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Wednesday, 22 February 2006 00:00

A pickle of a Prong

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I felt like I should have had crampons on my boots, like the spikes mountain climbers use on ice. The steep trail was so slick I would take two steps forward, then slide back a step.

Slippery layers of last fall’s leaves were still covering the trail, requiring double effort to make upward progress. It was early afternoon and my dog Tildy and I had started out near the Sunburst campground off N.C. 215 in the Pisgah National Forest at an elevation of about 3,200 feet above sea level.

We were ascending the Green Mountain trail that climbs to over 6,000 feet at Mt. Hardy. I used mapping software to plan my trip, and I figured it to be an oblong loop about nine miles in length, gaining and losing again nearly 3,000 vertical feet of elevation in the Middle Prong Wilderness Area, one of two designated wilderness areas in Haywood County. The trails are unmarked and can be difficult to follow. A map and compass or a good knowledge of the area is essential to navigate the 7,900 wild acres. Off-trail travel in Middle Prong can be rough going, and it’s very easy to get disoriented.

Ridges like this make for enjoyable hiking. They are quiet, the scenery and vegetation varies often and wildlife tends to hang out there, not to mention the great views. I gained elevation quickly on the steep path and Lickstone Ridge came into view through the trees on my right. Lickstone forms the western boundary of the wilderness area and, along with Fork Ridge, forms the watershed for the Middle Prong of the West Fork of the Pigeon River.

The path continued to rise through a tunnel of rhododendron and over a razorback spine of granite obstacles. A few piles of scat began to appear at frequent intervals on the path. Some large piles were obviously from a bear, but there was a quantity of dog-poop-sized pellets full of gray hair and small bone chips. It could have been fox or bobcat; I’m suspicious it was coyote.

This area used to be full of deer, but there was very little evidence of them. A turkey had left J-shaped droppings atop several large logs lying across the trail. I envisioned a young jake turkey boldly strutting his stuff and gobbling to announce his availability to local hens. The logs were good vantage points to watch for hens or dominant gobblers headed his way. Otherwise, the bird world was quiet with only a few juncos and a couple of kinglets high in the red spruce.

Nearing the 5,000-foot elevation, the trail climbs more gradually. I was almost an hour behind what I had calculated, but the climb had been unrelenting even after stopping to cherish the views.

I picked up my pace a bit to gain some time on this gentler section, but in places the trail became difficult to follow because of blown-down limbs. It often fanned out into right and left forks, each one disguised as the real trail. Staying near the crest of the ridge helped me stay on course, but several times I had to backtrack to find the route. In my map reading, I had overlooked the fact that Green Mountain has a false top. I finally reached the false peak with a feeling of relief that was short lived. The real Green Mountain came into view at least half a mile farther ahead. On the short trail between the peaks, there is a rock outcropping perfect for lunch. It overlooks the major portion of the Middle Prong Wilderness.

Green Mountain, at 5,880 feet, is a broad, rounded knob, almost level in places. The north side is covered with Fraser fir and red spruce, but the forest soon opens into a beautiful meadow with a stunning easterly view of Shining Rock Ledge. To the south is Devil’s Courthouse and Mt. Hardy. I did not get my fill of that view, due to time constraints. I sure didn’t want to get caught up here in the dark, so I moved on through thickets of blueberry bushes, thick clumps of dried grasses and burgundy blackberry stems to a westerly panorama of Haywood Gap and Rough Butt Bald. These open fields would be a fantastic place to camp and watch the sunset and the night sky.

My next destination was the Buckeye Gap Trail, an old railroad grade that runs along the west side of Fork Ridge parallel to the trail I was on. I began to look for a connector trail cutting off to the right. I’m sure it’s there somewhere, but I couldn’t find it before I was climbing again, up the ridge toward the next small peak. I wanted to go down, not up, so I had a decision to make. Going cross-country by oneself, late in the day, is a formula for getting lost and having to make use of your survival skills while the emergency personnel are out looking for you and the folks at home are scared to death. While this could lead to a life-threatening experience, the most problematic issue for me was not my safety, but the embarrassment of reading my name in the newspaper article about the rescue of a lost hiker. A bit of advice that bears repeating: if you are lost at night in the woods, stay put if you can; wait for daylight and don’t panic.

I weighed my options and trusted my sense of direction and the map I had memorized and headed off down the side of the mountain, descending through grassy groves of mountain maple, fire cherry, scattered fir and spruce. I was relieved when I reached the railroad bed after about 20 minutes of bushwhacking. I turned north to look for the cutoff for Grassy Cove Trail that would take me back down the mountain and found it a hundred yards later.

At this point I was fairly certain a long night in the wilderness was not in store for me, even if darkness fell. I was now on the trail and had a flashlight if needed. A backpacking trip almost 30 years ago was the last time I had followed this particular path, and then it was after a meal of pancakes and fresh-picked blueberries with a couple of good friends.

I have always remembered the lush grass and open forest that covers the top of this broad shouldered side ridge, and was glad to see it again. A short ways down the trail is a crumbling concrete foundation, evidence of an old logging camp. Near the end of this ridge, the trail suddenly banks off to the right, steeply down the slope, and crosses the top of a series of waterfalls where the creek plunges down a narrow gorge toward the main stream. Tildy and I were both glad to be going downhill now.

We finally reached Middle Prong, and joined up with the Haywood Gap Trail, another old narrow gauge railroad grade from the logging days. Logging ended here in the late 1930s or early 1940s after fires scorched the high peaks. A railroad bed is much wider than a regular footpath with a mild, even grade. A regular road or trail can twist, climb and descend with the lay of the land, but a narrow gauge railway had to be fairly straight with an easy grade, using trestles and switchbacks to compensate for the contour of the land. One can barely imagine the hard labor it took to build these old rail paths, lay the track, drive the spikes, and then log the hillsides. It doesn’t take much to visualize a Shay locomotive rumbling down the valley with a load of huge logs and tough loggers.

At last we reached the stream crossing, just below two waterfalls, where Little Beartrap Branch meets Middle Prong. Tildy drank and cooled her belly in the cold water while I photographed the falls. A deteriorated sign indicated I had just left the designated wilderness. I had seen no other human on this hike.

From here the trail is easier, but the hike wasn’t over. The old railroad continues for another mile or so, passing some tall, narrow waterfalls, then to a newer Forest Service road that leads another couple of miles back down to Sunburst. We finally reached the concrete ford of Right Hand Prong, meaning we only had a quarter mile left to go with a bit of daylight to spare.

Back in the car and a few miles down the road, I finally got a cell signal and called my wife. The words, “What’s for supper?” let her know that I was out of the woods safely after a most memorable day in the wilderness.

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