Our hike on the weekend of March 31 to April 2 was indeed sort of an “April Fools” hike. It started with the weather. Three of our intrepid adventurers headed to Mountain Harbor Hostel on 19E late Thursday, and spent the night. Because of work and family stuff, I got 2 hours of sleep and drove up for four hours on Friday morning, getting there at 8:30am. And I missed breakfast. Thankfully, although I drove through a lot of rain and lightning on the way up, Mountain Harbor Hostel was in the clear. Our shuttle driver picked us up and we headed over to US321 at Watauga Lake.
On the way over, we found the rain. By the time we hit our dropoff point, most of us had fished out the raincoats and were ready. A friendly Sheriff’s Deputy sitting along the road at the dropoff took our picture, and we headed up into the woods, Southbound towards the hostel. We immediately missed a turn and the mailman who was driving by pointed out the AT and we headed up the hill. Our first hill was a doozy, up almost 2000 feet for half the day, then back down the other side. We followed a river down to Laurel Fork Falls where, thankfully, it was too cold to swim, because apparently people have drowned there. We had a nice leisurely snack and took 87 pictures, including a group pic, before moving on. From Laurel Fork it was a straight up climb along rocks piled into stairs, and then along the river corridor. The highlight of this section was the cliffside walk along the trail where we had to hold onto the rocks to keep from falling into the cold swift water. I forgot to unsnap my hip belt, which is a prudent thing to do is you fall into the water, so you can dump your pack instead of being dragged down to the Appalachian equivalent of Davey Jone’s Locker. (Billy Joe Jim Bob’s Holler?)
My original plan was to just find a campsite somewhere, but Dorothy had other ideas. Before we left, she said she wanted to go spend the night inside somewhere, mainly due to the likelihood of rain. Putting up tents in the rain sucks, taking down tents in the rain sucks, and carrying around wet stuff sucks too. We aren’t thru-hikers, we have options and the opportunity to “wimp out” in the weather. So, she had arranged for us to stay at Black Bear Resort, just half a mile off the trail down a paved road. We were assigned the “turtle box”, a sort of garden shed style building with four beds (two bunks of two). We took advantage of the dial-up speed internet (it was Hughes Net satellite, but I think the satellite they were using was Sputnik), the communal TV room (we watched “the rat race” with a group of thru-hikers), and their vast selection of frozen foods. I had a root beer and a frozen pizza. We talked with one of the caretakers, who had intended on moving through, and wound up staying and working there with his son, for the season.
I was asleep by 9pm, and up at 6, where I took advantage of the shower and real toilet, and thoroughly enjoyed getting ready, despite the rain. We were trucked up to the trail crossing and hit the road, ready for a LONG 15.5 mile day. It was still cold and on and off misting rain, and soon we spread out; Thomas was in front by himself, with me, Jim and Dorothy alternately meeting and leaving each other. At one point we were notified of some “Trail Magic”. Hoping for maybe some burgers and hot dogs for lunch, we took off at a pace the could be described as “desperate for food not boiled in a bag”. It turns out the Trail Magic was a cooler full of snacks and drinks, but they were appreciated. I had a Coke (but don’t tell Jim, because he’s really health-conscious, while I’m the realist of the group). At some point right before the trail magic, I got out in front of Jim and Dorothy somehow. Normally I’m way in the back, so I don’t really know what happened, but it might explain not being able to move well between Tuesday and Friday of the following week.
About a mile before the stop for the night, which was supposed to be Mountaineer Shelter, I found a large campsite right on the creek. An older couple were setting up camp for the night, and I told them I was just stopping for water and food. It was about 4:30, and I was close to empty on water, and fully empty on my stomach. I was exhausted and had begun asking northbound hikers if the cabin was filling up. They had all said no so far, but I was worried about a crowd forming around the shelter. I pulled out my food bag after getting some water, and figured I would go ahead and cook dinner, which would leave me time to get to the shelter and set up without having to make food again. While my stuff was heating and rehydrating (I used a chicken/rice Knorr Side), Jim and Dorothy came by. They asked if I was stopping for the night. I told them no, I was just eating. They came down off the trail and started poking around. The decision was quickly made to abandon the shelter and just stay where we were.
At first we weren’t going to make fire, but it was getting cool and everything was wet from days of rain. Jim and Dorothy gathered what dry twigs they could find (they did a REALLY good job of it), and I built the fire. I was really surprised how well we got it to burn, considering how wet everything was. The older couple joined us, and talked about their thru-hike. They were “Granny Legs” and “Willie Makeit”. A skin cancer surgery delayed Willie’s hike, so they started farther north than Springer, intending on going back to finish after getting to Maine. After seeing so many young college-age people trying to thru-hike, the courage and determination of the retired husband/wife was incredible. They took a real interest in the hammocks, and everyone sort of compared tents. About 8:30 we all drifted off to our shelters and called it a night, while I watched the fire burn down from my hammock.
Sunday morning was the “April Fools”, a day late. See, Friday we had a hell of an up followed by a heck of a down. Saturday, although long, was mainly gradual ups and downs punctuated by a few short steep ups/downs. Sunday looked a little challenging on paper. In practice though, it was tougher than Monday. Two days and a marathon’s worth of hiking later, and we were worn out. I packed and left early, while Jim and Dorothy revived the campfire and took it slower. When I reached the shelter, I asked about Thomas, and the guys inside said he left already. A short way from the shelter was Mountaineer Falls, and just uphill from the shelter was a flat tentsite, but I was glad we camped where we did, because of easy access to water. The rest of Sunday was some ups and down followed mid morning by a never-ending uphill climb that seemed worse than Friday’s climb. Every time I check the Guthook AT Hiker App, it depressed me. I started telling Northbounders to say hello to Jim and Dorothy, as I had left them behind at camp and knew they had to be close. Cell serivce was spotty most of the time, but I was able to find a few spots at the tops of hills to text my hiking friends and let them know where I was. Unfortunately, the time stamps were all screwy because of the receive delays.
Right before the big climb, the trail followed a river for quite a ways, and it was noisy and beautiful. The meadow next to the river was at least a quarter mile long and over a hundred yards wide, with a few trees but mainly wide open space. It would be a beautiful place to camp. At the end of the meadow the trail took a sharp turn and headed up 1500 feet.
Finally I reached the top of the big climb, came out onto a meadow and started down. There was another short climb or two but it was mainly down out of the mountains towards Mountain Harbor. Along the way were two falls (one I can’t remember, that crossed the trail – the other was Jones Falls), both worth stopping and seeing. When I crossed Buck Mountain road, I was supposed to go up another couple of hundred feet then right back down onto 19E, which I could see from the road. I made an executive decision to cheat and lop off about 3/4 mile of trail and head down the road. I walked into Mountain Harbor an hour behind schedule and 90 minutes behind Thomas (who hikes like a BEAST). We had lunch right there from the concession stand at the hostel. It’s not often you get a french dip in the mountains, but paired with beer-battered Sidewinder fries, it was damn good. Jim and Dorothy found us within half an hour, and we cleaned up, piled into the cars, and off we went.