This year, expedition eight, for Level Four students, consisted of a fifty-mile hike along the AT, from Lake Watauga to the Roan Highlands. On Day One, Erin, Andrew, and I, were driven to the Shook Branch trailhead at Lake Watauga, and from there we started our seven-mile hike up to Pond Mountain. Erin led us up the mountain, which had spectacular views of the lake, and the surrounding mountains. We took a break at Pond Flats, the highest point of today’s hike, and it was there we first met other AT hikers. We started down the hill toward Laurel Branch, and reached the gorge around 1:05 p.m., where bridges led us across the river. Fifty-five minutes and one steep uphill later, we reached Laurel Forks Shelter. We were hoping to find camp spots near the shelter, but the spots appeared to be the ones behind us, and rather than hiking up the hill again the next morning, we opted to camp near the shelter. The water source was actually a waterfall, which I explored while we refilled our water bottles. Erin dropped her water bottle on the ground, which turned out to be a sunning spot for a snake. Andrew tried to catch it, but we let it get away. We said goodbye to the small waterfall, and began the short hike to Laurel Fork Falls, about a mile away. We followed the river up through the canyon to the falls, which were spectacular. They were about fifty feet high, and equally as wide. I climbed up to the top, which was a hard climb, and not really worth it since the view from below was better. After reuniting with the rest of the group, we hiked back down the canyon and up to the shelter. We sat talking at the shelter where we met a through-hiker named Prescott and had a chance to visit with him as well. After rally, we ate dinner, and I placed my sleeping pad on a flat spot by the shelter near a drop off, but I put a log next to my sleeping bag to make sure I didn’t roll off. So ended Day One.
Day Two started chilly but warmed up fast; it was a great day for our 9.8-mile hike up from Laurel Fork to the Moreland Gap area. We got out of our sleeping bags at 6:30 a.m., made breakfast, and had everything packed up by 8:00. I made a water run for the group, and then we moved out with Andrew in the lead. After an hour of hiking we reached Dennis Cove. I was disappointed that Bob Peoples’ hostel was closed that day, because ever since I had read about him on the walls of the Double Springs Shelter, I had been looking forward to meeting him. As we headed back up, we met a few more hikers going the other way. At 11:00 a.m., we reached the trail to Coon Den Falls, and met a couple more through-hikers who were traveling with their Golden Retriever. They were very nice people, and we talked with them for a while. We dropped our packs at the trailhead, and hiked a mile-and-a-half down to the falls. We spent some time down there, getting water, and I went under the falls, which would have been a nice shower if the water hadn’t been so freezing cold as it pounded down on me. Still, I was wishing I had brought my Dr. Bronner’s soap as I climbed out quickly. We hiked back up to the trailhead, put on our backpacks, and hit the trail for another three hours before we stopped for lunch at the shelter. We were on the trail that day for about eight hours, but I didn’t mind and neither did anyone else. The sights from the ridges of the towns and mountains in the distance were breathtaking. That said, the hardest uphills of the expedition, so far, were on this day, and I learned that uphills are not my friend, and neither are fallen trees in the trail which I had to climb over like a jungle gym. We arrived at our camp around 5:00 p.m., after meeting quite a few hikers headed for Moreland Gap shelter. Our campsite that night was small, and the water source was shallow and muddy, or at least it was until it started to rain. We cooked dinner and ate it during rally, and then hopped into our sleeping bags for the night.
Day Three started out terribly for me. It was freezing cold, and snowing, and, as I was packing up, I found that I had spilled my water bottle all over my side of the tent. To top it off, it was my day to lead on a 10.1-mile hike along the windy cold trail to Elk River. “Why me,” I thought to myself as I bundled up in my cold weather gear. The weather changed constantly from rain, to snow, to sunshine, which had us sweating inside our rain gear. It always seemed to start raining when we were on break. Along the trail we met Legion, who had just hiked five miles in one hour, and Hawk who adopted lost dogs along the trail, and dropped them off at the next town. We crossed two roads along the way, and stopped at Mountaineer Shelter for lunch. The shelter was a huge three-story building, unlike any of the other shelters we had passed. As I was eating lunch, I saw a quote written on the sleeping platform, which I really enjoyed:
“And the hammer fell upon the unchanged world, smashing the root of tradition. Time would settle all things, but tradition. Tradition lay disjointed, abandoned in all places but one…the white blaze. A place where those who would walk alone while others fell. Those others who would change the rules to feed the weak, those others will perish while the mountain is eternal, and we don’t forgive…”—The Rabbit
We moved out, and hiked for another hour-and-a- half until we saw the river. We arrived at camp, which was in a huge meadow. Erin got a camp at the highest point, surrounded by daffodils, while Andrew and I camped alongside the river. Andrew found some wild onions, and we roasted five of them, and cut up another three to put in our dinner. We rallied at our camp; it had stopped raining, but was still windy. In the middle of rally, our tent tried to blow away from us. The sun came out at the end of the day, as Andrew and I ate our lentils and rice with onions. We hit the hay after a nice sunset, and slept under clear skies.
Day Four began clear and cold, but with no snow on the ground. Erin was leading us on a 9.4-mile hike to Doll Flats. We moved out at 8:35 a.m., past two campers who had spent the night in the meadow and were just waking up. We hit the first uphill of the day, and arrived at Jones Falls about half an hour later. We spent around twenty minutes enjoying the falls, and then pushed on. We crossed over two roads and arrived at the top of a ridge, near a church, with incredible views. After the climb it was mostly downhill to Highway 19, where we stopped along the creek for lunch. Then it was a long uphill past Applehouse Shelter to Doll Flats, where Andrew, Erin, and I had a tent-city camp. Andrew went to take a billycan bath, and about two minutes later, we heard him yell in pain. We watched him pull a thorn out of his foot and Erin told him to wash the area and put a band-aid on it, while I laughed at the words that came out of his mouth. We ate dinner during rally, and after it was dark, got in our tent where Andrew worked on his Mountain Musings article, and I read Neverwhere out loud. I stopped reading when Andrew dozed off, and after that day’s eight-hour hike, I soon fell asleep also.
Day Five was Andrew’s day to lead again, and we started off by hiking uphill over huge boulders. After a long climb, we arrived at the top of the first of “the balds” on our hike. From there we had a 360-degree view of the surrounding towns and valleys, and a clear view of the ridgeline we would be hiking over the next day. The elevation at the top of the bald, which is called Hump Mountain, was 5,587 feet, and I felt light-headed for most of the day. Our 7.4-mile hike that day had the steepest uphills of the whole expedition, and we continued up and down for several hours before arriving at Overmountain Shelter, where we stopped for lunch. The shelter was a huge old barn, and we took some time to read the trail log, recognizing some of the names of people we had met along the trail. We continued up, and arrived at Stan Murray Shelter at 1:54 p.m. That afternoon, we rolled out our sleeping pads and read and talked in the sunshine. A through-hiker named Nocello came through and had lunch, and two other hikers came in as well. We sat around talking with them. Nocello had just had a re-supply, and we heard the story about the guy who killed and roasted a rabbit the night before, even though everyone had just feasted on pizza. Nocello told all of us to go to college – several times. Later that afternoon, Lizard, Sailor, and Thin Mint stopped in and stayed the night. We talked about plans for college and hiking the trail. They told us about some of the games they played with other hikers along the trail, like Glasses. They asked us to tell some hikers named Six String, Disco, and Blue Sky their beards were coming in nicely, if we ran into them the next day. It was well after dark when we unrolled our sleeping bags and bunked down for the night.
Day Six was our last day, and my day to lead again. We started our 3.5-mile hike uphill from the shelter to the Roan Highlands. When we reached the trail to Grassy Ridge, we met three hikers coming down. “Your beards are coming in nicely,” we told them, and they flipped out. Turns out they were Six String, Disco and Blue Sky. “Those guys got us,” they said. It was pretty funny. We left our packs along the trail and hiked up to Grassy Ridge, the highest point of our expedition. The view was magnificent. After putting on our backpacks, we continued along the ridge toward Carver’s Gap, stopping along the way to enjoy the views from each summit. At one point we pulled out our map, and using the view, we were able to trace our route almost all the way to the beginning of the expedition. We moved out one last time, and reached the parking lot just as it started to rain, but fortunately our ride back to the school arrived at the same time.
Expedition Eight was one for the books!