Wednesday, December 26, 2007

AT, Watauga Dam Rd to Watauga Lake Shelter

I actually missed the trailhead for this section at first. There is little more than a wide place in the road for parking, and though signed, the trail is a bit difficult to spot, even if you're doing the posted speed limit (which, if I remember correctly was 15mph). So on my first attempt, I wound up at the end of the road at the visitor's center, where I got out to take in this magnificent view.

After returning to where I suspected the trailhead might be, I got out and scouted a bit, and sure enough spotted the white blazes and slightly concealed steps leading from roadway to trail. After returning to my car and gearing up, I was off! There was a relatively mild uphill right out of the box, with a nice switchbacked ascent. Next came a rocky clamber over the ridgecrest, then down the other side, which was a bit more steep. I kept smelling burned wood throughout this entire first section, and figured it was from a recent campfire. When I read the AT book, it told me that the area had burned in the 1970s, but I find it hard to believe that I was still smelling that same burn. Still, I saw no fire rings from which the smoky scent might have emanated. After coming down off the ridge, hit a boring half-mile segment of paved road that led to the dam. Approaching from this direction, one of the first views you get is across the gorge, at the myriad striations exposed on the opposite side. I'm sure this is a geologist's dream. Although it's significance it is admittedly somewhat lost on me, I still find it fascinating to see the aeons-old evidence of the violence that shaped these beautiful mountains.

As I crossed the dam (only AT hikers are allowed to cross the dam, teehee!), I noticed this odd structure. I later found out that it is an emergency spillway. As you can see by the water lines, it has never been challenged, and by the looks of the current levels, probably never will.

On the other side of the dam, the trail ascends again, past a couple of camp sites and along a pleasantly shaded trail to the Watauga Lake AT Shelter.

On the way back toward the dam, I noticed the color of the lake water in a little inlet was eerily similar to the "glacial green" of which I had seen so much in the fjords of Norway. So naturally, I had to try to capture it with a picture! I'm not sure how well I did, but you can at least see the contrast between the leafy green of the trees and the tranquil blue-green of the lake.

Here's the view from atop the dam, looking out across the lake. It was a gorgeous sunny day, yet fairly cool and with a very light breeze ruffling the water. Note that I kindly included the plaque with all the dam's stats (remember you can always click a photo and see it full size) so that I don't have to bore the uninterested by typing them out here :).

This is an edge-on view of the back side of the dam. I found its construction method interesting, given that all of my previous dam experience has been with either huge concrete monstrosities like the Hoover Dam, or ugly utilitarian metal construction like the gates damming Lake Manatee in my home state of Florida.

This was probably the most startling view of all, though. The guidebooks had warned me about it, but nothing really prepared me for it. This is the view from the dam looking away from the lake. Not a drop of water visible anywhere. In fact, even the (surprisingly narrow) pipe that takes the water from the dam to the hydroelectric plant was very difficult to see (don't bother looking for it in this pic, it isn't there). I found this especially puzzling considering the graphic on the sign close to the entrance of the park, which shows a definite ribbon of water extending down from the dam on this side (you can see it here, not my photo).

Despite my puzzlement, I managed to complete my hike. The boring stretch of road between dam and trail was just as boring uphill, with only its cardiovascular benefits to recommend it. As for my usual stats, I found it a little difficult to calculate the length of my hike; according to the AT Guide, it was 3.8 miles. According to another guide, Exploring the Appalachian Trail: Hikes in the Southern Appalachians by Doris Gove, it was 4.4 miles. Finally, my trusty GPS reported that I had walked 4.66 miles. In this case, I'm going with the GPS, because I did do quite a bit of wandering hither and yon on and around the dam.

Date: 10/10/07
AT Miles covered: 2.33 (x2 = 4.66)
Altitude gain: roughly 480 feet from dam level to top of beginning ridge.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

US 321 to Horseridge Gap. Or thereabouts.

On this trip, I started once again at the Laurel Falls access trail, this time picking up the AT heading northbound instead of southbound. This was a really tough hike, with its difficulty compounded by the fact that I ran out of energy about ¾ of the way to the “end.” End is a rather nebulous term in itself. My intent had been to hike to where the Hazelwood Hollow trail meets the AT, but never quite figured out where the side trail was. According to my GPS, it seemed to be about 23 feet left of the trail, but when I hit what I thought was the side trail and started hiking in the seemingly appropriate direction, the GPS told me I was getting further away. So I eventually gave up, and just hiked as far as I could manage, and then recorded the spot with a waypoint in the GPS so that I'd know where to end a future hike from the opposite direction.

Not very far up the trail from the Laurel Fork access was a dead doe. I was actually startled when it suddenly dawned to me what was laying right at trailside. Aparently I had approached from upwind, so the only clue was the cloud of flies, which I didn't notice until I was close enough to hear them. I spent a lot of time pondering what had killed the deer, as its neck appeared untouched, and only its belly and chest were ripped open. Even then, a great deal of deer was left, as though it had been taken down by a lone, inexperienced (or just small) predator. I took a few pictures of this on the way back in the hopes of finding someone who could tell me what killed it. In fact, I think this is the only thing I photographed on this outing. Since I try to keep this a relatively family-oriented blog, I don't want to plaster the photos here. They could be quite upsetting. However, if you think you could offer some insight into what killed this poor creature (or if you're just curious and have a strong stomach), the photos can be found here.

The hike itself was a long and somewhat arduous one. There were many, many switchbacks to get up to the ridge overlooking the Laurel Fork gorge. Once there, the trail more or less leveled out for a while, then began to climb again. And again. One piece of trail was so steep, and so absurdly covered with loose gravel and nuts (acorns, I suppose) that had dropped off of the surrounding trees that I thanked my lucky stars I was only carrying a little light daypack. It was as if someone had strewn the embankment with marbles. It was treacherous enough just trying to get my own self up and down (especially down) it safely; I'd hate to have to try it with 40 pounds of crap to throw me off balance.

I saw loads of turkeys near Horseridge Gap. Actually, I heard them long before I saw them. All I heard was their rustling through the leaves, though, so for quite a while I was half holding my breath, hoping it wasn't a bear making all the noise. When they finally came into sight, they were running frantically, a rather comic sight. Eventually they seemed to come to their senses and realize that the best way to escape a scary earthbound mammal like me was to take off into the trees. This they did, almost en masse, and it was actually quite a sight to see. They did seem a little on the scrawny side, though, for it being so close to wintertime. I realize that wild turkeys don't get fattened up in time for Thanksgiving the way the poor critters on farms do, but I would still expect them to be a bit bigger than these, given that the pickins were presumably about to get a lot slimmer.

I was extremely fatigued on the way back. Several times as I made my way down the switchbacks into Laurel Fork gorge, I almost thought I was back in New Mexico, although this wasn't due to delirium. It was a hot day (even starting out), and a searing, dry breeze was blowing up my side of the gorge, carrying a pine-y scent that I distinctly recall from my hikes in NM.

Date: 10/8/07
AT Miles covered: 2.0 (x2 = 4)
Other miles covered: 1 (x2 = 2)
Altitude gain: roughly 1,900 feet from access trail to top of highest ridge.
Other notes: Take a lot of water if you're tackling this in the dry months.