February Backpacking on the Appalachian Trail March 05 2015, 2 Comments

Mountain tops in western NC.

As I sit inside at the coffeeshop around the corner from my apartment, watching the icy rain drip down the windows, I can't help but dream of spring. I have been happily content with the winter, until yesterday. Yesterday was 75 degrees. It was a glorious Wednesday in early March. I spent every minute I could outside -- riding my bike around town, grabbing tacos and beer on a patio for lunch, a run and river escapade with my dog Ed, and ended the evening at the Wedge brewery in the River Arts District, which is a staple on warm days here in Asheville. After a day like that, it is hard to embrace the wintery slush falling from the sky.

My mind wanders to last year, at about this same time, to an outdoor adventure that I took as the temperatures let up for a weekend. It was late February 2014, three months into my new life here in Asheville. I hadn't yet bought any real outdoor gear but agreed to a spur of the moment backpacking trip. I was in need of fresh air, activity and the woods. I read a few reviews on sleeping bags fit for winter camping in the south. Southern winter weather is unpredictable, as noted by the 40 degree rise and fall of temperature in one day. I bought a bright orange women's Marmot sleeping bag that was rated for zero degrees. I am always cold, so the advice that was given about getting a 30 degree bag was discarded. I scrounged together warm layers from my closet and borrowed a backpack from Brandon. He had a men's medium Osprey bag that we thought could work. This was Friday.

Early Saturday morning we dropped into Greenlife grocery for some essentials - almond butter, dried beans, a cup of noodles, and a Bota box of red wine (Malbec, my favorite). We then organized our packs. I came to find out that this packing process was half the fun. We chanted "Get the Gear" while stuffing all the essentials in our bags. Which is, by the way, the best episode of Portlandia ever. We were ready for our adventure. I would have never set out on a winter overnight trip in the mountains alone. Brandon, my companion, grew up doing this type of thing, so I felt safe. I was also raised on backpacking and hiking getaways with my mom, but on Michigan terrain, which is entirely different. No mountains involved and absolutely no winter excursions. Michigan backpacking and camping was saved for the other three seasons. 

We took two cars. One was parked at Hot Springs, NC, our ending destination, and the other at Garenflo Gap, NC, our trailhead. It started sprinkling the minute we set foot on the AT. The total trip was a fairly short one -- 3.4 miles from Garenflo Gap to Deer Park Mountain (our shelter for the first night), and 3.2 miles from Deer Park Mountain to Hot Springs. Deer Park Mountain is at an elevation of around 2,300 feet. Brandon told me about the AT shelters, described them as small cabins. I pictured what we call "lean-tos" that I had stayed in on a backpacking trip around Isle Royale, north of Michigan's Upper Peninsula in Lake Superior, just south of Canada. The lean-tos on Isle Royale had a solid wood floor, three walls and a screened front wall with a door. We arrived at the Deer Park Mountain shelter with plenty of daylight left. The shelter had three walls made of logs and an open front. There was a dirt floor with a raised wood loft.

We decided to set the tent up inside the cabin for extra protection from the weather as the temperature was starting to drop and the sky was cluttered with dark, threatening clouds. We gathered fallen branches and logs to start a fire. I poured wine into my titanium mug, gathered the journals left inside the shelter which documented other hiker's stories, sat on a tree stump and warmed by the fire. I was happy. Dinner was made in this same mug, which was a dried mixture of beans and rice that we cooked on the small, single burner stove we brought along. I expected to sleep well, all cozied up in my bag, under the protection of the pop tent. 

I rested for a few hours, but was woken by scratching and scurrying sounds on the tin roof of the shelter. The noises grew closer, and I realized that the rodent and his friends were inside the shelter on the wood loft with us. At this moment I was overjoyed that I was inside the tent. We pounded on the floor to scare the mice off, but they kept returning. It was cold, around 20 degrees, but I was sweating in my, what I now call the fire of 10,000 dragons, sleeping bag. I quickly realized that sweating was far worse than being cold, as the moisture quickly froze my feet and hands numb (should've taken the advice about the 30 degree bag). Brandon seemed to easily fall back asleep while I kept one eye open until daylight broke. My original plan was to wake up with the sun, but as I was now exhausted and needing rest as the light rays peeked over the mountain tops, I slept. I crawled out of the tent around 9 and was greeted with hot coffee by the fire. 

Breakfast was instant oats with apples and almonds. We took our mugs, sporks and cooking pots to the water source, a little stream on the other side of the trail, for cleaning. We filled up our water pouches using a charcoal filter and were ready for day two. 

The trail is surrounded on both sides by greenery, mostly Rhododendron, which in the spring is blooming in bright pinks. We don't pass anyone else on the trail. A few miles until we arrive in Hot Springs, a quaint town built around natural mineral hot springs. After little rest on the cold night before, the hot springs were an oasis that I was anxiously awaiting. We walked into downtown, looking slightly disheveled, with our belongings on our backs and headed straight for the nearest eatery. We pigged out on french fries and sandwiches like we hadn't seen food in weeks (which was the furthest thing from what actually happened, as I had gone to bed with a full belly the night before).

The hot springs, which warmed our bones and drenched our skin in natural minerals, were the perfect treat. I slept well this night with no uninvited creatures of the forest. The adventure was the first of many to come and worth repeating. 

Garenflo Gap AT trailhead.

Backpacking adventure on the AT in the winter.

Mountain view from the Appalachian Trail in February.