Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Labor Day "On the Trail"

Labor Day weekend Sunday I decided to hike from the Watauga Dam Road southbound on the Appalachian Trail to the Watauga Lake shelter. It’s a two-mile (one way), level, quick jaunt. For this afternoon hike, drive on past the trail crossing and park in the first lot on your left. Then, you can walk back to the access road in order to get up on the dam. That’s the hardest part of the hike.

On this particular day I was just about to get to the dam when I encountered a family of five. They were trudging up the grade (a very long grade, too) from the dam (which makes them north bound, heading back to their car at the trailhead--you have to keep your orientations about you) and stopped me to ask how it might have been they missed the shelter. The trailhead sign says two miles and surely, they felt, they'd gone two miles.

Some of the shelters can be hard to find. The trail measurements don’t help much because you turn and trudge and stop and go up and go down and across and over and measuring distance by your stride is pretty hard to do.

Which places a premium on being observant. The Watauga Lake shelter is marked by a single 2x2 post with the diamond sign. (By the way, the shelter is on your right if you’re southbound.) After dark, in the rain, the sign would be very easy to miss and there are no other indications. You might get lucky and see a light but don’t count on it. During the day if you’re alone it’s also quite possible to just miss the sign and you end up way down the trail before you know there’s a problem. And the problem can be serious. Many hikers don’t carry tents. At most, they may have a ground sheet or a poncho and I’ve slept in makeshift tents and without tents enough to know it’s acceptable, when your young and in good shape, and awful, when you’re old and cranky. The shelters are there for a reason.

The shelters around here measure about 12 foot wide by 8 foot deep. It’s just long enough for your sleeping bag and pack and then you’re shoehorned in between 6 other people or so. They can be incredibly noisy. I’ve been in full shelters and they’re not a lot of fun but you manage. You have to contend in the summer with bees and flies. Sometimes there’s a fire grate. Sometimes water. Usually a table. You must appreciate that somebody carried an unassembled table a couple of miles into the woods so you can have sit down meal. When it rains, they are drier than being outside the shelter.

In comparison to the Watauga Lake shelter is the Vandeventer shelter (5.5 miles northbound of the Watauga Dam road). Vandeventer is right on the trail. You’d have to be pretty wasted to miss it and I suppose somebody has. The hike itself is enough to make you pay attention. The trail is essentially straight up and goes forever. The Cross Mountain and Iron Mountain shelters are right on the trail, too. If you don’t trip over ‘em, I don’t know what to tell you.

Good hikers make due. We’re four hundred miles north of Springer so by now the serious hiker is in good shape for such a climb and given a grassy open spot in the shade they’ll nap when it's convenient.

It may seem like a short seven-and-a-half miles from Watauga to Vandeventer and five miles onto Iron Mountain but if you’re not use to it, it’s a very, very long walk.

I hope the family comes back out and tries again. Hiking should not be that you have a destination that determines a good hike. Rather, the walk in the woods, smelling the air, brushing the plants, listening, thinking, only needs a pathway in front of you.