Over the weekend of March 16, 2013, I (Bob Laney) went solo backpacking in Doughton Park, on the south side of the Blue Ridge Parkway, in northeast Wilkes County. The goal was to get in a winter trip before the vernal equinox; and to brush up on my winter backpacking skills, which I had not exercised in several years. I called around for companions, but got no takers. Most of my friends expressed concern about their lack of skills and / or gear for winter camping. Ironically, the weekend of the trip the weather was unseasonably warm (temperature to the low 70’s) and sunny all day Saturday. Sunday was cooler and wetter, but no more so than a typical spring or fall outing.
The trip started in the parking lot on the south side of Longbottom Road. Due to the weather predictions for a warm and sunny day, the lot was nearly full of vehicles parked by other outdoorsmen. Several hikers were in the lot when I arrived, so I was able to get one of them to take my picture with my camera.
My route was to start at Longbottom Road and hike up the Grassy Gap Fire Road. Upon entering the park at the southern end, and seeing the first sign, I was disappointed to find printed there a new rule: written permits are required. I had camped here many times and never heard of this rule. I considered driving back home, changing maps, and driving to Grandfather Mountain.
The first principal of outdoor trips: do not leave your front country accouterments (wallet, cell phone) at home. Take them in the backcountry with you. I hiked back to the parking lot and called the ranger station phone number printed on my map, fully expecting to get an answering machine. Miraculously, a live ranger answered the phone! I explained my situation and asked if I could get a permit over the phone. He said no, I had to have a paper permit on my pack, either received by mail in advance, or picked up in person. The next problem was getting to his office. I half expected him to say he was in Asheville. Next miracle - he was at the satellite ranger station in Laurel Springs, Alleghany County, just a half dozen miles north up NC 18 and then 3 miles northeast on the Parkway! A quick trip up the highway, finding the office, filling in the application, and I had the permit. Compared to other Parkway Rangers that I had encountered in the winters of past years who ran me off from cross country skiing in the snow, this ranger was friendly and helpful.
A note about guns. For years I have had a concealed carry weapon permit. I rarely carry a gun on outdoor trips because I so frequently go on the Parkway to get there, or go to a State or National Park, where guns are not allowed. It is a pain to have to remove the gun from my holster, empty the chamber and magazine, store it in a locked box in the trunk, and then reverse the process when I exit the park or Parkway. I had recently read on the Internet that Congress has changed the law so that concealed weapons can be carried in the National Parks, including the Blue Ridge Parkway, but I was afraid to trust the Internet on this trip. So, I asked the ranger. I was prepared for him to question me about my permit and search me to find whether I had a gun. But he did not even look up from his clipboard or raise an eyebrow. He simply said “yes, we now follow state law,” and that was the end of that. After I returned home, I called a ranger at Stone Mountain State Park, asked the same question, and got the same answer. I plan to carry from now on. The big question is, which one: the 9 mm Ruger semi-auto, the .40 caliber Glock semi-auto, or the .357 caliber Ruger revolver?
Back on the trail, I backpacked up the Grassy Creek Fire Road to where Basin Creek, and Basin Creek Trail, fork off to the north, at the Basin Cove designated campsites. After a quick perambulation around the many campsites, I picked the one furthest to the northwest, right by the creek. Plenty of privacy and plenty of water. I set up my tent and ate a late lunch. Then I converted my backpack to a daypack and hiked up the Grassy Gap Fire Road towards the Parkway. Just before I hit the trail, a group of horsemen passed my campsite going up the same trail. I had to dodge piles of fresh horse poop most of the afternoon. I eventually turned back short of the Parkway and headed back to Basin Cove.
In camp, with time to kill and plenty of semi-burned firewood left in the fire ring by prior campers, I decided to light a fire. It has been several years since I made a fire, and was concerned my skills were a little rusty. Fortunately, there was a dried out baby pine tree that someone had cut down and left by the fire ring. I crushed the needles and small limbs to make tender, pushed them under a teepee of charcoal, and used my trustee Zippo lighter to make the fire. Voila! It worked, and I had a cheery friend the rest of the evening. I am always amazed how much difference a fire makes – for heat, light, cooking and companionship. Starting a fire, especially with damp wood, is one of the great skills of camping.
The night was uneventful, except for my one unsuccessful, and one successful, experiment with new gear. I was testing both a new gas canister lantern and a new pyramid tent. I had both for several years, but never had the opportunity to use them. The tent came with a single, central vertical interior pole, and adjustable pole hooks that looped around the pole and stuck out on which to hang things. The lantern was designed to sit on a table, not be hung. But I wanted to hang the lantern. So at home before the trip I added a wire and clip hook to the top of the lantern. Both the tent and lantern literature warned vociferously NOT to use the lantern in a tent. I did anyway.
My main fear was that the hook attachment to the tent pole was not positive – it did not click in or fasten affirmatively. It was held in place by friction and leverage. I was concerned that it could simply slip down. After a few minutes of successfully lighting the tent interior, the lantern crashed to the floor, was knocked into three pieces, and began burning and melting three holes in the floor. I quickly turned off the gas to extinguish the flame. Looking up, the pole hook was still working perfectly well. But the heat from the flame had either melted or damaged the temper of my home-made clip hook and it had broken. After waiting for the melting to stop, I cleaned up the mess and finished the evening reading a magazine by the light of my trusty battery driven headlamp.
The successful experiment was with a collapsible canteen. Many experienced outdoorsmen (I don’t know about women…in more ways than one!), when getting up in the middle of the night to go pee, avoid putting on boots, more clothes and exiting the tent, especially in rain or snow, by taking a canteen and using it in the tent solely for this chore. To avoid having the waste the space in my pack with a standard solid canteen, I had recently acquired a large mouth, screw lid, collapsible plastic bottle. You would be amazed how hard it is to find this specific combination of components in an canteen. After several days of Internet search, I finally found one from Nalgene. Anyway, it worked perfectly well, and I plan to continue to carry it on future cold weather trips.
The next morning, it was raining fairly hard when I woke up, so I made a cold cereal breakfast in the tent (no flame!). Fortunately, the rain slacked off by the time I broke camp, although the tent was still sopping wet and messy to pack. I am ashamed to say it had been a year and a half since I had last been backpacking, and I was afraid that I had forgotten how to operate some of the more technical pieces of gear, like my fairly newfangled MSR water pump. But it worked like a charm and kept me supplied with several quarts of fresh water.
I backpacked down the Grassy Gap Fire Road to the intersection with Longbottom Road, and then backpacked up the Flat Rock Ridge Trail towards the Parkway. But I was in poor shape physically (I was recuperating from missing several days of work with a stomach virus) and did not feel like making the 5 mile climb to the Parkway. After several miles, I turned back and headed to the parking lot. All in all it was a successful trip, and I learned something about adding a hook to a lantern and using them in a tent.