We try to control our surroundings everyday. We hide in rooms where we control the temperature. We attempt to control the sounds around us by drowning them out with headphones or closing our windows. We turn dials in our vehicles to create sounds we want to hear and to cool or warm ourselves. We turn on lights when the sun fades. The door to our house latches shut, an attempt to keep out what we don’t want in our homes.
We shut out the natural world everyday, and yet we constantly try to manipulate it. Our actions and daily routines have impacted our climate, but we cannot control the weather. Everyday that I work outside I am reminded of this- and I respect this constant awareness. Sure, I’ll admit that this summer has been full of frustrations as it has stormed and rained almost every single day. We take the risk of setting everything up to catch bats for the night, only to have a storm rush in ruining our chances at a full night of bat surveys. Rain is only a reminder that I’m not working in a controlled environment- I am exposed to the rain, wind, humidity, heat, cold, insects…. I have no control, nor do I want to control the wilderness.
We could see lightning off in the distance, perhaps too close, but we heard no thunder. We keep the nets open, stretched out across the old gravel road, between two metal poles- 20 feet tall. The lighting becomes brighter, more frequent and the rain is quick to follow. We close up for the night, but by the time our gear is packed my clothes are soaked, plastered to my body, and my hair is heavy with rain.
We’re out at Dennis Cove, near the pond and the Appalachian Trail crosses our site. My crew departs for home, but Kyle and I make our way through the field and into the tent. The rain continues for hours, and when it finally lets up I catch the sounds of bullfrogs and spring peepers scattered through the moments that I awake through the night.
I’d hardly had time to even think about where we could hike the next day- my first true day off since the field season began. I browsed over a map in a region I knew we’d have to work- immediately attracted to the Pond Mountain Wilderness. The trail climbs up a ridge and we can walk to the trail head from my work site plus it deposits us back into civilization at Watauga Lake- a jump into the lake after our hike. A quick internet search, revealed little information about Pond Mountain Trail- most of what I found of the Pond Mountain Wilderness was in regards to the portion of the AT that cuts at an angle across the western portion. I wanted to avoid the clutter of people, a wilderness trail is always more intriguing. All I knew was that it was 4.5 miles long and runs along the ridge top, seems easy enough. I only took a quick glance at the topographic map. Hey, why not add on a bit more- just a quick, easy hike before starting the Pond Mountain Trail. Laurel Fork Trail (39) next to Dennis Cove Campground would lead us south, where we would connect with FS-50F to head back North. It would end where FS-50 crosses, and on the opposite side is where Pond Mountain Trail (40) begins.
Nine creek crossings followed by a 2.2 mile hike up a winding gravel forest service road was my definition of a “quick, easy hike.” Well, it was actually easy but the whole taking our boots and socks off to cross 9 portions of the creek within a couple of miles- surveying each crossing for the least sketchy area to cross- made things not so quick. The rain left the creek high, hiding any rocks that may have once been available for scurrying across with our boots on. Other crossings found the creek to be up to my thighs. With each crossing, we became more careless. Looking at the topo maps now, it’s so clear to see that the trail crosses the creek many times- perhaps when it’s not a summer full of rain, a shoeless entry may not be required.
Trail 39 and 50F meet up near an open field- we filter water and what we had hoped to be our final creek session knowing that finding a water source on the ridge would be unlikely. As we reach FS road 50F, the clouds begin to darken but only a small amount of rain finds its way down to us. We pass the only two people we see on the trails, as they casually stroll through our last creek crossing with their fancy boot gaiters. The next couple of miles were drowned out by the sound of gravel crunching under our boots with each step, our pace steady as we followed the road that would take us up along Rough Ridge and to Pond Mountain Trail.
We reach an open gate, 50F ends at FS-50, I point directly across the road, “That’s our trail.” Kyle is doubtful as he looks across the gravel into the forest, no evidence of a trail to be found. We look again at the map, Pond Mountain Trail should be directly in front of us. It’s a wilderness trail, so I’m not really surprised that as we look ahead we see only vegetation- we hike in. Maybe I saw a faint blue blaze, but soon enough we come across a post confirming that we are on the right path. Suddenly it’s quite obvious, as we are on an old timber road, faded into a two track- the clearest portion of the trail. It’s, of course, in the easiest portion of the trail that I trip over a downed tree sending myself flying through the air and slamming into the damp but still hard ground. The fall is only a reminder that we skipped lunch, my head feels light but I’m laughing at my fall. Handfuls of almonds, pecans and some dried fruit allow me to regain my energy.
The trail narrows as it climbs the ridge. We hike through rhododendron tunnels along the sloping slides, the path is relatively clear, the blue blazes are solid and bright but as we ascend both the blaze and the path begins to fade. The steepness of the trail is suddenly a slap in the face as we bear right with a clear view of what lies ahead. There are no switchbacks. We climb the steep grade, our steps slipping on the forest floor full of decaying leaves that have absorbed weeks worth of rain.
Kyle pauses above me, periodically to wait for me to catch up to his pace. We continuously check to make sure we are still on some sort of trail but all of a sudden we are on these large bolders, covered with lichen and surrounded by brambles with a few trees that have managed to squeeze life between rock.
The blazes are gone, there is no path.
Gusts of wind make me shiver as I am now completely soaked with my sweat and the rain I’ve collected off of the waist high vegetation. To the east and west of us the ridge slopes down, the top of the ridge is narrow but cluttered with life. I spot a rock in the fork of a tree, a sure sign that others have been here. Kyle offers to scout ahead without his pack. I hang my water bottle from a tree, drop my pack and scout ahead on the sloping side. Eventually he finds another larger rock in the fork of a tree and this leads us to very faded blue blazes and every once in awhile we come across pink flagging that someone has tied to a tree not too long ago.
It’s getting late, we’ve passed the high point (4329ft) and the trail is slowly descending. We make camp in an area that seems slightly less rocky than the next, or maybe there were just more plants to mask the rocks. Kyle sets up the tent while I prepare our dinner and hang a line to stash our food away from bears later in the night. As the water begins to boil, the rain begins to fall. Thankfully we have a tarp, and Kyle manages to hang it in away that keeps us dry so we can enjoy our couscous with squash, onions and garlic I make huge bowls of food for each of us, adding vegetable bouillon and lots of cayenne and black pepper to each bowl. We huddle under the tarp and are amazed at our ability to block out our hunger while hiking.
The next morning, our descent proves to be just as challenging as reaching the top. The blazes and the few pink flags we came across are suddenly gone, we aren’t able to connect the last pink flag to any sign of the trail. We know the trail goes mostly North, but unfortunately North led us slightly off in the wrong direction and down the side of the ridge. From here I could see that to our right, the higher point was now going in the direction that we wanted. We climbed North and back up to the ridge, this time through tangles of laurel and rhododendron. We weren’t sure that we’d find the trail again, but at the top we noticed a bit of a worn portion and after following it only a short while we came across a faded blue blaze. We were thrilled to be back on the trail again.
We tried to keep a steady pace while at the same time allowing our eyes to focus on finding flecks of light blue paint on the trees up ahead, often times mistaking lichen as false hope. Through the ups and downs of saddles, we eventually arrived at the final portions of the descent. Our closeness to the main road would also correlate with the freshness of the painted blazes. Our toes smashed into the front of our boots as we attempted to keep our feet at somewhat of an angle, no matter we both managed to slip multiple times on the way down. We could hear traffic and power lines were up ahead. We took the old service road to the left as we were unable to keep track of the very last portion of the trail once it intersected the power lines. Within a few minutes we found ourselves on the pavement of 321 and at the entrance of Pond Mountain Trail. Its post was fading into the vegetation and minuscule in comparison to the sign that boasted a future of destroyed wilderness and controlled environments.