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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Long Night

For some six months or more, I have been unable to answer the call of the mountains which, as a sort of spiritual entity, I found a home for the soul. When I lived near the Adirondack range, I undertook the journey to summit each of the 46 high peaks, but have since been displaced to the southern Appalachians. Last I was able, I ventured to the highest peak east of the Mississippi River, Mount Mitchell, which lies in the crook of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. As a prelude to that ascent, I first visited Pinnacle Mountain, which is the tallest free standing mountain in South Carolina, although not the highest elevation. Due to a prior injury, I was unable to complete the 28 mile round trip hike to Sassafras Mountain, but it was not pushed entirely from thought.

Just before the peak fall foliage bloomed on the trees, we set out to conquer Sassafras. By all accounts, the road opened into a beautiful array of reds and yellows and greens and oranges, and once we were on the trial, it was as though we had stumbled into another world. Laden with the colourful mixture of autumn's harvest it wound through the slopes of the mountains as though beckoning us into a kingdom imagined by Tolkien himself.

At times, it was difficult to believe that just four hours south lay the world we left behind, one of social unrest, severe flooding and political upheaval. Here, none of that mattered.

Through the long hours of waning daylight into the short hours of night, we hiked towards a trailside camp. Two other groups of hikers had already settled down for the evening, and another party of hunters were making their way back through the forest with their claim- a five hundred pound black bear. Between four men, they were just barely able to bring it back with them across the sloped and reluctant terrain. And perhaps most of all, watched by the ever vigilant eye of nature itself, curious to our passing and not yet ready for us to leave.

When finally we set camp and settled in for a late meal, night began to fall. There in the crook of the mountains, it came quickly and sank into a heavy darkness that the fire did not easily penetrate. All about us, squirrels scampered through the treetops, dropping acorns for the imminent frost, and with it, the trees let loose their frail leaves and branches as reparations for Old Man Winter.

Food tied high in the trees well away from the camp, we let the fire die out and retired for a night's welcome rest. Crickets chirped and frogs croaked in a symphony articulated by the falling refuse, but its finale was a long way off yet.

By around midnight, I heard a sound undeniable in its source and alarming in its proximity. At first, I attributed it to the weary veil of sleep that had only just begun to fall, a mere hour and a half of drifting sleep before it was so suddenly revoked. With a light shone out from the comfort of where I slept, I scanned the perimeter of the camp for that ill fated flash returned by piercing eyes. Nothing. Determined to find sleep once again, I turned off the light and tried to convince myself that the sound was nothing more than the squirrels yet enthusiastic about their preparations.

And then I heard the breathing. The sort that can only be made as air passes through a snout, and the sort that is too deep for fledgling wildlife. Down some two hundred paces from the trail lay a small creek, and it was down there that I heard footsteps retreat. Large, lumbering steps that do not come from the falling of leaves.

At this point I began to make a bit of unnatural noise- shifting around, zipping and unzipping things, coughing- the sort that would make us known without causing undue alarm. A few minutes of this and I called out quietly to one of my companions who I thought, by their own noises, had heard too what I had. Together, we agreed that it would be best to rekindle the fire for a bit of light and security.

Before embarking on the adventure, I did my best to research regulations and permits for the area, but I found nothing relating to firearms in overnight, trailside camping. Indeed, there were virtually no listings of any sort about trailside camps at all, much less of that nature. Had I been the wiser, I would have brought with a rifle or a shotgun or perhaps both, but all we were left with were small knives against one or more bears. And so fire would become our ally and the watchful eye to the night blindness.

Half an hour after waking, the fire was once again crackling merrily as though heedless of its important task in aiding our survival. That fire was, however large and bright, nowhere near large enough to light the forest around us. Everywhere I looked, there were trees casting long shadows and turns in the landscape that masked what lay beyond. It was a darkness of a clouded night that,in any other circumstance, would have been not only inviting but welcomed to a long day's rest.

Somewhere around one in the morning, my friend went back to sleep. It was better that one of us find rest, and since he had driven, I would rather it be him than me. Besides which, I knew that no matter how many people were standing watch, I would not sleep knowing that we were being stalked by a bear and precious little means of defending ourselves.

Now and again, the fire would die down and so I made the journey farther and farther from the camp in search of wood  to burn. At first it was easy, the deadfall readily available. If not perfectly dry, it was at least something to fuel the flames until it caught fire and added to the blaze. Slowly, as time wore on, I had to venture farther, look places that I would rather not have looked, taken longer to return to the pool of firelight. All the while, I walked my knife in hand. At least it was something. Near four in the morning, around three hundred yards from the trail, I found what confirmed my delusions as reality. Droppings and prints, both as fresh as any I have seen. Somewhere out there, the bear was watching, waiting, and each crack of branches or creak of the wind made me think that it was not one but dozens.

Back home, sunrise is at about seven, the ambient light rising half an hour before, and so I expected it to be somewhat the same here, as we were camped on the eastern slope of the ridge. It was not the case. Four became five, five became six, and soon the anticipation for sunrise was palpable. I had neither slept nor eaten since waking, catching only a short rest sitting with my back to my companions.

At some time, I do not recall when, I was forced to burn the makeshift log bench to keep the fire alive. First the long piece, then the two cross members, but it did not last long enough. Logs that I would have thought capable of smouldering until well into the next day if not put out burned in a heartbeat to the oppressive darkness. Twigs, leaves, anything for light. If it was not growing and I was able to carry it back, I burned it, and still there was not enough. Never before have I imagined that an autumn forest could be so unyielding.

Six turned to seven, and it was still dark as pitch. By now, it was near time the others would be waking; we set alarms for an early start and the remainder of our journey. And out there, the bear was watching.

By nearly eight, the sun finally broke and darkness dissolved into a pale grey blue that ate at the shadowed canopy overhead. As water dries from stone, night gave way to day. Eight hours of hauling and splitting wood, and not a drop of tiredness remained from what had been tainted by restless anticipation. Through the night, seconds turned hours, every small noise and shift of the wind turned my head, and with each motion I prepared myself to do whatever must be done.

Yet now morning had at last come and the long night was over. As breakfast cooked and the camp was stricken, I could not help but feel as though there had been another force beyond our reckoning that warded us through the night, one that is both undeniable and imperceptible.

Once more on the trail, we travelled through that hidden world that was, so short a time unimagined, as it had been the day before. Splendid colour welcomed us with a beauty that apologised for its vice. And at long last, we stood atop Sassafras Mountain where we could see South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee from a single spot.

This marks the fifth state whose highest point I have ascended, and will certainly not be the last. Despite the night's hardships, the view from the summit made it all the more rewarding. For it is the journey that makes the trip worth taking.

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