Clarence, Mary, Michelle, and I are hiking back down the AT past Low Gap, Mount Cammerer, Lower Mount Cammerer, and Chestnut Branch Trails to spend the night at the Davenport Gap Shelter. We don’t plan to stay at this shelter on our AT thru-hike next month, and this is a good opportunity to work it in. I intend to stay in all the park’s shelters at least once during my 900 mile park journey.
Despite the heavy early morning rain, the AT is in relatively good shape. The weather is cool and cloudy, and we cover the miles easily. We enjoy a leisurely lunch at a rock outcrop off Cammerer Ridge with a great view overlooking Chestnut Branch valley. It’s a bit breezy in this exposed location, and I sit snug against a large boulder to block the wind. While eating I notice a small, yet colorful and texturally rich patch of mosses and various lichens. There appear to be several species of Cladonia including one with pale pink fruiting bodies (apothecia) on tiny stalks which might be Cladonia caespiticia, Stubby Stalked Cladonia.
After lunch we cruise down to Davenport Gap Shelter. This shelter was renovated in the late nineties but does not feature the extended roof, additional benches, skylight, and food cables now standard for more recently renovated shelters. A chain link fence still covers the opening to protect packs and food inside from larger animals but not mice. Short ropes with conical baffles hanging from beams are the primary means of deterring small rodents. We are the only guests at Davenport tonight, which is used mostly by locals and other park visitors given its proximity to the road and rarely by thru-hikers who are keen to exit the park for a hot meal nearby. It is very dusty and dirty inside. A broom would be most welcome to sweep gritty sleeping platforms before unrolling pads and bags. A tarp covers most of the fencing and will be welcome on this cooler night when more rain is expected.
Clarence and I decide to hike down to the park boundary at Tennessee Highway 32 and time the trip. This will give us a frame of reference for arranging a pickup at the conclusion of our thru-hike in May. We are passed by a couple of hikers and encounter two more resting, snacking, and tending to sore feet at the road before continuing their journey under Interstate 40 and into Pisgah National Forest. Returning to the shelter, I see several beautiful plants of Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) with deep red anthers. Typically, the plant’s anthers are pale yellow.
Back at Davenport shelter, we filter water, set up dinner, and prepare for bed. A light jacket will become necessary before nightfall. The shelter is positioned in a beautiful, steeply sloped cove full of Bloodroot foliage and swelling fruit capsules. As we cook our evening meals, a distinctive shape captures my eye on the ground — a Black Morel (Morchella elata). Looking around, we find several of them four to five inches tall growing all around the shelter. Black Morels have a triangular head with blackish ridges arranged primarily in lengthwise rows and a honeycomb of brown pits in between. The pale stalk has a rough, granular surface. Growing in association with Tulip Poplar and Ash trees in spring, these mushrooms — incredibly flavorful when cooked — are poisonous if eaten raw.
We are ready for bed long before the sky darkens and no amount of conversation takes more than five or ten minutes off the clock! Finally dusk arrives, and we drift to sleep. I have to pay a visit outside about 10 p.m., and in a fenced shelter this can be a difficult task. Even getting down from the upper sleeping platform is hazardous since the centrally placed ladder on these older shelters is straight up and down making it very tricky to place your feet on the rungs without turning around and disturbing people nearby. I manage to wake everyone getting down and fumbling with the door latch, so we all make one last bathroom run. Showers patter the roof off and on throughout the night, and at dawn a hard rain falls steadily for a good hour or more.
It is quite cool and cloudy once the rain stops. Our final day on the trail will be a short one, and we are in no particular hurry. Back on the AT, we retrace our steps yesterday to Chestnut Branch Trail and head down to its terminus at the ranger station on Big Creek Road. Chestnut Branch is a small trail, just 2.1 miles, descending 1300 feet. Weaving an elaborate dance of do-si-dos with a small feeder creek, the trail is rather wet but not mucky. Halfway down it sidles along the same-named stream Chestnut Branch all the way to the road.
A variety of wildflowers are showing off. We see Round-leaf Violet, Trailing Arbutus, Wild Oats or Sessile-leaf Bellwort, Wood Anemone, Squawroot (Bear Corn), Early Blue Violet, Solomon’s Seal, Star Chickweed, Foamflower, Wild Geranium, Golden Ragwort, and Long-spurred Violet. Woodland Stonecrop covers the ground in large patches. Yellow Trillium is everywhere; some are impressively stout specimens. There is a virtual field of Ground Cedar. We also spot this shiny blob of transparent goo that is bright orange. Is it some kind of fungus, like a slime mold perhaps? It looks like someone spit out a well-chewed mouthful of orange Skittles jellybeans!
Reaching graveled Big Creek Road, we walk about a mile to the camp and picnic parking area and Michelle’s car. The practice hike has gone very well. I am personally quite pleased with my performance and have new confidence for our AT trip in a few short weeks.