DAY 4 SASSAFRAS GAP SHELTER TO BROWN FORK GAP SHELTER (9.1 MILES)
Dawn broke brightly over the Sassafras Gap shelter area. We'd been up for quite a while, knowing that we had a bit over 9 miles to go that day. We'd opted to cut our day a bit short when we'd arrived at the shelter the night before, exhausted from the climb out of the NOC. Doing so meant adding miles to day 4 but having the chance to relax the night before was definitely the right decision for us.
Preparing for the day ahead typically consisted of changing back into the damp clothes worn the day before, attempting to run a brush through my thick, knotted hair and that was about it...trail beautification process complete!
Of course, there was always a moment or two spent taking time just to stand and enjoy the beauty of our surroundings before getting down to the task at hand.
Before long, we were back out on the trail, our sites set on Brown Fork Gap Shelter. By day 4, we are use to the stiffness we always feel when first starting out and it takes us a while to get our "hiker legs" back. We didn't get much sleep the night before thanks to whoever left all that trash in the fire pit. There were animals of some kind out rummaging through it most of the night. Have I said that at night in the woods everything you hear sounds huge? Like a bear?! Most likely it was just masked bandits. We didn't get out of our tent to check. Yeah...we're brave...I know it.
Somewhere along the trail, a very nice older gentleman passed us as he headed south. We stopped to chat for a moment and he informed us of a yellow jacket nest that was right in the middle of the trail. Dead center, to be exact, and he said they were angry when he went by. He explained how he'd put two sticks in an X formation on the trail as one approached heading north. We thanked him for the head's up, making a mental note of his marking so we'd know what to look for.
We'd gone about a mile and a half before reaching Cheoah Bald, where we decided to take a short break. What an amazing view we had!
While we were taking our break on the bald, a very energetic young man came bouncing in off the trail. He asked us how far the NOC was cause he was "ready to sit down!" We told him it was a few miles and he said, "Oh, I'll make it," as he headed off down a path to the right of where we were standing...only the path he chose headed somewhere off the Bald and I'm pretty sure a decent size drop off. We called after him and got him safely back onto the A.T. The moral of the story here is: STAY ON THE TRAIL! His enthusiasm almost got him in trouble...we got a good laugh out of it all. Soon after he departed, a young lady approached heading south. She was wrapped up in complete winter gear: long john's, a down jacket, a big scarf and a hat (it had to be every bit of 80 up on that bald, in full sun). Come to find out, she managed to step right into that yellow jacket nest we'd been warned about. She said she'd dropped her pack and ran but the angry bees still got her about 10 times. She'd gone back and recovered her pack, taken some benedryl and then put on all her winter gear...she called it her "bee suit." We assured her there were no other nests in the direction she was going so she shed the extra clothes. We stayed with her for a bit longer just to make sure she was okay before loading up and heading out again. We hadn't gone very far before we came across this sign:
|Our final destination still 20 miles away...|
We still had a long day ahead of us and that bee's nest was weighing heavy on my mind. I did not want to get stung! We continued on till we hit Locust Grove Gap before taking another short break. We find that doing so about every couple of miles renews our spirits and gives our legs a much-needed rest. We always feel better after shedding those packs for a few minutes.
I suppose to the naked eye, this spot might not be very appealing but to us, all we see is a nice log to sit on and a spot to camp if we absolutely had to. There's supposedly a water source here at Locust Grove Gap but we didn't take time to find it. We had miles to cover (and a bee's nest to navigate)! We left the gap and proceeded with caution. Lo and behold, my sister was actually able to spot those two sticks in that X formation lying right across the trail. Honestly, I wasn't sure we'd be able to notice them...I mean...come on...two sticks laying across each other on the trail...not exactly an uncommon sight...but our fellow southbound hiker had found two fairly distinctive sticks to use and we plainly saw them. So...this meant going off trail to circumnavigate that nest of (still) angry bees. The vegetation was fairly dense so it wasn't exactly easy going considering our packs and all but we did finally manage to emerge on the other side of the nest with only a couple of scratches to show for it. We found two large branches and left a mark for those heading south to see. Hopefully we saved a few hikers from the fate of being stung and chased. We found the nest about halfway between Locust Grove Gap and Simp Gap for anyone who wants to take note. I'm fairly certain it will be there for quite a while so beware when going through this section!
As we proceeded north, we began to notice a bit more of the Fall colors....
We arrived at Stecoah Gap exhausted and ready to stop for the night but unfortunately this Gap encompasses a paved road and is not set up for camping. There are picnic tables and if memory serves...which it often doesn't....there might have been trash cans. I honestly can't remember. We were tired and cranky with almost 3 miles to go to Brown Fork Gap shelter. We asked a couple who had pulled up on a motorcycle what time it was....found it it was 4pm...and knew that we had to pick up the pace so we could reach the shelter with daylight to spare for setting up camp. We're not much for doing that in the dark, by the way.
I'd noticed on my guide book page something that said "start of Jacob's Ladder." Neither of us knew what that was. We speculated as we set off up the hill (of course...every gap has an "up" to get out of it) as to just what this might be. We were already traversing some pretty steep elevation but nothing any worse than what we'd already done over the last three days. We'd even comment now and then that if this is all Jacobs Ladder was, it wasn't too bad. Guess what? Boy, where we WRONG on that one! Without notice we suddenly found ourselves walking practically up at a 90 degree angle...not steps...very few roots to gain our footing on....just straight up dirt, with a switchback every now and then. We went up in elevation 600 feet in .5 miles. At one point, my sister said she didn't think our pace was even registering on the speedometer scale! If I've ever thought I truly wasn't going to be able to make it to the top, this was it. We passed a few southbound hikers and I honestly don't know how they were staying upright going down what we were going up. I could feel my heart pounding in my face and there wasn't a stitch of dry anything on me....but after what seemed like forever, we finally reached what we knew had to be the top of Jacob's Ladder!
|Ranks up there with the WORST pictures of me EVER!|
Once we reached the top, we had a little under a mile of ups and downs to go before finally pulling into our stop for the night...
Upon our arrival, we were greeted by two other male hikers who had stopped to take a break while deciding if they were done for the day or moving on. One was very quiet and said little but the other guy joked with us about the climb up Jacob's Ladder and how tough it was. They went on. We went into the shelter area.
|Brown Fork Gap Shelter|
Another older gentleman had beaten us there and already had his hammock hung, tucked away in a corner inside the shelter. I know there are some hikers out there who think putting a hammock or small tent up inside the shelter is like committing a cardinal sin but in my opinion, if no one else is there (or if they are and really just don't care) or if you're willing to move out of the shelter at any time during the night should the need arise, then it doesn't bother me to see someone set up inside there. By the time I get to the area, I'm usually so tired that all I want to do is take my pack off and relax. I'm not saying I think it's okay to push people out of the shelter who might not have an alternative place to sleep. All I'm saying is I don't get my proverbial panties in a wad if I arrive and find someone in there. I've even done in once or twice when no one else showed up. No big deal.
Anyway....we talked for a while with the guy who was already there and we were soon joined by another hiker. When he came in he said, "I've been trying to catch up with you two all day! Someone told me there were two twins hiking ahead of me and I wanted to catch you." Okay...first of all...we're not twins. There's just shy of 3 years between us....but we found it flattering in an odd sort of way that news of us hiking together had been passed on between fellow hikers. That's one of the things I love about being out on the trail. You meet all kinds of super people out there...all with that one screw lose that makes someone want to go out and punish themselves to exhaustion hiking in the mountains and living like homeless people (with very hi-tech, expensive gear, I might add). It's great!!! Even "Scary Scott" as we now call him from back at the Wesser Bald Shelter was an okay guy. He just didn't have much of a filter on what he thought was appropriate to say. The fellowship found on the AT is like no other!
The ground up around the Brown Fork Shelter is fairly rocky and filled with tree roots so we headed down into the little valley below it and found a great spot to set up our tent...
We were close to the water source and later that evening when I went down to collect our water for dinner, the guy who had been trying to catch us was there and after talking for a few minutes, he actually said he was proud of us for just getting out there and doing what we were doing. While we didn't really think we were doing anything all that different, come to think of it, two women our age out hiking the AT isn't typically the norm of what you see. I think all total in all of our section hikes, we might have passed 2 or 3 women our age out hiking, usually with their spouse. We've encountered two young women maybe in their early twenties out hiking it alone. Other than that, the majority have been men of all ages, including teen boys. Hhmm...maybe we are doing something different after all. Ha!
When we climbed into our tent, we were hoping for a very peaceful night...only someone forgot to tell all the wildlife in the area that we REALLY needed to get some sleep. The first few branches we heard crack, of course, sent our minds straight to bears but as the hours wore on, we decided it had to be deer or some other animal out scouring for all the acorns and walnuts that were constantly falling out of the trees. This went on all night...on both sides of the little valley we were nestled in...to the point where we wanted to get out of the tent, spread our arms and say, "Alright already! Could you just stop now!" Needless to say, we didn't sleep much that night but at least it wasn't because we were scared of what was out there in the dark. Again...the woods is a very noisy place at night!
I always love it when the sun breaks over the horizon, bringing a new life to the woods around us. Those creatures who ramble at night bed down for the day and are quickly replaced with cute little chipmunks and the like. I can handle those. We took our time getting ready to go that morning, knowing that we had a relatively short day ahead of us. Cable Gap Shelter was our next stop, a mere 6.1 miles. We could have pushed on to Fontana Dam but we wanted to have time to enjoy our last night out. After a breakfast of biscuits and gravy, we packed our bags once again and set off...feeling stronger than ever and eager for whatever the day had in store for us. We were almost there...we'd almost accomplished our goal for this particular section hike. Spirits were high in spite of our tired bodies. Onward and upward we went!