Sunday, November 30, 2008
Thanksgiving Day '08: 18 mile hike in Savage Gulf
It was too nice of a day to sit inside and EAT! I'm so non-traditional. I knew it would be the last warm day for a while, maybe the rest of the year. So, I set out for an exceptionally challenging solo hike, since it seemed that I was the only person in the world without family obligations. I did get a few invites but again, sorry, too nice of a day to plan to sit inside and eat. I hit the social groups that evening in time for dessert.
I decided to try a new route. Since I was hiking alone, I could go for it. Do a long challenging hike to enjoy the beautiful day and get some great exercise to complement the running and swimming I had been doing. Savage Gulf is the premiere hiking spot in the South Cumberland in TN. Along with the Fiery Gizzard, Savage Gulf provides nearly 16,000 acres of wilderness hiking trails. (BTW... you can tell the non serious TN hikers from the real avid and adventurous hikers if they ask you "where's Savage Gulf"?). I always like hiking the Collins Gulf Loop at Savage Gulf because it is truly the path less traveled. Since they paved the first mile of the Stone Door trail more than a decade ago, I stopped hiking from there. Just too many people.
I decided to go from the Collins West access to Stone Door. I estimated it would be 14-16 miles roundtrip to Stone Door and back. I was wrong. With the short side trips and the walk to the parking area, my GPS said 18.2 miles.
I started at 10:25 am and looked at the the log book at the trail head. Good! No other hikers. I descended the rocky path down to Suter Falls to find that whoa... they built a new bridge across the creek. It was never really difficult for me to cross without the bridge, so on principle, I didn't use the bridge and scampered across the creek on the rocks. "This place is getting too civilized," I thought to myself but little did I know, that bridge would be a most welcome sight 7 hrs later.
Hiking past the cliff walls and through some of the most rugged terrain of the hike, I descended into the area near the creek best know for its beauty during wildflower season. Since the leaves were down, I had great views of the surrounding cliff faces and the creek was running strong.
About five miles into the hike, just past Decatur Savage Cabin on the Connector Trail, literally in the middle of nowhere, I met a lone hiker, the only hiker I would see all day. A man in his mid 50s who was out prepared to stay for a few days, fully loaded with tent pack on his way from Stone Door to Hobbs Cabin. I'll never forget the first thing he said to me... "If your looking for a Starbucks up ahead, you're outta luck." I almost fell on the ground laughing. This guy was an experienced hiker. We talked about Savage and he seemed to know it just as well as I. I asked him if I could make it to Stone Door in an hour and he said no. But that didn't stop me from trying. I jogged when I could on the flats. I had decided that 1:30 was my absolute turnaround time if I expected to make it out before dark. I made it to Stone Door cliff tops at 1:18. I relaxed, changed my socks and took a few pictures. I was surprised that even on these exposed cliffs, no cell phone service. I doubt there is any cell service in the entire Savage Gulf. I started back down the stone staircase at 1:50.
After crossing the swinging bridges on the Connector Trail, I decided to take the short side trip and check out Cator Savage Cabin. It had been a while. The thing I most remember about that place is the large Asian pear tree that is just busting with fruit every July/August. It now seemed I was destined to walk at least a mile in the dark. I planned fairly well with lights and cold weather gear, but my 1 liter of water was barely sufficient and I took my last swallow in the last mile of the climb out. Stupidly, I took no food and was hiking on an empty stomach. For me, there is a big difference in hiking 14 miles and 18 miles, especially when the last mile is steep and rugged.
As I watched the last golden sun fade from the tops of the cliffs, I knew my day light was running out. I passed Horsepound Falls at 4:20, just before sunset and by the time I got to Suter Falls, I was totally in the dark.
Around Suter Falls is a jumble of boulders and rhododendron, very thick and the trail hard to find. I did get momentarily lost but the sound of the falls kept me oriented. Things look totally different in the view of a flashlight than in daytime.
Damn I was so happy to see that new bridge at Suter. I knew I had less than a mile to go but it was going to be difficult. I was near exhaustion with 17+ miles behind me, it was 5:10 pm and I hadn't eaten all day and was out of water. My feet hurt and the footing was really challenging with the rocks covered with leaves. I had to stop and rest many times and be extra cautious because my normal level of agility was compromised by fatigue. I know how Tana must have felt when she hiked that part for the first time with me in April. It is a rugged trail and even more challenging in the dark and wet. I finished the hike at 5:25, the Garmin GPS said it was 18.2 miles.
I was real happy to reach the car and was delighted that the local convenience store was open. What a delicious chocolate bar that was! What a Thanksgiving to remember!!