Thursday, October 30, 2014

Snake, Rattle, and Role

“You’re nuts!”  My wife says.
            She thinks I’m crazy for wanting to hike; to climb mountains, enduring the cold, the heat, rain, and snow.  Subjecting myself to an almost infinite number of hazards in the form of falls, sprains and dangerous insects, animals and reptiles.

            I shrug off her insult and choose not to think about the hardships and the dangers.  I choose to dream of the beauty, the solace, and peace I will find when I take off on a trail and become a part of the raw wilderness itself.

            It doesn’t take me long, once I immerse myself in the woods to become a part of it.  My hands are the first to show the process.  They become almost immediately stained, taking on the same color and texture as the forest floor.  After a couple of days, my physical body is not much different than many of the wild creatures that roam the mountainsides, trying to survive.  From head to toe, there is a grit and grime that becomes a part of the epidermis itself.  I’m sure I don’t smell much better than those wild creatures as well, but fortunately, I don’t run into many other homo-sapiens in the wild.  If by chance I do, they are usually in a similar condition.

            It was the end of September and a couple of buddies and I planned a four day trek on the Foothills Trail.  Parts of this trail are in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. The section we planned to hike would total about thirty-one miles and even though I had not studied the topo maps in detail, I was assured by my buddy Rick that there was very little elevation change over the length of the trail.

            My buddy Doug and I headed up a day early and hiked a short distance to Burrel’s Ford, which is a campsite along the famed Chattooga River. This was the river the movie ‘Deliverance’ was filmed.
            Doug and I found a suitable spot to set camp along the river and immediately began gathering fire wood to enable us to keep a good campfire well into the night. 

            The woods surrounding our campsite was dense with underbrush.  Rhododendron, with its thick waxy leaves smothered the forest floor.  Tall hardwoods, such as the Poplar, Oak, Hickory and an occasional Pine or Hemlock choked any sunlight from reaching the ground.

            The river tumbled over rocks carving its way through the dense forest. The sound of the river was comforting even though the dark forest that surrounded us was somewhat unnerving.

            As we gathered wood in the thick underbrush, I was acutely aware of the possibility of encountering one of the many snakes that frequent areas such as this.  Copperheads the most probable, although a Timber Rattler was not out of the question. Fortunately, the river itself is very cold and most reptiles will usually stay further away from the cold mountain streams such as this.  On the other hand, this looked to be a perfect environment for the black bear, and I knew from what I had read, this area had the largest black bear population in the United States.  As I looked around the dense woods I said to Doug, “Looks kind of beary doesn’t it?”

            Doug laughed and said, “Beary……is that a word?”

            “Don’t know……but it’s perfect for this place….huh??

            “Yep” Doug said and strolled into the folds of the forest looking for tinder.

            We managed to find enough fire wood, without encountering a snake, and we then set about cooking our meagre dinner. 

            Darkness fell on us quickly. With head lights and the wet conditions, we struggled to get a fire started.  Eventually we succeeded and we continued to feed the fire trying to illuminate the blackest of black darkness that seemed to swallow us whole.

            There were noises that slithered through the darkness, making us aware that even though visually we were oblivious to what was going on in the thick woods around us, the shrieks, rustlings, thumps and chatters acknowledged the fact that there were creatures active just beyond the curtain of darkness. As I ate my dehydrated Red Beans and Rice, sipping on water, sitting cross legged on a rather damp ground I thought to myself……I am Nuts!

            Even though we had plenty of wood, and we built a rather large fire, the illumination hit a wall of blackness a mere twenty feet from the fire.

            We turned in around 10pm, realizing that we would have to get up at dawn.  We would have to break camp, hike out to the car, and drive about ten miles to meet Rick to begin our thirty-one mile hike on the Foothills Trail.

            6:30am came early.  The sun technically had risen, but to us was unseen.  There was a heavy fog, and again the green canopy above obscured any light there may have been.  We managed to break camp and began the short up-hill climb back to the car.

            Around 10am we finally met Rick at Bad Creek Reservoir.  The three of us chatted briefly then left one vehicle there and took the other thirty miles away to the trailhead where we would begin our three day adventure.

            We began our adventure at Frozen Creek, located in Gorges State Park, South Carolina.

            As we were getting the gear out of the car, strapping on our backpacks, Rick said, “Dang it!  I left my frigging trekking poles in the other car.  Crap…..I can’t walk without those.  I’ll need to pick up a couple of suitable sticks to use as poles.

            Fortunately, at the trail head, someone had left two walking sticks, and Rick grabbed them to use on our journey.   

            In the beginning the trail is actually an old logging road, and as Rick had said it started as a downhill walk. 

            Unfortunately, I don’t think Rick had studied the topo maps in detail, because we had not hiked a quarter of a mile when the trail began a steep ascent.  The old road bed had large surge stone that had been spread on certain sections.  Surge stone is large granite gravel (baseball size) and is used around construction sites as a temporary solution to impassable roads.

            The stone was mostly found on the steep inclines of the road to prevent erosion, and this made climbing the hills most difficult.  

            “Hey Rick…..I thought you said this was downhill the whole way.”  I said between gasps for air and an occasional swearing fit.

            Doug laughed.

            “I just went by what the maps said.”  Rick said, possibly questioning his own interpretation of the topos.

            “You must have read them upside down!”  I said as I slid about four feet backwards on the surge stone.  “It wouldn’t be bad but for this damn rock……’s killing me!”

            “Yeah…..the gravel makes it difficult……we’ll probably have a steep downhill the last portion of the trail to the first camp.”  Rick said, trying to sound convincing.

            We hiked, slid, and cussed for three hours before reaching our first campsite where Toxaway Creek empties into Lake Jocassee.

            It was a beautiful campsite.  It was a spacious area, free from underbrush.  Tall stands of hardwoods spaced evenly throughout the area shaded but still allowed enough of the sun’s drying rays in to create an almost perfect camp site. We crossed a long swinging bridge across Toxaway Creek to the area where we had planned to camp.

            The spacious area was adjacent to the large, roaring, Toxaway creek that splashed and tumbled over moss covered rocks and eventually emptied into a turquoise lake, Lake Jocassee. 

            We set camp where Toxaway creek emptied into lake. The view to our south was of the pristine lake, complete with a sandy and rock beach.  To our immediate west was a beautiful view of Toxaway Creek.

            It’s a great feeling when one hikes all day and eventually arrives at the campsite where one plans to camp.  Its even better to see that the site is as beautiful as this. 

            I chose two trees that were perfect to hang my hammock.  Rick found him two comparable trees to do the same, and Doug found a nice level piece of ground for his tent.

            We once again gathered firewood, cooked a little dinner and then wandered about the area looking at the varying views that was offered.  We spent a good portion of time hiking down the shore of the lake, taking our time and watching as the sun began its descent for the evening.  The lake glowed. The turquoise water, ripples of gold, played with each of our individual thoughts as we separately found our perfect spot to sit, watch and contemplate our lives.  Its moments as this that makes all the effort, the pain, and the risks, all worthwhile.  I began to think……Maybe those who  don’t do this are Nuts!         

            As the setting sun extinguished itself over the western horizon, we made our way back to camp and built a large fire for the evening.  We sat around the fire, discussing the plan for the next day’s hike.  We discovered that it was going to be further than what we thought.  We estimated about ten to eleven miles and once again, Rick assured us, there was not going to be a lot of uphill climbs. 

            After the day’s hike from Frozen Creek, I did not completely trust Rick’s interpretation of the topo maps, so I reviewed them myself and felt somewhat satisfied that even though there were a lot of ups and downs we would encounter, the major up-hills did not appear to be that daunting.

            The three of us sat around the roaring fire laughing, talking, and sharing stories.  We watched as the stars blinked on above, eventually filling the skies in all their glory.  It was a beautiful night.

            Once again we willed ourselves to rise early.  The earlier we started the hike, the more time we would have to complete the ten or eleven miles we had to hike to get to the next planned campsite. 

            Begrudgingly, we shouldered our packs and crossed the swinging bridge across Toxaway Creek heading west toward a whole new adventure.

            Almost immediately crossing the long swinging bridge over Toxaway Creek we came to another, even longer swinging bridge over part of the lake itself.  Both bridges swayed out of rhythm as the three of us walked gingerly across them.  We stopped midway across both to take a photo of the view proffered.

            As we came off the second swinging bridge, the trail began a steep ascent.  The trail meandered steeply up a boulder field and the face of a rocky cliff. Ten minutes up the steep slope I stopped in my tracks and looked over my shoulder to my two buddies and said, “Damn!  I swear the topos did not look this bad!”

            Both buddies agreed, only shaking their heads in agreement, because both were struggling for their breath.

            We made it through the boulder field, but the trail continued to climb steeply.  Large hardwoods, oaks and poplars towered above us.  Acorns littered the trail by the thousands.  It was like walking up a steep sidewalk covered in marbles.  After ten to fifteen minutes of slipping, sliding and falling up the acorns we would stop to catch our breath, only to be pummeled by hundreds of falling acorns.  The tall oaks swayed in the gentle breeze and released their hardened fruit upon us.  It appeared to be an intentional assault upon us.  We’re Nuts!

            Doug, being an avid hunter and outdoorsman, informed us that apparently there was very few deer in this area.  He explained that deer love to eat acorns.  He continued to say that when hunting, he would always look for oak trees and the ground littered with acorns, because he knew the deer would frequent the area.

            I personally figured there were no deer in the area because of the acorns.  Nothing in their right mind would willingly attempt to walk up this trail and be acorn-ed to humiliation as we were doing.

            Fortunately, the areas of Acorn Armageddon were sporadic and we would have brief moments of some relief, although we seemed to never reach the top of the mountain.

            Fall and early spring are some of the most beautiful times to hike in the mountains, but it also brings some added dangers.  During these times of the year, the temperatures are normally cooler, sometimes dipping into the thirties and forties at night.  The day’s highs may only be in the high fifties.  Snakes are usually active once the temperatures are above fifty.  During the warmer part of the day, a snake will usually find a sunny area, unfortunately usually on the trail, and sun itself; attempting to warm itself to feed. Knowing this, one has to be vigilant when hiking a trail, always watching where one steps.  In the fall the leaves cover the trail, possibly hiding a well camouflaged copperhead or timber rattler.  The cooler temperatures makes them somewhat lethargic, making them less likely to slither off the trail when they sense your close.  Instead they curl up….and wait.

            It has been said that a snake won’t bite the first person, but will bite the second.  Not sure if that is true, because I’ve known hikers to be bit regardless of the order in which they passed the snake. 

            I almost always lead.  It’s never discussed amongst my buddies and myself.  It just seems to happen.  I figure its mainly because I’m always ready….early.  Ready to go.  So whenever we start the hike, I’m the first to take off. 

            Doug is almost always following up the rear and Rick is usually second.  This order, although not discussed, is not totally by chance.  If we allowed Rick to bring up the rear, Doug and I both realize we would probably not see him again for several days.  Rick’s Slow!  He dawdles, wanders, ambles, tarries, stops and smells the roses, and hikes a little in between.  Doug stays on his heels, keeping him with the group.  It should also be noted that Rick is the only one of us that wears snake proof gaiters.  Yeah……let’s put Rick second!

            Finally we reach the top of the first mountain we are to cross for the day, Grindstone Mountain.  We breathe a sigh of relief and take a moment to catch our breath and quench our thirst. After a few minutes we heave on our packs and follow the trail that drops off in a steep descent.  I lead once again, skating down the cascades of rolling nuts, watching for snakes, and listening to Doug, in third, go on and on about how deer would love all these nuts.  Maybe we should put him in second!

            The trail is up and down, crossing Grindstone Mountain, then Chestnut Mountain, plummeting down to Horse Pasture River, and then over Narrow Rock Ridge.  We hike all day, the trail continuing to be unforgiving, and we eventually arrive at our next campsite. 

            The campsite is not near as nice as the previous, but sits directly beside Cane Break Creek that has plenty of flow.  The site itself is a little overgrown.  Fallen trees, litter the entire area, decaying where they sit.  Cane Break Creek is hidden from view by a thick wall of rhododendron and on the opposite side of the campsite the terrain is steep, covered with ‘dog hobble’ and large hardwoods.

            Rick had run out of water a little earlier and I was getting low, so we both immediately went to the stream and began filtering the water, filling our Nalgene bottles to the brim.

            Doug took the opportunity to start gathering firewood and within an hour we had our tents and hammocks set, firewood gathered, and water bottles filled.  Rick took off his boots and snake proof gaiters, and slipped on a pair of camp sandals. I slipped on a pair of Crocks, and Doug took off to the adjacent stream to sit and soak his feet in the cold water of Cane Break Creek.  Now as dusk approached, all we had to do was relax!

            “Whoa!...........Whoa!”  Doug said as he took a few steps back from the wall of rhododendron he was about to squeeze through to get to the creek. 

            I was sitting a mere ten feet from him when he made his remark.  I looked up immediately and saw him backing up toward me, his eyes on the ground in front of him. 

            “What is it? it a snake?”  Somehow I wasn’t surprised. 


            The three of us gathered around the now coiled up serpent and each gave their opinion as to whether it was poisonous or not.  Rick seemed to think it was just a water snake and both Doug and I kept looking trying to determine if it had a triangular head or not.  After careful observation, from a respectable distance of ten feet, we all decided it had a triangular head and most likely was poisonous.  It was hard to tell how long it was, since it was in a coiled position. Doug said, “Should I kill it?”

            I was debating within myself as to what should be done.  I hate killing anything, but at the same time I did not like the idea of walking around a dark campsite at night knowing there was a three to four foot poisonous snake slithering about either.

            Rick said, “I’m putting back on my snake gaiters.” And walked off to do just that.

            I said, “Yeah…..we need to kill it.”

            Doug picked up a large rock of about thirty pounds and holding it over his head, he hurled it with vengeance at the slimy reptile.  The rock hit with a loud thud.  The snake twisted and convoluted upon itself, wrapping itself in knot like fashion; raised its tail and rattled its rattles profusely.

            It was a Rattle Snake! 

            Its head was almost dismembered from the rest of its body. The snake continued to open its mouth, showing its fangs, and reading itself to strike if given a chance.

            “Be careful dude……snakes can still bite you…even with their head off…and they’re still poisonous.”  I said to Doug as he stepped closer to the snake and began probing at it with a long stick. One of Ricks hiking poles.

            Doug stretched the snake out lengthwise and we determined it was about three and one-half feet long.  It had the markings of a Timber Rattler but was lighter in color and had a black head.  We each took a picture of the snake, before cutting off its head and rattle.  We buried the head and threw the body of the snake into the stream, figuring it would feed the fish. Nature’s recycling program.

            Rick had returned wearing his leather, high-top, hiking boots and snake gaiters, wrapped to his knees.  Both Doug and I decided we should give the rattles to Rick. For always hiking second in line.

            We counted the buttons on the rattle and determined that the snake was twelve years old.

            The sun gave its last gasp of light for the day.

            The next morning we once again arose early, figuring we had about eight to nine miles to hike before we reached the car at Bad Creek Reservoir.  We studied the maps, and even though the topos suggested a relatively easy hike, none of us commented as such.  Based on the past couple of days, we felt compelled to assume the hike was going to be a bitch.

            Our assumptions proved to be correct.  We climbed up the steep Misery Mountain, then a steep descent to the Thompson River, then back up Gall Buster Mountain, I personally think they misspelled this particular mountain… Ball Buster maybe?  We skirted the edge of Whitewater Mountain then descended once again to the Whitewater River. 

            During the three days on this trail we crossed four major rivers that fed Lake Jocassee.  Most of the bridges were cable bridges although the last two were supported with metal support beams and were much more stable. 

            After crossing the Whitewater River we took a spur trail which left the famed Foothills Trail and turned south, leading us to Bad Creek Reservoir.

            It was mid-afternoon by the time we reached our car at the end of the trail.  It was hot and humid as we all three stripped our filthy clothes off our backs and used pre-moistened wash cloths, attempting to give ourselves a little cleansing before changing into some clean clothes and making the 
drive back home.
Thanks Rick Harding for being second and thanks Doug Brown for keeping him in second.  A great trip with great friends.  Snake, Rattle and Role guys! 

September 24, 2014 through the September 27, 2014