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Cumberland Gap National Park Ridge Trail Hike

It has often been said that you should “be careful what you wish for.”  If you were the two novice backpackers who volunteered to go hiking with Your Humble Servant this week, that advice goes in spades.

Our adventure of the week was a three-day, end-to-end backpacking trip of the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, located at the point where Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia rub shoulders.

Both regular readers of Wildindiana.com know that we have visited Cumberland Gap N.H.P. on a frequent basis in the last few years.  As the park is only a five-hour drive from Indianapolis and offers history, 70 miles of great hiking and wonderful facilities, Cumberland Gap is a no-brainer for Hoosiers who enjoy backcountry adventure.

This trip was hatched last fall when frequent co-conspirator Ken and Yours Truly were conducting a hike that has since become known as the Cumberland Death March.

What started out as a simple September two-day adventure became a survival ordeal after temperatures soared into record levels.   In spite of the terrible temperature, lack of water, horrific climb and subsequent thunderstorm that came within a few feet of turning us into smoking lumps of carbon, we decided a return spring backpacking trip might be fun.

Our plan was to finally hike the entire 20-mile Ridge Trail, a foot and horse path that runs the length of Cumberland Gap park along the top of the mountain of the same name that served as a substantial barrier to the westward expansion of America in the late 1700’s.   As an afterthought, we chose to invite some friends who had expressed a slight interest in undertaking such an adventure.

One of those friends, with only six months lead time to plan, was forced to back out at the last minute due to a conflict.  Instead, we got Kevin, who turned out to be a great guy and wonderful hiking companion.  Kevin was available due to one of those little downsizing decisions that nowadays make corporate executives seem to resemble pond scum.

He took the whole job-loss thing in stride, while we would have probably driven a rental truck full of manure through the front doors.  But I digress…

Fast forward six months to this past Monday and you would see this writer, Ken, Tony and Kevin standing at the Pinnacle Overlook parking lot ready for the challenge.  With a second vehicle parked twenty miles east at the trailhead in Ewing, Virginia, we stepped off under china blue skies and leafless trees that offered an open view of the valley a thousand feet below.  Life was grand.

Our mental portfolio of adventures can seldom remember such a sublime hiking experience as that first day on the ridge trail.  The temperature was perfect for hiking in the lower 60’s and a steady wind provided a bit of refreshment whenever the climbs generated sweat.

It seemed like every few minutes there was another outstanding view that seemed to go on forever, or at least until Georgia.  We burned up much digital memory in our cameras as while attempting to capture the impossible.

There were a few tough climbs along the trail, especially the climb out of Lewis Hollow.  After much huffing and puffing, we finally climbed back to altitude and enjoyed a relatively easy trek along the ridgeline.

Around noon we stopped at Table Rock, a nice spot for lunch out of the chilly wind.  The hour was spent lounging around on the large rock slab and discussing the rest of the poor unfortunate souls in the world who weren’t likewise eating their noon meal in the backcountry.

Your Obedient Servant noshed on our standard trail lunch of foil-pouch tuna and whole-wheat tortillas from a large plastic bag.  As the lifetime total of miles under our boots increases, we lean more and more towards dining simplicity rather than extravagant tastes.  On the other hand, everything tastes better in the outdoors, especially when you’ve been working hard to reach your lunch spot in the first place.

Lunch finished, we shouldered our packs and staggered back up the trail.  Though Ken and I had visited this area last year, apparently the heat had baked our brains and we didn’t realize that table rock was less than a half-mile from our first overnight campsite at Gibson Gap.  We staggered into camp around 1 p.m. having done approximately 6 miles.

The campsite at Gibson Gap is located in a slight notch and sits 100 yards above a good flowing spring, a rarity on top of Cumberland Mountain.  That night, Kevin and Ken build a large campfire with wood that some kind soul had left behind and we sat around telling stories, poking the fire and taking the occasional nip of snakebite medicine.    Each man packed a flask of spirituous beverages in case of attack by reptile and we all made sure to take a preventative draught or two each evening.  Cigars were also included on the bill of fare as added protection against mosquitoes and respectable ladies.

The next morning we headed out early under windier but still-clear skies.  Our destination was Chadwell Gap near the Hensley Settlement.

As day two progressed, everyone fell into the rhythm of the hike and we often went long periods without conversation.  Lunch was held on another large sun-warmed rock that seemed to overlook a good portion of the commonwealth of Virginia. The hiking on this day didn’t involve as many large climbs but did provide numerous elevation changes that quieted everyone as each man sought to conserve strength and continue the grind of up-and-down.

In the early afternoon, after walking along an unseen but heard creek in a tunnel of rhododendrons, we began seeing signs of human habitation such as clearings that were reverting to forest and finally the ruins of old cabins.  We had reached the outskirts of the Hensley Settlement.

Here the Ridge Trail makes a right hand turn and sees much more horse traffic.

Before we continue, we feel the urge to rile up horse owners.

It became obvious to all that the amount of trash and trail destruction increases in proportion to horse usage.  While we feel that everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy the backcountry, we would again publicly ask horse riders to refrain from discarding their water bottles, cigarette butts and beer cans along the trail.

Cynically (and sadly), I believe this plea falls on deaf ears.  Please prove us wrong.

For the sake of argument, we will admit to not having seen any horse riders  pitching Natty Light cans into the wilderness but my counter-argument is that I’ve also never seen a hiker carrying a 12-pack of beer seven miles from the nearest trailhead.  As they say, “Do the math.”

Moving along….

The Chadwell Gap campsite was at a high spot on ridge, larger than most anf gave the appearance of having been an open field when the settlement was in operation.   With a scraggly collection of trees, tired outhouse and no water nearby, the  campsite wasn’t the most desirable in the park.  After a quick conference, we agreed to move along to the Martin’s Fork cabin area, approximately half a mile away.  At least it was closer to our destination.

Part of our reasoning was a weather system that was reportedly bearing down on the Cumberland.  None of us savored the idea of being caught in a bad storm on the high open ground at Chadwell.

Foreshadowing Alert: our fears proved well founded.

We walked another .3 of a mile and then took the .2 mile side trail down into the small valley where the cabin is located.  Turning a corner on the steep downhill, we were pleasantly surprised.

In a small clearing framed by rhododendron and hemlock, a picturesque cabin stood guard over a verdant one-acre clearing in the forest that was wrapped by a clear burbling brook.  In all, it was a picture of Appalachian paradise.  After seven miles of hiking, it was a great place to call an overnight home.

The evening was uneventful as we told more stories, took our standard precautions against snakebite and then turned in under clear skies.  One member of the party who happens to own this website enthusiastically stated (repeatedly) that the weather system had blown over and the forecast was wrong.

Our trail mascot "Jason" and a salamander

I was reminded of this prediction around 5 a.m. when the hail started in earnest…for the first time.

It was fortunate that we had picked such a sheltered campsite as I shudder to think about our fate had we stayed at Chadwell.   Based on the wind gusts, it seems likely that our tarps would probably have been found somewhere near South Carolina or perhaps Bermuda.

The cabin was a godsend as its meager porch provided a sheltered space to eat breakfast and pack our gear in the rain and gathering gloom.  “At least,” I told our rookie hikers, “you get the full-meal-deal.  Now you will experience real backpacking in all its glory!”

Judging by the looks I received, it is fortunate that: A) these people were really good friends and B) I was carrying a pistol (legally, of course.)

Actually, I must commend everyone in the expedition as there was no grousing, whining or complaining during the entire day.  We all just geared up, hit the trail and slogged onward toward our car and the decadent possibility of dry underwear.

The entire final day was spent hiking in rain, heavy fog and the occasional downpour of misery.   As visibility was often less than a dozen feet, I expended my entire arsenal of bad jokes, worse songs and rambling gibberish in an attempt to not surprise any bears as we tromped through the mire.  As it was cub season, I didn’t relish the idea of inadvertently getting between mama and her babies.

After one long climb, Kevin and I waited for the other two to catch up when I was startled to see a giant skull staring at me in the fog.  I thought that things had finally reached the point where hallucinations had set in when realization struck: I knew where we were!

The apparition was actually a 30-foot rock was that, in the fog, presented a remarkable likeness to a human skull.  Even better, I recognized that we just 100 yards from the junction with the Ewing trail that would lead down to our car.

Our original plan was to hike to White Rocks before heading down but the fog made those extra two miles an exercise in futility.  In all, nobody seemed especially upset.  We could hear clean clothes calling our name.

The 2.5 mile hike down was a nice change from the pulse-pounding climbs and we hiked out of the clouds within the first mile.   Once below the clouds, the hike was visually interesting as dozens of springs and small creeks cut across the trail due to the cloudbursts at the peak.

Several times we saw the small orange salamanders endemic to this area lounging around in the middle of the trail.   We kept our head down to avoid slipping on the water-slicked rocks but regardless, we would have been equally attentive because accidentally crushing one of the benign little lizards would have ruined the mood.

Finally, after what seemed like a week on the trail, we arrived back at the trailhead in Ewing for a round of handshakes, rest and dry socks.

Overall, the hike remains one of my favorite backpacking destinations.   With plenty of challenges and scenery but easy access to the frontcountry and low probability of getting lost, the park is ideal for introducing first-time backpackers to the sport.   To our subjective minds, the trail would merit a solid “moderate” rating.

Now that Tony and Kevin are grizzled backpacking veterans, they’re already talking about the next backcountry challenge.

Of course, judging by the looks I got back on the cabin porch, I’m assuming I won’t be invited along.

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A few nights on Cumberland Mountain


Cumberland Gap National Historic Park homepage

C.G.N.H.P. Maps page


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Northern Lights a Bust

As reported yesterday, the Northern Lights were supposed to be visible below 55 latitude early this morning due to a major solar flare.   Unfortunately, our trained staff of sky watchers was outside in the predawn hours this morning and saw nothing.

At one point we did cut a large hole in the humidity but after removing the plug of water vapor and peering through, we couldn’t see anything else aside from bugs and the occasional flying airplane.
This isn’t a huge surprise as the only time we have personally witnessed the Northern Lights is during the coldest, clearest nights of winter.

Obviously that doesn’t apply to central Indiana today.  Just before dawn the temperature was 80 degrees, the dewpoint was 77 and the relative humidity was 90 percent.   We knew it was a bit damp when we saw a small school of minnows that had perched on the outside of our bathroom window overnight.

photo: NASA.com

Northern Lights Alert!

Northern Lights as seen near Lebanon in early 2006

Late tonight and early Wednesday, local sky watchers could see a display of the northern lights visible in Indiana.

According to CNN.com, a huge solar flare is headed toward earth.  These flares are the cause of the shimmering night lights seen over the poles.

To see the northern lights, you must be in a dark area with an unobstructed view of the northern horizon.

We have only seen the lights in Indiana on a few occasions, most recently four years ago, on very cold mornings in winter.

Story Link here

Longest day of the year

In case you missed it, today is the Summer Solstice.   This means June 21 is the longest day of the day.

Here is an overview of Summer Solstice from about.geography.com:

June 20-21 is a very important day for our planet and its relationship with the sun. June 20-21 is one of two solstices, days when the rays of the sun directly strike one of the two tropical latitude lines. June 21 marks the beginning of summer in the northern hemisphere and simultaneously heralds the beginning of winter in the southern hemisphere. In 2010, the solstice occurs and summer begins in the Northern Hemisphere summer begins early on June 21, at 7:28 a.m. EDT (11:28 UTC).

The earth spins around its axis, an imaginary line going right through the planet between the north and south poles. The axis is tilted somewhat off the plane of the earth’s revolution around the sun. The tilt of the axis is 23.5 degrees; thanks to this tilt, we enjoy the four seasons. For several months of the year, one half of the earth receives more direct rays of the sun than the other half.

When the axis tilts towards the sun, as it does between June and September, it is summer in the northern hemisphere but winter in the southern hemisphere. Alternatively, when the axis points away from the sun from December to March, the southern hemisphere enjoys the direct rays of the sun during their summer months.

June 21 is called the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and simultaneously the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. Around December 21 the solstices are reversed and winter begins in the northern hemisphere.

On June 21, there are 24 hours of daylight north of the Arctic Circle (66.5° north of the equator) and 24 hours of darkness south of the Antarctic Circle (66.5° south of the equator). The sun’s rays are directly overhead along the Tropic of Cancer (the latitude line at 23.5° north, passing through Mexico, Saharan Africa, and India) on June 21.

Without the tilt of the earth’s axis, we would have no seasons. The sun’s rays would be directly overhead of the equator all year long. Only a slight change would occur as the earth makes its slightly elliptical orbit around the sun. The earth is furthest from the sun about July 3; this point is known as the aphelion and the earth is 94,555,000 miles away from the sun. The perihelion takes place about January 4 when the earth is a mere 91,445,000 miles from the sun.

When summer occurs in a hemisphere, it is due to that hemisphere receiving more direct rays of the sun than the opposite hemisphere where it is winter. In winter, the sun’s energy hits the earth at oblique angles and is thus less concentrated.

During spring and fall, the earth’s axis is pointing sideways so both hemispheres have moderate weather and the rays of the sun are directly overhead the equator. Between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn (23.5° latitude south) there really are no seasons as the sun is never very low in the sky so it stays warm and humid (“tropical”) year-round. Only those people in the upper latitudes north and south of the tropics experience seasons.

Lightning: no laughing matter

The idea for today’s topic came two days ago while I was in the shower, lathered up and ready to shave.

A tremendous a bolt of lighting struck right outside my opened window.  Instantly there was a peal of thunder loud enough to make your heart stop beating for several seconds as the hair on my neck nearly leaped into the drain as the lights went out and the smell of ozone filled the humid air.

Fortunately I didn’t slit my throat with the razor in hand.  I did, however, cut off one eyebrow and shredded the shower curtain into strands of vermicelli.  To say I was a little bit startled is like saying Hillary Clinton is a little bit bitter.

After all bodily functions returned to a reasonable facsimile of normal, I consider the role that lightning has played in my life.  I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been within a 100-foot radius of a direct lightning strike.  Even once is so memorable as to make you hope there isn’t a second time.  For some reason in my case, the laws of probability have been stretched to the point of breaking.

According to the National Weather Service website, an average of 62 people are killed each year by lightning.  Considering that 98 percent of those folks were outdoors at the time, lighting is certainly a significant threat to fishermen, hikers and campers.

In my case, I’m fairly conservative when dealing with storms but those memorable occasions where the thunder gods tried to obliterate my being were the result of that famous outdoor cliché’, “just one more….”

In several cases, it was “just one more cast” of the fishing rod.  By the time I realized that a horrible storm was imminent, it was too late to seek shelter.  In one memorable instance I wrote about several years ago, I violated boating laws on a river after watching a nearby tree explode on the shoreline in a direct hit.  The entire stretch of river is an idle zone but I shoved the throttle forward with gusto and roared downriver to the dock.  About fifteen minutes later, safely inside my car, I finally stopped roaring.

There have been other instances such as the time I sought shelter underneath a road bridge but continued to stand in the water and fish.  After a nearby lightning strike reminded me that water is an outstanding conductor of electricity, I decided prudence dictated that at least stand on dry land.  Looking back, I wonder why they didn’t find my lightly toasted body floating in the placid waters.

Last year, I wrote about the backpacking trip where my son and I hiked on the ridgeline of Cumberland Mountain in Tennessee when lighting began to strike around us.  As a precaution I told him to stay about 100 yards behind me on the trail.  When I explained that this would reduce the chances of a bolt of lightning taking both of us out simultaneously, he grasped the gravity of the situation.  He hasn’t been backpacking since.

Safety around lightning is primarily a matter of behavior modification.  As some of these examples illustrate, waiting to seek shelter from a pending storm is asking for problems since lightning can often precede rain showers by ten miles or more.  Outdoors enthusiasts needs to be alert of the signs of pending bad weather and need to allow sufficient time to retreat to safety when it appears that Thor is warming up for target practice.

Even with a healthy respect for bad weather, fisherman and hikers are often caught away from shelter and must find an area to ride out the storm.  In those moments, taking decisive action immediately is important to insure your safety.

The first rule is to get away from any conductors of electricity, such as the tallest trees, hilltops, wire fences or water.  You should also separate yourself from any equipment such as metal pack frames, wet ropes or boats that are likely to transmit current from a nearby strike.

Hikers should move off ridges to lower areas and keep group members separated by at least 20 yards to prevent additional casualties.  Lying on the ground isn’t especially helpful but kneeling (with only one point of ground contact) on a foam sleeping pad is often recommended by experts as a last-ditch effort.  Keep in mind that rock overhangs and caves don’t really offer protection if, depending on terrain, there is a lightning strike directly overhead.

If you are inside a small boat and there is no possibility of reaching safety, it is best to anchor, lay low inside the boat away from metal objects and pray to your chosen deity.

Having a pair of clean underwear in your emergency supplies is also very helpful.

Trust me, I know.