22 April 2014

Trail magic

Trail Magic is defined as a random act of kindness, often from a stranger, meant to encourage and relieve thru hikers during their journey.

In the spring of 2006 I was living in Franklin, NC. Right smack in the middle of some of the greatest trails around - Bartram & Appalachian Trail being my personal favorites. I had made the transition to being more of a trail runner than road runner & I spent many fine hours training on them, as well as the less occasional hikes. Although I thought I understood a little about the thru hiker mentality, I really was not much of a backpacker & did not know anyone who had thru-hiked or even section hiked. In the hottest days of the summer I had offered encouragement, S-tabs & Gatorade to hikers who seemed to be struggling, but did not "get" the concept of trail magic.

Then on Easter we figured it out.

My daughter Lynz & I had made way too many cupcakes for our annual Easter luncheon after church so we were taking about a dozen back home with us. Since it was a gorgeous day, I decided we would go over by Standing Indian & start down the AT, handing out cupcakes as we went. Little did I know the impact it would have not only on me, but also on my 11 yr old daughter! She was no stranger to the area trails as I started bringing her with me on inspections of AT shelters when she was 5 &  had introduced her to trail maintenance workhikes the year before.

But this was different! 

We did not meet too many hikers, but everyone we met stopped & had a cupcake (or two!).But what was even better was they took the time to talk to us & shared their experiences. It was an eye opening experience for both of us & possible planted the seed for a future thru hike of our own? And try as I might, I cannot describe how much enjoyment these simple little cupcakes seemed to bring to the hikers. Maybe the sugar? Maybe just the randomness of it? Who knows, but it was good!

Thus our Easter tradition began! Sure, we missed a year here or there, once when Lynz was sick & a couple of years when we lived in Colorado, but we still manage to get on the AT most years. We try to pick different locations each year, mainly to maximize where the most hikers may be as well as their proximity to a town. I feel the impact is greater when they have been out for at least a day or two. Depending on whether Easter is early or late also affects the potential wildflowers!

Trail north from Dennis Cove - 2011


Trail south from Devil Fork Gap - 2012

Overmountain shelter - 2013

Trail south from Iron Mtn Gap - 2014

We have stayed with the cupcake theme for Easter - they are easy to make, fairly portable & require no special utensils to eat. The design is constantly evolving as well.

Once I signed up as a section maintainer for the AT it was a logical progression to start adding trail magic to my maintenance work hikes. I started taking an extra cooler loaded with cold sodas & a couple of beers to leave in the barn for thru hikers while I was on the trail working. Eventually I added local delicacies such as moon pies to the mix. In the heat of summer I like to take some popsicles on dry ice. It's pretty cool to see thru hikers passing by with bright orange, red or blue mouths !

There has been alot of discussion in recent years about the popularity of trail magic. Some hikers feel there is too much & that is has become an "expected" experience along the trail. I know I do see alot more these days, from folks who leave bags of candy at the barn (plus a trash bag for all the wrappers I will have to clean up later) to the box of apples & Easter candy that we passed on the trail today while giving out our cupcakes. I try to follow the recommendations of the ATC ( Suggestions for Trail Magic ) & Leave No trace principles as best I can & encourage others to as well. It may be for somewhat selfish reasons, but I also like to be there in person to hand out the goodies! Plus, by collecting the trash immediately, it saves cleanup time later for me or some poor trail maintainer who may have that section. 

All in all, I think most of the thru hikers I meet are appreciative & I hope to keep the special randomness alive. When it's my turn to thru hike I will be keeping an eye out for that good karma!

I will close with images of a couple of my favorite thank you notes, although truly - the smiles on peoples faces are all the thanks we will ever need!


18 April 2014


Disclaimer: I took well over 100 pictures on this overnite backpack so expect to see numerous wildflower photos!

Last year was my first time experiencing the diversity of wildflowers in the Smokies but I spent the majority of my time at White Oak Sinks & Chestnut Top. Many hikers & friends had extolled the virtues of Porters Creek, but the only time I hiked that trail was in the summer, well past wildflower time. This year was different. Sooooo different! It's always a gamble on when will be the best time for wildflowers. The 2nd week of April is usually a good bet, but you just never know. And since campsites in the Park are now on a reservation system, you have to get  them early & just hope for the best. Brian was able to get all 8 spots in campsite 31 for the weekend of April 12th so I was hopeful that all the snow this winter would produce exceptional flowers. I had been long attempting to backpack with  my friend & co-worker Alice & it just so happened that she & her fella John were available & ready to hit the trail. In the meantime, we were able to put together a full group after a post on the GSHAG site!

On the day of we had perfect weather-sunny & warm - which meant that everyone & their house cat was out for the day!  Lots of traffic..Sigh... After a (normal for me) late arrival at the trailhead, we assembled our group & headed up the trail, which is actually a road at this point. We did not have to go far before we starting seeing signs of the old Porters Creek community  - mainly rock walls outlining the old farmsteads. A well defined path led to the Owenby cemetery, which has at least a couple dozen gravestones. I always wonder how hard life was back then in these hollows. It's a little sad to see the infant mortality rate as evidenced by the markers. 

Another path led to the remnants of some sort of automobile:

It's pretty cool how the remains are laid out in some sort of semblance of the original vehicle.  Good thing or I would not have recognized it!

About a mile in we came to the big turnaround & walked over to the barn & cabin. I love the cantilevered barn! 

The sign in front calls it the John Messer barn although it was actually built around 1875 by John Whaley (apparently Messer owned the barn when the federal government bought the property to create the Park in the 1930s). 

Not far from the barn is a log cabin that was built by the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club in 1936. It was constructed around the old chimney from the original John Whaley cabin & club members were allowed to use it as an overnight facility until the early 1980s.

Once past the turnaround the trail turned into more of a singletrack & we really started to get into the flowers! My personal favorites - spring beauty, trillium, & star chickweed !


A little further we came to a single log footbridge that has to be one of the longest in the Smokies. It doesn't help that at the highest point over the creek the handrail is at the lowest position! Makes it very interesting with a full pack.

Right after this footbridge was when the rest of the group lost Alice & myself - there were so many flowers that I could literally not walk 5 feet without feeling compelled to snap another picture! We came around a corner to a field of white "snow" of fringed phacelia. The smell was wonderful & the bees were....well.....busy!

A little more than halfway in is Fern Branch Falls - a 40 ft waterslide surrounded by ferns & moss. These falls are also prime habitat for a species of "walking fern", so named because the new plantlets sprout anywhere the fronds of the parent touch the ground, creating the effect of the fern walking across the ground.

After a break to cool down in the mist from the falls & explore the rockfield below, we set off for the campsite. I was completely surprised at how warm it was, but the attraction of the wildflowers kept my pace slow enough to not break too much of a sweat!

After we made it to Site #31 I put the few brews I had brought along in the creek to cool while setting up camp. I think the site is rather large for a maximum of 8 people, as there are 3 distinct sites with fire rings, but it did allow us room to spread out a little. As well as having plenty of nice trees for our hammock backpacker! Once camp was set up it was time to cool our feet in the creek & enjoy the ice cold IPA's I had carried in!
Nothing lifts the spirits like cold toes & brews!

Mother Natures fridge!

After "happy hour" we had a little more exploring to do. There is an off-trail (non maintained) that leads from Campsite #31 to Charlies Bunion on the AT. The beginning is rumored to not be very hard, but the last piece up to the AT is a bit of a scramble. I have not attempted this hike yet, although I hope to later this year.

Located near where it "starts" , or splits off from Porters Creek Trail, are the remains of what may have been an old still. There are old pipes, various metal components & a coiled waterline in a barrel. At any rate it is close to a water supply & well hidden from revenuers!

The rest of the evening was spent doing normal backpacking chores - cooking, eating, cleaning up. I think I am often drawn to backpacking because of the way it breaks it down to the bare essentials: food & shelter! Of course, I say that when I am snugged up in my Marmot down sleeping bag after cooking on a canister stove, but you know what I mean..... It was a fun nite sitting around the fire, lots of laughs!

The next day out we again took our time, seeing the flowers & sights we had missed the previous day. Some wildflowers, most notably the dwarf crested iris, had been quite busy overnight. While there was no sign of buds going in the day before, a few were quite showy by the time we made it out. So now, if you have had enough of wildflowers, you can stop here. Otherwise, enjoy my gallery:

Dwarf Ginseng

Yellow Root

Trout Lily


Longspur Violet

Yellow Trillium

Fringed Phacelia

Dwarf Crested Iris

I never have any fun!
Brian on trail

Can't wait to do it again!

08 April 2014

Does a bear shit in the woods?

Not if it happens to be at the Mt Collins shelter on the AT in the GSMNP... Because I spent this past weekend with some other pretty awesome volunteers from the Smoky Mtn Hiking Club building a brand new privy!

Me in the finished privy!
But again back to the beginning: This project has been in the works for a while & Brian & I even got a chance to help with the pre-assembly back in March at the AT House. We pre-cut & drilled all the lumber, built & disassembled the lower bin & then left it all to be bundled up & flown to the site by helicopter.

The plan was to meet early Saturday morning at the parking area along 
Clingmans Dome Road & backpack in with tools & assorted hardware, with the intent of staying overnite at the shelter to finish up on Sunday. This was not too hard as it is only 3/4 of a mile in to the shelter, but the recent thunderstorms had made the trail a muddy mess! It was also quite a bit colder at the start - a mere 28 degrees according to the temp gauge on the 'E. We hiked in rather quickly due to the brisk temps. The shelter was nice, but no fire ring outside - I guess due to asshole hikers cutting the green trees for firewood. I mean, really? Nothing better than a smoky smoldering fire, right? We also made a rookie mistake by leaving our packs sitting at the shelter while we scouted around: this shelter has a healthy population of squirrels, mice & possibly chipmunks as they quickly helped themselves to the butter & almonds I had packed in. Luckily they did not have enough time or patience to get to the rest of our food so we were not completely out of luck. 

We checked out the privy site & it was nice were glad to find that the "pit" for the composting bins below the privy had been already excavated by the Ridgerunners & other volunteers. But remember the  previously mentioned thunderstorms & mud? Oh yea. It was a mud wallow any hog would have envied. Regardless of all our slippin' & sliding, the work went rather quickly & the structure came together nicely. By the end of the day we had the bins built, wire enclosed & the floors in place.

Coming together very well!
The next day we started building the walls & roof, only to find that we were missing the 2x4 & 2x6 components for one side wall! Luckily, when the Mt Collins shelter was being renovated they had included a few extra 2x4's on the front for a situation just like this. We were easily able to demo enough for our purposes!

The walls went up with no issues & the metal roof & trim looked sharp! After the door was hung,  Ed (the most amazing volunteer I have ever met!) put the finishing touch by attaching the half moon:

The finished project -  not too shabby!

All in all I had a great time - feel like I am really banking some good karma for when it it is my turn to hit the trail!