Posted by: pjbarr | March 30, 2010

Land of the All Day Sun

Start: Muskrat Creek Shelter
Finish: Albert Mountain Lookout Tower
Distance: 18.7 mi.
Trip Distance: 98.0 mi.
Side Trips: Standing Indian Mountain, Water Trip
Side Trip Miles: 0.4 mi.
State: North Carolina
Highlights: Carolina Blue Skies, Standing Indian Mountain, Trail Magic at Bearpen Gap, Sunset on Albert Mountain

I’m not sure which I enjoy more: the Nantahalas or Carolina Blue sky. I awoke to clear skies and knew I was very lucky. Today’s section was exceptionally scenic and I would reach two of my favorite southern Appalachian vantage points: Standing Indian Mountain and Albert Mountain. The hiking gods are most definitely smiling upon me. I planned to reach both of these summits and take advantage of my good fortune, but this meant an exceptionally long hike.

I was so eager to reach the top of Standing Indian that I didn’t stop the whole way up, even forgetting to dispose of my trash at the waste bins at Deep Gap. I didn’t pause at Deep Gap, but I did think back to one year ago when my good friends Brad and Kelly and I descended to the gap on the final leg of a backpacking trip to discover an elaborate Easter morning trail magic – complete with a menu that included omelets, desserts, and sodas. Jerry, a thru-hiker in the 1970s, with the trail name Tar Heel (signifying his alma mater) sets up in the gap every year for trail magic. Jerry lives right next to Judaculla Rock near Cullowhee. I’ll miss you this year Tar Heel, just barely.

A neat tidbit about Deep Gap is that it was the location of the birth of “slack packing” in 1951 when Gene Espy took a zero day waiting out the rain. A forest service ranger arrived and drove his pack around to the other end of the Nantahala Rim for him, allowing him to hike burden free.

Nantahala means “Land of the Noon-Day Sun” in Cherokee, because the slopes of these mountains and walls of its gorges are so steep and deep that the sunlight only reaches them at the height of noon. To the contrary today I have been granted ample sunshine throughout my hike.

Much of the climb up Standing Indian involves following the old jeep road that was used to reach the fire lookout house on the summit, so the train was well graded and I attacked the climb. I passed Yogi and his dog Rocco near the start of the ascent. I mistakenly old him of my excitement to pull big miles and reach the NOC by Friday and that my wife and I intended to drive to Franklin for the festival this weekend. He somehow assumed he was automatically invited to join us and assumed we would give him a rife and taxi him for his needs. I had just met the guy and no way was Allison putting a big dog in her car. Nevertheless, it was this moment he decided to latch onto me, mirroring my progress.

I passed the spot on the trail where I first met Comer and Jean in 2005 a delightfully pleasant and friendly couple from Georgia who thru-hiked in 2001. They confused me for Matt Kirk or Sweeper whom also thru-hiked that year and was at UNC at the same time as I although we never met. I since corresponded with Matt and I would like to think that I convinced him to attempt to break the South Beyond 6,000 speed record this summer. He will attempt this May. Good luck Matt. Bring the record home to NC!

I reached the summit of Standing Indian Mountain slightly before noon. Know as “The Grandstand of the Nantahalas” it is a fitting name. A dramatic western and south western view is available at the brink of its dramatic cliff overhanging the headwaters of the Talluah River Gorge. Standing Indian is simply and awesome mountain. At 5,499 feet it is the highest peak in the Nantahala Mountains. It is also the highest peak south of the Smokies, a 2,000 ft. prominence peak and a dual county high point for Macon and Clay counties. It’s the first 5,000 ft. peak that the AT reaches going northbound – it is truly one of western NCs gems. I saw several and hiked through a few remaining snow banks near the top.

My new friend, So Far, joined me shortly upon arriving at the summit, where we are lunch and enjoyed the sun. We had fun looking at distant peaks in Georgia that we had traversed days before, including Blood and Tray Mountains. Brasstown Bald, the highest peak in Georgia, was visible with its lookout tower, too.

Standing Indian isn’t just lofty, but it comes with ancient lore, too. The story is different among each individual that tells it, like most legends. But the general gist of the story tells of a giant winged monster that swooped down upon a Cherokee Village and flew away with a small child. The monster took the child high up a nearby mountain to a cave in its rocky cliffs. An Indian sentinel was sent to the summit to watch for the creatures return. Frightened Cherokees gathered to ask the Great Spirit to rid them of the monster.

It was then that a massive lightening bolt hit the mountain, killing the monster as well as turning to sentry to stone. The lightening was supposedly also responsible for turning to summit into a grassy bald after destroying its trees. Legend said the name “Standing Indian” came from a rock formation shaped like a standing man – the Indian sentry petrified by the lightening. Many people naively claim they have seen this formation or know its locations, but if they picked up a book they would discover James Mooney’s late 19th century research on the Cherokee and this legend wrote that even then the rock formation had long since fallen off the mountain.

Lastly, Standing Indian’s summit once hosted a fire lookout house, similar to the one on Duckett Top in Madison County. Built in 1929, it replaces a small log cabin used for the same purpose in the 1920s. The lookout house, sitting square on the bald summit was used for fire detection until the late 1940s when it was discontinued in favor of the new Albert Mountain lookout built on a peak to the east on the opposite side of the Nantahala horseshoe shaped basin in 1951. When Earl Shaffer visited the lookout in 1948, he described it, “the tower loomed like an embattled outpost defying the overwhelming forces of nature. Thick waves of fog were pouring across the peak in a vaporous flood. The mountain seemed to be tilting away from that raging current. The feeling was much like that in a hurricane.”

I was so lucky to have gotten a grand view from this high perch, unlike Earl. I recalled fond memories of visiting the summit on prior occasions, once with Allison, and last year with Brad and Kelly. I miss them all, but they are always in my thoughts at locations like this.

I hiked with So Far for nearly the next five miles. We enjoyed great conversation and I like him a lot. I left him a Carter Gap Shelter where he stopped for the day. I hope to see him again soon. I pressed on, reaching the promised land of flat smooth trails beyond Ridgepole Mountain and little Ridgepole. Here, I would leave the Tennessee Valley Divide as it skips south back into Georgia and assumes much of the NC/SC border to the east. I won’t meet it again until Virginia. But after a southerly turn of the AT at Standing Indian, I was now on the eastern arm of the Nantahala River basin and finally resumed my northerly directional progress to Katahin.

Here I encountered the trail tunneling through thick rhododendron. After a bad incident involving frostbite in a rhododendron jungle while peak bagging years ago, I now get “rhododendron terrors” when immersed in the tangled stuff. My friend Brian from Florida has a lengthy history with the stuff in the Smokies, and has a running joke that rhodo is one giant single connected organism and not separate plants. I think he might be right, and I could almost hear the rhododendron whispering amongst itself, “Whippersnap is back – is he hungry for more?”

I reached Betty Creek Gap and made a side trip for water, but its true purpose was to meet AT Troll, a well known trail entity as the creator of the ever popular Website. I went to introduce myself and canvass him for permission to post on his well visited site about my Shuckstack fundraising progress. I found him very friendly and he was very agreeable to my motives. I met a few others already camped at the gap, including Radar, a different Silverback and a few others. I pressed on.

I was eager to make Albert Mountain, not wanting to take for granted that clear skies would be here tomorrow. The climb from Mooney Gap up the other side of Big Butt Mountain was exceeding technical and hard on both my muscles and feet. My body was tiring after already about 17 miles on the day.

Near Bear Pen Gap I met Fishin’ Fred who was setup for a week long trail magic stint. What great timing! I was hungry and tired and dreading the notorious scramble up Albert Mountain. He gave me two hot dogs, a cold soda, a honey bun and creamy cheese potato soup. So proud of me for making the distance from Muskrat Creek, he also gifted me a small wooden AT medallion with a tiny white blaze that he hand carved out of redwood. Thanks Fishin’ Fred, you are a true trail angle and friend.

Unfortunately, I also found the guy with his dog just leaving Fred’s set up. I let him hike well in advance of me. The climb up the southern ridge of Albert was as advertised – steep as shit. I had done it before with no pack, even written about it in my book. According to me (cough) in my book, I write that the trail raised 400 feet in only a quarter mile, BUT does not persist long. Well! Try it with 40lbs strapped to your back! Not having to stop to rest the whole day, I had to suck wind nearly every single step. The climb required one of my hands to pull myself up boulders. Often white blazes were only a few feet away from me horizontally but many feet above me vertically. When I reached the summit of Albert I was spend, through delighted to find the summit and tower deserted. I had secretly intended to camp here all along, but kept my intentions to meself. I erected my tent adjacent to the lookout tower.

My elation to be by this tower so dear to me near sunset and camped alone on the summit was short lived. Perhaps irritated that I did not arrive at the Big Spring Shelter as I had misled him to believe, the guy with the dog hiked back up to the summit – to my utter dismay. Of course, he was attaching himself to my schedule for his assumed taxi service this coming weekend. I found him obnoxious and angering. I was most irritated with how cute he thought he was that he found a loophole to get his dog through the Smokies – a typically illegal action. He boasted how he simply went online and paid $30 and got a certificate that deems his dog a service dog that can recognize seizures. He outright admitted this was fake and that he has no medical history of seizures. The dude is full of utter bullshit and I would like to distance myself from him, but believe he will make that difficult.

In spite of the unwanted company I enjoyed a truly awe-inspiring sunset from the top of the lookout tower tonight. The glowing orange globe set so gracefully over the pointy Boteler Peak to the west, it lifted my suddenly sinking spirits.

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