Jim, Sue, Cody, and Tater at Springer Mtn., start of the Appalachian Trail Adventure Run


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Runtrails' 2005 AT Journal
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Start: Nolichucky River, TN                                
End:  Iron Mountain Gap, TN/NC
Today's Miles:                       19.1
Cumulative Miles:              355.4
"Always a lovely walk up from the river. ALWAYS."
- Warren Doyle, comment in register at Curley Maple Gap shelter, 5-20-05

Early morning shafts of light pierce the foliage.  5-23

Warren should know. He's thru-hiked the AT numerous times, and he's out here again this year with a group of nine hikers that started the same day I did. I'm three days behind them and hoping to catch up one of these days.

Warren was referring to the four beautiful miles up through the Unaka Mountains from the Nolichucky River bridge to the first shelter in this section. Although part of it was steep, I thoroughly enjoyed it in the early morning mist and solitude. I tried to capture the morning shafts of light as they penetrated the foliage, but my photos didn't do justice to the real thing.

I woke up at 3:30 AM to the sounds of rain on the camper roof. My first thought was, "Good, better now than when I'm on the Trail later today." My second thought was, "Oh, no. I bet my shoes and orthotics are still outside on the picnic table airing out." I went out to get them and fell asleep again.

It was still raining a little bit when Jim and I got up at 7. But it soon stopped, and the forecast didn't call for rain today. I'm finding out how slick and dangerous these trails can be in the rain, and I didn't relish going up over 5,100 feet today if there would be thunderstorms.

Not to worry. Although it was misty in the morning, it soon cleared up. The worst problems I had were high winds on the mountain tops and slick mud, roots, and rocks in shaded areas.


Jim walked across the Nolichucky River with me to the trailhead on the other side at 8:40 AM. We could hear a train coming, probably two miles away. I didn't know where the Trail crossed the Clinchfield Railroad tracks. I only knew I didn't want to be that close when the train came by. The Trail paralleled the tracks for a few hundred yards, only about 25 feet away. If I didn't beat that train and get up into the woods on the other side, I might be there a while and the sound would be deafening.

I beat the train. It's the fastest I ran all day!

Shortly after I crossed the tracks, the freight train rumbled by, making a jarring metallic screeching noise for several minutes. It was a rude awakening on an otherwise fine spring morning in the woods. I could hear those trains in the distance several times during the day today.

After the train passed, I crossed a lovely creek and entered nirvana. I just love trails that follow creeks. The sound is delightful as the water splashes over rocks. It's my favorite woods sound, right up there with singing birds. I got to follow this creek for about a mile, up to its source. Then it was silent.

I frequently mention the things I see, but seldom write about the sounds along the Trail.  It's never truly silent. There are always birds singing, wind blowing, critters rustling leaves in the woods.

Some sounds are less welcome, like road noise and the startling flapping of grouse when I scare them. Yesterday, one followed me very closely for about 50 feet. I must have been very near her nest. Robin told Jim about seeing baby grouse in a nest and angering the Mama - might have been the same bird.


Back to that creek - the Trail crossed and re-crossed the creek several times on wooden bridges, strategically placed rocks, and logs as I marched up the mountain. Part way up, the Trail swung away from the creek and I started seeing these little 2 1/2-inch long orange salamanders:

I'd see one every four or five feet in the Trail. They were hard to see, as they blended in with the dead pine needles and leaves. I had to be careful not to squish them with my feet or skewer them with my trekking pole. What were they doing in the middle of the Trail anyway??  I saw them for about a quarter mile, then they suddenly disappeared when the Trail re-joined the creek. They were a nice distraction from the steep climb and my sore shoulder.


I did a lot more hiking than running today. I was right-on with my time estimate to Jim: 8 1/2 to 9 hours. Sounds terribly slow, but the elevation profile looked pretty ominous and I knew I needed to go even slower than normal because of a developing quad problem with the other leg and a sore lower calf/Achilles tendon.

The AT guide indicates 6,300 feet of climbing the direction I was going (north) and 4,300 feet of descent "with several long, steep grades."

No kidding. I was begging for mercy by noon, and I hadn't even gotten to the beautiful balds at Beauty Spot (aptly named) or the long haul up Unaka Mountain to 5,180 feet. I'm not sure if the guidebook indicated all the elevation change, either. There are always numerous ups and downs between the gaps and ridges.

Not only was this a net uphill section, but the Trail was not generally runnable when it was relatively flat or downhill. It was too rocky and rooty. I don't think I ran more than four miles today. The last couple miles down to Iron Mountain Gap were runnable, but by then my left quad was so sore it was extremely painful to even walk downhill. Not quite as bad as the day I "ran" with Lynn, but almost.


Despite the rocks and roots, the Trail was just beautiful today (well, most of it). I saw numerous flowers in the hardwood forests and large pinkish-purple rhododendrons were starting to bloom in shaded areas between the river and Curley Maple Gap shelter. Up higher in more sunlight, darker purple ones were blooming.

As I climbed higher and higher, dense hardwood forests morphed into hemlock-rhododendron forests. I ran across several true balds, full of grasses and flowers. They afforded the best views today.

The summit of Unaka Mountain was totally different than other mountains I've climbed on the AT so far. It was dark and quiet like being in Muir Woods, full of stately fir trees with only pine needles and moss on the forest floor for about one-half mile. I enjoyed inhaling the fragrant pine smell. I could barely feel any wind there, even though it nearly blew me off the Trail as I was inching my way to the top.

Going down the other side was excruciating on the steep, rooty, rocky Trail. That's when my left quad started screaming. Celebrex and topical pain meds didn't help, nor did wrapping the thigh with one of my knee braces. The last six miles weren't fun. I iced my left thigh and right ankle the rest of the afternoon and evening.


I saw about ten people and four dogs out hiking today, but don't think any were thru-hikers. Some were obviously just day hiking, and the ones with large backpacks that I talked to were all section hikers.

I was hoping to catch up to Robin (Still Walking), but turns out she was in Erwin getting groceries this morning (Jim saw her). She planned to walk only a few miles in the afternoon. Hope to see her up the Trail somewhere again.

Not sure how far I'll run tomorrow, or if I'll take the day off to give my body some rest. Check back and see what I decide!

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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  2005 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil