Saturday, July 25, 2009

Hiking Harper Creek Trail & South Harper Creek Falls

I don't normally blog about hiking. It's something I love to do. Something that challenges me. But writing about most hikes... I mean who wants to read "I climbed for a while and then got to this incredible view."

No, that's why I take and post pictures of hikes. The woods can look the same to many people, but the things trails lead to are the things people can get excited about.

That said, I had a hike today that warrants writing about.

The Wilson Creek Area of North Carolina sits in the Pisgah National Forest. Getting there means driving on gravel National Forest Roads. And it is stunning. I had hiked this area before to Lost Cove Cliffs and North Harper Creek Falls. It is a rugged wilderness area. Any trail guide warns you that it is a remote area and must be treated as such. Where I went today was on another side of the area, just south of Mortimer, NC.

The Forest Service (or someone) has posted a sign as you enter this area from the south noting that in the area you are entering, emergency services are going to have a hard, if not impossible time getting to you. That's the kind of place this is. You want to see the crazy stuff, you have to take the chance.

Before I set out, I made sure I had my Wilson Creek Area map. This is not an area that you want to get lost in. Also in my pack, I take matches, a knife and usual-type hiking "just in case" items. Some other supplies I have with me when I hike:

  • A bandanna - Not to wear. Bandannas are rather versatile pieces of fabric.
  • Emergency water packets - Given to me when I worked in a skyscraper in NYC and after all New Yorkers had to walk home twice in two years. For what it's worth, those air-tight packets had an expiry date of 9/09 on them.
  • First Aid kit - self explanatory
Now, before I left on this hike, I checked a variety of Web sites for information on the hike. The one I used the most was this one. This morning, as I packed my bag, I re-read that trail guide and decided to take a towel and an extra pair of socks. I will admit that the towel was mainly packed in the event I wanted to use the swimming hole toward the end of the hike. The socks... I just kinda had a feeling.

Finally, I need to note, I am a pretty good hiker. I make good decisions. I follow proper trail etiquette. I have handled some rather difficult hikes. That includes the 3,600' ascent up Mt. Mitchell.

Today, dear readers, was the most difficult hike I've ever done. Pardon the pun, but walk with me here. We start at 10:30 a.m.

The hike begins easily enough, along a well-blazed trail. It is well-blazed because there the above-mentioned swimming hole is very popular with folks. Then, came a junction where the swimming hole people turn right and walk uphill half a mile. To the left, is where the people who came to hike go, the Raider Camp Trail. And the moment you do, you come to the first crossing of Harper Creek.

Harper Creek is not a trickle. And there are no bridges on this hike. At this point, the first crossing, I have been hiking for about 30 minutes. The trail guide notes this is the place where you need to decide about moving forward. If you cannot get across the creek, turn around.

I could get across. Rock-hopping. I figured the upstream crossings I have to handle later on to complete the "loop" of my hike cannot be any worse...

The Raider Camp Trail was my hikes primary climb. About 1,200' in just over 2 miles. That is a climb, but not unmanageable. The problem I was having... I had already gone through a troubling amount of water. I was halfway done with one of my liter bottles.

I carry iodine tablets to purify water if I need to restock en route. Trouble is, that method is mainly best for springs. Stream water carries sediment, which I cannot filter.

Still, the Raider Camp Trail is well-blazed. I took it the entire way to South Harper Creek Falls. A 200' cascade, this waterfall is impressive. And you look the other way and there's Grandfather Mountain looming. It's NC at its best. Even the guided group of 10 hikers taking up my solitude couldn't ruin the moment.

The trail guide warns that the easy part of the hike is now over. I still have 4-5 miles to hike back, this time along Harper Creek, to get back to my car.

Folks, this is why you carry a map when you hike. Otherwise, I would be wandering around the Pisgah National Forest right now. Without the map, there would have been no way to know that I was to then take a different trail - feeling like I was backtracking - to go around the top of the waterfall to get to the Harper Creek Trail and begin walking back.

It's funny, though, you start to feel like Magellan or something... you say "hmm, this looks like the way to go" but it's not until you see the correct blaze that you know you were right. It's rather validating.

Now, I know I'm about to cross the creek 11 more times. Why the Forest Service didn't have the trail simply hug one side of the creek the whole way I don't know. I assume they are using our tax dollars to screw with us. Hippie hikers like me vote Democrat and I'm sure this trail design was a revenge tactic on Dems.

Trouble #1: Water is officially an issue at this point. This is not a comfortable feeling, especially when your options are 1) to turn around and climb up a big ravine that will require you to drink water or 2) hike a longer way and conserve your resources.

Fortunately, the only direction I am heading is down if I stay on the creek, so I press on. And in the process of climbing over a fallen tree and some odd roots, I slam the top of my boot into something and crush my left index toe. It's an odd feeling to know that you aren't going to want to look at your tow later on. And then...

Trouble #2: Is this the trail? Chances are, you are a normal person. And that means you hike only every so often and usually in your friendly neighborhood state park. The Wilson Creek Area is not a state park. And this trail, the Harper Creek Trail is not only blazed badly, but very badly. Adding to the fun is that parts of it are ridiculously overgrown. You come to realize that if a plant is not sprouting from the ground directly below you, you are on the trail. Doesn't matter if you cannot see the trail. If it's clear at your feet, you're on the trail. This is occasionally verified by a blaze. You can at least take solace in that you brought a map. And looking at the map tells you that, as long as you are beside Harper Creek, you can only be so lost.

You can be more wet, however. As if bushwhacking through rhododendron and other flora wasn't enough of a physical challenge, the creek crossings provided an extra element of challenge. You're on the trail. There's a blaze right there. Problem: all that is in front of you for 30 feet is water. You can see the trail way over on the other bank. The Forest Service was kind enough to put a blaze over there. That's well and good, but right now it is taunting me. "I'm over here and you're over there! Haha!"

Now, most of the creek crossings were rock-hoppable. Some required some improvisation. My apologies to the Forest Service, but yes, I left the trail once or twice so that I didn't end up in the drink.

You find out on a hike like this just how waterproof your boots are. Mine, from previous experience, are known to be pretty waterproof, actually. I can stand in water up to my ankles and stay dry. But if water overtops that level... water will flow down my sock into the boot.

On two crossings, I cannot believe I did this because it's probably less safe, I removed boots and socks and went barefoot. And I got a look at that toe. Yeah, it's not pretty. Unless you find under-nail bruises pretty.

And on one crossing, I didn't think I needed to shed my footwear. This was a mistake. My foot slipped on a rock and, in the process of bracing myself to not fall down, my other foot slammed into a rock. At least, with matching bruises on each foot, it looks like it's supposed to be that way.

Oh and... yeah, boot, sock and foot are now wet.

Point being, the towel and extra pair of socks got their use. As did my emergency water packets. And, unfortunately, the bandanna did, too.

See, on a descending rock hop (over ground), my footing went an unexpected way. This happens. When I reached down to brace myself, my wrist scraped the ground - and a root - ripping one end of the stainless steel band clean off my watch and giving me some dandy wrist scratches. Sweaty summer hiking doesn't go well with band-aids. The first aid kit would have to wait. And I couldn't use the precious water I still had to rinse the wound. Only option: bind tightly with the bandanna. This worked. Surprisingly well, actually.

I finally came to the swimming hole. The original plan was to go take 30 minutes and relax. Now, I cannot begin to tell you how unattractive an idea that was. I carried on. And in the process robbed myself of a great photo opp. The swimming hole is a SIGHT, but the idea of climbing down and back up... not happening.

At 4:30 p.m. I emerged at my car. Which is... pretty much exactly the time this hike should take (without a swimming hole stop). I would like to thank the group of wonderful people from Monroe, NC who provided me with a water bottle at that point. I should note that came to be because I made a comment about a Penn State shirt one of them was wearing. Say what you want about sports fandom... you meet a fan of one of your teams, they'll do stuff for you.

Anyhow, I smelled like a homeless person, was covered with little pieces of stream, trail and loveliness. And, remember that "trail overgrown" part? Let's not act too surprised that I found a big ol' tick on my leg when I got home to shower. Better the big ones that the little Dear Ticks, though... all about avoiding Lyme Disease.

When all was said and done, it was a rewarding 8.5 miles. I got to see sights that only a handful of people get to see; most people would be daunted by this kind of hike. I challenged myself like I never had... I can honestly say I pushed myself about as far as I care to push.

But it did come at a price. My body will heal (though I shudder to think how my legs will feel getting out of bed tomorrow). My watch can be fixed. But, I was absolutely ready to not be hiking be the end of the day today. And that's not something I say too often.

So next month... going with something much easier.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Clearing Up Some Things

They should start to call this time of year "silly season" on cable news. With no election on tap, every political issue is over-analyzed to death. And, despite arguably higher interest in political causes and news, there is still a ridiculous misunderstanding of basic civics. As such, as a public service, I'd like to clear up some things:
  • We are not "socialist," nor are we likely to be. We have this thing, see, called the Constitution. This document, which people hold up all the time, might be the least-read document in our country. Or the most misunderstood. See, the Constitution states that we have a republic, including a bicameral legislature, an executive and a judicial branch. We are required, unless, we the people vote to amend the Constitution, required to be a republic. And if we start doing things that aren't in concert with that, the Supreme Court walks in and takes care of that. Further... a socially-supported healthcare system that is passed into law by a democratically-elected legislature, signed into law by the executive and not challenged by the Supreme Court isn't socialism. It is a model of our republican system. The government taking over a car company isn't truly socialist either. If anything, it's saving jobs. A truly socialist auto plan would be to halt imports and then the government takes full control of all car companies, manufactures the cars and distributes a car to every eligible American.
  • More on healthcare - It's not OK to say you're against the government being at all involved in healthcare, you cannot support government taking a stand on abortion. It's not OK for a government to be allowed to intervene in certain medical cases as it will set a much scarier precedent.
  • Lots lately on opinion polls. Aside from the always-present "approval rating," my favorite lately was how Mitt Romney would fare in an election against Barack Obama. The earliest that could happen is three years from now. I'm just going to throw this out there, but I doubt anyone voting in 2012 will vote based on how they felt in 2009. They'll vote on how things are going at that moment in 2012. If you agree with that, you agree that a poll looking at a potential election at this stage means about as much as a prediction of the weather on Nov. 1, 2012.
  • On a lighter note... watching the Yankees the other night, they were making a big deal about how bad the Yanks are against the AL East. Let's note that the Yankees are, as of this writing, in first place. The Yankees have lost all eight games against the Red Sox so far this year. People seem to think that matters. It doesn't. Let's look at this. Take out the eight head-to-head games and the Red Sox are 47-38. The Yanks are 57-29. In the division the Yankees are 18-9 against everyone but the Sox. The Red Sox are 15-11. So, against the Red Sox, maybe the Yankees aren't as strong. Against everyone else in baseball, the Yankees are much better.
Anyhow, thanks for your time. Glad we could clear this up.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Regional delicacies... indeed

One of my readers asked for a new blog post. That's a solid 20%-25% of the readership (hey, prove me wrong in the comments). So...

Just got back from a trip to Baltimore/Washington. In fact, today was the third time I've found myself in BWI airport in as many months. But today was the first time I was able to have crab in Maryland in years. WIN. The thing is, anymore, the crabs you get in Baltimore aren't from the Bay. There is a long, unfortunate story about why. That said, regardless, Maryland people know how to cook them some crab. Ate lunch today at G&M Restaurant in Linthicum, MD. Ridiculously huge crab cakes made of generous lumps of crabmeat. Old Bay? Oh yes.

Got me thinking... what food MUST I have when I travel someplace? Some thoughts:

  • Pizza in New York City - While I have found fantastic pizza in the South - some as good as NYC's - there's still something about grabbing a slice in some standing-only place in Manhattan. Also, many pizza places in NYC (like Bravo on 6th Ave.) have $1.50 tap beer. So... price of a slice? $2. Beer? $1.50. Lunch for that little including alcohol? Priceless.
  • Deep Dish Pizza in Chicago - I am firmly a member of the cadre of Gino's East. And anyone who FedEx-s me a pizza from there will be in my will. It may not be something big, but still... in the will. Unless you act like a schmuck about it.
  • Lobster in Maine - Self-explanatory
  • Crepes in Quebec - This place in Magog, QC is something else. Rather francophone, if you can manage to order clearly, your payoff is an outstanding all-crepe meal. All kinds of crepes. It's amazing. And not something you can really get in the U.S.
  • Soup in a bread bowl in San Francisco - Yes. I am a tourist. This still rules.
  • BBQ in Texas - I thought Stubb's was the best until I tried The Salt Lick. I barely posses words to discuss this place. The brisket. I would kill for that brisket right now. You can smell this place a mile down the road.
I'm sure there are more out there. Cheese steaks in Philly. Grouper in Tampa. Let's have them folks!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Location, location, location...

I think it's important to really enjoy the place you live. It's not OK to be someplace and not enjoy what you have around you. Granted, there are people who, due to their attitude toward life and its challenges, won't be happy anywhere.

Still, the missus and I were discussing how lucky we are living where we do. Charlotte on its own is a more-than-tolerable place to pass the time (and with two new music venues drawing mid-size acts, it's getting better by the day).

But it also seems like the perfect place to be able to explore with ease. Consider the destinations we've hit for long weekends (and in some cases day trips):

  • Charleston, SC - Really, it can be a day trip if you don't mind a long-ish day. And really, this is one of America's great cities. We didn't get married there for kicks. It was a place we loved and knew anyone who travelled there would adore. Palm-lined streets. Crazy history. A city that really feels like no other I've been to. And it's three hours of excellent road away.
  • Savannah, GA - Charleston's country cousin down the road. Just went here for the first time and loved it. Dare I say, if you've been there you know it's hip to be "square." By the way... food in Charleston and Savannah is outstanding.
  • Asheville, NC - Only the most gorgeous mountain city you can think up. Boho types mix in seamlessly with Asheville gentry and students from the two colleges that call Asheville home. I was here on a Tuesday last year and got to have the "acoustic lunch" at a College St. pub. Tuesday. A workday. And they're having a well-attended acoustic lunch. Love it.
  • Atlanta - Oh. You want a big city? Done. Check. Right here. Four-hour drive and you're there. And, traffic aside, this place has few downsides. Pretty much anything you want... generally at a price that is better than other places in the country that have everything you want.
  • Chattanooga, TN - I want to take Sarah here pretty badly. Seems like the perfect weekending city. You've got great natural attractions (Lookout Mountain), cheesy-but-cool touristy stuff (Ruby Falls), a beautiful national cemetery, good food, a decent-but-low-key entertainment district. Who'd've thought?
This isn't even beginning to note the close-to-home NC attractions. And with more time, we're driving distance to Florida's First Coast, Washington, D.C., Nashville and even Birmingham, AL.

And, there's always the hub airport 20 minutes from the house. That is starting a direct flight to Rio.