Hazel Beeler Columnist
A broken layer of stratocumulus clouds was sliding eastward on the wind.
I tied a blaze orange vest to my pack and clipped on a jingly bell as added protection against careless hunters. A chilly breeze was blowing as the bodyguards and I climbed into the good old truck and headed out to Fenwick Mines. I had lost my pepper spray, which I carry at Michael’s insistence (although I have never needed it), on the previous week’s hike, and wanted to go back to a couple of places I thought it might have fallen off my belt. There were no other vehicles in the parking lot as I pulled up and parked near the gate to Forest Service Road 229, which leads up Mill Creek. The gate was open; we could have driven much of the way, but my goal, as always, was to walk.
Fallen pine needles on the road had been washed into windrows by the previous week’s rain. Roadside grass was still green, as were pines, junipers and clumps of Christmas ferns, all looking dull under the gray sky. Areas of soft sand, weathered out of the mountaintop sandstones, punctuated the road; runoff had deposited little deltas of sand into puddles and left ripple marks. Chickadees and nuthatches chattered, and I noted numerous deer tracks and those of a solo canine in the soft sediment.
It was only a few tenths of a mile to F.S. road 5038, which heads towards Bald Mountain but, I discovered, peters out in maybe three-quarters of a mile. I’d stopped to pee at my turnaround point on that road, and figured that squatting would be a likely opportunity for something to fall off my belt. A mole had tunneled across the road, and Addie found a promising place to dig nearby. Rain had carved new gullies in the hard clay, channeling runoff carrying sand downwards to escape into level spots and leave braided patterns behind. Climbing uphill warmed me, despite the wind in my face. There were tracks of those deer and that one canine, maybe a coyote. We skirted the rocky knob and passed through the small field, as we had before, to reach the end of the drivable section, and went on up. The little stream to our left, which had been silent the week before, was making rushing-water music. A single witch-hazel amongst the brushy laurels still had yellow flowers. I couldn’t be sure exactly where we’d turned around, but continued until I was quite sure we’d passed it, keeping an eye out all the while for that little black canister with red button on top. No luck, so we headed back down.
As we descended, I thought about that rocky, nearly treeless hill, now to our left. I felt certain there would be a panorama visible from the top, but climbing it would break my self-imposed rule about bushwhacking solo. The entire hill is visible from the road, I thought, so the road must be equally visible from anywhere on the hill; no way could I get lost, nor would a searcher have trouble spotting me from the road or the air should I break an ankle on the slope. The distance to the top was no more than three tenths of a mile. I could use my trekking pole to hobble down, I decided, even if I did damage an ankle, something my 8-inch combat boots made unlikely.
So I whistled for the bodyguards and we headed up the trail-less slope. The ground was littered with piles of large, yellowish acorns. The scattered standing trees were mostly dead, burnt snags, and there were few fallen branches or laurel thickets to impede our climb. As the gradient steepened, we crossed areas of loose, rounded sandstone rocks of various sizes, underlain by abundant sand weathered out of them. A woodpecker with showy wings, black with big white patches, flew by. It was too far away to be certain, but I think it was probably a red-headed woodpecker. A glance back showed a great panorama, and we weren’t even to the top. As we continued into areas of brush and stump-sprouted trees, more mountains became visible.
Past clumps of dry ferns and reddish brooms edge, we reached the apex, marked by a lone pine.
The hill is a spur off Bald Mountain, and WOOH! What a view! There was the road below, the roofs of facilities at Fenwick Mines, and a 360° view. From right to left: the flank of Bald Mountain, Nutters Mountain, Little Mountain SW above New Castle, Johns Creek with Aps Knob, Sinking Creek, the entire length of North Mountain with (probably) Catawba Mountain beyond and Little Mountain NE in front, then back to the flank of Bald Mountain. The view is not entirely unobscured; a few small trees or snags stand in the way, but they aren’t too obtrusive. It was well worth the climb. I noted what appeared to be a road climbing Little Mountain NE and some probable open fields on its crest. We didn’t linger; the cold wind was strong at that unprotected location. The temperature never got out of the 30’s.
The descent, over loose rocks, was treacherous; I deployed my trekking pole to good advantage. Here was evidence that pine bark is more fire-resistant than pine wood: collars of charred bark surrounding empty hollows where the wood had burned away completely. Dense clumps of Lycopodium stood bright green amid the gray and white rocks. We reached the road without incident and found a relatively sheltered spot to get a drink and for me to eat part of my cheese sandwich. I’d learned my food lesson the previous week—a chicken sandwich is delicious, but it doesn’t have enough calories to sustain me when exerting myself. I need fat and sugar, not just protein. By our resting spot, someone had abandoned a small stack of clay “pigeons” used in trap or skeet shooting.
Nearby crows and faraway jays called as I shouldered my pack and headed back to 229. Dim sun shone through the clouds. I picked up an abandoned or discarded AA battery to take home and recycle. Ahead, four camo- and blaze-orange-wearing guys crossed the road with weapons at the ready, and two Jack-Russellish dogs paused to exchange sniffs with Addie. Reaching 229, we turned left and headed uphill, and there ahead were the four young men and their canine companions, who were a bit bigger than mine. We soon caught up, as they ambled along looking up into the trees, and I found out they were squirrel hunters. I told them my bodyguards were bear dogs, which act as bait to entice the bear within shooting distance, and unleashed a raft of leg-pulling. Were my dogs “bear dogs”, or were they “barely dogs”, because they are so small? What was in Trey’s pack (water dish, spare leash, plastic bags), and did she resent carrying a dish when there were so many puddles and streams to drink out of? I assured them that we often walk in places where there is no water, and furthermore, that she had never complained, even once, and it was all in good humor.
The shooting party veered off into the woods to the left, and bodyguards and I headed on up the road. After we crossed Mill Creek on the slippery log, I heard dogs barking behind me, then shots. I hope they took home a good mess of squirrels to make stew—I guess that’s how you prepare squirrels. I have never eaten one. Here was the other place I’d stopped to relieve myself, a grassy enclave away from the road. No pepper spray here, either; I guess I’ll have to spring for a new one. I did find a sodden, bright blue t-shirt and hung it on a branch by the road. Then I pondered our next move. I’d told Michael that after looking for my pepper spray, I’d go on out Peaceful Valley and Barbours Creek Roads and check out a Forest Service Road that apparently climbs Bald Mountain. But it was after 12 noon, a little late to embark on an entirely different walk, especially considering transit time. I decided we’d follow 229 up to its junction with Mill Creek Road and investigate a gated road that seemed to head up Little Mountain NE. (The New Castle topographic map has two Little Mountains, one above New Castle and the other in a line with it but separated from it by a hill, Fenwick Mines and Peaceful Valley Roads, and Mill and Barbours Creeks. To avoid confusion, I call the one above New Castle SW and the one we were about to climb NE. Worse yet, there are Little Mountains in other places, for example between Potts and Peters Mountains on the Craig Springs topo.)
It’s no more than a half mile from 5028 to Mill Creek F.S. Road.
There was a dump truck with low-boy trailer parked on the roadside, the gate to the road on Little Mountain NE, 50621, was open, and the road was freshly bulldozed. Up we went. The mountain is low, and an ascent of only about 300 feet brought us through sparse pines, oaks and burned snags to its crest and a field of tawny grass. A big, loud helo [helicopter] passed somewhere overhead as we climbed, but I was unable to spot it. To our left, the road was lined with Posted signs, which we left behind as we continued along the mountain’s spine. Little Mountain NE is low at the ends and higher in the middle, so we continued to climb, but the slope was relatively gentle. We skirted the edges of several open areas, from which modest views could be seen: here was the ridge of Bald Mountain; farther along a glimpse down the notch between Bald and Johns Creek Mountains with the dim bump of (maybe) Seven mile Mountain between; then the entire length of Bald Mountain with a little of Potts Mountain visible in its low center; then a place where I could see the both junction of Bald Mountain with Rich Patch Mountains at its northeast end and in the opposite direction the faraway V of Sinking Creek and Johns Creek Mountains with faint outlines of fields on the slope of Sinking Creek Mountain above Sinking Creek Valley. Along the road, stacks of firewood-length logs were piled. Juncos flew up into standing dead oaks.
Then there was a backup beeper ahead. I leashed the bodyguards, and we came around the bend to see the dozer at work; no wonder the road was full of fresh tracks despite the recent rain. The operator spotted us and paused so we could slip by. A little farther, the cleared road ended, and there were several big, king-cab white pickups with red logos, and a stocky bronze gentleman. He was part of a Forest Service crew from Four Corners, all of them Native Americans, and most of them, including him, Navajo. He was a fascinating guy, and very nice, shared all kinds of stuff about his culture and language, how the clans work. He doesn’t speak much Navajo; his parents and grandparents were victims of suppression of the language and culture, but he said a few phrases to me, and we noted the irony of the “code talkers” helping the save the U.S. while their people were being victimized at home. He and his crew were clearing fire lanes for a controlled burn to take place later. The air was getting increasingly murkier, but there was a pretty good view of the mountains from where we were, and I told him their names and suggested some places the guys could go sightseeing the following Monday, a day they’d have off before heading back West. He said he would love to see the Keffer Oak, which is quite easy to find, but I never thought to tell him to pick up a copy of my Old Woods Woman’s Trail Guide, which gives directions to several places with vistas. He expressed surprise that I had walked all the way up from Fenwick Mines, and I told him it was no more than 4-5 miles, but it’s nothing like that far—maybe two.
It took no time to walk back down, passing the dozer on the way. We passed a plastic military canteen that someone had hung on a branch and used for target practice. As we went, I thought of my trail guide, so I left a note on the lowboy, held down with a rock, to that effect. I’d forgotten my map, but a look at it when I got home confirmed the two-mile distance, which was all downhill. My knee started complaining on me, coming down the mountain, and I realized I’d air headedly put my brace on wrong knee, left instead of right. But it hadn’t given me trouble in several weeks, and wasn’t painful that evening.