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Posts Tagged ‘Hiking’

Every few weeks, I have a reason to drive down to the Mall of Georgia. The mall is about 25 miles south of Jefferson, on the northern edge of Metro Atlanta in Gwinnett County.

I have a long history with Gwinnett, dating back to the 1950s. My grandparents lived there. When I was in college, my parents lived there. My kids grew up there.

But eventually, what was once a pleasant, peaceful place got sold out to the developers in a spectacular way. Gwinnett quickly became just another appalling suburban nightmare.

Home to 600,000 souls, Gwinnett is the second most populous county in Georgia, behind Fulton County, which makes up most of Atlanta.

Gwinnett got to be what it is by systematically developing every possible acre, until it became an endless sea of residential subdivisions, apartment complexes, office complexes, and commercial establishments of every conceivable type.

Today, the traffic congestion and overcrowding in Gwinnett are horrific. You learn the acceptable secondary routes and the times of day to avoid certain places, or else. If possible, I go there only on weekends.

Ironically, in spite of being a vast expanse of pavement, the county has an award-winning parks and recreation program. Although not much remains in the way of undeveloped land, Gwinnett has tried hard (out of shame, perhaps) to work with the few narrow corridors of green that still exist.

The county has created a series of paved greenways for walking and biking. They’ve also built quite a few pocket parks around the county — although, unfortunately, they have a habit of constructing ball fields there, which necessitates the removal of more trees.

For the most part, the greenway corridors owe their existence to topography, not the husbandry of resources. Most of the corridors follow winding, steep-sided creeks; it was land that escaped development because it was not economical to exploit.

Which brings me back to the subject of driving down to the Mall of Georgia. I went there last Sunday to take a walk, for the first time, along the Ivy Creek Greenway.

I wrote about Ivy Creek back in 2009. You can read that post here.

The official name of the mall is The Mall of Georgia at Mill Creek — so named because a mill once operated at a small dam on Ivy Creek.

Today, Ivy Creek still manages to flow, largely unseen, around the southern end of the mall. It is there that the dam and the site of the mill are located, inside one of the looping entrance ramps to Interstate 85.

Several years ago, Gwinnett County built a greenway along Ivy Creek that allows access to, among other places, the dam and the site of the old mill. Although the spot is encircled by expressway ramps, the ramps sit atop immense concrete pilings. The greenway goes under them.

If you can tolerate the steady drone of traffic, and if seeing the tops of hotels, apartments, and various mall structures on the horizon is acceptable, then a stroll down the Ivy Creek Greenway isn’t so bad.

Sunday was calm and sunny and 70 degrees. Quietly and surreptitiously, I left my car in the parking lot of a nearby Marriott, and I followed a stairway of 50-plus concrete steps down, down, down to the greenway.

At the bottom of the steps, a young couple and three little kids were gearing up for a family bike ride. The man was strapping on helmets. The woman was setting the timer of her camera, preparing to place it on a rock and take a group photo.

“Do you want me to do that?” I asked.

She looked relieved, probably was hoping I would make the offer. “Would you mind? Thank you so much!”

With a tone of sarcasm, she added, too softly for the others to hear, “We can’t miss an opportunity to document everything we do.”

“Believe me,” I said, “Someday, you’ll be glad you have the photo.”

She shrugged, handed me the camera, and joined the group. They settled into position and turned on the smiles. All five wore matching green. All five bicycles were the same metallic brown. I took the photo, handed back and camera, and was on my way.

I walked east along the greenway, following the creek upstream. Although the day was warm, the leaves had fallen long ago, providing good views of the creek and the rocky hillside beyond.

No one was around when I came to the site of the old mill. I scampered down the bank to get a better look at the dam and the giant waterwheel rusting in the sand. I tried to imagine how the spot looked when the mill was in operation.

I continued walking east on the greenway, passing under I-85. I thought the noise would be overpowering, but it was only a distant rumble.

After about half a mile, the pavement of the greenway ended at a large, open gate. On the right was Ivy Creek. On the left, high up, was the back wall of a Mattress Factory. A gravel road continued east, but it was muddy. I decided to turn back.

I followed the greenway west, past the dam, past the Marriott, and past a couple of apartment complexes overlooking the numerous shoals on the creek. Plenty of walkers and bikers were out.

Beyond the apartments, I came to a long, soaring foot bridge that crosses the creek. On the other side, the greenway forks.

A runner came by, and I asked him if the main greenway went left or right. “Left goes to a dead end at the amphitheater,” he said, running in place. “The greenway goes right.” Then he was off again.

The greenway went uphill, under the hardwood canopy and away from the creek. When I reached the top of the hill, I saw two young girls, in their late teens or early 20s, walking together about 40 yards ahead. No one else was around. They were not yet aware of my presence.

They stopped next to a small bench. One of the girls sat down, and the other continued on. I could see that a short distance ahead, the greenway crossed a paved road; the second girl had gone to check it out.

When I got to within 10 yards of the girl on the bench, she turned in my direction. She looked startled, then quickly lowered her head and folded her hands in her lap.

She held that submissive posture as I reached the bench. “Hi!” I said cheerily.

She didn’t look up, didn’t move.

“It’s a beautiful day to be out,” I added hopefully.

No response.

“Okay. Well, have a nice day,” I said. I continued down the greenway, puzzled by her behavior.

Up ahead, the second girl was coming in my direction. When we passed, I smiled and said hello.

She looked up and smiled, but said nothing.

Well, I thought, at least she made eye contact. What an odd pair. Odd and rude.

A few moments later, where the greenway crossed the paved road, I turned and looked back toward the bench.

The two girls stood there, facing each other, communicating energetically.

In sign language.

The old waterwheel below the dam on Ivy Creek.

View of the southern edge of the Mall of Georgia. The dam can be seen to the left of the red X. The greenway passes below the dam.

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The Two Ps

One of my favorite hiking spots these days is Thompson Mills Forest in Braselton, a 330-acre preserve owned by the University of Georgia School of Forestry. It’s a quiet, scenic spot with several miles of well-maintained trails, and it’s only 10 miles from home.

It’s also the official State of Georgia Arboretum. As such, a lot of work goes on there to cultivate and display plants native to Georgia. When the tract was deeded to UGA in 1980, 80 native species were identified there. Since then, another 100 have been added.

I see evidence of ongoing work all the time, but strangely, I never see the work being conducted.

For that matter, I never see anyone there at all.

I mean that quite literally. In the two years I’ve been hiking the trails there, probably 20 or so visits in all, I’ve run across zero other hikers.

And in all that time, the only Arboretum employee I encountered was a man who stopped me several months ago to inform me that dogs are no longer allowed on the trails.

The issue was pertinent at the time because Paco was with me.

It seems they had an incident of some kind, and instead of taking it out on the one offender, the University summarily banned all dogs from the property.

Jerks. And I’m not referring to the dogs.

I mention the solitude of Thompson Mills Forest and its wonderful lack of people (don’t get me started on the dogs) because last week, I encountered another human being there — again, an employee.

It happened half a mile off-trail in the middle of the woods.

The thing is, I know the trail system there very well, so I have taken to setting out in this direction or that through the woods, bushwhacking my way along, exploring new territory.

It isn’t difficult. The terrain is dry, open hardwood forest. 330 acres is a fairly limited area, so you can’t get lost. The park boundary is never far away.

I’ve done the bushwhacking thing in other places, and most of the time, I mark the routes as I go.

Not so in the Arboretum. I may kick aside some deadfall to clear the path, but I don’t flag or blaze the route. The University apparently judges offenders harshly, and I don’t want to do time in the Braselton jail.

Anyway, I drove over to the Arboretum last week, followed one of the formal trails to its northernmost point, and went off-trail from there. I set out to the north, following the west bank of a small creek through a pretty little valley.

Half an hour later, I came to the park’s north boundary. Ahead, I could see private homes through the trees. I turned around and began to retrace my steps.

This is the time of year when the undergrowth is dying back, and a thick carpet of leaves is on the ground. I was making a loud, unavoidable racket as I walked along.

But when I paused briefly to trim a branch, I could still hear the crunch-crunch of footsteps through the dry leaves.

I looked up and saw a young man, 30 feet away, walking in my direction. After all that solitude, it was rather shocking.

“Hi there,” I called out. He nodded somewhat curtly.

He was a 30-ish fellow wearing long pants, long-sleeved shirt, and a baseball cap. He wore no badge or I.D., but had an oversized radio on his belt.

“I’m surprised to run across anybody out here,” I said.

“You out hikin’?” he asked.

I told him I had parked at the main entrance and was just wandering around, enjoying the day. I asked if he worked for the University. He said he did.

“What brings you out here?” I inquired.

He smiled for the first time. “The two Ps,” he said. “Poachers and pot farmers.”

He explained that in the fall, leading up to hunting season, the staff has to be especially vigilant for poachers. To avoid competition, poachers do their deer hunting before the season starts.

That was a sobering concept. I had a sudden flash of being accidentally gunned down in the woods, a la Harry Whittington, the man Dick Cheney shot while bird hunting.

I read recently that Cheney never apologized to Whittington for shooting him. But I digress.

“And then there’s the pot farmers,” the University man continued.

“Last year, the cops raided one of those houses that back up to the Forest, and they arrested six Mexicans. Turned out, the Mexicans were growin’ marijuana on Forest property.”

Disturbing a group of hard-working pot farmers. Another sobering concept for a solo hiker.

“I take it you’re not in the weed business,” he said.

I said, no, I wasn’t. Nor was I engaged in poaching or any other illegal activity.

“Unless it’s illegal to be wandering around off-trail,” I said.

“No,” he said, “You’re free to wander wherever you like. But I’d be careful, just the same.”

We said our goodbyes. He continued north into the woods, on the lookout for signs of the two Ps, and I headed south, back toward the trailhead.

He was right. Being out in the woods is never completely safe. It pays to be vigilant and cautious.

Too bad I can’t take Paco along for protection.

 

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Trail Tales

The Lake Russell Wildlife Management Area is just 30 minutes north of Jefferson, and it features several nice trails that I hike regularly. The trails there are clean and well-maintained, and the scenery is terrific.

Furthermore, except during hunting season, when rational people don’t go anywhere near the place, I’m usually alone on the trail. I rarely encounter another hiker, or a biker or an equestrian, all day. I like that a lot.

One of my regular walks in the WMA is the Lake Russell Trail, a 5-mile loop that circumnavigates the 100-acre lake.

View along the Lake Russell Trail.

For years, hiking that trail was a sweet-and-sour experience. Half of the loop hugs the shoreline of the lake, giving you beautiful panoramas along the way; but the other half largely follows a gravel service road and routes you through the campground areas. You even lose sight of the lake.

Last year, having endured the unpleasant half for years, I took action.

First, I blazed a trail on the north side of the lake that connects the Lake Russell Trail to an abandoned dirt road that doubles back to the trailhead. That’s option one.

Second, I blazed a trail on the south side of the lake that bypasses the service road and the campground areas altogether. It took a while to clear a useable route, but it was worth the effort.

Most of my hikes on the Lake Russell Trail (the formal parts, anyway) have been uneventful. But two tales are worth telling…

Mother Goose

Canada geese are common around North Georgia because of their migration route. The local lakes are where you find these birds, especially in the spring.

One day in May back in the mid-90s, my dog Kelly and I were hiking the Lake Russell Trail. We were proceeding along the north shoreline, the scenic section where the footpath remains at lake level, mere feet from the water.

Soon, we came to a spot where the trail makes a hairpin loop, following the outline of a small inlet. On the opposite shore of the inlet, about 30 yards across from us, a Canada goose sat in the middle of the trail.

The three of us saw each other immediately. Kelly’s ears perked up. The goose’s neck went rigid. I did a double-take.

As we continued down the trail on our side of the inlet, Kelly and I were moving away from the goose. The goose relaxed.

But after we made the turn at the top of the hairpin, we were drawing closer. The goose got nervous again.

Suddenly, a second goose paddled into view on the lake, honking and flapping furiously. The father had arrived to protect his nesting mate.

I finally could see evidence of the nest beneath her — grass and feathers and other material.

Kelly and I stopped about 10 yards from the mother goose, who was frightened, but unwilling to flee and abandon the nest.

I sat down on the trail. Kelly came over and sat next to me. The two of us looked at the bird, and the bird looked back. The father goose continued to honk at us from the water.

The trail at that point on the lakeshore is on a steep slope. The footpath is only about three feet wide. My inclination was to veer off-trail and leave the poor goose in peace, but that wasn’t possible.

I stood up, as did Kelly, waiting to follow my lead. I had no idea what that would be.

Our movement made the goose more restless. She fidgeted in place, clearly fighting the urge to fly away and save herself.

“Goose,” I said out loud, “We don’t want to hurt you, but why in hell did you build your nest on the trail?”

The goose tucked her head under one wing and lay perfectly still. The second goose, meanwhile, was still honking at us.

Out of curiosity, Kelly took a tentative step toward the goose, nose quivering. She meant no harm, but the goose didn’t know that.

“Kelly, no,” I said quietly. Kelly stopped and sat down, watching the drama with interest.

Holding up my hand for Kelly to stay, I took a few slow, easy steps toward the nesting bird.

Maybe, just maybe, I thought, we can creep past her while her head is covered and she thinks she’s hidden.

Wrong.

My proximity finally became too much for the goose. In a panic, she erupted from the nest and flew away, honking in fear.

Quickly, the two geese joined forces and paddled around just offshore, honking excitedly.

The nest she abandoned contained three eggs. Kelly sniffed at them, then turned and trotted onward.

Knowing I couldn’t leave the nest in the middle of a hiking trail, I scooped it up and followed Kelly. As we departed, the geese stopped honking.

Around the corner, the trail was wider. I selected a spot and carefully placed the nest on the ground.

Whether the geese would find it, I didn’t know. Whether they would abandon it because of the human smell, I didn’t know.

To this day, I’m still puzzled. Why in the world did she build her nest in the middle of the trail? Inexperience?

The Storyteller

Several weeks ago, Paco and I set forth down the same trail, in the same direction. At about the same location, we came around a bend and saw a small metal fishing boat floating near the shore with two men aboard.

This happens all the time. The WMA is frequented by more fishermen than hikers. On most days, a dozen small boats dot the lake.

My usual habit is to raise a hand in greeting, or tug the bill of my cap, which is sort of an unspoken howdy in these parts.

This is done in silence. Fisherman get irritated if you speak. They think you are spooking the fish.

So, as Paco and I passed near them on the trail, I smiled and waved a friendly wave.

“Howdy, young man,” said one of the men.

“Good morning,” I said back.

The man who spoke was about my age, deeply tanned, and slight of build. He wore a John Deere cap and a long-sleeved shirt, which usually is a good idea in the hot sun, except that his shirt was dark blue.

The man had uttered only one phrase, but I could tell that his voice was rich and strong. Somewhere between a Johnny Cash and a Willy Nelson.

“You ever see traces of bear in these woods?” he inquired.

That confirmed it. The words flowed smoothly, easily, resonantly. His voice was his gift, and he knew it and relished using it.

“No,” I replied. “I didn’t know bears wandered this far south.”

“Oh, yeah,” said the man. “I seen their scat, and seen where they been scratchin’ on the tree bark, and where they been feedin’ — seen it many times.”

The other occupant of the boat was a younger, larger man wearing an international orange cap and a skin-tight red tee shirt that accentuated every ounce of his ample midsection.

He looked up, made eye contact with me, and shook his head slowly side to side, as if to say, here he goes again, and went back to fishing.

“Bears is smart animals,” the older man continued. “Smarter than some people I know. They’re mean, too.

“A bear is crafty, you see. He’ll sneak up on a man like you, alone, taking a walk in the woods.

“And no offense, but that dog of yours don’t look like no fightin’ dog. He’d probably be gone real quick and leave you to deal with the bear.”

Maybe Paco would turn tail, maybe not. I didn’t say anything.

The younger man looked at me again and rolled his eyes. I smiled slightly.

“I wouldn’t be too quick to doubt,” the older man admonished. “It was here at this very lake, when I was younger than Randy here, that a male black bear snatched me bald.”

Randy turned toward his boat mate. “Daddy, I’ve heard you tell a lot of stories, but I ain’t heard that one.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Daddy. “We was at the campground over by the beach — Mama and Papa and us kids. In the dead of night, that bear snuck into my tent.

“Well, I woke up, and there he stood, lookin’ at me — eyes bright, a growl rumblin’ low in his throat, the drool drippin’ off his fangs.

“I was trapped. Helpless. I pulled the blanket over my head and waited. I figured I was gone to glory.

“That bear, he swiped one big claw across the top of my head — pphhhhtt — and left me like this.”

He removed his John Deere cap and tilted his head forward. He was as bald as an egg.

“Jesus, Daddy,” said Randy with a chuckle.

“That was a terrible thing to happen,” I said, “Me, I lost my hair the old-fashioned way.” I took off my cap to illustrate.

“Yessir, the physical scars, they healed,” he said. “But that bear left emotional scars that’s lasted a lifetime. A lifetime.”

He paused for dramatic effect and put his cap back on.

“So my advice to you, young man, is to be cautious and alert out there,” he said. “Them bears is sneaky and mean, and bein’ bald already won’t save your hide.”

“I appreciate the advice,” I told him. “I will be bear aware and bear alert.

The two men nodded and went back to fishing. Paco and I resumed our hike.

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The State Botanical Garden of Georgia, located in Athens along the Middle Oconee River, is a terrific place.

The Garden features a variety of well-tended public display gardens — flowers, herbs, ground cover, conifers, and so on — and it’s a research facility for UGA and other universities. It also has a soaring tropical conservatory. A very neat facility.

The Botanical Garden is a little over 300 acres big, and about five miles of nature trails meander through it.

Most of the trails are short loops close to the visitor center. I’ve always considered them sissy trails, mainly used by school kids and old people. Older then me, even.

The one trail at the Garden worthy of the name is the White Trail, a 3-mile loop that takes a pretty good tour of the 300 acres.

Although the White Trail is not a sissy trail — it’s long enough to get your attention and fairly steep in spots — I always tended to underestimate it.

Not any more. Not after my misadventures there one Sunday last month.

My day began on a rather sour note. I parked at a point where a connector trail leads down to the river, a convenient place to pick up the White Trail. As soon as I started down the connector, I saw two college-age girls coming in my direction.

They were walking at a leisurely pace and chattering happily — until they saw me. Immediately, the conversation ended. They speeded up, walking side by side in silence, heads down, gazes locked on the ground in front of them, until they got past me.

If I were better at thinking on my feet, I would have pointedly said hello, or asked for directions to watch them squirm. Or spat an obscenity.

Instead, I just shook my head in dismay and kept going.

When I got to the river, it was 10:00 AM and already hot. Oppressively hot. We’ve had that kind of summer.

But the trails are 100 percent beneath the forest canopy, and the day was otherwise pleasant. I wiped my face with a bandana and turned north along the river bank.

For the first half mile, the trail proceeds north along the river. The footpath there is only about a yard wide, and the vegetation is dense.

Privet and other fast-growing plants line the bank. The trail would quickly disappear if it were not maintained regularly. As it is, the undergrowth is on both sides and above you, creating a walk-through tunnel.

Then I came to a spot where a small tree was down across the trail. The tree was green, so probably had been uprooted in wet weather. Its branches, thick with leaves, completely blocked the trail. Going around it was not possible.

I had no tools with me, but I managed to break off a few strategic branches and ease myself through the barrier.

As I did, my left wrist scraped on a broken branch. I looked down and saw a quarter-size bruise.

Damn. I already had a quarter-size bruise there. I earned it a week earlier while moving landscape timbers.

A word to you younger people about bruises. As you get older, you become much more susceptible to bruising because your skin is thinner. And, in your mounting geezerhood, you’re probably clumsier, too. The slightest thump is likely to leave a mark. Which won’t go away for a month.

You just wait. You’ll see.

Anyway, there I was, with two large, ugly bruises. I was perspiring heavier than ever, but was pleased to be past the fallen tree. I continued up the trail.

Less than 50 yards later, I came across a second fallen tree.

This one blocked the trail, too, but below it was a crawl space about three feet high. I dropped down on all fours and clambered under it.

In mid clamber, I felt a sharp pain in my right knee. A thorn got me.

On the other side, I stood up and looked at my knee. A few drops of blood were welling up and trickling down my shin. Not wanting to stain my bandana, I broke off a piece of privet and used the leaves to mop away the blood.

The bleeding stopped, and I continued on.

Another 50 yards down the trail, I came to a third fallen tree. This one was huge, and the trail appeared to be completely blocked. It looked hopeless.

Nobody wants to give up and go back 10 minutes into a hike. I studied the tree closely to see if somehow I could get past it.

There was, indeed, a possibility. The tree was so large that some of its branches held the trunk up off the trail at an angle. The leafy smaller branches made the barrier look more impenetrable than it really was.

Again, I set about breaking off branches. It took a while, but I managed to create a small opening. I turned sideways and squeezed through the barrier.

In mid squeeze, my face full of leaves, I felt a sharp pain in my left forearm.

On the other side, I was shocked to see blood, lots of it, running down my forearm. Apparently, another broken branch got me. But this time, it was a money shot. The phrase, “Like a stuck pig” popped into my mind.

I wiped the stream of blood away with a forefinger, then pressed the finger onto the wound to stop the bleeding.

It didn’t work. I broke off more privet, wiped the new blood away, and continued pressing on the wound. I continued walking briefly, but decided to stop. Exertion was not a good idea at that point.

Every 10 or 15 seconds, I checked the wound, but the blood kept coming. For several minutes, I repeated the process — break off privet, wipe away blood, apply pressure. I held my arm in the air, wondering if I had a situation here.

In spite of all the bleeding, the cut in my forearm was only the size of a pea. It even had a convenient flap of skin that would become a nice lid when the bleeding stopped.

And really, I’ve been punctured like that on the trail a few times in the past. The bleeding had always stopped. So far, anyway.

As long as I pressed on the wound, the flow of blood was stopped. Sooner or later it would coagulate. I stood in the trail holding my arm aloft, wondering what I would say if someone came down the trail.

Finally, the bleeding stopped. My arm looked awful — smeared with dried blood, flecked with pieces of privet, sporting a fresh wound that looked ready to gush forth at any moment. But the emergency was over, and I was greatly relieved.

I resumed the hike. I was half a mile into a three-mile loop.

Somewhere near the halfway point, the White Trail emerges from the forest and crosses a powerline right-of-way. Because the right-of-way is kept free of trees, the undergrowth is free to go crazy.

The power company doesn’t care what grows there, as long as the lines aren’t affected. The Garden people probably do trail maintenance twice a year, tops.

In that particular spot, in this particular summer, the undergrowth that went craziest at populating the easement was blackberries.

Blackberry plants are ubiquitous in the South, and they grow quickly into dense thickets. Their two key features: delicious fruit and very sharp thorns.

The trail across the right-of-way was not impassable, but it was tricky and unpleasant. I crossed slowly and carefully, trying to avoid the long, arching, prickly blackberry stems.

A good idea in that kind of situation is to carry a walking stick. You can use it to whack the stems, which are delicate and collapse easily, thus clearing the path.

But I didn’t have a walking stick. I opted for Plan B, which is to (1) place your foot at the base of the shoot that is in your way and (2) stomp down while pushing it away from the trail.

The procedure worked fine a few times, but soon, the odds caught up with me. During a stomp, I felt a sharp sting near the sock line of my right leg.

I looked down, and I had another gusher. A sticker had punched cleanly into a blood vessel. Blood was streaming out and quickly soaking the top of my sock.

My doctor warned me about this. The veins in my legs are not varicose, but they’re prominent. Knowing that I’m a frequent hiker, she recommends long pants on the trail. I didn’t listen.

Quickly, I pushed the top of my sock down and applied pressure to my latest wound. With the other hand, I grabbed a handful of sticker-free greenery and used it to swab away some of the blood.

But the flow wouldn’t stop. Three or four times, I applied pressure for 30 seconds, then checked the wound, only to see blood pouring out again.

Part of the problem was the location of the wound — low on my shin. I needed to find a place where I could sit down and elevate my leg. I let go of the wound, stood up, and hastened a few yards ahead to a wider spot in the trail, leaving droplets of blood behind me on the dry clay.

I sat down in the middle of the trail, elevated my leg on the higher bank, applied pressure to the wound, and snatched up another handful of greenery to mop up blood.

As I sat there mopping, I wondered again how this scene would look to a passerby. I assumed the person would stop. I wasn’t sure if I would say, “No problem, I’m fine” or “Help!”

Finally — finally — the bleeding stopped. For the second time, I was mightily relieved and anxious to get going. At this rate, I wouldn’t finish the hike until sundown.

I was about to stand up — carefully, so as not to jostle my leg too much — when a runner, a kid in his late teens, came into view.

He was quite surprised to see me sprawled across the trail with my leg propped up.

“Sir! Are you all right? What happened?” he said in alarm as he loomed over me.

“I’m okay,” I said. “The blackberry stickers got me. My leg was bleeding pretty bad, but it stopped finally.” I pointed to the spot on my leg.

“Are you on a blood thinner?” he asked.

“No, nothing like that,” I said. “The sticker just got me in the wrong place.”

He helped me to my feet. We both studied my leg, waiting to see if the bleeding had truly stopped. It had.

“Do you feel okay?” he asked. “I can go for help, or I can walk with you.”

“I appreciate the offer, but I’m fine,” I said. “You can get on with your run.”

“Well, I’m running to the end of the trail and then coming back this way. I’ll check on you in about 20 minutes.”

I thanked him, and he proceeded down the trail, and I set out behind him.

Fortunately, I received no more wounds that day. And the second half of the trail is higher, dryer, and cooler then the first, which was a nice change.

One of the features of the White Trail is the remains of an old homestead, located about half a mile from the end, 20 yards off-trail.

Hikers have worn a side trail to the old place, and I usually stop for a visit. Not much is there. Just a brick chimney and a scattering of rotted wood and old metal.

While I was off the trail at the homestead, I caught a glimpse of my runner friend passing by on the main trail. As promised, he was headed back, expecting to encounter me along the way

“Hey!” I shouted, but he didn’t hear me.

That’s great, I thought. He’ll probably think I was delirious from loss of blood, and I crawled off into the undergrowth and died. But there was nothing I can do about it.

A short time later, I arrived back at my car. I tossed my bandana, cap, and water bottle onto the front seat and got behind the wheel.

As I was backing out, my friend the runner emerged from the connector trail that goes down to the river. He trotted over to the car.

“Well, here you are,” he said. “I’m glad to see you’re okay. I was afraid you crawled off into the undergrowth and died.”

The Tropical Conservatory and the International Garden.

The Middle Oconee River.

Rubus fruticosus, the common blackberry.

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Mea Culpa, Sorta

By and large, I’ve lived a plain vanilla life. All very ordinary.

No lofty honors or accolades, but no scandals, crimes, or embarrassing indiscretions, either.

Even my idiosyncrasies are rather tame. Friends and family know me for my minor obsessions: my fondness for hiking, my fascination with Grand Canyon, my tendency to collect things for which I have no earthly use.

In light of all that, it seems out of character that I have bloomed recently as an outlaw.

An outlaw blazer of hiking trails. Trails through the forest. Anonymously and without permission.

Specifically, over the past several years, I have cleared and marked eight or 10 miles of new pathways in various woodsy places.

I’ve done it slowly, painstakingly, and solely for my own amusement and enjoyment.

Frankly, it makes me feel a bit audacious and daring, sort of like the masked anarchist in “V for Vendetta.”

Yes, I know — on the spectrum of anti-establishment acts, clearing brush is down there at the milquetoast end.

If you’re trying to think of a medical disorder that fits this behavior, don’t bother.

I cleared and blazed every mile for a sound, sane reason — the reason trails are created to begin with: to get from where you are to where you want to be.

More to the point, I did it because I found existing trails to be inadequate.

My trailblazing career began innocently enough. Paco and I had been spending a lot of time walking the trails in a certain expanse of forest not far from Jefferson. Before long, I knew the tract quite well and, truth be told, the thrill was gone.

The tract is several square miles in size. The existing trails were a combination of abandoned dirt roads and new paths created by ATVs — all-terrain vehicles, those wretched, motorized things that make such a racket and chew up the ground so badly.

After I became familiar with the trail system, it occurred to me that in several places, the pathways came relatively close, as the crow flies. If I could connect them in key places, it would create new loops and new options for hiking.

So, armed with gloves and pruning shears, I created my first trail, from scratch. Within an hour, I had trimmed enough branches and undergrowth to clear a path 50 yards long through the virgin woods, linking the two existing routes.

I was quite pleased with myself and surprised at how easy it was.

I should point out that my trail was decidedly primitive. I didn’t topple any trees; I went around them. I didn’t saw off any huge branches; I nipped off the tiny ones. Whereas most trails go in a straight line, my trail meandered like crazy, following the path of least resistance.

But as I said, I was pleased with the result.

So pleased, in fact, that I repeated the process in another part of the forest.

And repeated it again. And again.

Within six months, I had created seven or eight new connector trails totaling a couple of miles in length.

As a final touch, I blazed each trail with a few strategic spritzes of spray paint. My tag of choice was a small blue rectangle.

The truth is, neither the pathways nor the blazes are very obtrusive. The driver of a passing ATV, for example, probably wouldn’t notice my handiwork at all. I did not sully or disfigure the woods, at least not to a degree that matters.

I suppose I could consider my labors a service to fellow hikers, but really, I did what I did for selfish reasons.

Early last year, that selfish streak erupted again, this time in Habersham County, 30 miles northeast or here, in the Lake Russell Wildlife Management Area.

The Lake Russell WMA is the home of the Ladyslipper Trail, one of my favorite local trails. I mentioned the WMA and the Ladyslipper in a post last summer.

The Ladyslipper is a loop of six or seven miles that features varied terrain, constant elevation changes, lots of creek crossings, and several panoramic views. It’s terrific.

But in spite of my affection for the Ladyslipper, it has one flaw that bugs me no end: at one point, the pathway leaves the forest and for half a mile, follows a gravel Forest Service road.

I hate to be fussy, but I don’t like walking on gravel. I don’t drive to the  mountains to walk on gravel.

Nevertheless, I hiked the loop regularly for years, and I simply endured the unpleasant half mile. Then one day, I had an epiphany.

Here you are on a gravel road that was cut through the woods years ago, I said to myself. That same woods is mere yards away.

You have become an experienced maker of trails. Apply your skills here, and you won’t have to walk on the gravel ever again.

The logic of my argument was inescapable.

A few days later, I was back, and I set about the task of making a pathway that would bypass the offending stretch of gravel.

I began my work at the north end of the gravel stretch. On the right side of the road, I created my “trailhead” in a stand of young loblolly pines that were easy to trim.

Once inside the woods, I followed a deer path a short distance, trimming as I went along. I pressed ahead, staying more or less parallel with the gravel road.

A few hundred yards later, the stand of pine trees gave way to hardwoods. That was ideal. The terrain under the forest canopy was open and easy to cross. I was doing very well — but the daylight was almost gone. I called it a day and went home.

A week later, I was back to continue the project. This session was more difficult. The hardwoods ended at the top of a hill, and on the far side was a graveyard of fallen trees.

It was a mature pine forest that had succumbed to fire and insects. From the air, the area would look like a spilled box of pretzels.

Working my way through the deadfall took three or four daytrips. If I could manhandle the fallen trunks out of the way, I did. If not, I changed course. My route zigzagged across the hilltop.

Finally, the expanse of deadfall was behind me. I was standing at the beginning of a long, narrow valley under a solid canopy of young hardwoods.

The valley is simply beautiful. Ferns and soft grasses predominate. A small stream flows along one side. I christened the place Fern Valley. No trail-clearing was necessary.

Several hundred yards later, the valley reached a clearing. By sheer luck, it was my precise goal: the south end of the gravel road.

I was so pleased with myself.

On subsequent trips, I cleared the pathway a little more, trimmed a bit here, moved a log there. After I was satisfied, I blazed the entire length with my signature blue rectangle. I had officially gone public.

That was six months ago. Have any hikers followed the new route? Would they understand its reason for being? I have no idea.

Is the Forest Service aware of its existence? Would they care? Probably not.

And none of that matters. What matters is that henceforth, I can hike the Ladyslipper Trail and bypass that awful gravel road.

So, that’s my mea culpa.

Since then, I’ve built other trails here and there, all relatively short, most serving as connector trails. I also have some ideas for future projects. It makes for an odd, and oddly satisfying hobby.

That’s the good news. The bad news is, now I am stuck with the added burden of trail maintenance.

The gravel road (left) and my trailhead (right).

A section of my bypass trail.

Paco in Fern Valley.

Tool of the trade.

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Over the years, I’ve hiked a lot of trails. I have no idea how many, or how many miles that represents.  These days, I keep a record of my hikes, but I was a trail veteran long before I began to document things.

Some of the trails I’ve walked were gems. Some were blah. Some hikes were divine, some were miserable. A few were disastrous. Many were good for a day’s adventure, but soon forgotten.

Naturally, out of all that, a few hikes stand out. And out of those standouts, one towers above the rest: the trail to the summit of Angels Landing in Zion National Park, Utah.

This trail is my absolute favorite. A lot of people probably share that sentiment.

To stand atop Angels Landing is sublime. The pathway that gets you up there is amazing, thrilling, magnificent, breathtaking, dizzying, intimidating, and more.

And the photography. Oh, the photography.

I’ve hiked to the top of Angels Landing only twice. The first time was a complete delight, almost overwhelming. So was the second. And that augers well for the next time.

But let’s begin at the beginning — the trailhead — where this sign is posted:

AL1, sign

Angels Landing is a 1200-foot-tall rock monolith that towers above the Virgin River near the head of Zion Canyon.

It was named in 1916 by Frederick Fisher, one of Zion’s first explorers. Looking up at the noble spire, he exclaimed, “Only an angel could land on it.”

The formation is a spectacular rock fin — a narrow, largely naked stone tower with impossibly long, straight sides. The formation itself is as stunning to behold as are the views from its summit.

Angels Landing from the trailhead. It's the one on the right.

Angels Landing from the trailhead. It's the one on the right.

The trail is only 2.5 miles long, unfolding in four distinct sections, each of which delivers its own charms.

On section one, the first mile, the trail follows an exposed slope overlooking the Virgin River, steadily gaining in elevation.

The first mile.

The first mile.

After a series of steep, paved switchbacks, you reach a small gap and enter a high, narrow canyon. This is the second section, Refrigerator Canyon, a cool, shady notch that provides respite from the blazing sun. Sunlight rarely reaches the floor of this intimate half-mile stretch.

Refrigerator Canyon.

Refrigerator Canyon.

The third section is a series of 21 sharp zigzags that transport you from the canyon to the scenic plateau above. The switchbacks are called Walter’s Wiggles. This impressive rock staircase is named for Walter Ruesch, Zion’s first superintendent, who helped engineer it in 1924.

Walter's Wiggles.

Walter's Wiggles.

The Wiggles carry you to Scout Lookout, a narrow saddle that is the jumping-off point for the final half-mile push to the summit.

The views from this lofty perch are fantastic. It’s also the turnaround point for unlucky hikers prevented by weather from reaching the summit — and for numerous others who look up at the monolith, see the dizzying drop-offs, and decline to go further.

Angels Landing, as seen from Scout Lookout. Big wall climbing is popular on the tower.

Angels Landing from Scout Lookout. Big wall climbing is popular there.

This section of trail, the last half-mile, climbs a narrow sandstone ridge. Sheer cliffs drop straight down to the floor of the canyon on both sides.

As you stand there looking up, the route is quite intimidating. The trail seems impossibly steep. You see safety chains bolted to the rock — never a comforting sign.

Another view of the knife-edged summit.

Another view of the knife-edged summit.

The going is indeed strenuous, and the path is often narrow and dicey, but it’s easier and safer than it looks. The safety chains make all the difference.

Finally, at about lunchtime, you reach the summit — a long, narrow dome populated by a jumble of boulders, a few weather-beaten pines, and a thriving colony of chipmunks.

The chipmunks flourish up there because, in spite of posted rules forbidding it, people feed them. The little blighters (the chipmunks, not the people) are aggressive scavengers. Best not to leave a pack unattended for long.

You might think that only the most intrepid hikers reach the top of this daunting pinnacle. Not so. The summit of Angels Landing is a very busy place. In addition to the usual hiker types, you’ll see families, children in flip-flops, even a graybeard or two.

Yours truly, posing happily atop Angels Landing.

Yours truly, posing happily atop Angels Landing.

After a fellow hiker took that photo, I turned to retrieve my pack and interrupted a chipmunk in the act of stealing a package of cookies. While my back was turned, the little thief had burrowed into my pack and was escaping with the best part of my lunch.

I took a quick photo as he labored to drag the cookies away, then reclaimed what was mine.

The little buggers. They won’t get the best of me.

AL9, chipmunk

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Like many Native American people, the Havasupai of Northern Arizona consider themselves the Chosen Ones. There is no particular conceit involved. They simply believe that their creator put them here, the world is theirs, and the rest of us are irrelevant.

Further, like the Hopi and others, they believe that time is on their side. They are confident that the obstacles and annoyances they face — drought, famine, sickness, Americans — are mere ephemera, destined eventually to go away. The tribe, on the other hand, will abide forever.

Your guess is as good as theirs as to the truth of things. But that philosophy has instilled in them a world-class tenacity. It has enabled them to endure a lot of hardship and crap.

Speaking of which…

Before we Americans came along, the Havasupai Nation covered most of Northern Arizona: north to the Colorado River, south to present-day Flagstaff, east to the Hopi Mesas, and west to Prospect Valley, the land of the neighboring Hualapai tribe.

Before the arrival of Europeans, most of the Havasupai lived in the western part of Grand Canyon, where the canyon widens and the waters of Havasu Creek allowed them to farm successfully in an arid land.

In the summertime, they grew corn, squash, melons and beans. After harvesting their crops in the fall, they moved to winter settlements on the rim of the canyon, where they hunted deer, antelope and small game. They traded with the Zuni and Hopi, exchanging buckskins and red ocher for pottery and turquoise.

But as European settlers, cattlemen, and miners poured in, the tribe was systematically muscled out of its homeland.

The process was speeded up by the U.S. government, which stepped forward to protect the settlers when tribesmen reacted badly to being burned out and chased off their land.

Call it a blessing or a curse, but in 1882, the U.S. government declared that the entire region was so spectacular and beautiful, it needed to be protected and preserved for the people. Everyone — Red, Yellow, Black, and White — was ejected.

All we left the Havasupai was one tiny village, 500 meager acres along Havasu Creek.

For the next 93 years, the tribe fought in the U.S. courts to get their land back. Being a practical people, they used our legal system, not theirs.

Imagine the patience and tenacity that required. Imagine the bureaucratic nightmare the tribe endured, for generations.

Finally, in 1975, they won a small victory. The government returned 185,000 acres to the tribe — an almost laughable portion of the Havasupai homeland that once covered such a vast territory.

But remember, the Havasupai believe that the status quo, namely our presence, is temporary. Someday, we will be gone, and the land will be theirs again.

I tried to keep that philosophy in mind as I went to the Havasupai website and read this stoic explanation of their circumstances:

—————

Our people have lived in the area for many hundreds of years. Prior to the early 1800s, our people roamed a vast area on the upper plateau. During the fall and winter months, we would move our families up to the plateau regions, subsisting by hunting and gathering what the earth provided. During the spring and summer months, we moved back to the canyon and planted gardens.

When the reservation was created in 1882, the federal government confined us to the 518 acres at the bottom of the canyon, and we lost almost 90% of our aboriginal land.

This loss of the economic base had a major influence on our culture, forcing us to rely more on farming and seeking wage labor outside of the canyon.  Eventually, the Tribe began to rely on tourism, as people found their way to our beautiful homeland.

In 1975, Congress reallocated 185,000 acres of our original hunting grounds back to the tribe.

Tourism provides the main economic base, providing jobs in the various tribal-run enterprises such as the lodge, tourist office and café. Federal programs run by the Tribe provide most of the available jobs.

Many people support their families by packing supplies. Most of us purchase our supplies out of the canyon and bring them in on horseback or by helicopter.

—————

When it comes to the Havasupai, the operative words are patience and tenacity.

I know who I’d put my money on.

Raven's-eye view of Supai, Arizona.

Raven’s-eye view of Supai, Arizona.

Supai bound.

Supai bound.

Running errands with Pop.

Running errands with Pop.

Downtown Supai.

Downtown Supai.

All the news that fits.

All the news that fits.

June 19, 2009.   Like many Native American people, the Havasupai of Northern Arizona consider themselves the Chosen Ones. There is no particular conceit involved. They simply believe that their creator put them here, the world is theirs, and the rest of us are irrelevant.   Further, like the Hopi and others, they believe that time is on their side. They are confident that the obstacles and annoyances they face -- drought, famine, sickness, Americans -- are mere ephemera, destined eventually to go away. The tribe, on the other hand, will abide forever.   Your guess is as good as theirs as to the truth of things. But that philosophy has instilled in them a world-class tenacity. It has enabled them to endure a lot of hardship and crap.   Speaking of which...   Before we Americans came along, the Havasupai Nation covered most of Northern Arizona: north to the Colorado River, south to present-day Flagstaff, east to the Hopi Mesas, and west to Prospect Valley, the land of the neighboring Hualapai tribe.  Before the arrival of Europeans, most of the Havasupai lived in the western part of Grand Canyon, where the canyon widens and the waters of Havasu Creek allowed them to farm successfully in an arid land.   In the summertime, they grew corn, squash, melons and beans. After harvesting their crops in the fall, they moved to winter settlements on the rim of the canyon, where they hunted deer, antelope and small game. They traded with the Zuni and Hopi, exchanging buckskins and red ocher for pottery and turquoise.   But as European settlers, cattlemen, and miners poured in, the tribe was systematically muscled out of its homeland.   The process was speeded up by the U.S. government, which stepped forward to protect the settlers when tribesmen reacted badly to being burned out and chased off their land.  Call it a blessing or a curse, but in 1882, the U.S. government declared that the entire region was so spectacular and beautiful, it needed to be protected and preserved for the people. Everyone -- Red, Yellow, Black, and White -- was ejected.   All we left the Havasupai was one tiny village, 500 meager acres along Havasu Creek.   For the next 93 years, the tribe fought in the U.S. courts to get their land back. Being a practical people, they used our legal system, not theirs.   Imagine the patience and tenacity that required. Imagine the bureaucratic nightmare the tribe endured, for generations.   Finally, in 1975, they won a small victory. The government returned 185,000 acres to the tribe -- an almost laughable portion of the Havasupai homeland that once covered such a vast territory.   But remember, the Havasupai believe that the status quo, namely our presence, is temporary. Someday, we will be gone, and the land will be theirs again.  I tried to keep that philosophy in mind as I went to the Havasupai website and read this stoic explanation of their circumstances:  ----------------  Our people have lived in the area for many hundreds of years. Prior to the early 1800s, our people roamed a vast area on the upper plateau. During the fall and winter months, we would move our families up to the plateau regions, subsisting by hunting and gathering what the earth provided. During the spring and summer months, we moved back to the canyon and planted gardens.   When the reservation was created in 1882, the federal government confined us to the 518 acres at the bottom of the canyon, and we lost almost 90% of our aboriginal land.   This loss of the economic base had a major influence on our culture, forcing us to rely more on farming and seeking wage labor outside of the canyon.  Eventually, the Tribe began to rely on tourism, as people found their way to our beautiful homeland.   In 1975, Congress reallocated 185,000 acres of our original hunting grounds back to the tribe.  Tourism provides the main economic base, providing jobs in the various tribal-run enterprises such as the lodge, tourist office and café. Federal programs run by the Tribe provide most of the available jobs.   Many people support their families by packing supplies. Most of us purchase our supplies out of the canyon and bring them in on horseback or by helicopter.   ----------------  When it comes to the Havasupai, the operative words are patience and tenacity.   I know who I'd put my money on.

Tourists frolicking below Navajo Falls.

 

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Feedback

When I was younger, my temperament was much more mellow. In fact, I was downright timid.

Regardless of the indignity, bureaucratic slight, or wretched service, I rarely spoke up. In my mind, a response, albeit deserving, would be bad manners. Making a scene. Uncool.

My, how I’ve changed. At my age, I am willing and able to pop off, bark back, or fire off a blistering nastygram when provoked. It feels great. Sarcasm in particular is a wonderful spice.

A few years ago, I learned about a new series of trails in the Chattahoochee National Forest. Over several weekends, I hiked them for the first time. They were awful.

Not every trail sends a thrill up your leg, of course, but these were needlessly awful. They were battered and poorly maintained to the point of being a truly bad experience.

So, righteous indignation swelling in my chest, I sharpened my knives and composed this email to the unsuspecting district office of the Forest Service…

——————

Dear sirs:

Over the last several weeks, I hiked the Frady Branch trails for the first time. Speaking as a hiker, not one of the many bicyclists and equestrians who frequent your trails, I have some comments about the experience.

With your permission, I will aim my remarks at other hikers. Feel free to post these comments on your website.

Hikers take note:

The Frady Branch Trail System was designed for, and is primarily used by, horses and mountain bikes.

As a hiker, you are likely to find these trails a great disappointment.

First, the trail surface is rutted and eroded heavily from all that traffic and weight. You will encounter numerous deep, soupy bogs of mud and manure. This will truly dampen your spirit. The horses don’t care, and the bikers probably don’t either, but to someone on foot, these conditions frankly are horrendous.

Second, at least half of the mileage within the FBTS is over gravel Forest Service roads, not trail. Walking on gravel, like walking in mud, or walking for 100 yards at a stretch on the shoulder of a ruined trail, is decidedly unpleasant.

But if you decide to go anyway…

The FBTS consists of four loops — one on the left, two in the middle that form a figure eight, and one on the right. The two middle loops are the best and driest; the one on the right is the most neglected and most appalling.

Please note that these four loops do not begin at the trailhead; they start about a mile away, down a gravel road. That adds two more miles of gravel-walking to your day. I used the time to ponder the parking fee of five dollars per car per day.

A suggestion to hikers.

On the other side of this very WMA, near Lake Russell, are four fine trails that are among the best you will find in Georgia. The Ladyslipper, Lake Russell, Sourwood, and Rhododendron Trails are fun, beautiful, and little used. That makes them perfect for hikers.

And the parking over there is free.

Very sincerely,

Rocky Smith
Jefferson, GA

——————

I never did hear back from the Forest Service.

 

Horse trailers at the Frady Branch trailhead.

Horse trailers at the Frady Branch trailhead.

 

 

A battalion of bikers at the ready.

A battalion of bikers at the ready.

 

 

Telltale hoofprints on the footpath.

Telltale hoofprints on the footpath.

 

 

Layin’ those knobbies down.

Layin’ those knobbies down.

 

A poor hiker pays the price.

A poor hiker pays the price.


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The Havasupai people in northwest Arizona are notable for being the only Native Americans residing inside Grand Canyon. They’ve lived there for more than 800 years.

The word Havasupai means people of the blue-green waters. The name refers to the beautiful turquoise water of Havasu Creek.

Today, 400-odd members of the tribe live in the tiny village of Supai, at the bottom of the canyon on Havasu Creek.

They support themselves largely through tourism. Every year, 12,000 hikers and campers make reservations and venture down the eight-mile Havasupai Trail to see Supai, Havasu Creek, and the series of spectacular waterfalls just downstream from the village.

For years, a trip to the Havasupai reservation was on my to-do list. I finally made the journey in spring 2007, and it didn’t disappoint.

The hike to the village was delightful. The creek and the waterfalls, beautiful as advertised. Supai itself was threadbare and poor, but the people were friendly.

I chose the tribal motel over the campground. My room was simple, neat, and clean. The food, like food everywhere in Northern Arizona except Flagstaff, was forgettable.

All in all, everything was as I expected — except for the dogs.

In Supai, dogs are everywhere.

Like the temple monkeys of Sri Lanka, the mutts of Supai — and mutts they assuredly are — wander free and unfettered. They are as much a part of daily life as the pigeons in Central Park.

Some of the dogs are family pets. Those you can spot by their collars and tags. But the majority appear to be strays, living at large — de facto wards of the village.

Very informally, the residents simply feed and care for them, the way people take it upon themselves to stock backyard bird feeders.

Starving and bedraggled curs may exist in Supai, but I never saw any. The dogs I saw were healthy, content, and seemingly well-cared-for by the community.

You would expect dogs to operate in packs, but these don’t. Each one seemed to have its own canine and human circles. Like the human members of the tribe, the dogs went through the day tending to the mundane rituals of their lives.

Toward the tourists, they were neither friendly nor aggressive. If you sat down for a snack, a few would join you. Otherwise, they tune you out.

At the start of my trip, two miles down the eight-mile trail to Supai, I got a preview of the fascinating dog situation I would discover down below.

It was hot, maybe 85 degrees. I rounded a bend, and ahead of me, coming in my direction, was a dog.

Supai dog-1

He was alone, just another hiker. He was focused on going wherever he was going, and he paid me no heed.

As we passed, I said, “Hey, big dude.” He didn’t respond.

Supai dog-2

The dog continued on his way, and I continued on mine.

Sharing French fries with the pooches.

Sharing French fries with the pooches.

Supai dog-3

A dog’s life, Supai style.

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One of the blessings of hiking at Grand Canyon is the absence of wildlife that wants to have you for lunch.

True, Canyon Country is full of lethal snakes and spiders and such, but critters like that are not out to get you. They want to avoid you.

Most places I’ve hiked back East are similarly non-life-threatening. For years, I never gave much thought to my odds of surviving in the backcountry.

It took a trip to Yellowstone in May 2005 to bring to my attention the fact that everything changes in bear country. If bears are out there, taking a hike is putting your life on the line.

I went to Yellowstone for the usual reasons: the geysers, the wildlife, the scenery, and, of course, the hiking.

Imagine my consternation when I saw this sign at a trailhead…

Bear Country

Translation: if a bear kills you today, your estate can’t claim we didn’t warn you.

I was genuinely upset when I saw that sign. For one thing, I was rattled that the Wyoming backcountry is so dangerous. For another, I had never before been told not to hike alone. Hiking alone is what I do.

Now, I realize the bears aren’t waiting to ambush you. They lead their own lives and attend to whatever occupies the day of a bear in the woods.

But hitting the trail in bear country still amounts to a roll of the dice; if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time — surprising a mother bear with cubs, coming between some big male and a recent kill, or emerging from the undergrowth when it’s the bear’s lunchtime — it may well be curtains for you.

Fortunately, in addition to backcountry hiking, Yellowstone offered activities aplenty to keep me busy. For seven days, I stayed at two different in-park lodges, and I explored every geyser, waterfall, and other feature that was accessible by road. It was a full week.

And the photography. Oh, the photography.

If you are a proper tourist, you drive Yellowstone’s main road, which does a figure eight through the park. That route takes you to most of the park’s attractions, passing a stunning variety of wildlife along the way.

Herds of bison, deer, elk, and pronghorns are everywhere, as are great flocks of geese and ducks. You will frequently spot moose, bighorns, eagles, osprey, and more. Keeping their distance, but still there, are cagy coyotes on the prowl and magnificent wolf packs on the hunt.

And, wandering where they please, mostly unconcerned about the people, are the grizzlies and the black bears.

On day two of my trip, on the northeast leg of the figure eight one morning, I spotted a large male black bear making his way through the ponderosa pines. He was in a ravine 50 yards away, walking parallel to the road.

Along with two or three other cars, I pulled onto the left shoulder, turned off the engine, quickly got out my camera, and rolled down the window.

The bear plodded slowly along, ignoring us. Based on his direction of movement, I guessed that he would cross the road about 100 yards in front of us.

That was a disappointment. I had a 70-300mm zoom lens on my camera, but photos from that distance would be worthless.

Frankly, sitting there in my rented Dodge Neon, a virtual tin can, I had butterflies from being so close to a full-grown male bear, even though he was 40 yards away and not heading toward me.

Abruptly, that changed. As I drew a bead on him through the camera’s eyepiece, the bear made a sudden right turn, looked up at me, and headed directly toward my car.

I was terror-stricken. My skills as a photographer vanished. Every photo, I discovered later, was a blurry misfire. I didn’t soil myself, but it’s a wonder.

I sat there, gripped by fear, practically frozen, as the bear made his way slowly up the bank of the ravine in my direction. Something in my brain prompted me to keep taking photos, but not to roll up my window.

Finally, the bear reached the top of the ravine. He lurched onto the shoulder of the road 10 yards from where I, numb and speechless, sat behind the wheel of my tin can.

He was gigantic. His shaggy, sloping back was directly opposite my head. The only thing between us was a Nikon D70, held in a death grip in front of me.

But the bear payed me no mind. Without even looking my way, he turned and lumbered off toward the front of my car.

He passed within inches of my left front bumper. As he did, I fired off two quick photos.

Then he ambled across the road, entered the forest on the other side, and was gone.

The photos are forgettable. Even forgivable, if a person is generous. But the memory is indelible.

Etched in my mind is the image of a wall of thick black hair, for a brief moment almost filling my field of vision.

Along with the sight was the sound, as if whispered in my ear, of the rustling of the undergrowth and his gentle breathing, panting, and snorting as he passed mere feet away.

Indelible.

The bear made a sudden right turn, looked up at me,  and headed directly toward my car.

The bear made a sudden right turn, looked up at me, and headed directly toward my car.

My skills as a photographer vanished. Every photo,  I discovered later, was a blurry misfire.

My skills as a photographer vanished. Every photo, I discovered later, was a blurry misfire.

Etched in my mind is the image of a wall of thick black hair,  for a brief moment almost filling my field of vision.

Etched in my mind is the image of a wall of thick black hair, for a moment almost filling my field of vision.

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