Tag Archives: Uwharrie National Forest

The Appalachian Trail…a taste of risk

"into the wild"

“into the wild” (Photo credit: niawag)

Reflecting today, I have become aware of another reason I hiked the Appalachian Trail.  I wanted to taste risk.  Having read Ed Garvey’s book on the trail (“Appalachian Hiker II”), which was one of only a handful available at the time, I found not just his achievement compelling.  I discovered a greater adventure than just hiking and backpacking.  I had done plenty of that; long weekends in the woods near my home, camping overnight.  But the only sounds I heard consisted of a distant bellowing cow.  How thrilling is that?  No wolves called my neck of the woods home.

The first taste of risk came when I met my first pit vipers while on a day hike in the Uwharrie National Forest.  To be sure, adrenaline never became so familiar as it did in those tense moments within striking range.  Rather than coiled, however, the snake was lying lethargic on the chilly earth on an April morning, trying to gain enough warmth from the sun to begin moving.  Even so, just the hint of danger was something I’ve never forgotten.

The Linville Gorge Wilderness of western North Carolina was another savoring of risk.  I did a mid-winter day hike, struggling to the wind blasted summit of Table Rock on a frigid day, barely able to light my Svea stove to make soup.  Slipping and sliding over ice atop the summit, I felt the exhilaration of my early experience in more serious mountaineering.

Danger Trail Closed

Danger Trail Closed (Photo credit: iwona_kellie)

When the full Appalachian Trail experience began, I reveled in the challenges it brought.  Even the misery was chalked up to stoic achievement.  Fortunately, I had laid aside unrealistic expectations and let the trail teach me what I needed to learn.  In that incubated state of mind, I was able to stretch myself further, tacking heights which until then would have left me paralyzed with fear; fording a deep river, something I’d never imagined doing; handling myself in a hypothermia situation and using my head instead of mindlessly plodding into further danger.

For some time, I chalked up these experiences as “adventure.”  And it’s true, they were and I still think of them that way.  But they were also risks I had taken.  They were not a mere “stretching” of myself; they were me deliberately moving beyond my comfort zone into an unknown land with potential for greater hazard.  When climbing, I might have fallen.  When fording a river I might have lost my footing and drowned.  When hypothermic I could have ignored the signs and ended up a casualty.  As a result of these encountered risks I learned to handle the events with hard-earned wisdom and a great dose of humility.  Had I taken them for simple “adventure” or a lark, I would have made unwise choices that might have cost me greatly.

Risk.  We live it every day we step out the door.  Adventure.  We seek it to remind we’re alive.  The Appalachian Trail is a living laboratory for you to enjoy adventure; but remember that you’ll take risks – both chosen and those thrust upon you.  Handle them with humility and be open to being taught.  Above all, learn all you can about the risks the trail entails.  Though it’s been greatly tread, written about, and heralded, it’s still a “footpath through the wilderness.”

Video showing risk:

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What about snakes? (Part II) Fauna of the Appalachian Trail

When I  began backpacking from Springer Mountain in Georgia on the Appalachian Trail I had lost any fear I had about snakes, rattlesnakes in particular.  I’ve always found knowledge to be an potent antidote to specific fears.  Since my first run-in with snakes in the Uwharrie National Forest until I began my backpacking trip, I became well-read about  venomous snakes.  Laurence Klauber (1883-1968) is known for the landmark book  “Rattlesnakes: Their Habits, Life Histories and Influence on Mankind.”  I consulted it other written work.  As I read I came to understand these reptiles.  The more I learned the more the myths faded.  By the time I saw my next rattler in Pennsylvania, I felt curiosity and appreciation and not dread.

On top of Blue Mountain

On top of Blue Mountain (Photo credit: cthoyes)

Along A.T. in the Blue Mountains of Pennsylvania I stopped 0n a sweltering August afternoon for a water break.  Dropping my pack I fished out my water bottle and took a long drink.  I sat on a log for a rest.  The trail ahead followed an abandoned woods road and I consulted my map to survey the course ahead.  Gazing from the map I checked the trail ahead, then observed a disk-shaped black patch on the footway.  Thinking it to be some sort of wheel – perhaps from a child’s wagon – I went over to investigate it.  It only took a moment to see it was a black-phase timber rattlesnake spiraled on the side of the trail.  The snake lay still.  It did not rattle.  But its eyes were full life as it lay patiently, waiting for an opportunistic meal to venture by.  I did not disturb the snake, but I did spend practically an hour standing there, observing the snake.  Fascination had replaced my fear.

Dwightwood Spring on Mackinac Island's shoreline

Spring

Some weeks later, while following a blue-blazed side trail on the New York section of the A.T. to get water, I stumbled across two rattlesnakes sunning on a ledge below me on the trail which led to the spring.  I admit being surprised.  They were not readily visible until I was almost upon them.  I bushwhacked around them.  On the way back I saw they had slithered into the bush.

Hikers and backpackers along the Appalachian Trail who meet up with snakes are fortunate.  Rattlesnakes and copperheads are endangered and vanishing from much of the A.T..  These creatures require distance and respect.  Basic rules for avoiding encounters with them would include:

Never go barefoot when walking in the wild.  Always wear hiking boots, especially in known snake country.  Avoid thick  underbrush where snakes may lie concealed.  Don’t step or put your hands where you can’t see.  Step on logs and rocks and not over them; a snake may be lying on the other side.  Also check the other side of rocks or logs before you sit down on them.  Never handle a dead snake; it can still bite.  Don’t antagonize or rile a snake for fun; you might regret it.

Snakes are animals you’re likely to see along the Appalachian Trail.  Most will be nonvenomous.  But if you’re in luck  you might see rattlesnakes and copperheads.  Treat them with caution, giving them some distance, snap a photo (only if you can do this from a safe distance), enjoy the moment – then hike on.

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Thinking about…fauna on the Appalachian Trail. What about…snakes?!? (Part I)

Rattlesnake

Rattlesnake (Photo credit: Mauro Luna)

When you announce to friends you’re backpacking the Appalachian Trail the first response is: “What about bears and snakes?”  When and how this became a worry for hikers and backpackers is a riddle.  But, if snakes were a significant risk along the Appalachian Trail I never would have hiked it, seeing that my first encounter with reptiles was unsettling.

While hiking the Uwharrie National Forest on a clear April Sunday I bushwhacked off-trail to explore.  Using compass bearings I reached a squat rocky outcrop and poked around a bit.  I sat, snacked on a granola bar and drank some water.  Then I stood up.  Three feet to the right of where I stood lay a rattlesnake.  Adding to the joy, a copperhead lay a foot further on.  Though my comprehension of snakes was limited I knew one thing; when copperheads and rattlesnakes are found together it means you may be at or near a den – which suggests many snakes.

Timber Rattlesnake SE Georgia

Timber Rattlesnake SE Georgia (Photo credit: TomSpinker)

Adrenaline punched me in my stomach as I charged down the slope.  I struck the earth in front of me with my hiking staff and, finally reaching the trail.  My imagination got the better of me as I sped down the trail the way I came, making incredible noise and beating every bush and fallen log to alert snakes of my presence.  I got back to my car trembling and sweating, and drove home.  Driving down the two-way parkway I saw a long black thread squirm across the blacktop.  It was a huge blacksnake.  Adrenaline spike two!  Getting home I “came down” from the experience, and was doing nicely a few hours.  Until I switched on the television.  Hoping entertainment would be an agreeable diversion, I tuned in a science fiction television series which was airing its pilot episode.  The show was “V”.  At the conclusion of the episode, some valiant soul tore away the human skin of an invading alien face only to find underneath…a reptile!  That sealed the deal.  I don’t think I slept that night.

When the first fear subsided, I began to do what I always do when I’m faced with a situation I’m interested or unversed about.  I started reading.  By the end of that year I knew enough about snakes to nearly be an amateur herpetologist.  And I had answer to the question: “What about snakes?”

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Vital Foundations: of Hiking Boots

Vasque Cascades

Vasque Cascades (Photo credit: simonov)

I remember the first thing I bought was a pair of Vasque Cascade backpacking boots.  They were the last pair from an outfitter just outside Albemarle, NC.  At the time I had done some day hikes in the Uwharrie National Forest and sneakers were inadequate.  Plus I had read up on The Complete Walker by Colin Fletcher, and it was pretty obvious that more substantial hiking gear was needed for whatever sort of trip I was going to take.

Unlike boot care today, I had to SnoSeal those babies to soften the leather and then walk around with them for weeks to break them in.  I wore them to work at the radio station, around town, in the mall, pretty much anywhere I could.

Linville Falls in the Linville Gorge Wildernes...

Linville Falls in the Linville Gorge Wilderness. Photo taken with a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50 in Burke County, North Carolina, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Soon enough came time to give them a real test; a shakedown backpacking trip up at Linville Gorge Wilderness in the Blue Ridge mountains.

Wildly rugged and accessible only by a washboard road which goes well off the asphalt, Linville Gorge Wilderness is known as the “Grand Canyon of the East” and offers a stunning challenge of hiking trails, from simple visits to an overlook to drops into the deep, cool environs along the riverbank.

For me, the first break-in hike was up to Table Rock, which soared over the eastern rim of the Linville Gorge.  Table Rock was a bear to climb, but it proved the boots were more than up to the task of

Tablerock Mountain as seen from Dogback Mountain

Tablerock Mountain as seen from Dogback Mountain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

putting down serious trail miles.  Sturdy and reliable, I never so much as turned an ankle.  The added insurance of stiff leather hugging my ankles firmly went a long way to boosting my confidence when negotiating strenuous trail.  And nothing else beat the exhilaration of standing on top of the summit without so much as a blister.

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Thinking about the Appalachian Trail

A hiker signs the register at the southern ter...

A hiker signs the register at the southern terminus of the AT on Springer Mountain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I know you’re out there.  You are the ones who, like me, read a book that put the hook in you.  For most of you, it was “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson.   For me, it was “Appalachian Hiker II,” by Ed Garvey, which I read in 1984.  That did it for me.  I already had the boots, the backpack, and gear.  I was avidly hiking in places like the Uwharrie National Forest, Pisgah National Forest, Linville Gorge, and Shining Rock Wilderness.  The notion of backpacking the A.T. was a logical next step.  I don’t recall a definite moment when I said to myself, “I’m going to do this.”  It just happened.  I shelved Ed Garvey’s book and drove to an outfitter.  I bought the A.T. trail guide for Georgia and took it home.  I have an obsessive love for maps, and unfolding the ones which came with the guidebook were an exhilaration.   They were known as profile maps, and they showed dramatic ups and down along the miles of trail.  I found them inviting, not daunting.  But, I knew the walk would be a laborious journey and not a sprint.  I spent the next year gathering equipment – rain jacket, backpacking stove, gaiters, and a wool sweater.  I wrestled to compile a food list.  By the time I shouldered my pack at Amicalola Falls, Georgia, and began walking, it weighed 55 pounds.  When I weighed it again on a bone-chilling rainy day in September at Pinkham Notch and it was 40 pounds, food and gear included.   You’d be surprised how few comforts you need to do this trek.  It’s not about the amount of gear.  It’s not about the food.  It’s certainly not about ticking off the most miles in the shortest time.  I remember meeting speed hikers doing 30-mile days who failed to see the beauty I saw which they left in their wake.  Their focus was different from mine.  I let them go their way.  “Hike your own hike,” they say.  That is wisdom.  Personally, I feel that the “secret” to walking this trail – if your goal is the entire length, or even some of it – is no secret at all.  It’s one thing – focus.  It’s one thing – perseverance.  It’s one thing – patience.  Most of those who “washed out” during the first 75 miles were not casualties of injury; they failed for lack of mental preparedness and toughness.  This manifested as loneliness, homesickness, depression, using the Trail to run away from problems, disappointment with how many miles hiked in a day, and inability to endure physical pain.  More to come…

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