Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Skinny Hound and The Chubby Kid

The Skinny Hound and The Chubby Kid

            It was an early Friday morning when I packed my Jeep and headed toward the Nantahala National Forest for a weekend of camping, hiking, and camaraderie with my buddy Rick. The sun had just crept over the eastern horizon and the air was cool, giving evidence that Fall had arrived.  A slight breeze rustled the changing leaves and made the air feel even cooler than it was.

            As I drove the three hours north, the sky turned from the pearly gray of dawn to brilliant blue.  The further north I drove the more vivid the colors of the leaves.  There were reds, oranges and yellows, that danced as the gentle breeze combed the hillsides. In the distance I could see the tall ridge line of the Appalachian Mountains.  The mountains stood bluish gray and went from the southwest to the northeast as far as the eye could see. I thought to myself, I’ve walked that! 

            My buddy Rick and I planned to camp. Some may call it Glamping (a glamorous camping).  We prefer to call it truck camping.  We each bring our Condominium size tent, along with a double size air mattress, I pods, I pads, Kindles, Nooks, comforters, feather pillows, night lights, ice chests, cooking stoves, grills, tiki lamps, table cloths and enough food to feed a small army.  I had my Jeep full of all the necessary equipment and was looking forward to getting camp set at Turkey Creek on Fontana Lake.  Turkey Creek campground is a relatively small campground, but has great amenities, such as hot showers, flush toilets, billiard tables, a community area with a 50 inch flat screen television, and washer and dryers, not mention the owners of the campground have become good friends.  Their dog, Huey, a Labramut, roams the campground, keeping a watchful eye on all. It always amazes me that every time we begin to cook a meal, Huey straggles into the campsite. Never does he beg, nor does he become a nuisance.  He’ll simply sit by our campfire and give us a forlorn look as if to be saying, “I haven’t eaten in three days,” although Rick and I both know he is fed well.  

            I pulled into the campground a little before noon and found the campsite where Rick had already set up.  I set camp within thirty minutes and informed Rick that I still had to go to the grocery store to get my food for the weekend.  We loaded into my Jeep and drove the seven miles to Ingles in Bryson City to get my necessary provisions.  That’s when we noticed there was a significant haze in the air.  Even though the skies were cloudless there was a haze that hung in the air, obliterating the distant views of the mountains.  We both wondered what the culprit was. It could be pollen, but I had heard on the radio on the way up, that the pollen count was lower than it had been all season.  Rick suggested it might be humidity, but the air felt only cool and dry.  After a long discussion of the phenomena, we decided that it might be smoke from a forest fire somewhere.  Our attention then went to what we were to cook for Friday and Saturday as we pulled into the parking lot of Ingles.

            We bought the necessary provisions for the weekend, which included a couple of Filet Mignons, Tuna Filets, potatoes for baking, rice, salad, corn, a few other assorted vegetables, pancake mix and chips and salsa to munch on in between meals.   And just in case of an injury we purchased the necessary medical supplies; a twelve pack of beer and a few bottles of wine.  We both remembered seeing in movies where gun shot, arrow, and knife wounds would be first cleansed with hard liquor.  Then right before the bullet, arrow or whatever was removed, the patient would take a big swig of the spirits and problem was solved. Unfortunately, Ingles did not carry any hard liquor, but we figured our injuries would not be near as severe as a bullet or arrow wound, so beer and wine would be fine. Even if Ingles had the liquor, we had no mixers, or a blender and steaks go better with beer or wine anyway.

            As we drove back to the campsite, we noticed the suspicious haze that obliterated the views persisted and we began to worry what the views might be like the following day on Cheoah Bald.

            Huey, the ever present campground labramut, greeted us as we turned into the campground.  He simply raised his head from the front porch of the office, wagged his tail and gave a short bark or two, before rolling over on his side and going back to his nap.

            Now that our camp was complete, Rick and I retrieved our collection of maps and began to study them in detail discussing our plan for our next day’s hike.  We figured this was a good time to sample the chips and salsa, we were between meals, and of course since we were also thirsty, and rationalizing that we bought way too much beer, we split a six pack.

            The plan was simple. We would get up early, fix some pancakes, bacon and coffee for breakfast and be at the trailhead by 9:00am the next morning.  We would hike about 5.6 miles to the summit of Cheoah Bald (elevation 5,062 ft).  There would be about a 2,800 foot elevation gain and the trail would be rocky in places. It was not going to be a walk in the park. Just as we were putting the maps away, satisfied with our plan, Huey lumbered into the campsite.  I guess he heard us munching on the chips and salsa or it could have been us digging for the second six pack of beer.

            The next morning was chilly, but not near as cold as I had expected.  We hurriedly fixed breakfast, cleaned our dishes and headed for the trailhead at Stecoah Gap.  The mystery haze that had plagued the skies the day before had just mysteriously disappeared and the sky was crystal clear. Most of the red leaves at this altitude had already fallen, but the yellows and oranges, mixed with the deep greens of the conifers was dazzling.  The sky, now free from the haze, was the deepest dark blue that I had seen in a long time.

            The trail we were to climb, is actually a section of the famed Appalachian Trail, and is considered by most, to be a difficult section.  We were hiking from north to south, then return the same way. The trail begins climbing rather steeply for the first mile and covers some rocky terrain.  We climbed this rather quickly and without too much difficulty we reached the first ridgeline.  We then began a rather steep descent to Simp Gap, where we took a short break and a few sips of water. The trail then began a continuous climb to the summit of Cheoah Bald.  There is a series of switch backs midway and this was about the time we heard a hound howling in the distance as if it had treed is prey.  It sounded as if it was a few miles behind us and way down in the valley.  I did not give it much thought, but Rick said, almost under his breath as if he only was thinking the question out loud, “This is October isn’t it?........Hunting season?....Bear hunting season.”

            I responded without much concern, for I was gasping for air as I led us up the steep trail, “Is it?  Well that hound sounds as if he’s got him one.”

            “What concerns me,” Rick said and paused.... “the hunters usually turn the dogs loose at the foot of the mountain and let the dogs chase the bear toward them….. where they wait with their high powered rifles midway up the slopes.” 

            I didn’t bother answering.  I appreciated the information but at the moment I was more concerned about where my next breath was going to come from.  I had worked up a sweat; my breaths were rapid, sucking what little oxygen I could grasp from the thin, chilly air.
            “Did you think to bring anything red or orange?  You know for the hunter or hunters to know we’re not a bear tearing up the mountainside.”  Rick again questioned, concern in his voice.

            “Damn!”  Now I understood what he was asking…. “No….not a thing except for my pack which is red.” I answered.
            Rick mumbled something but then asked me to hold up a minute, so that he could at least tie his red bandana around his head to be more visible in the woods.  I stopped, taking the few moments to catch my breath, and I watched as my buddy Rick retrieved his bandana from his pack.  He folded the red bandana in a triangle and tied it as a dew rag atop his head.  I stood in amazement as this grown adult transformed himself from a somewhat manly hiker to something that looked like Aunt Jemima with a white face, beard and trekking poles.

            When the task was completed he looked at me and questioned, “I don’t look like a dork do I?”

            No Rick!  You look like a bad excuse for Aunt Jemima.   “Nah dude…..better than getting shot, I guess.” I answered almost laughing out loud and thinking all the while, Hell, if the hunter sees you dressed like that, he may shoot you on purpose…… I would!

            We continued to climb the steep slope and the lone hound dog continued to howl and seemed to be getting closer to us.  We were on a series of steep switch backs when I heard Rick mumble something once again and having not heard him, he repeated it once again.  Something like, “Hey buddy……something….. something.”

            I glanced over my left shoulder toward Rick who was following about ten yards behind and immediately….. out of nowhere….. a black mass of black fur and bones almost ran me down…..bolting up the trail to pass me on my left. After the initial scare and almost pissing on myself, I realized it was a hound dog. It was a blue tick coon dog, complete with an electronic tracking collar around his neck.  It would have been a pretty dog, except it was terribly malnourished.  The poor dog was skin and bones.  Having passed me as if I was of no concern, the dog stopped a few feet in front of me and turned and waited for us to catch up to him.  He was not the least aggressive toward us and seemed content to simply walk with us. The hound did look at my buddy Rick and I imagined the hound to be thinking, what a Dork!

            We continued hiking for about an hour, me and the poor skinny hound walking faster and faster, trying to leave Rick well behind us, fearing that we might come across other hikers, or God forbid a bear hunter, and have to explain our association with this Aunt Jemima look-a-like. But the trail was too steep to put much distance between us and Aunt Jemima. Sometimes, the hound would run twenty or thirty yards ahead and then come bounding back down the trail to meet us once again as we struggled up the steep slope.  Rick and I discussed the poor hound and we wondered if maybe the dog was lost.  But why, or how, could a dog with a tracking collar be lost.  That’s when we heard more hounds, creating a ruckus further up the mountain.  Rick and I decided that this dog was probably part of the group of hounds which were yelping and howling ahead.

            Another mile of hiking and we were getting really close to the other group of hounds, which had continued their yelping and howling, as if in a frenzy.  Every time the group of hounds would begin the cacophony of yelps and barks, our hound would stop in his tracks and glance at me, appearing apprehensive to continue.  I began to wonder that our dog may not be part of this group of dogs.

            We reached an area of the trail that was steep and narrow.  Mountain laurel bordered each side of the trail and was so thick that one could not see much further than ten feet into the thicket.  We were really close to the group of coon hounds and we knew they were within twenty yards.  We went around a bend and there they were.  A bear hunter, with his rifle slung over his shoulder stood on the edge of the narrow trail.  His five or six coon hounds were all tethered together and tied to a tree.  The dogs were going absolutely crazy, and the hunter was wrestling with them trying to get them under some control.  Our poor hound stood behind us, approaching cautiously.

            I nodded to the hunter who glanced our way but seemed too preoccupied with his dogs to wonder about us.  Good for Rick….Otherwise he may have shot right through that dorky red bandana…….maybe we should have brought some hard liquor….you know for the bullet wound. When we got close enough to the hunter, to be heard over the noise of the dogs, I asked him, “This wouldn’t be one of your dogs would it,” As I pointed to bag of bones.

            “Nah….. not mines….whats him collar sez?” The hunter answered and spit a thick glob of black tobacco juice toward the ground at his feet.

            “Didn’t check….. we figured it must be with this group.” I didn’t even think about looking at the collar…

            The hunter looked at me as if he was thinking…….dummy…..check the collar… that will tell you who owns the poor thing……Then I realized he wasn’t looking at me…. He was looking at Aunt Jemima…. And I didn’t even want to know what he was thinking.

            “Have a good day,” I said. Me, the hound and Aunt Jemima continued to climb up the trail. 

            We had only gone about twenty yards, just far enough to be out of sight of the bear hunter, when I decided to check our skinny hound’s collar for a name.  I talked gently to the hound as I got closer, and stroked his boney back before I reached for the collar.  The dog seemed perfectly content to let me read what was inscribed on the collar.  After close inspection I determined the collar did give the owner’s name, phone number, city and state. Rick questioned me, “What’s it say?”

            “Robert Hooper…… gives a phone number and Robinsville, N.C.” I answered while continuing to pet the boney back of the hound.

            “What’s the dog’s name?” Rick questioned.

            “Hell if I know….. unless it’s Robert Hooper.” I said, almost wishing the hunter had shot Rick!

            As we approached the summit, we met a group of college aged hikers on the trail heading the opposite direction than we. We gave them our normal hiker’s greeting which consists of a nod, a “how’s it going,” and this time we asked if they had passed anyone looking for a dog. We pointed to the skinny hound and they all looked at the poor malnourished creature but said no.  They seemed to have little sympathy or concern.  They did give Rick a stare, and before they could comment or start laughing, I started trudging up the steep slope with Cheoah Bald in view and Rick and the hound in tow.

            The poor skinny hound, glanced at me, looked once toward the summit, glanced at Rick, then bounded down the mountain following the group of college kids.  We never saw the hound again.

            Once on top of Cheoah Bald, there was a large grassy area on the North West side.  That is where we removed our packs and stretched out in the grass and enjoyed the views of Fontana Lake, the Smoky Mountains and the small town of Stecoah below.  The colors of the fall leaves covered the slopes in all directions and gave us a wondrous view.  The view was very much worth the climb to get there.  We ate our lunch and discussed the possible fate of the skinny hound. To the South and South East we could see the southern end of the Nantahala Gorge, and although not visible from where we were, we knew that the Nantahala Outdoor Center was almost due south of us, deep in the gorge where the thundering white waters of the Nantahala River comes roaring through before emptying into Fontana Lake.  We hoped the poor hound followed the college kids to the trail head at Stecoah gap and maybe there the dog would be found and taken care of.  I had already decided earlier, that if the dog followed us all day and ended up back at the trail head with us, I was going to load him into my Jeep and take him to the nearest veterinarian.  I was a softy, as well as Rick was, when it came to dogs. 

            After spending a good hour enjoying the views, lunch and conversation, we decided to start the steep descent back the way we came.  It was getting late in the day and dark came early this time of year.  We were going to have to make good time to get back to the trail head before dark. 

            I had not walked far, negotiating down the steep and narrow trail before both knees began to cry with pain. I tried taking smaller steps, longer steps, duck walking and even walking backwards down the steep slopes trying to ease the tremendous pain that was radiating from both knees. I explained to Rick that my knees were killing me and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to make it down before dark… reality I was beginning to wonder if I could make it at all. 

            When we were hiking on somewhat level parts of the trail or even if it was uphill, my knees did not seem to bother me.  Unfortunately there wasn’t much of the trail like this back the way we came. 

            I was struggling with the pain, inching down a very steep section of the trail when the trail took a sharp turn back to the left. I was watching my feet, stepping as gingerly as I could to minimize the jarring to my knees when I almost ran into a big chubby kid standing in the middle of the trail. He stood staring down the trail appearing lost in thought.  I startled him, as much as he had startled me, and we both nodded and grinned, once we both realized the reality. 

            Before I could even give the hiker’s greeting, “How’s it going,” he questioned me. 

            “Is that way north on the trail?” and he pointed to the direction from where we had just come. Which was South.

            “Nah…… that’s south.  Up there about a mile or so is Cheoah Bald.   That way’s North,” and I pointed the opposite direction, down the steep trail, the way we had to go to get back to Stecoah Gap and the trail head, the way we were heading.

            The chubby kid looked to be about eighteen, and had a huge pack. He was probably spending multiple days on the trail for he looked tired and dirty. He explained, “I got off the trail… wandered off into the woods to take a ‘dump’….. and when I got back to the trail…..I got turned around.” I’ve done that before myself….easier than you might think…That’s why I carry a GPS!

            He questioned us again, almost doubting our word.  He seemed positive that up the hill was heading north on the A.T.  We asked him which way was he heading and he explained he had just crossed Cheoah Bald and was going to Brown Fork Shelter and would spend the night there.

            The young boy seemed disoriented and we assured him that down the mountain was north, and would take him to Stecoah Gap and the highway. From there Brown Fork Shelter was about two miles north up the A.T.  I explained to him that it was a very steep climb from the highway up to Brown Fork and he was going to have to hurry to get there before dark.

            Both Rick and I was a little concerned for the chubby kid, but my knees were still killing me and I was worried about getting myself off the mountain, so I simply wished him well and started the knee jolting trek down the mountain. 

            I heard him question Rick once more, “If you guys were up on Cheoah Bald earlier, why didn’t I see you there….. I just passed over it.”

            Rick explained that we were down on the grassy slope of the bald, enjoying the views and lunch.  He further explained that we were there for at least an hour and yes we did hear several hikers pass above us, but unless you were really looking, you probably wouldn’t have seen us down in the grass field.
            I had the funniest feeling the chubby kid still didn’t believe us.  It was probably the Aunt Jemima costume that made him question our sanity.

            Both Rick and I continued down the path, trying to hurry but at the same time taking it easy, trying to save the knees.  I glanced back over my shoulder, but the chubby kid was nowhere to be seen.  I guess he trusted his judgment, over ours, and headed up the mountain south.  Oh well.

            After about two hours of excruciating pain, trekking poles clattering and taking a step at a time, we were finally back at the trail head and my car.  We threw our packs in the back of the jeep, grabbed a couple cans of our medicinal beer and climbed into the Jeep, ready to drive back to the campground.  We looked around for the skinny hound or possibly the college kids that we had passed but neither they nor the hound was to be seen.  We considered on waiting for the chubby kid, because if in reality he was heading north, then once he arrived at Cheoah Bald he would have realized his mistake, and once again he would have turned around and headed north, down the trail. We figured if that was what happened, it would take him at least two more hours to reach the highway; too long for us to wait.  We also reasoned that if he had to take another ‘dump’, then no telling where he would end up. Nope we were not waiting.

            Huey, the labramut, greeted us once again at the campground, this time rising to his feet and trotting over to the jeep with a tennis ball in his mouth; wagging his tail asking us to take a little time and play a little ball with him.  This dog is so smart that the thought occurred to me that he would probably expect Rick and me to fetch the ball for him.  Nope…not with the way my knees were feeling!  We grabbed a couple bags of ice from the camp office and headed back to the campsite where we were going to grill steaks, drink a little wine, relax and let the campfire mesmerize us with it’s dancing flames. 

            Tom, Rick’s brother works at the Nantahala Outdoor Center as a Raft Guide and he called and said he was going to drive over and eat with us.  That was fine.  We had plenty of food, wine and beer (we stopped on the way back from the trail to buy more).  We explained to Tom that we had plenty of everything.

            Tom arrived just as the steaks were done.  We had steak, baked potatoes, grilled corn, and tossed a salad.  We had several choices of Cabernet and Chardonnay and a couple of six packs left of beer.  We ate till we could not eat another bite.  We pulled our camp chairs close to the campfire and sipped on our wines and watched as the dancing flames, snapped and cracked and sent glowing embers floating into the air.
            The sky was wine-blue and bubbling with stars as our conversation shuffled randomly between us.  I mentioned the strange haze that had occurred the previous day and how strange it miraculously disappeared just in time to allow us to have some tremendous views atop Cheoah.  Tom explained that the strange haze was actually a result of a severe dust storm that had occurred in Oklahoma several days before.  Rick and I were both relieved to finally have an answer for the strange mystery haze.
            We told Tom about our great day of hiking. Tom and I had done the same trip, although we had camped just past Cheoah Bald and hiked down the southern side of the mountain to the Nantahala River when we did it a year past. 

            We explained to Tom about the skinny hound dog and how it had followed us for much of the trail.

            Tom said, “Was it a blue tick hound?  One with a tracking collar?  Skinny as a rail?”

            “Yeah” both Rick and I answered simultaneously, wondering how he would know.

            “That same hound showed up at the Nantahala Outdoor Center late this afternoon.  His name is Spot….. His owner’s name is ……something Hooper” Tom answered and continued to explain. “Yeah that dog showed up while we (a lot of the raft guides) were grabbing a few beers at Slo Joes Pour Over Pub and this skinny hound came walking up.  It looked in pretty bad shape so we checked the collar and called the owner.  He came and got the poor thing.  And you guys know this hound?”

            “Yep. Wondered what happened to him.  I think Rick Scared him off.”  I said and laughed under my breath, hoping they wouldn’t ask why.

            “Why?”  Both brothers asked simultaneously.

            “Must have been the pancakes we had for breakfast…… Aunt Jemima pancakes….Rick ate too many I guess……” and I left it at that.

            They both looked at me as if I was nuts…….never questioned the remark.  Sometimes it’s best to leave some things unsaid and to leave some questions unanswered. 

            It was good to know that the skinny hound found his way home.  Rick and I had a tremendous hike, great views and some great experiences but as we sat around the campfire late that night, we still wondered about that chubby kid.  Would he show up at the Nantahala Outdoor Center the next morning?

Thanks Rick for a great hike…. One of the best…. This trip took place November 2nd through November 4th.











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