Great Smoky Mountain NP - Spring Break 2015

Well, now we've done it. After sitting on the fence for more than a reasonable amount of time, we've finally decided to buy a camper. For those that know me well, it will come as no surprise that it's no ordinary camper. Specifically, we decided to buy a SylvanSport GO. Spring Break provided just the opportunity to pick it up and kick the tires.

We headed for Brevard, North Carolina, where each GO is crafted by the outdoor-loving folks at SylvanSport. My expectations going into this were pretty high. I wanted something that we'd use often, was easy to setup, and could be used to haul an overabundance of gear (kayaks, bikes, packs, etc.). The GO is exceptionally simple, but don't be fooled; everything seems to have been designed with a purpose and built using high quality materials. After a thorough orientation at the factory, we headed for the Cataloochee Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to try it out.

I must admit that I found the idea of towing a bit intimidating. I'm not sure why, because it's not really all that bad. Our compact SUV was able to accelerate normally and we could achieve interstate speeds without a problem. You can definitely tell you're pulling something -- there is a tugging sensation over bumps, but soon enough you'll become accustomed to it. Changing lanes in traffic takes a bit more planning, and you'll need wider turns and larger parking spots at stopovers. Our gas milage on the return trip was 1-mpg less than the trip out. Overall, towing is nothing to worry about, but I still can't shake the feeling that I'm being tailgated.

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The moment of truth came at the campground when we had to set up without the safety net of our friendly orienter. As it happens, the hardest part was figuring out where we wanted our door to open. One person can unhitch and move the GO around the campsite, but it was more cumbersome than I imagined it would be. (The tongue weight is 70-lbs.) Leveling can be tweaked a bit with the four stabilizer jacks in each corner. The included awning creates a cozy space and provides some protection from the sun and rain. From travel mode to camp mode, we were able to completely set up in about 30 minutes. I'm sure we'll get faster over time.

Speaking of rain, what would camping be without a downpour? We had just settled in around the campfire when thunder started rolling across the valley. It rained heavily the entire night, but inside the GO, we stayed dry. The middle table configuration was a big hit -- good for a card or board game while it was raining outside. The tent trapped more heat than I expected a single-wall material to retain, and I did notice a fair amount of condensation build-up in the mornings. Hopefully it won't be too hot in the summer months.

The new day ushered in sunshine, and after breakfast we set out to explore the hiking trails in the area. We hadn't gone very far before we saw an elk bull feeding in the forest. He was positively giant in comparison to the white-tailed deer we're used to seeing in Indiana. The Cataloochee Valley was popular with the early settlers and several historic buildings still remain. One of the more curious remnants are the hand-built stone walls along the Boogerman Loop Trail. Imagine life as a homesteader in the late 19th century! The trail runs alongside the Caldwell Fork with many footbridges; some in better condition than others. A singular regret from our Alaskan backpacking trip a few years ago is that I never got to do a proper river crossing. Who knew the Great Smoky Mountains would present not one, but three, opportunities?! Cheers to the person who invented quick-dry fabric!

We packed up the GO and headed for home along the windiest mountain road I've ever driven. Mt. Sterling Road follows an old Cherokee trail and was the first wagon road in the Smokies. Apparently the park system didn't consider the "Old Cataloochee Turnpike" worth paving, or perhaps a single lane dirt road with blind curves is meant to be a traffic deterrent? To provide temporary relief from the white-knuckle driving, we decided to climb Mount Sterling, a 6 mile out-and-back with 2,000-ft elevation gain. We cobbled together lunch at the summit and hiked down in double-time. You know that moment where your kids can do something better than you can? Yeah, that. I could not have matched Greta's pace on this hike. We headed for home trail weary, but already looking ahead to our next adventure. We can't wait to take the GO on the road this summer when we head for the Black Hills, South Dakota.

If you find yourself near Indianapolis and want to check out the GO in person, get in touch. It was helpful for us to see it before deciding to buy one for ourselves.

2nd Annual New Year's Day Hike

For the second straight year, we bundled up, and set out on a New Year's Day hike. (A family tradition I hope to continue for many years to come.) Our 2014 trip was to Turkey Run State Park, and while I don't have many photos from that hike, I did find these three on Instagram. [1] [2] [3]

For 2015, I wanted to go somewhere we hadn't been before. It's hard to find new places to explore in Indiana, but I'd heard about a couple of off-the-beaten-path nature preserves near the small town of Attica.

Portland Arch Nature Preserve was the larger of the two parks we visited. What a hidden gem! Here, a pristine creek runs through a wooded valley flanked by massive sandstone cliffs. We had a great time exploring the frozen landscape. The almost fluorescent green moss provided a stark contrast to the barren winter browns. I've read that the presence of moss and lichens is an indicator of good air quality. After a few deep breaths, I can attest to this.

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A short drive from the Portland Arch we found the Fall Creek Gorge Nature Preserve. The frozen ice here made the initial stream crossing quite treacherous. Swirling water has eroded the bedrock into a series of "potholes", which over time, have created a unique topology. A short footpath leads to a waterfall at the head of the gorge where I was unable to convince the kids to take a polar plunge. Maybe next time.

Fall Break 2014 - Florida Vacation

Back in 2011, the Nyce and Rothe families cobbled together an impromptu Fall Break trip to Destin, Florida. Miraculously, by the end of it, everyone remained friends – a sign that it would be safe enough to try again. The 2014 school calendar showed an entire week for Fall Break, so the trip planners went to work. It's this writer's opinion that Fall Break is an ideal time to visit Florida. The crowds are non-existent, there are no lines at restaurants, discounts and deals abound, yet the temps and Gulf waters are still relatively warm, at least to this northerner.

I don't have much additional narrative about this trip, just photos. In a few of them, an eerie light was cast by a (partial) solar eclipse – which was a lot of fun to shoot in. We enjoyed hanging at the beach, around town, and generally doing a lot of nothing. It's this last bit that was especially refreshing. We had a great time with a great family! Somehow we ended up with a couple of hermit crabs on the return trip. Sadly, one didn't make it back to Indiana. The other however, is still alive and well.

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July 4th Weekend - Day Trip Reports

After leaving the kids behind on last year's Alaska adventure, they were adamant about being included in any outdoor plans this summer. And, as any parent knows, traveling with kids can get expensive fast, so we settled for a few nearby budget options. Paddling in Prince William Sound gave us the itch for kayaking and I was able to buy a couple boats with the goal of exploring Indiana's many creeks and rivers. A long July 4th weekend gave us just the opportunity.

07/03/2014 2:30 PM – Cagles Mill Lake to Lower Cataract Falls

We set out for Cagles Mills Lake under blue skies and low humidity – a welcome respite from the sticky weather that has settled upon central Indiana for the last couple of weeks. Since we have only two kayaks, but four people in our family, the plan was for the girls to paddle roughly four miles to Lower Cataract Falls where we would meet up and switch roles. Mel and Greta put in at the Cunot Boat Ramp and had a tail-wind to the Highway 42 bridge. From there, the water level was high enough in Mill Creek for flat-water paddling.

Meanwhile, Dirk and I headed for Cataract Falls SRA via Cunot-Cataract Road. We explored the Upper Falls and the covered bridge. We also hiked an overgrown nature trail that ran along the creek. The path quickly deteriorated and forced us to turn back after a losing battle with stinging nettle. We then headed to the Lower Falls parking lot to wait for the girls. A short trail leads down to the water from the parking area to where Mel and Greta were waiting on a sandbar.

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Mid-summer in Indiana means daylight until 10p and we were treated with golden light and long shadows on the return trip. We paddled by several great blue herons and an immature bald eagle. The sunlight bouncing off of the arch bridge over Cagles Mills Lake was spectacular. 2-1/2 hours later, we were back where we started. We loaded up our yaks and headed for the next leg of our adventure.

07/04/2014 – Brown County State Park

Even though it was last-minute, we were able to get a couple of sites in the campground at Brown Country State Park. Our friends were set to join us for a day of hiking, bicycling, and horseback-riding around the park. All of the kids with one exception could ride their own horse unassisted. Just the excuse I was looking for! I could hang with Ellie-Kate while everyone else got their equine fix. Afterwards, we cooked up a hearty campfire meal and headed into nearby Nashville for the community fireworks show.

07/05/2014 4:30 PM – South Fork Salt Creek @ Elkinsville

I've been to some rural places in Indiana, but this one might top the list. 5-miles southwest of Story lies the sleepy community of Elkinsville. Our group of nine was looking for a lazy spot to paddle near Brown County State Park, where we had set up camp. Unfortunately, we did not find it on the south fork of Salt Creek. Instead we found a secluded, stagnant tributary. I'm not suggesting this wasn't scenic, or that I wouldn't come back under different circumstances. But for a larger group that includes kids, other rivers would be a better fit. There aren't any rocky sandbars to take out for breaks, and swimming is a non-starter given the clarity of the water.

We put in at the west end of Combs Road and paddled downstream for about 90 minutes before heading back to the starting point. To maintain interest, we crafted a train by attaching all of the boats end-to-end with towropes. The "engines" got a good workout, if nothing else.

Appalachian Trail - Carvers Gap to Highway 19E

Around Thanksgiving of last year, my Dad came up with the idea to get the family together for a reunion. This happens very rarely (never), but sounded tolerable none-the-less. He's good friends with the innkeepers of The Inn Around the Corner, a quaint B&B in Black Mountain, NC, who graciously agreed to host our entire clan for the weekend.

Our kids were on Spring Break from school and so it was that we found ourselves in western North Carolina, just a short drive from the fabled Appalachian Trail. The plan was to hike a 2-day, 1-night section along the North Carolina and Tennessee border from Carvers Gap to US Highway 19E. I had done some preliminary research and discovered that the Mountain Harbour B&B in Roan Mountain, TN offered a shuttle service and hostel for AT hikers. We could park our car, hitch a ride to the gap, and hike back to the car so we didn't have to retrace our steps. This section of trail was especially noted for its picturesque balds and mostly downhill elevation profile. A desired quality considering we planned to drag our kids along.

For early April, the weather outlook was good. After a fantastic breakfast, we said our goodbyes and headed out under blue skies and a warming sun. My Dad agreed to see us off, so we caravanned to Tennessee. The blue skies quickly changed to gray, which quickly changed again to snowy white as we gained elevation. By the time we reached Roan Mountain, TN, it was positively scary -- the snow wasn't falling down, it was blowing horizontally. Even though we had prepared for inclement weather, it was apparent that it would be negligent to willfully take our kids up the mountain with a mandatory 15-mile hike to the nearest town. We decided to stop at Mountain Harbour for some local knowledge. Turns out they had been busy performing rescues for AT hikers all morning. They had brought several groups out and recently noted that the road up to Carvers Gap had iced over. It didn't take a rocket scientist to realize we'd be crazy to attempt it -- especially with young kids. In the end, wisdom prevailed and we decided to try again the next day. The local forecast was calling for an abrupt end to the blizzard and pleasant temps for the remainder of the week.

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Dad continued on to Indiana and we decided to explore the local area. We made a brief visit to nearby Linville Carverns and were led through the caves by a most uninspiring tour guide whose only comprehensible sentence was, "Does anyone have any questions?" Soon after, the weather broke and gifted us with a winter wonderland -- the rare kind that can only be seen in those fleeting moments before nature reverses course and erodes the very scene it so painstakingly created. We still had a few hours before sunset, so we drove up to Carvers Gap to scout. We were blown-away by two things: 1.) The incredible beauty of wind-driven snow plastered to every surface, and 2.) The wind. We were literally blown-away. We could not stand up straight. Backpacking in these conditions would be miserable, not to mention dangerous. We went to bed hoping tomorrow would be better.

We awoke to gray skies and little wind. After a hearty breakfast we packed our gear and were shuttled to Carvers Gap to try again. The sun peeked out on the drive and we arrived to discover that much of the snow had melted overnight. What a difference! We unloaded and were soon left to fend for ourselves.

The first part of the trail winds through a natural Fraser Fir forest. John Fraser discovered and named the species in this exact area in the late 1700's. After a too-short trek through the fir forest, we were exposed to our first of four grassy balds. How and why a summit develops into a grassy bald is curiously unknown.

We passed through another historically interesting area near the well-maintained Overmountain Shelter. The area was used by the Overmountain Men in the American Revolutionary War where they crossed the mountain at Yellow Mountain Gap.

We camped for the night in a grassy area on the leeward side of Little Hump Mountain. What a view -- both at sunset and sunrise! The wind whipped up again during the night so our plan for pancakes was postponed. Starting the stove would have required a bit more fortitude and I was anxious to get moving. We needed to make it back to Indiana as I had to work the next morning.

(Big) Hump Mountain was the last rigorous climb on the route. It was all downhill from the summit. Six miles of downhill. Our quads took a beating, but we grinded it out and arrived at US Highway 19E at about 3:30pm. I slack-packed another .3 miles west to Mountain Harbour to get the car. Mel and I witnessed true deliriousness on the drive home. For 45 minutes, the kids literally could not stop giggling at the most dull things. For example, "Did you see that car? It was red." This mundane observation was followed by 5 minutes of uncontrollable laughter, and then the process repeated itself. Then, as if a switch was flipped, they completely zonked out. Greta was still holding a drink in one hand and a half-used napkin in the other. Dirk was her mirror opposite. Hopefully, they aren't permanently scarred by the experience.

Several general AT trail observations in no particular order:

  1. The footpath is often several inches, and in some cases a full foot, lower than the surrounding flora. I can only assume that it has been worn down by decades of use.
  2. We enjoyed meeting all of the thru-hikers we came across. (A thru-hiker is attempting the entire length of the trail in a single year. It's roughly 2,180 miles from Georgia to Maine.) We encountered several, and the kids enjoyed learning their trail names. Of course, we had to adopt our own trail names. Dirk quickly became "Topple" -- he face-planted into the mud more than once. Greta is "Cruise", Mel is "Slide", and I'm "Kodak".
  3. Waterproof shoes are an absolute must-have. Even though it wasn't raining, we did encounter more than enough mud to make a passel of pigs forget they were hungry. Everyone had good shoes except for Dirk (age 7). We didn't see the point in spending a bunch of money on something so temporary. We improvised and used plastic baggies from Subway over his socks. This worked pretty well.
  4. Water sources were plentiful, but often not on the beaten path. Plan to walk a few extra miles on side trails to retrieve water. I'm not sure if this is true of the entire AT, or just this section.
  5. Kids need to use the bathroom. A lot. Not surprisingly, there aren't any facilities. We should have practiced this more ahead of time.