Last June, Mary and I hiked Jakes Creek as part of a five-trail, overnight backpack to Derrick Knob Shelter on the AT. After posting my account, Sharon, a reader of this blog, left an intriguing comment about a manway leading from the Jakes Creek, Miry Ridge, Panther Creek junction to the top of Blanket Mountain where one would find evidence of an old fire tower and caretaker’s cabin. There is also a cabin somewhere off Jakes Creek, perhaps down a long well-traveled path Mary and I saw but chose not to explore since we were plodding into our eleventh mile for the day, eager to get off our feet, and concerned about thunderstorms.
I have wanted to locate the Jakes Creek cabin and check out the manway ever since. Sharon recommended winter as the best time to hike Blanket Mountain, and it became part of my itinerary for this trip. Throughout our monitoring of the extended weather forecasts, February 1 has consistently remained the highest probability for rain this week. Clarence and I decide today is the day for Blanket Mountain, an interesting but extraneous adventure that wouldn’t be as disappointing to abandon should the rain become more than we want to handle. The forecast proves accurate. It rains overnight and in the early morning hours. Temperatures are mild though, and with no wind, we decide to brave the showers.
Ours is the only vehicle in the new parking area next to the old Elkmont cabins of Daisy Town. We head up Jakes Creek Road past the fading cabins of Society Hill. There is a Park Service truck ahead and two men fully clothed in bright yellow protection suits are shooting a large plume of liquid from a hose straight out at ground level. The workers pause for us to pass by, and being such insatiably curious creatures, we detain them further with questions.
They are treating the young Eastern Hemlocks for Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, the tiny, all-female, sucking insects that defoliate and ultimately kill our trees at an alarmingly rapid rate. For small trees, spraying is the most efficient approach, and a winter application minimizes collateral damage to native species.
At 3.3 miles and 1700 feet elevation gain, Jakes Creek is not hard walking, even in the rain. We use umbrellas when needed, but showers are light and don’t interfere on our way up. One unbridged stream crossing is a bit tricky, but the trip up is uneventful…mostly.
Clarence and I have a great, give-and-take relationship, a usually playful, sometimes annoying, always fun brother-sister dynamic. Today, one of his offhand comments hit a tad too hard, and I let it get to me. You might ask, “Who cares? Get back to the trail.” There is an important hiking lesson in this tale, which will become clear at the end. Please hear me out.
The more I ponder the comment and the thoughts it provokes, the more agitated I get, and the faster I hike, until I am driving myself like a demon up the trail barely able to breathe. I’d like to think no harm, no foul — we just get further, faster on a day you don’t want to mess around, but the truth is I’m strung out and showing it in my pace and in my silence. Stuck in my own head, I miss the little path to the cabin…in fact, I totally forget about that cabin.
We reach the end of Jakes Creek (4,100 ft) and turn up the manway. It’s open and easy to follow at the beginning. Fairly quickly though, the trail narrows enough to make our umbrellas a real encumbrance. We exchange them for rain coats and just in time. The rain picks up and becomes steady. Needing lunch, we simply grab a bite to eat on the go and put on our pack covers. We are blissfully unaware of what lies ahead.
Manways are usually not maintained. If people stay off them long enough, they soon blend right back into the forest. This was once a well maintained trail. There are sections built up with stone retaining walls to better navigate steep terrain and big boulders. However, while the actual ground level path is always clearly visible, the upper growth of rhododendron, tree limbs, brambles, and any number of other plants spreading out laterally becomes nearly impenetrable for long sections. We have to double over at the waist and crouch on bended knees to scramble through dense thickets. Small mammals would have to hunker down to get through some of these spaces!! Branches snag at our rain jackets and catch on our backpacks. My protruding umbrella handle hangs up on a limb and nearly pulls me over backward. My pants are drenched from wading through dripping foliage. I should have put on my rain pants.
By this time, I’m in a really foul mood but more pissed at the trail than anything and determined to find the top of this dang mountain. Problem is we know neither how far we have come nor how far we have to go. Neither of us wants to give up though. Soon the trail becomes less claustrophobic, and suddenly we’re there. We just step out into a small clearing at 4,609 feet where the caretaker’s cabin must have been. Large sections of mortared rock appear at first glance to be a toppled chimney, but there are no openings for a firebox or flue. The next logical deduction is the cabin’s foundation. To the left of this opening is a smaller one with four rectangular concrete footings that supported the fire tower. Later, Clarence plots our likely course on a map and estimates a length of 1.1 miles for the manway.
We look around for a few minutes. I take a handful of photos. Due to the rain and overgrowth, I didn’t use my camera at all on the manway. We’re wet, my camera is wet, and we’re ready to get out of here. At least, we know what to expect and how long it will take us. We tuck our heads down and plow back through that mess.
I start down Jakes Creek at breakneck speed still mentally distracted. After the third or fourth near slip and trip, I regain some sense and slow down. Driving back from the hike, I fully expect Clarence to give me a good ‘talking to,’ but he doesn’t. It’s time to admit my errors and apologize. No matter how valid my mix of feelings may have been today, the fact is my behavioral reactions were childish and put me in danger. I pushed myself too hard on the way up and could have seriously hurt myself on the way down. Worst of all, these actions put my hiking partner in jeopardy too. I guess the moral of this story is keep emotions off the trail for your sake and others. Whatever may be weighing on your mind or your heart, never forget where you are and what you need to be doing. Fortunately, it didn’t require an accident to learn that lesson.
To end this account on a more upbeat note, I recently purchased a new rain coat and this was its first outing. Arc’teryx Theta SL is one fine piece of gear. I stayed totally dry from the hips up without overheating, and it held up beautifully to the constant scraping and poking of thick underbrush as we bushwhacked up the manway. It seems to be worth its exorbitant price!