Saturday, April 25, 2009
Start: Douglasville, GA
Finish: Springer Mountain, GA
The day is here. After years of dreaming and months of planning, the day has arrived. Waving farewell to my sister’s southern hospitality, DT and I head toward Amicalola Falls, the starting point of the approach trail that we will hike today.
DT and I have been on several trips before. Two backpacking warm-up trips, and several overnight kayaking trips on Florida waters. I can’t say it has become a routine, but at the very least the next event was usual and predictable. While making our way from Douglasville, just west of Atlanta, we stopped at the first Waffle House we saw. I mean after all, you never know when you’ll get another hot-cooked meal served to your waiting appetite?
As always, the service is down-home friendly and the eggs and sausage hit the spot. I’m wondering if it’s enough to sustain me for another 8 days?
With the Waffle House disappearing in the rearview mirror, we head north.
We follow our pre-printed Google directions and arrive at the Falls. It is, like many state parks around the country, a predicatable place. All the buildings have a park-like appearance. Somewhere in America there is an architectural firm who designs the park style and is getting rich on the patented look.
We pay our $3 entrance fee and find a parking place close to the headquarters and camp store. How many park tee-shirts does one need?
The woman at the counter is helpful. She shows us where long-term parking is and gives us a tag to hang on the back of the car mirror which advertises to all that we are a couple of green-horns heading into the backcountry without a clue. I scratch my head and wonder if they sold clues in the park office? At least then I would have one.
Amicalola Falls is the starting point of the approach trail to Springer Mountain. Springer Mountain is the official starting point of the A.T, so technically, we aren’t going to be on the A.T. today. But it still feels genuine. Today we shoulder our packs and head into the hills.
In our two previous shakedown trips we’ve been able to keep our packs under 30 pounds, and that 30 pounds included such frivolous necessities as wine in a bottle. But today there are no frivolous necessities in our packs, just the bare essentials plus enough food to power us through 8 days of walking. Even at that, our packs come in at a whopping 35 pounds each. I swore it wouldn’t happen to me. I swore to myself I’d be frugal with the weight and wouldn’t indulge the temptation to bring everything I own. I can’t figure out how I managed to pack so much.
But the essentials in my pack came in at a scant 22 pounds. “Not too bad,” I thought. I neglected to calculate that I would have 9 pounds of food and that I’d be adding 4 pounds of water on top of that. I’m not happy about the weight. But I shoulder the pack anyway and at least it’s comfortable.
The approach trail to Springer Mountain starts at the park office and winds its way up 600 steps to the top of the falls for which the park is named. On the way are a myriad of park visitors whose only intention is to walk to the top of the falls and back and call it a day. We, of course, have our big, sturdy, heavy-laden-with-food-and-essentials packs on our back and we wear them as a badge of honor. We are no mere day-hikers. We’re the real deal, highly-lauded A.T. hikers. Never mind that we haven’t taken a single step on the trail yet. We have packs and intent and that makes us special!
Wheezing, we make it up the first 175 steps. This is going to get easier, isn’t it? It can’t possibly be uphill all the way in both directions? My careful calculations have shown that there is almost as much downhill walking as there is uphill walking. That mitigates the difficulty, doesn’t it? 425 steps and many, many rests later, we are at the top of the falls and have afforded ourselves a grand view. We aren’t even out of the highly-visited area of the park yet and we are drenched in perspiration and sitting on a bench recovering. But the next stage will surely be better! We’ve reached the end of the heavily-traveled section of the park and we now head into the back country on the way to Spring Mountain.
The day is clear and warm and we pass a couple of hikers with backpacks. We continue upward. There are scarce few downhills and the trail is constant work. But there is good news. You know that 4 pounds of water I packed, well, now it’s only 2 pounds!
By the standards of the rest of the week, once at the top of the falls the next three miles is relatively tame. But we haven’t hiked the rest of the week yet. And the next 3 miles feels anything but tame. We climb about 250 feet in elevation to a point where the trail parallels a forest service road at a place called High Shoals Road. DT announces he’s out of water.
“You’re what?” I ask calmly while wondering if he’s been taking a shower.
“Maybe I should have filled my water supply all the way.” He questions himself out loud.
I offer some of my precious remaining water when we hear the sound of 4-wheelers, turning loops through the woods just a handful of yards away.
“Sounds like they’re driving through water,” DT observes.
Driving through water, here, on top of the mountain? No way.
“Maybe they have some extra water,” he says as he’s bushwhacking through the thin forest toward the cars.
Breaking into the clear I observe 3 4-wheel drive vehicles, each with a driver and an accompanying trophy girlfriend. One of the vehicles is running through a very large and not-too-deep mud hole, having a grand time. I’m incredulous that there is open water so high up on the hill, but there it is, a muddy oasis of sloshing brown muck.
I consider just how difficult it will be to filter this mud into drinkable water when DT, who is not shy, is sprinting towards the two parked vehicles.
“How you doin’? Got any spare water? We’re hiking the trail and ran out. I guess I underestimated how much I’d be drinking.”
DT has just broken the mountain man’s code of self-sufficiency. I’d have willingly spent a half of a day filtering mud before I’d admit that I was unprepared. DT has no such qualms. Practicality outweighs pride. I’ll never understand such things.
“Sure, we’ve got water, here, have a couple of bottles,” they willingly produce two half-liter bottles, smiling all the while. “Does you friend need any?”
I shake my head no, “I’m fine I think I’ve got plenty until the next water stop.”
I have two pounds of water and five miles to go uphill with no idea whatsoever of where I might find water. But that makes no difference to me. A true mountain man never asks and is never weak and never shows fear and never unprepared and…”
“Hey GB, you coming?”
“Uh, yeh, I’m right here.”
We walk on and cover an uneventful uphill two miles, then descend slightly from the top of a small peak down to a place called Nimblewill Gap. A forest service road cuts through the gap and I assume it is the same road we saw earlier with the adjoining mud hole, for parked in the shade at the side of the road are the 3 4-wheelers, one with hood sticking proudly into the air, a weekend mechanic underneath attempting to fix some unknown malady.
At the gap is a sign marking the site of an aircraft accident. I read the plaque and wonder at the lousy luck of some poor pilot to fly into the side of a mountain on what I imagine was a foggy, overcast night. But my luck is much better. I still have at least a pound of water and only another two and a half miles to go.
After a steep and exhausting climb up Black Mountain, a vertical gain of 500 feet, we descend 400 feet to the first of many shelters which we will see on the trail.
At the Black Gap shelter are three women and a man. They are weekend hikers and are intending to spend the night at the shelter. They have dropped their very, very small packs and will walk the remaining mile and a half to the top of Springer Mountain before descending back to this spot for the night. We chit-chat. It is amazingly easy to chit-chat with people along the way. Everyone seems to have a story and many are quite willing to tell it.
By the time we reach the Black Gap Shelter, I manage to find a spring along the trail and now I am a happy 4 pounds heavier, having squeezed every drop out of my supply while maintaining my energetic there’s-nothing-wrong-here smile.
The last mile and a half gain 500 feet in elevation and DT and I have separated with an agreement to meet at the top. Putting my head down, I shift into full-drive and motor my way to the top. I have seen pictures of Springer Mountain before, and I have often wondered what it would be like to actually be there. Now I know. I stand at the top and marvel at the view.
People: Mike, 4 day hikers: three women and a man, Three 4-wheel mudders