We arrived at the Nantahala Outdoor Center on Friday, June 25th at around 6 PM. We left home at around 8:30 AM Friday morning and really had hoped to make better time, but traffic in Chattanooga was awful. At dinner at Relia's Garden restaurant, we enjoyed local trout with freshly baked bread and homemade herb butter.
For Saturday we had booked the Discover River Kayaking beginner level whitewater kayaking course. We met up with our instructor, Drev, around 9 AM, and I was surprised to learn that Chip and I would be the only two people taking the course that day. Drev fitted us for boats, PFDs, and paddles. We were in Dagger Mamba river runner kayaks. Mine was 7.5 feet long. Chip's was 8 feet. The kayak was surprisingly comfortable given its small size, with well-placed foot pedals and thigh and knee padding on the inside. After a few instructions about the boats themselves on dry land, we packed up the van and headed to the head waters of Fontana Lake to get in the water and learn some strokes. We did a couple of wet exits where we had to flip the boats upside down, unattach our spray skirts, then slide out of the boat to the surface. Then Drev taught us how to do forward and sweep strokes the correct way. Since we are both basically self-taught kayakers, we had developed some bad paddling habits. I learned the best way to hold the paddle and how to rotate my torso more through my sweep strokes.
We ate sandwiches in the van on the way to the Little Tenneesee river where we would paddle down river to apply what we had learned. We put-in on the Little Tennessee River on Needmore Road, 1.5 miles past Wiggins Creek Road. We'd take-out at Wiggins Creek Road. The cabin that we'd stayed in for our past two trips to Nantahala was just up Wiggins Creek Road. We thought it was pretty darn cool that we were going to paddle the river we had been driving by for two years to get to our cabin. The paddle was enjoyable and challenging all at the same time. It was hard as hell to keep that short little boat straight. My Pungo 120 tracks straight so easily. It was difficult to get used to the fact that the whitewater kayaks aren't built to track straight. We both gave it everything we had and ran some fun but small rapids.
Near the end of our trip down the river, there was a rock with a good eddy line where we practiced eddy turns. Eddy turns were the hardest part for me. An eddy is basically a spot in the river where the current flows in the opposite direction because of a rock or some object in the river. Water will flow upstream to fill the spot that is obstructed by the rock. The eddy line is where the down and upstream currents meet. When done correctly, the opposing currents of the eddy line will turn your boat for you, and you just are along for the ride.
But, in order to do an eddy turn correctly, you have to lean into the turn, tilt the boat, and sweep on the outside. I was not at all comfortable doing this. Every time I'd try to lean into the turn, I'd get scared of flipping and my reflexes would snap me back out of my lean - which was probably the worse thing I could do. We practiced eddy turns on this rock 10 or 15 times, but I never felt like I got it right. Chip did the eddy turns very well. Drev was willing to stick with me until I nailed it, but it was getting on 3 PM and I was tired and frustrated. We had been paddling upstream in a moderately moving current over and over to get to the eddy, and I was just about beat. We packed up and headed back to the NOC where we had cold beers and watched the USA vs. Ghana soccer match.
I loved the kayaking class and being on the beautiful water. I'm still not convinced that whitewater kayaking is for me. I'm generally not much of a risk taker, so I think it would be difficult for me to expand my skills. And you can't really get better at it without taking some risks. I think I'm more of a "sit back and look at the view and water" kind of paddler.
Saturday night there was a band playing at the Pourover Pub at the NOC. We were planning to go after dinner, but I was exhausted. I convinced Chip to head back to the cabin where I had a cup of tea and enjoyed a magnificent sunset.
On Sunday we rented two single duckies (inflatable kayaks) and paddled the Nantahala River. Wow, was it awesome! We were both surprised at how much fun we had. I tried not to always take the "safe" line down the river and rode some great rapids. The Nantahala River is cold - about 53F - because the water is sourced from the bottom of a deep dam. It was a hot, humid day, and on the calmer portions of the river there was a deep layer of steam as the warm air hit the cool water. In those portions we floated down the river in a haze, and it felt like a sweet dream.
Monday morning we got all of our gear together for the hiking leg of our trip. We were both feeling a bit run down from two days of paddling, so we slept in a bit and took our time packing up. At the same time we both sort of wanted to go do the river again because we'd had so much fun. But, I could hear Gregory Bald calling me up to its summit even though the weather forecast wasn't looking too good. There was a 60% chance of rain on Monday and 40% on Tuesday.
Day 1 - Twentymile Ranger Station to CS#92 via Twentymile and Long Hungry Ridge trails
Day 2 - CS#92 to CS#13 via Long Hungry Ridge and Gregory Bald trails
Day 3 - CS#13 to Twentymile Ranger Station via Wolf Ridge and Twentymile trails
We started hiking at 12:45 PM from Twentymile - elevation 1300 ft - with temperatures in the high 80s. Right as we were starting our hike we passed a man and his son. The boy was wearing a bug net hat, and after about 20 minutes on the trail, I was wishing I had one, too. The bugs were really annoying. They weren't biting too bad but were buzzing all around my eyes, nose, and mouth. I sniffed up quite a few of them as we walked along. It was gross!
Twentymile Trail is a wide jeep road that follows along Twentymile Creek. We crossed over Twentymile Creek seven times on wide, wooden bridges. After 3.1 miles, we hung a left and walked another 1.1 miles to campsite #92, Upper Flats. In 4.2 miles we'd gained 1200 feet in elevation.
We arrived at an empty campsite at around 3:15 PM and immediately got out the tent and began to set it up. Clouds were rolling in and rain was threatening. Sure enough, we started to hear thunder, and about two minutes after we got the tent set up, a nice afternoon shower rolled through. We took naps in the tent while the rain gave everything a good soaking. As we were waking up, we saw a doe walk straight through the campsite about 20 yards from us. She was heading towards Twentymile Creek.
Later Chip got a campfire started, and I explored the campsite. There were two bear cable systems at the campsite, and on the other set of bear cables, I found at least six bags of trash hanging. In one of the other fire rings, I found burned beer and food cans. I don't understand why people think that aluminum cans burn. As for the trash, I do wonder if maybe some volunteers cleaned up the entire area and were planning to come back for the trash bags. I find it hard to believe that one group could pack in that much junk then leave all of the trash behind.
For our dinner I boiled water with my new Brunton kettle, and we had Mountain House Chicken a la King along with tortillas and peanut butter. It was really good, and with it we enjoyed a Coppola Merlot that we carried up in a Sigg bottle. Not the lightest thing ever, but it felt so good to relax with a glass of wine.
By 9:15 PM we had cleaned up after dinner and were watching the lightening bugs light up the forest when it started to rain again. We called it a night, hung our packs on the bear cables while it sprinkled, and retired for the night. We were still the only group at the campsite. It continued to storm all night. At one point the bottom really fell out of it, and the rain fell HARD. I was so scared our tent (Big Agnes Emerald Mountain SL3) would leak, but it never did. Unfortunately, the rain meant that we couldn't open the sides of the rain fly for a breeze, so we didn't get any cross-ventilation in the tent. It was a warm night, and neither of us slept too well in the wet, muggy weather.
For breakfast on Tuesday, we had oatmeal and trail mix with Starbucks Via and more peanut butter on tortillas. During breakfast, I decided that I wasn't feeling up to carrying a full pack. I wasn't feeling too strong and I knew that to get to Gregory Bald, we'd hike 4 miles gaining 2500 feet. Chip was happy to carry a pack with just lunch, water, and day hiking supplies.
We started up Long Hungry Ridge towards Gregory Bald around 9:20 AM. We kept our water shoes on for three wet crossings of Twentymile Creek, then changed to hiking boots. The next 3 miles were tough. It was another warm day in the 80s. After we passed through the Rye Patch at 4400 feet, the trail started to level off, and the sun began peeking through the canopy. Undergrowth really takes off in all that sun, and it was practically covering the trail. The trail wasn't hard to find, but it was difficult to walk through the weeds. They were up to my chest in some places. I wish I had gotten a photo of how overgrown it was.
Just after Rich Gap, we saw a doe just off the trail, maybe 25 feet away from us. She did not seem scared of us at all. I pulled out my camera to get a photo just as she was walking off.
Around 12:30 PM we reached the summit of Gregory Bald and immediately sat down for lunch (Tuna Bruschetta, a FBC recipe from sarbar). I was starving. It had definitely been a Long, Hungry climb. I probably should have eaten a snack on the way up. We sat in a grassy grove of tulip trees. It was so peaceful and cool. For a while, we were enveloped in a cloud. We saw one other couple having a picnic up on the summit.
Cades Cove in the distanceChip is taking in the viewFlame azaleasWhat I saw as I approached the summit. My favorite photo of the bald.
Around 1:45 PM we decided it was time to start heading down. I started feeling like crap about a mile into our hike back to the campsite. I think this was a result of getting too hungry on the hike up and then eating lunch too fast. My stomach was not happy with it. Given my state of well-being, we had to take it pretty slow on the way back to the campsite.
When we got to the campsite at about 3:45 PM, I was still feeling pretty awful, so we decided to pack everything up and head out. The forecast called for more rain still, and I was just not up for it. I rested for a bit, drank plenty of water, and started to feel a little bit better. Our goal was to be back at the truck by 6 PM. We'd already walked about 9 miles and had 4 more to go.
The last few miles down Twentymile Trail were hard. Thank goodness we were walking along Twentymile Creek. The sound of water crashing against rocks is so magical to me, almost hypnotic. We had stepped over Twentymile Creek in water shoes just a few miles back. By the time it reaches Lake Cheoah at the bottom of Gregory Bald, it is a strong, gushing stream that cannot be safely forged.
We made it back to the truck and started up the engine at 6 PM on the dot. Funny how things work out. We got Gatorade at Fontana Village, then headed over to Nantahala Village to find a room for the night. We were lucky to get one at the last minute. We headed back to the NOC for dinner and a late night at the pub.
Wednesday morning we slept late and bought a car full of beer at the Wesser General Store. We bought all kinds of wonderful beer that you cannot get in Mississippi. My favorite is the mini-keg of Bell's Oberon Ale. Chip's favorite is Dale's Pale Ale. We made our way to Birmingham where we ate at Highland's Bar and Grill, a 2010 James Beard Most Outstanding Restaurant nominee. I had a guinea hen with morel and porcini mushrooms and white wine sauce over yummy, buttery mashed potatoes. It was heaven on a platter. I really want to try to recreate that dish at home. Just looking for a supplier of guinea hen now.
Looking back, I really wish I had been able to make it up the mountain with my pack. I wish I would have trained more so that I could have better handled the weight and the climb. I so wanted to camp at Sheep Pen Gap (CS#13) and enjoy a sunset on the bald. Chip and I really need to analyze our pack contents to shave off weight, too. That probably starts with buying a scale. We don't even own one.
We are already thinking about our next trip up to the Smokies. I realized on this trip that Chip has never done any of the trails that made me fall in love with this part of the country: Alum Cave Bluffs, Chimney Tops, the AT to Charlie's Bunion. The views on those trails are what hooked me, and I think it is time I shared those experiences with Chip, too.
Want to see even more photos? View them on my Picasa.