Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Middle Prong Madness

If you are looking to get good and lost look no further than Middle Prong Wilderness. It was on my first trip there I had my compass reverse polarity in low visibility conditions and spent several hours walking in circles trying to figure out where to go before I finally decided my compass had to be wrong and only then found the trail. Since then I have been back several times but last Saturday's trip would prove to be as eventful as that first excursion.

I planned on doing a nice 14 or so mile route starting from the top of highway 215: the MST to Buckeye Gap to Haywood Gap and then back to the MST to close the lollipop. Unlike Shining Rock Wilderness, I need a map for Middle Prong and made sure I had it with me. Other than that I had my usual minimal gear. Enough for a run, but only an emergency blanket, poncho, light, and knife if things ever got bad to the point of spending a night.

Things started innocently enough with slower and more technical running across the flattish MST section as I worked my way toward Green Mtn. trail. As you approach the 6000' Mt. Hardy summit and Green Mtn the trail is rather braided in several places with social trails and Akira and I got turned around briefly and headed towards the top of Mt. Hardy before we realized our error and reversed course. Another case of tragedy narrowly averted.

Most of the run was above 5000' where the ecosystem is much different than most of the southern Appalachians. This is one of my favorite environments and it was a perfect day to be enjoying such splendor.

After our initial detour around Mt. Hardy, I was extra cautious and made sure I was confident of every turn. I located Green Mtn. trail easy enough and then Buckeye Gap was as prominent as ever.  The top half of Buckeye Gap follows old logging grades and passes though some significant remains from the logging days and is very buff and runnable singletrack. For this early spring trip, it was also blanketed in wildflowers making for a perfect segment after the initial frustration on the MST.
After a mile and a half or so it makes a sharp turn off the ridge and becomes true singletrack and plunges sharply downhill to the Middle Fork of the Pigeon River.  From there we went up Haywood Gap which climbs steadily but is incredibly scenic the whole way up.
This too is old logging grade and has plenty of relics including a long stretch of old trellis.
After Haywood Gap, we made the left turn onto the MST and started heading the five miles back to the truck. I had been planning on being home around 5 so I could get some stuff done and we paused briefly as I pondered running the Blue Ridge Parkway back instead of the trail. I decided to finish the route and we continued on the trail.

I was paying extra careful attention to every possible turn and after passing Buckeye Gap trail suddenly found myself off the MST and headed for the summit of Mt. Hardy, or so I thought. Since I have never been to the actual top of Mt. Hardy (the benchmark, where I have been, is not the top) I decided to go the short distance to the top. I used my altimeter and compass to confirm my location and then continued on a social trail to the northeast.

This trail should have led to either the MST, hwy215 or the BRP. There are really no other options. We were still running at a good pace and I was trying to not be too late getting home. But the trail just wasn't doing what it should have. I became aware that I was not hearing traffic on either of the roads and according to my map it should have been a short distance to anywhere. But it wasn't. And the trail stopped looking like a social trail and more like an official trail. And then I realized I was going to be really late getting home. So, I kept going until I found I spot where I had a phone signal so I could text my wife not to worry.

As I waited for the text to go through I looked at my map and pondered what might have gone wrong and where I was. I wasn't really worried - I could always reverse course - but was concerned. And I just didn't understand. Then I spotted Sam Knob behind me and I knew where I was - Green Mountain! And halfway down it taboot! All wrong! Way out of my way! It made no sense as I would have had to have crossed the MST but I knew that is where I was.

I tried calling my wife to discuss my options (i.e. - ask if she wanted to pick us up at Sunburst) but it wouldn't go through. So I texted again where we were and where we were headed and reversed course.

From there it was pure gravy. Sure, we were hours out of food and water but there would be water on the MST and it isn't often you get to enjoy Green Mountain in the early evening. And once realizing where I was - which still makes no sense -  I knew navigation would no longer be an issue. My only concerns were Akira and how she would do with the added mileage and the quickly fading daylight.

Akira did great. Once we got back to the MST she knew where she was and set a fast pace for us. It was still further than we wanted and took longer than it should have and we got back to the truck just at dark after having been on most of the trail within Middle Prong Wilderness to the tune of 22.5 miles.

A true Adventure in Pisgah.

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