Monday, July 23, 2012

Enjoying a Rising Son Along the Appalachian Trail ...P3

<< We interrupt this unfolding mountain-saga to actually comment on the bird life encountered. >>

Never having been in the Smoky Mountains before, I didn’t know what to expect.  That also goes for the local birding.  I think that of all the things I learned during this particular adventure, it was the positively “layered” location of the various species.  What I mean is, Nelson and I encountered specific elevations that seemed to harbor a specific bird's unique taste in environment.  While that interesting notion didn’t exactly dawn on me on the way down the mountain, I was convinced upon the return climb.  Using the smaller pair of Bushnell binoculars I had in a pouch on my web belt was not very practical due to the dense foliage and humid conditions, however using my ears worked quite well instead.  If you read this blog with regularity, you know  how important listening is to a bird-watcher.
When we began the hike from Clingmans Dome (at 6,643 ft) on our chosen segment of the Appalachian Trail; the prominent bird was the Carolina Chickadee.  I could hear its "feebee feebay, chick'adee-dee-dee" song as we carefully picked our feet up and around the endless loose cobblestones.  Another bird species that inhabited the similar higher elevation were Dark-eyed Juncos.  Hailing from Wisconsin as I do, I don’t get to see juncos in the summer time.  It took me a few minutes to figure out what bird was making the sounds I was hearing.  Juncos nest in boreal coniferous forests so I guess; the Great Smokies are a natural place for its family-building activities. As we lost some elevation, the high “tsee, tsee, tsee", sound of Golden-crowned kinglets filled the trees.  As per my rough calculations; I would estimate that the optimal elevation for these kinglets was between 4500 and 3800 feet as I did not hear them above, nor below.  This small discovery alone was something wonderful to concentrate on while my blistering feet were constantly reminding me of their own unmistakable existence.  Funny how when you are struggling through something unpleasant, even the smallest pleasant distraction can provide one renewed determination and energy.
Around 3,500 feet I heard the unmistakable calls of an Eastern towhee.  I asked if Nelson could discern the “drink your teaaaa” song.  He said that he could and laughed.  In this part of the country, Eastern towhees begin their breeding migration to the (GSM) Smoky Mountains in March and will remain there until October.  A primarily ground-dwelling species, the Eastern towhee is a bi-pedal (both feet simultaneously backward) scratcher.  They forage through the leaf and needle litter for their summer food source of insects.  Beginning around 3000 feet, many other new bird songs were detected as we trudged along.  Eastern wood pewee, Great-crested flycatcher, Acadian flycatcher, and Chimney swifts made their presence known.  Red-eyed and Yellow-throated vireo sat high in treetops singing their familiar songs of, “Here I am, over here, see me, where are you…” as the summer sun and humidity washed over Deep Creek valley.

As we walked along the rocky bank of Deep Creek, I was hoping to catch (and share) a glimpse of my “spark bird,” the American dipper fishing in the rushing waters of the creek; but alas none were to be sighted.  I think that perhaps the lower water level, and numerous rocks were prohibitive.  As dusk settled in to campsite 53, a barred owl could be heard asking its unanswerable question of “who cooks for you…who cooks for you-all?”  No other night sounds could be heard above the constant whooshing of Deep Creek’s rushing water.  None unless you count the annoying verbal titter of an unlikely Swedish boy and girlfriend combo (also on site 53) that had decided to hold an extended authentic American campfire experience. Unfortunately, that bed-time distraction seemed to fade away only when Nelson and I simply passed out from trail-exhaustion.

One of the most ethereal sounds to drift through the tall trees was that of the Wood thrush and Veery.  We heard them between the 5000 to 3500 foot range.  Their (twin) syrinx-generated, double flute-like notes are difficult to pinpoint as they float on the still forest air, but are musically moving nonetheless.  Finally, to round out this avian interlude, I will account the list of other notable birds “heard” during our hard-core back-packing experience:  Canada warbler, Black-throated green warbler, and Indigo bunting.  While this particular trip was not quite crafted to be birder's holiday, it did provide a small glimpse into the summer season, high altitude, life-cycle of more than a few species I traditionally lose sight of back in Milwaukee.  That my bird-blog reading friends - is a wonderful thing anytime.

► Stay tuned for part four of this blog-entry which will detail day two – a “strenuous” climb in the (pouring) rain ... and bees.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Enjoying a Rising Son Along the Appalachian Trail ...P2

I looked into the small bathroom structure for a possible cold water tap from which to fill our water bottles.  The only thing I found was antibacterial soap dispensers.  I guess having water in locations over 6000 feet was rather unlikely after all.  “We should have filled at the Sugarlands,” I told Nelson with a shake of my head.  With our backs fully loaded under the weight of our packs; we began walking up the sloping asphalt to the small convenience store.  I purchased five reasonably-priced, twenty-oz. bottles of water for $1.49 each and we sloshed the Nalgene bottles full. We ended up with one bottle of spring water as a spare.  The time was 11:30 AM and the sun was beating down steadily now above us.  Tourists of all shapes, ages and sizes milled around the base of the path to Clingmans Dome tower as Nelson and I turned and trudged upward.  Some even wished us "good luck" and "good hiking" as they passed us coming down the long roadway from the dome.

Maybe it was the altitude, or maybe it was just my age and overall marginal physical shape, but after I had climbed the one-half mile of steep pathway I was already spent.  I stood at the sign that marked the actual Appalachian Trail, removed my pack and panted, completely out of gas.  I was sweating bullets and overheating.  My heart was thumping like a tympani and I was beginning to worry that I had bit off more than I could chew.  At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is the highest point in Tennessee, and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi. Only Mt. Mitchell (6,684 feet) and Mt. Craig (6,647), both located in Mt. Mitchell State Park in western North Carolina, rise higher.  Nelson cheerfully hiked the last few hundred feet up the winding ramp to the summit of the tower to get a look.  Apparently one can see over 100 miles on clear days.  I didn’t actually care one way or the other about the view from the top.  At the moment, I only cared if my heart-rate would ever return to normal.

When Nelson returned from taking a few pictures, against my own better judgment; I saddled up the pack and the two of us finally stepped onto the AT.  From the moment we began walking, the “trail” was little more than a narrow, rock strewn path that didn't get any better.  Rocks twisted and rolled under our feet as we navigated the barely visible suggestion of a route.  Nelson pulled out the harmonica I had given him and began to blow a few random notes as he walked.  My brain argued against this possibility as I had everything I could do just to breathe while I plodded.  Then he did the unthinkable in contrast to me in my minimally functioning condition; he pulled out an actual concert flute from his pack and began to play it.  The sound of jaunty flute music filled the quiet woods.  Nelson told me it was to both keep bears away and to practice at the same time.  I was truly impressed and jealous.

The next six hours of steep downward hiking saw us leave the AT and switch to the Fork Ridge Trail.  A few hundred yards along the trail we encountered our first (and only) actual fellow hiker on the trail.  A shaved-head, youngish, white male wearing black was sitting along the trail drinking from a water bottle.  He introduced himself, asked where we were headed and informed us that he “already had a tent down there and we were welcome to share the site with him.” He gathered his stuff and began to head down the trail behind us.  I suggested to him that he would no doubt be faster than us and we let him pass.  As he did, he remarked, “you’ll like the trail cause’ it’s all downhill from here, really…all downhill.” 

We hiked onward.  Down, down, down, down, down, down...

My first fall was a kind-of a slight skid off the dirt, down to one knee number…not too bad, but a decent tumble nonetheless.  The pathway here was extremely narrow and brushed over and had the look and feel of a goat path.  While I can’t exactly say that I have ever traversed an actual goat path; I have a pretty good idea of what one would resemble.  The zigzag path was also quite near the very edge of the mountain ridge.  We had to be quite mindful of where our feet were being placed even though most of the time you couldn’t really see them through the plant life.  Plus, those wild storms of the past couple of days had strewn many additional branches, limbs and even entire trees about, making the egress more difficult.  Stinging nettles occasionally brushed against Nelson’s bare legs and brought him some discomfort.  Fortunately, I was wearing my newly-purchased Cabelas zip-off (legs-on) cargo pants/shorts and was merely bothered by the snagging, slicing, thorny, vine-y, things that crisscrossed the way ahead.  I wondered too about poison ivy and oak.  We both drank our fill of water, with me drinking far more of it than Nelson.  A pair of hiking socks and a single glove was lying on the trail ahead.  I stuffed them into Nelson’s pack, thinking about the guy we had met.

As we began our eighth mile steadily downward, I was about to wearily remark to Nelson that I would be shortly needing a rest when suddenly, I performed one of those toe-stub on a root, cross-the-feet, lose your balance, pile-driver type pratfalls onto the trail – first doing a 180 degree flip, landing on my backpack (back) in the process.  Whooooof!  Nelson was behind me, so he couldn’t help but witness the grace with which I slammed to earth.  He stood with his mouth agape as I muttered, “Whoah, I’m ogay, bud I waz gonna’ say I needed a ress soon and then I tribbed and fell.  I think I’ll just lay here a minud, and cash my breath.”  I later learned that some things inside Nelson were immediately in huge conflict at that very moment – 1) Is my Dad hurt, coupled with 2) how could we both possibly get to the first campsite at this rate - before it got completely dark? 

I levered myself up and back onto my feet and took stock of my condition.  I brushed off the excess dirt and flora from my debris-covered ass with my hands.  My left knee was killing me (not from the fall, but in general) with each careful-braking step down the ol’ goat path and my toes and left heel were getting pretty “hot” on me.  This I knew was a sure sign of blistering, and I was not excited to pull my boots off to check just then.  We started off again for site 53 at the junction of Fork Ridge and Deep Creek Trails.  I hoped to hell that it wasn’t too much farther.  We were running out of water quickly thanks largely to my profuse sweating and (refill) drinking routine.  We began to worry about the placement of the supposed campsite VS proximity to water, whether we just ought to climb back out the next day, what body parts were currently hurting us both when we heard the faint sound.  

“That’s water!” I exclaimed with a glint in my eye as I began to feel buoyed by the prospect of reaching it.  A quick glance ahead told me that even though we heard it from here; we could be still quite some distance from it.  The trees to the right side of the goat path were still waaaay down below by my calculations and the trail slope was not as direct as I would have wished for at that moment.  Switchback after switchback loomed ahead as my remaining stamina waned quickly.  My wristwatch told me it was 5:30 PM EST so the prospect of making it while it was still light was good; if I could make it at all with the way my knee was currently throbbing.

It was 6:15 when Nelson sprinted down the last 100 yards to DeepCreek.  I stood on the ridge overlooking his arrival and willed my aching feet and body to join him.  He located the hiker man and gave him his possessions for which he was grateful.  When I finally did join him, I immediately dropped my pack, pulled off my boots and socks, and scuttled barefoot over some mossy rocks to the raging water’s edge.  Swinging my legs around I inserted them into the ice-cold water.  I swear I could hear a sizzle as I did so; the heat immediately being drawn off my poor barking dogs. 

A blonde woman wearing round glasses suddenly appeared across the stream and smiled at me as I sat there enjoying the absolutely glorious sensation.  Three more young boys made their way to the water’s edge as well.  I waved and smiled a completely weary, glad-to-have-survived smile back.  You know the one; when you feel you have cheated death or at least avoided some great danger…that smile.  The one that makes you feel fortunate and safe and kind of amazing inside all at once…yeah, that one.  Woot woot! - I had MADE it dammit, a nearly 3000 feet decent in the last five mile stretch!

I still had to cross Deep Creek to get to the designated camping area.  I humped my heavy pack onto my back once more for the attempt.  Like some kind of blistered, barefoot, bedraggled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle I had to literally crawl across the stream’s slippery rocks all bent over, because my stupid knee didn't seem to want to support my own weight plus the burden I was schlepping.  “Where the heck was Nelson”, I wondered, stuck in the center of the fast-moving water as I seemingly could not move another inch.  One of the boys called out, “you need some help Mr?”  Without hesitation, I acknowledged that I indeed did and passed him my hiking boots and socks I had been also carrying.  He waded out to grab them from me as Nelson also finally appeared to assist me with the remainder of my fantastic journey of the last ten yards.  My gawd was I tired and sore!

This is the end of part two...(Next up...BIRDS)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Enjoying a Rising Son Along the Appalachian Trail - P1

"A son is a mirror to the face of his father; be always mindful of influence and behavior which may  forever be reflected." 

As you know if you've read any number of these blog entries; you get a mixed bag of content.  At times the subject is strictly about birds and bird-like information, and others it's hard to separate my musings from the story-line.  This latest entry is the wistful celebration of a fortunate Dad (who just happens to like birding).  I hope you find it entertaining as well as informative.

I've always tried hard to find ways to say, 'yes' to opportunity.  Surely not everything turns out the way it started in theory, but that's not a good excuse to not try something.  So it was with the plan.  Plan "A" was crafted carefully over the months after the initial "let's do it" was agreed upon.  My son Nelson and I decided to hike and camp the Great Smoky Mountains together in July of 2012.  We began with the idea some six-months prior, and I slowly filled in the missing pieces to make it happen.  He arranged his busy schedule to carve out a week of precious time and I did the same thing.  The trip began on the sixth of July in the early hours of that Friday morning.  We were to drive all the way to Pigeon Forge, TN and spend the night.  We'd head out of the highest point in Tennessee, Clingman's Dome the following morning as early as possible.  The trip was to take about four and a half days and cover over 45 miles.

After loading up the WPT with our backpacking gear, (mine was mostly borrowed) and some extra overnight clothing; we started the six hundred and sixty six mile drive.  The weather had been extra hot in the weeks prior; in the record-breaking ranges, and the day promised as much.  The compulsory stop for gasoline and a McDonald's steak, egg, and cheese bagel sandwich was also accounted for and executed.  I had previously "Googled" for directions to our overnight destination and had also printed them out.  Technology advances (such as Nelson's I-Phone) had practically made that process archaic if not quaint.  All one needs to do now is tap on the touch-screen of their handheld communication device of choice, and instantly (via GPS) your exact whereabouts are digitally displayed along your intended route.  Nelson, along with being a (almost 23 yr-old) recent undergraduate bearer of two music degrees; is also an accomplished passenger-navigator.  As a result, we had no problems with our directions to the southeastern edge of Tennessee.  Traveling around the traffic-challenged city of Chicago is however another matter for another blog.

Dumping the contents of my borrowed (exterior frame) Gregory backpack on the hotel bed; I sorted through the miscellaneous flotsam to determine just how to shave off a few of the over 45 pounds I had loaded into and onto the pack.  Now I'm not exactly in the greatest of physical condition, but I was fairly sure I could "handle" the weight, as it was (of course) strapped to my back.   However the more times I hefted it behind me, the less certain I was becoming of the poundage VS the distance(s) to be carried.  I also worried slightly about an unforeseen dislocation or nagging back strain.  Ultimately about a dozen instant meals were left behind as well as some extra "meal bars."  That shaved about four pounds off my total, but planning for a five-day hike meant extra gear was anticipated.  Confident we had what was necessary for the adventure, we walked down the steep driveway and across the six-lane, jam-packed in both directions, street to the Tony Roma's of Pigeon Forge for one last civilized dining experience (complete with beer, of course).

My oldest son Nelson is cool.  I know I am dating myself when I use that phrase, but that is just what he is.  He might disagree with me because he's pretty hard on himself at times in a perfectionist manner, but trust me; I know "cool" and he is it.  This is a kid who has been mostly on his own for the better part of five years since high school while getting his education.  He's experienced quite a slice of humanity in his short life.  He likes almost everybody and they like him after meeting him.  I am proud of his accomplishments in his chosen field of music (he primarily plays the saxophone) and I am impressed with his ability to smile in the face of adversity.  He has a clever sense of humor along with a positive outlook on life.  He tells me often that, "life is too short not to enjoy it."  Nelson is in great physical shape.  He runs as well as using his bike to get back and forth to work.  I knew he'd be just fine; it was me I was worried about...

The next day held several surprises on the way to the beginning of the trail-head we had chosen.  First, mother nature had decided to deliver an aggressive storm in the days prior to our arrival.  The area was littered with the remnants of downed trees and limbs.  Our drive to the Sugarlands Visitor Center was quite a bit longer than the 18 miles it was supposed to be.  We were preempted first by an horrific traffic accident in the small village of Sevierville on Wears Valley Rd. that (as we later discovered) had tragically claimed the lives of three family members killed in a head-on traffic accident.  While we waited in line on the narrow and twisting section of road, we met Curtis Clarke from Allstate Insurance (who was attempting an 8:00 appointment) and had the unique and unexpected opportunity to sample the original "Grandmother's Cathead Biscuits".  Nelson had volunteered to gather the tasty breakfast while Curtis and I stood watching the long line of cars and flashing emergency vehicles in the distance.  Nelson returned with a bag containing two small biscuit-sandwiches.  He explained that "Cathead" meant literally the SIZE (or as they say down here, "s'aahs") of the biscuit and how he chose differently when provided the facts. The biscuit sandwiches (bacon and cheese, and sausage) were nonetheless delicious. An hour had passed with no movement, so with the aid of his I-Phone, we eventually navigated a new (unorthodox) route past the lengthening line of stopped vehicles.

Unbeknownst to us, the only road from Cades Cove to Sugarlands was closed and blockaded against through-traffic due to multiple downed trees.  We arrived at the "T" intersection and proceeded left.  The flashing lights of the National Parks Service vehicles and arms-crossed  officials standing on the roadway told us the unfortunate truth. This caused us to have to backtrack our entire route all the way into Pigeon Forge.  The accident was still in place as the State Patrol performed their triage and diagnostics of the disaster, so around the detour we navigated once more; finally pulling into Sugarlands around 10:30.  So much for the early start we had tried to get.  I filled out a back-country permit with our preliminary destinations for each day.  This listed the exact day and campsite we expected to overnight in for the entire week.  We each visited the restrooms and the gift shop before getting back in the truck to drive the 23 additional miles up to Clingman's Dome.  Up, up, up we drove to just about the 6000 foot mark to the parking lot.  I unlocked the three Masterlock padlocks on the gate of the WPT and we each claimed our individual burdens of gear.

The blazing sun was shining brightly at this extreme altitude and the temperature topped 90 degrees as we mingled with the dozens and dozens of giddy families who had driven up and parked with a far different expectation in mind. Nelson shouldered his pack with youthful ease, and a typical Nelson (this is so cool) grin.  I grabbed mine and labored it to my back; shoving my arms clumsily through the twin straps.  The 42-pound block of stuff on my back whispered into my ear, "what a fool you are Devereaux...ha, ha, ha..." as I began to trundle up the unforgiving side of Mount Crumpet.   But first, we needed to fill our water bottles...but how?

(This is the end of part one...)