Friday, August 7, 2015

2006 Backpacking Lake Watagua Section of the Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail is administered by the 90 year-old Appalachian Trail Conservancy (formerly Conference, established in 1925), a private, volunteer-based nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving the 2175 mile Appalachian National Scenic Trail, which runs from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. In 1925, Benton MacKaye of Shirley, MA, a former ranger for the U. S. Forest Service, envisioned the cross country trail as a link to work camps and communities in the mountains, running from the highest point in New England to the highest point in the South.

The AT opened as a continuous trail in 1937 and was designated as the first National Scenic Trail by the National Trails System Act of 1968, traversing 14 states (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia.) The Trail is currently protected along more than 99 percent of its course by federal or state ownership of the land or by rights-of-way. Annually, more than 4,000 volunteers contribute more than 185,000 hours of effort on the Appalachian Trail. No fees or permits are required for walking on the Appalachian Trail, and most of the campsites and 250+ shelters are available on a first-come, first-served basis. However, the A.T. passes through over 60 state, federal, and local forests, parks, and public lands, a few of which require permits, fees and/or reservations to stay overnight in shelters or campsites. In 1948, Earl Shaffer of York, Pennsylvania brought a great deal of attention to the project by completing the first documented through-hike.

Donna's dream was to backpack on the AT, and after 50+ backpacks myself, I volunteered to help her achieve her dream. Our plan was to backpack a section of the trail in North Carolina, from Lake Watauga to that great trail town of Damascus, and it begins here with the long and laborious uphill trek from Watauga Lake (elevation 2380 feet) in the Big Laurel Branch Wilderness up to Iron Mountain Ridge. Except for one 14 hour rain, the weather was ideal and the scenery magnificent. 

When I saw all she had in her pack, I encouraged her to get rid of much of it and showed her what she really didn't need. But like many first-timers, it was a hard sell and she wound up carrying way too much weight.

After a brutal uphill slog and attaining the top of the ridge, some short sections were level, but the constant roller coaster of ups and downs caused re-injury of her knee, causing a slight limp and minor pain and thus taking some of the joy out of the hike. Water was available from springs at regular intervals, and two shelters were available on this section of trail, though we only used one and slept in a tent the other night, behind Vandeventer shelter. Our third night was tenting at Nick's.

Though the entire ridge is well above the valleys on either side, there are a few places that provide panoramic views. Lake Watauga is seen here from behind the Vandeventer Shelter, and the valley can also be seen farther up the trail from Uncle Nick Grindstaff's memorial, the site of his shanty in the early 1900s, but few other views are available due to the dense tree cover on the sides of the ridge.

We arrived at Uncle Nick's former dwelling high atop the ridge and many miles from civilization. Apparently Nick was a full-out hermit who chose to spend the final 40 years of his life in isolation on this mountain. All that remains is his fireplace, and the area just behind me and abutting the fireplace is Nick's final resting place. The openness of the meadow served us well as a place to dry all our gear after the 14 hours of rain. We spent the night here, and when we departed the next morning, we thanked Nick for his hospitality and the beauty of his chosen homestead.

Nick live to the ripe old age of 72, so he had adapted well to his chosen lifestyle. But I certainly would not like his epitaph as my own: "Lived alone, suffered alone, and died alone."

Unfortunately, the constant pounding and the weight of her pack re-injured Donna's once already repaired miniscus, and she was in severe pain the final miles.  I took much of her pack weight, and the last mile she limped out to Highway 91 and I made two trips, returning to fetch her backpack a mile back.  After descending from the ridge on the approach to Highway 91, the trail travels through several bogs which are protected by these elevated walkways.

We then hitchhiked back to my car, drove back to Damascus to retrieve her vehicle which we had placed at what was to have been the end of our backpack, and biked the Virginia Creeper Trail which was mostly downhill and didn't bother her knee since it wasn't bearing any weight while biking. (And no, I've never heard if she ever tried backpacking again.)

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