A week of warm weather and damaging rain ended in a drop in temperature and light snow. We had planned to backpack Friday night but the remembrance of a winter night years ago, spent in Frozen Head on the very coldest backpack we have ever experienced caused us to rethink our plan. Nope, the thought of overnighting in cold and dampness with dog who was guaranteed to be wet convinced us go with a day hike, a decision we did not regret.
Friday morning was a scramble preparing for the hike, well, I scrambled. John packed his gear in my car and left the house at his usual 6:00am. He had some work to do before the students arrived and an appointment to drop his car off for service. This left Katie and me to gather my hiking gear and find enough snacks for the trail and Katie wasn’t helping much. Anytime her harness comes out, she disappears!
The pup and I picked John up around 8:30am and started our drive to Frozen Head. We did the usual squabbling about my driving, you know, windshield wipers left on too long, how to drive, etc. But he missed the really big call out, I was driving in the opposite direction of Frozen Head. I suspect he was watching to see how long it would take me to figure it out, he says he didn’t want to get fussed at for telling me how to drive. Ha! Call me out, we could have ended up in North Carolina. I have always been told women have better navigational skills then men. This is not true, my husband’s instincts are rarely wrong while mine are rarely right. Luckily he knows and accepts this.
Frozen Head State Park is about an hour and fifteen minutes outside of Knoxville. Our drive took us through Oak Ridge, past Oliver Springs and toward Wartburg on Hwy 62. The further out of Oak Ridge we drove the colder and snowier it became. Nothing dangerous mind you, just interesting. We had called the park service earlier to find out about weather conditions. We were told that a section of the park was closed due to flooding but our trailhead was open.
The trail we decided to hike this week was Spicewood Branch. It is located at the end of the Old Mac Connector Trail. North Old Mac Trail (hike 1-26-2020) is the first turnoff on the connector, South Old Mac Trail (hiked last summer) is the 2nd turnoff and Spicewood is at the end of the connector, .5 miles from the parking lot. That meant our out and back hike would be 6 miles with a 1370′ elevation gain and loss.
The beginning of the trail was flat and soggy and meandered beside a creek heavy with water runoff from nearby mountains. At Spicewood Branch campsite, .5 miles from the connector, the trail took a sharp right and began steeply ascending. The trail was rocky, snowy and muddy. It was obviously once a drainage area but the water pouring down the side of the mountain had been diverted to two active drainage areas to the right of this one.
Water was plentiful as we climbed, both in waterfalls and creeks running across the trail and in low spots and overflow areas on the trail. And it was snowing. The more elevation we gained the more snow we saw. We were protected from the wind and then we weren’t. Wind blew up the side of the mountain finding exposed skin and tiny openings in our clothing. It also brought icy precipitation. Brrrrr!
Finally we reached the trail end which connected to the Chimney Top Trail just below the ridgeline on Frozen Head Mountain. We were cold! We quickly acknowledged our halfway point and hiked back to a clump of downed trees to eat a snack before heading down. The hope was that the trees would offer some protection from the wind. They did, some.
Nothing I packed for lunch looked good. The peanut butter sandwiches were cold and a little frozen. Cheez-its were dry in our throat and protein bars were disgusting. John finally choked down 1/2 a peanut butter sandwich and I ate a peanut and chocolate chip bar. We closed our food bag and repacked it. It was time to head back to the car for real food, at least warm food.
The little puppy girl was well taken care of with food, dog cookies and mini milk bones for treats and she ate everything. She was not as picky as us. She runs possibly twice as much as we hike so we overpack her food so she doesn’t run out of energy.
While crossing through one of the waterfalls running over the trail, a small red “lobster” caught my eye. It caught me by surprise because I have never seen a bright red creature sitting on a rock in the middle of the trail in the middle of winter, well ever. My first thought was a child’s toy had fallen out of someone’s pocket. It didn’t make sense because we had not seen anyone and the little “lobster” was not visible on our hike up the mountain.
I called to John who was hiking ahead and he came back for a look. The little creature had either not been there when he walked through the water or he just missed it. “Nope,” he said, “it’s not a toy, it’s a crayfish.” Oh!
When I returned home, I did a bit of googling on Emory River basin crayfish and came up with a list of two possibilities 1) Upland Burrowing crayfish which is red with a blueish tail or 2) Valley Flame crayfish which is all red. Since I saw no blue, I am going with the Valley Flame although the article said it was not often seen.
We hiked the trail round trip in under four hours. Even wearing long underwear, fleece and down, parts of us were still cold. I think the temperature was around 30 F at the trailhead and dropped as we climbed. Descending into the wind did not help so the car was a welcome sight. Seat warmers and car heater finally warmed us around Oak Ridge.
That night, as we sat at home eating hot crab and shrimp chowder from Shrimp Dock, we kept talking about how glad we were to be cozy and warm inside. The thought of cooking dinner over a backpacking stove with frozen fingers did not appeal. We are getting soft….