2 nights on the Benton Mackaye for a shakedown
The plan is to do a three day, two night shakedown hike on the Benton Mackaye trail prior to departing for the big Flip Flop AT thru hike. The dates are March 20-22, 2023. Weather forecast is for a cold night Monday, mile weather Tuesday, and possibly light rain Wednesday.
Starting at mile marker 30 on GA 60 and going generally west to mile marker 50.
Good times! My wife dropped me off at the correct location at around 4:30 PM, so I was off to a great start. When she dropped me off, the Farout app showed a sort of gravel road, but that did not seem correct. I stood there for a minute and saw a second gravel road to the right. Figuring this must be the right way, I headed over to start my hike. I then noticed a small (maybe 24″ wide) trail going up the hill between the roads. A little bit of closer examination of the app helped me understand the little trail is the correct path. I started into the woods full of energy and excitement.
The trail I have been hiking (Pine Log Creek in Waleska) most days to get into acceptable condition is about 5 miles, and has about 900 feet of elevation gain. I thought this would prepare me for the real deal. It did not. This section of the Benton Mackaye started with a 700 foot ascent in the first 1.5 miles or so. I only planned to go about 4.3 miles the first day to a campsite, and I arrived there about two and a quarter hours after being dropped off. This means my pace was right around 2 mph. Far slower than the 2.8 – 3.0 mph I usually do on the Pine Log Creek trail. I guess that is what carrying an extra 23 pounds, and having roughly double the incline will do. In any case, I found the site, set up my stuff, and cooked a small pot of noodles. I am a little scared of wasting the fuel, so I only heated the water for 4 minutes, and it was reasonably warm. I hung my food bag about 100 yards away on a tree, put my stuff in the tent, and had a small campfire.
When first trying to go to sleep, the sounds of the forest are intense. Every leaf movement is apparently an animal seeing how to get into your tent. Every branch cracking indicates a starving beast stalking your campsite. At around 10 PM I could not remember where I put my wallet, so I got up and looked everywhere. Could not find it. I had cell service, so I texted the wife to ask if I left it in the truck. She checked, and replied ‘No’. Eventually she texted me that I said I was putting it in a pocket so I would not lose it , and I found it in the hip belt pocket. I had read that to keep your water from freezing it is a good idea to sleep with it under your quilt / sleeping bag. I had a 16 ounce bottle left and the forecast was for about 20 degrees on the mountain, so I decided to try that out. Then I felt a cold sensation even though I was wearing my hiking pants, double socks, down gloves, and my down jacket all under the 20 degree rated quilt. I thought it was just the wind getting under the quilt. I tossed and turned for about a half hour and could not get rid of the feeling. Eventually, I got up and took the quilt off the air pad to see it was totally wet because the cap to the water bottle was not tight. I tightened it up and tried to sleep even though there were clearly dozens of bears, 75 coyotes, and maybe a wild boar all getting ready to attack me (based on the sounds I heard). The campsite was at a gap, and while the wind was not severe, it was constant, and cold! I got about 6 hours sleep and awoke ready to tackle the day.
(to the tune of the Beatles song) Woke up, got outta bed, dragged a comb across my head (well, my fingers anyway)… Made a cathole, and did the deed. The duece of spades is great, and proudly, I did not miss. Covered it all up, brought down the food bag, and broke down the campsite to pack it up. When I was ready to hit the trail, it appeared that I had lost my cell phone. I made some oatmeal and retraced my steps for about 45 minutes. I found the phone in the woods about 40 feet from a side trail. Lesson learned, don’t take the phone into the woods, and get a brighter colored phone case! Between the slow start, losing the phone, and trying to learn new things, I was not out of camp until about 10:00. I gotta do better than that! I am not a morning person, but I think I could reasonably be out by 7:30 or so.
I hiked on down the mountain and then along a beautiful river to a cafe. Met another hiker there who had just finished the Pinhoti trail and was hiking some of the Benton Mackaye to get to Springer to then hike NOBO. This guy was making tracks! Had a great burger and coke for lunch then started heading up the mountain. I had planned about a 1700 feet vertical ascent in total for the day, but with the weather looking uncertain for Wednesday decided to press on to the top of the mountain for camp that night and made 2300 feet vertical for the day. Got to the campsite at 5:00 and set everything up. I did not feel too hungry so I just had Doritos, banana chips, and a Baby Ruth bar. I drank the last of the water and went to bed.
The wind was howling all night, and shaking the tent pretty violently. You could hear each big gust coming in waves through the trees, and then shaking everything at ground level. Camping on a peak is not a great idea if the weather is forecast to be bad. The rain started around 2 AM and would not stop until late in the day.
I woke up around 7, and packed everything that I could inside the tent. I then waited for a small lull in the downpour to go out and break the tent down and stuff it in the outside pocket of the pack. It seemed to work reasonably well, and I was only in the bad weather exposed for maybe 5-10 minutes. Within walking downhill maybe 500 feet, the weather was almost still, but raining pretty consistently.
I walked about 4 miles to the first good stream and filtered a couple quarts of water, drinking one quart, and saving on for the end of the short hike. A few miles later I was waiting at the rendezvous spot at around 11 AM. I ate some banana chips and pork jerky while I waited under a covered patio, then read some of Bill Bryson’s book ‘A Walk in the Woods’. It was a pleasant way to spend a Wednesday morning. My rain gear (Frogg Toggs ultralight rain suit) did not make it the 6 miles that day. The crotch of the pants split open and they went into the trash. Otherwise, I would say a pretty successful adventure.
So I learned that even if the rain suit had not ripped, I did not like hiking in it because I was wet with sweat anyway. The hiker I met recommended an umbrella, so I ordered one of those. He also recommended a small pepper spray / mace canister to ward off aggressive dogs that are likely to be encountered, and I will also take his advice on that item.
I have ordered a new power bank because the one I had is kind of old and it discharged without anything being plugged in the second day. I ordered one with a solar panel even though the solar panel likely would never get used. For an extra ounce it might be critical if I get lost or something. I also ordered a hot pink phone case so that I can find the phone if I lose it again much easier. Finally, I decided to get rid of a fair amount of clothing and get different underwear. The ones I have are praised by everyone, but they pull the hair out of my legs. I don’t want every day to feel like a trip to the waxing salon. Overall, I would say I will end up with a similar pack weight to what I used on this shakedown hike, so something around 22-23 pounds fully loaded (about 15 pounds base weight). I will plan on making camp somewhat based on the weather, especially if I am planning a tent site for the evening.
I do feel like I could definitely get used to the schedule, and become comfortable sleeping outdoors. The shoes were great, but too tight with the double socks, so I will go with a single Darn tough hiker sock and some Leukotape if needed. I have adjusted my planned hiking to limit the vertical to about 3,000 feet per day for the first 3-4 weeks.
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