Monday, January 16, 2017

PR Gap Creek and Winding Stair Knob Ridge

This weekend is a long weekend. We have the standard Saturday and Sunday, plus MLK Day on Monday. The kids are off of school Monday, Kathryn has work, and I'll be Mr. Mom all day. So, I didn't feel too bad about running off into the woods for a second day in a row on Sunday.

PR Gap Creek Cove!

An obscure location to be sure. PR Gap is unlabeled on any map, as is the creek, and the cove. For all I know it has a different name, but that's what I call it.

The significance of that cove, in particular, to me at least, is just that even modern-ish topo maps allege that there's a road running up along the creek, but the one time I tried to find it 10+ years ago, I had no luck. As fate would have it though, I'd noticed the road (or what's left of it) just the day before when I was looking for the Old Winding Stair Gap Road. Now that I knew it was there, and where to look, I felt compelled to explore its reaches and learn what I could of its secrets.

After passing a couple of riders on horseback, a mountain biker and a guy on a dual sport bike, I parked at the graffiti beech again and headed up the old road. At first it appeared to be super well traveled, but then, with you could see that fewer and fewer people pushed past each fallen tree, and eventually it deteriorated to teetering on border of what I'd call overgrown. I'd bet that if I'd been there in the summer, it would have been miserable.

It wasn't hard to follow the trail though, and eventually I made my first discovery.


Cables like that usually indicate logging. But they can also just be tied between trees to block the road, like a gate. This one was strung directly across the road, and tangled on both sides with what remained of two fallen trees. So, I'd guess the latter, except that it seemed to be much longer than it needed to be to act as a gate.

Classic. No answers, just more questions.

My second discovery was all of the balloons in the world.

Balloon 1 Ballon 2 Balloon 3 Balloon 4

No fewer than 4.

I am fairly confident that it beats any previously established record for balloons found along a single trail.

The trail led up along the creek like the map said it would. There were lots of little side trails leading up adjacent draws. The roads got really steep too, but they weren't rutted at all. Like they were built, used, abandoned, and never used again. Classic logging network. The forest struck me as being secondary growth too. Messy, dirty forest. At least in the vicinity of the roads. Classic.

The final, incredibly steep kick led up to within 100 feet or so of the Old Winding Stair Gap Road along the ridge to the west. The road there just blended gently into the backslope too. It didn't end abruptly like so many others do. In the past it may have continued on, and just gotten filled in gently over the years.

I picked up the Old Winding Stair Gap Road, took it to the PR Gap Trail, took that down to the creek, and then took the FS877 Food Plot Road over to the food plot on the next ridge.

Along the way, I found not one, but two of these little fleece caps lying on the trail.

Fleece Cap

No doubt standard issue to the Ranger Candidates. Somebody's head's gonna be cold tonight. Two somebodies in fact.

10+ years ago I'd seen a trail leading north up the ridge from the food plot, but hadn't had the opportunity to check it out at the time, so it has lain dormant as a couple of green dots on my map ever since.

The trail was rather braided, but otherwise easy to follow. Classic Ranger trail. It reminded me of the trail on Conner Mountain.

Winding Stair Knob Ridge Trail

I found a spot that looked like where they often make camp.

An elaborate assemblage of glow sticks nearby seemed to confirm my suspicion.

Elaborate Glow Sticks

I also found some chipmunk's acorn cache somewhere along the trail.

Acorn Cache

Quite a stash he had going there.

The ridge led in the direction of Winding Stair Knob, or at least what I call Winding Stair Knob. The knob directly east of Winding Stair Gap, with the clear-cut on top of it. I was on a secondary ridge though, I had to bump up on to the primary ridge. The trail was tough to follow there, but it existed, and once I was on the main ridge, it was just as clear as before.

Oooh, it was getting late too. The sun was thinking hard about going behind Springer Mountain. I needed to get to the top before that happened.

View from Winding Stair Knob Ridge

There was a second campground on the primary ridge, just below the kick up to the knob itself. The kick looked treacherous.

View Ahead on the Winding Stair Knob Ridge Trail

If that doesn't look treacherous, then it's either because the photo doesn't do it justice, or because you have some actual climbing skills. It's super steep and super rocky, and super leafy, and the leaves hold moisture into the half inch of dirt on top of the rock. So the leaves slip on the dirt and the dirt slips on the rock, and the rock is wet and slippery too. And the wet dirt gets ground into your shoes, and makes them slippery...

Looking back down the trail made continuing on seem much more inviting than backtracking.

View Back Down the Winding Stair Knob Ridge Trail

When I got to this wall, I could not figure out how to get over it.

The Wall I Wouldnt Climb

It looked like the trail went directly to it, and I was expected to climb it. Perhaps if I had some actual climbing skills to speak of I could have. But I did not. I also didn't have much confidence that if I managed to scramble up it, that I wouldn't be presented with an even more difficult section above.

Looking back now at the photo I'd taken from further away, it looks like if I'd gotten over it, then I could have walked up the rest of the hill easily, but I couldn't tell that when I was right up against it.

I tried sidehilling around it to both sides, which was also really sketchy. I tested each step before I took it. There wasn't much to grab on to if I'd slipped. I imagined picking up speed and tumbling end-over-end like a skier before eventually hitting a tree at 40+ miles per hour. Twice I thought I saw a way up, only to get a foot or two into it and decide that I wasn't confident I could do it.

Eventually I found a section between some rocks that was choked with little saplings and briars. Had the slope been shallower, I'd have done all I could to avoid a section like that, but given the circumstances, it looked ideal. Lots to hold on to. Lots to grab on to if I slipped. Worst case, the brush itself might just catch me if I slipped. I reasoned that the soil must be reasonably deep there too because that kind of brush needs a few inches to grow.

I made it up, never slipped, and once I got into it, it wasn't even all that sketchy. I did get torn to pieces by the briars, but in retrospect, it still seemed like the best case scenario.

One day I should learn how to climb.

Oh yeah... Time pressure. I was definitely feeling it. The sun was setting and I didn't have all day to decide what to do. It worked out though. I even had time to stand around in the meadow taking in the view and enjoying my continued survival.

Winding Stair Knob Meadow

There was a maze of trails up there, many leading to and from another makeshift campground. Others led over to the rocks that I'd managed to make my way over. I'll have to get back up there someday and decipher them.

There was an adventure-race-looking checkpoint nearby too.

Adventure Race Checkpoint

All of the orienteering markers that I'd ever seen the Rangers use were large signs or ammo boxes on posts, painted yellow or red, with alphanumeric markings on them. I guess an orienteering Ranger would locate it and write down the number rather than punching their ticket. This one had a punch.

There were a couple of vehicles parked at Winding Stair Gap. The two guys milling around one of them looked military, but the vehicles didn't. They were preoccupied with whatever they were talking about and I doubt they even saw me walk by.

There was nothing left to do but hike down the road, pick up the PR Gap Trail, take it back to FS877, take that to FS77A, and take that back to the car. No doubt most of that would be done in the dark.

Winding Stair Gap Road

The sun hadn't officially set though. I could still see part of it over the ridge. I truck passed me and its occupants got out to watch the sun descend behind the ridge. I had almost made it to their location when they got in and left. I'd half hoped they'd offer me a ride, but you know, gotta run what you brung.

It was dusky when I got onto PR Gap, and dark by the time I got to the creek. It wasn't super dark yet though, I could only see 1 star. Actually, I presumed that it was Venus, and not technically a star.

It was dark enough though, that I had to be careful where I stepped when I crossed the creek. It'd been a while since I'd hiked in the dark and I more than once I was surprised that the trail ahead was lower than I'd expected it to be.

One positive thing about the dark was that anything vaguely reflective caught my eye. Geometrically shaped, reflective things REALLY caught my eye. For instance:

Silver Dollar Road Sign

Somebody put up this road sign about halfway down the trail.


Considering that there was another one further up, it made me wonder if there were more of them elsewhere in the area that I just hadn't noticed yet.

I hung a left on 877, hung another left on 77A, got passed by 2 jeeps who's occupants were friendly, but no doubt wondered what the heck I was up to. Hopefully I looked sufficiently pro and non-threatening.

Walking back along the road, looking up at the sky through the skeletons of the trees, I enjoyed the strangeness of it. It's not so often that I get to do that these days. I tried to do that thing where I imagine that it's already the future and the present is a memory that I'm looking back on fondly. Being able to do that is the secret to enjoying the moment, but it's been a long time since I've been able to do it reliably, and it was a little frustrating at the time. Of course, as I sit here, I remember it as fondly as I wanted to in the moment. Funny how that works.

I grabbed dinner at El Jinete in Dawsonville. Their new menu confused me. Chile Colorado is now called Pork Chile, which I guess is a more accurate description as everyone else's Chile Colorado is made with beef. Whatever it's called, it's as delicious as ever and I was glad that I decided to eat there rather than Zaxby's.

There's still a great deal more to explore back in there, and a great more elsewhere too. But, as much as I love it, I really hope that I can get my bike fixed before next weekend, and jump in on a group ride instead.

If I can't though, at least I have a solid plan B.

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