Thursday, December 11, 2008

Blood Mountain Adventure

So, I've already told you about our autumn hike near the Richard Russell Scenic Hwy. The next day we got up and headed out for Blood Mountain. It would turn out to be an epic excursion (and a long blog post). Typical for us, we had a rather late start- getting ourselves and the three boys up and fed, pottied or changed, packed and into the car takes determination. By the time we'd arrived at our destination, picked up some sandwiches, pottied or changed everyone again, and suited up for our hike, it was about 1:30 pm as we actually headed up the trail. Still, that gave us at least 4 hours before we expected nightfall- the hike is just under 2 miles to the summit, so we still felt we'd have enough time.
From November Hikes 2008

It was a chilly grey day, but we were well dressed in layers and the hiking soon warmed us up. It was perfect hiking- we were all in good spirits, enjoying the beautiful woods and the fresh, damp air. Littleman took the lead, and we continued on up the mountainside.
From November Hikes 2008

Damp autumn leaves covered the trail, and the air was thick with their rich, decaying scent. The palette of brown sparkled here and there with visions of color: flashes of fire, drops of golden amber, speckles of dessicated amethyst that delighted my eyes.
From November Hikes 2008

From November Hikes 2008

It wasn't long before we stopped for a quick bite. When hiking with kids, it's good to stop for snacks or sips of water pretty frequently. You don't have to stop long, but you will find they are much happier with frequent refueling in small doses. Happy kids make for a happy hike!

It was getting colder, so we were anxious to get moving again. Soon we could glimpse the summit of Blood Mountain looming over us. It looked so close, but we knew from long experience that it was probably further away than it seemed. We were having too much fun to mind that!
From November Hikes 2008

The trail gets much tougher as you near the summit. Before you know it, you are traversing steep switchbacks, climbing stairs and clambering up rock piles. I helped Billy put Mr. Sweetcheeks in another carrier, because it was getting to be a bit much for a 3-yr old hiker. Sweetcheeks probably could have done it all himself, but the pace would have been very, very slow- and we needed to beat nightfall. So we continued on up the mountain, careful not to slip on the piles of crushed leaves.
From November Hikes 2008

Unfortunately, my camera battery died sometime around then. I was SO disappointed, because the views at the top were stunning! Sigh. Sorry about that.

Anyway, we continued up, and up, and up. 2 miles is not far for us, but we'd forgotten how tough the trail is nearer the top. Littleman was fantastic, trooping right along, seemingly invincible. It was getting chillier, so we started pulling on hats and zipping up jackets again. Each bend we looked up the hill to see sky behind the trees, seemingly indicating that the end was just over yonder. But we knew that most likely, more hillside would materialize as we followed the twisting trail. We were all still feeling great, and the forest was gorgeous. But sunset was fast approaching, and we began to worry that we just might run out of time. Littleman started lagging at last, and near the top he began to cry. It was a tough hike for him!

But finally, we broke through the rhododendron thickets onto a wide rock face near the top of Blood Mountain. The dense grey sky overhead stretched toward the west, where clouds broke apart and sunlight streamed through in pink-golden splendor. The mountains marched away, ridge upon ridge, fading into sapphire sfumato. Light poured through the clouds in great shafts onto the hillsides. The wind was bitter, but everything was such a feast for the eyes that for a moment, there was nothing but elation. It was the sort of euphoric intoxication that makes all our toughest hikes well worth the trouble. When people wonder why on earth we would put ourselves through some of the conditions we face outdoors, I am at a loss to describe the pure joy and reward that such moments hold. The sense of accomplishment, of connectedness, of wonder- it defies description and simply must be experienced to be understood.

I did have a 12 month old on my back however, so getting out of the cold wind was a priority. Plus it was obvious that sunset was mere minutes away. Littleman perked up to see that we were almost there, so we pushed on to the summit and went straight into the shelter. The shelter on Blood Mountain was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps back in 1934. Inside it has two rooms with windows, a fireplace and a large sleeping platform. No fire for us, though! It was damp and chilly but at least we were out of the wind. We ate and drank, and made the kids run around a bit to keep warm. There was no time to explore the beautiful mountain top- that would have to wait for another day. Dusk was approaching fast and we needed to head back down the mountain. We knew it was more important to be rested and fed than to hurry, though- we could hike in the dark if we had to. The trail is well-maintained and heavily used, with clearly defined blazes all along- plus we are familiar with the terrain. Better to be fueled up and ready, hiking a little later, than to have cranky kids and our judgment possibly impaired by fatigue and hunger.

Soon we bundled up for the hike down, back in good spirits and still ready for adventure. We'd hoped to start our descent by 4 pm, but it was closer to 4:45. Still, we figured that wasn't too bad. As we came out on the rock face below the shelter, I paused to admire the sunset- the sun was sliding down from a strip of clouds, moments away from the horizon. It blazed an improbable fuscia pink, turning the very air rosy around me. It was freezing though, and I turned back to the trail. Just as I left the rock, I heard a far-off rumble. I stopped to listen- it sounded like thunder, but that seemed so unlikely. No rain was predicted for today, it hadn't looked like rain when we'd set out, and I couldn't spot any rain clouds now. I shook my head and started off again, wondering if there was a quarry somewhere off in the valley.

Though many non-hikers find it hard to believe, hiking down a steep trail is much harder than hiking up. Billy was carrying Sweetcheeks of course, and Littleman was doing a great job at climbing down. It was slow going though, and the light was fading alarmingly fast. We began to realize that we'd not considered the direction of the sunlight this late in the day- we were on the shadowed side of the mountain, and though sun no doubt still shone on the other side, here we would very soon need flashlights. I was listening hard, because I'd heard another far away rumbling. It still sounded like thunder. At least it wasn't close. Suddenly I noticed a tapping noise, scattered all around through the leaf litter. It was sharp sounding, and it took me a minute to realize I was hearing light sleet. Ice was falling on the mountainside.

I exchanged a glance with Billy- he'd heard it, too. It was still very sparse, so we just continued on. Besides, we'd (uncharacteristically- we must be out of practice) forgotten to pack rain jackets or gaiters. Doh! Soon the sleet was getting heavier and the ground was getting wet. Littleman asked, "Is it raining?" in surprise. "It's sleet", I said, "frozen rain. It's getting the ground wet and slippery, so we need to slow down and really be careful when we're climbing down these rocks." I reminded him how to use his walking stick to steady himself and find solid footing before he placed each new step down. He took his time, and moved carefully. In situations like this, we tell the boys they are doing "commando training"- it appeals to their sense of adventure and accomplishment. They are more willing to make an effort and enjoy themselves that way, and to pay attention to our instruction.

We stopped to get out our flashlights. Billy, myself and Littleman each carry one. Unfortunately, Littleman's was not where it should have been- he must have pulled it out back at home. oops. Then we discovered that mine wasn't working! So here we were, in the gathering dark, in sleet and cold, no rain gear, miles away from the van with 3 young kids and only one flashlight. We couldn't believe that we'd put ourselves into this situation. We are seasoned hikers! We should know better! We were all too aware that this was just the sort of situation that can snowball into a true survival nightmare- even experienced outdoorsmen can die all too easily on seemingly innocuous outings. There was no need to panic, though. We knew that we'd be perfectly fine as long as we kept our heads and didn't get injured. There was no hurry- it was already dark, and we had plenty of nice warm clothes in the van. The white blazes were easily spotted and the trail was usually obvious. The only thing now of concern was to not get injured, and to keep the kids on our backs nice and warm. (Littleman's physical activity kept him comfortable.)

Slowly, carefully we made our way down the mountain in the icy dark. Babyman decided he had had enough of this nonsense, and started to cry. I talked to him, and we sang, and soon the music and constant motion had lulled him to sleep. An exhausted Sweetcheeks had also fallen asleep riding Billy's back. Being that I was in the lead, I carried the flashlight. On difficult sections Littleman and Billy waited as I hiked ahead, then I would turn and illuminate the trail so that they could traverse the rocks and roots. It was very slow going.

The light sleet tapered off, then came back, then tapered off again- it continued in this way before finally fading away entirely. The clouds broke up and dissipated, and as the nearly-full moon rose the forest was bathed in a magical, silvery light. The wet leaves and rocks gleamed; the light misty air played tricks on our eyes. One by one the diamond stars winked into view. Everything was fresh and beautiful, and otherworldly in a way only night can be. Littleman was obviously tired- he had to be vigilant to avoid a fall- but even so he kept pointing out wonderful details in the magical landscape around us: the moon gazing through tangled branches, crystalline drops sparkling on the rhododendron leaves, a twisty gnarled wizard of a tree. Billy and I were stunned with his fortitude, his vision, his ability to appreciate the wonder of the moment. Our hearts swelled with pride over this 5 year old boy whom we love so very much.

As I turned to shine our light on some steps, I noticed a shimmering black movement in the leaves. "Oooh, look!" I exclaimed- it was a black salamander. Gently we uncovered it and watched it hurry back to safety. "Cool!", said Littleman. I was so pleased- it's hard for us to get a look at salamanders in the wild, since they prefer dark wet places and are easily frightened away. The boys are just too exuberant. Night can be a great time to spot one, but we are seldom out in the forest at night with the boys. I was thrilled that our accidental night hike had provided this opportunity.

Gradually the trail became smoother and less steep. It wasn't long before we were hearing the cars drive by on the road below. As the lights of the Walasi Yi center came into view, I sighed- both with relief and just a little regret that we'd come to the end of our day's adventure. We helped the boys get dry and comfortable, and then bid goodbye to Blood Mountain as we headed for a celebratory dinner out. Until next time!


Anonymous said...

This is an amazing story. You ought to consider writing a book. Your attention to detail is incredible. I felt like I was there with you. I found myself even holding my breath. And you told it so honestly. It would make a great article in a magazine like Back Packer or one of those...or even a Family magazine or Mothering magazine.

This was REAL adventure. How amazing with each of you with a child on your backs and Littleman in the lead. He is adorable in that photo of him. And that you went DOWN in the dark is SUCH an adventure...with one flashlight. I am SO SO SO proud of what you both are doing for yourselves and those three little kids. I can't even BEGIN to tell you how this will shape their lives in a positive way. And all that fresh air and the scents of the woods is going into them. SO healthy for their little spirits. Gosh!! I just bow down to you for what you are doing. And I LOVED reading this; I was riveted, and so happy when you all reached the bottom safe and sound and richer from the whole experience. You and your husband are really something special that you do this pee stops, changes, bundling up 3 kids and yourselves....THAT is SERIOUS parenting and commitment. Thank you for bring new lives into the world that will know the meaning and love of the wild. Bless you and have a wonderful New Year in Nature. Hugs, Robin

Kit said...

Thanks again! I'm really pleased you took the time to read the story, and that you enjoyed it. I think about submitting some writings to magazines, but I just haven't found the time to research what they're looking for, then polish up some writing and get it sent off etc. . . But hopefully I'll get into that sometime. Your encouragement means a lot- and not just for the writing, either. It's adventures like that that I live for, really- watching my kids grow in nature is amazingly gratifying. Not to mention fun and beautiful!

Anonymous said...

I am so glad that there are parents like you who don't stint at showing their kids how great the outdoors is. What a great experience for them, and how lucky they are to have parents who are thoughtful and don't get fazed when conditions change (as they always do on any hike). They will learn your calm and practicality and love of outdoors from this example. R's family are keen walkers and his dad (who bullishly chooses all the routes for a family walk) pulls no punches when on a walk with kids, with mixed results. He just does not get that what is easy for an adult is hard for someone with little legs and different feeding requirements - with the result that he put his daughter off walking almost for life! Going patiently, spending time to look around you, that is the way to do it with kids...or at all for that matter.

And it must have felt great for you too, you get this beautiful walk, you see your kids tackling it with gusto (even if it is hard at times) and even a challenging descent has it's thrills (especially when you get down safe and sound). It wouldn't be a proper adventure if there hadn't been all those unguessed little challenges. Better than slouching about indoors in front of a computer at any rate! Thank you for putting all that into words.

Kit said...

Thanks again, Bird! You're right- it's so important to look at the hike from the kids' perspective, and remember what their little bodies need to maximize the positive experience. No hike is fun with exhausted, hungry, resistant, whiny little people along- but some simple adjustments and consideration can keep that from happening.

As far as the descent goes, well if it had been just Billy and me, we wouldn't have thought twice about the conditions. Again, it's just a matter of adjusting our perspective to be sure the kids stay safe and have a good time. They do add potential unpredictability to a volatile situation, so it's best to take care.