Friday, February 22, 2013


I've told this tale before. Several times, in fact. It's one of my favorite stories and I like to return to it from time to time to see how memory effects the retelling.

Some years ago I decided to take a solo-backpacking trip into the Middle Prong Wilderness here in North Carolina. It's not a terribly popular wilderness area, which is one reason I knew I'd like to visit it. Also, it's a very high place with several peaks in excess of 6,000 feet in elevation. That's my kind of spot--high country with real solitude.

Unusual for me when I'm hiking alone, I got a very early start and arrived at my destination in quick order. I parked at the Black Balsam area where there is a big parking lot and a large and stinky vault toilet for the many visitors who park there. It's a popular spot because it's where most people leave their cars to venture into the Shining Rock Wilderness, which is probably the single most crowded wilderness area in the state. Also, adjacent to the same parking area is the high meadow just below Sam Knob where many weekend tourist go to camp without having to follow the normal wilderness rules.

So I got an early start and hit Sam Knob, taking time to climb to the summit for the views and then come back down and caught the trail to head over to Middle Prong. Unlike Shining Rock, Middle Prong does not get a lot of visitors. It doesn't have the high, open meadows that attract so many to the more heavily visited wilderness. I have quite literally seen lines of people headed into Shining Rock, hundreds of them snaking their ways to the high country. In contrast, I have only encountered a few other people in Middle Prong.

Quickly I was back down Sam Knob and headed over the Mountains to Sea Trail, across NC 215 (which separates the two wilderness areas), and was on my way. I wanted to camp near Green Knob in one of the meadows and I knew by this time that I'd have plenty of opportunity to stake out a good campsite. Along the way, though, I had to pass through several big patches of Red spruce forests.

My hiking kryptonite are spruce forests. I can't help it. Every time I walk into them I get lost. If you've ever hiked into a Red spruce stand, you'll know what I'm talking about. Most of the trees in them are so uniform that you can't tell one from the other. The forest floor there is covered in rusty spruce needles and they're generally criss-crossed with game trails. Walk any distance in there, and if you don't have a keen eye and a good sense of direction...well, you're lost!

I actually get nervous any time I have to hike through one. However, the Mountains to Sea Trail, which I was using, was blazed with white paint blotches placed on various trees and so I made my way safely through the first few plots of spruce trees that I encountered.

Then, I had to leave the MTS Trail and head off into the deeper wilderness. Most wilderness areas don't have maintained trails and most don't sign the trails. So you have to use your map and compass (or GPS device), and have some common sense. I have a terrible sense of direction, so I really depend on maps and my compass to get through tough-to-read trails when I'm hiking alone. And as soon as I had to track right, leaving the MTS Trail, I found myself walking down unmarked trails through my dreaded Red spruce forests.

In short order, though, I was out into the open meadows again with Green Knob in front of me (I'd picked it out as a possible campsite), Mount Hardy to my left, and vast views to my right. I'd stumbled upon a truly superlative campsite and I decided at that moment to go no further looking for a better place to pitch my tent, because I realized I likely wouldn't find a better spot.

Once I had my tent up and my gear stowed inside I went for a brief walk around the vicinity, taking in the views. I had plenty of time to kill. After meditating and just looking around, I fixed supper, cleaned up my cooking gear, packed away my food, hung my foodbag from a safe spot (Middle Prong is bear country), and I still had daylight left.

Sitting in the meadow, I looked around and my eye kept being drawn toward the spruce forest I'd hiked through to get to the campsite. I decided to just walk over to it and wander in a few yards and take a look. So what I then did was the following:

Since I was only going to walk maybe the length of a football field away, I emptied my pockets. I dropped everything I normally carry with me in the tent: my knife, my emergency whistle with compass and waterproof matches, my wrist watch, my keys. I didn't have a cell phone then, but if I had I'd have left it, too. I even took off my jacket (it was Spring and a warm day, but the night would be cool...I just didn't need the jacket at that particular moment) and tossed it in the tent.

Then I wandered toward the forest. And into it. My eyes to the ground, looking for something interesting, I continued to walk. Just a few yards. Only for a few minutes. I looked up.

The sun had descended more than I'd liked and the light was getting dim in the woods. It was time to head back. I turned around and began to retrace my steps. Several minutes passed. I was still in the woods. Stopping, I looked all around me in the fading daylight. Nothing but those uniform spruce trunks and rusty needles littering the ground.

Wait a minute. I was on the wrong trail.

Peering through the woods, I realized that the forest was a maze of wandering, twisting trails. Game trails. Hiker trails. Trails where people had looked for a private place to shit. Trails made by backpackers looking for firewood. Everywhere a trail.

Figuring I knew what I'd done wrong, I found the right trail (it was OBVIOUS!) and followed it.

In another few minutes I was deeper in the forest. I was no closer to the meadow. I couldn't even SEE the meadow. All I could see were spruce trees in every direction. It  was getting darker. I was going to be trapped out in the woods wearing shorts and a short-sleeved shirt with no way to make a fire and it was going to be COLD!


I had, by this time, completely lost my already lousy sense of direction. I glanced up at the sky, looking for an indication of the sun, but the sun was already below the horizon and it was DARK in there and GETTING DARKER. I couldn't even tell east from west. At that point I decided that the most logical thing to do was RUN! Yeah, that's right! That's right! I'd pick a trail and RUN DOWN IT! If it was the right direction I'd pop out in the meadow where my tent was, and if it was the WRONG direction I'd end up on the Mountains to Sea Trail and I could then find the trail to the campsite and follow it to my tent where all of my stuff that would keep me alive was located! YEAH! THAT'S WHAT I'D DO!

So I chose a path and ran. And ran. Until I got winded. Then I stopped and looked around. It was darker. There was nothing around me but trees. Goddamned Red fucking spruce trees.

And then...oh, then I panicked. Thinking of the temperature plunging down to 20 and me with no way to keep warm I screamed like a little girl and started running in circles. Really. Like a crazy little kid screaming and running around in ever-widening circles in the deep, dark, red spruce woods.

Finally, I stopped screaming and stopped running around. Probably because I was getting tired, but maybe because I had finally gotten control over my panic. Standing there, for the first time thinking, I remembered the scenery from the meadow. To my left had been the big cone of Mount Hardy and, beyond that, Richland Balsam. If I could make out at least one of those obvious peaks and put them to my left, all I had to do was walk in a straight line and I'd come out somewhere near the meadow. But all around me all I could see was dark forest growing darker. I couldn't even SEE the mountains.


I detected a glimmer of pale light downslope to my left and so I headed in that direction. In a few yards I could see the sky and, there to my left, Mount Hardy.


So now all I had to do was turn and keep Hardy to my left. Just march forward until.

The forest broke. I was at the bottom of a meadow. The problem with these recovering high elevation meadows is that, as the forest reclaims them (they're a relic of the timber business and not natural), they get full of brambles at the periphery. Sharp, adamant, thorny brambles. And I was in shorts and short sleeves. I picked my way into the brambly meadow, keeping wonderful Mount Hardy to my left and looking ever uphill, to my right, scanning for any glimmer of my tent which I'd pitched on the top of the ridge.

And there it was. I could see my tent. Maybe a quarter of a mile away. I could either go back into the woods and pick my way back up, or I could very carefully tiptoe through the brambles and keep my eye on the tent. Since I was now scared shitless of the spruce forest what I did was run like a madman through the brambles, never taking my eye off of my tent.

By the time I got to the campsite, my arms and legs were cut by a hundred thorns. I was bloody as hell. But I didn't give shit one about that. I  was back at my tent. Back to my warm clothes and warm sleeping bag and stove and matches and.

Well, I wasn't going to freeze to death in a fucking Red spruce forest in the middle of fucking nowhere.

Climbing into my tent I got blood all over the mosquito netting. It's still there, several years later, to remind me not to be a total dumbass. Once inside I swabbed my jillions of cuts with alcohol. That hurt, but it didn't bother me. I was now safe.

I still think of myself in that forest, running around in circles and screaming like a little girl. Even while it was happening, in the back of my mind I kept thinking: "This is going to be embarrassing if another hiker sees me like this."

When the sun set for well and good a few minutes later, I snuggled down in my sleeping bag and went fast and completely to sleep.

Lesson learned.

Sam Knob from below the Black Balsam parking area.

Me, on the summit of Sam Knob that day.
Spruce forest on the way to Middle Prong. (Note the paint trail marking.) Everything looks the same in there!

My wonderful campsite. And the spruce forest behind me where I went to go for a "brief hike" as the sun was setting.

One thing I did right. I stood around and noted all of the big peaks in the vicinity. (See that brown stuff just downhill? Those are not just shrubs, but nasty, vicious brambles.)

This was not long before I decided to empty my pockets and wander off.
This is the nice trail I walked down to go into the forest. See how well trod it is? NO WAY you could get lost in there!
The peak that kept me from getting totally screwed. Those brambles are the very ones I ran through to get back to my tent.
This forest is in the Smokies...but you get the idea. Wander into this shit and you'd best know what you're doing and where you're going.


MarkGelbart said...

I don't get to go hiking in the wilderness as often as you, but I did have a similar experience in 1988 when I went for a day hike in the Congaree National Park (then monument).

I was walking along for 4 hours, enjoying nature, and totally oblivious to everything else. Back then, there were no people on the trail at all. None. Try finding a National Park with no people now days.

As I walked, I was careful to duck or go around the millions of orb-weaver spider webs that criss-crossed the well-marked trail.

I suddenly got paranoid about which trail I was on. I feared I was on the longer trail, and I was afraid I wouldn't be able to make it out by dark. After dark I wouldn't be able to see the trail markings.

So I started running, thinking if I jogged, I would make it out before dark, even if I was on the longer trail. I stopped worrying about destroying the spider webs across the trail, and carried a stick to knock through everyone I encountered (which was about every 5 feet).

I imagined getting stuck in the woods in the middle of the night and getting attacked by rabid raccoons or wild hogs. When I told my friend about these fears later, he laughed at me.

Anyway, it turned out I was on the correct trail, and by the time I made it back to my car it wasn't even close to was midafternoon in late summer.

James Robert Smith said...

Better safe than sorry!

I have a horrible sense of direction and have been--technically speaking--lost a number of times. However, if the eastern USA, it's almost impossible to get lost in the way a person can be out west. Here in the east, all you have to do is walk downhill and eventually you will hit a road. Or follow a stream/creek/river and eventually you will come to a road. The only exceptions to this rule here in the east are in the few vast lowland wilderness areas we have. You can genuinely get lost in the Okefenokee, or the Everglades, or the Great Dismal Swamp, etc.

Congaree can be a nasty place in warmer weather or when the water is up. You could really get lost in there, for real. I went on an extended hike there a few years ago and we would come to "guts", which are kind of like oxbow lakes. Most of the time you can't cross them, so you either have to go around them or turn back. I'd hate to have to be in a bad position and have to wade or swim across one. No thanks!

I think the Congaree got National Park status as part of a deal with the outgoing Senator Fritz Hollings. I think he gave in on blocking/supporting some iffy legislation if he could get support to transform Congaree from a National Monument to a National Park. He got his wish. it's an amazing smaller National Park. It's a vast, genuine old growth hardwood bottomland forest. Many, many champion caliber trees are in there.

Kirk G said...

May I suggest that you read the recent book by Stephen King (if you haven't already)'s called something like "The Girl Who Loved Tom Clancy"...but it is all about getting lost in the north woods of Maine and how a 9 or 10 year old girl makes wrong and right choices to survive through almost two weeks of wilderness wandering. You'll identify with her.

James Robert Smith said...

THE GIRL WHO LOVED TOM GORDON. I read it when it first appeared. Good book. I adore King's work. Even his lesser books are superior in craft to the best work by most other writers.