part of it back into alignment.  Trying to pull the firebox out to work on it was a very bad idea.  I noticed this first when the front door wouldn’t close because the handle was too tight.  While

then come the left and right throats with their retainer

adjusting this I noticed there was a 1/2″ gap between the front left side column (pilaster?) and the front of the firebox to which the door seals.  This involved loosening the bolts holding the front pilaster to the firebox and shoving this back into the firebox.  Believe me the firebox was not moving in or out.  In the end once this latch side of the

ash pan and ash grate are next

front frame and firebox were mated back together, I had to adjust the door latch back to its original position.

and lastly the ash fettle; when new the top rib of this was as flat as the others; remember my comment on cast iron creeping – look at that arch in the middle

So things are back to toasty goodness after hauling three wheelbarrow loads of wood up to the back porch.  I had to dig a path to the woodpile.  It was under a tarp, but that was buried under about 9″ of snow.  Let’s hope this arrangement lasts until we sell the house and move to a condo.

AT Hike – Spivey Gap NC to Allen Gap NC – October 2018

The photos from this trek can be found at http://pictures.grauvogelfamily.com

Day 1 – Tuesday, October 9

Drove to Uncle Johnny’s (Shores) Nolichucky River Hostel in Erwin.  Met Charlotte, his recent widow, and she gave us a cabin for the price of the bunkhouse as things were a bit slow mid-week.  Ate dinner at the Checkerboard Cafe (not too great) and stopped at the grocery for some non-wheat tortillas to replace the ones I left at Anna’s in Avon.  Retired for the night after extricating one of the cats from the top bunk in the cabin.  The weather today was overcast and a bit sticky.  Weather expected to be rainy the next couple of days as we are on the northern edge of Hurricane Michael.  Lucky to make it this far in one piece with a near rear-ender on US-25E at Corbin.  God’s grace was sufficient as advertised.

Day 2 – Wednesday, October 10

Showered this morning at 0700.  As predicted awoke to a drizzly, gray morning.  Drove to the Maple Grove Diner in Unicoi for breakfast and this place was special.  Neither Mary Ann or I slept very well last night although it was comfortable enough with the A/C on.  Drove up I-26 and  US-19W to Spivey Gap and located the trail crossing without too much trouble.  It didn’t look anything like i remembered from 2002.  Bid farewell in a light rain at 0900 and headed west and upward on Bald Mountain.  Met a foursome from Vermont (2 and 2) at High Rocks as I ascended.  No vistas, just drizzle and gray.  Trail at High Rocks a bit treacherous with the wetness but negotiated it well enough.  Big Bald on Bald Mountain is the highest point on this segment at 5,516′.  The uphill right out of the car was taxing and getting sprayed the whole time didn’t help.  The Vermont foursome was a bit spread out and i had some words with the three in the lead – turned out they were experienced, with one through hiker in the group.  I advised them on the recent the woman’s death in the Smokies from separation and exposure at Forney Ridge – she was experienced, too.  I did report how far back the last gal was so that helped them.

Made it to the Bald Mountain shelter for lunch and cover from the rain.  A through hiker with his trail name taken from the Song of Hiawatha – Mudjekeewis, the West-Wind, Hiawatha’s father – was there. The reunited Vermont 3 arrived a bit later (the trailing gal pulled by herself shortly thereafter) .   The Vermont 4 had had enough for the day but I departed soon after Mudjekeewis with new legs back into the mist. Never saw anyone of them again.  Hit the Big Stamp and crested the mountain at Big Bald.   Found bird watching stations and live traps set up on Big Stamp.  Visibility was low since I was walking in the clouds.  Took a picture on Big Stamp and missed my pocket with the phone; I discovered it about 1/4 mile further on at Big Bald when I fortunately stopped for another picture.  Retreated and found it right where I expected, face-down in the drizzle unscathed, and I turned around and pressed on.  Got to the USGS monument and headed downhill.  There was a parking lot and gravel road at this point (had crossed the two-track trace earlier) used by the local ski resort.  As the trail guide had warned there was more than one route out.  The correct one was marked by weathered posts that were a bit hard to see.  Got the right one and headed downward.  Trail down from Big Bald was very poor, rocky, sparsely blazed and hard to follow.  Kept on route however.  Never did find either end of the blue-blazed bad weather trail around Big Bald, unless it was the two-track road) and I also must have missed two blue blazed water sidetrails.  Finally had to take water from a seep down from the trail at Low Gap.  Found some flow and hollowed out a depression enough to get the Sawyer Squeeze bottle into it.  This took awhile.  On filtering it had a white foam on top.  At the time i thought it might be a residual from my filter disinfecting at home, so I used all of this  boiled only.  It was in the end a little tannic acid leached from the leaves acting as a surfactant.  Made it to my destination at Street Gap by 1800.  the drizzle had stopped some time before I had stopped for the water and held off all the while I made camp, set up the hammock, cooked, ate and hung the food bag.  This was a big blessing.  Made 10.3 miles but had only planned on 7 or so.  We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

Day 3 – Thursday, October 11

And a big AT welcome to Hurricane Michael!  Awoke to 30 mph winds from the northwest driving the drizzle sideways.  Fortunately I had inadvertently set the hammock up perpendicular to it, so the fly was catching both the wind and the rain, thus keeping me dry and toasty.  I had my prayer time in the dark in the hammock.  I then waited til daybreak at 0700, took a deep breath and hopped out, donning my rainsuit under the rain fly.  Man this is the worst way to start the day.  Anticipating this trouble I had stuffed all my dry clothes into ziplocks last night, so I had a dry change of clothes if needed.  After retrieving the food bag from the sappling across the trail the next challenge was to find a spot shielded from the wind for the stove so I could make the coffee.  It was a warm granola morning, also planned for its speediness.  Granola was also the heaviest breakfast among those I have, so it was a double win situation.  The sitting logs at the campsite were facing just right, with the lee on the opposite side from where I cooked last night, and I managed breakfast with no real incident except the rain.  Taking the tent down in the 30 mph cross-wind was an experience – it was blown basically perpendicular to the ground once I had the sleeping bag stuffed and out.  Crazy, crazy stuff.  I called Mary Ann from the hammock before getting up and advised her to be on call.  My alternate plan was to cover the 2.3 miles to I-26 at Sam’s Gap, hole up under the expressway bridge and wait to be retrieved for an overnight respite.  Well as it turned out I got my waterlogged ass off over the next ridge and did indeed make it to the expressway underpass where I witnessed the clouds blowing through like a wind tunnel.  Took time to call my brother Bob and wish him a happy birthday (Oct 10) but didn’t have the heart to tell him where I was.  For all he knew I was at home in the Lazy Boy.  Saw a bird just blown like a leaf through the underpass.  He righted himself upon exiting.  Checked the weather forecast on my phone and with Mary Ann.  Her WeatherBug reported the weather clearing by mid-afternoon but my NWS slowed it clearing later.  It was a moment of truth – I decided to press on.  I heard from Emma through Mary Ann later that she knew i would be very disappointed in myself had I gotten off the trail, even for the night.  She was right.

I got some unexpected encouragement soon after re-entering the woods from a granite monolith marking the donation of the property through which the AT ran here by the Moye Family.  It included multiple scripture texts and references for their decision and expressed their sentiment that the trail would be used by God, our Father, for refreshing the souls of those on it.  Thanks much, Moye Family.  So upward I pressed toward another High Rock and the Hogback Ridge shelter.  I blew into the shelter from the ridge with a wicked crosswind howling around me and rain from my right side .  My left shoulder was dry – really.  I kept my eyes and ears open for potentially falling trees.  Once at the shelter I was ready for some lunch and needed some water.  Miraculously the rain let up and being down off the ridge a bit so did the wind.  The spring was about 1/4 mile away and there was no rain the entire round trip.  By now it was 1300 and the weather was supposed to be breaking soon.  I was heartened.  I even used the privy without rain.  But as I packed up at 1400 to break  shelter here it came again.  The ridge was very exposed for a ways through Rice Gap.  My boots were a mite wet , but not squishy, and I was warm enough with the exertion, my new breathable raincoat and my wool beanie.  By the time I hit the second Frozen Knob crest at 1530 the rain had stopped but visibility was maybe 100′.  As I steadily descended toward Devils Fork Gap the wind subsided and I finally got below the clouds at Sugerloaf Gap (1605).  As I arrived at the Gap I checked in with ground support and asked about hostels in the vicinity.  She saw none so I decided to skip that idea.  By 1645 the sun was breaking through and conditions were steadily improving.  As I crossed Rector-Laurel Road I saw ads for the Laurel Hostel just down the road, but my mind was already made up to camp.  I arrived at a trailside campsite a 1/2 mile up the switchbacks on the far side of TN-353, my evening stop, at 1745.  Just enough daylight to get the hammock up and dried out and get dinner ready before dark.  After the hammock I went to work hanging damp clothing from various broken off limbs and branches, giving the campsite the appearance of a giant yard sale.  It was pretty much everything.  Put on my dry stuff, including my long johns, for the night.  The sleeping bag was miraculously nearly all dry.  With the clear sky the temperature overnight was  going to drop like a rock in water.  I had my Italian pepper steak and hot tea set out and eaten by sunset at 1900.  Then as twilight dwindled, with much difficulty, I got a fire going.  That was comforting.  No matter that I forgot about the nearby low lying barbed wire fence and went sprawling over it in the dark hunting for wood.  That did in one knee of my old non-breathable rainpants.  Crap.  Needed new breathable ones anyway.  No serious cuts what with the long johns under them, just an L-shaped tear.  Used my storm matches and fire starters to good advantage on the standing squaw wood I broke off of a nearby pine.  Burned the trash of course.  Crawled into the sleeping bag at around 2100 wearing every stitch of dry clothing I had.  Left the damp stuff hanging since no rain was forecast.  The sunset was beautiful.  10.8 miles today in bad weather.

Day 4 – Friday, October 12

The pack thermometer read 52° at 0630.  Had the food bag down, breakfast cooked and eaten in the dark.  Breakfast was the Scrambler in tortillas – yummy.   Hit the trail at 0810 under crisp, sunny skies (can skies be “crisp” – a bad metaphor).  My thumbs were numb but already this was a better day.  Picked up water at the Flint Mountain shelter, happily it was running across the trail  and the shelter was trailside.  Then  over and up it went through Flint Gap with a steep exit climb for two miles.  Climbed up to Big Butt (Butte?) almost before I knew it.  Met an Aussie near the top and we congratulated each other for being out in the previous two day’s weather.  The first challenge of the day broke upon me here.  It had a challenging approach with steep rock steps and boulders, as did the backside.  I slid down part of the backside on my butt (maybe that’s where it gets its name ).  I was not happy.  But it was short, and then down to Jerry’s Cabin shelter for lunch.  On the way I passed the Shelton gravesite and took my first fall of the trip by the huge rock at trailside (it’s noted in the AT guidebook).  Lesson learned – don’t attempt to adjust your pack belt while walking.  I dried out the pack and other stuff in the sun while eating.  Saw exactly no one else besides the Aussie all morning.   Leaving this shelter I got off track as there were two paths to water, plus the AT.  Took on more water and got on track.  Getting through to Lick Log Gap over Bald mountain was a breeze, hiking through a wide, long pasture with great vistas.

But the biggest challenge of the trek was now upon me – Big Firescald Knob.  If Big Butt was challenging, this was downright scary.  Add the steep rock steps to an open ridge with cliffs close at hand to the left side.  Since the weather was good I took the fair weather trail to this side instead of the woodland bypass.  They didn’t tell me it was on rock steps along a cliff face.  It was up and down for what seemed like miles.  It was Cloud Peak Wilderness Wyoming all over again (another story).  Thankfully the architect of the trail, a woman I found out later, was an expert.  So up and down and up and down it went on beautifully crafted stone steps.  A couple of downs I did on my butt.  There were great vistas if you didn’t fall to your death.  It was tense.  One 10′ vertical on the path was hand-over-hand.  I kept thinking, “Think behind yourself, take your time, measure each step and check the trek  pole placement”.  It was both tedious and satisfying at the same time, but it added an hour to the hike easy.

Once out of there the map and trail guide seemed to be out of sync, revolving around the location of Jones Meadow, my proposed camping spot.  A blue blaze trail to the Meadow came in before I was supposed to pass it, before White Rock Cliffs.  I wavered back and forth on pursuing a campsite on this side trail or pressing on, and hiked maybe an extra 1/2 mile back and forth, ending up back where I started.  I discovered that I gave a couple of day hiker girls some bad directions when I decided to press on and came upon the White Rock Cliffs side trail.  The map didn’t show much of a downhill but a series of switchbacks presented themselves in front of me and down I went.  And bingo I ended up in a nice flat campsite at close to 1700 hours.  I did 14 miles today not counting the backtrack for the phone and the meandering around looking for Jones Meadow.  I raced sundown and got all set up and done eating with some daylight left.  The moon was rising as a crescent and I could see stars.  Elevation 4,340′.  Gonna be cold tonight again.  Took another two tries to get the fire going.  The key this time was the birch bark I had collected earlier in the day before Jerry’s Cabin shelter and a birch tree next to my campsite.  The firestarters just weren’t enough with all the soaked down wood .  I got all the trash burnt and it was still flaming as I drifted off to sleep. around 2200.  Last night on the trail and all downhill tomorrow – well it’s never ALL downhill out here, but the ending point will be lower than the starting point.

Day 5 – Saturday, October 13

Jake Blues: “It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank’a gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark out and we’re wearing sunglasses

Elwood Blues: Hit it!”

 I have 7.5 miles to get to Mary Ann today, so no big rush.  Woke up to another drizzle.  You gotta be kidding me!  But no wind.  My NWS showed no rain in the area.  What Gives.  Then it dawned on me – at 4,300′ I’m in a rain cloud that’s not raining.  Finished my prayer time in the hammock, considered my options and got out with the first light at 0700 to just dripping from the trees.  Got into my hiking duds.  Had the second half of the Breakfast Scrambler eggs, some coffee and was moving in the cloud down the trail at about 0850. Crossed paths with a group of four guys headed north at the campsite near Jones Meadow, where I learned about the woman who built the Big Firescald Bald trail.  Only after passing these guys who were breaking camp did I come to the Jones Meadow sidetrail sign.  It also ran to the Camp Creek firetower shown on my map.  Now everything about the trail, the map and where I was finally became crystal clear.  I started passing and being passed by other hikers.  Got to the Little Laurel shelter at 1030 and decided for Mary Ann’s sake that it was bath day.  No one was around.  Hiked the 2/10ths sidetrail to the spring and commenced into my bandana bath.  Everything was fine.  After I had completed my private areas, was dressed and putting my socks and boots back on  next to the spring pipe down the trail came a cute little gal (trail name Sonic I found out) for water.  I thought, “good timing, dude.”  Back at the shelter I had some lunch and learned their story, starting at Katahdin on June 8.  Her hiking mate was Puddles.  I picked their brains about the famous “100 Mile Wilderness” in Maine and learned it was not so tough as I had heard.  They left before I, and after phoning in my ETA to Mary Ann I was off at 1135 with enough water for the final 5 miles.  No use carrying any extra, you know?  Met one more northbound through hiker (Giv) before the end.  I had gotten below the clouds coming into Little Laurel shelter and now at 1230 the sun broke through.  Made it to Log Cabin Road at 1300 and what I thought was the end of my trek.  But on closer inspection I had another half mile of ridge to go over and arrived at Allen Gap on TN-70 at 1338 just in time to see Mary Ann drive past in the wrong direction back toward Greeneville trying to find where the trail came out.  She had gone to the little parking area where Anna and I had started in September but then had doubts about where she should meet me.  She came back.  End of story, for now.  We stayed an extra day to hike together over in the Smokies with very pleasant weather.

AT Hike – Allen Gap NC to Davenport Gap TN – September 2018

Pictures from this expedition are at the Grauvogel Family website, www.grauvogelfamily.com

DAY 1 – Saturday, September 1:

Drove from Comfort Inn in Newport TN to the Allen Gap Trailhead on US-321 to Greenville TN and TN-70/NC-208.  Got on the trail by 1010.  The intention was to get to the first shelter and spring at 3.7 miles and then see how much time was left.  Got to Spring Mountain shelter at 1230 and met 4 gals from Florida.  Very personable, friendly and going our way.  They left before us and we watered up and ate our first trail lunch.  Found out that I can out-hike Anna, which was surprising.  So we let her lead.  No spider webs because of the foursome in front of us.  So with the earlier start we had plenty of time to cut distance off to Hot Springs.  The uphill to Spring Mountain shelter took a lot out of us but we had enough to make it down to Hurricane Gap, across USFS 3514 and most of the way up Rich Mountain to a campsite on trail’s edge.  A perfect spot.  It was above the USFS road, which had traffic up and down from the old FS tower at the peak.  Some young men on foot going up and sometime later coming back down were a bit of a concern but we were too high up above and mostly back off the slope to be seen.  They went their way.

We were in camp by about 1530 so we had plenty of time to set up and for Anna to learn the ropes.  We chose the Italian Pepper Steak with green beans for dinner.  Ate a bit early and then got a fire going for ambiance and to burn the trash.  Soon after dinner the thunder to the northwest started and the wind came up, but we had partly cloudy skies and no rain.  So that passed and a bit later the thunder started to the southwest and some clouds started rolling in.  We got spit on a bit but again no rain. The storm split around Rich Mountain apparently.  Pretty amazing.  As the thunder was coming on a threesome of guys was coming down Rich Mountain.  They asked how far to the next shelter and we told them 2.2 miles.  After discussing the situation they turned around to camp up on Rich Mountain.  Another hiker came by near sunset on his way to the tower at the summit for the sunset.  He said hiking in the evening was his favorite time.  We saw 15 people today counting all these folks.

We had an owl in the area overnight – an Eastern Screech Owl that moved around from south to north as the night progressed.  A bit unnerving since it was loud.  Both of us had difficulty sleeping anyway.  Turns out Anna’s thermarest was leaky (an oversight by me).  Will try to take a look at it and get a repair kit in Hot Springs tomorrow.  Hung the coon bag on the first try.

5.7 miles today, 2 more than planned.  9.3 for tomorrow.

DAY 2 – Sunday, September 2:

Up a little after daybreak started breaking camp.  Worked steadily and were on the trail by 0810.  Kinda slow but early enough.  Picked up water from the spring 2/10ths up the trail and headed for the Rich Mountain crest.  Hit the intersection with the side trail to the summit and decided not to take the time.  The campfire across from the intersection was still smoking a bit – not good camping.  Headed down toward US-25 and Tanyard Gap.  The 3 amigos passed us along the way.  Word from the 4 gals was that the water from US-25 into Hot Springs was sparse, so we took a full load from the spring above camp before that to make sure we had enough to make it down the obvious steep approach into town.  Temps were in the mid-60’s overnight and up in the mid-80’s by day with plenty of humidity.  Crossed US-25 at Tanyard Gap on concrete bridge and ascended log steps to Mill Ridge.  Descended through field and past pond.  Passed the 3 amigos eating their lunch under a big tree at one of the turns as we entered the Mill Ridge field.  Trail was well blazed through here.  Ate lunch in trailside campsite at a sharp turn at Pump Gap, about 5.7 miles.  The 3 amigos passed us once again.  Didn’t take another water stop knowing we would be at the hostel tonight.  It was pretty hot.

The last section into town ended with a pretty grueling downhill.  Switchbacks cut into the rock face, some more traditional switchbacks and then a stroll for a mile or so along the French Broad River to the bridge.  Saw rafters on the river, which had broad rapids all the way across.  A big KOA campground on the opposite bank.  Walking into town was cool but sunny, humid and hot.  Passed all the restaurants.  Stopped in Chamber of Commerce for my first passport stamp and got advice on the restaurants.  Continued on through town and after some confusion and directions from a local teen found our way to the Laughing Heart Hostel.  Met Jeff and paid up.  Got settled in – we were the first ones there so took the twin beds.  Passed the 3 amigos headed to town on our way.  The 4 sisters arrived after stopping to eat on their way in.  One big happy family we are.

Showered, changed clothes and got the laundry going and into the dryer before heading to dinner.  I forgot to take in a towel with me so had to pull on my shorts to get one from the hall shelf and of course the cooks preparing dinner for the other guests were there.  Oh well.  Were intending to go to the Iron Horse Station but the hour wait to be seated was not good so wandered into the Spring Creek Tavern.  Everything was packed it being Sunday evening before Labor Day.  We decided to stake out an unbussed table on the deck overlooking the creek.  When we finally got the attention of a waitress we were well attended to.  Had her stamp and sign my passport – Phoenix.  Beer was cheap (Yuengling at $2.75) and the burgers were good, especially the fries.  It was a 45 minute wait for the food anyway but we had nothing else to do.  It was very pleasant once the sun dropped below the ridge.  Walked back to the Laughing Heart.  Settled in for the night.  Met through hiker “Edison”.  He was doing the second half from Shenandoah to Springer GA.

9.3 miles today, 15 total.  Passed 15 people.

 

DAY 3 – Monday, September 3 (Labor Day):

Since the Smoky Mountain Diner didn’t open til 0800 we planned around that.  Took a second shower.  Waited for the diner to open and talked with Edison for a while.  Food was as advertised.  We both had bacon stuffed omelets and a pint of orange juice.  Anna had a fresh cinnamon roll.  I had coffee with refills.  There was a lot of the local history on display on the walls and the locals outnumbered the visitors.  We were fueled up and packed up and on the trail by about 0900.  Today is the big ascent day, over Bluff Mountain.

The trail was very crowded today, it being the end of the 3-day holiday.  The first hiker we met said there were maybe 50 people up at Deer Park Shelter last night.  We counted 23 coming down before we passed it and a total of 28 for the day.

We climbed on up to Deer Park Mountain Shelter and watered up again.   Took it from a small trickle at the base of the hill up to the shelter.  On exit noticed that the water was back up at the trail on the opposite side of the trail.  Darn.  Also met “Bandit”, who told us that he had dropped a bandana a ½ mile up the trail and it was ours to have.  Of course we found it.   Ate lunch at Garenflo Gap after passing a trail maintainer loping of low limbs.  Watered up for the ascent at a spring at trailside about 2 miles from Garenflo.  While there a couple came down headed for Hot Springs and the Iron Horse Station for her birthday.  Learned that their Sawyer Squeeze water filter was clogged and they had no backflusher.  But we did.  Fixing them up was very satisfying.  Now for the highest point – Bluff Mountain.  The climb was strenuous and we were soaked with sweat by the summit.  We misread some of the trail guide and thought we were further along than we were a couple of times.  This is typical for a long stenuous uphill, wishful thinking.  Bypassed the Big Rock Spring on the side trail.  And there were switchbacks near the top.  Anna ran out of mental energy and gas at one point and I pressed on.  She stopped for a snack and water break.  The telltale boulder outcrop at the summit was maybe 2/10ths from where she stopped.  But that was a relief.  There were two stream crossings just below the summit, so we hadn’t taken any extra water to save weight.  We hit the first crossing and I ended up 30’ down a ravine filling bottles.  No problem.  But the second crossing had a perfect water spout right next to the trail.  Rats.  Elated finally with the downhill we pressed on to Kale Gap, past Catpen Gap.  We found ourselves in a campsite in a white oak stand with a bit of poison ivy and nettles just for fun.  But there was seating and a fire ring.  Burning the trash became a real challenge since everything we had was wet with sweat or humidity.  After using a bunch of matches I finally got some squaw wood from the pines, shaved them down and got it going.  We then had a pleasant time around the fire.  We had gotten into camp at about 1815 with sunset at 2000, but we did an efficient job and were done setting up and eating the chicken and rice before sunset.  Another night, another owl, another Screech Owl but not as close or persistent.  Another night of difficult sleep.  Maybe it’s the evening coffee.

12 miles today, 27 total.  Passed 28 people.

 

DAY 4 – Tuesday, September 4:

I noticed as morning approached that the cicada and other night bugs shutdown at nearly the same exact time.  Strange.  Up at 0630 for an earlier start.  This was scrambled eggs day and they were yummy.  On the trail at 0825.  Passed Walnut Mountain Shelter at 0850 and off to Max Patch at a steady slow climb.  Watered up at a stream crossing right before Lemon Gap and pushed on.  Stopped at Roaring Fork Shelter to water up bagain but couldn’t find it so continued on and came to the stream crossing 2/10ths up the trail and stopped for water.  Came to a split in the trail, either up over Max Patch or bypass on Buckeye Ridge trail.  Of course went up and over and the slope was not too bad.  What beautiful vistas.  Took panorama and 360° videos.  After a nice break we descended to Cherry Creek and replenished water for the climb up Harmon Den.  Down, down and then down to Brown Gap.  Man what a poorly laid trail.  Finally got to the bottom all pooped out from the downhill.  Then back up another half mile to the Hawks Roost side trail on Harmon Den Mountain.   Intended to camp at Hawks Roost but trail guide had the unmarked trail going off to the west instead of east so I told Anna to keep going.  Reached the crest in another tenth mile and then mistook the Rube Rock trail as the Hawks Roost trail.  Tracked this until it disappeared in the nettles at an overgrown although very elaborate fire ring.  Ended up setting up camp back at the trail’s edge campsite.  Set up our own sitting logs and added some stones to the fire ring.  After getting situated I explored ahead ½ mile and saw nothing, then finally figured out that Hawks Roost was indeed at the end of that east side trail back down the trail and confirmed it with a short hike after dinner.

Had trouble starting the fire again until I fell upon the oxygen absorber packets from the freeze dried meals – the best tinder of all our stuff and with that really got it going.  Burned all the trash and settled down for the night.  No owl tonight.  Still not sleeping the best.  Got up partway into the night to put my very smelly socks in the pack and take some ibuprofen.  Had an emergency bowel movement and in the process the button from my pants fell off, ran down my leg and into the detritus.  Left it for morning.

11.5 miles today, 38.5 total.  Passed 12 people today, so a few are on the trail beyond the holiday weekend.

 

DAY 5 – Wednesday, September 5:

Up in the dark at 0600.  Got my morning prayer done.  Anna got the coon bag and we got the tent and hammock down.  Today was oatmeal day, so we boiled up the water and chowed down.  Just before we broke camp went to look for my lost pants button.  Said a prayer and asked Jesus for some help.  Bingo – found it.  Another small miracle.

Broke camp by 0745.  Snowbird Mountain day.  Down to Deep Gap (not nearly as deep as Brown Gap) and then a steep climb up Snowbird.  Watered up for the climb at Groundhog Creek Shelter at a very nice little cascade.  2/10ths down and 2/10ths back to the trail.

As compared to other days I actually took us to be not as far up the trail as we were and when we hit the clearing on the western peak of Snowbird and saw the FAA tower I was really relieved.  The last uphill was behind us.  After a few pictures we were down toward Davenport Gap at a quick pace.  Stopped for lunch at 1130 at a trailside campsite above Painter Creek, where Edison caught up to us.  He had done the same distance from Hot Springs in 2 days.  Whew.  Passed the turn at Spanish Oak Gap and ever downward.  Hit the Green Corner Road and made the mistake of following the trail right on the road, then across the road and stream, then back down parrallel to the road, then around the next ridge on a very poor section of trail to the steps and final descended to Green Corner Road, under I-40 and across the bridge at the Pigeon River to where Mom was waiting.  Should have turned left and just followed Green Corner Road around the ridge.  But did get to climb down the final rock stairway after 6 years of dreaming about it.  Edison must have gone to the hostel 300 yards up the road or else left on the road to I-40 because the spider webs were thick on that last portion.

Anna and I had a bet on arrival times.  I said 1330, she 1400.  We gave each other a 10 minute window.  An alcoholic drink was at stake.  The stinking last trail section did me in.  We got to Mom precisely at 1400.  Tried to find a Ranger to stamp my passport at Big Creek but were too late.

After getting showered and a bit of rest at the Newport Comfort Inn we headed to Hot Springs for dinner and to get my passport stamped.  Got the stamp at the Laughing Heart no sweat, then had a very, very good meal at the Iron Horse Station.  Checked out the gift shop and neighboring Bluff Mountain Outfitters but they had already closed.  Back at the motel afterward we fell fast asleep with a bit more ibuprofen.

10.5 miles today, 49 total.  Passed only 5 people today,  probably because we were beyond Max Patch.

My next section will be to close the gap between Spivey Gap, near Erwin TN, and Allen Gap.  Spivey Gap north was my very first AT experience, with Dave Niswonger, Will, Johnny, Peter Zwerneman and young Bob Winding back  in 2002.  The gap is 43.2 miles.  When that will be is yet to be determined.

Longer range I would like to complete all of the AT in North Carolina.  So Fontana Dam south to the border is in my mind.

Smokies April 2018

Day 1 – Monday, April 23, 2018

Just can’t keep us away from our favorite place in North America.  We were like, “O, what the heck, we have time and money.”  After a sputtering start with a return trip to the house for Dad’s pills (and a couple bandanas) we were off by 8am.  Last trip in January we had snow and a bad left front wheel bearing.  No such problems this trip.  We decided to go the I-65 way through Louisville and we got as far as Scottsburg for lunch at the Cracker Barrel.  The trip was overall delightfully uneventful but we had forgotten how long the straight thru drive was.  We ended up at an Applebee’s in Pigeon Forge for dinner, (gift card) and then on to Kroger and the Tennessee Rose, getting in by about 7:30pm.  There was a slow, steady rain all day today along the entire route.

Just like newlyweds – at Applebee;s in Pigeon Forge

It was a hockey playoffs night.  We watched the Jackets and Caps duke it out to see who the Pens get to play next  round.  It turned out to be the Caps, who beat the Columbus Blue Jackets in 6 games.  So with that all decided we went to bed.  It was still raining.  We have this blacked-out hockey thing down to an art form now.  Our cable subscription doesn’t include NBC Sports Network anymore.  No problem when you have a server showing your IP address as Frankfurt, Germany.  And the commercials are all German, interestingly entertaining – Kia automobiles, Legos Technic, Paradontax toothpaste, Schwangere und Mutter vitamins, high speed internet (“Habe schnell!”).

Day 2 – Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Awoke to more rain, just a slight drizzle.  Our reason to get up was to go pick up the rental car at Enterprise by 9am.  We were 15 minutes late, but 30 minutes later we had a silver 2018 Camry and were on the way to the trails.  Having packed lunch and all the gear we went straight to today’s trailhead – Turkeypen Ridge down to Schoolhouse Gap.  Dad was lobbying to take the side trail into White Oak Sinks for the wildflowers, but the GSNP had a  notice posted at the trailhead that the area was closed to reduce human impact on the  bats there.  White Oak Sinks has some caves and lots and lots of wildflowers since its fields are not yet reforested from the pre-park days.  No worries.  We picked this trail because there is a rock overhang about half way in where we could eat lunch if it was raining.  The drizzle was steady but as it is with us it let up just as we stopped at the overhang for lunch and didn’t restart until we were hiking again.

The Rock Overhang on Turkey Pen Ridge – retouched with Photoshop

Our first challenge for the trip is that the camera is not working – the pictures are over-exposing.  Dad ascertained that there must be dirt in the lens that is impeding the aperture from adjusting properly as the picture is taken.  Cooler heads prevailed – we just continued to take pictures and “photoshopped” them on the laptop when we got back.  Pretty smart.  Hoping the dirt clears for tomorrow.  It works fine for lower light indoors because the aperture doesn’t need to close down as far.  Weird.

under the Overhang
lunch on the rocks – retouched with Photoshop

And another installment of (an over-the-top dramatic voice with reverb) “Adventures With Dad”.  So we rented the Camry, right?  They gave us two keys.  First problem – the two keys are bound together with a braided steel wire ring permanently clinched.  Dad drives the car to the ending point for the hike, grabs the keys and we drive the Jetta to the trailhead.  No problem.  Mom takes the extra Jetta key, but the two Toyota keys are too bulky for Dad to want to carry for 5 miles.  Hmm, what do we do now?  So off down the trail we go and have the pleasant hike already detailed.  We arrive at the Camry.  Where did I put the Camry key?  Hey, do you have them?  Are they in the pack?  O, crap they’re in the Jetta.  Fortunately another retired couple had finished the trail just ahead of us.  With some quicker thinking than he had displayed when faced with the clinched keys dilemma Dad flagged them down as they were pulling out of the lot, and they were happy to give him a lift back up the road 5 miles to the Jetta.  They were from Minnesota, but the wife had been raised in Knoxville.  We didn’t even exchange names.  Back at the ranch it took 5 seconds to cut the wire braid with the cutter from the toolbox.  Enterprise will receive two keys on a similar braided wire keyring that can be separated.

Day 3 – Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Another rainy day in paradise.  We are really concentrating on getting the proper keys for the proper cars into the proper pockets.  Camera is still bunged up.  After our morning ritual we headed to drop off the Camry at the  Huskey Gap Trail starting point on Newfound Gap Road and then doubled back to the Laurel Falls/Rich Mountain Trail parking to get started.  Spotted a couple of turkeys on the way – one in the neighborhood and one near the Sugarlands Visitor Center.  Today it’s 5.1 miles with 0.8 miles uphill to Mid’s Gap, another 0.6 uphill and a 1.7 mile kinda flat run and then 2 miles downhill to the car.  It was really not too bad with Dad counting the paces and announcing the progress on the uphill at each tenth mile (100 paces @5′ = 1/10th mile, with some adjustment for short paces).  We found a flat spot for lunch on the trailside while the drizzle conveniently stopped for an hour.  The temperature was about 55°, so just right for a little trail exercise.

We started from the Laurel Falls end because there was a Wildflower Pilgrimage event at the other end from 8-11 am.  We hit the trail at about 10:30 from the other end and everyone was gone by the time we hiked out.  We saw wildflowers galore on the upper parts of the trail coming down for sure – white, pink, red and yellow trillium, crested iris (Mom’s favorite), which we had seen before, and also mountain bellwort (a yellow hanging flower) and squawroot (a mushroom-looking flower) that we hadn’t.  So all together a great hike.  Learned that “wort” is just an old English word that means simply “plant”.  And even better was that we had the Camry key when we got back to it.

another trail lunch
sweet as ever

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a hockey night as we watch to see if Toronto can dispatch the Bruins in 7 games.  It is also  keto pot roast night.  Last night was burgers on the grill.

It’s supposed to dry out around here Friday and our last weekend should be sunny and mild.

good’ol squawroot
mountain bellwort still having trouble with the camera

 

 

 

 

 

A fun evening sitting on the couch working on the blog, watching hockey and working on the photos.

Day 4 – Thursday, April 26, 2018

Car key paranoia continues into today.  Now that the Camry keys are separated Dad has made sure that one Jetta and one Camry key is clipped into the backpack just in case.  Dad got to the hardware store today and got a replica of the Enterprise Rental steel braid key chain that will work just fine.  So that’s behind us, and we are certainly not going to point it out to them.  Since Cherokee Orchard and Roaring Fork are closed when we are here in the winter we decided to do our hiking over there today.  We were looking for a little less than the 5.1 miles we tackled yesterday.  We settled on the Old Sugarlands trail, but starting at the top from Cherokee Orchard and hiking back down to the Visitor Center.  The climb in the opposite direction is pretty arduous.  It is still raining and the camera is still on the fritz.

Cherokee Orchard took the worst of the November 2016 fire that started at the Chimney Tops picnic area and you could still see it.  Most noticeable are the rhododendron that are all still burned to a crisp.  The new growth is coming up from their bases.  The wildflowers have recovered nicely and followed us down the trail.  We had no shelter at lunch time and the rain was persistent.  But our raingear is good.  Just a bit more water in the soup and hot tea.

Yea, it’s still raining

The rest of the walk was uneventful.  The Little Pigeon River was almost out of its banks with all the rain, and it was fun to hear and see roiling down toward Gatlinburg.  Then stopped at the Visitor Center to get a new trail guide book.  We were using the 2003 edition.  The new one is 2016, but we think we have a 2012 one at home by accident.  So now we are set.  After that we went back for the Jetta and Mom headed to Kroger in Pigeon Forge while Dad went to the ACE Hardware in Gatlinburg for the replacement braided wire key chain, but took the scenic route around the Roaring Fork loop.  We both drove back to the cabin via Pigeon Forge and got there nearly at the same time.

a rainy lunch in the Old Sugarland settlement area

Pork chops on the grill for dinner, which were done perfectly.  And then Game 1 of Round 2 – Pens versus Caps – for dessert.  And it’s still raining.

Day 5 – Friday, April 27, 2018

And the sun is shining today, finally.  With the car key problem solved for the moment we returned to Cherokee Orchard/Roaring Fork to do a hike we’ve always wanted to do – the Baskins Creek trail from one end to the other, previously unrealistic with only one car.  It is a 2.7 mile trek with the very nice Baskins Falls in the middle, an extra 4 tenths mile roundtrip.  But since we are on the 6-mile plan we dropped the first car off at the edge of Cherokee Orchard, actually in Gatlinburg and started the hike from the far end of the Baskins Creek trail getting us up to 6.5 miles as it turned out, mostly, mostly he said, downhill.  There was the problem of climbing back uphill from the falls for 1.4 miles.  The pain will heal.

The anxiety for today was figuring out where to park the car at the end of the trail.  We ended up in the Gatlinburg city park.  Then since the trailhead at the other end is on the one-way Roaring Fork Loop road and not too well marked we certainly didn’t want to drive past it, which Dad had resigned himself to the fact that we had just before we found it.  Right off on the trail we saw a hen turkey and then a couple of does.  The sunshine made the day.

Baskins Falls from the near side

We ate lunch at the falls.  While at the falls Dad HAD to cross the creek to the other side to get a picture from that angle, so he slid along a fallen tree.  He has made this crossing in the winter at least once but with a riskier, rock hopping route.  It ended well.  Sometime  earlier we abandoned the camera since it was so bright with the sun for Mom’s cell phone.  It did a great job.  The complication was getting the pictures to the laptop.  Dad used email.  There is probably an easier way, but this worked.  We went through the worst forest fire area at the top of the Baskins Creek trail, and after that crest it was downhill for 3.2 miles.  That got long believe it or not.  Part of this was on the road.

getting a better picture angle

The treat today was finding the lady slipper wildflowers just down the trail from the Bud Ogle homestead.  Apparently it is the only easily accessible area where you can find them.  They are a native member of the orchid family, meaning they are symbiotic.  These need to have a particular fungus in the soil that breaks open their seeds when they drop and allows the seed to germinate.  In turn the fungus receives its nourishment from the seed hulls.  So that would explain why their growth range is limited to this area.  We got pictures of both pink and yellow ones.  But Mom still likes the dwarf crested iris the best.  Dad thought they should re

a pink lady slipper
a yellow lady slipper

 

 

 

 

 

name them “frog throats”, since they look more like the bulbous throat of a croaking bullfrog.   So check that off on the wildflower list.

For the day Dad received to minor penalties – one for tripping and one for high sticking.  On the slope down to the falls he was caught executing a perfect takedown of Mom from the rear when his right heal lost its grip and they went down in a heap.  A little later he turned suddenly with one of his poles at head level and Mom had to be quick not to get clipped good.  Hey, it’s playoff hockey time around here.

Day 6 – Saturday, April 28

As we gradually work up our stamina and strength we, yes we both agreed, decided it was a good day for Clingmans.  There was not a cloud in the sky and the air temperature at the cabin was 56°.  We hit the road at about 8:15 as it is a long drive up the mountain.  We dropped the rental at the Fork Ridge trailhead on Clingmans Dome road and were slowly trekking up the 1/2 mile paved trail to the observation tower by about 10am.  We did get a parking place in the lot; folks after us were not so lucky.

at Clingmans Dome Observation Tower
at the top looking west

 

 

 

 

 

 

What a clear day!  These don’t happen here very often.  We were fortunate.  We talked to a few folks while resting on the ascent and at the tower Dad talked to two, three-man groups of through hikers.  Yes, he is a hiking fanatic.  The Maine-or-Bust group had started on April 4 at the trail’s beginning on Springer Mountain in Georgia and were making good progress.  The others were doing the trans-Smokies hike and were headed south.  After going up the tower, looking around and taking pictures we jumped on the AT and headed down to the northeast toward Newfound Gap.  The word “downward” doesn’t quite capture the eroded, boulder and detritus strewn trail in this section.  Slow going for sure.  And take it from Dad the AT in the other direction is just as bad.

a new-to-us wildflower, a trout lilly

But what an exciting beginning.  As we were driving up toward Fighting Creek Gap between the Elkmont turn-off and Laurel Creek Falls parking, with Dad in front, from the left side of the road came a black bear cub.  Mom said it appeared to her like it was stopping to let me pass.  Taking no chances I went for the brakes since he was even with the front of the car.  And just that fast it was gone and things were back to normal.  By comparison the doe tearing across the road in front of him as Dad made a blind turn coming down the Park entrance road was not nearly as exciting.

Interesting temperature profile for this mornings hike.  The change of seasons.:

  • upon awaking at the cabin – 53°
  • down the mountain in Wears Valley – 58°
  • just entering the park on Lyon Springs Road – 59°
  • just over the rim of the park boundary on Lyon Springs Road (100′ from the above) – 48°
  • at the Visitor Center – 73°
  • dropping the first car on Clingmans Dome Road – 47°
  • in the parking lot at Clingmans Dome – 43° (brrrrr)
  • back at the first car after the hike – 58°
too long on the trail – Mom goes all glamorous

On our descent we passed Dad’s camping spot on the top of Mount Collins from his Trans-Smokies hike in July 2013.  We ate lunch beside the trail and talked to a lot of people – the aforementioned through-hiker trio (Walk-It-Off, Easy Street and Ditz), a single gal through-hiker (July), a single guy through-hiker (Atomic) and an older couple from from Maryland that we had passed on their way up after we just started.  They hiked the roundtrip up and back.  Must have been way younger than us.  He said he had done the AT through Georgia and that they were working on Pennsylvania lately.

We started out early today because we were planning to go to Mass that   evening at Holy Cross in Pigeon Forge at 5pm.  We had found out that our friends the Voisins, who own this cabin, were away and were not going to be doing the music.  However, the substitute did a very good job , and we were happy to learn that the music at this parish was better generally.  The 40 minute sermon at Mass was another matter.  And it was not a happy sermon.  Whew.  Rather it was a rant about the problem with Christians today that drifted generally to the Protestants, but bashed Catholics equally.  So in that regard it was at least ecumenical.  Not going to save the world and fill the pews with that kind of thing.

Then it was dinner out at Calhoun’s on a Saturday evening and apparently also Prom week.  Getting seated took 20 minutes, which was not bad, but it took another hour for the food to appear.  Thankfully the food was excellent.  Best prime rib Dad had had in forever and Mom’s salmon was equally good.  We had a lot of time to discuss the sermon.  We got back to the ranch at around 9pm and messed around with stuff until bedtime.

Day 7 – Sunday, April 29

We decided to take a day off from serious hiking.  We need to recover after the worst of the Appalachian Trail from Clingmans Dome down to the east.  Actually, the descent to the west is just as bad.

There has been a slowly developing situation  since Monday.  On Monday Dad started having some pain at the upper end of his butt crack (yea, I know this is too much information).  Since then the area has swollen and reddened a little each day it seems.  He’s had this before a long while ago and it was just an external infection in the little cavity at the bottom of the spine.  Well sitting has become a problem now and this morning early he texted our doctor Tom Seasly explaining the situation.  Do you have your family doctors cell phone number?  The pharmacy in Pigeon Forge opened at 10am.  We made the trip in by about noon and got the antibiotic, immediately taking one pill.

on the banks of the Little River

It’s Sunday and folks are everywhere enjoying our national park.  The majority are stuck in traffic in Pigeon Forge and Sevierville :).  We took a back street or two to get to the pharmacy and then back on SR-73/US-321 through Wears Valley to the Metcal

another daredevil stunt on the quiet walkway

f Bottoms picnic area for lunch on the banks of the Little River.  With the promise of a healing buttocks it was very pleasant there (hey not a bad pun being at Metcalf “Bottoms”).  Then we went up toward Fighting Creek Gap for a 1/2 mile Quiet Walkway along Laurel Creek that turned out to be a tree blowdown study area.  Still there were wildflowers and the stream.

Hey, Lady, I’m trying to take a picture here.

 

dinner on the West Veranda

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a hockey day in Pittsburgh so we came back to the base for the 3pm start.  The Pens did not fair as well as on Thursday, when they won 3-2, but lost to the Caps 4-1 to even the series at 1-1.

We had dinner on the deck in the  setting sun that was very nice. Dad’s butt has taken a noticeable change for the better with the first antibiotic dose.  Glory to Jesus.

Day 8 – Monday, April 30, 2018

a cold beginning
warm and tired ending

Our last day in paradise for this trip.  We saved our most ambitious hike for last, an 8-mile amble from Elkmont back to Metcalf Bottoms on the Jake’s Creek/Meigs Mountain and Curry Mountain trails.  The weather started out a bit brisk – 37° when we started at 8:45 – then up to 73° by the time we finished at 2:30.  We went through 3 layers of clothes.  We ate lunch at the junction of the Meigs and Curry Mountain trails like we did several years ago.  From there it was almost all downhill.  The prettiest day of our week.

All three colors of violets – violet
white, and…..
yellow

Straight from driving back to pick up the Jetta we headed to Enterprise in Sevierville to turn in the rentla.  This was not without some excitment when Dad left the Elkmont parking lot going the wrong way down the one way entrance road.  He was about 200 yards down when he realized his goof – he was trying to figure out why the signs at the lot entrance were all in the wrong places.  You know those rear backup cameras on the new cars are very helpful for backing longer distances.  We can laugh about it because the first car coming up the road appeared just as Dad got even with the lot entrance.  The one way exit road was pretty obvious, and this is not the first time we’ve been to this parking lot.  Turning the car in was a snap.  Dad didn’t mention anything about cutting the clinched wire braid on the keys and replacing it; the Enterprise guy didn’t notice.

Arriving back at the cabin at about 4:30 it was all we could do to just collapse on the bed.  Boy, that felt good.  Dad’s butt crack while getting better was still giving him pain so the solution was 2 ibuprofen, a glass of wine and a 40 minute nap.  It was a miracle.  Dad grilled the buttermilk chicken and we at on the West Veranda again – 75°, sun slowly setting, no bugs and a very slight breeze, with various song birds calling.  The serenity was broken for awhile by a pileated woodpecker, which has the loudest and most raucous call around.

So now its time to pack up and work hard at not forgetting anything.  We are looking forward to dinner with Dad’s brothers and wives tomorrow evening in Cincinnati.

Day 9 – Tuesday, May 1

Took our time getting out of Dodge and decided to take the familiar back way via Russi Gap to Tennessee 66; this is the same way we go to Enterprise Rental.  Don’t think we forgot anything, either.  Another great trip even with four days of rain.

We booked a Comfort Inn on Winton Road and went straight there.  But we stopped for lunch at Levi Jackson Wilderness Road State Park in London KY.  That was nice.  Dad’s butt was still painful but under control.

Met the brothers and wives at Cheddar’s on Springdale Road at I-275.  It was a good time.  But Dad observes that they are all so different.  Maybe they always have been.  Bob is working at Miami Whitewater Golf Course a few times a week.  Kathy is working on the yard.  Bill & Hali are working on moving to Florida’s Gulf side, probably sooner than later.  Bob and Kathy just finished having a foundation leak fixed and then re-landscaping all around the outside.  Alot of their life revolves around helping with Jamie’s pottery business.  Hali’s drream is to open her own pet rescue center on a large parcel of land in Florida.  Tired of suburbia they are.  we forgot to use our

So after dinner it was back to the motel to watch the Pens play the Caps.  Caps scored with 1:14 left in the 3rd to win.  On the play Pens Defenseman Olli Matta was tripped leading to a 2-on-1.  Earlier in the game Zach Aston-Reese left with a broken jaw courtesy of Tom Wilson. (found out the next day he got a 3-game suspension; that reduces some of the anger at the poor sportsmanship.

Day 10 – Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Left Cincinnati at about 9am and our first stop was the Harrison Krogers for our Glier’s Goetta stop.  We bought 12# – 6 for us a 6 for Anna.  And of course that ment that we could deliver it and have lunch with her, which is what we did.  All very pleasant.  On loading back in the Jetta to leave Dad noticed that the passenger rear mudflap was loose.  It was missing two screws.  So he took it off and figures Joe Tirotta, the body repair guy missed putting them in after the repair.  Luckily, there was one screw that held to save losing the mudflap altogether.

Arriving home things were fine until Dad’s butt really started hurting.  He called Tom Seasly and took the suggested option of going to the South Bend Clinic ICC and getting it look at.  Dr. Rob Reilly diagnosed it as a hematoma, lanced and drained it.  Ahhhh, what a relief.  We’ll see what happens next.  Could have been a puss-filled infection or a cyst, but wasn’t either, thankfully.

Now back to the normal grind.

Smokies Trip 2018

Days 1 & 2 – Saturday/Sunday, January 27-28, 2018

Sleeping Queens with Sarah at Jon & Anna’s

This year we sneaked out of town early to celebrate Larry’s 70th birthday with Anna and family and Will & Kasey in Avon.  We got to Avon/Indy in time for lunch.  We just hung around and played Sleeping Queens with Sarah and Tommy.  Larry opened his presents and then off to City BBQ for dinner and back home.  Not a lot to report here.

Sunday was our 47th anniversary.  We got an invite to breakfast from Will & Kasey at Cracker Barrel in Whitestown, and Jon & Anna and the gang came too.  We went to 7:30am Mass at St. Malachy in Brownsburg and then to breakfast.  We had some great conversation, plus a checker game on the porch in the cold on the way out that was called in Sarah’s favor due to everyone freezing.  Back at the homestead Larry opened his other birthday present – a BBQ apron made to order by Mary Ann embroidered with “St. Lawrence – Patron of BBQ”, in honor of the martyr who was grilled to death by Roman Emperor Valerian.  Larry then ran errands to get s

the new, sportier look for the Jetta

ome new brown shoes, his birthday gift from Menard’s and a car wash, forgetting to get the anniversary card he owed Mary Ann.  Not a good move.  Anna made burgers for dinner and they went out for ice cream while we oldsters enjoyed some quiet time back home (with ice cream).

 

Day 3 – Monday, January 29, 2018

Well we are here at the Tennessee Rose, but not without drama and adventure.  Weather was not the issue this year, thank goodness.

First off the car sounds like it has something loose and rubbing metal on metal that will fall off at any moment – then magically it disappears until it is stationary for 10 minutes and then it’s back.  We’re driving it till something breaks or we get home, whichever happens first.

 

with Eric Sullivan, Mr. Banjo himself

Second the visit with Eric Sullivan, Banjo Man, was totally outstanding.  He was so excited to see  my work and said, and I quote, “This is really good.  I don’t have time to get this artistic (referring to the maple/walnut stained bullseye back)”.  Yesterday Dad noticed that the bindings in the back and around the resonator were raised up very slightly above the wood – Dad figured they were coming loose and he would have to re-glue them and start over.  Eric said. “O, this just happens – the wood and plastic expand and contract with moisture and temperature differently, and in fact if you are looking at an old banjo and they are not raised, then something fishy is going on.”  What a relief.  Then I picked his brain on how he built his buffing wheel and other tricks of the trade.

a flat with a full trunk – no fun at all

Then the real adventure began.  Pulling out of Eric’s parking lot at 11am we scraped bottom on the drive, which was at a bit of an angle so no worries, but then 200’ down the road there was something wrong.  Yep, the left rear tire was flat.  Unloaded the whole trunk, got out the spare, which is full sized, and the spare was flat.  Crap.  But a gas station with compressed air was right across the street (50₵) so over Larry went and back.  Got the car jacked up and the tire off.  A good ‘ol boy stopped and was a big help.  Thanked him, reloaded the trunk, googled a Discount Tire (the spare is a bit worn) 15 minutes away and were there.  We walked in and all the guys were just standing around – we have never been in a Discount Tire without anyone else there (it was about noon).  Bingo, the car went into the stall.  Then Larry had the sickening realization – he had left the lug bolt key on the bolt after he finished installing the spare tire and hastily drove off to Discount.  Crap, crap.

at Discount Tire with the anti-theft lug bolt replaced

Need a lug bolt key.  Where is the nearest VW dealer? – 1.5 miles down the same street, same side of the road.  Left Mom and all the baggage as collateral and was at Huffman Automotive Group in 5 minutes.  Explained his problem to the service guy and in under 10 minutes they had removed the locking bolt and put the regular one he gave them in its place (he doesn’t remember how he got 5 extra lug bolts, but they are in the car).  Back at Discount they had the tire already mounted on the rim, ready to go.  The old tire had a 1” gash right in the center of the tread, and miraculously Larry had bought the road hazard guarantee.  So we got a new tire for free.  This was very welcome news.  It took Larry longer to repack the trunk than it did to get the wheel installed, and we were off.  By now we had spent about 90 minutes and were hungry so we headed, you guessed it, to the Cracker Barrel that we had been to last year

Tennessee Rose – just what we expected
1st Floor living area

 

 

 

 

 

right at our expressway entrance.  The worst result of this whole affair was that we had to find the Tennessee Rose rental house in the dark.  As is typical down here, the driveway sort off disappears from view over the edge of the hill until you work up enough nerve to go over the edge the first time.  Dad had to get out of the car to check it out before he could do it.

All’s well that ends well.

By the way, Eric Sullivan’s wife Marsha was a veteran waitress at Cracker Barrel.  She was  wearing her 4-Star burgundy apron (the burgundy color is recognition beyond the 4-Star level) when she came out of the office to take our picture.  We just can’t get away from that place.

Day 4 – Tuesday, January 30, 2018

All situated in this wonderful house owned by our friends Kent and Christine Voisin, who we met at Holy  Cross Catholic Church last fall.  Check out the pictures at the other half of the site.  One cool feature – a first floor heated garage.  Another good aspect – this is about the closest to a no problem location for snowy weather we’ve found.  Leeland Ridge was the best.

the Nissan Versa

We picked up the rental car this morning at Enterprise, a red Nissan Versa, for our spotting car so we can again hike point-to-point and cover more trail.  Then we went to Rick’s Auto to see if they could ID the mystery noise.  And no, since they are so good and people flock to them, the earliest they could get to it would be Friday.  It wasn’t making very much noise, so we decided to drive it till something fell off.  Larry’s current theory is that it is a dragging or loose brake pad.  These two errands shot the morning, but after lunch and answering some emails we sere off on our first hike, from Little Greenbrier trailhead down to Metcalf Bottoms with a snack and tea at the Walker Sisters cabin.  It was sunny and brisk, around 40°.  Larry found out how much he was out of walking shape.  Man.  No problems with either car.  Then back to the ranch for a pot roast with broccoli dinner.

enjoying the sunshine at the Walker Sisters
tea time at the Walker Sisters

And it was a hockey night in Pittsburgh – the Pens beat the San Jose Sharks 5 – 2 for their 5th straight win as they continue to climb up in the standings.  During the intermissions Larry took apart the upstairs shower faucet to see why the water wouldn’t get hot this morning.  He found the problem but couldn’t get to the water shutoff for the house to disassemble/reassemble the faucet for the fix.  Thankfully the first floor tub shower works fine.

We learned that Newfound Gap Road through the park and Laurel Creek Road were both closed by snow and ice today.  Tomorrow we have picked a higher and lower elevation hike, and will pick the one we can get to.

Day 5 – Wednesday, January 31, 2018

It was a lower elevation day as the Newfound Gap road was closed again.  Ity opened later however, so tomorrow looks like a higher elevation hike.  The weather today was perfect – it got to 53 degrees and was sunny.  We got our usual later-than-desired start and were at the Finley-Cane trailhead at 10:45am.  It was a great. predominantly downhill trek to the Versa at the end of the Bote Mountain trail.  Lunch today was Cincinnati chili.  At first we were had the trail to ourselves but after lunch a local hiking club caught us from behind – about 15 folks.  We let them pass, no problem.

It was bound to happen sometime – at lunch Larry bumped the tea water boiling on the “pocket rocket” stove and we both had a bit less to drink.

The interesting sight today was the discovery of wild hog rooting along a

hoar frost on the trail
wild hog rooting along the trail

 

 

 

 

 

goodly section of the trail.  There are wild hogs in the park, escaped from the farms years ago, and on the loose they do a lot of damage.  The rooting was to deep to be squirrels or deer and then Larry .located definite cloven pig footprints at one site.  The Park Service could issue hunting permits and solve this problem.

about at her limit but thankfully near trail’s end

We stopped at the Smoky Mountain Heritage Center in Townsend on the return trip and bought some very nice paintings and a DVD on the .Elkmont area, the first of 5 installments.  So a little history lesson to take on the rec room big screen.  We were back at the ranch by around 3:30pm and had grilled buttermilk chicken for dinner.

Day 6 – Thursday, February 1, 2018 – Adventures with Mom Episode 1

a snowy, uphill trail to start out – this is the Appalachian Trail, Woohoo.
selfie on a very steep trail – Dad is not on tiptoe

 

 

 

 

 

This was day 17,700 of our marriage.  One to remember as we’ll elaborate on below.  We got up earlier because we had a long drive to the trailhead this morning.  This episode is brought to you by Mom because the Newfound Gap – Road Prong Trail hike for today was her idea.  We dropped the Versa at the Chimney Tops trailhead and continued with the Jetta up to Newfound Gap.  The weather was cloudy with , 50° at the cabin and 38° at the Gap.  This was a 5 mile hike with the first 1.7 on the AT from Newfound Gap up to Indian Gap and the rest more or less downhill to Chimney Tops and the other car.  We had almost given up on the way to Indian Gap like the earlier group in front of us who we were tracking.  When “Appalachian Trail up to Indian Gap” is the phrase one needs to read “steep”.  From their tracks in the 4″ snow the earlier group got to the base of one of the uphills, stopped, had a snack and turned around.  On we went though.  We were encouraged knowing we were going to Indian Gap, which implies that eventually one goes downhill to the Gap.  And that was what happened just about when we started to despair.  To say the rest of the trail was downhill is a gross understatement.  It was painfully downhill.  But that wasn’t the real challenge.  And to gain an “Adventure with Mom” status it has to be much more than just painfully downhill.  Did we mention that Road Prong refers to the Road Prong of the Little Pigeon River?  Yep.  The trail guide describes it as “wet, rocky, steep and beautiful”, and it was painfully accurate especially on the first tree counts.  The worse part was we had been on it several years ago from the bottom end and could attest to the wet and rocky part.  Did we mention there was 4″ of snow? Another important fact is that water is slipperiest at 39°, a fact the VW engineers continually remind Larry of when the Jetta display bings its warning at this temperature.   This will become important shortly.

So down, down we went.  Heck it was only 3.3 miles and downhill at that.  No worries, that is until we came to the first creek (prong) crossing.  It was 20′ across with plenty of water and ice, and the trail basically disappeared on the other bank under two gigantic blown down tulip poplars.  Dad went first to “test the waters”, which literally (this is for Anna and Jon) he did as his first choice of hopping rocks was poor and he ended up in rather than across the 39° water.  No so bad, just one boot full of water and the rest of him dry.  Then it was Mom’s turn.  Not hearing Dad’s caution warning she chose the same hopping rock and was not as fortunate – both boots in the drink and wet up to

Mary Ann wrings out her sock

her buns on her right leg.  Sorry no picture or if Larry had taken one we probably wouldn’t be married anymore.  Hypothermia became an immediate concern.  Miraculously her outer coat shed all the water and her hat, which Dad fished from the opposite bank with his hiking pole was wet in only one small spot.  We broke out her rainsuit and put it on her as an outer layer.  Rainsuits are good as windbreakers and holding the body heat in.  This left her feet to deal with.  She rang out her right sock, the worst of the two and we pressed on.

Well actually we had to figure out where the trail went so we could press on.  After a quick prayer for inspiration Dad determined that it was down the prong, rock by rock to start with.  A little downstream exploring from a small island located the next trail shard.  We repeated that a second time and the trail reappeared, of course, on the other side.  Man what an adventure.  So there we were with wet feet and a couple miles to hike.  Not long afterward we came into the part of the trail we had been on for our last visit here and things were getting better, aside from the steep. rocky path.  Now we were discussing when to stop and eat lunch.  Maybe we could use the “pocket rocket” to dry our soaks before we heated up the soup.  We were reticent to stop for very long for fear of freezing off our feet.  So down, down we went.

Now the crown jewel.  It became obvious that we were going to be crossing the now very big prong one last time before intersecting with the lower third of the Chimney Tops trail.  Wasn’t there a foot bridge there?  The trail guide said yes, but reality said no.  Are you kidding.  Must have washed away.  See

look closely to see our footprints on the rear set of rocks – this shows about 1/2 of the crossing – a couple rocks and the log is off of the picture to the left somewhere; best shot available without recrossing to get it

the picture.  A pretty mountain stream shot.  But look closer.  See the footprints on the rocks in the distance leading out into and across the stream.  That’s where we crossed.  At both ends we had to crawl and break our way through the rhododendrons.  That was the most creative stream crossing of our lives (so far).  And we didn’t dip into the water at all.  Dad crawled the rocks.  Mom hopped.  Fortunately the snow on the rocks was so wet it added traction, but one had to avoid the ice covered ones.  At the end was the snowy log and grabbing the hanging rhododendron limbs trusting they would hold.  Don’t wanna do that again ever.  Whew.

into the thicket on one side
out of the thicket on the other side

 

 

 

 

 

drying socks at lunchtime
yep we survived and are still married

 

 

 

 

 

 

The fact that we are writing this means that we survived.  We retrieved the Jetta up at Newfound Gap and got home.  The freezing rain and snow started after dinner.

It was burgers and beer for dinner.  Tomorrow appears to be building into a snow day.

Day 7 – Friday, February 2, 2018

More about the Road Prong trail:  So all along we were thinking that Road Prong referred to the present Newfound Gap Road (US 441).  But on closer reading of the trail guide we discovered that the Road Prong trail itself was the road in the 1800’s.  It ran over the pass from Pigeon Forge to Cherokee NC.  This explains why the trail was so rutted and eroded.  Cattle, pigs, horses and wagons traveled this original roadway.  Now if they can only replace the bridge at the bottom.

Before lunch Larry went into Sevierville to the post office to try and get something arranged for delivery of the lug bolt key we lost earlier. Back on Tuesday he found one on eBay and ordered it but in a brain cramp move had it shipped home instead of here.  He was able to contact the seller and give him the address here before he shipped it.  Only problem was that on Wednesday he discovered that the Tennessee Rose has no mailbox down at the main road and the mail can’t be delivered.  The key is coming first class USPS.  The fella at rhe Post Office was helpful but the probability of it being caught by the postal carrier and held for us is slim.  Then after getting back from town Larry checked to see if the envelope had a tracking number, and it did, so great.  The only problem was that it is at the Granger PO already despite the address change.  So we can kiss that delivery goodbye for now.  It was marked as mis-delivered in Granger, which means it will come to Sevierville, be undeliverable and get sent back to the seller.  Larry will have to pay another $4 to get it resent when we get home we guess.

the foot log was still there – what a relief considering yesterday

Today was a bonus day on the trail.  With yesterday evening’s forecast for today indicating that all the park roads would be closed at least early wee woke up resigned to a scrapbook day.  But this mornng we found that the road down from the house to the valley was clear of snow and ice, and then we checked and Laurel Creek Road had opened.  So after lunch we saddled up and headed back to Bote Mountain for a trip in the opposite direction and back down the West Prong trail to Tremont.  A very nice hike with a powdering of snow and blue skies.  Best part was that the foot bridge over the West Prong was still there.  Given our luck yesterday we had to see it to believe it.  Had a snack at Campsite 18 then strolled back to the Versa spotted at Tremont.

Back at the ranch it was stroganoff over boiled cabbage for dinner followed by hockey with the Pens beating the Caps 7-4.

Just a couple more days.  The Versa gets turned in tomorrow afternoon since Enterprise is closed on Sunday.

Day 8 – Saturday, February 3, 2018

topping out at the Bote Mountain-Anthony Creek trail junction

The challenge for today was to do a long hike and finish in time to return the rental car before 4pm and get to church by 5pm.  The Newfound Gap road was closed again today so we went to Cades Cove to hike the Antony Creek-Bote Mountain-Lead Cove trails loop.  This is a 6.5 mile circuit with the first 3.5 uphill and the last 3.0 miles downhill.  The trudge uphill got a bit tedious, especially when Larry/Dad’s pace counting came up 4/10th’s short of the top.  He needs to recalibrate for steep uphills behind Mary Ann/Mom’s pace.

All of the Anthony Creek crossings of serious depth were nicely provided with foot logs, which was nice for keeping our anxiety level down.  The temperature at the start around 9:20am was 31° and by 2:00pm at the end was 34°.  This gave us plenty of time to go directly to Enterprise and turn in the car before going back to the cabin to change for church.

Bote Mountain trailside lunch
mouse tracks along the trail

 

 

 

 

 

 

Holy Cross church is conveniently located in Pigeon Forge   close to Calhoun’s restaurant where we like to eat and next to the Kroger where we do our grocery shopping.  Yes there is a Cracker Barrel about a mile up the street, too.  The owners of Tennessee Rose do the music at he 5pm Mass, so we got up to the balcony to talk with them beforehand and then had a long conversation with them after church.  We have several things in common:

+ they built the house themselves from a kit, so Larry and Kent have all those house construction skills in common

+ Kent shares same mechanical skills that Larry has; he retired after he sold his hardware store in Louisiana

+ Christine and Mary Ann both have only one kidney – Christine donated hers to a woman she heard about on the local news

+ we all love and play acoustical church music ; Christine sings and plays guitar and cello, Kent plays violin

Then it was off to dinner at the nearby Calhoun’s, sponsored  by our wonderful children and their gift certificate to Larry for his 70th birthday.  We managed to burn even last cent of it.  Mom had salmon and Dad had marinated steak.  Mom’s spinach Maria was too spicy for her so Dad bartered some of his green beans and broccoli for it – it is what he secretly wanted to order in the first place but was afraid of the wheat that might be in it.  Screw the wheat this once.  Mom had wine and Dad had beer, then hot tea and coffee.  All this to get the bill with tip up to the gift certificate total.  In the end we had to leave an extra $1.25 cash to make the tip for Tonya appropriate.  What a sweetheart she was.  And this time of year one gets the real professional waitstaff instead of the seasonals that are hired in for the peak summer traffic.  After dinner a quick stop at Kroger and home for hockey with no complains from the Jetta.  The Pens lost to New Jersey 3-1.  Rats.

Another word about the Jetta – it is becoming clear that the noise is a wheel bearing, and Larry is not really sure which one.  It is still intermittent.  The plan for Monday is to prayerfully limp it home (at 75 mph of course), hoping that the cold weather as we get further north will help hold things together.

One more day in paradise.  Waiting at home – a broken washing machine (new drive belt), truck front end repairs, Jetta bearing repair and trying to track down are mis-delivered lug bolt key.

Day 9 – Sunday, February 4, 2018 – Adventure with Dad Episode 17,800

Today we have been married 17,806 days.  Of those 6 have been classied as “Adventure with Mom” days (the recent Road Prong Trail incident plus the births of each of the 5 children), the rest have been a daily “Adventure with Dad”

 

organizing the keepsakes
pool tables are perfect for applying spray glue

Today started uneventfully enough – we knew was going to be rainy so we planned on a full day of scrapbooking for last years momentos.  We got through January – June before lunch, then after lunch realized that the rain had left the area and the temperature was in the 40’s.  We quickly consulted on a short trail to cap off the week and Larry prevailed, never a good idea, for the Sugarland Mountain trail up as far Larry decided to not carry any wateras Mid’s Gap – 1.2 miles with an initial 0.8 but mile uphill.  To make it challenging  to instead take the water filter and get some at the Gap from the nearby stream shown on the map.  2# that didn’t need to be carried all that way uphill.  So the stage was set for adventure.

at Mid’s Gap for tea
lounging after tea

The trek to the Gap was maybe more than we both wanted with the uphill, but the last 4/10’s were very pleasant.  Once at the gap it was obvious that the stream was not immediately adjacent, nor could one actually hear it nearby, but we knew from the map that it was to the west.  Larry noticed something that looked rather trail-like and said, “Wait here and I’ll go scout this out”.  After about 50 yds he could definitely hear, but not see, the stream.  He backtracked to retrieve Mary Ann and convinced her to follow on down the trail.  At about 2/10’s he left her at a log across the trail, took the filter and went down in pursuit of the creek.  Mary Ann was not thrilled about being left on the trail with no guarantee that the creek was even accessible.  However, Larry, although not completely convinced himself, pressed on and the sound of the creek grew closer.  Another 200 yds and there it was, about 5′ wide with a perfect little cascade to put the bottle under.  He returned triumphantly and proceeded to prepare the tea.  He was so pleased with himself that he forgot to filter the water – oopsie.  So before drinking a drop we put it back in the pot to let it boil some more to be sure to get all the Giardia cysts.  We’ll know for sure in 4 days.

The other issue was time till sunset.  We finished our snack at 4:10 with dusk at 6:30 and a 1.2 mile return trip.  It took us about 90 minutes to get in and another 30 minutes for snacktime including the water adventure.  As it turned out we were back at the car at 5:30 with plenty of daylight.  But we did have a flashlight just in case.

Back at the ranch it was time to pack it up.  We did watch another portion of our history of Cades Cove video after dinner with another snack in the theater room, and Larry did another 3 months of the scrapbook.  But we were running out of time.  Tomorrow comes with a new challenge – limping the Jetta back home.

Day 10 – Monday, February 5, 2018

We got off to a good start at 8am and the Jetta was cooperating.  The weather was cool and clear.  The road perfect for driving.  No problems really except something is slowly going bad with the CV joints in the front axle.  We are grinding when we turn left and right, and when we start up after a stop.

Connect 4 with Sarah and Tommy

Ate lunch in Dry Fork KY at the Cracker Barrel, using the remainder of our gift card.  Without that we were likely going to go to Jimmy John’s.  We are going home on I-75 to make our annual Goetta Run through Cincinnati.  We got to the Harrison OH Kroger at about 3pm and bought enough for Anna and ourselves.  We were planning on swinging by Avon to drop off the

Anna at work

Goetta to Anna.  But as we drove on we looked seriously at the weather forecast for snow up north and decided to invite ourselves to Jon & Anna’s for the night.  We don’t have to be anywhere tomorrow.  So we came for dinner and some games with the grandkids, and here we are.

Day 11 – Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Got up to see the kids off to school and Jon off to work.  There was about an inch of snow and the temperature was 19°.  We got off at 8:45 or so.  The drive was uneventful – the same car noise seeming to come from ther front axle, but nothing falling apart.  As it turn out there was no snow on the pavement all the way home.  On the way into town we swung by to pick up some Troop T-shirts and to the Granger post office to attempt to straighten out the lug bolt key shipment.  It has been bouncing around between Sevierville and Granger.  Yesterday it was in Granger.  This morning it was in Knoxville and this evening it was in Indianapolis on its way back to Granger.  So hopefully the instructions Larry left with the counter attendant for Sanders Elliot, our mailman, will do the trick.

welcome home – sure

Welcome home meant shoveling 6″ of snow from the drive and relighting the woodstove.  Forethought had the log holder full on the deck, so no trapsing through the snow to the woodpile.  Also took time go get some more page protectors to finish up this year’s scrapbook and some birdseed to refill the birdfeeders and help out our little buddies.

if we don’t unpack are we still on vacation?

It occurred to us that until we totally unpack we are technically still on vacation.   Larry’s next thought was that being retired is actually like a continuous vacation, but the environs are too familiar.

And so this year’s trip comes to an end.  already making plans for next time.

 

Martin D-35 Binding Repair

January 14, 2018 – Finished!

So after church today I wiped off the dried glaze of the Meguiars 21 sealer/glaze and the end result was passable, but not perfect.  Buffed up the fretboard and then  re-installed the tuner machines.  So after 4 months and a week here it is:

 

 

 

 

take special note of the binding at the top facing the camera – this is the one I repaired, the whole reason for the project

 

I strung it up and played a bit.  The obvious tune to play was “Helicopters”, my first composition and my only instrumental.  Sounds good.  The bindings are perfect and the finish overall is much better than when I started.

Then I disassembled and stored the spray booth for next time.  Adding the two projects end to end I’ve been involved with luthier stuff  for two weeks shy of the past year.  Sure have learned a lot and I am better for it.

January 13, 2018

After a morning Boy Scout meeting and frittering away a couple of hour on a graphic design for my BBQ apron embroidery, I finally got to the polishing phase intermittently while watching the Pens hockey game.  The entire guitar needed rubbing out and polishing.  I started on the back then the neck, the front and finally the sides.  Encouraged by the appearance of the neck I decided to do the back and front of the tuner head, which came as a dull finish originally.

Things progressed slowly but surely.  It is heartening to see the mirror finish emerge from under the glaze.  I a m getting my upper body exercise and hope my rotator cuffs can take the abuse.  Man could I use a buffing wheel.  By bedtime I had it as good as it was gong to get until I check with Eric.  The back and neck are especially spiffy.

rubbing it out – tedious but satisfying in the end

So then I cleaned up the fretboard with a little 1000 grit paper and scraping the top edges of the neck bindings to remove masking tape goo, overspray and traces of the stain I used to touch up the back of the neck.  Then I pit on a coat of boiled linseed oil to seal it, wiping off the excess after a few minutes for it to soak in.

 

January 10, 2018

Began rubbing out the finish on the lower side and neck.  Here is my lineup of sandpaper and polishing compounds:  i had very good success using the 1/2″

sandpaper blocks – 400, 600, 1000, 1500 & 2000 grit – papers stuck to other side
polishes -Meguiars # 17, 10, 2 and 21 (glaze)

 

 

 

 

 

 

foam that my banjo parts order came packed with for sanding blocks with two-sided tape to hold the paper.  Just enough flex to keep from digging into the finish of=n the leading edge of the paper.  I cut several sized blocks for use in different spaces.  The Meguiars products do the trick of getting close to a mirror finish but I am still a step below Eric Sullivan’s results.  I should be seeing him here in about two weeks to show him the banjo and that will be one of my questions.

By the end of today I had the sanding out to 2000 completed without going through any of the finish, particularly the binding joint and the colorized places on the neck.  Perfect.  I started with the 600 grit.  As it turns out the final 1:1 coat on the neck is my best effort yet on an initially smooth sprayed surface.  I needed to do much less sanding than I did on the side.

January 9, 2018

It’s been awhile off on other things, like car repairs, Thanksgiving in Pflugerville TX, deer hunting, Christmas in Avon IN, shoveling snow and the like but squeezed in here and there were a number of trials and tribulations related to the final spray finishing.

Just when I thought that I had the drop fills on the back and sides mastered the finish crinkled up around three of them when I sprayed on the 1:1 dilution, what I was expecting to be THE final coat before polishing.  Did some research and found info on too high solvent content dissolving the thin edges of the underlying coat, which likely was the situation on the back.  The drop filled areas were also perceptively lower, like saucers, in the rest of the surface.  So I went back at it with 320/400/600 grit and two more full strength coats to the back and top.  No more crinkling.

The next challenge was that while sanding down the bottom shoulder trying to level out a very small depression where the new edge binding met the original I sanded all the way through the lacquer to the wood.  Crappo.  By this point I know what that means – refinishing the entire bottom side.  I resigned myself to doing that and at that moment decided to do a better job on the neck.

When the neck bindings came off early on they took some of the finish with them, which revealed that the Martin lacquer was colored and this revealed the lighter colored mahogany wood underneath.  After fooling around with this to blend it into the rest of the neck color I developed a technique similar to Eric Sullivan’s water-based staining.  I blended some very thick settled pigment from my old cans of oil-based cherry and dark walnut stains into a color that matched the rest of the neck and let the mix dry in a small old butter tub.  I trimmed a model painting brush to a fine point and found that if I just wet it with mineral spirits I could get a thick dried stain pigment paste onto it that was opaque enough to cover the lighter spots on the neck.  Then when you put a coat of lacquer on it the coloration binds right into the layer and the repair vanishes.  This was a real victory moment for me.

micro stain color touch-up
touching it up

 

 

 

 

 

 

Armed with this newfound confidence I prepared to  respray these effected areas.  I did a fairly contorted masking-off job to leave only the back of the neck and the bottom side from the rear strap peg around to the neck exposed.  I settled on a 25%  (3:1) dilution for the lacquer – enough to level it out well but not enough to crinkle anything – and then did some thinking about just how I could spray it in a booth that was really not big enough for a guitar (made it for the banjo and it needed to fit on a 4′ wide table).  The solution was to add a view window and a set of arms/gloves on the opposite side so I could spray from both sides.  This was especially important for the neck – to get it from both sides equally, since I wasn’t rotating the guitar to paint the top and bottom or both sides.  I had managed to spray from just the one side earlier but it was less than ideal, which had bugged me.

two-sided spray option

The results were excellent, which is usually the case when you put in the sweat equity with preparation.  Here are pictures of the modified spray booth and the end product before the final coat.  By the way that low spot in the binding joint is gone also with the re-coating.

September 15, 2017

First round of scraping and sanding down drop fills, then repeating the fill to bring it up flush.  It normally takes two fills to get enough thickness to get the low spots flush.  I also decided to do two very small dings on the top.

fixing a tiny ding on the top
when dry it’s just above the surface and can be scraped and sanded

September 14 – Drop  Fills Again

If you have read the Banjo Project blog you already know about drop fills.  You use some kind of eye dropper to place drop of lacquer in a small low spot, nick or imperfection, and then scrape/sand it down when dry.    I use a syringe, which is very precise.

my syringe drop-fill technique

The top back shoulder of the body sustained a major nick somewhere along the line that chipped the finish off down to the spruce.  The primer and 5 coats later there was still a small depression in this area, so I drop filled it this morning.  When that dries I have a couple locations along the new bottom back

binding to do the same thing with, only these are low spots where the purfling didn’t quite match the height of the edge binding.  When these locations are filled in, then it will be final finish time.

 

September 9,  2017

Finally got onto the sanding and prep for spraying.  Standard practice is to apply one coat of primer then lay down 4 – 5 coats, and use 320 grit to scuff between coats.  Thinning helps the flatness of he surface but is not super-critical until the final topcoat, which is applied in a 1:1 dilution.  I found that with the Behlen lacquer I am using thinning 20% for the build-up coats is preferable.

So I had to come up with some way to hold the guitar in the booth for spraying while still allowing it to be rotated so that I can do the entire body and neck at the same time.  Here is what I came up with:

the guitar rack for spraying – the tail end has a dowel rod that fits into the pickup phono jack and allows the guitar to be rotated
and here it is in the booth for illustration – flipped to the front
fast forward to the 4th coat applied and setting up nicely – flipped to the back

What is cool about this is the painting order – front side, rotate to opposite side, rotate to top then rotate to the back.  I can get the neck from this last position.  In other words you can spray the entire body and neck in one operation.  Also the effect of rotating to each position lessens the change of runs or sags considerably.  I’ve had none so far (knock on wood!).  I modified the rack from the above picture by cutting down the extensions on both vertical supports to get clearer access to the tail end and neck for spraying at their support points.

I learned from my earlier banjo project (that blog is also here at this site) that the best setup for my HVLP sprayer (Harbor Freight) is full open with a flat pattern at 25psi.  I am careful to have 25psi while actually spraying, not when deadheaded in the line when not spraying.  The gauge reads 30psi deadheaded.  This setup and 20% thinning gives a reasonably smooth surface for these buildup coats.  I also have learned that with this pressure the lacquer flow is slow and I need to do 6 passes to get the thickness that will level out smooth.  I can do 6 passes without runs or sags, too.

So with 5 coats on its wait around time, a minimum of 48 hours to allow the finish to cure and harden before the final topcoat.  Lacquer may set up to the touch very fast (5 minutes or so) but it takes a long time to fully cure and harden.  In this case it needs to be cured well enough for the wet sanding using 400-grit and mineral spirits before the topcoat.

September &, 2017 – Paint Booth Blower Upgrade

To this point the spray booth has been exhausted by a radial blade window exhaust fan.  It is basically a 9″ square fan box taped onto the outside of the booth and connected to the exhaust vent with a cardboard cone.  It was time to upgrade the the fan to a centrifugal blade type for a better exhaust rate and  better performance against higher back pressure.  I found a  0.45 amp, 115V Dayton blower that delivered 68 CFM against 0.2″ water pressure that was perfect. After refitting the former square opening from the booth to a 3″ hole I found a PVC pipe adapter to transition the 2″ outlet to the 4″ flex duct the setup looks like this now:

upgraded spray booth exhaust fan

The plastic sheeted sides of the booth are definitely bowed inward now with this increased exhaust volume.

September 6. 2017 – Near Catastrophe  Avoided

Today was masking off and primer day.  Things were going along simply enough.  I decided to mask of the edge bindings of the neck along with the bridge and pickup jack in the tailpiece.  After I put the first strip of masking tape on the bottom side of the neck I decided to move it slightly.  Working to peel of the tape to move it, oh no, it pulled off the whole binding.  It was apparently not well attached.  Fortunately I noticed it right away before I cracked it at the bottom end.  I was able to put it back down and then peel the tape from the other end and at a right angle to its length.  That was close.  So it was repeat the gluing, stretch tape clamping and squeeze out trimming.  In the end only a bit of the finish was lost from the neck and with a little staining and the primer I had it repaired.  So now refinishing the neck was a necessity not an option.

masked off
re-glued and ready to scrape

 

 

no one will ever notice this repair

 September 1,  2017

A trip to visit Nate in Colorado Springs and hike in Rocky Mountain NP, some other more pressing home projects and here we are another month down the road.  Time for sanding, more scraping, more sanding and then spraying.

As I launched into scraping the repaired edging I made a decision to refinish the entire guitar.  There were two serious chips in the finish down to the wood in the upper shoulder of the top and various scrapes, dings and scratches distributed on all surfaces.  A corollary decision then was to scrape all of the edging to match the new repair.

One problem in instrument finish repair is that part of the beauty and value of an old instrument comes from the yellowing of the lacquer with age.  Some master luthiers have ways to darken new lacquer prior to spraying it, but not this novice.  This is not too much of a problem with the wood since I am not stripping it down completely and the rosewood is so dark anyway, but it is on the pearly white edging.  My decision was to scrape ALL the old edging down to match the new white ones.  Besides not having the skill to color the lacquer there were two other reasons: 1) the existing lacquer on the old bindings was seriously chipped, one reason being that the finish from an earlier factory repair was too thick and poorly done (as already discussed), and 2) in this previous repair the top edgings were already very white compared to the back  and neck.  So it was a 50/50 situation.  Let me say that it takes a long time to scrape down the old yellowed lacquer on all the edgings all the while being careful not to break through to the wood on the adjacent edge, also while chamfering the old finish down into the line of the edging.

August 2, 2017

Scraping is in a word tedious but the end result is satisfying.  Impatience is not good because you can’t put it back on after you’ve taken it off.  The scraping also involves the adjacent lacquer finish because what you are after is a perfect match in the lines before sanding and refinishing.

scraping is exactly what the name implies using a single sided razor blade like a micro plane
what the scraping does to the existing finish

July 29, 2017

Not a lot happened on this project in June or July with Boy Scout Camp, making ash canoe thwarts for my friend Mark and granddaughter Sarah’s birthday and all, but here I am back at it

two styles of purfling, binding and razor blade for cleaning the groove
existing purfling/binding cut back; readv to glue up the new

So the first step is to decide where to cut the loose purfling/binding back to and where to put the joints.  as it turns out the plastic material is not acetone soluble, so the joints will have a hairline in them.  I decided to cut them back to the shoulders and stagger the joints to help hide them.  The other extreme option would be to remove them all the way back to the neck in front and tailpiece i back to have no joints.  However, since the reason the edges came loose in the first place is because they shrank and pulled away I decided that a joint at each end would allow them to shrink without pulling away in the future.  Also when I got to checking closely I saw the previous factory repairs had done just that.

I decided to use Bind-All adhesive from StewMac.com, the stuff made specifically for this job.  I also took their recommendation on using their orange stretch tape for clamping the bindings while they set.  Cutting thre but joint carefully did the trick.  I had a bit more squeeze out than I wanted, but no serious damage that couldn’t be cleaned off.  Better stuck good than sorry.  Getting all three pieces in place with the glue one at a time was a bit nerve racking because squeeze out in the grooves would be a problem.  I glued and clamped each one down in sequence and then scraped out the remaining groove for each one when the glue had set.  So here we are glued and clamped then dry and ready to scrape them down to match the existing bindings.

glued and clamped
dried and ready to scrape down

 June 8, 2017 – A Starting Point

The picture shows the guitar at present.  I’ve manged to cut out the damaged binding/purfling and clean the grooves of old adhesive.

purfling and binding grooves cleaned out and ready

Bindings and Purfling

The edge binding and purfling I am using are both made of styrene plastic I believe, soluble in acetone.  The binding is a simple white, but much thicker and sturdier to hold everything together and protect the edges of the wood pieces on the outside.  Purfling goes inside the binding to add style and color.  I think historically purfling was made from wood.  There are two types of standard Martin plastic purfling –  a black/white/black/white and a thinner white/black/white.  The standard D-35 design uses both.  So the repair will actually be a three-piece affair.

A Poor Paint Job

area with loose binding and purfling removed; peeling finish in the process of being sanded off on the side above

You can see that I have been working on the old finish.  This became a bit of positive encouragement from a discouraging discovery – the guitars final finish is not adhered to the undercoat.  I remembered once into this that several years ago this same separated edging problem occurred and I returned the guitar to Martin for repair under warranty.  You see, when I bought the guitar in 1972 it came with a lifetime original owner warranty for workmanship.  So what I am diving into I could be having done for me for nothing, except that #1) I’ve already messed with it, #2) I love the challenge, and #3) whoever refinished the guitar the first time didn’t get the finish to adhere to the underlying coat and it is peeling off as I sand it.  So maybe I’m not such a novice after all – I can do better than that.  I have not found the full extent of the peeling yet but that will come.  I don’t think it will add any extra finishing area to the project .

June 7, 2017 – A Luthier Urge Rising

The satisfaction I had from building the banjo, and the knowledge I gained,  encouraged me to tackle the repair of the bottom back edge binding and purfling of my 1972 model Martin D-35 6-string.  The plastic binding can shrink with time and pull away from the body of the guitar, which it has on the bottom edge and did once before.  Unfortunately, I launched into trying to simply clamp and re-glue this section early on in the banjo project with poor results.  I sanded through the finish in one spot and basically ruined the binding and purfling in the  area.  After that I did more online research and got the straight story on how to do it at www.frets.com.

I was able to run down the binding and purfling at C.F. Matrin’s 1833 Shop and received that a couple weeks ago.  After some study I decided to use a binding tape for clamping and binding adhesive (Bind-All) from www.Stewmac.com for installing the new sections.  Fortunately the spray booth I built for the banjo work is big enough for the guitar.  I am going to upgrade the booth’s exhaust fan to a real centrifugal fan before I start this refinishing.