OHT Sections Sections 4 and 5: Lick Branch to Big Piney – Day 2
I overslept a bit the following morning. In an effort to save my cell phone battery I did not use it as an alarm clock but used my wrist watch. Unfortunately, the alarm was set for PM rather than AM so my intended 6am wake-up call did not happen until around 730am. I did not concern myself with stoking the fire back up but instead had a cup of coffee made from the jet boil. I filled up my water bottles at the waterfall, made a breakfast of almonds, restuffed my pack then moved on down the trail. The Arbaugh Trailhead was indeed just around the corner less than a quarter mile but there was no sign of life there and I was glad I had not pushed on the night before. The scene outside the tent of my settled camp site was even more serene that I had expected.
I signed in at the trailhead and at least according to the sign in sheets the last hikers that had been through here had done so in early November. That meant another day of solitary hiking was most likely in front of me.
The first half of the day was pretty easy hiking. From the Arbaugh Trailhead, the trail descends into to the woods and down a small mountain. The descent is not too steep and the trekking poles continued their part in protecting my knees. The trail is wide through here for the most part too, practically a jeep road except for areas where a couple of trees had been uprooted and massive craters were in the middle of the trail.
I took out my mp3 player and popped in the ear buds for an audio book I planned on enjoying most of the day. The miles kind of zoomed by for some time until the trail leveled out and brought me to a river at the bottom.
The guidebook describes Lewis Prong Creek as a stream bed. That was not quite adequate to my experience. I took my pack off and looked at the guidebook section several times. This was neither a stream nor a bed but a swelling river with pretty good sized rapids. It reminded me of the Cossatot in southern, AR. What was more, I could not find a place to cross this river and stay comfortably dry. In fact I had passed the actual trail crossing and found it as I retraced my steps but even that did not help a lot as the crossing, while over calm water, was still deep.
I don’t believe it is at the river but I knew that today’s hiking would take me through an area described in the guidebook as a place where a judge from New York died while hiking. If I recall he was swept up in a river. So I was especially aware and alert to river crossings. I didn’t want to get wet but more than that I wanted to be safe.
After about ten minutes of searching there simply was not a dependable make shift bridge. At one turn in the river perhaps 200 foot down stream from the crossing was some water more shallow than what preceded and followed it and this area was also divided by an island in the middle of the river. I stuffed my fleece I had been wearing into the bottom of my pack, put my gear back on and began making my way across. I got to the island no problem but the real challenge followed. I took careful steps onto each rock one at a time and almost made it. The rocks were slippery and water was flowing pretty good but these boulders were large enough I thought it might work. I had maybe two steps to go when the rock that my left leg was outstretched on, gave way and rolled forward sending me butt first into the cold water.
The water was about three foot deep here and although down I jumped up quickly mostly to chase down my trekking poles which were now racing down the river. I grabbed one before it caught a swifter current but the other kept moving until it lodged in a corner between another set of rapids and some deadwood. I was pretty irritated and then that changed to concern when I remembered my cell phone was in the fleece that had been just stowed away in the bottom section of my back which had been submerged in water.
I threw rocks toward the still missing trekking pole in hopes of getting a ripple of water to send it floating towards me. The stupidity of what I was doing eventually dawned on me and I walked back into the water after a bit and grabbed the pole up. I was already wet and it was no longer an issue of getting wetter. This line of reason did not hit me though until I had seen my tin coffee cup come loose from my pack while I was throwing rocks and dip into the strong current never to be seen again.
Poles in hand I moved on across the river and up the bank then moved up into the woods until I found the trail again. I sat down and took my shoes and socks off. My smartwools were soaked. I tied one each onto the external straps on my bag to let them dry. The shoes would not dry until the evening. My pants were soaked and prior to putting on some dry socks I smoked a cigar along the banks of the “streambed” allowing myself some time to dry out.
I will swear by Deuter now. I took the fleece out and it was dry as could be even though the outside of the bag was soaked on the bottom half. No damage at all to my gear.
I sat there for about thirty minutes drying out, enjoying some more almonds and kind of laughing at all that had just happened. To the north I thought I heard gunfire every once in a while. It might have been hunters but if it was they were pretty bad shots. It might have been the rocks of this river bed clapping together in appreciation for the show of entertainment I had provided them.
The next mile or so of the hike was pretty easy going. The trail remained wide for the most part as part of an old jeep road. The sights are not too interesting though but it is level and relaxing. I got lost a couple of times as I ran into these spots in the middle of the woods where giant trees were down, roots and all. Judging by the age of the dead leaves still on the trees this toppling had to have occurred in the past spring. The trees upended this section of the trail so that it could not be found. They either buried posts and trees that have blaze on them or broke them off. In either event the trail was very difficult to locate at a couple of areas and I had to move up and down a ridge before finally finding more blaze. I had a schedule to keep and was a little aggravated at having wasted 30 minutes of hiking on level trail to simply find the path. Unfortunately this was a sign of things to come.
Not too far past mile marker 75 there was a rock slabbed bottom creek, very shallow but clean and clear that I came to and crossed over. A short patch of cedar trees sat on the other side. I knew an uphill climb was not too far ahead so I took a brief break to refill on water and to have a lunch on my almonds. I should have had more than almonds for lunch as I look back. That did me harm. It was too easy access and I thought it would give me the nutrients and energy I needed. I was not prepared for what was coming though.
The location of my shady lunch was Turner Hollow Creek. It was just a little further on and I came to a second crossing of my old nemesis Lewis Prong Creek. That was what I was expecting anyway. After Turner Hollow the trail turned into a disaster area. All throughout this bottom land of the forest tree upon tree was downed similar to what I had encountered earlier but on a much more massive scale. This was not simply an issue of walking around the trees to stay on the trail. You have to walk around whole sections of the forest.
The guidebook is a little misleading here. It suggests that you cross Lewis Prong Creek in this area and I did so several times in my effort to relocate the trail. From what I saw though, you don’t actually cross the creek again but instead move up the ridge that sits up stream and to the left. That discover was some two hours away though. I walked in circles for that amount of time moving all over the area trying to find blaze or markings of trail of some sort. I really can’t express how ransacked this area was. I don’t know this as a fact but I can’t explain anything besides a tornado that would have done this level of damage to the area. Hundreds of giant old trees were down from the roots up and many were criss-crossed on top of each other. They made for enormous obstacles to bypass but even more so in locating the trail. Twice I crossed Lewis Prong and made my way up two different jeep trails that were on the other side, walking about a half mile before realizing that there simply wasn’t any blaze so this could not be the trail. On another occasion I thought I eyed a trail path over one of the ridges on the far side of Lewis Prong but after a while on it there simply wasn’t any blaze.
I took off my pack and drank down some more water. I climbed up on some of the trees that were laying in the path and began walking up and down the downed logs looking for any sign of blaze. There are also some bearing trees in this area that can be used for mapping so I assumed these were part of the trail. I don’t believe they were and their good markings served only as decoys.
I eventually located some blaze and found the path far from where I had assumed it to be. I was glad I did not remain on the trails I had gone on earlier. I would have been way off and gotten completely lost. Unfortunately, even after finding the trail, the path did not get any better. Downed and uprooted trees continued to be an issue all the way to the top of Moonhull Mountain. This meant very slow trekking and very difficult climbing. The trail narrowed quite a bit too once I started moving up the benches of the mountain side. To my left were some nice overhangs, bluffs, rock formations and even waterfalls which the book mentioned but the obstacles on the trail itself were simply too great an encounter to enjoy the sights.
My water supply started drying up too and conditions became even worse when a gnat took it upon himself to make a kamikaze mission down my throat with a direct hit on my gagger that left me coughing and hacking for about ten minutes. Luckily I soon came to more water.
After a while the trail improved somewhat. It was still covered with down trees and branches but it was plain that folks had been down there with chainsaws clearing paths where they could. I won’t say it got easier but it did get better so that I was not having to hunt for the trail as much but just climb over logs and branches.
This was an extremely difficult section and the first section I have been on that brought back remembrance of Section 1 to White Rock. As a trail it was worse but the water supply on this one made me more comfortable than anything I remembered at the White Rock area.
The end of the ascent of Moonhull Mountain is marked by a series of three waterfalls. These were all nice in and of themselves, but again, my focus was no longer on setting and scenery. I was physically drained. What I really needed was to refuel with some calories but the mere thought of food turned me off. In retrospect this was probably due to my body heat being so high as I trudged along. A counterproductive cycle of wearing down and not eating had kicked in.
The final ascent of Moonhull Mountain is the steepest and my pace was measured in inches at this point. When I finally made it to the top I cross the forest road that marks the point, dropped my pack from my back and laid down exhausted in the shade. I guzzled down one of my water bottles and chomped down a few more almonds. I knew I needed some calories and pulled out an unopened smoked sausage. One bite and that was enough though. I just did not want to eat.
The time was 430pm and I had a dilemma. There was still another 5 miles to go to Ozone and three miles beyond that was a forest road where I was to meet my friends the following morning at 8am. At the best of paces I had done this whole trip I did not think I could get to Ozone before dark on the trail. I don’t like hiking at night. It seems like a dangerous situation waiting to happen. My greater concern was that I would descend Moonhull Mountain and enter another valley of disaster area like what I had just come out of. There was no way I could transverse that in the dark. I also would not have cell signal down there so when I did not arrive in the morning at the meet-up location my friends would think the worst.
A few more sips on the water bottle, a few more almonds, and I studied my map. The forest road I was sitting beside seemed to come out on Highway 21 somewhere to the north. How far away that was I could not know as the map is not exactly to scale. Still, if I were going to be walking at night, and the prospect seemed unavoidable at this point, it would be safer on the road than on the trail. It would also provide a landmark that the guys in the morning could find me at if I did not make it to our meet-up spot.
I thought about it for some time and this finally seemed like the only reasonable path forward. My body was very fatigued but I could not stay where I was and I could not get stuck in the valley at night.
I turned my cell phone on and gave my friend Steve a call who would be meeting me in the morning. I told him of the plan mainly just to let someone know I was leaving the trail and what my planned route was. I ended up being about a mile from Highway 21 which I discovered by walking there. My pace was quicker and easier on road even though the road consisted of some pretty major up and down hills. My hopes were that I would be able to hitch a ride down to the intersecting forest road or even to Ozone. No such luck. Dozens of cars passed me with my thumb stuck out and not one even hinted at stopping. I think those days are gone from this world even way back in the country where I was. I don’t suppose I can fault anyone for that. I walked for about 3 and a half hours finally arriving at the 1405 intersection at 8pm. I don’t know for sure how far a walk that was but I did not stop once from the time I left Moonhull Mountain. Two miles an hour would be very conservative and I figured I more than likely averaged at least 3. Two miles per hour is my average pace on the trail when steep hills are present but it is easier to move down a paved road.
At the 1405 (the number on the road is different than this but that is what it is called in the guidebook) road I moved down in the dark with my headlamp on. I located a rocky summit area on the roadside and moved into the interior of the woods here to camp. I had planned on just pulling out my sleeping bag and resting under a tree for the night but realized setting up the tent would take only ten minutes more and provide for a more relaxing sleep. Once in the tent I texted my location to Steve for our meet-up the next morning. Then I called my wife to assure her all was well.
I tried to drift off to sleep but had a difficult time. Once again, in retrospect I see the issues but I didn’t at the time. My body heat was still too high and I still needed refueling. On several occasions throughout the night I thought I might throw up and even got that water feeling at the back of my tongue that always signals such an event is about to occur. It didn’t happen though and that is probably because there was nothing to up chuck. I emptied the last of my water and finally fell asleep with only a few restless moments over the course of the night. A brilliant sun rise would greet me the following morning when I found I had set my tent up with a perfect face to the east for sun up.