Posted by: pjbarr | April 19, 2010

Bearable Climb

Start: Rich Mountain Lookout Tower
Finish: Jerry Cabin Shelter
Distance: 18.2 mi.
Trip Distance: 298.2 mi.
Side Trips: Spring Mountain, Camp Creek Bald
Side Trip Miles: 0.6 mi.
State: NC/TN
Highlights: Rich Mountain Lookout Tower, Sunrise, Camp Creek Bald Lookout Tower, Firescald Ridge, Seeing a Bear, White Rock Cliffs, Blackstack Cliffs

The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

I awoke just in time to see the sunrise from the Rich Mountain Lookout Tower, though clouds made it incomparable to sunrises at the likes of Albert Mountain and Wesser Bald Lookout Towers. How lucky am I to have seen so many awesome scenes of the sun where I can be judgmental of them.

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Despite the early awaking, I didn’t get an early start, leaving after 9:00 am. I side tripped through open woods to the three possible summits of Spring Mountain, passing the old wooden CCC built shelter in-between. I had to acrobatically negotiate hand full’s of blow downs on the decent to Allen Gap.
I took a long lunch roadside at Allen Gap. I was dreading the nearly 2,500 foot climb up Camp Creek Bald. I looked down the road on the North Carolina side and saw the old store, now abandoned, where Earl Shafer resupplied in 1948. His climb up Camp Creek Bald was probably more difficult than mine with a more direct ridgeline trail.

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My climb was dry and I ran out of water less than 2 miles up. Luckily, a cold front that blew in last night made the air quite cold, a welcome relief during my ascent. I finally reached a spring at the Little Laurel Shelter and got water. I downed a liter and gathered 2 more for the remainder of the climb. I also ran into Luna and Tix, whom I last saw at Shuckstack in the Smokies. At the tower two weeks ago, Tix graciously offered to help me with the manual labor when the tower restoration comes to fruition and work begins. He has had a long career as a carpenter and clearly is skilled at projects like what Shuckstack would involve. I haven’t forgotten his offer of help and delightfully, neither had he. “Luna and Tix” are a fun couple and it was good to see them again. They’re a gruff pair but always very enthusiastic and easy going.

The last leg of the climb up Camp Creek Bald was intense and caught me off guard. Wow was it steep. Certainly a remnant of the original AT route, so despite its strenuous character, I reveled in “the hard way”.

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I made the short side trip to Camp Creek Bald. This may have been North Carolina’s first erected steel fire tower. Its original cement block that once supported its staircase still has the date 1929 engraved on its top. Earl Shafer spent the night in the tower cab in 1948 on his thru-hike. Of course that cab is long gone, removed sometime in the 1960’s or 1970’s in favor of a round cylinder shaped cab. The reason for this still escapes me and my research has left it undiscovered. Now the fire tower is perhaps the ugliest in all of Western North Carolina. Unfortunately its cab remains locked. Its inaccessibility to hikers is a sore point between the Forest Service and me. They have given a local Ham radio club a special use permit for the tower’s cab, yet refuse adamantly to give hikers a single access date to enjoy the view only once a year. The radio club, meanwhile, gets an exclusive clubhouse all for themselves, free of charge.

You can only climb about 15 feet above the ground to the first landing of stairs. This allows for a view only to the east – a fairly disappointing view considering it is a lookout tower. If I weren’t a fire tower nut, it wouldn’t have been worth the side trip. Like Rich Mountain, Shuckstack, Clingsman Dome, and Wesser Bald were once reached directly by the AT, so was Camp Creek Bald at one time. Now the summit has been obliterated by about a half dozen tall communication towers. This peak was once threatened by a ski resort in the 1970’s but the development failed and the USFS purchased the land. Despite being saved from development, this mountain remains a bit of an eye sore. I didn’t linger long. This will be the last fire tower that the trail reaches until perhaps Maryland. I will miss these historic and scenic mountain perches.

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I did however, enjoy the views from both White Rock Cliffs and Blackstack Cliffs a few miles beyond. These viewpoints look into North Carolina and Tennessee, respectively. I ran into Brooklyn and Stretcher at these points, and I had been hop-scotching them all day. The remaining section of the trail all the way to Sam’s Gap would be new for me and I was eager to visit many points along the way.
The trail over Firescald Ridge was both impressive for its views and its construction. A lot of large rocks were moved and stacked at length to put the trail over this narrow, craggy ridge. The amount of work that this must have involved is mind boggling. I am thankful for this effort as the trail and its vistas to each side were spectacular. This section was also surprisingly strenuous – with so many stair cases assembled from rocks, there were a seemingly endless amount of high knees and giant step-up and downs. The profile map fooled me into thinking the hard work was over after the Camp Creek Bald climb, but this little section was by far the most challenging and technical of the day – especially at the end of a long hike from Rich Mountain.

I was dragging by the end of the next day so I put on my mp3 player to get me the final 2 miles to Jerry Cabin. I also listen to it on the climb up Camp Creek Bald. Today was only the second day with which I’ve hiked while listening to music; in the right circumstance it is endlessly motivating and encouraging.
I received another treat of my thru-hike late today about a half mile prior to reaching Jerry Cabin. As if a 10 day period followed by an 11 day period without rain wasn’t a treat enough, I was so lucky to see a bear. I’ve always gotten exceptionally excited whenever I see a bear, and this time was no exception.

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This time was especially special, as this bear sighting was on my thru-hike, and the bear, a small cub, was down slope in my home state of North Carolina. I was quite disappointed to not see a bear in the Smokies – this was maybe my only real disappointment of the hike so far since I figured my opportunity to see a bear was essentially over until Shenandoah. This disappointment has been replaced with elation. I scared the small cub further down slope but he soon stopped and I had the chance to watch him for several minutes and even snapped a photo. And despite the distance between us you can see the black spot amongst the trees. What a great end to a highlight filled day on the trail.

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