08 Nov What Growls in the Dark?
This is a 5 day backpacking hike from Round Bottom along trails between Mount Guyot and Cataloochee.
November 4th, 2008 – Beech Mountain Trail and Balsam Mountain Trail
I was all packed and ready to drive directly from work to Round Bottom where my plan was to night hike 4.5 miles to Laurel Gap Shelter. Traffic on I-85 in Atlanta was awful, but I was on my way soon enough. After a wrong turn in Cherokee and some wandering through the Cherokee Indian Reservation on a night time search for the the Straight Fork Road turnoff I finally made it to Round Bottom much later than expected. By the time I started hiking, it was nearly midnight.
I set off at a quick pace with my headlamp guiding the way. The woods seemed to close in on me and I didn’t feel relaxed. It didn’t help that in the dark the starting point seemed a particularly remote spot located miles up a gravel road. This night hike was a climb of over 2000 feet and soon I was high enough to make out the large dark form of a mountain opposite the mountain I was climbing. I reached a freshly fallen tree that as luck would have it fell lengthwise across the trail. The side of the mountain was very steep so going around was nearly impossible. Going through the maze of branches was equally difficult in the dark. After much struggling, I managed to climb through the fallen canopy and skirt some areas by climbing around on the steep bank.
Moving on I continued to ascend. Suddenly I heard several loud deep grunts just above me. I kept walking and turned my headlamp to the brightest setting and looked through the woods above in search of the source of the warning call. Whatever it was, it was along side me, neither in front or in back. I continued moving up the trail only to be further rattled when the deep grunting sound followed along above the trail. I scanned the woods with my headlamp several times. Never seeing anything, I kept moving. The sound kept moving along with me while maintaining its distance. Not wanting give the impression of prey, I moved deliberately. Before long the sound stopped and I moved faster to put distance between myself and whatever had been lurking up above me. As I hiked, now moving faster than ever I wondered what it could be. I thought perhaps a deer that was defending territory. Once while hiking near Grayson Highlands I had a deer (in daylight) make a similar sound as it stamped a hoof to warn me away. Maybe I was just hoping my creature was a deer. It could just as well have been a bear, but by the sound of it, it was definitely a large animal, either dear, bear, or wild hog.
I finally topped out and reached Balsam Mountain trail after some flat terrain and easier climbing I found the turnoff sign for the shelter. A man and his son were surprised to see someone hike up after 1 AM. They had a fire going in the fireplace and the shelter still had fencing and gate across the front. After my earlier encounter, I was only too glad that the park service had not yet taken down the chain link fencing from the front of this shelter.
November 5th – Mt Sterling Ridge
Mount Sterling Ridge is the kind of hike that I like. It is a high elevation relatively flat ridge walk with cool breezes and views. In addition, it leads to the attraction of a fire tower making it a top spot to hike in the GSMNP.
Big Creek Trail was another easy hike. This wide flat trail follows the creek and would be make an ideal beginners horse trip. I hiked quickly in order to push out the last 5 miles as a thunderstorm threatened.
November 6th – Camel Gap Trail and Balsam Mountain Trail
Camel Gap Trail involves a climb that leads through open mountain laurel tops. Balsam Mountain Trail is all high elevation with some narrow ridge walks making it another of my favorites. I was often stepping off the trail to check out views from open ridge spots.
Returning to Laurel Gap Shelter, I took down food supplies that I had cached on the bear cable the day before. Someone had stolen my boxed wine and left me some undesirable food that they must not have wanted to eat or pack out. I spent a 2nd night at Laurel Gap Shelter. The shelter, one of 3 that are not on the AT has a grassy area and sits at a spot over 5000 feet making it my favorite shelter. Another reason I like this shelter is that it has Mt. Sterling Ridge and Balsam Mountain trails nearby.
November 7th – Ups and Downs
Down Gunter Fork Trail back to where I had camped 2 nights ago, then up Swallow Fork Trail crossing Sterling Ridge Trail. Finally down Pretty Hollow Gap Trail to my campsite.
At CS39, I built a campfire and laid down next to it until late. For the first time on this trip, I was camping without any other campers in the area.
November 8th – Hiking out to Straight Fork Road
It was a cold morning, but the climb up Palmer Creek Trail warmed me up. Later, when during what seemed like an endless walk down Straight Fork Road, I was cold, particularly my hands.