Springer Approach Trail
This is a journal page from an overnight hike to Springer Mountain at the southern end of the Appalachian Trail. I drove from Dayton down I-75 to Cleveland, Tennessee on 30 December 2003 in my pickup truck camper. It was another solo trip, but I was armed with a plan to meet several hammock campers on the summit of Springer Mountain for New Year's Eve. After staying at a commercial campground (Under the Cypress) near Amicoloa Falls State Park, I began the approach trail at the Visitor's Center just after 8 AM.
There is not a soul around. The empty benches speak of large groups who will begin the long trek in just a few months. The area will be filled with the participants of the spring Thru Hiker migration. I think about the hiker's preparations, or lack thereof, in these months before their beginning. I wonder what they talk about here, if the rangers give them a pep talk, or if volunteers try to limit the number who give up too early.
As I climb the hill toward the lodge, I can not help recalling the stories I have read of people tossing heavy equipment off the mountain along the approach. Tales are legion of the unusual gear the park staff has recovered from the side of the mountain: disassembled bicycles, cots, chairs, gallons of fruit drink, and all manner of other heavy hiking gear and clothing.
There are great views of the valley with the sun just coming up in the East. The color of the hills is faintly tinged with the green of the pine trees, but is composed mostly of the light gray and dark tinges of dirt and rock in the winter barrenness - without leaves on most of the trees. Just like the hikers of spring, the trees have tossed their unnecessary summer cover, opting for survival through another winter.
There are two trails up to the top of the falls. One is the approach trail, the other a set of steps that follows the falls. Though this is not part of the AT, it seems impossible to consider any other but the official route. To climb the stairs would be "blue blazing" the short-cut. I think this is a strange feeling to have, since the approach trail itself is blue blazed! The mixed feeling is disconcerting, and is only partly relieved by the beauty of the falls from an overlook at the top. Here, I can just see the stairs not taken over the lip of the waterfall. The view is almost straight down, hanging from a bridge right at the top of the falls. Nearby, a short walk brings me to the lodge where the coffee is good and the views wonderful.
I just have to take a picture of this trail marker! Born into a physician's family, love of engineering detail somehow rooted early in my forming neuronal pathways of my brain's white matter. Much of my internal fascination is taken up with detail like this. Well, not quite to this level of detail. The Len Foote trail parallels the approach trail for 5 miles and then has a one mile connector with the AT approach trail. It makes a nice day hike.
The engineer in me enjoys knowing the detail about the grade, width, etc. However, the poet in me wants to know what the brooks will sound like, how many birds I might see, what the views will look like, and how many interesting people I might meet. No sign can tell this. Experience not yet accomplished will answer the important questions.
As I climb this beautiful day, the ice crystals crunch underfoot in the frozen mud. They have frozen into beautiful and intricate fairy's castles, arching against gravity as they pushed up out of partly frozen puddles all night. My oxygen deprived brain populates the castles with all sorts of beings as I puff my way up the hills. Here, a demonic herd of gray fairies is destroyed by the point of my walking stick. And there, a fairy wedding is spared when I step around a particularly beautiful spire of ice. Someone else is ahead of me on the trail and has crushed some of the most beautiful of the structure by a careless foot stomp. The destruction is utter and wanton. I stop and get my breath and reality sweeps back in. But I want to be back in the castles, at the weddings. For such moments of reverie I would hike a whole range of mountains! Beauty calls out and imagination consumes.
Eventually, I reach the Black Mountain shelter. Still a couple miles shy of the summit, it offers the opportunity for early spring hikers, still out of shape to stop, soak their blisters, and think again about the task they have set for themselves. Hiking for an entire season - north - always further and further north toward Maine. Here, they soothe their bruised egos and feet. Some leave the trail before even reaching the beginning. Most push on. Of those who push on, most end by falling short, failing at their quest. Only one of ten actually makes it all the way to Katahdin.
And finally, quite abruptly, the summit of Springer is reached. A family of hikers is out for the splendid weather. They gaze out at the 100 mile visibility in awe.
For me, the place has special significance. It is here that the first white blaze is painted boldly on rock.
The approach trail is just the right length to make that blaze mean something. It is suddenly special and grand. The official 1993 plaque is the roof over the summit log box. I look through the log and see dozens of recent south bound thru hikers thoughts as they finish the trail all through November and December. One SOBO hiker asks in self questioning irony: "Was it worth it? - Time will tell - It's not a good question today." Others answer the question too: "Hell yes!" one fellow scribbles in unrighteous indignation. Others say something they have thought of for weeks, for posterity, for all who follow. For them and for me, it is a special time and a special place.
I have dreams of beginning the long trek here. Some March, not far in the future, I dream of having all the details set to begin - and of course - to finish. Family safe and satisfied, job and financial pressures set to rest, the beginning of a grand adventure. It is factually and spiritually a special spot of dreams.
The "real" marker for me is the 1934 plaque which reads "APPALACHIAN TRAIL - GEORGIA to MAINE - A footpath for those who wish to Fellowship with the Wilderness." Right next to the plaque is the first white blaze.
There was no one there with me when I reached this point, and taking the picture of myself, without a tripod was a bit of a trick. The ingenuity of getting it done was half the fun!
I arrive at the Springer shelter at about 1:30 PM. (I had been delayed by a side trip to the Hike Inn for some coffee and a piece of pie. There was a trio of day hikers out enjoying the last day of the year and we started talking... Anyway, I got to the shelter just after lunch.) There is the obligatory signing in of the shelter log book, and the composition of a little poem to the Fairy Castles. I forget to get a copy of the poem written down. If anyone reading this gets up there this spring, my wife, EllieD would appreciate those words. Maybe I will get up myself in the early summer, though I expect that log will have long been retired by then.
Exploring around the summit and down to the parking lot about 0.8 miles away, I am quite satisfied that the trail looks like most of the rest of the trail I have hiked so far. If someone walks this mile and does not get the idea of the type of footpath the AT is, they are just refusing to open their eyes. Some of it is smooth, and some, like the above, is a jumble of rocks.
About sunset, other hikers begin to arrive. Ed Speer and Karen are pictured here with Comer and Jean. Comer and Jean summited Katadin with Ed in July of 2001 and have been down to Springer several times for the hiker gathering.
At 1730 we walk back up to the summit to watch the sunset. It is a beautiful and wistful sight. There are those who say a few words, remembering their hikes of years gone past, and then just as the remembrances are getting thick, we are delighted with the appearance of some folk just finishing their southbound thru hike! Nothing like new blood to liven up the party!
I get the girl's name second from the right - Dr. Doolittle. If someone feeds me the rest of the names I will edit the page and include them as well.
But this new arrival does not keep the sun from going down in a rainbow of beautiful colors. We are quiet, and in my mind I hear "taps" sound from a lone bugle in the woods. This is one of the problems with a mind filled with music. Of course, there is no bugler there, unless the grave of some civil war veteran is nearby. But the next thing I DO hear is some one say, "It's gone, it's slipped below the horizon." And suddenly, the air is more still, and the birds quieter, and my mind a little more composed.
Back at the shelter, more hikers are arriving. Some are canine. The two here are Cisco, the black on the left, and Annie. Annie is the companion of "Heel" and it is pointed out that she is just 300 miles shy of 10,000 miles on the AT! That has to be some sort of record. Both dogs are among the friendliest and best behaved dogs I have ever met.
In the complete dark, I take this photo. The YL in the center is Jan. The other names? Someone help me and I will post all.
The night is super. Conversations around the campfire are of hikes taken and hikes to come. It is hard for hikers to stay up to midnight, and I (among others) can't make it to the hour without taking a nap. Some of the fellowship have a nice night of partying, others sleep early, but we all wake at midnight and wish each other "Happy New Year". Ed and Karen, dressed for the occasion, made a splendid couple. It is touching to see their side-by-side hammock set up. Seeing their happiness makes me wish for my EllieD's company, hugs, and kisses at the beginning of the new year!
Overnight, the air temperature never gets below 35, though the mud on the ground is all frozen when I awake. I am almost overly warm in my hammock. My water bladder has no ice in it at all when I rise. Coffee tastes great in the dawn.
In the morning grayness, I explore of the old routes the AT has taken on top of Springer, finding several old paths with their faded white blazes. Ed and Karen generously give me a lift back to my car from the nearby parking lot, and I truck back to Dayton.
The trip has been brief, but remains a beautiful, and meaningful memory. Those memories do nothing to diminish my hope to be back on that summit another day, myself ready to begin the long hike north.
Happy Trails! GE>ME 2005?? Maybe! Time will tell.
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