Initially we planned to go hiking and camp on the Panther Creek Trail in Georgia, very near to this trail. We switched to the Bartram Trail about three weeks prior to our trip, thinking this hike would be the greater challenge and learning experience. We were proven correct. This trail tested us, our equipment, and taught us important lesson in our quest for backpacking experience and knowledge.
My friend, Shawn, spearheaded the trail logistics and most of the information gathering for this trip. He acquired a detailed map created by the Georgia Bartram Trail Group, which I highly recommend purchasing. Another informative source is the Georgia Trails. Also contacted and utilized was the drop off and pickup service of the Chattooga Whitewater Outfitters. Mike, an owner of the service, is a great guy and their restaurant makes a mean pizza.
We arrived on Friday afternoon, in separate cars, driving through steady rain showers, at Tallulah Gorge State Park and planned to spend the night there before heading to the trail on Saturday morning. The short time at the park allowed for some limited viewing of the gorge, trekking down steep and wet steps to a suspension bridge swinging across the fast flowing river. This descending and ascending provided a great primer for the trail adventure the next day. Since we still had steady rain, we decided it would be most practical to sleep in our respective cars instead of setting up and tearing down tents, reasoning that "Survivor Man" would utilize such practical facilities too.
On Saturday morning, after quickly refueling our bodies at McDonald's, we drove to Chattooga Whitewater Outfitters, then were taken to the southern terminus trail head with full intentions to hike the entire 37 miles and then be picked up at the northern terminus on the Georgia side. As Mike drove us toward the trail head, he expressed excitement about all the rain they had received and the expected additional approaching rain, since his business is so dependent upon the abundant rapids of the Chattooga river. Just before arriving at the trail head, the realization that I had left my rain pants back in my car dawned on me. Such crucial gear left behind! Since I wore nylon trail pants with an extra backup, I decided I should be able to cope. Plus,it wasn't raining at the moment and maybe the rain was over. Wishful thinking I soon discovered.
Hypothermia is very dangerous and can creep up on a person fast and from what I have read, often unnoticed by the individual. That was my big concern for the group. With my full gear, I would have been the best equipped of the group for wet weather, but without my rain pants, I was slightly crippled. The other guys had pathetic plastic rain gear. I was alarmed when I saw it. I knew Shawn had purchased some plastic gear, but I was thinking it was heavy vinyl, not paper thin plastic. Ignoring our lack of proper gear we started our hike. The plastic rain pants soon ripped due to the hiking.
The rain started again with the temperature around 55 degrees. It started very lightly and grew in intensity as we progressed. As we hiked, the trail followed fairly parallel to the Chattooga river. The river was flowing fast, the trail sopping wet, and our bodies soon soaked, either by rain, sweat or both. There was not excessive wind, for which we were grateful . None of us were cold, just wet. Despite the rain and soaking, we did enjoy the lovely river and mountains. The trail had a good combination of flat and steep sections, enough to provide our bodies with a stringent workout.
Our intentions were to hike about 10 miles each day. The first day didn't provide any quality campsites at the 10 mile marker and so we ventured on hoping we could find a location that would be level enough to allow setup of our tents. By the ten mile marker we were struggling and very much ready to set up camp. We had been hiking about 7 hours and our 12 year old member was suffering and we concluded we would not be able to continue the full 37 mile trip. Our plan now would be to continue tomorrow to the Warwoman Road trail intersection and call Mike to pick us up.
Approaching the ten mile point we found a pine thicket we considered camping in. It was not perfect since it was pine trees, with large amounts of fallen limbs. We were not thrilled about it, fearing limbs could fall because the weather forecast called for winds to grow 15 to 20 miles per hour with gust to 30 mph. We pressed on, praying an area would open up. The map stated there was some kind of roadway intersection around the 11 mile marker so we hoped that would provide a safe area, and indeed it did. We were rewarded with a large flat open area with three ATV pathway intersections. By then, it had stopped raining and we were able to pitch our tents, dry out, eat and relax before crawling into our tents around 8 pm.
It soon began to rain again. The temperature was around 60 degrees. Heavy thunderstorms soon appeared with lightening less than a mile away. Bright flashes lit up the night sky. The wind grew steady and I suspected there were gusts to 20 mph. Later in the night, as the front past, the temperature dropped to 40 degrees. In the morning the sky was clear and we were excited to see sunshine would warm us.
We ate a limited breakfast, packed up and headed to the 7 mile take out point. The terrain now was more difficult with steeper trails and width at points two feet on muddy slopes. In my opinion, this section was more attractive then the first day, since it was more mountainous.
The trail is marked with bright yellow diamond shaped plastic tags that are very easy to spot. As long as one keeps an eye out and references their trail map, one should not get off track. Well, we learned a valuable lesson. As we prodded along, the kids, younger and more energetic than Shawn and me, rushed ahead down the trail. Engrossed in conversation, we failed to see the trail turn at a critical point where an ATV trail intersects the Bartram trail and followed the boys. I notice and commented that the trail we were now on seemed to have more vegetation growing into the path, but we ignored that first sign and enjoyed the downward flow of this wider trail. Soon, after about 30 minutes, we became aware we had not observed any trail markers and after quick review, slightly confused, we knew we had to head back up the hill to find a marker. We must have walked an extra mile in total before relocating our marker and getting back on track. Our new rule now was for each person to yell out "Marker" when they passed one, as a reminder, and to reinforce our trail location.
Soon we found a lovely camp area that had a wonderful spring water supply. We resupplied our water, treated it and continued. At last we approached our pickup point and cell phoned Mike that we would soon arrive and he shortly met us for the pickup.
We had a great time despite the poor weather. We learned some valuable lessons on this trip such as:
- Make sure your equipment is in your pack and not left behind.
- Have a good map and shout out the markers as you see them as a reminder you are on the trail.
- Don't go hiking without proper rain gear. It can be life threatening and is very foolish.
- Don't assume your partner has good equipment.
- Don't over estimate your fellow hiker's abilities nor underestimate the trail's difficulty.
- Allow enough time to hike the trail. It is supposed to be enjoyed and not a marathon race.
- Take a first aid kit with blister material, because even if you have broken in boots, you still can get a blister.
- Make sure you have fast drying clothing and an extra set because rain gear does fail.
Although we didn't complete the trail this time, we will be back to finish it later this year and we will be wiser backpackers.