For the next three days, Mary, Clarence, and I are testing ourselves and our gear in preparation for our hike of the Appalachian Trail through the park in May. Michelle, a friend from Nashville, is joining us this weekend. We reserved spaces at the Cosby Knob and Davenport Gap shelters for our two-night mini-adventure. The route takes us up Big Creek and Low Gap Trails to Cosby Knob on the AT.
This length (9.1 miles plus one extra mile for me and Clarence as we cover the last half mile of Big Creek and back before heading up Low Gap) along with the elevation gain (over 3,000 feet, 1900 in the last 3 miles) and the weight of a full pack gives us some idea of how we may fare on the AT that first day. Granted in May, our packs will be heavier (five days of food), the weather will be warmer, and we’ll begin with an arduous, three-mile climb of Shuckstack Mountain followed by another seven miles to Mollies Ridge. However, a strong performance today will bode well for that challenge.
We already have our AT trail names picked out. Mary is Laughing Tortoise, Clarence is C-Monster, and I am Sprout. Yes, we named ourselves…something you really aren’t supposed to do. Names are typically assigned on the trail in conjunction with some personal idiosyncrasy or event. We realize these names could change.
The day is cloudy and somewhat cooler than has been the case during this unusually warm March. The combination of mild winter and warm spring is sending the plants into hyperdrive. Walking along Big Creek, virtually every spring wildflower typically in its prime during late April’s Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage is now in full glory. These plants will be setting fruit by this year’s Pilgrimage, and it will be fun to see what later-flowering species will be showing off for visiting Pilgrims.
In a blurred and jumbled timeline, the usual late March and early April species such as Fringed Phacelia, Spring Beauty, and Trout Lily, are joined by mid to late April species Purple Phacelia, Squirrel Corn, Yellow Trillium, Wood Anemone, Robin’s Plantain, Star Chickweed, Fire Pink, Golden Ragwort, Rue Anemone, Wild Geranium, Woodland Stonecrop, Foamflower, Long-spurred Violet, and several other violet species as each races to keep pace with the encouraging weather.
Big Creek (the trail) is an easy stroll, rising a gentle 1300 feet over 5.8 miles. It’s an old roadway for much of its length, following and occasionally crossing Big Creek (the stream). Along the way are some fine bridges, a beautiful waterfall, and the perfect skinny dipping spot. The Midnight Hole has likely accommodated many bare bums over the years when summer nights are hot and humid. Big Creek pours like a faucet between two huge boulders filling a round depression with clear mountain water tinted a rich emerald green. From the level creek bank, one simply walks out into this naturally luxurious (and no doubt bracingly cold) pool. A little further up is Mouse Creek Falls, a tributary tumbling and splashing its way into Big Creek. The trails guidebook has a wonderfully detailed account of the area’s history by William A. Hart, Jr.
Clarence and I are in the lead this morning chatting away when Michelle calls from behind with a discovery. A Blue Ridge Spring Salamander sits motionless in the middle of the trail. Clarence and I walked to either side of it, oblivious to the large orange amphibian. It is remarkably, or perhaps ominously, still and allows Michelle to move it onto a rock just off the trail where it continues to sit quietly. Its deeply torpid state allows me a get a good photograph. Normally these lightning fast critters are tough suckers to capture clearly in pixels. A little further up a tiny Blue Ridge Two-lined Salamander barely holds still long enough for me to snap its picture. Later, I startle a darker (perhaps a Dusky?) salamander who skitters with blazing speed into a rock crevice.
We lunch at the junction with Low Gap, and while Mary and Michelle relax a bit, Clarence and I walk, sans packs, to finish the trail, which simply stops being Big Creek and becomes Camel Gap Trail in a wide valley called Walnut Bottom just past the horse campsite #37.
After lunch, we start the real climbing of the day (1,350’) up Low Gap for 2.5 miles. It dips downward for about a half mile near the beginning before ascending steadily. Small clumps of narrowly elliptical basal foliage featuring red mid-veins near the base are Ramp. We pass Creeping Phlox, Blue Cohosh, and Purple Meadow Parsnip in flower. A little spring still enjoys the protection of a small stone structure built by one of the many families that once lived here. Further up, there is a lovely patch of Dwarf Ginseng.
Amid light showers, the sun struggles to break through the clouds a few times. The idea of warm sunshine on a still, humid day, does not appeal to me. The clouds must read my mind and gather forces to block the sun with such enthusiasm, they now rain steadily on us. With no wind, umbrellas provide the perfect shield. Once we hit the AT, however, light breezes moving through Low Gap at 4300 feet elevation invite chills and compel us to keep moving.
The approach to Cosby Knob is a lot like climbing stairs for 0.8 mile. Rain puddles add to the fun. We meet AT thru-hikers on their way to Maine looking for a dry place to sleep, a hot meal, and maybe a cinnamon bun or two. At the shelter, we select our sleeping spots under the skylight and lay out our gear. The winter tarp is still in place protecting a good two-thirds of the shelter from wind, though that is not a problem tonight.
As the afternoon advances, the shelter fills slowly. One man looks at me and says, “You must be Margie Hunter.” Startled and speechless, I manage a positive response while giving him a “who on earth are you and how do you know my name” look. He’s Billy, the Ridge Runner, an employee of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy whose job is to patrol the shelters, which includes monitoring the reservation list. The rain has stopped, and as more thru-hikers arrive, Billy directs most to set up tents on the few clear (but not very level) spots nearby. Soon a colorful, nylon ripstop village surrounds the stone shelter. Only the first four thru-hikers are guaranteed a shelter spot. One of those is “Daypack,” a young man from Alabama who on a lark suddenly decided to hike the AT. He started out with just a daypack liberally studded with various items attached like barnacles to the outside. With the help of trail friends, he has refined his gear (including a new backpack) and is better equipped for the nearly 2,200 mile trek. Today, he is fed up with hiking in the rain and decides to stay at Cosby Knob to dry out.
After pumping water from the spring for our pack bladders and dinner needs, I freshen up a bit, don warm sleeping clothes, and prepare for our evening meal — a dehydrated pouch of chicken and noodles. Some of these pouch meals are surprisingly tasty, especially if you add a little pepper. Of course, expending several thousand calories hiking up a mountain with a full pack has a way of making any edible food taste better.
Some of the shelters are built on slopes, and the area rimming the front benches is often terraced with logs. Such is the case at Cosby Knob. While cooking dinner, Mary takes a fateful step and tumbles down three log terraces. Fortunately, she is not hurt, though she is shaken. One thru-hiker couple pulls out some whisky to calm her nerves. Her trail name Laughing Tortoise falls too, and “The Tumbler” is quickly substituted.
At dusk, everyone crawls into sleeping bags and quickly settles down for the night. Around 4:30 I need to make a privy run. There are faint flashes of lightning in the distance. Back in my bag, I hear a couple of thru-hikers stirring. Some like to start before daylight. One of these is “Daypack,” who slept on the platform beneath me. I lean out and whisper, “Good luck,” to him. As he continues to quietly pack his things, the lightning gets brighter and thunder can be heard. It begins to rain and soon a major thunderstorm is crashing around us. To my relief, I see Daypack sitting quietly on a bench. He decided to wait out the storm. Good thing too. The rain is torrential and hailstones pelt the skylight. One hiker left before the storm, and we all wonder how he fared.
AT thru-hikers develop a daily rhythm. In short order, those in the shelter and those poor souls who toughed out the storm in tents pack up belongings, fuel their bodies, and hit the trail. Some can average over 20 miles a day once they get acclimated to the routine. We are hiking less than 8 miles and are in no rush. We enjoy breakfast, and I set up my SPOT messaging device to send an “I’m OK” email to my children and sister via satellite. I do this whenever I’m in the backcountry out of phone range. I set the device in the open each afternoon when we arrive at that day’s destination and again in the morning before we leave. It gives them peace of mind. Yesterday afternoon I set it out once the rain stopped. Billy saw it sitting on a log and mistook it for a GPS unit until we explained its function. By the time we are ready to leave this morning, it is just us and Billy. Mary and Michelle are making last minute pack adjustments. Clarence and I have our packs on and slowly start up the path. Billy sees that I’ve left my SPOT sitting on a log, picks it up and yells, “Lady, you left your G-SPOT.” Gales of laughter and burning red cheeks (as much on Billy as me) seem to cement G-Spot as my new trail name…for a day or two anyway. Later, however, despite the compelling interest such a suggestive name would arouse in fellow hikers, more circumspect attitudes prevail and we compromise — G-Sprout!! I like it.