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Field notes: Woodlands and Water, into the green world

By Erik Hogan

Hugs, and I tell them “I’ll let you head out first.” Car doors thud shut. Tires slowly crunch on asphalt as my wife and daughter drive away and I stand alone in the parking lot beside the pack I must carry for the next five days.

The Southern Appalachian foothills of South Carolina stretch before me. I know this land and what it entails. Wild, boulder strewn rivers cut through a sprawling topography of ridges, valleys, and mountains. It is a terrain blanketed in thick forest, erupting with vivid green energy of new growth in early May. The nourishment of this land is water. Water in the streams, water saturating the ground, and water hurling down from the clouds above.

Through this land winds the 76 mile long Foothills Trail. This is the path I have chosen to complete in the next five days. Dropped off and alone, there is no other choice but to hike it all. I do not want any other way. I lift my backpack and start to walk.

The Foothills Trail is considered a “long trail” at over 50 miles in length. It is mainly located in South Carolina, but jaunts across the border into North Carolina a few times during its route.

I opt to hike the trail from its western terminus at Oconee State Park, finishing at Table Rock State Park to the east. My hope is that this gives me a somewhat flatter beginning with more elevation, and hopefully more views, towards the end of the journey. By hiking the trail in five days I am able to carry all of my food and fuel without the need of a re-supply along the way.

Thru hiking a long trail presents the obvious, but logistically challenging dilemma of not returning to the starting point. Shuttles and trail angels are available just for this purpose, helping hikers parking at one end to be transported to the other. As altruistic as they are, I prefer not to rely on a stranger for this. The trail is a 2 hour drive from home, so my wife and daughter help facilitate this thru hike. We drive separately to Table Rock. There, I register my hike and park my truck at the finish line. Together, we then make our way to Oconee State Park where we say our goodbye’s. They drive home and my adventure begins.

Entering the forest is a transition of realms. The veil parts and I step into an ethereal green world absent of human words. Psychologically, perhaps even spiritually, the trail is a rite of passage. Whatever the challenges ahead, I am prepared for them to forge me into a different person than the one who starts this journey. Once through the veil, there is no going back.

I have no companions and deliberately chose to leave behind any reading material, music, or podcasts. Entertainment is my sacrificial offering. This experience is a chance to break my mind from the endless cycle of stimulus and response. As a moving meditation, I will have no choice but to converse with my inner demons along the way.

The trail begins as an easy walk through open forest. A gentle wind plays in the leaves of trees towering above. Birds chatter all around, but I do not know them or understand their language. Their voices are simply the music of the woods and a playful accompaniment to the steady, rhythmic undertone of my own footsteps.

The forest is flecked with sensuous springtime blooms. Their colors are warm and textures delicately soft, tempting a gentle caress of fingertips. Mountain laurel grows plentifully here, adorned in tender white and pink. My heart races and I smile shyly at the rare orange blush of flame azalea blooms that entice the eye amid the diaphanous green. The still air carries the scent of damp greenery and earth.

Mountain Laurel and Flame Azalea

The trail bends around a ravine sloping down and away. I detach from the captivation of the flowers and look at the forest as a whole. I see the blooms interrupting a solid milieu of green just as constellations interrupt the dark of the night sky.

My thoughts dart amongst the trees for quite a while, scurrying like squirrels always seeking something. Will I see a bear? Will one bother me at night? How far until I reach the Chattooga? Should I eat something now, or is it too early?

On a high, dry ridge my focus returns as I notice something in the middle of the trail ahead. Not a bear, too small. It is a raccoon, but it is sitting back in a very awkward position. I watch it. It watches me and does not move. I inch forward. It rolls forward onto all four feet, begins to arch its back, and hisses. There is something wrong with it. I cannot tell if it is injured. It may be sick.

I won’t bother a sick raccoon. Taking a wide off-trail arc around it, I raise my hand as I pass. “Good luck, buddy.”

A few minutes down the trail a pair of day hikers approach. I give them a low, almost whispered warning about the raccoon. The sound of my own voice has become a foreign disruption here.

The afternoon grows long. Stands of shy trillium are scattered across the ground, hiding their vibrant blooms with a downcast countenance. Nearby, some voluptuous pink lady’s slipper orchids grow next to the trail. I stop for a few moments and take out my DSLR camera to take some more purposeful photographs.

Trillium and Pink Lady’s Slipper

Pigpen Falls is the next landmark I come to. This short waterfall tumbles down in two separate, side by side sections. Maple and rhododendron branches reach into the light, framing the pool at its base. I briefly photograph Pigpen, knowing that the mid-afternoon sun is creating sub-optimal lighting conditions.

I have passed this place before, years ago while backpacking with my son. The sight stirs old memories and I suddenly feel the sadness of nostalgia. Beyond Pigpen, the trail touches the top of Licklog Falls. Many miles still lay ahead of me before I reach today’s goal, so I opt to bypass the side trail to view its extent.

Cascades of Pigpen Falls

The Foothills Trail begins to parallel the remote Chattooga River. Seeing it through the trees is like encountering a dear old friend. Over the years I have explored the Chattooga from its headwaters in the Ellicott Rock Wilderness down to its lower whitewater rapids at Bull Sluice. Its presence now lends me a strong sense of familiarity.

The path is about to become rough. Trails along the Chattooga are continuous up and down climbs over tangles of rock and roots. I step out from the tree cover to view the broad flowing waters and prepare myself for the next segment of trail.

Upstream the trail touches a sandy embankment along the river. As I step out onto the sand I notice two other backpackers gathering their gear to leave. They are college age guys, kids really. Both carry high dollar backpacks with bear canisters strapped to the top.

I continue on as they make their preparations, hoping that they are headed the opposite way. Not so. Before long they pass me and I give them room to surge by. It isn’t long before I reach another rocky shoreline at a bend in the Chattooga. There they are.

The tall, slender guy wants to skip a stone and picks a heavy one. Clunk. Not one skip. He just laughs it off. With a voice now unfamiliar to myself, I ask how far they are trying to go today.

“Not sure. We’re just going till the legs give out, ya know?”

“I’m trying to get to Burrell’s Ford, but we’ll see” I reply.

Why do I qualify my answer? Maybe just because I know it is late afternoon and there are still rough miles ahead. They are quicker than me and leave first.

Progress slows to a crawl as the root ensnared trail winds through rock and over ridges by the river. My thoughts are wandering again, the mind’s way of tuning out the effort. Time flows by with the waters of the Chattooga, unnoticed beyond the exertion of my hike. Humidity and sweat cling to my skin. I come upon the pair again, standing in the middle of the path.

“Are you familiar with this trail?” asks the friend with the glasses.

“This is my first thru hike. I’ve done stretches of it, but not this part.”

He looks at his phone. “I have the map, I’m just not sure where we are on it.” The tall, slender guy speaks up “I’m getting off the trail. Something in my pack is hurting me.”

I check my maps. The digital map shows our GPS location, but it is hard to tell the scale. For that I look at my paper maps.

“Looks like there’s an intersecting dirt road in about half a mile.” They thank me and power ahead.

They have decided to camp near that location and I pass them as they are setting up. Tall, slender guy calls up to me from the riverside.

“Are you going on to Buford?”

“Burrell’s Ford? Yeah.”

I earn two thumbs up from him. I never see the pair again.

Progress slows to a crawl as the root ensnared trail winds through rock and over ridges by the river. My thoughts are wandering again, the mind’s way of tuning out the effort. Time flows by with the waters of the Chattooga, unnoticed beyond the exertion of my hike. Humidity and sweat cling to my skin. I come upon the pair again, standing in the middle of the path.

“Are you familiar with this trail?” asks the friend with the glasses.

“This is my first thru hike. I’ve done stretches of it, but not this part.”

He looks at his phone. “I have the map, I’m just not sure where we are on it.” The tall, slender guy speaks up “I’m getting off the trail. Something in my pack is hurting me.”

I check my maps. The digital map shows our GPS location, but it is hard to tell the scale. For that I look at my paper maps.

“Looks like there’s an intersecting dirt road in about half a mile.” They thank me and power ahead.

They have decided to camp near that location and I pass them as they are setting up. Tall, slender guy calls up to me from the riverside.

“Are you going on to Buford?”

“Burrell’s Ford? Yeah.”

I earn two thumbs up from him. I never see the pair again.

The evening is starting to grow dim, but after close to 15 miles in half a day I locate a camping spot near my goal, just before Burrell’s Ford. Some daylight remains after pitching my tent, so I take a frigid plunge in the river to wash off the day’s sweat and grime. The pure waters cleanse my mind as well as my body.

I fix my evening meal and hoist my food bag into a tree, out of reach of hungry bears or other opportunistic creatures. Lonesome calls of whippoorwills echo in the darkening shadows of the valley. The river slowly churns in its eternal flow and a duck flies low and fast over the water, heading downstream.

As I silently sit, absorbed in my surroundings, the feeling of success in today’s mileage is juxtaposed to the knowledge that this is just the beginning. Four more days of continuous hiking lie ahead. Excitement for the experience and an apprehension of the challenge are intertwined. Inseparable. Fortunately, any energy I would need for worrying has already been spent. Darkness falls, and I quickly find the blissful oblivion of exhausted sleep.

Erik Hogan is a photographer who primarily shoots landscape, wilderness, and nature scenes in the Athens area.

Follow on Instagram @erikhoganphotography Erik's sketchbook includes a look behind the scenes, with an option to purchase a limited number of prints through the link in his bio. htttps://erikhoganphotography.com.

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