Tuesday, December 29, 2015

FTF in Wonderland


It's been a while since I've gone on a FTF hunt. Not sure why, there have been plenty of new caches popping up here and there. Most of them require a bit of a drive to get too, and perhaps I just don't have much competitive spirit these days. However, when I got a notification last night that a new cache by my friends Lullabye4U and Kaput360 was out I became intrigued. It looked like they had started putting out caches for their new Alice in Wonderland themed geocache series already, a series they had mentioned while we were out hiking Slickrock Creek. Digging a bit deeper, I found out they had already published a few oif this series, but they were just beyond where my radius is set for notifications. Not only was there this new cache, but another one, a puzzle also hadn't been found yet, and it had been out for a few days. With my son being out of school, I decided a little morning geocaching trip was in order, so I set about solving the puzzle and packing up for the next morning's adventure.
On our way to FTF gold
I was expecting it to be a windy rainy day, and packed accordingly, but it turned out to be sunny and warm, perfect weather to be out with the kids. We visited Roane County Park first, and got our first FTF within minutes. My son made the find, and both kids were happy to trade for toys. We ended up hiking to two more caches in the park including another of the Alice in Wonderland series, which was really cute.
Ada attempts to go down the rabbit hole
A short drive away we had a chance for another FTF, this time on a nature trail near Harriman. We flushed a couple of dear on our way down to the cache, which was found quickly. This one was great even though the kids were disappointed that it was only a micro.
"Drink Me"

Turns out, we beat out Ol' Fogies to this cache by a few hours. Guess I've still got a little competitive spirit left in me. We finished the morning by searching for a few more Harriman caches before heading home for a well deserved lunch. Looking forward to more Alice in Wonderland caches, they're fun!

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Getting my Hike On

Viewing Tennessee from Hangover Ledge, GCVZ2W
December has been a pretty slow month for my geocaching, and unless I go on a spree in the next few days (which is always a possibility), it will be the month this year where I have found the fewest caches. It may even end up being my lowest month of caches of all time, which is currently a distinction held by May of 2012 when I only found 13 caches (followed closely by June 2012 with 16 caches). Of course, I ahve always maintained that the number of cache finds isn't really that important a statistic, at least I try to project that sentiment. It shouldn't matter if I haven't found many,a s long as the ones I did find were awesome adventures. Even so, the statistics help see a broader view, and this month has indeed been a slow one for geocaching. Between some violin engagements, birthdays, and family visiting from out of town, I just haven't had as many opportunities to go out caching. And the itch was definitely there, so I made plans to go on a nice long caching hike the day after dropping my in-laws off at the airport. The hike I had in mind was a ridge-top, starting at Beech Gap on the Cherahola Skyway, and ending at Hangover Ledge. I was hoping for wintry conditions, but would be happy just getting out.
 This is Tree eating wilderness country
I invited fellow cacher and caver, GISpuma and her boyfriend Mtippetts (that's his cacher name, he just got started with this geocaching nonsense) to come along. While I do enjoy a solo outing, having company is nice too, and I felt that I owed GISpuma a trip after she graciously led me on a trip to Blue Spring Cave. As the day of the hike drew near, it became apparent that we would have unseasonably warm weather, which was fine by me as well. We'd make better time if the ridge wasn't covered in snow and ice. I picked GISpuma and Mtippetts up at 6:30 am and we were off on our adventure. An earlier start might ahve been prudent, since the days are short this time of year, but I didn't want to leave too early since I wanted to eb able to see the scenic drive up the Cherahola Skyway. I'd never driven up it before and it was indeed pretty nice. We stopped at one of the overlooks, nominally to use the bathrooms, but also just to see the view and find a nearby cache. I made the mistake of letting my dog run loose. After finding the cache, the dog came bounding over to us, smelling something awful, and with an enormous grin on her face. If there is something smelly nearby for her to roll in, it will be found quickly. I can't say what it was she rolled in, but it was rank. Luckily, we only had a short drive left to our trailhead, and her stench wouldn't be too noticeable while out hiking. I secretly hoped that by the end of the day, it would be gone. Hey, one can dream.

Pre Hike Photo
The first section of the trail was along dirt road, and was pretty uninteresting. We chatted and made good time, and were soon on the southern flank of Bob's Bald, our first peak to climb. GISpuma had been up on Bob's Bald before for a meteor shower viewing party, so this was all familiar territory for her. She hadn't found the cache there though, so hopefully we would be remedying that. The top of Bob's Bald had a few nice meadows giving decent views to the east over North Carolina. It was also windy and cold, and we were bundled up in our layers. I was expecting 70 degree weather so I had on just about all my gear. If it got any colder I'd be in trouble. The cache, GC37QG5, was found pretty quickly with three sets of eyes.
Finding the Cache Happy!
The next four caches were part of a series called the Mile High Series, and were all around 5280' elevation. They were nicely spaced out around .5-1 mile apart, so we never had too far to go before getting to the next cool destination. The trail got better too, with interesting rock fins protruding from the ridge-top, and frequent views off to either side. Our next stop was Stratton Bald, which was not really a bald at all, being entirely tree covered. Maybe it used to be a bald? The weather got warmer the further we hiked. We also ran into a few backpacking groups near the next trail junction which was called Naked Ground. I was expecting Naked Ground to be a wide open meadow, but it was simply a saddle with a few open spots where people camp. There was a nice view off to the east. By the time we reached our next cache/destination, Haoe Bald, it was past lunchtime, and we were tempted to break at one of the many campsites. But the lure of a beautiful view at Hangover Ledge was too much, and we kept on trucking.
Searching for the cache near Haoe
Hangover Ledge was by far the gem of this hike. It was actually lower in elevation than Haoe Bald, but out on a ridge covered in short Rhododendrons. Several rocks were high enough that when you stood on them, you could see well out in every direction. And of course, the trail ended at a rocky outcrop with just stunning views. It was about 1:30pm by the time we arrived, but it was finally time for lunch. The sun had popped through the clouds, making it warm and pleasant. Hard to believe it was December high up in the mountains. But before taking it all in, something very important had to be done.... eat lunch! I was famished! The geocache, the views, they could both wait. I needed food. And I had a gourmet spread of flat bread, chicken, vegetables and greek yogurt sauce (tsaziki?). GISpuma and Mtippetts had energy bars, a whole mound of them. We all dug in sharing what we had and were soon sated. Even Sasha had some food and was soon taking a nap in a sunny spot.
One tired pup

Eating right after a long hike

Looking north from Hangover Ledge
We did finally get around to finding the cache here, which is a pretty old one, having been placed back in 2006. The logbook is one of those rare ones that is actually pretty full, although it looks like this is more because it is often found by backpackers rather than just geocachers. There were some really interesting log entries in the book, and we all took some time reading through it. A couple of geocachers got engaged at this spot, someone else left a hollow point bullet since they hadn't seen any bears on their hike and he could afford to leave it behind. And person after person exclaiming about the beauty of the place. The cache was pretty well loaded with goods as well. A lot of the items looked like stuff that backpackers would have on them, including a bunch of food packets (oatmeal and the like). There's no saying how old that stuff is, and I took them out thinking that I was doing a service by taking out food items. You aren't supposed to leave food items inside caches, so I consider it the right thing to do to take them out when I see them. The main reasons for this is that you don't want to attract animals to the cache, but also you don't want the inside of the cache to get covered in gross sticky food when it inevitably gets wet. The thing is, the food in this cache was all pretty well dry, and I suppose it could be used by backpackers. But I grabbed them anyways. Was I doing a dis-service? Only the caching gods will know.

The return hike was mostly uneventful, at least for me. GISpuma was having some joint pain though, so we took it easy pace wise. She got along much better after finding some suitable sticks to use as trekking poles. I wish I had brought mine. It threatened to rain on us a few times on our return, but the cloud would always blow over before any real rain started. The slight rain helped de-stinkify the dog though and by the time we got back to the car at 5:30pm, she was almost normal. Well, not that good, she still got a bath as soon as we got home, but the drive home wasn't atrocious. The hike ended up being over 12 miles, which was on the high end of what I had estimated. We could have shaved off some of that distance by starting at a different trailhead, but the ridge-top was pleasant enough to walk along. And it felt great to be outside and hiking again. I need to get out and do more of these hikes. Even if it means finding less caches per month.
Posing on Bob's Bald
End of Hike

Friday, November 27, 2015

Hiking Underground: Blue Spring Cave

OK, so this post really has nothing to do with geocaching, it is just a trip report on a caving adventure I went on. Oh, wait, I suppose I did go with fellow geocacher GISpuma. But we didn't find any caches either before or after spending all day underground. If I had driven myself, I probably would have, especially the webcam cache in Sparta, but I rode along in Natalie's car. Despite not having any real relation to geocaching, I'm posting it here because it was a fun trip, and I don't have any other good blog where it fits. So if you want to read about a 10 mile underground hike, read on!

Natalie crawling
When you think of going for a 10 mile hike, you typically think of being outside somewhere. Sure, you could maybe hike 10 miles indoors, but it would be pretty difficult to accomplish, unless you happen to live close to a mega mall. But then there is caving. My earlier experience with a "big" cave took several hours to cover just a few miles of passages. There is lots of crawling and climbing, route-finding, and general gawking at cool cave formations. Actually covering real distances just didn't seem like it was part of the caving experience. That is, until you visit a truly lengthy cave such as Blue Spring Cave near Sparta Tennessee. Currently the longest cave in the state with over 40 miles of passages.

I had made plans to visit the cave with my geocacher friend Natalie a few weeks back and had been reading up as much as I could about the cave. Getting good information on caves is fairly difficult, unless you are well connected with cavers. Cavers tend to keep information about caves off the public domain, mainly to dissuade "non-cavers" from knowing about the cool places and keep them from getting trashed. But that means that if you are just getting into the sport, it can be difficult to get much good information at first. Fortunately, Blue Spring Cave has a published book that I was able to get a copy of in my local library. The book chronicles the exploration of the cave as told by the early explorers. Most of the exploration occurred in the early 90's, and I absolutely devoured the book. Reading through the accounts, I could feel the excitement of making new discoveries, charting new passages, and mapping miles of virgin cave. It struck my explorer nerve hard, and after finishing the book in a few days, I was eager to get in there and see it first hand. My guide, Natalie, has been in the cave dozens of times, so she would be an excellent leader. But even as the day of our expedition approached, she still wasn't exactly sure where we would head. I was game for pretty much anything, but wanted to do as much exploration as possible. The other member of our team, Natalie's boyfriend Mitch, would be nursing a sprained ankle though, so we would play it by ear concerning how far we would go in.
Mitch pointing out some fossilized coral
On November 27th, Black Friday, we got an early start driving out to the cave. Natalie drove and got us there ahead of the supposed "crowds" that would be in the cave on this holiday. We were the first car in the parking area and were quickly geared up and heading into the cave. The Carr entrance, where we went in, is an artificial entrance dug into the hillside to bypass the original entrance which had a tight crawl. Not that we would mind crawling, but this entrance gives quicker access into the cave. There has been a lot of work put into this first passageway, with raised gravel walkways, a bridge over a pit, and even wood walkways. The impact of hundreds (or thousands) of cavers is evident and it is good that it is being managed. The first big passage, also known as Johnson Avenue, has a lot of nice formations in it, stalactites and mites, ribbons. The area must get pretty wet at times, and was fairly wet as we went in, but not so much that we got wet. There are a fair number of scrambles over breakdown which would make this passageway difficult for "tourists" and a few pits would make me nervous about bringing my little ones in here. Natalie would stop and point out cool features and landmarks along the way (cavemarks?) and also gave pointers as to where you can get confused or turned around. The passage we were looking for was a small crawl-hole on the north side or lefthand side of Johnson's Avenue called the BO passage (named after the mapping survey). It would be extremely easy to miss, but this shortcut gives access to the really big borehole passages deeper in. I was using a new pair of kneepads, which was good since we had about 1/4 mile of crawling on our knees. Even so, my kneepads kept sliding down off my knees and I found myself constantly having to make adjustments to them. 

Crawling for a long period of time makes you feel like a real caver, whatever that means. The passage was rarely tight or claustrophobic though, so I found it rather pleasant going. It was also fairly dry and clean, which compared to my previous caving experience in Petty Johns was a huge step up. We eventually popped up into a junction passage although it was heard for me to get a really good feel for the junction. A lot of places looked like junctions, but were just rooms that dead ended up over a mound of breakdown. Somehwere though, off to our left, or north, was the original FH survey passage that people used to crawl and climb through to get to the big boreholes that we would be visiting. But we wouldn't be going that way. Instead we got into the "M" trunk. This is where the going got easier. A lot of the passage here was high ceiling, wide and with easy almost flat paths leading through them. It was pretty easy to make good time traveling through such passages, but there were also loads of "distractions" to keep us from moving quickly. By distractions, I mean interesting and cool cave features. We passed the set of Pleistocene Jaguar tracks, there were all sorts of neat fossils to see sticking out of the cave walls, and some not so obvious ones that Natalie would point out. And every so often a passage would be covered with fascinating gypsum crystals and formations. These came in all manners of shapes, from flowing ribbons, to sharp needles, to clumpy rounded mounds or snowballs. A lot of the areas with really cool formations had flagging marking off the trail to help minimize impact of all the cavers coming through, but many were in odd places that we may not have noticed if not for our experienced guide. And the walking was so easy going! Even now, I am amazed at how easy it was to stroll along through miles of passages seeing amazing sites. If it weren't for the long crawl needed to reach this part of the cave, it would be an ideal spot to take visitors. Heck, it still is, but not everyone will be able to handle getting in this deep.
Jaguar Tracks
As we ambled along, we passed dozens of side passages that showed evidence that cavers would strike off in different directions. A lot of these Natalie was familiar with and would relate where the went. But others she wasn't as familiar with. We poked our heads into a few, but didn't allow ourselves to get distracted by some of these adventurous side passages. Staying in the main borehole was easy going and would allow us to penetrate deep, so that's what we did. Eventually we campe to an immense room with 100+ foot ceilings. This was Mega Junction, a junction between a couple of large passageways, and was a nice spot to take a snack break, and in Mitch's case, pop some ibuprofen. So far his ankle was doing just fine, so after refreshing up, we pressed on. Pressing on actually meant backtracking a short ways and then taking a left hand junction into the "N" survey passage. This branched off again a short ways down and we took the "NA" passage also known as Bosnak's Borehole (or possibly Walter's Way). Apparently, the N survey passage can get wet as it follows a stream.We cam upon the stream shortly at a junction known as First River Crossing. This also gave us a chance to "relieve ourselves" since the stream offers a natural flush. I'm still not entirely clear on caving etiquette for this, but it seems like that when a stream is known to flush down away from drinking sources, than it is considered acceptable to use it as a bathroom. It certainly is better than making "latrines" inside the cave somewhere, but it is probably somewhat less pure than simply packing out all waste. I did have a suitable water bottle for packing out, but was happy not to have to use it this time.
Gypsum Rope
The NA passage was another mile or so of easy going with amazing cave features to see along the way. I am still amazed out how easy going this passage is. Parts of it are nice enough to drive a vehicle down, like a ready made subway tube. Our next big junction was at the Second River crossing and here my memory may fail me a bit, but I think this one was a steep mud slide down, then back up the other side., We looked for cave creatures here but didn't note any. Somewhere along the way we also ate a lunch, although I honestly don't remember where now (I really should have written this account right after the trip, rather than waiting almost a month). The next part of the NA borehole is known as sand land, as it contains deep, soft sand for large stretches. It reminded me strongly of White Sands National Monument, although the sand wasn't as bright white. Thinking about how nice it was to walk barefoot at White Sands, I spoke my mind aloud, and soon Natalie was taking off her shoes. I followed suite (Mitch abstained) and soon we were laughing and playing in the soft sand. We all thought it would be especially funny if we could leave footprints that other caver's would then see, and wonder about who would be this deep into the cave barefoot. We did indeed find some places that we could leave recognizable footprints (rather than boot-prints which is what we saw) but whether they ever get noticed by cavers will forever remain unknown. Still it was fun. The sand eventually petered out and we were "forced" to put back on our boots by sharp rocks.

The next big junction was the third river crossing and is a somewhat confusing junction since there are a couple ways to get down to the river. I slid down a muddy bank in one section and thought about exploring the river passage south to meet up with the NA passage in the location where most people cross, but was persuaded not to go that way since it looked pretty muddy. I'm glad I didn't because I wouldn't have wanted to miss the 3rd river crossing which is a super exposed crawl on a narrow ledge. Fun and not too scary, as long as you don't mind heights. Beyond the 3rd river crossing is a junction with the S passage which is over a mile of though passageway. Natalie mentioned not ever having been down it before, so perhaps it is a destination for a future trip? We didn't want to press that way this time. In fact, we were reaching our turn around time already. Looking at the maps, I wanted to go just a little bit further and see if we couldn't return via some different passages, the RA survey. We decided to at least go far enough to see where this passage was. Natalie had been beyond this junction before, and into an area called Norman's Conquest. There are some really interesting looking passages that way, but again, something to be done another day. The RA passage on the other hand was a bit of an unknown. I thought I recalled reading about it as a dry and good alternative to the NA passage, especially as a means to avoid "Sandland" which for some reason people dislike. Natalie had never been down it, but we decided to at least start going down it. It fairly quickly lowered to stooping and crawling. I was all for continuing though, and though Natalie and Mitch grumbled a bit, and made noises about turning back, we pressed on. We did have to do a fair bit of crawling, but were rewarded by seeing some excellent gypsum flowers along one of the crawls. There was also some impressive dried mud formations. Eventually the passage got a little higher and became easy walking once more.

The RA passage meets up with the stream passage (N survey?) north of where we did the 2nd river crossing earlier. This is what I was most worried about, since we had no way of knowing whether we would have to travel some wet and muddy passageways. We knew we would need to travel along the river passage for a ways though. Turns out it was pretty easy going, over nice gravel bars. We even spotted a blind cave crawfish! To connect back to the NA passage (Bosnak's Borehole) we were looking for a smaller passage off to the left of the stream passage, and we almost missed it. Natalie was pressing ahead down the stream bed, when I noticed a well worn trail leading up a muddy bank to our left. After consulting the map a bit, we thought we should check it out, and sure enough, it was the right passage to take us back to the NA survey. IT also had some really neat water carved rock formations in it. If we had continued along the river passage, we would have gotten lost, merely we would have a long and possibly wet walk back to the first river crossing. Again, this passage is one that Natalie hadn't been down before, but she avoids wet and muddy passages when she can.Considering the pain that cleaning your caving equipment can be, I don't blame her. Less having to clean equipment means you can go on more frequent trips. Still, it was nice to know that even if we had taken a wrong turn, we wouldn't have gotten lost.

Once we were back in the NA passage it was smooth sailing and we made quick work. At this point I was relying on Natalie as a guide more, she knows this route extremely well. How nice it is to have a guide such as her, this cave is huge and there are a ton of junctions and side passages that you could end up spending a lot of time in should you accidentally take a wrong turn. I also tried to take more pictures, as I hadn't taken very many on our way in. Sadly, most of my pictures didn't turn out to be very good. Cave photography is a finicky thing. And unless you have very good equipment, it is almost impossible to capture the grandeur of being deep underground in an immense chamber or borehole. Still, I couldn't help but try. As we got to the BO crawl, we decided to time ourselves going out. The time to shoot for was 15 minutes, which for a 1/4 mile crawl is really pretty good. I'm not sure what the record is, but I'm guessing 10 minutes or so is probably as fast as anyone could go through this passage. We grunted and sweated and pushed ourselves through, and ended up emerging from the final crawl-hole right at 15 minutes. Pretty darn good.

It was on our final walk out that we heard our first sounds of other cavers. So this is the holiday crowds in Blue Springs Cave. We passed a group of 4 cavers, older gentlemen and a lady, not far from the entrance. They were on their way out too, we only beat them out by 15 minutes. We emerged into the twilight air, unseasonably warm it seemed, at around 5pm. We had been underground for 8 hours (more or less?) and had covered quite a lot of ground. Looking back at the maps, and reading through the book, I'd judge that we covered about 10 miles of cave. Could that be right? A 10 mile hike in that amount of time would be reasonable, but to do it underground, with large sections of crawling? That seems like something else entirely. Except, this cave, with its huge borehole passages and miles of easy walking was kind of more like a hike, than a "caving" trip.

Even covering 10 miles, there is still a ton of exploration left for me in this cave. I'm not sure what the current tally is, but I'm guessing that there are nearly 40 miles of mapped passageways. And the 10 miles we covered was really only 5-6 miles of mapped passageways since we came back along many of the same passages that we used to get deep under the ground. So yes, I'd definitely love to return and try a new area, explore deeper, stay under longer. This cave is certainly one to ignite a spirit of exploration. Can't say how thankful I am that Natalie agreed to guide us in there.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Filling Holes

There are some ridiculous things that end up influencing geocacher behavior. Filling grids is one of these things and one in particular is the Calendar Grid. Occassionally a geocacher will be so enthusiastic about the game as to try to fill their calendar in the first 1-2 years, requiring lengthy streaking, or just plain dedication to going out and finding geocaches nearly every day. I can't include myself in this group of hardcore cachers. But I have kept my eye on my grid. After 3 years it was filling in pretty well, just by my regular caching activities. After my fourth year, I only had a dozen or so holes left so I decided to go ahead and make a concerted effort to fill those last holes, marking each day on my calendar. One of those holes turned out to be on my mother's wedding day, and it almost went unfilled. Were it not for a generous offer from my new step-father, I would be waiting until next February for sure.

Now, in November of 2015, I have just two holes left.
With the end in sight, my daughter and I went to Melton Hill Park for the first time and found a handful of nice caches there. One in particular was fun, a fairy door (or Elven door?).

Now I just have one last day before this grid is filled and then... well. Nothing special happens. But just like with other rather superfluous milestones, you can be sure that we will make a trip out of this day and find a fun cache.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

2015 GIFF Event. The Host with the Most

Packed House for the 2015 GIFF Event
A couple months ago Groundspeak announced that they would give out the film reel for the 2015 GIFF (Geocaching International Film Festival) to anyone who hosted an event for that purpose the first weekend in November, and after mulling it over, I went ahead and posted an event to do so. Little did I know that this event would grow to be the biggest event I had ever hosted.

I have hosted a handful of events before, mostly small CITOs, but one "Geocaching 101" style event. And for the most part, organizing for those events was fairly easy. I just picked a location, brought some stuff (trash bags usually) and the event was held. The one event that would have required some planning, the Geocaching 101 event, someone else arranged the venue, so all I had to do was show up and talk geocaching. Easy enough. For this GIFF event though, I had to find a suitable location that I would be able to play the movie at. After posting about the GIFF event on Facebook, I wasn't sure how much interest there would be for it, hardly anyone said a thing there, much less express interest. I briefly considered having it at home, we could sit a dozen people in our living room, but then thought better of it. Eventually, I called a bunch of restaurants to see if they had semi-private rooms that I could use. Pizza and a movie seemed like a good idea to me, so I ended up going with Pizza Inn located near Knoxville. After posting the event, I had to fill out a form for Groundspeak to get me added to their "Official GIFF Events" list. This would also get me access to the film reel.

As the day of the event grew nearer, Groundspeak announced that they would be "awarding" a souvenir for anyone attending an official GIFF event.
Souvenirs are pretty silly things, just a little image file that you "get" for "achieving" something. But human psychology is equally silly, and as soon as a souvenir was involved I knew the geocachers would come out in droves. What I originally thought would be 20-30 people ended up being closer 60-70 people and filled the "banquet room" at Pizza Inn. This was by far the most people that have come to an event I hosted, and it was pretty fun. And hosting was made pretty easy by having the movie to play. After people found tables and filled up plates with pizza from the buffet, I popped in the DVD and we all laughed at the 16 ridiculous geocaching movies that people created for the 2015 GIFF. The actual film festival was part of the Groundspeak Block Party held in August, but this weekend was the first time they had made the reel public, so everyone was seeing the films for the first time.

I brought my daughter's ukulele along, since there was a ukulele themed geocaching song that accompanied the reel, and enjoyed playing along between the films.

I have to say, that watching this film reel was greatly improved by being with a large group of geocachers. Sharing giggles, groans and chuckles with a bunch of like minded individuals made the whole experience pretty fun, much more so than watching the videos at home on Youtube. Would I host another big event like this? Maybe... it was indeed a good time.
Event "Logbook"

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Cumberland Trail: Brady Mountain and Black Mountain sections

It's been a while since I hiked on the Cumberland Trail and after running into my CT hiking buddy a few times recently, I decided we needed to make some plans to get back out there. I picked the Grassy Cove Section, a part of the CT not too far away and verified that it wasn't dangerous due to hunting, and we scheduled a hiking day for right after Halloween. With me joining a community orchestra, and Levin having weekend violin group lessons, it's gotten harder and harder to make time for a day hike, so even though the weather outlook looked pretty dismal, we were committed to hiking, even if it meant being wet all day long. I dressed appropriately.
Typical Spooky Hiking Conditions for our day
Jake invited another NiMBioS fellow along, Sean, and we met at the Black Mountain Trailhead at 7am. It was foggy, but not raining. We left a car at the parking lot and all piled into my car for the drive to the other end of the seciton we'd be hiking. We actually missed the turnoff onto Jewett Rd, as it wasn't signed and also was just a small dirt road leading up into the mountains. Luckily we realize our mistake before we had gone too far, and we made it to the Jewett Rd trailhead around 9am. The trailhead here is easy to miss. There probably was a sign once, but all that is left now is a few wooden posts. Luckily, I knew where it was because of a geocache that was placed there (which I had found earlier in the summer). The trail here is mostly on old road beds and ATV trails, and was somewhat overgrown. It was well marked with white blazes which was good, because a few times it veered off from more obvious atv trails and a few times we ended up hiking down the wrong path for a ways before realizing we hadn't seen any white blazes. After a few miles we reached our first point of interest and also one of the few geocaches along the trail, Donelly's Window. This earthcache hadn't been logged since 2011, so I was pretty happy to be the first visitor in 4 years. That said, it was one of the most underwhelming "arches" I've seen. Hardly more than a little hole through some small windows. There might have been a decent viewpoint, but the clouds were thick around us and we couldn't see out over the valley at all.
Donnelly's Window
Beyond Donnelly's Window the trail was pretty easy going, but somewhat spooky since we were shrouded in mist/cloud. At least it wasn't raining though. And considering it was All Saints Day, it seemed kind of fitting. Still it would have been nicer to be able to see out from the ridgetop more. Sean set a fast pace through the mist and we were soon at our next point of interest, the "Lost Overlook". It would have been very easy to miss this spot, since it isn't signed or well marked, and requires a bit of walking off the trail to reach. Luckily I was checking my map and GPSr pretty frequently, and we spotted the small rock cairn as well. As we scrambled down the rocks to the overlook, the cloud ceiling had lifted enough for a pretty decent view out over Grassy Cove. The rocky bluff that you end up on is pretty tall, but not quite above the tree level, so it wasn't an amazing view. Just a good one. The rock formation was very cool though. At it's tip, you were standing on a very narrow (like 16" thick!) slab of sandstone. Kind of unnerving. I had a matchstick container with me and decided to hide it here. Hopefully I can get the needed permit to publish it as a geocache. It would have been nice to hide an ammo can, but I hadn't brought one with me. Oh well, sometimes even the little micro caches can be worthy if the location is fun.
Lost Overlook
About a mile further we reached another unimpressive rock formation, Brady Mountain Arch. The map I had for the trail made me think that there was something pretty cool here, but the only arch like rock we found was pathetically small, and hardly even an arch. It made me think that the trail-builders were desperate to point out any marginally cool thing along the trail. But then, maybe we just didn't find the "real" arch.
Brady Mountain Arch? Not much is it?
Near this arch my map showed two green dots pointing out the site of a plane crash and also a Rock house formation. We decided to look for both of these and spread out along the ridgetop in our search for the plane crash. We never found any sign of the plane, but did wander among some neat rock formations. To look for the Rock House, we backtracked along the trail for about a 1/4 mile, then took off westerly towards the edge of the ridgetop. There we found a very cool rock formation that I am guessing is the Rock House complex identified on the map. It wasn't really a Rock House, at least not how I think of them, as large overhanging shelters. it was a really cool complex of passageways through a rocky bluff. There was a center alcove with 4 different passageways you could take to get into it. We debated eating lunch here, since it was a cool spot. But we ended up just exploring for a bit and making for the Brady Mtn overlook for our lunch spot. I did mark the location with my GPSr. It would make for a really great geocache spot, although you'd have to determine if it is on State land or not. It isn't signed from the trail, and didn't even have a faint use trail leading to it. If it weren't for the little green dot on the map I had, we would probably never have found it. And I suspect that the map I had is outdated and not referenced much anymore.
Rock Passageways

We were all getting pretty hungry so we hiked quickly to the Brady Mountain Overlook. We lost the trail near the overlook and I led the way there by dead reckoning. As we got close, we found the yellow blazed spur trail that led the way to our lunch spot. The cloud ceiling, which had descended on us while we were looking for the plane crash site, had lifted once again, and we had an excellent view of Grassy Cove. The bluff here is quite high, maybe 200', and it was the best view we had all day, a perfect lunch spot.

We took a very leisurely lunch, enjoying the view for as long as possible. Some of the dogs may have even fell asleep, they were getting pretty tired. But we still had many miles to go, so reluctantly we shouldered our packs and got back on the trail. We followed the yellow marked spur trail to the main trail, and saw our first real trail sign of the hike, pointing out where the overlook was. I suspect that hiking in from Hwy 68 is more typical, and that people usually hike to this overlook as a day-hike. Doing it that way would be nice, but also pretty steep, as we had a good steep descent on wet-leaf slippery trails. Once we got close to highway 68 we looked for a few geocaches, GC1NV0M and GCKPPP but couldn't find either one. With all the fallen leaves, we certainly could have missed seeing something. We gave each one about 15 minutes of searching. GCKPPP was at the Hwy 68 trailhead and there was an information board there. It had a copy of the same trailmap I had been using, which had some directions for getting to the Black Mountain trailhead. According to the printout, we had to walk west up highway 68, then turn right onto Cox rd and look for a trailhead off on the right, about 0.4 miles up. We walked this section of road, and found the tiny trailhead, only to see a printed note about how the trailhead was closed and the trail was moved to Hwy 68.

We didn't know where the other trail might have been, so we decided to simply walk the old trail. There were white blazes along much of it, although many had been painted over with green paint. While the walking was easy enough, on an old roadbed, there were signs about hunting in the area, by permission only from some hunting club, and we passed one tree stand (empty) along the trail. This made us all a little nervous, since hunting season is starting for some game. I don't really know how dangerous it is to be out hiking in areas with hunters. I mean, they aren't shooting eachother all the time are they? But most "official" sources say to avoid hunting areas to be safe. So we all breathed a sigh of relief when we finally passed over onto State Land near the Windless Cave. I was hoping we would find this cave, which is marked on the trailmaps. I wasn't sure if we would see it since we weren't on the "real" trail anymore, but we spotted it down a small creek. The creek actually disappeared into the cave, which had a huge opening. The cave was also closed for White Nose Syndrome. Still it was very cool to see.
Windless Cave

Windless Cave Break
What we did find near the Windless Cave was yellow trail blazes showing us a spur trail that took us right to the real CT. There was a trail sign there and we could see the trail that we should have taken to highway 68. But we had to go up Black Mountain, so off we turned, to make our final climb up to the car. The clouds descended on us once again, but the rain still held off as we sweated and climbed up to the top of Black Mountain. Rather surprisingly, when we reached the rocky outcroppings, there was a group of rock climbers at a top-rope, climbing in the wet fog. They were the only people we saw all day. I had been to Black mountain before,a nd knew the trails here fairly well, so I took Sean and Jake to the east overlook, which is the best one. All we saw were clouds, and it was drizzling, so we didn't stay long. I offered to take them off the main trail and through the maze of rocks, but they wanted to just stick to the main trail and make it back to the car quickly. We were all pretty tired by this point. According to my tracklog, we had hiked 14.5 miles, and climbed about 2000ft. A decently tiring day.

Friday, October 16, 2015

So close... to GC70

On our way back from the beaches of South Carolina, we drove through Charlotte, NC to visit my sister in law. It just so happens, that the oldest active geocache in North Carolina, and also the oldest active puzzle cache in the worlds is right there in Charlotte, GC70. And while our trip was not really about geocaching, I jsut had to take the family by this cache, even if it meant an hour less time with my sister-in-law.

We pulled up at the parking lot and headed off. As we approach GZ, we notice an excavator swinging its arm around and scraping the ground. My GPSr is telling em the cache is just past the excavator. I try to see if I can get around it in the woods, but after a bunch of thrashing around, I finally decide that there is no way to get to the cache lcoation without going through the active contruction zone. I am so bummed, and I was a little taken aback by how bummed my kids were too. I guess after being in the car all morning, the prospect of a cache with some toys in ti was very exciting indeed, and not being able to find it was a big let down. And I hadn't loaded any other local caches, so there was no back up plan. We all made sad faces, except for my wife, who just laughed at us.
 I found out later that the construction crew was aware of the geocache and was friendly, even allowing some cachers to walk through to make the find, and supplying hints when they couldn't find it. If only we had just had the guts to ask...