Tuesday, December 2, 2014


I love the ridge that runs from Shumont Mt out to Rumbling Bald. It is one of the most seriously rugged places in these mountains!

I remember the scouting trip I took to investigate the first section of it, back in the early '70s. I was with a couple of friends at Eagle Rock, and we decided to explore a bit. We climbed the old logging road going up Shumont to where it forks in three directions. My friends decided to hang out in that area, but I wanted to explore a little farther. I took the left fork, thinking it had to be the one going out that ridge. It is, in fact it follows the top of the ridge all the way to Rumbling Bald and on down to Lake Lure.

On this day I had just started out the ridge and was in the area marked by an arrow in my photo. Just above that big cliff.

I was accompanied by my trusty trail dog Fonzie.

He had been with me over miles of trails, and through places so rough I wasn't sure I could get out alive. He was a great companion, but had one bad habit. If he caught a whiff of where some animal had been he would take off running as fast as he could to investigate. That's what he proceeded to do here, running off the side of the ridge right towards where I knew that cliff was! I tried to call him back, but once he got on a run there was no stopping him til he was done with his investigation. I was used to the behavior, and he always came back, but this time the location was making me nervous!

So I waited, and called, and clapped, and whistled. No Fonzie. I tried finding a way down to the cliff, but it was too steep and dangerous, and I gave up. Waited some more, trying not to worry. He would be back any time now... I'm not sure how long it was, probably close to half an hour. Way too long!

Finally he came running back up the hill to me. I never saw him in such a state! He was panting as hard as I had ever seen. His muzzle was covered in froth. I grabbed him in a big hug, and he was trembling all over. He acted like he had been through the ordeal of a lifetime! And this was the same dog who would frolic all over Eagle Rock with no fear. Who later went through the Bonas Defeat Gorge like it was a walk in the park!

All I can do is guess what happened. I think he pulled a “Bonas” and ran off the top of the cliff. Fell and / or slid no telling how far down. And then took a half hour to fight his way back up somehow. I wish I knew the details, but I do know how scared he was, and how happy he was to see me again. And I was glad to see him too!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Autumn in Panthertown

Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014

Today reminds me of an Autumn Saturday almost 20 years ago.  October 23, 1993.
I had just started exploring Panthertown Valley that Summer, and was excited about seeing it in the Fall.   It was a morning much like today - chilly with clear blue sky, the peak of leaf season.

I had my pack and camera gear loaded in the Bronco early and was ready to head out.

The only thing holding me back was that I hadn't been able to get my Mother on the phone.  She was 80 years old and living alone since my Dad died several years before.  I talked to her often in the morning just to check in and chat, and this particular day I wanted to tell her about my Panthertown plans.  She had always loved to hike, and enjoyed hearing my (somewhat censored) trip reports and seeing the photos I took.  I once took a picture of a flower on Big Green Mountain so I could get her to ID it for me, she knew all the wildflowers  "Oh, that's a yellow fringed orchid!"  (As I was just now scanning the print I saw where she had written the name on the back.)

The first half hour or so that she didn't answer I wasn't worried, I thought she might be in the shower.  But after nearly an hour I was getting concerned.  She had been having problems with unstable blood pressure - she took medication because it was high, but a couple of times when she got up in the morning it was so low she nearly passed out and had to go to the ER.  Just the previous morning I had taken time off work to go with her to her doctor, who adjusted her meds.

We went out for lunch afterwards, and when I took her home she told me "You're a good son Stephen, I love you."

She lived about 20 minutes away, but not far off my route to Panthertown, so I decided to stop and check on her.  When I got to her apartment she didn't answer the door, but I had a key and went in.  She was lying in the floor between her bedroom and the kitchen.  There was a half-full glass of water on the kitchen counter, I'm guessing she woke up feeling bad and went to the kitchen for water and maybe some medicine.

She never made it back to bed.  Her body was already starting to cool when I found her.  She probably went quickly, without much suffering, which was merciful to her but one hell of a shock to me!  Maybe the worst I ever had.

 Vernon and Helen Wilder

I was freaked out, but had to start the series of phone calls.  911 to send paramedics to confirm what I already knew.  My sister in New Orleans - that broke my heart!  I called a good friend to come over and be with me.  (Thank God for friends!)  The funeral home to send out a hearse.  My pastor, who also came and was a big support.  Other relatives and friends.  Started making arrangements, it went on and on.  A long and trying day.  Every once in a while I would look outside and see how beautiful it was and think: "I'm supposed to be on top of Little Green Mountain right now!"

That evening I was driving to the airport to pick up my sister, and looked at my pack and camera case still in the back of the Bronco.  Life has a way of changing your plans, doesn't it?  I didn't get to see Panthertown in Autumn until the following year, but it was beautiful.  I did miss showing the pictures to my Mother!


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Overlook(ed) Trail

Carlton McNeill standing on Little Green looking at the cliffs on Blackrock Mountain.

One winter day (around 1994) I was rambling around Panthertown and ran into Carlton.  That wasn't unusual, it seemed to happen on almost half the trips I made.  I wouldn't try to find him, but would wonder where we'd meet!  (If I was parked at Cold Mtn Gap I did sometimes stop at his house to visit him before I left in the evening.)

On this occasion he was excited about a new trail he had "clipped out" and wanted me to try.  It made a connection from Blackrock Mountain down across the top of the cliffs and on into the valley. (Now known as the Overlook Trail.)  This was exciting for me - a brand new trail, and I'd be one of the first people to use it!  (That little bit of pride will come back to haunt me later!)

So he told me how to find the old logging road that goes up Blackrock Mountain from the Salt Rock Gap parking area. I hadn't been up that way before, but had been admiring the Blackrock cliffs and wondering how to get on them.

Cliffs on Blackrock Mountain

I didn't wait long to come back and try it, maybe a week or two.  I found the old roadbed and headed up the mountain.  It was a steady climb, but I soon reached the top of Blackrock Mountain.  Or actually close to the top. If you look at a map or if you've been there you'll see that the roadbed runs around the back (North) side of the mountain just below the top.  Here was where I realized that Carlton's simple directions weren't quite complete. There was an area of woods between the roadbed and the top of the mountain with no visible trail going through them.  Being winter it was pretty open between the trees, and I wandered around for a while with no luck.  This was typical Carlton McNeill - his directions made something sound easy to find (It was for him!) but it was often a challenge to spot his little trails.  He never used any markers or blazes, I think he figured if you were going to be hiking in that valley in the first place you should be able to find a simple trail!
I was nearly stumped.

Sorry, I couldn't resist.

I revised my strategy a bit. At the top of the ridge was a solid wall of rhododendron, and I knew the cliffs were somewhere on the other side of them.  I started at one end and walked along it trying to find a passage through .  About halfway across I found an opening just big enough to squeeze through.  I stepped in, and the passage continued.  I soon realized I was on a faint narrow trail.  I'd found it!  

I followed it out and before long came to a great overlook on top of the cliffs. It gives you a whole new perspective on familiar landmarks. Really an awe inspiring spot!

Looking down on Little Green Mountain from Blackrock Overlook.

Good view of Cold Mountain, and the power-line.

After I had enjoyed the view for a while I followed the trail on down the mountain til it came out on the Powerline Trail in the valley.  I don't remember exactly where I went from there, but just had a leisurely ramble around the valley. I'd already accomplished my goal for the day! 

I do know that in mid afternoon I paid a visit to Frolictown Falls.

Frolictown Falls

Afterwards I found a comfortable rock along the Deep Gap Trail and sat down to rest and eat some trail mix.  I hadn't been there long when two men came walking down the trail.  A distinguished looking  gentleman and a college age guy pushing a bicycle-wheel measuring device.  The older man introduced himself as Allen de Hart.
I was amazed!  Allen de Hart was a legend in the hiking world, and has authored some of the best trail guides available anywhere. He is the man most responsible for the creation of the Mountain to Sea Trail.  I had, and still have, a lot of respect for him. 

He explained he was mapping the trails of Panthertown for the next edition of his book, North Carolina Hiking Trails.  In a one day visit he was covering all the main trails in the valley. He said he was about 18 miles into a 25 mile day. He appeared fresh and energetic, but his wheel-man looked kind of shell shocked!
During our conversation I asked him if he knew Carlton McNeill - wrong question! Allen was not a fan. He started talking about how the Forest Service was unhappy with Carlton for his unauthorized trail building. He complained that some of Carlton's trails went through ecologically fragile areas, that they weren't graded for drainage, and some were too steep to hold up under heavy usage. All this was true of course, but wasn't the whole story. Without Carlton McNeill's trails many of the best places in Panthertown would be inaccessible. Just mentally erase all the winding footpaths, leaving only the old roadbeds, and you'll have some idea.  When I started hiking Panthertown in 1993 there was no evidence of Forest Service trail maintenance at all.  It was a couple of years before I saw any signs of their work, with some drainage issues being addressed. I never saw a Forest Service employee or one of their trucks, ever.  
But miles of the best trails exist today because of Carlton's years of hard work.

I didn't go into all that with Mr de Hart.  His tone and manner of speaking clearly established him as The Expert Authority on hiking trails, and I wasn't in the mood to argue.  But when he mentioned that he had been on Blackrock Mountain that morning I had to ask: "did you see the trail that goes from the top down across the cliffs?"  "No, I didn't see any other trail."  At this point I felt that little rush of pride again - I had found a trail that The Expert had missed!  So I proceeded to explain: "Well, I wouldn't have seen it either if I hadn't known where to look, but it definitely is there because that's how I came into the valley, and..."

OK then.  The Authority had spoken, and there was no room for debate.  I'd like to have a picture of the expression on my face, I bet my jaw was hanging open for a minute. But I shut it and swallowed the first 2 or 3 responses that came to mind.  I finally just wished him and his wheel-man a good journey, and they went off down the trail, leaving me sitting on my rock shaking my head and laughing. I had been put in my place for sure!

A few months later I found the new edition of Allen de Hart's book in a store. I looked and found the new chapter about Panthertown Valley.  He gave a description and history of the area, along with good maps and directions for the "authorized" trail system.  There was also a paragraph about the damage done by "unauthorized trail building"  
But no mention of the Overlook Trail!

I'm thankful that the Forest Service is more active now, and I especially appreciate the work done by Friends of Panthertown!  If I was able I'd probably be working with those guys.

Looking now at Burt Kornegay's map it looks like the connection with the Overlook Trail may be farther up the Blackrock Mountain Trail than I went. I'm guessing it's marked now and is a well worn path; that day it was a 2 foot wide opening in the Rhodo, with no wear showing on the ground. Not intuitively obvious to the most casual observer!  I may have missed the proper trail connection, and it would have been amazing if Allen de Hart had actually spotted a trail.  What was really amazing was his inability to even entertain the idea that he had overlooked a trail!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Skating Panthertown

It was a clear cold winter day, and I couldn't think of a better way to spend it than to hike Panthertown Valley.  No particular agenda that I can remember, just a ramble.  It was the usual drive from Fairview until I started up Breedlove Rd, then I started seeing some patches of snow along the sides of the road.  Funny, it hadn't snowed anywhere else...

I stopped and locked-in the front hubs on my old Bronco, just in case.  I was glad I did, because by the time I started climbing the grade up to the gap the road was covered in white.  Shifted into 4 wheel drive.  It was kind of weird - although the snow didn't look packed down it was really slick!  I was glad to be in that Bronco, it was made for times like this.  

 My faithful 1976 Ford Bronco in the driveway of my house in Fairview.  Most of my trips to Panthertown were made in it.

I made it over the gap and to the Salt Rock trailhead, where the ground was covered in white.  I stepped out and almost fell down.  That may have looked like snow, but it was something else!

The best I could tell there had been a sleet storm.  A bad one because it was a couple of inches thick.  Then it froze.  Solid.  My tire tracks were 1/4" deep, but my vibram lug boot soles left no track at all. And got almost no traction at all.  The ice had a slightly granular surface, but it was definitely ice!  

It reminded me of a conversation at work one day as we attempted to do carpentry work on an ice covered concrete slab. We talked about the different kinds of ice - clear ice, white ice, black ice, and the dreaded bust ice. That's what this was!

I calmly and rationally decided that only a fool would attempt to hike in the wilderness alone when he could barely stand up on level ground.  So I got my gear out of the truck and started down the road.  I couldn't believe how slick it was!  I couldn't walk normally because it felt like if I picked up my foot to take a step I would fall  for sure. So I scooted one foot across the ice and then the other, kind of like slow motion skating.  Even that was treacherous! As I started down the hill I was looking for any hump or dip in the surface that I could use for traction.  The top of the sleet had smoothed out really nice before it froze, footholds were scarce!  I would have paid good money for crampons at that point.

 Big Green from Salt Rock

You'll notice I didn't try going out on the rock.  That looked like a slippery slope!
Also notice how clearly you can see the line of the roadbed cutting across in front of Big Green.  Snow or white ice really show up roads and trails!
I slowly shuffle-skated down the mountain.  I don't think I lifted either foot off the ground the whole trip - I never felt stable enough!  

Me inventing the selfie while getting an image of the cliffs on Blackrock Mt.

I finally made it down to the crossroads.  I decided to just take a general tour of the flat parts of the Valley and not attempt the cliffs or Devil's Elbow.  I do have a very little bit of good sense!

First I went down the Panthertown Valley trail as far as the sandbar pool / shelter.

It was really pretty there, and I hung around for a while.  I'm sure I took a break in the shelter to get off the ice!

I turned around there and went back up to the Mac's Gap trail.  (I hear the groans from the "Loop Only" faction, hush up!)  I went out to the turnoff for Granny Burrell Falls.  I had to have one waterfall!

It was a mite skittish going out far enough to get this shot!  I had been holding on to Rhodo branches coming down the trail.

I went back out Mac's Gap and Panthertown Valley to the Deep Gap trail. I went a little way out to the area where there are large campsites on both sides of the trail.  Here I met the only other people crazy enough to be out on such a day.  3 or 4 people were either setting up camp or just hanging around the campsite. We talked for a while, and I decided to turn around and head back out. I wanted to get into the Great Wall area, but didn't want to try fording Panthertown Creek. 
I hadn't covered a lot of mileage, but my nerves were shot!  I was having to focus so hard on not falling it was exhausting. I really didn't want to get injured and have to crawl back out of there!

So I slid my way up that long hill and back to the truck. I have to admit I was glad to get back out unbroken!  I was a little concerned about driving back over the gap on Breedlove Road, but it went fine. I stopped at the top of the gap and put the Bronco in 4 wheel low range and just let it crawl down the mountain. Never had any problem at all, and 2 miles later was on dry road for the rest of the drive home.

That was a completely unique experience for me. Just one more way for things to be beautiful and terrifying at the same time.  Panthertown is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get! 

My trail-route drawn in blue.

Monday, July 14, 2014