Hiking in North Georgia and Beyond
Though I've lived in the mountains of Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia, I've never done any serious hiking. I admire those who do, especially two Blairsville octogenarians, Bob and Delores Montgomery. I had a conversation with them over breakfast to learn more about this inspirational couple:
Delores Montgomery's first hiking experience was as a Girl Scout. Bob learned about hiking as an army soldier in World War II. Neither hiked again until later in life. Bob was 72 when they started and Delores was 63.
Learning the Hard Way
"While trailering around the country, we saw an ad in Trailer Life magazine for people over 65 who wanted to hike the first 150 miles of the Appalachian Trail. So we signed up for it." There were 48 responses to the ad from all over the country. "Sixteen of us showed up at Amicalola State Park one Sunday in April or May of 1992. Sixteen of us started out the next day hiking the Trail. We were going to hike to the Fontana Dam in three weeks. After one week half of them dropped out. It was about 160 miles. We were going to do it in three weeks which was reasonable. We thought we could hike 10 or 15 miles a day as novices, but we didn't." Delores began having knee problems so the Montgomerys were unable to hike any further than Unicoi Gap. Bob said, "someone told us it will be the hardest thing you will try in your life; and they were just about right."
The Montgomerys agreed that because of the mountains here in North Georgia, the difficulty level of hiking the Trail increases. The only other area on the Appalachian Trail which is more strenuous is in the White Mountain area of New England where the mountains are almost straight up with cliffs. Hiking the entire Appalachian Trail continuously will take you about five or six months so their advice is to spend three or four weeks preparing your mind and body for the rigorous mountain trails of North Georgia. Delores stressed the importance of getting in good physical condition. "You have to be prepared for the unknown." They laughed and said their training ground for hiking was in Florida! They thought walking through the sand would be sufficient conditioning. "We were not prepared for hiking in the mountains."
About The Appalachian Trail
The Appalachian Trail is advertised as the longest, marked footpath in the nation, touching 14 states and covering about 2,178 miles. Bob said, "It varies, there are always trail crews out repairing the trail, rerouting it so the trail is always under development. It's been going on since 1926 or thereabouts." Except when the Trail goes through a national park, the crews are made up of volunteers. Every state has one or more Appalachian Trail Clubs (ATC) made up of volunteers who maintain the Trail. The Georgia Appalachian Trail Club (GATC) website offers maps, safety advice, and detailed trail information.
For longer, overnight hikes Adirondack three-sided shelters are provided about every seven to ten miles. The fourth side of the shelter is open and the floor is a platform which keeps you off the ground. "you lay your sleeping bag on a platform and that's where you sleep." The sizes of the shelters vary; the smallest can sleep four people while the largest sleeps twelve.
"One rule is if you take your clothes off wet at night you put them back on wet in the morning. You always want to keep some dry clothes to sleep in. So if you have dry clothes on in the morning, you put them back in the pack and you put your wet clothes back on. You go through a lot when you're hiking."
Hiking Gear and Provisions
Other necessities they packed were sandals to change into after wearing hiking boots all day. By the way, they urge beginning hikers to invest in a good pair of boots, not sneakers or leather-soled shoes. A good quality hiking boot will cost over $100 and a couple of brands these seasoned hikers recommend are Merrell or Vasque. If you are a serious hiker, it is necessary to have a support group or person who will send you clothing or other things you might need. For example, if you're hiking during the change in seasons, you may need heavier or lighter weight clothing. This is one area where planning is important. You must look up the names of post offices along the trail you will be hiking and arrange for delivery of your package(s).
The only protective gear the Montgomerys carry are their walking sticks. Some hikers carry guns but Bob said, "it is advised hikers not carry guns. The animals pretty well stay away from the trails because there are so many people on it." It is recommended to carry a whistle to scare away bears, but the Montgomerys have never used theirs.
Clean water is an important issue for hikers. The GATC posts a detailed list of fresh water locations in North Georgia. Creek and spring water is usually available within a half-mile of the trail but you have to filter it. The Montgomerys carry a portable water purifier which works by pumping the water through a membrane. Chemical purifiers can also be used.
"You take enough food for five days. The equipment includes usually a small cooking stove, something you eat out of, and a small tent." A backpack is the hiker's suitcase and some can weigh 50 lbs. or more. Bob said: "The modern theory is the lighter the better. Our packs weigh in the neighborhood of 30-35 lbs. Delores carries all the food so each day her pack gets lighter." When we started talking about food, I realized how serious Bob and Delores are about hiking. Some hikers buy and take beef jerky and other dried foods but the Montgomerys plan ahead and dehydrate all of their dinners. "We made macaroni and cheese, spaghetti and stew." Delores added, you cook the pasta and then dehydrate it. About 30 minutes before a meal, they will add water to their selected "entree." When they arrive at the campsite, the food has been hydrated and ready for warming on their one-burner, white gas stove.
Step by Step
The Montgomerys like to take hiking excursions three to four weeks at a time. "We hike five days, then get off the Trail and go to the nearest town and spend an overnight in a hotel, take a shower and sleep in a real bed. Then we go back and hike for another five days. We do that for three or four weeks at a time."
"It took us six years to hike 1300 miles up into middle Pennsylvania. We did what was called 'section hiking.'" They started at Springer Mountain, Georgia's beginning point of the Appalachian Trail, and got off at Unicoi. The next year they picked up at Unicoi and went a little further and continued in sections until reaching their destination.
I asked them about their longest one-day hike and Delores quickly answered, "14 miles because of the snake!" Bob commented, "A big fat rattler!" Delores continued, "There were three of us and we had hiked about seven miles. When we arrived at a relatively new shelter, they started putting up their gear and I was standing down below [this shelter was built on a slope so there were steps] and I looked and there was the most gigantic rattlesnake I ever saw." Delores stated with firmness, "we are not staying here. Our friend Loretta looked down and said, 'No, we are not staying here.' "
Close Call at Dragon's Tooth
Their most harrowing experience along the Appalachian Trail was "when I came over down off the cliff," said Delores. Bob added, "yes, she fell off a ridge. It was a knife edge ridge we were walking on and the rocks were all pointed up so you had to be very careful when you took steps and there was a dropoff on the left hand side of the trail that went almost straight down. Delores was following me and I heard a scuffle. I looked around and she was going over the edge. She landed on a bush right off the trail probably four, five or six feet drop. She was laying on a bush that was sticking out the cliff upside down. With a pack on her back she couldn't move so I threw my pack off and scrambled over the edge, hanging on to one branch and hanging onto her with the other, she was able to unbuckle her pack and get out. She got out with the help of another lady that came along. She could have fallen thirty or forty feet straight down if she had not landed on that bush. That was probably the scariest thing that happened to us." Delores added, "I was sliding on my back pretty much like a toboggan backwards with my head down. My glasses flew off and I thought, well, Lord, if this is it, then okay. The name of this place was called Dragon's Tooth."
Favorite North Georgia Hiking Trails
The Montgomerys said "because there are a lot of great trails here [the North Georgia mountains] it is hard to pick a favorite when you only pass through some of them once." They recommend:
- Woody Gap off the Appalachian Trail, a very easy two-mile hike with beautiful vistas
- DeSoto Falls Trail
- Helton Creek Falls
- Byron Herbert Reece Access Trail (a tough trail)
- The Bear Hair Gap Trail at Vogel State Park (a moderate hike)
- Slaughter Creek Trail in Suches, located by Lake Winfield Scott.
- The trail to Len Foote Hike Inn, starting at Amicalola Falls State Park. The Amicalola Falls is the tallest cascading waterfall east of the Mississippi River and no matter the weather, seeing this magnificent 729-foot falls is worth the hike. The path to The Hike Inn branches off from the Appalachian Trail and a hiker must walk from this point another 5 miles in order to reach it. Hike Inn is accessible only by foot.
Hiking in Bad Weather
Most of the Montgomerys' hiking is done in April or May, with additional hikes during October. "We usually do that coming back from spending the summer up North someplace. One year we got caught in Hurricane Opal. We were in Hot Springs. The day before the hurricane hit we were on the Trail walking back to Hot Springs on a day hike. The next day we were going to pick up from there and go farther north. That night we got back into Hot Springs pitched the tent and there was a light, misty rain. The next morning we got up and hiked to Hot Springs. We knew the storm was coming. That night a hurricane went through and the next morning, we had all our stuff dried out and got back on the trail. We were going to hike another four days to Irwin, TN. We hiked two days and our food was getting low because of all the downed trees. The trees were huge and had large root systems. The trail was covered up in many places. We had to crawl all over and under and down and through dragging our packs behind us. We were so slow going we finally came upon a hard-top road we got off and went to a farm and called up some guy to come and get us to take us back to Hot Springs. That was probably the slowest part of our hike.
"Days of continuous rain make us wonder why we do it because you're out there to enjoy the trail, and when it's raining you don't see anything. You have to watch every step you take. You're soaked and unless you buy the best Gore-Tex raincoat on the market, I don't know how you'd ever stay dry. Delores asked Bob, "Do you remember climbing up Mt. Rogers [in Virginia]? We had thunderstorms. We walked in water almost up to our mid-thighs. It was such a downpour the trail was actually part of the runoff."
For complete hiking information, Bob and Delores Montgomery highly recommend The Hiking Trails of North Georgia by Tim Homan. They also suggest reading A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson; "it is hysterical but so true." Both books are available at The Book Nook in Blairsville.
18 Years of Hiking and Still Going
Currently, Bob and Delores go hiking once or twice per month as members of the hiking club in their church. Most of the members are retired seniors. The Montgomerys wished they had started hiking a lot earlier in life so they could have had the opportunity to finish walking The Appalachian Trail, but are thankful for their experiences and would highly recommend hiking to anyone. Bob is now an 89 year old veteran hiker and doesn't plan to quit. Their enthusiasm for the great outdoors, the incredible scenery of the North Georgia mountains, the first-hand encounters with wildlife and the camaraderie hikers develop give reason for their passion for this fast-growing and popular recreation.