The Ultimate Hike, Foothills Trail, November 9, 2013
We arrived at the Holiday Inn Express in Lavonia, GA (just over the SC line on I-85) early afternoon on Friday. Staff from CureSearch –children’s cancer research – and the Oconee County Rescue Squad greeted us with goodie bags: T-shirts, wrist band, flashlight, bottle of water, a walkie talkie to use on the hike and a first aid kit (in some bags). (I got a first aid kit and Mel didn’t. I didn’t want him to feel bad so I slipped the pound-and-a half kit into his bag when he was not looking. I carried my personal first aid kit with bandages, tape, gauze pads designed to stop bleeding and powder to shake into a wound to stop bleeding…yes, I bleed like the Exxon Valdese!).
I managed to get an hour’s nap before the dinner meeting. At dinner we loaded with carbs for energy for the hike, met our fellow hikers and received a briefing on safety and how the hike would be conducted. When they called for questions, I asked when coffee would be available. The answer from the Rescue Squad was, “at the second rest stop.” I asked if we could get it at the first rest stop and the answer was, “if you want it at the first rest stop, you’ve got it.” I mention this because it is indicative of the way we were treated throughout: the hotel, CureSearch staff and rescue squad were totally attuned to the needs of the hikers.
Oh! Speaking of the shower. My room was a handicap room with multiple grab bars in the tub/shower and by the throne. I assumed that all rooms were thus equipped. At dinner, I learned that mine was the only one in the group! Staff assured me that it was random and had nothing to do with me being the oldest hiker. Right!
I had feared that breakfast would be meager…instant oatmeal and a muffin. Instead, the hotel prepared a full hot breakfast for us. This photo shows our team, eager to get on the van and get to the trail. It is 2:50 AM.
The van took us to the trailhead at Upper Whitewater Falls. If you haven’t recently seen the stars during a crisp, clear night…away from city lights…it is time to “stop and smell the roses.” Breathtaking!
Enough star gazing…we posed for a group photo and hit the trail. There were thirteen hikers from Columbia, Raleigh and Greenville. Last year, this same hike attracted 40 hikers. One of my fears was that the hike was going to be over-structured with rules about how long you had to stay at rest stops, how fast you could hike, etc. The rule turned out to be “never hike alone, hike at your own pace.”
The Greenville group immediately launched into a blistering pace that I am told (I didn’t see them again until dinner) set a new team record for the trail. The hike was to be 28.3 miles (more on that later). These are not true pictures of what we were seeing in the light of our headlamps because the camera added flash…but you get the idea.
We started on the trail at 4:30 and it did not start getting light about 6:30…the rescue squad told us to keep our headlamps on until full sun-up to keep hunters from shooting us by mistake. Behind the Greenville group the rest of us fell into informal groups of two or three (based on hiking speed) that remained pretty consistent for the rest of the day.
CureSearch uses this trail for Ultimate Hikes for teams from Atlanta, Asheville, Tennessee and other cities. Supported by the Oconee Rescue Squad members (I am pretty sure they were volunteering their off-duty time), they had the trail down to a science. They offered three rest stops at 5 miles, 12.5 miles and 22 miles. In addition to the snacks, water, etc. that they provided, they allowed us to send forward a “comfort bag” for each stop…these could contain fresh socks, special snacks, etc. Hikers could also off-load any unneeded items into those “comfort bags.”
At the rest stops, we found warm drinks, snacks and first aid. The rescue squad was prepared with everything from serious first aid to blister treatment. They even offered foot massage. It takes a devoted volunteer to offer a hiker a foot massage!!
At the second rest stop, they handed me a sheet of paper. I thought it was a summary of my contributions or something. They had secretly contacted my daughter and had her send an email message of support and encouragement. It was a nice surprise when I was starting to get tired. This rest stop was at Burrell’s Ford, a wonderful place for a family to camp. Campsites are only a few hundred yards from parking and they sit right on the banks of the Chattooga River…trails branch out in all directions if you want to hike.
We were also disappointed that we saw very little wildlife. The forest was filled with oak and pine. In my neighborhood, a cazillion squirrels eat every nut and pine cone. We did not see a single squirrel all day! I am thinking about boxing up a few hundred and taking them up there. The one animal we did see was a Bald Eagle soaring above the river…a truly majestic bird and only the second time I had seen one in the wild.
The Chattooga River is clear and, in this section, shallow. With a rocky bottom, it is spectacular. I could sit and watch it roll by for days on end. With “miles to go before I sleep” we sat and watched it for fifteen minutes or less. The Foothills Trail follows the river for miles and gave us many glimpses of it.
The temperature was near freezing as we began the day, as we climbed the mountains, we were generating plenty of heat and the outside temperature was rising. When the trail dropped back to the river, it remained cold all day. To deal with this, I wore three layers: a synthetic T-shirt, a light polar fleece shirt and a light down jacket…I also carried two styles of cap and gloves. With the change of elevation, I was often adding or removing a layer.
As we got to the third rest area -the 22 mile mark- we were ahead of schedule and doing well but the mountain terrain and the slippery wet leaves, roots and rocks had taken their toll. Everyone in my group decided it was time for drugs. We each took a couple of ibuprofen to take the edge off the foot and leg pain we were feeling.
Buddy the Friendly Wolf took up with us at about the 18 mile mark and stayed with us the rest of the hike (OK…he may not really be a wolf but I did not know that when this giant beast suddenly came running up behind me panting loudly!) He was an intelligent, well-trained dog with a collar but no tag. He followed us to the rest area, stayed with us and then left when we left. He would run ahead of us on the trail and then look back to see if we were alright. He seriously gave every appearance of looking after us…may have been. After the hike, we learned from others in our group that they had seen Buddy with a family and several dogs going in to camp. One of the rescue squad members took Buddy and said he would post flyers trying to find Buddy’s owners. I can’t say enough about what a wonderful dog Buddy was…except when he decided to roll around in the carcass of something that died beside the trail. I realize that is a “dog thing” but that didn’t show good judgment.
It gets dark early in the shadows of mountains, so we had to put our headlamps back on around 5:30 PM. As we approached Oconee State Park, we had experienced a wonderful hike on a near perfect hiking day…and we were ready to get to the finish line and take off our boots. Somebody with an unusual sense of humor (we suspect teens with a Y chromosome) had moved one of the Ultimate Hike directional signs and pointed us down a dead-end trail. We walked about a mile down this narrow, treacherous trail before we realized we had been had. In that location, our walkie talkies would not reach the people waiting for us with the vans. As we re-traced our steps, we began to hear crackly comments over the walkie talkie saying “something is wrong, they should have been here by now” Finally, we were able to contact them and tell them that we were together and fine, that we would be there shortly. We completed the hike at about 6:30 PM. We were not the fastest but we had walked the farthest…something just over thirty miles in fourteen hours.
When we got back to the hotel, we had a nice group dinner and shared stories of the day. Many of the hikers went across the street to an adult beverage establishment and stayed until midnight. I only learned that on Sunday morning because I had already taken a hot shower and gone to bed before they even made that decision.
Sunday morning, the grab bars in my bathroom seemed less of an insult and were rather welcome. We began with a breakfast at 8:30 AM. Amazingly everyone was there and looked no worse for the wear…no one was limping or wearing visible bandages. That was a testament to the training we had done to prepare for the event. At the breakfast, we were all presented medals for completing the Ultimate Hike. Mel (from Columbia) was recognized for raising the most money in the entire hike group and he was given a sweatshirt honoring the fact that he had surpassed the $5000 mark. Not everyone had met their $2500 goal yet; they have until late December. So far, the group has raised just under $30,000 for children’s cancer research. With your help, I met and passed my goal by raising $3,000.
After the hike
As I write this, it is only 27 hours after completing the hike so it is probably premature to comment. At breakfast this morning, almost everyone said that it had been a wonderful experience and they would do it again. I agree. The real reason is to raise money for a very worthwhile cause. The fundraising and hike training took far more time than I would have guessed. With your support, the fundraising was successful. The training must have been a success because I walked farther than I had ever walked before in a day…and covered some rough terrain doing it. As I sit at my computer tonight, I have a pain in my right knee (I think I must have bumped it on something) but I am walking fine and able to go up and down the stairs; I have a great sense of accomplishment. I feel very close to my new Ultimate Hike friends…we went through something very special together (team Columbia has talked about getting together in the spring for a backpacking trip, I hope it happens).
As always, thank you for supporting me in this effort. You financial support made it possible and your encouragement kept me going. Thank you.
I can’t leave this message without a couple of words of wisdom from Jerry. At the first rest area, Jerry sank into a folding chair and deadpanned, “We didn’t have mountains like that to practice on in Columbia.” At the breakfast this morning, he received his medal and said, “This was my first Ultimate Hike and this was my last one. But if I can help, I am volunteering. I will recruit or drive the van; I will bake cupcakes.”