Ramrock Mountain to Hawk Mountain Shelter
North to South
A little better at getting up and out today, another sun splashed one. We have been so spoiled on this trip. It’s a lot easier to hike on a dry path with dry soles. The temps stayed higher last night, in the upper 40s – another bonus.
Lots of small up and downs were on the menu today. We needed to do some nonstop work today. I guess you could call it our Crux Day II. An eleven mile day would set us up nicely to reach Springer Mountain tomorrow.
I started out in my fleece jacket and soon started overheating. Here is where my stubbornness kicks in. I’ve made my mind up to do some nonstop miles and don’t even want the 2 minute interruption to strip off a layer and stuff it in my pack. I unzipped the pit zips and kept going until the 2.6 miles mark – Gooch Gap. There was a downed log in the clearing, so I made my clothing change and sat for the few minutes it took for Wayne to arrive.
Shortly after Gooch, the trail headed left and became less worn than the path we’d been traveling on for the past week. We were on a relocated section of trail (known in the hiker’s vernacular as a “re-lo”). The telltale signs of a re-lo are many. First, the trail is generally less worn, at least for the few seasons it takes for it to start looking like the “mother trail”. Second, the ends of logs and stumps that were cut to create the trail haven’t aged much. Third, the 6″x2″ white trail markers (known as blazes) show signs of being freshly painted (bright white, less cracked). This section had all three attributes.
The real issue with re-los is when there are no signs on the trail or in shelters indicating that a change has been made. If you don’t have an eagle eye for when the new trail ties back in with the old, you don’t know how much was added to (or subtracted from) the description you have.
Basically, we didn’t have a clue. We could have just completed a glorious section that added 3 miles, chopped off one or anywhere in between. The descriptions in our guidebook were such that we couldn’t hone in (e.g., the guidebook said “cross stream” five times in 1.5 miles). Which one were we crossing when the trail tied back into the original again?
The only thing you can do is keep walking until you reach a known landmark.
In this case, we knew we were back on the original path when we began the steep ascent of Justus Mountain. The trail had descended into a dark, coniferous, beautiful valley, crossed a big steam on five big boulders, then started climbing out of the gap on sets of log stairs. Up and up we went – out of the dark enchanted hollow and into the bright sun of the ridges above. I began thinking that my sweat alone might raise the water table.
Just when I was about to crest the first shoulder of the mountain, I encountered two college aged hikers from Miami who were section hiking.
“We’re driving back to Miami tomorrow”, said the lead guy. “We’re only averaging about 8 miles a day.”
“So are we”, I said. “We’re finishing up. It’s been 28 years.”
“Cool. I want to be you, man.”, he said.
Down 500 feet to Cooper Gap (a truly known commodity, as it had a sign). It also had many jugs of water that had been left by Ron – awesome. We grabbed a quart and left the rest for others.
The whole afternoon was ups and downs. Up 500′ over Sassafras Mountain, with a viewless summit. I was moving pretty slowly toward the top, but concentrated on my progress, not my speed. The next thing I knew, I was walking along the summit ridge using a completely different set of muscles than I was using only 5 minutes before. Another sign I was getting in shape – no need to rest. The muscle changeover is enough.
On the way down, we stopped at a sunny trailside spot with limited views for a one hour break. We were 8.7 miles in and feeling good.
Several northbound hikers went by, mostly folks who were out for the weekend. One fellow and his son were descendants of the founders of Peaks Island, Maine and visited often. Small world, as Peaks Island is in my neck of the woods.
An Unexpected Encounter
After lunch, two climbs to go – up and out of Horse Gap and up and out of Hightower Gap. I was really getting into the climb out of Horse Gap. I just settled into first gear and let the climb happen. The squirrels were running all about on the forest floor. After a while, I kind of stopped paying attention to them – at least the noise.
What I couldn’t help notice was something big moving to my right. I stopped as eight huge wild turkeys slowly walked along the top of the small ridge to my right, walked right across the trail in front of me, then kept walking down the hill. Clearly they didn’t feel threatened enough to either blast to the treetops to perch or do their ski jumper move, where they extend their wings and soar off the hilltops. That is a magnificent thing to see.
I was still reveling in the turkey sightings, when I heard a huge commotion to my right. Not 30 feet away, a mother bear came crashing down out of a big oak tree. She quasi fell the last 8 feet or so, made a huge crashing sound when she hit the leaves and branches below, then bolted down the mountain and across the trail just below Wayne.
But the show was far from over. Her two cubs were still in the tree, and descended one by one, just as mama had. Except they whimpered toward that bottom leap to the ground. They also ran in the direction of mama bear and disappeared down the trail. What a treat!
The buzz of the bear sightings certainly kept us on a high for the rest of the afternoon! Just before we reached Hightower Gap, there were two guys camped in separate tents to the right of the trail. I stopped long enough to warn them of bear activity and to suggest that they bear bag their food (suspend it from a tree branch) as an extra precaution.
A Strange Encounter
Down at the gap, only 200 yards or so beyond them, was a woman standing on the dirt road with her arms akimbo. She asked us about the water situation. We told her it was pretty bleak between here are Justus Creek. She then asked us if there were many ups and downs between here and there.
I couldn’t help chuckling. “Yes, there are a few.”, I managed to say, thinking to myself, “you ARE hiking in the mountains you know”, but stifling the response.
Then she asked us if there was water at Gooch Gap.
“Yes, there’s a creek there.”
“When were you there?”
“Eleven or so this morning. We stayed there about an hour.”
“Well, that’s pretty lame isn’t it?”
Really? 8.9 miles plus a re-lo, which added confusion if nothing else to slow us down?
I was speechless.
Wayne did better. “Well we are 56 years old”, he said.
“Well, good luck.”, I said, and we made our way up and out of Hightower Gap.
Half a mile up, we entered the clearing that marked the side trail to Hawk Mountain Shelter. A solo south bounder who had pitched his tent there, foretold of water below the shelter and a massive group of scouts milling around like a mini Woodstock. We pitched the tent on the other side of the clearing, grabbed the water bottles and headed down.
My water filter was being a beast. There was so much sediment in it that it felt like we were trying to push concrete mix through a straw. I offered to filter 4 quarts for drinking and we would boil the rest for cooking or coffee.
On the walk up, I was incredibly stiff. My muscles were cooling down and my feet were tingling with little aches and pains from the day. I was really looking forward to getting some solid ground pad time.
As I drifted off to sleep, it began to sink in that tomorrow would be Springer Mountain Day. That after 28 years of hiking this trail, I would be standing at it’s terminus.by