This is not a story spun for humor, nor is it filled with hyperbole. It is true to the best of my telling, although details remain vague since it was almost dark and I was in the woods with no water, no energy, and only a sweat-soaked map to find my way out.
Let’s start from the beginning.
I attempted Ned Branch Trail earlier this spring. The trail faded into the landscape and became impossible to follow. I returned for round two recently with much more time, but ill prepared. I can’t list all of the mistakes that an experienced hiker should never make. A 9-mile solo hike dictates that you leave an itinerary with someone capable of finding you. I texted my teenage daughters and said I was going to get lost. That does not qualify as telling someone where to find you. Compounding that mistake, I had on the wrong clothing and not enough water.
I followed Ned Branch with ease, remembering almost every step. I found where I had taken the wrong turn on my first trip. The water was on my left and should be on my right. I backtracked and saw a small bridge that somehow had evaded me twice. I followed the white blazes that signified the trail until I found one that was contrary to where I should be going. I followed the map and soon found my way through Ned Branch to Rockcastle Campground.
The campground appeared deserted. The bath houses were locked and more than 20 tent sites were vacant. As I approached the final site I saw trees shaking, but heard no other sound. I had a camera in case it was a Bigfoot sighting. It was just and old feller gathering firewood.
There is an offshoot trail called Scuttlehole. It’s an out-and-back, which means you take the same path coming out as you did going in. It’s very steep, with 120 wooden steps taking you to the top of the mountain. The views of the river are amazing. Just be warned if you go that the second overlook has a nest of bees inside one of the posts. The third overlook gives you the best view.
I returned to the campground and walked past the dock to Lakeside South Trail. It was after 4 p.m. and I had hiked roughly four miles. There were about six miles left and plenty of daylight. The trail paralleled the lake, so I knew where I was at all times. I had a map, compass, GPS, and a cell phone with no service. I knew if this trail disappeared I could go back to the campground and follow
the road back to my car.
The trail began clear and open as a two-lane highway. A couple of miles later it closed like a rain forest. At one point I walked seven steps from the trail marker and could not find the trail. I picked it up again, but it was gone in 30 more paces. I would pause at each marker and try to look forward and pick where the trail should go. There were obvious signs like a log sawed in two or a break in the boulders that helped me keep a bearing. At times there were so many downed trees from whatever storm had blown through here you couldn’t see forest floor for a 100 yards.
A bigger problem at this point was lack of water. I had gone through water quicker than expected on a humid day. I was down to one bottle other than the sweat covering my cotton T-shirt. The hiking gurus at Mike’s Hike and Bike have told me that cotton is death. They are right. My shirt looked like I had been swimming. My baseball cap was saturated with sweat dripping from the brim. I pressed on because retreat would not be any easier than attack at this point.
I conserved water as I made my way to Clark’s Bottom, where there are several seasonal cabins that hopefully were being used. I was wrong. There were no outside faucets and the inside was locked up like a penitentiary. I sat there, ate trail mix, and drank the last of my water. There was a lake to my right, so dehydration wasn’t really an issue. The problems caused by drinking lake water wouldn’t hit quickly.
A couple more miles and I was so thirsty I would have drank water from a stump with a frog in it. Instead I found a fast-moving waterfall and filled two bottles. I drank both and refilled them. No drink ever tasted better.
In these conditions it was taking more than 30 minutes to cover a mile. I would be pressed to make it out of the woods by dark. I had a headlamp and a flashlight, but it’s hard to bushwhack by flashlight.
When I came to a forest service road that pointed straight up the mountain it was an easy call. I did a little math on my map. If I remained on that bearing I would come out no more than a mile from my car and it would be much easier hiking. When I broke out of the woods there was a house with two barking dogs. I yelled at the teenager standing outside so I wouldn’t startle him.
“I kind of got turned around on the trail,” I said.
“Clark’s Bottom? You aren’t the first and won’t be the last,” he responded.
He offered to give me a ride, but I was only 3⁄4 of a mile away from the car. He said he was surprised the rattlesnakes hadn’t gotten me.
It was an interesting hike, but not as relaxing as it could have been with a little more planning. The things I learned include don’t wear cotton, take some type of water treatment, and tell an adult where you are going. It all comes down to planning. If you plan on a six mile hike, then take a six mile hike.