Summer Backpacking in the Gorge

To say that the Red River Gorge Geological Area is a popular attraction is an understatement. I cannot give accurate annual statistics in regards to visitor usage, but believe me, there are days (weekends and holidays) with long lines at both ends of Nada Tunnel, when trail-head parking overflows, when the Red River itself becomes speckled with multitudes of kayakers and canoeists, and the valleys echo with the triumphant yells of visitors who have reached a scenic overlook. As is most often the case on such days, Gladie Visitor Center is buzzing with activity as my co-workers continue to answer the same questions, help give directions and suggestions to visitors, and answer phone calls from 0900 in the morning to 1730 in the afternoon…more on that below. Some of them also host evening programs at Koomer Ridge Campground and Zilpo Recreation Area (which is up at Cave Run Lake, in the northern part of Cumberland Ranger District). Needless to say, our days-off are earned and well-deserved.

The Red River Gorge has 34 official, designated trails, one of which is the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail, which currently spans over 300 miles, connecting the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky to Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in Tennessee. There is also a myriad of user-created, unofficial trails which traverse much of the Gorge and Clifty Wilderness. Every year, numerous visitors become lost on these unmarked routes. Yet because so many people know where they are – or, at least, the more popular ones – and with many routes posted on the internet, these trails are here to stay. Visitors who are new to the Gorge will typically run into this information in the course of their online research, pack their rucksacks (or day-packs) and vehicle, and then head to Gladie Visitor Center and ask at the front desk where these places are, and how to get to them. If the Gladie staff were given a dollar every time they were asked about one user-trail in particular, either in-person or over the phone, they would probably raise a million dollars in a year. I know I have long since lost count.

If we tell you where these user-routes are, it becomes a liability for the Forest Service because we don’t manage or maintain those trails – hence the reason why we do not give that information to visitors. And if we mapped them out, it would look like a confusing tangle of spaghetti. If you want to travel these routes, know that you do so at YOUR OWN RISK.

That said, if you are looking for solitude, to be able to watch the sunset and greet the sunrise without being near a crowd of onlookers or hearing the echoes of gleeful shouts, many of these unofficial trails are out of the question…especially on weekends and holidays. Planning a pleasurable, quiescent backpacking trip in a place such as the Gorge requires a combination of luck, reliable information/intel, and a willingness to travel. Speaking of reliable information, Gladie Visitor Center is currently open seven days a week from 0900 to 1730. There, you can purchase a camping pass, acquire our free trail map, or, if you so choose, a detailed topographic map (cost is $11), and ask questions to help plan your outing.

Last Monday, some co-workers and myself found the time to make an overnight trip, and for our destination, we chose a moderately popular ridge-top that can be accessed by a user-trail. Readers who have been following me for awhile know how much I love my solitude. As it is, we encountered 17 people on the way, which wasn’t surprising nor discouraging. Thankfully, our chosen site was secluded enough, though I ventured farther out onto the finger of the ridge to set-up for the night. The weather promised to be warm and sunny, but not too hot, with clear skies at night…and so it turned out.

All but one of us brought hammocks, and with such fair weather, tarps weren’t necessary. My chosen hammock was a Grand Trunk Ultralight in forest green, a gift from a relative. It blends in very well. With camp established, I headed back to spend the evening with friends at their site, about 1/4 mile back on the main part of the ridge. I cooked a filling meal of lentil soup over my lightweight Etekcity stove, enjoying the camaraderie until well into the night. Before returning to my hammock, I left my food suspended in their bear bag (yes, we do have black bears in the hills of eastern Kentucky), with a promise to rouse them early so that we could watch the sunrise together.

The night was calm, cool, and tranquil, the black velvet sky speckled with hundreds of stars, glittering like diamonds. I awoke in the rosy light of early dawn, the sun not yet cresting the horizon. I ran back to the main camp, full of excitement and joy, so that they could see for themselves….and this is what we saw:

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And to the north….

I haven’t seen a sunrise so beautiful in years, and to spend it in the company of friends was truly special. After awhile, they returned to their site, leaving me to hail the Sun and thank the Earth for this experience. Eventually, I packed up, and headed out with our group back to the trail-head. It was only a 6 mile hike out and back, but I think we all needed a break from the hustle-and-bustle at work.

August Update

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Dawn in the Red River Gorge Geological Area

Greetings, all! I am back, my apologies for lack of activity. I have been acutely focused on my job, and though I have much to contribute here, I haven’t been able to until recently. It really picked-up in May, and more in June and July with visitor usage in the Red River Gorge. Now that summer break is coming to a close, things are starting to level out. However, there is still a lot to do.

I have also had to cope with some emotional stress. Thankfully, the friendships I have forged steadied me through the rough seas in my mind. I have always considered myself a “lone wolf”, but whilst I enjoyed my job last year, I had no one to share my passion with – this job gave me that opportunity. I owe a lot to the people I worked with, and to those with whom I continue to work. I have learned the value of true friends, 4 of whom are now moving on with their lives. If these wonderful people are reading this post right now, I want to extend my most sincere thanks to them. When my light faded, they rekindled my love of the natural world, which in turn sparked the blaze of enlightenment – a realization and knowledge that everything in our lives is connected.

I have made a few changes to this site, and you may or may not have noticed photobucket claiming that I have made “excessive” 3rd party hosting here, hence the reason why some photos have been replaced. I am also considering changing the name of this site. The main reason why is because my career will allow me to travel all over the US, and I don’t see myself staying in the northeast in the foreseeable future. As it is, my folks, now retired, are preparing to leave Connecticut. And me? Well now….there’s a lot of wilderness I haven’t yet experienced. As John Muir once said, “the mountains are calling, and I must go”.

I have at least two articles I need to catch up on, one of which is a report on a recent backpacking trip. I will post them here as soon as I can.

I Love Rainy Days…

It is a truth that fewer people (in general) go out hiking in wet weather. Popular trails and points of interest usually thick with visitors and summer-outers become sparse or even empty. But those of us who do go out in the “less than favourable” weather are rewarded with solitude and sometimes spectacular views of the landscape, shaped or shaded by the weather conditions.

Some days back I had the pleasure of visiting a few areas in the Red River Gorge National Geological Area that I hadn’t yet been to. Low, grey stratus clouds brought an enduring light rain, and with it came cool temperatures in the 50s as well as great shrouds of mist.

One of the first spots we (myself and three other backcountry ranger coworkers) checked-out was in the area of Sky Bridge.

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And here is Sky Bridge itself:

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At this angle it almost looks like the side of a dinosaur :P.

 

Later during the day we stopped along Chimney Top Rd and came across a few people taking it all in. And no wonder, for with views such as these, it is hard to leave.

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Spring in the Gorge is incredibly beautiful. I haven’t seen an ecosystem so diverse nor so majestic. The smoky veils of meandering mists seemed to compliment the already lush and blossoming landscape.

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It was hard for me to walk away, as well. I was soaking in the rich,  green ambience like a sponge. Days such as this create enduring memories and sharpen one’s respect and love for the natural world. 🙂

 

 

The Clifty Wilderness

Of all the places here, in and around the Red River Gorge, my favourite spot would have to be the Clifty Wilderness. At close to 13,000 acres, Clifty borders the adjacent Red River Gorge Geological Area, with its own share of natural arches as well as rugged terrain. My previous post depicted some parts of the Wilderness area, but in this article I want to portray as best I can the abundance of natural beauty that makes this place so special to me.

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A giant Eastern White Pine, Pinus strobus.

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.” – Section 2 C of the Wilderness Act of 1964.

Five designated trails traverse different parts of the Clifty Wilderness, as well as the Sheltowee Trace, a national scenic trail. Some sections are more challenging than others, but the solitude and immersion in Nature is well worth it. Swift Camp Creek is an undeniable favourite, with its waters meandering through the valleys thick with rhododendrons, Eastern Hemlock,  magnificent Eastern White Pines.

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The confluence of Gladie Creek and Salt Fork, close to the junction of the Sheltowee and Lost Branch Trail.

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Near the junction of Wildcat and Swift Camp Creek. The overcast and misty skies created an almost ethereal atmosphere in the groves of towering Eastern White Pine and hemlocks.

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More information about the Clifty Wilderness can be found at http://www.wilderness.net/NWPS/wildView?WID=127. Maps of the Red River Gorge and the Clifty are available at the Gladie Visitor Center.

 

Into the Gorge…

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Howdy folks! I meant to post sooner, but as there’s no internet access at my housing, I have to walk or cycle into town to get wifi. I guess this is a good thing, in that I am spared much of the chaos and political flame-wars of the internet, but it also means that my ability to keep up my posts will be rather limited.

I am very excited to be working in the beautiful Red River Gorge, with 3 other backcountry ranger interns to share the workload. On our first field work day, our supervisor took us to Indian Staircase, which is an unofficial, user-created trail. The views made the precarious climb well worth it:

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The next day, we trekked Auxiere Ridge, which is a very popular designated trail route, with a spur trail to Double Arch.

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We made good distance that day, hiking approximately 11 miles. Auxiere Ridge is one of the trails that receives a lot of use, and was the site of a fairly recent wildfire caused by negligent visitors. Part of our job as backcountry rangers is to provide navigational assistance to visitors, educate them about Leave No Trace principles using the Authority of the Resource, and to naturalise illegal campsites.

Bordering the Red River Gorge is the adjacent Clifty Wilderness, of some 13,000 acres. It is the home of rich conifer woodlands dominated by Canada Hemlock and Eastern White Pine.

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Many of these trees are gigantic, reaching over 100 ft in height and probably over 200 years old.

Fortunately for me, I have made solid friendship with Charlie, who is a crosscut and chainsaw evaluator in the Cumberland Ranger District, and I will be receiving my crosscut certification in time. Right now I am looking forward to going out with his wilderness trail crew on April 8th.

“Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.” ~ John Muir

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New Job at Daniel Boone National Forest

Well folks, I am pleased to announce that I will be heading down to Kentucky for a Forest Service job next month. I will be a lead backcountry ranger intern working in the Red River Gorge Geological Area. A portion of the Gorge is designated as the Clifty Wilderness, with some 12,600 acres of rugged terrain. More information about Red River Gorge can be found on the USFS website.

At the start of the new year, I began hunting around for jobs on the SCA website, Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards, and USAJobs. A lot of opportunities pop up in January and February, and they tend to come and go rather quickly as positions get filled. It pays to check daily, which is how I found out about this job on the SCA website.

My working period will extend through 3 seasons, from mid-March to the end of November, about 37 weeks. Here’s the position description:

Serve as the long term backcountry ranger intern during the 2017 field season working with other SCA interns and volunteers in the Red River Gorge (RRG).  This position works the entire season from spring through fall.  Patrolling backcountry areas of the RRG you will make visitor contacts, providing one-on-one education to visitors on topics such as Leave No Trace principles, wilderness values, and basic rules and regulations of the area. You will help rehabilitate areas of the RRG impacted by heavy recreational use, remove fire rings from campsites, block visitor created trails, install signs and remove trash, monitor visitor use through the use of road and trail counters as well as personal observations.

I will also have the opportunity to attend USFS public meetings that involve determining how Red River Gorge will be managed in the future.

I am pretty excited about this one : ). I’ve have never been to the Gorge, but after seeing some trip report videos posted by blogger That Hiking Guy, it seems like a fantastic place. I’ll post an update when I’m down in Kentucky and settled-in.

Cathedral Pines Preserve

Over 300 years ago, long before the American Revolution and French and Indian War, back in the early days of the colonies, the first settlers must have looked upon the vast forests of spire-like trees with awe…and some trepidation. Many explorers and naturalists were delighted to find an assortment of tree varieties which bore striking similarities to European species…American Ash, Chestnut, Mountain Ash, White Oak, and American Beech, to name a few. And how large these trees must have been, for the indigenous peoples had only stone and fire to fell timber with, until they began trading with European explorers (as early as the mid 1500s in Canada).

Aside from trade, the timber market formed the backbone of the economy in the northeast, as the forests seemed like an endless resource to the colonists. One tree in particular was instrumental in the events leading to the start of the American Revolution – and that was the Eastern White Pine, Pinus strobus. Virgin pines grew to impressive sizes, similar to their western cousins, Pinus monticola, across the Rocky Mountains. On what is now Dartmouth College in new Hampshire stood an Eastern White Pine that was judged to be 240 ft tall. An early Connecticut settler, Ezra Styles, measured one that had a circumference of 15 ft (about 4ft 9 inches diameter). On the stump of another, he counted 400 annual growth rings.

Pines were important as “mast wood” for shipbuilding. Compared to Riga Fir, which supplied mast wood for the Royal Navy (imported from the Baltic), the wood of Eastern White Pine was not only lighter, but also stronger. It was Captain George Weymouth of England’s Royal Navy who saw the potential in Eastern White Pine forests after exploring the coast and estuaries of what is now Maine in the early 1600s. Before long, pines were exported to England in specially designed ships which could carry timbers 100 ft or more in length.

In 1691, the demand for white pine was high enough that the Crown imposed a claim to all trees over 2 ft diameter that were located within 3 miles of any river or the sea. These trees were notched with a brand known as the “King’s Broad Arrow”. This didn’t sit right with many colonists and loggers, as it significantly encroached on their profit, and negatively affected the local economies. In retaliation, some Yankees would cut the branded trees down at night, or simply beat-up the Royal “mast agents”, whose job it was to enforce the Crown’s policy. A few brave colonists even dressed up as Natives before chopping the pines, years before the Boston Tea Party. Retribution from the British was swift – sawmills were burned and loggers driven from their homes in reprisal for their actions. In short time, the King’s Broad Arrow became as hated as the tax on tea and the Stamp and Currency Acts.

Once the American Revolution began, numerous Patriot flags were embroidered with images of the Eastern White Pine, including the Massachusetts’ Navy flag, Washington’s Cruisers standard, the New England naval ensign, and the Continental flag (which was flown at the battle of Bunker Hill in June of 1775), as well as many other variants. The noble pine had become a symbol for not just New England patriotism, but also American independence.

Unfortunately for the pines, the conclusion of the Revolution didn’t end mass harvesting. By 1850, most of the virgin growth in New England had been cut, and loggers were spreading ever westward to find more. When the regrowth of Eastern White Pines reached maturity, these were also chopped down in a second great harvest between 1875 to 1925. But not all of those pines fell to the relentless swings of the woodsman’s axe. In Connecticut, there exists a grove of second-growth Eastern White Pine and Eastern Hemlock. And today, I had the chance to walk among giants.

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Cathedral Pines is probably one of Connecticut’s best-kept secrets. It is a small 42 acre preserve managed by the Nature Conservancy, but if I’m not mistaken, it is also the largest stand of second-growth trees in New England.  This is a place I longed to visit after reading about it in the book New England Wilds (authored by Ogden Tanner and the editors of Time-Life books).

Today I turned 24, though my age is just a short chapter in the lifetime of these trees. Many are 200 years old or more, stretching skywards at heights of 125 ft. Standing among them is like visiting grand  parents…they have many stories to tell.

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They are still standing thanks to J.F.R. Calhoun, a nearby dairy farmer who had grown up playing in these very woods. In 1883, he purchased the 42 acres to save the pines from being cut down by loggers. The property remained in the family until his descendants gave it to the Nature Conservancy in 1967. Tornadoes have damaged the site 1989, but there is still much to see. This massive Eastern White Pine (below) is among the oldest with a DBH of approximately 4 ft.

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And up on the crest of the hill, one can see the distinctive folds of the Housatonic Highlands, which merge into the Berkshires of Massachusetts.

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The forest is always changing. Trees fall, decompose into the ground, and become nutrition for new growth. Despite all the changes (you could call it “terra-forming”) we have made to the landscape, even after miles upon miles of clear-cut, the trees always return and continue to be our companions. The house you are living in, the warmth of a hearth fire, the welcoming shade on a summer day, and the air you breathe are all things we owe to the existence of trees.

Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world” ~ John Muir