backpacking

Backpacking Mount Mitchell: when you start at the top, there's nowhere to go but down (and up, and down)

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My sister Laura and I hoisted on our backpacks atop 6,684-foot Mt. Mitchell — the highest point east of the Mississippi River — and lumbered 4.5 miles north along a ridge to a camping spot at Deep Gap. While the hike along the Black Mountain Crest (aka Deep Gap) trail was not horizontally challenging, we did find ourselves navigating a lot of steep vertical change.

Though we were away from "civilization" for only 24 hours, we managed to see a lot:

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The hike took us up and over Mount Craig (at 6,647 feet, the SECOND highest peak east of the Mississippi), Big Tom, Cattail Peak and a place called Potato Hill. 

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One of the highest and most bio-diverse landscapes in North Carolina, Mount Mitchell State Park contains more than 65 rare plant species.

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A couple especially steep spots required the assistance of rope.

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Just past prime, but still pretty.

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Wood like bone.

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Butterfly closed... NBD.

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Butterfly open... WHAT?!?! 

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Translation: sweat the small stuff, not the bears.

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On top of Big Tom, named for Thomas "Big Tom" Wilson, a famous guide and bear hunter who found the body of Dr. Elisha Mitchell in 1857. That's all the plaque said, so that's all I know.

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We managed to not dress in identical outfits on this trip. It's the small victories we celebrate.

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How do you make sure no one sets up a tent right beside yours? Act weird and take up space!

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Success!

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Losing at gin (While optimistic, aiming for a seven-card run is not a winning strategy.)

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The solitaire that followed the gin.

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When epicureans go camping... (Also: Heat-and-serve Tasty Bites are perfect for when your campsite is miles away from a water source.)

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Laura thoroughly enjoyed her insulated mug of jaipur vegetables and jasmine rice. She also thoroughly enjoys this vest.

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The winds blew strong all night, and clouds swirled around the summits we passed over on the hike out in the morning. 

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Lichen on a tree trunk.

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Descent
Descent

A week in the wilds of Washington's North Cascades

As we headed into the wilds of the North Cascades for a week-long backpacking trip, our choice in pants announced to the world that we were serious. Serious about the fact we were hiking. Serious about not carrying the extra ounces involved in pairs of shorts. Serious about responding swiftly and definitively to fluctuations in weather and body temperature. If we broke a sweat on an uphill slog, two zips and we sporting modestly cut shorts. If the weather switched from a sunny 73 to a windy 62, two more zips and we were back in pants.

Bob making a deft adjustment

In early September, my sister Laura, my boyfriend Donnie and I joined my father and three of his friends from North Carolina (one Vance, two Bobs) for seven days in the North Cascades, a 150- by 270-mile national park nestled up against the Canadian border in Western Washington.

Before this trip, I had only seen the North Cascades from the southern part of the state, where they registered as faint blue peaks on the horizon, 200 miles north of Mount Rainier. Up close and personal, the range was as remote and wild as I'd imagined — far less traveled than other parts of the range which includes Adams, St. Helens and Shasta among other well-known icons. During our 47-mile clockwise loop from the Bridge Creek trailhead to Easy Pass exit, we encountered only a couple people. Which is a shame, because in our convertible pants, we looked good.

Here are a few highlights from the trip:

  • I'll start with the hiking itself, which took us along crystal clear rivers, through moss-covered forests and meadows of wild flowers and up and over glaciated passes. It was incredible.

Donnie, my father and a Bob, hiking through a valley

Vance ascending Park Creek Pass, the first — and most grueling — of the two passes. Aftermiles of switchbacks, we stopped just short of the top to eat sandwiches in the sun and listen to the marmots call each other.

Here we are, about to crest the pass, refreshed after a nap in the sun. (Note: we have all chosen the shorts option at this point in time.)

My father on the scree-filled peak of the pass, where you could see into two immense valleys at once.

Donnie and his mad map skillz

The frosty early-morning start on the last day

Bob, paused

Other Bob, in motion

Ascending switchbacks on Easy Pass, the second of the two passes, which was fairly true to its name

  • A tip: when walking mile after mile with a 45-pound pack on your back, it's important to give your feet — or someone else's — plenty of TLC.

Donnie looking after Laura's heelspost river crossing

  • We arrived at our campsite along Bridge Creek around noon on the second day and spent the afternoon lounging on the rocks by the river, washing our hair and socks with Dr. Bronner's, reading books and taking naps. After reading instructions to remember the rules, Laura and I played a game of cribbage.

Laura, probably confused by the rule that grants a player "Two for doing it." (Her response: "I'm a LADY!")

Me, plotting cribbage domination

Socks on the line

  • Vance found a women’s shirt by the side of the trail, and rather than leave it be or carry it out, he put it on and wore the rest of the trip. We decided periwinkle was his color.
  • The 13 minutes it takes a dehydrated meal to reconstitute feel like an eternity when they follow a day of hiking. Sadly for Laura, the pork and broccoli stir-fry she's waiting for here was the most disgusting thing she'd ever tasted — so bad, in fact, that she threw it in the privy.
  • We hit the park during a transition time: wildflowers were still abloom in some spots, but in others, the brilliant reds and yellows of autumn had arrived in full force.

Indian Paintbrush

Water droppies
Water droppies
  • Mushrooms proliferated along damp forested sections of trail. They grew on trees, they pushed up from beneath the soil, they came in orange and brown and spotted red. We continuously stopped to admire.
  • Two members of our group ran across black bears. The rest of us ran across bear poop — which was also tremendous, but far less exhilarating.

It was the size of dinner plates.

  • While we're on the topic, each campsite had a very comfortable privy, basically a box with a hole in the top that looked out over something pretty, usually trees.

Trips to the privy were joyous occasions, to be celebrated.

  • The water in the North Cascades is crystal clear, but also friggin' cold. After 10 seconds of submersion, our toes went numb.

The North Fork of Bridge Creek

Deep pools that would have made great swimming holes if the water had been 40 degrees warmer

  • After we got off the trail, Donnie ate a one pound — get that: ONE POUND! — buffalo burger at the Buffalo Run Restaurant, where we went to replenish our calorie deficits and drink Alaskan Ambers. We were all proud of him.
Donnie and burger
Donnie and burger
  • After burgers, we rented two unintentionally retro cabins at the roadside Clark's Skagit River Resort near Marblemount, Washington. The flowered wallpaper, patterned linoleum floors and rotary phone on our cabin's kitchen wall indicated that neither the buildings nor the decor had been updated since the 1960s. Clark's was clean and charming, though in a weird, outdated sort of way. Another characteristic of note: anywhere from 50 and 175 bunnies roam the resort grounds at any given time — the discrepancy, I suppose, due to the fact that it is located on the North Cascades Highway, and in an area populated by hawks and eagles. When we'd step outside to enjoy the breeze or check the progress of our drying tents, we'd have to sidestep the rabbits munching on the lawn. None were interested in petting.

Back to civilization

Thanks to Donnie for the second pic, of Bob removing his pant leg.

Close call on Mount LeConte

“DANGER!” read the signs posted around the three-sided wooden shelter atop Mount LeConte. “BEARS ARE ACTIVE IN THIS AREA. DO NOT APPROACH THEM. ATTACKS ON HUMANS HAVE OCCURRED, INFLICTING SERIOUS INJURY AND DEATH.”

My friend Cheri and I were aware of our position on the food chain during our backpacking trip through the Smokies last weekend, but we didn’t let it bother us too much. We explored the mountaintop, cooked and ate dinner and watched the sun set from a west-facing lookout, all without giving much thought to the 250-pound mammals that average two per square mile in the national park.

But then, as we were talking with fellow campers outside the shelter after dark, we heard snorting and blowing from the trees nearby. Everyone, immediately, went on edge.

“What was THAT?” whispered Randy from Atlanta.

“I dunno. What WAS it?” responded Tim from Knoxville, a tinge of panic in his voice.

We heard the thick huffing sound again and squinted into the darkness, trying to identify the source of the sound. I shone my headlamp into the blackness and, no more than 30 feet away, made out the silhouette of a head and two ears. A bear.

“I SEE it!” I said. At that, everyone in the group — all men, except Cheri and me — took off running toward the shelter.

Now, when you see a bear, you are NOT supposed to run, because it only activates the animals’ chase instinct, and the odds are pretty much stacked against you (bears can run up to 30 miles per hour). Instead, you’re supposed to speak to the bear in a quiet, monotone voice and back away slowly, avoiding eye contact, which can be interpreted as a challenge.

Rather than be the only one left in the bear’s path, though, I took off with the rest of them. “We’re not supposed to ruuuuuuuun,” I yelled as I sprinted behind the group, determined not to be last.

Once back to the “safety” of the three-walled shelter, a couple of the men started shouting and making guttural noises to threaten the bear. Another banged together his hiking poles (a la The Parent Trap).

Just then, a figure emerged from the trees. It was Sam, a hiker from Jackson, Tenn., back from brushing his teeth and spraying his spit in a wide arc across the ground in true Leave No Trace form. He saw us lined up on defense along the edge of the shelter, posturing at the dark.

“What are you guys doing?” he asked, toothbrush in hand.

We burst out laughing at our mistake and immediately started making fun of each other.

(Check out this Web site and this video to find out what you're REALLY supposed to do if you encounter a bear.)

Our stuff sacks of food, suspended out of bears’ reach on the ginormous industrial-strength pulley near the shelter

At 6,593 feet, Mount LeConte is the third highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Starting from Newfound Gap, Cheri and I hiked 2.7 miles along the Appalachian Trail and 5.4 miles along the Boulevard Trail to arrive at the summit (maps here). In many places along the way, spruce and fir forests scented the air like Christmas, and at the higher elevations, the leaves were just about at the peak of their brilliance.

We contributed stones to the cairn marking the highest point on the mountain.

And watched a spectacular sunset from the Clifftops lookout.

Cheri and I walked through the LeConte Lodge camp to look around, fill our water bottles at the pump and use the composting toilet. LeConte Lodge, which sits on a grassy slope atop the mountain, consists of seven one-room cabins ($75 per person per night) and a dining room that serves homecooked meals ($35 for dinner and breakfast, $9 extra for wine). It's so popular among hikers who want more than a three-by-six-foot space in the shelter that it's usually booked a year in advance.

The living spaces are cozy and rustic, with bunks for beds, kerosene lanterns for light, washbasins for sponge baths and rocking chairs for porch sittin’ and great views. Would be a great option if I ever had $120 to drop on a camping trip.

On Sunday morning, we followed the ever-popular Alum Cave Trail down the mountain 5.5 miles and 2,800 feet.

The Alum Cave Bluffs

And now, a few other photos:

Me

Cheri

Neon green lichen

An adelgid-eaten tree

A pretty stream