Clouds are all around us this morning. I consciously slow down a bit hoping this might lift or burn off. Charlies Bunion is just a mile away, and I’d like some decent views if possible. It does begin to lighten a little, and in a well-timed distraction, a doe comes up the game trail in front of Icewater to browse fresh green herbs. Much time is devoted to photographing her.
Had I spent all day at Icewater, it wouldn’t have made a difference. Views are patchy and limited for the entire 7.4 mile hike to Pecks Corner. The bald, rocky knobs of Charlies Bunion seem suspended in a misty white sea.
The product of sloppy logging, sweeping wildfire, and severe rainstorm, these denuded crags of Anakeesta slate are an anomaly in the Smokies. The closest comparison is Chimney Tops, the other very popular, bare protuberance of Anakeesta. Both are picturesque formations, pose life-threatening danger to the careless, and offer exceptional views when the weather cooperates.
In 1929 Horace Kephart, George Masa, and Charlie Conner surveyed the eroded area just after the storm clogged streams downslope with soil and plants that once covered these rocks. All three men are memorialized in the landscape here. Kephart, park champion and chronicler of Southern Appalachian culture, famously likened the newly naked, bulging contours to a bunion on Conner’s foot (he had been limping with a sore foot), and the name stuck. Mount Kephart is left of the AT behind Icewater Spring, and Masa Knob is right of the AT about halfway to Charlies Bunion.
George Masa is a little-known and under-appreciated figure in the park’s history. A Japanese immigrant whose passion for the mountains and creative photographic skill are credited with helping advance the national park idea, Masa extensively documented and measured the landscape for accuracy of place names and landmarks, provided his magnificent photos to publications and various individuals to sway public opinion, and founded the Carolina Appalachian Trail Club (which soon merged with Carolina Mountain Club) to map and promote the Appalachian Trail.
A 0.2-mile side trail loops around Charlies Bunion, beginning and ending at two separate junctures on the AT. Signs warn parents to “Closely Control Children.” The path is narrow, sometimes rocky; to the left, the mountain drops precipitously. On the right is a wall of Anakeesta. The promontory is making slow but steady progress repopulating its slopes with vegetation. Sand myrtle (Leiophyllum buxifolium) in particular sends roots into acidic rock crevices for a toehold. White and pink flowers, tiny though they are, put on quite a show in such masses. Deep green leaves soften the harsh graphite-and-rust-colored slate. Both evergreen Rhododendrons, Catawba and Carolina, adhere tenaciously to the steep slopes along with other shrubs, all stunted into a close-cropped buzz cut around the Bunion.
Today, the views from Charlies Bunion are nonexistent, particularly into Tennessee. Thick gray clouds obscure nearly everything to the north, west, and east. We peer into the Porters Creek drainage and marvel that we climbed it two months earlier. The jagged ridge line Arnold Guyot aptly called The Sawteeth cuts through a slow drift of hazy clouds with Richland Mountain and Dry Sluice Gap close behind.
We return to the AT and quickly come to the small clearing and faint trail we followed after cresting our manway hike out of Porters Creek in late March. It leads to a thin line of slanting Anakeesta shale overlooking the drainage. The place we emerged is not the true manway. We know we were just a smidgen to the west. Looking carefully on our way toward Dry Sluice Gap, there it is. Faint is an understatement. No one would consider the imperceptible crease plunging down from The Sawteeth a navigable path to anything but a difficult rescue and hospital stay.
Continuing northeast, we periodically dodge right or left of the ridge, dipping into Tennessee or North Carolina. Other times we walk this sawtoothed hog back directly along its incredibly narrow spine, straddling the state line. The ridges we walked last week are nothing compared to this. Sections are so narrow, a person could barely lie down across the trail without his head and feet drooping over the edges on either side.
We come upon a hiker from Florida, Bill, photographing a fungus. He is interested in this kingdom, and we discuss good identification sources. This particular specimen is a pink polypore that gives the appearance of melted candle wax running in globules down the tree trunk. I have since exhausted my limited resources without producing a positive ID. I fare somewhat better with birds, identifying the nasally “ank” of Rose-breasted Grosbeak, the slow conversation of Blue-headed Vireo, the descending spiral of Veery, the rapid chirp of Junco, and the buzzy phrase of Black-throated Blue Warbler.
Past Dry Sluice Gap, the trail curves around the Bradley Fork drainage between Richland Mountain and Hughes Ridge. There are a couple of spots with expansive views into North Carolina, though the persistent clouds, still hanging low, compromise them. Other sections pass through the deeply shaded, solemn sanctuaries of Red Spruce and Fraser Fir. Here I discover the magic of the Winter Wren, a tiny brown bird whose song is long and captivating. In a complex series of variably pitched warbled notes and trills, it runs scales up and down for several seconds.
At this time of year, upper slopes display the beautiful contrast between still-fresh, bright green deciduous trees and deep, dark green conifers. A brief section of trail is recuperating from an apparent landslide, small chinks of shale coating the treeless hillside sprigged with tiny herbaceous plants. I spot the double white blaze indicating something of note ahead and anticipate the junction with Hughes Ridge Trail. Pecks Corner Shelter is 0.4 mile down this trail.
Several thru-hikers expend time and energy walking nearly a mile round trip just to eat or rest here a bit. Even though they have hiked 217 miles from Georgia to reach this spot, you can hear them on the trail above the shelter long before their arrival griping loudly this could not possibly be JUST 0.4 of a mile, and the sign and its maker are full of s**t. I chuckle at them.
Our friends “Raincatcher” and “Bear Bait” have just found out they have a new grandson born today. “Bear Bait” grins broadly as we congratulate him. Cell phone reception is spotty in the Smokies, but possible.
A skinny kid from Mobile, AL, wanders in. He fell on the trail, nearly plunged down the mountain, and is still trying to calm his nerves. He is carrying his grandfather’s old military pack. It is heavy and doesn’t fit beneath his poncho, but he swears by it. I’ll stick with my Deuter ACT Lite, thanks! “Packman” stops for lunch, considers spending the night, but thinks better of it and moves on. This is the last we’ll see of him.
Pecks Corner Shelter is wedged into a claustrophobic hollow. There is no skylight, so the shelter’s interior is dark. Food cables are immediately to the right. The spring is down a long, steep, muddy path in front of the shelter. To visit the privy, one must trek up to Hughes Ridge where the wooden throne sits just off the trail in full view of all passersby. Occupants may peek through a small crescent moon cut into the door.
It sprinkles briefly on the trail this morning, and rains heavily this afternoon. Mary and I have water duty today. We slip and ooze our way to the spring. I’m cook tonight and heat water for the dehydrated meals and warm drinks.
A Junco is hopping about gathering nesting materials on the ground surrounding the shelter, its mouth fringed mustache-like with tiny wisps of plant fibers that may be used to soften and insulate the nest. After several tries, I finally catch the flighty little thing still enough to get a reasonably focused image with my camera.
Three others join Mary, Clarence, and me in the shelter. Two brothers from Illinois are simply out to enjoy the park, and a man from Bangor, Maine is finishing one of the final AT sections he must hike to complete the entire trail.
Each shelter has a journal for occupants to sign and leave notes. These documents of days and transient lives capture the spirit of adventure hiking in observations ranging from banal to hilarious. They can be entertaining reading. One recent hiker related a sidesplitting account of his “altercation” with a red squirrel. I am tasked with recording something from the three of us each day. The pressure of producing a pithy entry precludes all but the most uninspired prose. My apologies.