Citico Wilderness Backpack:
A Computer in the Backcountry??!!
Our luck changes
Monday, May 28 - Memorial Day Yeah, in your dreams, Fleischman!! We awoke to a telltale pitter patter about 4 am, and launched ourselves outside the tent to take a leak before it got wet. Susie expressed concern that unlike last night, this shower would not be so scattered. I remained upbeat as always, but had little factual basis to support my outlook. It turned out this time, Susie was right. The showers came in waves, and we slept fitfully until 7 am. It seemed obvious that we would have to break camp under more than damp conditions. I heated water for our oatmeal and coffee within reach just outside the tent and Susie started packing her gear inside. The rain slowed way down, and I began to feel a bit more optimistic. Just as we were at our most vulnerable - my gear spread out underneath a tree, and the fly off the tent, the skies opened up, and everything turned to a soupy mess. Just like Ronnie Millsap sings, Smoky Mountain rain just keeps on fallin'. As soon as I got the tent stuffed in it sack, I threw everything else inside the pack, and encouraged Susie to join Barbara and head on down the trail, since I would catch up as soon as I got a fix on the satellites, and the GPS started tracking properly.
A sidebar here: first, a handheld GPS's ability to get a fix under heavy vegetation is vastly more compromised when the leaves are wet, like when it is raining. Our buddy George has pointed that out to me several times, but like most lessons, you really have to learn them yourself. It took forever to get a fix. I eventually settled on a "2D fix" (only 3 satellites visible to the GPS) and threw the GPS in the top of my pack and decided that I could always come back later to re-map this section of trail with a map wheel. After looking at yesterday's track (Click here for a 350 KB image of the Day 2 track.), it seemed like the GPS was doing a pretty good job, especially without an external antenna. Not perfect, but then, there is always an issue as to "who" is correct, the map wheel, the GPS, or a simple track over the terrain on a digital map. For those interested, according to the hiking guide, we had covered 6.44 miles yesterday. The GPS tracking, once corrected for places where the sky fix gets momentarily lost, showed 6.8 miles covered. Just scribing the route on a digital map, showed 6.05 miles walked. If we assume that the hiking guide in which the trail was measured with a mapping where, is the benchmark, this means that the other measures are within about 7% of the "true" measure. In analytical chemistry, we call that pretty darn good. Of course, hiking is not chemistry, but the point here is that to within a first approximation, either of the easier approaches will give a pretty good number. And besides, exactly how does one measure mileage when one is hiking, unless one carries a measuring wheel? I am not sure I can tell the difference between 6.4 miles and 6.8 miles when I am backpacking.
Back to the hike: I threw the GPS in the top of my pack and took off, trying to make time. Tough to do when everything is slippery. I came up on Barbara waiting for me at the unmarked (of course) junction with the Jeffrey Hell trail. She indicated that Susie must really have her mojo working, because it was impossible to maintain the pace Susie was setting. Of course, I knew that the pace was fueled by frustration with the rain and generally lousy weather. This had been predicted to be the best day of the weekend. Reality was a different matter. I felt a bit of frustration myself. With the rain continuing, there was a not-insignificant probability that the creek would rise to the point where it would be impossible to ford it safely several miles downstream at the junction with the Grassy Branch trail. I wished silently that we could have had the opportunity to discuss this while we were still in the upper reaches of the South Fork, and where the crossing would have been a simple rock hop, followed by a climb out the Jeffrey Hell trail to the road. But with our party split up, that did not seem to be practical. It seemed that the immediate deluge had subsided, and maybe we would be treated to light rain the rest of the hike. Given the fact that we were not all together, that seemed to be the best one could hope for.
So Barbara and I set out, although my pack seemed to weigh several tens of more pounds than it had the previous day. I could not keep up with Barbara, but she would discreetly slow down, so as not to bruise my ego. At one point, the trail opens up to the south, and were it not socked in, one could get great views of the South Fork Valley. All this sunlight has caused a proliferation of grape vines all over the trail. Given the Forest Service's zero maintenance policy, getting through these with a heavy pack in the rain, while maintaining one's footing on slippery rocks, reminded me of something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Barbara reported later that she could here my yelling and screaming and cursing, and so decided to hang back, to make sure it was just frustration and not injury. When the trail finally returns to alongside the creek, I told Barbara I had to take a break. We had come 4 miles over pretty rugged trail without stopping and I had to get the pack off and take some Vitamin I. I noticed that the rain had turned to drizzle, and thought maybe the worst was over. While the creek was up slightly, it did not seem much higher than Saturday, so maybe the crossing would not be too bad. We stopped for about 7 minutes, and headed on down to where we hoped Susie would be waiting. A little over a half mile down, we found her sitting on the ground against her pack, obviously NOT a happy camper. She indicated that she just couldn't deal with the rain today. Barbara recited a story about backpacking with her 7 year old grandson recently. He was complaining that a particular stretch of trail was rough, and she indicated to him that he "would just have to deal with it." "But Mamaw," he protested, "I can't ‘deal'!" Susie was definitely in a "can't deal" mood. She indicated, probably correctly, that since her boots were absolutely soaked through, there was no point in going to the trouble of changing into her stream crossing shoes. Barbara and I, always the optimists, thought we would give it a shot, and since I had to take off my pack anyway to stop the GPS tracking (we had made a complete loop now, and there was no point in just duplicating the track we had done on Saturday), I figured I might as well change my shoes.
The creek ford was not too difficult, and we started up the Grassy Branch trail. We stopped a few hundred meters up the trail, and ate what passed for lunch in the light drizzle. I think all of us were ready to be out of the wet. Probably we were wetter than we might otherwise have been if we had been on a long trip, since we would have taken greater care to keep our gear dry. Small consolation as we crossed and re-crossed Eagle Branch. I put my hiking boots back on, but gave up trying to keep my feet dry, and plunged on into the water at the next ford. The climb out is continuous. Never too steep, but enough to get you soaked inside your rain gear, even when it is not raining. Heat finally got the best of me, and I decided to strip off my GoreTex jacket. That stop put me behind the rest of the crew, and no one seemed to want to linger today. Soon after I stripped, I was hiking up the trail, and heard a big crash behind me. A large branch had fallen right on the trail where I had been walking. I couldn't figure if the rain gods were smiling on my, or just taunting me. With a little more than a half mile to go, the rain gods decided to let us have it again. Of course, without the shelter of my rain jacket, it felt a bit more refreshing. A final walk through flat forest, filled with hemlocks, and I could see the parking area. Barbara was over in the "shelter" of a tree, peeling off gear, and Susie, speed demon that she is, was already inside the car. I stood out in the light rain, and stripped off my hiking gear and into a dry shirt and shorts. I think the three of us felt like a bunch of semi-drowned cats. But once in the car, and rolling down the road with the air conditioning and the heat on, things started looking up. Hell, two out of three ain't so bad.
© Roger A. Jenkins, 2001