Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness, Nantahala National Forest, North Carolina
March 7, 2011
Andra and I were out in the woods for a backpacking trip for the first time in 18 months. Too long! Having a kid will do that. I still havenít figured out how to bring Ada along on a trip like this, but Iím working on it. Maybe if I had a pack muleÖ. The day was cloudy, but only with thin, high clouds like a gauze sheet that still allowed plenty of light and even faint shadows, but only fleeting glimpses of blue sky. From our cabin in Tellico Plains, we got an early start and headed west over the Cherohala Skyway, which is a destination unto itself. We were lucky enough to drive it after a fresh snow, and we stopped frequently near the summit at the North Carolina border to get out of the car and enjoy the views from the car pullouts.
Later, we found the Stratton Bald trilhaed, and hoisted our packs from our parking spot off the road (you canít overnight park in the paved parking area), and we were off up the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Grove trail, immediately crossing Little Santeetlah Creek, and thus immediately making a wrong turn. We backtracked across the bridge, and found the hidden right branch of the loop trail in the trees, and took that one.
Felt good to get out on the trail again with a nice, solid pack. It also helped that it was only 55 degrees and I didnít immediately begin sweating like a glass of iced lemonade at a July picnic. Nevertheless within minutes, I shucked off my long sleeved shirt and was down to my tshirt. Giant dead hemlocks, victims of the introduced hemlock woolly adelgid that first arrived in the eastern US from Japan in 1954, lined the trail. In places it was like at tree graveyard, with regal columns of conifers conspicuously defoliated. Massive chunks of the canopies of these trees are falling regularly, and several branches blocked the trail. The US Forest Service, in an attempt to avoid some unlucky hiker getting squashed by large limbs or even entire trees, has used dynamite to shatter the base of the trunks of such trees, thereby felling them without the ďloggedĒ look. Itís interesting to see the trunks shattered. It does look more natural, although with so many of them felled in such a way, the condition on the forest is obviously synthetic. When confronted with such large scale death, thereís little one can do to windowdress it.
We pulled on up the trail a short ways to the first trail junction just north of a bridge over Little Santeetlah Cree, which is not well marked: only the main trail is signed, and the right branch ignored altogether. Though my USGS map was outdated, it showed enough that we should at no time cross Little Santeetlah Creek, and knowing that kept us from making a wrong turn for the second time in less than half a mile. The trail we took, though unsigned, was the Naked Ground Trail, and was significantly smaller and less developed than the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Grove Trail. More rugged, and more enclosed by forest, I immediately felt like we had slipped off the beaten path.
Another 1/3 mile up this trail and we were presented with an unexpected trail junction, and my USGS map was no help. Jenkins Meadow to the right, Naked Ground straight, and Naked Ground alternate to the left. I could see from the terrain we wanted to stick close to the creek, but I also knew from the USFS website that that we wanted to stick to the Naked Ground Trail, so we took the straight fork and headed uphill and north on the Naked Ground Trail. I got worried that we were headed up towards Jenkins Meadow, and as neither of us could see the trail zigging back towards the creek on the opposing slope, we turned back, and took the Naked Ground alternate trail, which we took along the creek for 200 yards where it promptly dead-ended at a large campsite. Chastened, we backtracked to the junction and took the straight branch up Naked Ground of the second time, but this time stayed on it long enough to cross the gulch, and continue uphill on the opposing slope via a trail that we simply could not see from below.
Another mile of hiking had seen us past several nice flat campsites, and given that the terrain was only going to get steeper, when Andra suggested we occupy one of them, I immediately agreed, even though it was right off the trail only 30 feet. The valley is so narrow and the walls so steep, Iím not sure you could comfortably camp out of sight of the trail at any point in the watershed. We pitched the tent, our trusty Kelty that has sheltered us in over a dozen different states, and unrolled sleeping pads and bags, hung food and stashed equipment not needed for dayhiking, and about 30 minutes later we were back on the trail, continuing upward through beautiful hardwood forest. As the hemlocks were mostly along the stream, the effect of the wooly adelgid devastation abated as we rose in elevation and in relative distance from Little Santeetlah Creek, and the main attraction was the abundance of large tuliptrees, or what I find the locals call tulip poplars (though they are no more related to true poplars (Populus spp.) than they are to dandelions). Though not as large as those in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Grove, the tuliptrees in this area among the largest you are likely to find anywhere. Two of them we passed were hollowed out from rot, and you could step inside completely and look out onto the forest from a living cabin.
The trail is not marked, but we were able to find the way easily enough. There are no bridges on the stream crossings, but we managed all of them without getting our ankles wet, as the water level was always low, and crossing rocks wre always conveniently provided. Up, and up, and up the trail went, very steeply. We stopped for lunch of tuna and crackers on a large log well off the trail, spreading our rainjackets down first to cover the wet wood. As we ascended higher, snow appeared, first in a thin little layer and then in a thick, unavoidable blanket. The warm temperature (hovering in the 40ís) was melting the snow, and so the ground underneath was muddy and slick. This is a pretty tricky trail to do when itís wet, as it got very narrow, and traversed some pretty steep slopes higher up. Several times we considered turning back, and I had to honestly ask myself if my summit fever was clouding my judgement. I concluded at several points that we were in no real danger, so we continued on up, very slowly.
We made it to the Jenkins Meadow trail junction, and relaxed a little bit as we concluded we were just about at the summit. Anyway, the terrain slacked off, and the march up the ridge, though graced with deeper snow, was nothing more than a slightly-sloping walk. It was pretty chilly, around 40, but with the exertion of walking through the snow, we hardly felt it. With a name like Stratton Bald, I kind of expected the top of the mountain to be bald. It wasnít. I hiked on past what I thought was the summit, as the ridge descended to the south, to see if there were any open spots, but I encountered none. The summit seems to be an undramatic little bump marked by a large mountain laurel, with dense forest all around obscuring the view in all directions. Well, they canít all be Mt Hurons.
We trucked on back down the trail with a bit of haste, as we didnít want to be in the snow when it got dark. I snapped off a couple of dead branches to use as walking sticks to assist the slippery descent. I fell once, muddying my glove badly, but hurting nothing. We neednít have worried about dark falling too early because we descended very rapidly, and were in camp with plenty of light remaining.
In the gathering dusk, we started boiling water for dinner and coffee, and I stoked a quick fire to warm us up. Our pant legs were very wet, so we were able to use that as a great excuse to keep the fire going, though my own motivation was solely for the enjoyment of watching the flickering flames, and basking in the wood smoke. Into the dark night we sipped coffee and warmed by the fire, watching steam rise off our pants and boots. Finally, about 2 hours after dark fell, we let the fire die down, then threw some water on it and slipped into the tent. We both read by flashlight for a while, Andra jerking up suddenly proclaiming that something was nudging her through the tent fabric. Shortly after, lights out and I dozing, I felt something on my head that popped me awake. Minutes later, Andra popped away suddenly with something touching her head. We flipped on our lights and began pulling items away from the head of the tent, until we uncovered a brown mouse with large black eyes standing behind Andraís tshirt. Andra is not squeamish of mice, but this one caught her off guard, and you could hear the scream echo the length and breadth of the watershed, half-paralyzing the poor mouse in the process. I half expected to hear campers tromping in from a mile away looking for the murder victim. All I could do was hold my belly and laugh. Once I got the tears out of my eyes, we worked together to try to show him the exit, but he was having none of it, so I took off my knit cap and used it as a glove to grab him and toss him outside in one smooth motion, followed by a firm closing of the tent flap. Ah, exciting times. The rest of the night was both uneventful, and by virtue of the cold temperature and proximity of rushing creek water, extremely restful.
Stratton Bald Trailhead