Despite intentions for an early start, it is after 8:00 a.m. before we leave the campground. The drive down Heintooga/Balsam Mtn. Road to leave cars at Balsam Mountain Trail and continue to the Hyatt Ridge trailhead takes far longer than any of us imagined. It is 10:00 before we are ready to begin the nearly 10-mile climb to Pecks Corner shelter.
The sun is shining, and it is warm and very humid. We begin sweating immediately. About one-third of a mile up Hyatt Ridge, I realize with horror that I forgot to lock my car. Clarence is a trail runner and offers to go back to the trailhead and check it. At some point he’ll tire of saving us unprepared hikers from our idiocy, but for now he’s remarkably patient, setting his pack aside and heading down to correct my error. The 1.8-mile, 1500-foot climb to the Enloe Creek junction is quick to kick my and Mary’s butts. Clarence fares quite well, even with the extra mileage.
Various trail impediments compound the fatigue. There is a very large downed Red Oak completely blocking the trail and forcing us to remove packs and crawl under. The Hyatt Creek footlog is broken in two, but fortunately the slanting pieces rest firmly on a large rock and allow safe passage. Near the end of the trail, thick stands of herbaceous plants form a gauntlet of Wood Nettle and Sweet Joe Pye-weed. Our pace is well under a mile an hour when we reach Enloe Creek, and we hope to pick it up a bit as the first part of our next trail is thankfully downhill.
Enloe Creek begins with a one-mile drop of about 750 feet to Raven Fork and Campsite #47. The flora is rich in this area. We see Indian Pipe, Canada Mayflower in fruit, Wild Hydrangea, Basswood, Heal All, Jewelweed, and Sweet Joe Pye-weed in full flower. Near the stream is a lovely population of Umbrella Leaf (Diphylleia cymosa) with its colorful fruit and stems. At the campsite, we spot a hornets’ nest attached to the food storage pole.
It is now time to begin climbing again (1,200 feet in 2.6 miles), and Clarence fears that our pace is too slow to arrive at the shelter before dusk. Mary and I make our best efforts to take this section with greater purpose as Clarence moves ahead and waits for us at key points. The problem with Enloe Creek is all the overgrown trail sections. You are fighting gravity and the persistent tug and resistance of tall foliage obscuring the trail. Nettles at your knees, Joe Pye-weed towering overhead, and long grabbing arms of Blackberry brambles become major annoyances. Despite the difficulties, we arrive at the junction with Hughes Ridge around 3:00 p.m. Just 4.2 miles to go!
We pause for lunch here and attempt to recharge a bit. Mary is beginning to enjoy a second wind, but I’ve been running on fumes for too long and can’t seem to find any reserves. My pace slows dramatically on Hughes Ridge, and even with brief rests for photographs, I can’t seem to get my step back. My knees turn against me and complain during the gentle downhill sections. This should be the time to rally and gain ground, but I seem to lose it. We find Clarence sitting quietly waiting (over 45 minutes) for us at the Bradley Fork junction at 5:15. He heads on to the shelter to filter some water for us, as we have all nearly drained our water bladders.
A soft rain begins to fall that barely penetrates the trees, and unlike Mary, I elect not to put up my camera or get out a raincoat and pack cover. Bad move. The intensity picks up, and I am drenched during the struggle to find my rain gear and get it in place. The rain is solid and steady. The trail becomes a running creek. Sections closed in by tall wet Blackberry brambles add insult to injury. After what seems like forever, I reach a small cabin once used for the horse patrol and a sign that says the shelter is just .3 of a mile ahead. My feet hurt, I’m soaked to the skin, I’m exhausted, and the damned shelter is nowhere to be found. That’s the longest .3 of a mile EVER. Finally, a little sign points to the shelter about 50 yards off the trail, and I wash up like a drowned rat.
Mary isn’t there. She should have arrived well before I did, and Clarence and I are concerned. As we debate what to do, she comes into view smiling and practically dancing up to the shelter. She had stopped several times waiting on me and apparently had just stepped behind the horse patrol house looking for an alternate trail to the shelter when I passed her.
The rain soon stops, and Clarence goes to filter some water. Mary and I dry off and change clothes. We fix our food (dehydrated meal pouches), but neither Mary nor I can eat much. Night falls quickly before we have gotten our packs hung. As we are preparing them, Mary hears the sound of an animal shaking its wet coat to the left. Clarence hears a noise to the right. A loud “huff” confirms that bears, perhaps a mother and cubs, are very close by. We begin shouting, banging on pots, and blowing whistles. Something crashes loudly through the undergrowth and disappears into the darkness. Making as much noise as we can, we manage to get our packs hung and retreat to the relative safety of the shelter. That’s when we notice the small piles of rocks all over the place. There has been bear activity at Pecks Corner for some time and hikers have stockpiled projectiles.
Once we are tucked into sleeping bags, the only other animals in evidence are squirrels using the shelter roof as a landing pad and runway. A soft “thwump” would be followed by the sound of rapid running. It’s amazing how four little legs can sound like 20!