December 28, 2017

Appalachian Trail to Temple Hill

  • 8.23 miles
  • 7:02 duration
  • 2113 feet elevation gain
  • 6 geocaches

If you have read my post from December 26, you know all about the Adventure Awaits: Frequent Flyer Miles challenge by DMflyer (Dennis). If you haven’t read that post, there is a special cache at Bay’s Mountain Park that can only be logged by geocachers who have found 20 or more caches hidden by DMflyer that have a terrain rating of four or higher (on a scale of one to five).

I qualified for that cache some time back, but wanted to wait to log it until my frequent hiking companion LakeBum (Rob) could join me. Occasionally we will target hikes that will give him multiple high terrain hides by DMflyer in order to speed up the process. This was to be one of those hikes, as it gave us the opportunity to log four qualifying caches.

We had just hiked close to nine miles two days earlier, and took a day “off” to recuperate. Instead, we both helped my wife Deban move furniture at her office. Not exactly a day of rest, but Rob has some great tools that made the job a lot easier.

The weather forecast was for another cold but clear day with temps in the 20s. Once again I layered up, and this time even brought my balaclava – a full face mask. Since it covers the head, ears, mouth and nose, it gave me more protection against the freezing temps. I was also prepared with Hot Toes in my boots, and had a pair of Hot Hands in my pack in case my hands got too cold.

We parked next to the Nolichucky River near Erwin, and walked across the bridge to begin our journey. This short walk on level ground gave us the chance to warm up our muscles a bit before starting the steep climb up the mountain.

After six tenths of a mile and an elevation gain of about 300 feet, we came to our first cache which is called 2K View because it is at an altitude of around 2000 feet. Based on the photos on the cache page, when Dennis hid this cache nearly 12 years ago, there were good views of the valley below from this spot. Trees now block that view, but we were happy to stop, catch our breath, and log a cache.

Rob made the find, and discovered that there were actually two cache containers sitting side by side, both with log sheets dating back several years. At some point in time, someone must have thought the cache was missing and replaced it. Then, it seems that some people were finding the original container and others were finding the replacement. Eventually, someone found both and placed them in the same hiding place. We signed both log sheets for good measure.

By this time our exertions had warmed me up enough that I shed my balaclava and exchanged it for my NCO beanie cap. We continued up the trail, and at the one mile mark found the views we were missing. From this point we could see back toward the town of Erwin, and could see the Nolichucky River winding below us. Another quarter mile up the trail were even better views of the river far below us. I checked the elevation at this point, and we were at 2235 feet, having climbed 500 feet. But, there was still much more mountain to climb so we continued on. But not before shedding my down jacket. No, the day had not warmed up any, but my body certainly had.

The next cache we found was also hidden by DMflyer, but both it and the first had only a three and a half terrain rating. Although they were enjoyable finds, they did not count toward the Adventure Awaits Frequent Flyer challenge so we trudged on.

By this time, we were seeing more and more snow on the ground. Unlike our snow hike at Bay’s Mountain earlier in the month, this was not a peaceful hike. On that day, the soft, fluffy snow muffled everything. Today, the frozen soil crunched beneath our feet. Even the parts of the trail that were white with snow crackled as we walked along. A closer look revealed that the snow was actually more like billions of tiny ice pellets.

In some places we could see a phenomenon called needle ice pushing up through the soil. This is created when the air temperature is below freezing but the soil temperature is above freezing. Water that is flowing just below the surface of the soil is pulled out by the cold air, and freezes into needle-like structures.

Of course, the sounds of our feet treading across the frozen ground were nothing in comparison to the grunts, groans and griping coming from our bodies as we continued to climb higher and higher. Rob and I don’t typically talk a lot while hiking. Much of our conversation is limited to redundant puns and sarcasm that no one else would laugh at. But, we do love to whine about each hill we climb, each rock or root that threatens to trip us, and each ache and pain we are feeling.

As we trudged along, I paused a moment to take a picture of the footprints some small animal had left on a snow covered log. While I was doing that, Rob decided to check his phone to see if we were near the next cache, and discovered that it was only feet away. Reading the hint, he told me that it said to sit on the log I was just taking a photo of, and look straight ahead to the hollow stump. It seems I had picked the perfect time to stop for a photo. Otherwise, we would have walked on and missed the cache.

Rob pointed out the hollow stump in question, and I made my way up to it, where I found the cache buried in leaves and snow. This was our first ammo can of the day, and the first cache with a terrain rating of four. I had to bang on it with my hiking stick a few times to convince it to leave its frozen nest, and then bang on it some more time be able to open it. It had last been found in September 2016, making this a cache resurrection.

Continuing up the trail, we found our next cache of the day at an elevation of 3147 feet. Rob made the find on this one as I wandered off in the wrong direction. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been looking in one spot when he has said, “Or maybe it is right here,” I would be a rich woman. Or at least be able to buy a nice meal. This was also an ammo can that was frozen in place and needed a little “gentle” persuasion. It was another cache resurrection because it had last been found a year and three months ago.

Although it was getting close to lunch time, we decided to press onward to our next cache. We wanted to find it, have a quick snack, and then eat lunch once we had reached the location of our final cache atop Temple Hill. We continued along the trail, whining a bit because we were now encountering PUDS – pointless ups and downs. When you are facing yet another hill to climb, it is a bit disheartening to have to first descend the hill you are on.

Around three hours in to our hike, and at three and a half miles we reached our next target. This cache was about 95 feet off the trail, so we had to do a bit of bush whacking to reach it. Rob once again spotted the cache first, and pulled it from its icy hiding spot. This was a red ammo can with a custom paint job. On one side was a car. On the other an airplane and a helicopter. On the end was a space ship. This was cache resurrection number three of the day, having last been found a year and a half ago. We signed the log, I took some photos, and then we made our way back to the trail where we paused for a snack to help us make the final climb. We were at an elevation of 3200 feet at this point, and the last cache was atop Temple Hill at an elevation of 3700 feet.

At the 3.6 mile point of our hike, we left the Appalachian Trail to follow what was left of an old service road up the mountain. At first our path followed a wide, fairly clear roadbed. Then, we started to encounter downed trees. Some we were able to step or climb over. Some we had to stoop and scoot under. A few had us on our hands and knees crawling. In one place, it appeared that trees from each side of the trail had purposely grown toward each other in an attempt to form an impenetrable barrier. But, we persevered. There was one tree that had gone completely crazy, growing in three or four entirely different directions. All of this was made even more challenging by the snow covering our path.

Then, the real fun began. The trail was completely choked by small pine trees. They smelled heavenly, but the route through them was hell. They constantly fought us by slapping our faces as we pushed through, and blinded us to the obstacles at our feet.

Finally, we emerged on the other side, and continued our corkscrew route around and up the mountain. At one point, we totally lost the trail and had to just bushwhack upward in an attempt to reach the top. I was excited to spot a pile of twisted metal, because I knew that we were near the summit where a fire tower had once stood.

And then, we were there! We found two concrete blocks upon which the legs of the tower had once stood, and each of us stepped up on one. We stood and surveyed our surroundings, imagining the views that were once possible here. The forest had long since taken over this mountain top, so we could not see far, but we relished our victory in conquering the mountain. Rob exclaimed that from now on, each time he drove along the interstate and looked over to see this mountain he could say, “I climbed that!”

We were happy to have survived the journey, but still had one more task – to find the last cache. We had read a log written in 2015 in which the finder described what he had found. The metal ammo can had apparently been mauled by a bear who had somehow gotten it open, chewed on all of the plastic contents, scattering them about the mountain. The original log book had been chewed so badly it was unusable. The bear had then dragged or thrown the container about 100 feet down the mountainside. This geocacher had gathered everything he could find and returned the cache to its hiding spot. We only hoped that it had remained there and had not been dragged off again.

We each stepped off of our concrete blocks and moved in different directions in search of the cache. My phone kept taking me back to one area, and eventually Rob circled around in that direction. My geosenses began tingling as I moved to a likely looking spot, and moved aside some snow covered logs. I spied metal, and began to tap on it with my hiking stick. Hearing that sound, Rob raced in my direction, praising my superior cache finding skills.

We found the contents of the cache chewed just as described in the log we had read, and found the new log book that that finder had placed in the cache. We also found a chewed scrap of paper on which DMflyer had written a note. Most of it was unreadable, but I was able to make out, “…hope you enjoyed the hike…” Ha! Enjoyed may be a bit of a stretch for the hell we had just been through. At a year and three months since last found, this was our fourth resurrection of the day.

We signed the log, and I decided to liberate the travel bug that was in the cache. It was only after I got home later that evening and pulled up the web page to log the travel bug that I realized it belonged to my buddy BackWoodsAng. About an hour after I had logged it, I received a message from him saying he had given up hope of ever seeing it again. It had lingered in the cache for more than two years.

After we signed the log book and replaced the cache, Rob and I retreated to our respective concrete blocks to sit and eat our lunch. It felt much colder at the top of the mountain, or maybe it was just that we weren’t moving and producing heat, so I put my jacket back on. Rob took off his sweaty hoodie and hung it from a tree to dry, and put his jacket back on. The ham sandwich I had brought with me was the best I had ever tasted.

After a nice rest and enjoyable meal, we prepared to head back down the mountain. When Rob retrieved his hoodie, he discovered that the sweat on it had frozen! I can only imagine how cold that was to put back on. My fingers were uncomfortably cold for the first time, so I pulled out the Hot Hands I had packed and tucked them inside my gloves.

The trip back down the overgrown service road was much quicker than the way up, but no less eventful. Each of us slipped or tripped at different times, and I actually ended up on my knees at one point. Eventually we made it back to the Appalachian Trail and shed our outer jackets before we began our hike back toward the truck.

At each point that we had to travel uphill, we groaned and complained of leaden legs. During the downhill sections, we moved much more quickly. Finally, we reached the point where it was mostly downhill and were thankful for no more climbs. We wove our way back and forth across the side of the mountain as we made our way down, following the numerous switchbacks on the trail.

At one point, Rob stopped to look at something in the trail. When I caught up with him, I saw it was a good sized frog, still alive, but just barely. How it got there, we could only imagine. Perhaps a predator of some kind had scooped it up and carried it up the mountain, dropping it when they heard us coming down the trail. A little further down the trail we could hear a creek running in the gap below us, so perhaps that was where it had come from. I briefly wondered if there was a beautiful waterfall down there that we were missing, but I was too tired to go bushwhacking off trail so quickly dismissed the thought.

As we made our way down, we finally reached the point that we could hear the river below us when we were on that side of the mountain, and the views were just as beautiful as on our trip up. At one point, we were actually able to see my truck in the distance far below us. This gave me an extra spurt of energy needed to make it the rest of the way down to the valley, despite the protests from my feet, ankles and knees.

When we reached the road at long last, we noticed an interesting tree on the opposite side that we had walked past on the way up without seeing. It had grown around the bars of the safety rails along the walkway. I paused to take a photo of it, and paused again as we crossed the bridge to take photos of Christmas decorations someone had duct taped to the bridge railing.

We arrived at my truck seven hours after we had left, tired but happy with our accomplishment. Now Rob lacks only one cache to qualify for DMflyer’s challenge. Where will we go next?

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