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The strong September sun felt like summer. The calendar said it was summer still, being just the first week in the month. Lifelong friend John Bland and I were embarking on a backpack fishing trip into the Linville Gorge Wilderness. This nature preserve, part of the Pisgah National Forest, is located a little more than 60 miles from Johnson City. It is near the town of Linville, N.C., just east of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The wilderness protects nearly 11,000 acres of a gorge encircled by Jonas Ridge on the east and Linville Mountain on the west. The Linville River cuts a boulder strewn path 2,000 feet below these rocky rims. John and I started on the Pinchin Trail and descended into the gorge. A forest fire had swept through the area the previous year, leaving many burned snags rising above low brushy trees rising to the open sunlight overhead.
The sun bore down on us, too. John began to slow; he said the steep decline was wearing on him and began feeling faint. He told me to continue on. It had been several months since he had been backpacking. The decline was steeper than what he was accustomed to, the sun was hot, and he later said he’d not had much to drink that morning. I thought it was the act of carrying the load on his back rather than the sun.
I continued 1.5 miles down to the river and relaxed in the shade. No John. I finally walked back uphill — it was a rough climb in the sun and found John sitting in the lee of a small bush. He described what had happened. The first sign of fatigue came through his hips; the pack wasn’t particularly heavy, but there was no customary shade, the path was very abrupt and his mouth was cotton. His hips gave way first and then his legs began to shake. Later, his head began to spin and he said he almost fainted. The only shade on that ridge was from scrub bushes no more than three feet high.
When I found him, John was beat — and he readily admitted that. Neither of us wanted to cancel the trip so I offered to carry his pack down to the river. The two of us went down to the Linville River and stopped at the first camp upstream. After a cooling swim in the river John felt better, but still exhausted. He took no chances though, and read a book while I tackled the fish in the river.
Even though the Linville River is a mountain stream, its lower reaches are primarily occupied by warm water species. We were only 1,500 feet in elevation — lower than Johnson City — and thus I caught bream and smallmouth bass. The rocks in the Linville River are huge, as are the pools, so walk-fishing the river can be an adventure. During the warm season anglers can expect to swim, climb, crawl and hop hole to hole if they really want to completely cover the river. The bream were especially feisty in the Linville River. Upon my return from fishing John was feeling better but still moving slowly.
That night we cooked hamburgers over the campfire. Dark was certainly coming earlier than during the dog days of summer. I lazily avoided putting up any kind of shelter and we paid the price — a thunderstorm came in and I scrambled in the dark to set up a tarp for us.
Have you ever set up a tarp in the dark from a dead sleep? I have, too many times to count. Knowing this, and with the rain pounding on our tarp John stated, “From now on we’re going to put up the shelter if we’re camping out together.”
The clouds hung on till morning, and the day broke quite dark. We headed upstream on the narrow, tough Linville Gorge Trail, still traveling through old burned areas and huge boulders. The trailside brush was wet, soaking us through our clothes. It took us nearly 5 hours to go 4 miles, as John was still feeling weak and we had to stop repeatedly. He had recently lost almost 20 pounds, mostly by dieting, and he theorized that without sufficient exercise during the diet, he may have lost some valuable muscle. That, in addition to the challenging nature of the descent and the lack of ideal level of hydration just beat him up to a point from which he was unable to snap back overnight. In addition, the trail was narrow, rocky and overgrown, with many large, fallen trees blocking the path, each one requiring a hiker to climb over or under the trunk.
By afternoon, thunder was rolling beyond the gorge. The day remained dark but just a little rain fell. I set up the tarp early this time and went fishing. Despite having traveled upstream I still only caught warm water species, and wondered where the trout were, especially since I had promised a trout dinner. We ended up eating limp noodles. But our campsite was situated on a bluff above the river and offered a stellar view of the pools and boulders below with the rugged mountains rising above, a visual consolation prize.
The next morning was the big test for John. He hadn’t felt up to snuff the whole time and we were both concerned about his climb out of the gorge. We took the Conley Cove Trail, which was very steep, climbing 1,000 feet in a mere mile. I had taken much of John’s gear but he carried his pack.
We both made it out of the gorge and John said he learned some valuable lessons: “First, take personal responsibility for knowing the conditions where I’m going to hike. The gorge was much steeper than what I usually hike, and I didn’t know it had been denuded by fire; that made the descent tougher. Second, be sure to be well hydrated. I usually drink almost 100 ounces of water every day, but I hit the trail that day with only 16 ounces of water in me and none to drink on the way down. Third, be aware that dramatic weight loss without a balance of exercise will sap muscle even more so than fat, leaving me weaker than I look. Overall, take more responsibility for myself — just because my hiking buddy is practically a professional athlete doesn’t mean I can keep up with him. I was overmatched that day.”
And thus ended our adventure. We were little more worn out but hopefully a little wiser for the next mountain adventure.