Monday, July 18, 2016

rocky fork ramble

Click for interactive map of route.
Fleeing Florida's July, Uwharrie and I joined Elliott for a three-day, 56-mile backpacking trip in the southern Appalachians. Our route held promises of quick access to start/finish (I-26 at Sam's Gap), half the mileage on AT (including Big Bald), unexplored terrain (Rocky Fork, the ghost town of Lost Cove), less than three miles of pavement and a midway resupply (Uncle Johnny's).

We started clockwise in cruise control along the air-conditioned ridgeline of the AT Interstate. Eventually, with map in hand, we ventured off the beaten path and encountered some delicious blueberries with evidence of bears on the unmarked and unfrequented trails of Rocky Fork. Before leaving the state property, we made an excursion to check out Hidden Lake tucked away at 4,000'.

From Bearwallow Gap, we pieced together our route over grassy forest service roads to a mile-long creekside bushwhacking descent to some lower roadbeds pouring out onto pavement and leading to the Nolichucky. Here at Uncle Johnny's, halfway through both the loop and day two, we sought out ice cream and local input on the frequency of freight trains through the gorge.

We followed the railroad to Lost Cove for a few miles. Fortunately, we didn't encounter a train. But the ruthless afternoon sun and rough footing made for a mandatory river cool-down session halfway to camp below the abandoned logging town. We still made camp with plenty of daylight for another post-dinner swim to rediscover how inflatable sleeping pads make great river floats.

A storm eventually chased us back to our camp where we spent the remainder of the evening listening in awe to thunder echoing through the gorge and watching the wind sculpt veils of rain. Shortly after dark, two trains rumbled through and shook us in our rocky roost. Come morning, we toured the rusty remnants of this remote ghost town before climbing up to rejoin the AT near 19W.

Afternoon rain passed over us near High Rocks, but cleared by the time we reached the summit of Big Bald. We enjoyed a grand 360-degree view for dinner before continuing on our way back to Sam's Gap by nightfall. The trek was everything we hoped it could be. More than ever, I'm grateful for these lush mountains that still feel like home.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

corner unknown

Click here to view interactive map.
On a precipitous descent near Dead Horse Creek, I cling to a wet spruce trunk and listen for the rushing milky waters of the Nisqually. I try to gauge distance to the moraine field, but it's hard to tell over the pattering raindrops and my pounding heart. In limited visibility, I scan for a weakness in the wall. The cloud reveals nothing. I resume a nervous chant:"done doing dumb, done doing dumb." My heart races, my mumbles do little but add to the fog.

With one arm hugging the bent trunk, I pat my pack's chest pocket: still holding ID, phone and rental car key. I reach around to a rear pocket and pull out a folded map and take another look at the topography of the buttress. My mouth is dry, I drain a water bottle and try to quiet my nerves. Another deep breath and then... I let go and carefully inch down over loose moss and rock. "Done doing dumb, done doing dumb."

Twenty feet lower, I reach a bench where the hiking poles have landed, my fall slightly slower and more controlled than theirs. Relieved to be reunited and all intact, I anchor myself and resume studying the obscure terrain below. I'd happily abandon these poles and retreat to Paradise if up was still an option. A hundred feet above, down became my only hope. Somewhere, somehow I broke my rule of going down what I couldn't get back up. Hence my silly chant.

This was to be our last adventure on the tail end of a great two-week family vacation to the far corner of the Pacific Northwest. The recent memories flash through my head...

Hiking the shoreline of San Juan Island...
Hiding in a fragrant field of lavender...
Backpacking with sibling and spouses...
Putting homemade gear to the test...
Enjoying delicious backpacking meals...
Witnessing a break in the weather...
Climbing higher in the Olympics...
Strolling among rhododendron...
Staying up late with the sun...
Driving into Rainer's winter...
Altering our day's plans around the inn's fire...
Setting out with dad over Comet Falls...
Searching for the trail in snow...
Picking up our pace along the Wonderland...
Now in an unknown corner of this country, I'm halfway down the steepest terrain I've ever tried to bushwhack. "It's safer than running a foggy and much longer road." Not more than an hour ago, I said these words in defense of this route back to the Comet Falls Trailhead to retrieve our rental car. I shake my head at my naiveté. Truth is, I wanted an adventure, but got more than I wanted. In a cold rain, I sweat nervously as I scramble over the slick boulders.

The terrain begins to level out, I can hardly believe it. I pass below an unnamed waterfall on the Dead Horse and enter into a beautiful scrub. Sultan's words from seven years back echo in my ears: "scratch the thighs, not the eyes." I'm reminded to move carefully while on easier terrain. I can hardly help but rush out to the open moraine. I want to get to the bridge, to the road, to the car, to safety. Still. One careful step at a time. I must listen to the loose rocks below and tread softly.

The bridge comes into view. The Nisqually appears too powerful to ford, so I climb to the south end. Now on the road, my pace accelerates for a mile and a half. At the car, I set the timer on my phone and snap a photo of myself. I look at it carefully to make sure I'm really here.

"done doing dumb"

Tuesday, June 21, 2016


glistening waters
all the creatures are dancing
above and below

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

misadventure on the suwannee

We got more adventure than we bargained for last Saturday on the Suwannee River section of the Florida Trail. Four of us plus dog carpooled an hour and a half up from Gainesville and started our respective journeys just after 9 am. Lily, Paul and Uwharrie would hike 12 miles into White Springs while Shawn and I would run ahead out-and-back to retrieve the car for a 24-mile workout. 

We kept up a quick pace. In a few miles, Shawn and I passed under the I-75 bridge. Bats squeaked and flittered about, the smell of guano intense. As the sun rose in the sky, so did the temperature.

Fortunately, with the trail hugging the winding river's bank, the noise of interstate traffic soon faded. 

At Swift Creek, we paused to admire a new footbridge and cool off in the rushing waters.

Before entering Stephen Foster State Park, another swim in the river became obligatory.

We stopped to watch young armadillos bumbling about on the trail, oblivious to our presence. 

Despite these excursions, Shawn and I made it to town in two hours and cooled off in the air conditioned pizzeria with some ice-cold drinks. It was here that I checked my phone and learned that Lily and Paul had lost track of Uwharrie about 15 minutes earlier. After running and hiking with her for 12 years, I assumed she would quickly track us down and told Lily and Paul to keep hiking.

Unfortunately, this assumption proved false. We finished our respective journeys and spent hours looking for Uwharrie. We rigged up makeshift flyers with familiar scents before reluctantly driving back to Gainesville. After dropping off Paul and Shawn, Lily and I raced back to keep looking well into dark, but to no avail. Hours became days. A simple training hike/run became a nightmare.

Come Monday afternoon, in the fog of fatigue from restless camping and endless hours of fruitless searching on foot, I wandered out onto a peninsula over the quiet black waters of the Suwannee. I reflected on how Uwharrie entered into my life from the woods over a decade ago and how strangely symmetrical it would be for her to exit my life in a similar fashion. 

I hoarsely yelled out her name again and listened to it echo through the cypress. Hot tears welled up in my eyes. I wasn't ready to let go. Tropical storm Colin was racing this way, but I would take another day off from work to keep looking as necessary. Drizzle turned to harder rain, I felt my energy slipping away. Dejected, I retreated home in the deluge to an equally distraught Lily.

Lily brought renewed urgency to the search. She had printed out flyers with Uwharrie's picture and was anxious to get back up there. After haphazardly loading up some camping gear, we once again drove north, this time in a hard rain. We made camp just before dark and hiked for a time through the night shaking dog food. Sleep didn't come easily in the hot muggy forest.

On Tuesday morning, we hiked for a couple more hours where Uwharrie was reportedly last seen on Saturday before taking to the car to distribute flyers to nearby homes. Before we had twenty distributed, one of them generated a phone call. Relieved to have a fresh lead, we raced to the reported sighting on the west side of the interstate. Then I suffered a momentary lapse of reason…

Despite my better judgment, I entered an adjacent property without waiting for the owner to return to obtain permission to look for our dog. Skirting the edge of this large parcel, I was unable to evade a tense encounter with the clenched fists of an understandably upset owner. To add insult to injury, it turns out we were following a false lead. The paw prints in the sand looked too small to be Uwharrie's.

Spirits couldn't have been lower. Our car, bodies and minds were all running out of gas. It was around lunchtime. We decided we should head to White Springs to refuel. As we drove down this all-too-familiar stretch of country road, we saw an animal loping along the shoulder in the haze of the hot sun. Both of us had to blink to believe it. From somewhere far off I heard Lily cry out in joy.


Indeed, it was Uwharrie. We immediately pulled over and she ran over with tail wagging and tongue hanging out. She looked amazing for having been missing for over 72 hours. She even hopped into the car. We cranked the AC and tried to encourage her to eat and drink as we drove to our vet in Gainesville. After getting some subcutaneous fluids and antibiotics in her, she is safely back home.

Click here to view interactive map.
Sometime during the ordeal, I pieced together a map to try and better organize our search efforts. Uwharrie isn't talking, so we can only guess where she went and how she eventually connected with us based on the map's waypoints. Regardless of the details, it's all quite miraculous to us.

Friday, May 27, 2016


Simple joy of life
To find in a stifling heat
Relief from a breeze.

Monday, May 09, 2016

cross florida by bike

A few of us have been meeting up on local rides in preparation to "race the sun" across the peninsula. With the mechanical advantage of bike, we hoped to traverse what took me three days on foot in less than one day. So, at sunrise on Mother's Day, we set out from Anastasia Island bound for Cedar Key...

Click here for interactive map of route.
Go time
Lily and Uwharrie saw Kenyon, Paul and me off. Our route tracked closely to last year's adventure all the way across the St. Johns. In Palatka, we diverted northwest to the rail trail along route 100. We relished its lack of traffic and cool shade as the day's temperatures began to creep towards the 90s.

As we entered into Alachua County and neared the halfway point, Kenyon's back and legs started seizing up on him. He urged Paul and me to continue on and shortly connected with Lily and Uwharrie. Hydration became key. Every 20 miles or so, we would break in the shade.

Paul and I took a long lunch at a cafe on the other side of Gainesville. We understood that the final 50 miles would be the roughest. Already tired, we faced the hottest hours in a constant headwind. To make matters worse, my bloodshot eyes started aching from the sweat, sunblock and dry wind.

Lily's oasis stops were critical during this time. As the smell of the salt marshes grew stronger, my frown began to turn itself upside-down. After 13 hours and 140-miles from the start, Paul and I reached the Gulf of Mexico at Cedar Key with about an hour of daylight to spare. Piece of cake, right?