Sunday, August 16, 2015

Savage Gulf State Natural Area

Three days. Two night. An average of 10 miles a day of trail hiking. All our food in our backpacks, all the water gathered and filtered in the wild. About 35 lbs of gear in each pack.

Savage Gulf/Stone Door includes over 70 miles of hiking trails and is located in the general Tracy City, TN area near Sewanee College. When I think "gulf" I think body of water, but in this case we're talking about a deep canyon with overlooking cliffs. I expected snakes, bugs and all manner of small mammals. I did not expect this:

Bears! Yay!

We started off at the Savage Gulf Ranger Station with plans of taking one route and ultimately taking a different one. Unknowingly, we would pick the hardest of trails in the entire Savage Gulf area, but more on that later.

Esther, full of hope and giddy
According to the map and the signs on the north rim trail, our first goal was about nine miles of hiking to Hobbs Cabin. Based on the GPS tracklog, the actual mileage was closer to 11.2. So lesson #1: the signs LIE.

Can we trust this sign? NOBODY KNOWS

Dead end? OR IS IT?? Also: gaze upon our heavily laden packs!

One of many suspension bridges, only one Esther

The first day started out all "oh look, a spur trail to an overlook! Let's take in the view!" but would eventually turn into "oh look another mile and no cabin. How much water do you have left?" But we were here for both the mileage and the views, so if I sound a little surly it's only because I enjoy surliness. 

At one point along the trail Esther picked up this abandoned wasp nest and looked me in the eye and said "if you snore tonight I will shove this up your nostrils and see if it helps." At least that's how I remember it.

We crossed another suspension bridge and I tried to put the thought out of my mind. It's possible I might imagined it, after all. 

Esther wanted to try out her gaiters during the trip so she had them on the first day whether she needed them or not. I have no information regarding their effectiveness or comfort, but I find the narrow band of exposed knee below her shorts and above the one perpetually low-hanging gaiter to be just darn adorable. 

First day signs of life were limited to: a few dozen millipedes, a few hundred spiders, a hawk tail feather and this wasp gall.

Spiny-backed hermit crab spider

Identified as red shouldered hawk by Sharon "Bird Chick" Stiteler via twitter

A wasp gall, made by a gall wasp, naturally

There were some unfortunate tears and whining along the trail...

"There's a tree in the trail and my gaiters are sliding!"

...but we made it to the cabin.

There was a logbook in the cabin and I took pictures of some of the more interesting entries, some of which I will share with you now.

"Troop402 - Survived the storm only to die later that night by a pack of wild mice. 3/19/13 #SCOUTINGFTW"

"7/16/15 Long hike. Took the north plateau trail from savage ranger station. Got here before night fall and was able to set up a camera to shoot a timelapse of the sunset on the overlook about a 1/2 mile north of here. All was good until night fall. Mice, brown widow spiders and snakes were everywhere inside cabin. Don't even get me started on the MASSIVE CRICKETS!! We ended up pitching a tent inside the cabin since it was too dark to move everything. All in all beautiful scenery and beautiful campsite. Worth the hike. -Me, my father and my uncle"

I'm assuming there were three people on that trip, but you never know.

"5-28-15 Day 16. We have finally reached the cabin. My companions are near breaking. James sustained a bad fracture last week. By day 14 it was gangrenous. We had to leave him. His eyes haunt me still.
The cabin is amazingly clean and suits our needs. The spring is a welcome site as we have been out of water for too long. Strange sounds the patch of woods directly facing porch, probably some local wildlife. My companions seem edgy. Sleep will help. --------P.T.
Addendum: it is shortly after 02:00. Lisa has been gone for over an hour. Not sure when she left the cabin. Will search in morning. Strange sounds have gotten louder."

There are more that I got pictures of that you can read here. Most are in the same spirit, some really sweet, one that's a little sad. The thing that struck me were the people mentioning the mice in the cabin and how the mice got into their food. Maybe they didn't read the same poster I did at the entrance about there being bears in the area and that you should hang your food? All of our food was on a bear line up in a tree and we didn't have any problems with mice- except some shredding of toilet paper in my pack that was hanging on a nail out on the cabin porch. Esther did mention there was some small creature vaulting itself against the tent wall, but I was outside by then. 

Right. Around 3AM I self-exiled myself out of the tent and set up a hammock in the trees. I was snoring and waking us both up and it was just a better for me to be mostly sitting up in the hammock. Also, I think Esther still had that wasp nest.

*  *  *

The next morning a lunch lady appeared in our camp.

We filled up our water bladders and bottles from the spring behind the cabin. We zap all of our water with a SteriPEN Traveler, but there's a special feeling getting your drinking water from a source that actively has frogs swimming in it. Frog Pee: It's in There!™

The day would be another experience with maps and signs that lie. It was also a bad case of us not reading the full trail descriptions before picking a route. The connector trail that we chose to take us to Stage Road Camp is described on the map as "the most challenging and most strenuous trail in Savage Gulf. Several climbs and seemingly endless rocky slopes are crossed."  


But hey, it was full of stream crossings so water wouldn't be a problem today, right?

"Seldom are stream crossings a problem because the streams all go underground before reaching this trail."


Here is Esther on the trail, walking straight to the next white blaze. See the trail? Me neither.  

As we descended the north rim we also met a new friend! Our new friend was hanging out on the side of the trail playing maracas. Although, to be honest it didn't sound like maracas. It sounded like just another cicada, albeit one really close to our ears.

Here's a better shot of our new friend as we went off trail to avoid interactions. It never moved, never coiled- just the warning buzz. We both agreed its length was more than 3 but less than 4 feet. You have to look closely, but the whole critter is in this picture, all the way down to the rattles.

We found a much more cuddly creature at the bottom of the canyon where we took a food/water break. I didn't pet this one either.

After hiking 8 miles (the map assures us that it was only 5) we came to a water source: a multi-trickle water fall that was the most glorious of all waterfalls and was particulate free and cold and tasted delightful. We drank a couple of bottles each and topped off.

This lunch lady does not serve Mexican pizza on Thursdays

The hike out of the canyon was not easy but it was beautiful.

We arrived at our campsite, set up the tent and the hammock and promptly fell asleep at the advanced hour of 7:30 PM and slept until about 8:00 the next morning.

*  *  *

Here's my view of the campsite the next morning from the hammock. Esther on one end, our sweaty clothes hanging to dry on the other.


We filled up our bladders and bottles from the "spring" near camp that was somewhat unpleasant. All the "good" creatures were swimming around in it and we zapped it good, but there was a film of oil across the top of the sluggish stream and it would have not been our first choice. As it was our only choice, we got it while the getting was good and headed out along the south rim trail to get back to the car and ultimately back home.

Here we are, barely able to contain our misery

After hiking more miles than the map would admit to and crossing more bridges than the map knew about we came to the top of Savage Falls and literally threw ourselves into hedonistic acts of wanton joy at the sight of more water than we would ever be able to filter and put in our bladders and bottles. 

There were some toe-nibbling friends to be made here. 

Here's Esther crossing the same bridge that was the "first" bridge just two days prior. Special effects thanks to the water still on my lens from taking pictures at the falls.

A few miles back I had acquired a hitch-hiker as we were climbing out of the gulf. Here he is sucking on my hat for... salt? Water?

He stayed attached to my hat the whole way out and I dropped him off in the parking lot at the ranger station. He left little grasshopper hickies on my hat. 

We survived, changed into clean clothes at the South Cumberland Visitor Center and stuffed our faces at Arby's on the way home. My legs are still covered in chigger bites a week later and we already have plans for the next three-day weekend trip.

Pictures: DAY 1, DAY 2, DAY 3
Partial tracklog: HERE (I exceeded the file size of the tracklog and had to guess the missing piece. Still gives you a good idea of what we covered.)

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