The morning started with a huge scrambled egg and grits breakfast courtesy of my mom, and then a scramble for me to get some unpacked stuff put together.
We were in high spirits for the two-and-a-half hour drive to the Cohutta Wilderness, with all kinds of different music playing the whole way and leftover grapes and cupcakes from the party to fuel us. We wanted to get on the trail by around 2pm, but the roads to our intended trailhead were slabs of ice, for which our 2WD Trailblazer was no match. A helpful couple who had just finished pulling someone out of a ditch told us how we could get into the Jacks River area without going over the mountain and led us halfway there. I navigated the rest of the way via the trail maps in Backcountry Navigator. We wound up starting from the Wilson Creek trailhead closer to 4:30pm, which was, thankfully, only an hour from Brey Fields and all its wonderful campsites along the Conasauga River. By 5pm, we were saddled up, adjusted, and headed off into a Winter Wonderland coated in a blanket of newfallen snow.
Along the way, I learned that snow could build up on Copper’s paws as he walked, forming little boulders. He could stop and chew them off of his front feet, but the pack prevented him from reaching his back feet, so just as it was almost too dark to see, he stopped and we had to cut a large one off of his right rear paw with a knife. The snow was never again as dense and this problem didn’t recur. (Note to self: bring his boots for snowy conditions.) It was dark when we set up camp, but we were by no means tired, having only walked an hour, so we spent 3 hours building a fire out of whatever damp green wood we could acquire. It never got very large or very hot, and it took so much effort that we didn’t even bother trying on subsequent nights. It was also the only night I felt like cooking, and I made a huge pot of chili tuna pasta. We didn’t hit the sack until nigh on midnight, and even with the chair behind my back it was fairly cold in the hammock. Nonetheless, I only made it through half of the first side of A Game of Thrones (for which I acquired a tiny AAA-powered mp3 player) before I started drifting off. Because it was the coldest night we would experience, I slept somewhat fitfully, and didn’t get any real sleep until after the sun had risen. As a result, we didn’t get out of camp until probably noon. We had decided we’d go anticlockwise and tackle the most difficult section of trail first: the boulder crawl up the side of Panther Creek Falls. It was a good choice as we were very fresh and we made it across the Conasauga without dampening our boots or socks and to the top of the falls without any real problems. We later found out that if we had saved it for the last day, we would not have been able to downclimb it for the ice. All around the falls area were a multitude of icicles, including an impressive ice tree directly below the falls. Some two-foot spires even projected out over the creek at 45-degree angles.
We took lunch on top of the falls, and enjoyed the distant view of the clear sunny day, before refilling our water in preparation for a long waterless section of trail. The cold wind at the top of the falls soon had us begging to move on.
After losing the trail for a bit (which I did last time too, as it’s not blazed and kind of jumps across the creek with no warning), we were on the uphill climb onto Panther Bluff, when Steph started to run out of steam (at about the same rate we ran out of sunlight). I had hoped to at least make the East Cowpen junction before stopping because that would mean a nice campsite and starting the next day with a nice quick downhill, but no one else felt like pushing on, so we stopped at the first level spot we came to: the top of Panther Bluff. We set up tents in the snow, and since Leighton and Steph were sharing her two-man, I set up Leighton’s to give Copper and me protection from the wind. Though he usually hates tents, he did not even hesitate a second when I opened the flap for him. I wasn’t a bit hungry, having just eaten lunch less than two hours earlier, so I crawled into the bag and fired up A Game of Thrones, and finished the first and second sides before turning it off. We turned in so early compared to the previous night that I just wasn’t a bit sleepy. Copper started out as a pillow but eventually ended up using my legs as a blanket. I couldn’t sleep comfortably on my back without a proper sleeping pad, though, so the pain in my back woke me up Tuesday much earlier than the previous morning. Though the wind had not let up all night, we were surprised to find was that the layer of snow coating every part of Panther Bluff the night before had completely melted away. I took it as a promise of a long, productive day.
Steph and Leighton had not hesitated to cook themselves supper inside their tent Monday night, and had used up a healthy portion of the water they collected in doing so. I used maybe a half-liter to drink my Carnation Instant Breakfast, and so was still sitting on a solid three liters. We started the morning with an hour-long climb to the top of Cowpen and in the process drained the remainder of Leighton and Steph’s water supply, with no chance of refill until we reached Jacks River.
We broke for lunch at the top, and at that time met the only other person we saw out there the entire trip. A young guy who had intended to just walk eighteen miles on the ridges but had turned it into a thirty-miler due to the road conditions getting it into the park. He warned us that there were thunderstorms rolling in. Steph later told us that she had checked the weather that morning and it said that high winds would start at 1pm bringing in a thunderstorm around 5pm. She wished she still had some water to go with her lunch.
From there we had a boring, largely downhill run to the river. It was warm enough then that, at one point, I stopped to remove my sweat-soaked cotton-poly underlayer I’d worn the previous two days and replaced it with a nylon tee with holes in the back, briefly reveling in the cool breeze on my bare skin as I changed. No sooner had we finished our snacks than the thunder began to roll. It was 3pm at the latest. Steph wished she had some water to go with her snack.
Copper, of course, quickly went into panic mode. He wouldn’t lead anymore, and any time he got in front he would immediately turn off the trail towards a hole he could hide in. We forced him to continue down the side of the hill by essentially threatening to leave without him. He wouldn’t lead but he would follow. With Steph and Leighton slowly getting dehydrated, the coming thunderstorm only gave us stronger motivation to reach the river as quickly as possible.
We arrived at the river in the midst of a light rain and some lightning directly overhead, though it was still a bright day through the clouds. No sooner had we finished filling up our water vessels from the river than the sky opened up, and Steph’s wish for more water was granted all at once. It was an absolutely miserable and terribly cold downpour that instantly soaked through every layer of clothing in the space of three minutes. It brought Steph to the brink of tears, and everyone to no end of very loud cursing. But it did remove from us any objection we might have had to the river crossing we now had to perform. We charged through with our boots on. Copper took a bit more coaxing, as this crossing actually involved swimming: he is not a fan of swimming. Once Leighton was halfway across the river, the faucet turned off: having granted the wish and done its job of coaxing us across the river, the clouds decided they were no longer needed. Having regrouped on the other side, we had to climb straight up the bank to get to the trail. This was one of Copper’s fortes and he beat us all to the top. After Leighton and I arrived at the top, he tossed down his pole to Steph (since they were sharing 3 poles among the two of them) just as her water bottle came tumbling out of its holster and back down the hill. She had to downclimb the hill and fish it off the bank of the river, stow it, and the climb the hill again. A lot of crap for her to have to go through all at once, but once you’ve been soaked through to the bone, you stop caring about the more minor annoyances in your way.
From there it was an easy walk to Jacks River Falls, a favorite local summertime destination, but just as gorgeous in the winter.
We took a few moments here to admire the wisps of clouds and decide on a new plan of action since we seemed to be several miles behind our expected itinerary. We decided that since Steph still had a 70% charge on her phone, we’d make a call from the Rice Camp Trailhead or thereabouts rather than trying to return all the way to the vehicle the following day. Shortening the trip by several hours this way would allow us to stop immediately after the second river crossing that night and still get off the trail on time the next day. If cell service wasn’t available, it would be a full eight hours of hiking, which would still get us out in time if we got up early.
So, we had one more river crossing before we could pitch camp. It was a more difficult crossing than I had remembered, with nothing on the bottom but slick rocks. I made it across slowly, but with no mishaps. Leighton took a bit of a spill but recovered quickly. I stepped up onto the bank and turned around to Steph take a nasty spill, so before she goes under I yelled for her to keep her head up. With a little floundering, she managed to get her feet under her and I saw that she was desperately trying to keep one thing above water: her phone, which she had fished out of her coat pocket and held high in the air. Leighton turned around midstream and went back to give her one of his poles and a hand. He told her step-by-step where to place her feet to avoid slipping in again. Meanwhile, I convinced Copper to go for another swim, which he found the most difficult yet. At the end, he was standing up on a rock trying to find a secure place to plant a foot, and eventually just went for it, slipping right into the water with an enormous splash. Then, I just had to wait for Steph to achieve the shore. By the time she was across, my feet were freezing in my wet boots. She found that she couldn’t get her phone to turn all the way off: it kept turning itself back on in spite of her best efforts. She did her best to get it to go off and stay off, but nonetheless, by the following morning it was dead. We weren’t too worried, since Leighton had his battery charger and my phone was in a waterproof case. We’d still get out on time and, signal willing, avoid the last 3.5-hour hike to the car.
Before we could pitch camp, though, we had to get to the island where the campsites were cleared, and in order to get to the stream we had to cross, the quickest, clearest route was a downclimb of a steep bank. Seeing a number of trees and roots for hand- and footholds, I didn’t hesitate and was in the stream in a few seconds and on the island two steps later.
Now a word about Leighton’s trekking poles: A day before he left for Georgia, he finished repairing a z-pole he got from an REI scratch-and-dent sale. The previous owner had broken it on a steep downclimb in Nepal, but its mate was in perfect condition. The price was right and he cobbled the broken one back together with a piece of aluminum tubing and some high-test fishing line. The entire trip he wondered whether his mend would hold in real-world conditions, and so far it had held up perfectly against everything he could throw at it.
Now he decided to downclimb the bank with both poles in his hands. Two steps down, he lost his feet, grabbed a tree with both hands and did a 360 degree rotation around the tree, saving himself from falling in the creek taking all his weight on his knee. And the hiking pole he mended…made it through unscathed!
It was the perfectly good one that snapped in half. So, now he and Steph had two working poles between them. Nonetheless, it was the most spectacular save from a fall I saw the entire trip.
Steph, of course, managed the downclimb without a single bit of difficulty. That dancer flexibility. Copper, of course, did not even attempt it. He just ran back and forth on the trail confused as to how to get to us. I had to work my way down to the other end of the island where the embankment sloped off to show him how he could get to me without climbing down the bank.
The first thing we did on arrival was to strip out of our wet clothes and hang them on a clothesline. Steph removed her pants and climbed into her sleeping bag, never again to emerge from it that evening. Leighton did the same, so, having set up my hammock and removed my boots, I entered their tent as the only pants-wearing person at the no-pants party. Unfortunately, on the way over, I managed to get my last dry pair of socks wet. Oh well. Leighton mixed the gin and tonic he’d managed to lug along, and we partied a bit until we heard the sound of snow on the outside of the tent. I hurriedly ran out and finished putting up the rainfly on my hammock, tossed all my relatively dry stuff underneath it and went straight to bed. Copper had found himself a hole under a tree to burrow into. He was the only one who had a proper supper that night. I had a Powerbar.
Despite our best intentions of getting up early, the cold weather discouraged us again. All of our clothes on the line were dry when we awoke: ice can’t be considered wet. There was a solid inch of snow on the rainfly. My bootlaces could hold any structure you wanted to fold into them, like a metal wire. We forced our feet into our ice blocks and boiled a bit of water for oatmeal and a warm chocolate milkshake for breakfast, just to get ourselves going. By the time we were packed and moving it was past 12:30.
After a steep few hills on Rice Camp Trail (on which Steph used her inhaler for the first and only time, it was mostly an easy trek to the Rice Camp Parking Area, though we were moving slowly, trying to keep our socks dry on the nine stream crossings. And the two trekking poles for two people really slowed down those crossings. We made it up to the road by 4:15pm, ate a few bites, and, realizing that Leighton’s phone charger was completely shot and the headlamp batteries left in it since morning had put absolutely zero charge on my phone, decided to leave Steph with the majority of the gear, including a week’s worth of food and all the warmth and shelter, so that Leighton and I could slackpack it back to the car, hopefully before dark.
We set off in pretty high spirits and at quite a rapid pace, because the Wilson Creek Trail is just about the easiest piece of trail in the Cohutta Wilderness. However, we expected it to be about 3.5-miles as the crow flies, which meant a solid three-and-a-half hours at our packless clip. We pushed it hard, and every time we came to a creek or stream, we wondered whether it would be the blessed Conasauga River. Our hopes were raised and dashed countless times over the course of those three hours, and Leighton, having left most of his water with Steph, was soon dry. I offered him the chemical treatment from the first aid kit I had brought, but he said, optimistically, “Wait 30 minutes before drinking? We’ll be back at the car by then!” We weren’t even at the Conasauga by then. Eventually, just about the time we had lost all of the light, we made it to the river crossing. We shared most of a Balance bar and some of my water, fired up the headlamp, and charged across the river. From there it was just another hour up and out to the car, but we had pushed so hard and drunk and eaten so little that I couldn’t move at nearly the pace we started. I couldn’t talk. It took all the energy I had remaining to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and of course, as we climbed the cold wind blew faster and the snow layers got thicker. To me, it was even more miserable and demoralizing than the rainstorm, but I’m not sure if Copper even noticed what a long walk it was. That dog never stops.
We arrived at the car about 9pm, and started driving back toward the Rice Camp Trailhead. I was feeling a bit sick from the exertion and the dehydration, but I had started to feel a bit better by the time we arrived. Halfway there, my phone, now charging and alive, told me I had seven texts. The last one was “Ken from Search-and-Rescue” asking for an immediate call. This was the first indication I had of what had gone on while we were in the woods. I called him and told him we were safe just before the signal went dead again. We had to ford two streams in the Trailblazer to get to the Rice Camp Trailhead, but Steph was there, half-asleep and toasty in her sleeping bag, having had a completely uneventful evening; not a single other car had come around.
Back on the fringes of civilization, I called Ken back and found out where we needed to go to find my mom. Turns out she was waiting almost an hour away, but she was there for that part of the story, so I’ll let her tell it in her own words.
Mom’s Point of View:
David asked me to pick him up at Three Forks Gap in Ellijay at 3pm on Wednesday. So I arrived around 2pm and went to Dollar General to buy some bread and cheese for lunch. As I was checking out, I asked the cashier how far it was to Three Forks Gap and he said, “I hope you have a four-wheel-drive.” I said, “No” and he said flatly, “You won’t get there.” I insisted that I had to, so the guy behind me in line pulled out his search-and-rescue hat, showed it to me, entered the conversation, and said, “Ma’am, I know those roads and you are not going to be able to get up there.” I thanked him but I wasn’t really worried because David had told me to just enjoy Ellijay and he would text me when he got out. I figured we could make a new plan then. I had no idea that this would be far from my last meeting with Search-and-Rescue for the evening.
So, I decided to park in a vacant church parking lot, eat my lunch and call a friend. While chatting, a police officer pulled in to ask why I was parked there. After he realized that I wasn’t up to no good, he asked more questions about where I was to pick David up. When I told him,he said, “That road is iced in. You’ll never make it.” I let him know I would just wait in Ellijay for David’s text as to where I should meet him. The police officer said “Okay” but asked me to call him if David had not shown up by dark.
So, at 5:45 I called to let him know that they had not arrived but that I was sure he would text soon. Unbeknownst to me, the police officer promptly called 911 who then called Search-and-Rescue! Soon, I got a call from the director of Search-and-Rescue in Gilmer County. They asked me to come to the fire department to file a missing persons report. I shared that I was sure that the 3 hikers were just running late, but he began to tell me that the loop they were hiking had 7 inches of snow and ice and that all the roads leading in were closed and icy. So, though I still wasn’t really worried, I cooperated. Then, as they started their research and planned their maneuvers and tactics, I realized that maybe I should be worried. So I started calling David’s sister, friend, and cousin to try to get as much information as possible about David’s hiking tendencies and trail plans. Jacob, David’s cousin, was tracked down information about his route on the Internet while his little sister, Mikella, combed through his Facebook account looking for information on his fellow hikers. His friend Wryen, was able to tell us David’s hiking style and that made us all feel better. As they got three other counties involved, they began to make plans for sending out snowmobiles and hiking teams. This maneuvering and planning went on for 3 long hours.
Just when they had sent their first team out for vehicle location, David called and said everyone was okay. The Search-and-Rescue director let out a big sigh of relief and raised his arms in joy! I guess they have seen too many bad things happen in those mountains and they did not want anything but a positive outcome. After everyone was safe, the S&R director reprimanded me for not calling them when David did not come out at 3pm. I explained my reasons and he insisted that if a hiker does not come out at a certain time, that I should always contact the nearest fire department.
So, lesson learned by Mom. It was an adventure I won’t soon forget. But, all is well that ends well and once I saw those 3 tired faces, I wrapped my arms around all three. When asked if they were tired, they all 3 said in unison, “We’re starving!” They were hiking so hard to get out that they didn’t stop to eat and they were ravenous! So, we jumped in the cars, drove to Waffle House and I watched them devour large quantities of food in record time! Then at midnight-thirty, we all jumped in our cars and drove home. Everyone was running on caffeine and adrenaline! David shared his tales of the hike all the way home so I could learn even more about their action-packed adventure.
Here is an outdated topo map with our route drawn onto it (in yellow). We camped at the red dots, got drenched at the blue dot, and left Steph with the gear at the green dot.
We broke Steph in as a backpacker on this trip. She now qualifies on just about any initiation checklist you could draw up:
- Building a fire of damp green wood
- Hiking in snow
- Camping in snow
- Hiking in pouring, bone-drenching rain
- Bone-chilling wind and cold
- Taking a dunk in a river crossing
- Running out of water
- Climbing over rocks
- Climbing up and down mudbanks
- Being too hungry to let the noodles finish cooking
- Four long days without a shower
I think the only things missing on this list are wild animal encounters, bugs, ticks, and sweltering soul-sapping heat. But she says she’d be willing to go again in the summer, so maybe we can tick those off the list eventually too.
Three days until the big day!