When I first heard John Donovan talking about hiking all of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia, it sounded like such a good idea. I hadn't been on that long of a backpacking trip, and, for only a week of leave, I could get a brief taste of long-distance hiking. Well, September snuck up on me and I was just starting to get prepared. By the end of September we were making serious plans. The hike had been moved up to the last week in October so that I wouldn't miss my wife, Chris', birthday and we had accumulated a group of six: John (our fearless leader), Catherine (a marathon hiker in her 60s), Gil (a victim of past Donovan hikes), Tanya (a strong hiker), Norm (a great cook and Tanya's S.O.), and me (the youngest). The plan was to hike from the start of the Trail on Springer Mountain, Ga. to Rainbow Springs Campground, N.C., a distance of 105 miles.
October rushed by for me as I prepared for and attended a major academic conference and also tried to get my equipment and food together for the hike. Somehow I managed to get the food repackaged and mailed off in time to be picked up on the hike.
The Friday of the hike I realized that I had nothing that could keep my legs dry, so I left work an hour early to stop at the local outfitters. Unfortunately, they had sold out of nylon pants and just had pricey Gore-Tex left so I settled for a pack-covering poncho. A quick stop at the bagel place for dinner and six bagels for the road, and I was off to Petersburg.
I parked the truck in Petersburg and followed John's directions to his door. The A.T. sticker on the mailbox confirmed that I was in the right place. John has no doorbell, but a couple of raps on the door with one of my boots brought him down (still sporting shaving cream on his chin). After he finished his shave, we locked our trucks in a nearby fenced lot and boarded a Greyhound bus to Richmond. On the next bus, an express to Charlotte, N.C. (11 pm - 5 am), I learned the hard way that you really need a window seat if you want to sleep. Luckily the local bus from Charlotte to Gainesville, Ga. wasn't full and I got a bit of sleep before we arrived.
At 10:30 am, after about 14 hours on the bus, we pulled into Gainesville at 10:30 am. The rest of the crew was waiting at the station and had already loaded there packs into Wes Wisson's van. Wes provides shuttles to hikers and was our ride to the Trail and back again. Unfortunately, we had decided to save a bit of money and have Wes drop us off just a mile up the access trail instead of on top of Springer, as we had originally planned. This added 7.25 miles to the hike the first day, bringing the total to 15 miles.
Day 1, 10/25 Amicalola Falls to Hawk Mt. Shelter 15 miles 15 total
The rain really picked up on the ride to Springer, reducing visibility and slowing our progress to a crawl. Finally, at noon we arrived at the trailhead and bailed out of the van. While everyone pulled on their fancy rain gear, I whipped out my new poncho and tried to put in on for the first time. With two people helping, I finally got it almost right and was the first to head up the trail. It was uphill right away, so I just plowed ahead and quickly overheated the poncho. At the first stop I shucked the poncho and stuffed it back into my pack. I was plenty warm in my coolmax t-shirt, Gore-Tex shell, Capaline lightweight long underwear and thin nylon hiking pants. (This combination, with or without the Gore-Tex shell was what I ended up hiking in for the remainder of the trip).
A little after 2 pm, I made it to the start of the A.T. on Springer Mt. I was surprised how small the summit was. For some reason I had imagined that it was larger. I hadn't seen anyone for some time and it was still drizzling, so I figured that I'd better wait and make sure that they didn't all decide to turn around and enjoy a nice dry night at the lodge. Almost an hour had past and the thunderstorm was getting closer, so I was making just one more check down the approach trail when Catherine showed up.
As she crested the summit, the lightning got pretty close, so we hurried north on the A.T., anxious to get some trees and mountain over our heads. We didn't even look in on Springer Mt. Shelter, but just scurried for the valley. In the valley I passed the sign for Stover Creek Shelter, but I was already soaked and wanted to stay on the schedule. A little farther up the Trail I found myself up to my ankles in water with the lightning closing in. A particularly close lightning strike sent me cowering under the rhododendron. Catherine found me in pretty pathetic shape, but she was able to talk me out of returning to the last shelter and we set back out to climb Hawk Mt. At one point, shortly after the Trail took an obscure turn (we found out later that the Ga. A.T. Club was purposely scraping out blazes to improve the wilderness experience!), I heard the sound of a whistle behind me. My first thought was that Catherine had hurt herself, but after hurrying back, I found that she just wanted to make sure that she was still on the right path. (This trip taught me how vital a whistle can be - I'll never go out without one again). She told me to keep on going and not wait up for her, so I reluctantly pushed on up the mountain. Eventually at around 6 pm, I saw the sign for the shelter. Leaving my neon orange baseball cap on the sign for Catherine, I struggled up to the shelter. At first glance it looked pretty crowded with five people in it, but after I asked if there was room, four of the guys decide to move up to the loft, leaving the main floor for Catherine, Josh (another long distance hiker), and me. To my great relief, Catherine came out of the dark about an hour later and joined us in the shelter. We figured that the rest of the group had stopped a one of the earlier shelters. It was wonderful to strip out of the wet clothes and into my sleeping bag. A bagel for dinner, set my watch back (though in the woods, sunrise is sunrise no matter what you call it) and I was out cold.
Day 2, 10/26 Hawk Mt. Shelter to Gooch Gap Shelter 8.5 miles 23.5 total
The next morning we woke to drizzle. Catherine was up early, eating her breakfast that had soaked from the night before, and was on the Trail before I was out of my bag. (Catherine was hiking without a stove. She reconstituted her meals in a Tupperware container while she hiked, so that the rice, bulgar wheat, couscous or oats would be ready to eat for dinner.) She was just getting ready to head out when one of the guys in the loft tipped his water pot (luckily not yet boiling) and dumped it over her. She took that as a sign to get back on the Trail. The night before, we had looked at the schedule and decided to switch our short day from Monday to Sunday. That would give the rest of the group a chance to catch up and we would be able to hit a shelter instead of tenting. I hung out at the shelter until around 10 am when I finally put on my wet clothes and headed up the Trail. (I only carried two sets of clothes, a dry set to sleep in, and a set to hike in. In all I had: 3 sock liners, 3 Thorlo hiking socks, 2 pair long underwear, 2 coolmax t-shirts, a long sleeve lightweight polypro top, a fleece pullover, a Gore-Tex jacket, glove liners, and fleece gloves).
My waterproof boots were holding in the water that had poured into them during the day before just fine. It was squish-squish the whole day, without any break in the rain. At least I'd gotten a bit smarter and put on my gaiters to try and keep any more rain from running down my legs into the boots. I arrived at the small shelter to find Josh and Catherine already there. A bit after dark, we squeezed over to make room for another pair of hikers. Much later, Gil sloshed up the Trail to find a full shelter. He looked so pathetic, that we all pulled our feet up and make a little bit a room for him at the foot of the shelter. Even later, we heard the toot of John's whistle. Catherine replied with hers (deafening everyone in the shelter). John was quite disappointed to see the shelter full, but there was little to do but put up his tent. After getting his tent up, he gave Tanya and Norm a hand finding a spot in the dark, then spent a good while looking for his own tent in the dark.
Day 3, 10/27 Gooch Gap Shelter to Blood Mt. Shelter 12.2 miles 35.7 total
That morning Catherine was out by 7 am (this became her habit). I was packed and out at 8 am. (I saved some time on breakfast by eating one of my instant dry cereals - dry cereal with dry milk and sugar in a ziplock - just dump in a bowl and add water, yum!) I passed John, who was doing his morning chores, and Norm and Tanya on the Trail. The profile of the mountain on the map was pretty impressive, so I was anxious to get some miles behind me and I hurried up the Trail.
I knew that the shelter didn't have any water, but I didn't know exactly where the last water source would be before the mountain. I decided to fill up at Jarrard Gap which was the last water source described in the guidebook. The spring was pretty shallow, but just a little bit of damming up and digging created a hole deep enough for my water filter to pump out of. I filled both quart water bottles and also my 2-liter MSR water bag. With a bit of hesitation (it didn't leaked though), I stuffed the water bag into the top of my pack and headed up the mountain. Near the top of Blood Mountain, the wind was really howling and bit a sleet started to fall. The four-wall stone shelter was truly a welcome sight.
Catherine and Gil were already inside. One window shutter on the lee side was propped open to let some light in. After getting into my dry clothes, I fired up my MSR whisper-light stove and boiled water for a tasty dinner of couscous pilaf. Tanya and Norm came in just a bit after dark. After changing and getting settled Norm whipped out the olive oil and began to prepare some falafel patties. (At this point Tanya, wet, cold, tired, and hungry made some disparaging comments about having to eat his "weird" food). Though they had seen John only three miles back, he never showed up that night.
Day 4, 10/28 Blood Mt. Shelter to Low Gap Shelter 13.0 miles 48.7 total
I got up at dawn the next morning, pulled on my surf shoes (neoprene slippers with a hard sole) and headed outside. The sun was just coming up over the mountains and was filling the clear sky with a reddish glow. I ran back into the shelter and grabbed my camera (a Fuji advantix disposable). The next half hour was spent oohing and aahing over the sunrise, the light dusting of snow, the frost on the plants, and the clouds streaming through the valleys. Finally I had to go back inside and prepare for another day of hiking.
I was so happy to have some sunshine, that I virtually skipped the two miles down the mountain to the Walasi-Yi Center in Neels Gap. We picked up the packages we had mailed and I added the 13 pounds of food to my pack, bringing it close to 50 pounds. I called home, browsed the wonderful and well stocked, if a bit over-priced, hiking store. and hung out until around noon. We still hadn't seen John, but we decided to press on to avoid hiking in the dark, however, we left a note with the owners, asking them to call the Forest Service and my wife if John didn't make it out by the time they closed that afternoon.
|I pushed pretty hard, but still only had about an hour of daylight left when I pulled into Low Gap shelter. I took a quick wash in the creek and managed to wash one of my stinking t-shirts before having to pump water and cook my dinner. Tanya and Norm pulled in late, but there still was no sign of John.|
Day 5, Low Gap Shelter to Tray Mt. Shelter 14.9 miles 63.6 total
Everyone was up early the next morning. Catherine left at 7 am as usual. Everyone else was fed up with night hiking and with the long, hard day ahead of us (15 miles and two 1000+ ft. climbs) we were all on the Trail by 8 am.
Around 11 am I caught up with Catherine. I was trying out a new hiking pattern: hike from 8 to 11, stop for a breakfast bar (I carried Nutrigrain and Snackwells) and a change of socks, then dry out the socks on the pack while hiking from 11 to 1, have lunch and change socks again if needed, then push on to the shelter for rest of the day. At a little past 11 I stopped at Blue Mt. Shelter for my break. With all the rain, my upper thighs had been chaffing a bit, so I took the opportunity to apply some vaseline (the little lip balm squeeze tube works fine and also keeps you from getting a sunburn down there!) It worked great -- no more chaffing on the remainder of the trip!
I passed Catherine on the way up Rock Mountain, out of Unicoi Gap. At the summit I found a nice sunny rock and relaxed for a lunch of PB&J tortilla rollups, while enjoying the view. It was so sunny that I seriously considered digging out the sunscreen from my first aid kit. I was getting a bit lazy and even though I always had a full quart inside my pack, I'd stop at convenient water sources to refill the one on my hip belt. I must have gone through close to a gallon of water! It helped that there were really nice springs along the way. The spring at the old cheese factory is a bit off the Trail, but well worth checking out.
On top of Tray Mt. I received a bit of Trail magic in the form of Gatorade from a local day hiker. Even more valuable was his ability to identify all the major surrounding mountains, lakes and towns. He pointed out the Nantahalla Mts. and Standing Indian Mt., where we were headed in two days.
Catherine and Josh were already at the shelter when I arrived, but I didn't care, since I'd planned to use the dry weather to try out my tent. In addition to getting a bit more room to sleep in, I wanted to leave as much room as possible in the shelter for the night hikers. After pitching the tent I went to get water. This was becoming a struggle since my PUR Scout just didn't want to prime. I'd suck air forever before it would finally start working. This time I carefully read the cleaning instructions and saw a note about cleaning the black band at the base of the cartridge if it didn't prime. As soon as did this, it primed and worked like a charm! I had just cut my water collecting time down from a half hour to ten minutes.
Each night I filled all my containers including the waterbag. This gave me plenty of water for dinner and breakfast and filled the two quart bottles in the morning with almost a quart left extra to give away. The other folks carried nylon water buckets which were convenient for getting water and filtering it back at the shelter. They also were handy for washing away from the stream and doing laundry. They're on my wish list for the next hike!
|The priveys in Gerogia were pretty nice. Instead of the traditional outhouse, a mouse-ridden, smelly, dark box with a door, most were covered chums. These have a privacy screen on three sides and a room. The front is open, discretely facing away from the shelter and sometimes provided a nice view. The open design keeps the smell down and it gets a wash with every good driving rain. Choice seating indeed!|
|The sunset was brilliant red that night and we had a great view of the town below. It was almost worth hiking the 1/2 mile back to the summit, but no one had the energy. Around 9 or 10 pm we heard a whistle in the distance, and were expecting Tanya and Norm, but who should shuffle up the path but our fearless leader, John! Over a fifth of something cheap that he had saved for just such an occasion, he told us about his adventures the last two nights.|
At Slaughter Gap, less than a mile from Blood Mt. Shelter, he saw a sign for water. Knowing that the shelter was dry, and wanting to do some laundry, he followed the sign for a spring. Unfortunately, he walked right by the water source and followed a yellow blazed trail down the mountain almost three miles before realizing his mistake. He found a water source, filled his bags, then hauled them back up to Slaughter Gap. At this point it was very dark and the fog absorbed most of the light from his head lamp. Cold, tired, and hungry, he collected some almost dry wood and tried to light his zip stove. Since he hadn't packed any emergency fuel, he used the only dry fuel he had -- our shuttler's business card (hopefully someone else would keep theirs). Finally with some food in him, he crawled into his bivy tent and called it a night. The next morning he was slow getting up and it past was ten when he hit the trail again. Unfortunately he was disoriented and hiked a good way back south before noticing his error. Therefore it wasn't until that afternoon that he made it to the outfitters at Neels Gap and was able to reassure them that he was OK. He picked up his mail drop and found a package from Janet (GA-ME '96) full of Halloween candy. Unfortunately it was more than he could carry, so the kids at Neels Gap got a bit of extra candy this year. After that, he was only about a mile from Low Gap the second night and pushed to catch us at Tray Mt. Quite a feat, given the rough terrain!
He didn't see Tanya or Norm, so we guessed that Norm's knees had had enough and they yellow-blazed (hitch-hiked) down the nice road in Unicoi Gap and headed home.
Day 6, Tray Mt. Shelter to Plumorchard Shelter 14.9 miles 78.5 total
Our spirits were up with the good weather and John back with us. The going was easy, so I made good time and had my morning snack on Kelly Knob. The wind made it quite cold so I regretted not stopping out of the wind at the nice waterfall with Josh. I continued on and past Catherine on the descent to Dicks Creek Gap. In the gap I met Josh's wife and told her that he was doing fine and would be along in a hour or two. The nasty weather earlier in the week had set him back a little bit.
It was lunch time in the gap, but I really do not like to take a break before a big up, so I pushed up the Trail, planning to stop at the first rocky outcrop I got to. With this in mind, I pushed over the first ridge to Cowart Gap and headed up the second ridge. At this point I had finished the quart on the hip belt and was getting a bit thirsty. (This affected me quite a bit, since I was used to getting a treat of a drink of water at the top of each major up.) I continued on, though and it wasn't until I passed through Bull gap and summitted the final knob that I gave up. I dropped my pack on a grassy spot, dug out the other water bottle and drank half of it immediately. A bit a rest and the realization that I was less than a mile from the shelter made me forget about lunch and just push on.
I pulled into the shelter at 2:30 with lots of light to spare. After claiming a nice spot in the shelter with my pad and sleeping bag, I headed to the creek to do what had been on my mind for three days now - laundry! There I am, standing naked in the creek with all my clothes getting a needed wash (just a drop of Dr. Bronners, since I didn't have any good way to rinse then away from the creek without a water bucket) when an old deer hunter drives by within a few feet of me on his ATV. It turns out that there was a nice woods road following the far side of the creek. I heard him stop and answer Catherine's question about how far it is to the shelter. He also asked her if she's with anyone (a question she thought a little suspect at the time, not knowing that he'd just seen a wild man in the creek).
The shelter was the most elaborate that we saw on the trip. It had a spacious floor, a loft in the back covering about half the floor area, and an attic over the door complete with a pair of Plexiglas windows for light. A plaque on the wall announced that it had been put in place with the help of the Army Rangers and their helicopter -- quite and engineering feet. Mice know a good thing when they see it and had moved in large numbers. Even before dark, one adventurous soul entertained himself on Catherine's sleeping bag. The night was filled with the pitter-patter of little feet. When the gnawing started, I just hoped that it wasn't anything on mine that they'd found. In the morning light Catherine found that the little tailors had lightened some of her clothes. Luckily the rest of us were spared.
Day 7, Plumorchard Shelter to Standing Indian Shelter 12.1 miles 90.6 total
I left Plumorchard Shelter determined to have lunch in N.C. I just didn't fully realize how tough a climb it was going to be. We had to climb a good thousand feet just to make it up to the Ga./N.C. line in Bly Gap. The last bit up to the gap and beyond was beautiful, but ran right up the mountain. I missed the sign at Bly Gap and was on top of Courthouse Bald by the time I realized it. Catherine caught up with me during lunch at Muskrat Creek Shelter and told me that there was a little sign near the old red oak in the gap. In Ga. almost every gap had a sign identifying it and giving distances to features in either direction. In N.C., we were lucky if we could find the shelter sign!
After the initial grunt, we were rewarded with beautifully graded trail through rhododendron and mountain laurel, lined with moss and ferns -- quite a change from the hard Ga. mud and incessant ups and downs. We pushed on to Standing Indian Shelter, recently relocated up on the ridge with a nice stream for water.
On the way up to Bly Gap I remembered the carrot sticks that I brought to eat on the bus and still was carrying. I was salivating, thinking of steamed carrots. Then it occurred to me that I could butter and toast a pair of tortillas containing cheese to make a form of chesadillas. As soon as I got to the shelter I put the plan into effect, boiling the carrots (I couldn't figure out how to steam them), making chesadillas, and using the carrot water to reconstitute a dinner of corn couscous chowder. A three course meal! Gil was lucky enough to pull in at the right time to get a hot chesadilla and some carrots to add to his dinner, but it was all gone by the time John straggled in in the dark.
That night we spent a quiet, drizzly Halloween, cozy in our bags.
Day 8, Standing Indian Shelter to Big Spring Shelter 14.5 miles 105.1 total
Gil had been having troubles with his hip belt and so he took the opportunity to use a short side trail to cut the trip short. He would meet us at Rainbow Springs Campground.
The wet weather was back, but it was just dripping off the leaves when we got up. I had arranged to meet up with my folks in Deep Gap if it wasn't raining, so I packed up early, stashed my pack and walked the foggy 0.9 miles back to Deep Gap, fully expecting to wait a half hour and head back up the mountain alone. Much to my surprise, at 8:35 they showed-up and were raring to go. They brought a big bunch of bananas, apples, and a batch of home made oatmeal, raisin, chocolate cookies, all of which I stuffed into the pack, not caring about the weight. We hiked up the nice grade back to the shelter to retrieve my pack and they had just enough time to have a little snack on top of Standing Indian. Unfortunately, it was socked in and we could only see about 20 feet.
After saying my good-byes and thanking them for the food, I sped off down the nice Trail to the north. A south bounder (we ran into 8 thru-hikers on the trip) told me that John was only an hour down the Trail. I was making good time and so I expected to catch John at Carter Gap Shelter where he had planned to cook a hot lunch to save time in the evening. I almost walked right by the shelter trail, which wasn't marked, as far as I could tell. Not finding John in the damp, dark shelter, I continued up the Trail. At 1 pm, just before I caught up with John, we were treated to a nice drenching rain. It was still raining as I gave him the bad news that he had missed the shelter. I lightened it a bit by handing him a pair of bananas and some cookies to see him through to dinner time.
|As I pulled away from him, the rain stopped and sun started to push the clouds up out of the valleys. As I began the ascent up Albert Mt., the clouds had cleared an expansive view of the green valley below. The Trail was a narrow sidehill path cut in a sheer face, with wet moss and ferns on the left and expansive views of fertile valleys on the right. Twice I pulled off my pack and dug out the camera (kept safely dry inside the pack) to take pictures.|
Near the top of Albert Mt. the Trail turns straight up the boulders with an endless set of log ladders and rock scrambles. I was in such a good mood, that I almost didn't notice the tough climb! At the top I was completely surprised by the Albert Mt. fire tower. I hadn't read the Trail description the night before and I was using just the profile to track my progress. Dropping my pack, I headed up the tower with a bit of trepidation. The door to the top level was locked, but the view from the upper stage was well worth the climb. This day in the Southern Nantahalla Wilderness was the highlight of the trip for me. It's hard to image a more beautiful section of Trail!
Shortly after getting down from the tower, it started to rain again, so I practically ran for the shelter. It stopped before I got there, but the shelter sure was a welcome sight. After gathering water, I made my dinner and then put some water on to boil for tea. Catherine and I were a bit worried about John having to do Albert's Mt. in the dark, so we were quite relieved when he pulled in before sunset. My tea had just finished steeping, so I warmed him up with a cup, and put some more water on for his dinner.
That night I read about a couple in the shelter register that had spent a restless night nearby, surrounded by 13 wild dogs, a bear, and a wild pig. As the rain pelted the tin roof all night, I dreamt (I think) that I heard something panting outside the shelter. I was happy to see the sunrise and twice as happy that the rain had stopped.
Day 9, Big Spring Shelter to Rainbow Springs 7.1 miles 112.2 total
I hurried out of bed the last day with one thing on my mind -- a hot shower! I pulled on the wet, smelly hiking clothes and hit the Trail. I practically ran the 6 miles to the road and then the 1.1 miles to the campground. At the campground, I found a closed sign on the office, but, not discouraged, I figured I'd just shower first and pay when they opened up. The bathhouse door was locked! It slowly sunk in that the place was truly closed and there was to be no shower.
I called Wes, our shuttler, to let him know that we were running an hour early. He told me that Tanya and Gil had indeed hitched out of Unicoi Gap and he'd given them a ride back to their car, so they were home now. It seems that with Norm's knees and the large about of work waiting to be done on their new house convinced them to cut it short.
A bit later, Gil came down the road. He had gotten a ride from the campground host at Standing Indian first to Rainbow Springs and then to Rock Gap Shelter. He tried to stop me as I blew by earlier, but I was moving so fast he missed me. He had spent a wild night with a crew of day hikers and two bottles of Wild Turkey. Catherine and John joined us and we had little to do but sit on the porch and wait for Wes to pick us up.
On the way back to Gainesville, Wes entertained us with stories of the strange characters he's shuttled. There was the guy who packed his equipment in a cross and carried that up the Trail, the guy who arrived with three suitcases (he would carry two up the Trail and then return for the third), and many more.
Wes dropped John and me right in front of the Beef Corral. Before attempting to enter the restaurant, we visited the bathroom of the gas station next door. John enjoyed a shave and I put on my relatively clean sleeping clothes. Looking a little less like a pair of bums, we snuck in the back way and secured a booth at the Corral. I feasted on a big burger and fries before attacking the food bar.
A pile of plates later and a good bit fuller, we decided to go do some sightseeing before catching the bus. The restaurant was nice enough to let us stash our packs in a back room while we strolled through Gainesville. We visited the obligatory Confederate soldier monument, a train being restored, and the chicken park. Gainesville is into chickens in a big way an quite proud of it! We enjoyed the foyer at a posh hotel, enjoyed the spotless porcelain, and called home, before returning to collect out packs and trudge of to catch the bus.
This time we had little trouble getting a seat to ourselves and both enjoyed a reasonable night's sleep. We got to Petersburg at 7 am, collected our trucks and headed home in time for a day at the job.
It was an incredible experience and really hammered home what it must be like to have to get up in the morning on a bad day and push on up the Trail. What determination it must take to make it all the way! Not something for me, at least not right now!Back home