Foothills Trail (Oconee to Burrells Ford



With the exception of a really short day-hike, it’s been months since I’ve been in the woods. Work, sick parents, my own issues and a thousand other distractions all kept me from the thing that brings me life. That’s just wrong. Out of desperation, more than anything really, I made the decision to get in the woods somehow, someway. Dana’s mom was in the hospital so I ended up going this one alone. Though I miss Dana terribly when she can’t come along, I still really long for extended times of solitude. So by 4 pm Friday, I’d thrown my pack in my truck and pointed it south on 85. At 3:45 pm I’d decided to hike a section of the Foothills Trail I’d walked several times before. The biggest reason I chose this hike was so that Dana would have an excuse to meet me Sunday. She needed this as bad as I. At least she’d get a couple hours by the river.

So, at 6:30 pm I hoisted my overloaded pack onto my back and trucked off down the trail to make some miles before dark. Miles might be an exaggeration. I made it 1 3/4 miles before finding a nice clearing with 2 trees created for hammock hanging. It was a little cooler than I thought but still warm enough that my 15 degree bag did the trick. Sleep came in spurts due to the constant barrage of dropping acorns. Not sure if they were falling off naturally or if the squirrels were pelting me with them as some sort of vendetta because of my invasion of their territory. I must’ve drifted off eventually because I was awakened with a start at 2 am by the shrill, mournful wail of a coyote, not more than 20 feet away. With a semi-restless night behind me I finally woke to a rich red sunrise, broke camp, retrieved my bear bag and munched on a trail bar while blazing some trail.

By 8:30 I’d made it to Jumping Branch with a growling belly so I plopped down right in the middle of the trail, fried up some bacon and whipped up some cheese grits. Fuel for the journey! Back on my feet and to Nicholson Ford by 10:30 am. Just pass the parking lot, I met a family on the trail: Grandparents, parents, and their kids, Kate and Nick. I wish we had talked more. They seemed really cool. Nick is a Clemson student and rafting guide. They were all out for a day hike….3 generations. Made me think how incredible it would be to be able to share this with my own mom and dad.

Up to this point this trail had been gravy; it was either downhill or softly undulating terrain which made for a nice stroll. But Nicholson Ford signaled change. Knobs, hills and ascent were to come. “Bring it on!” I muttered in faith, and my wobbly, couch-weakened legs rose to the challenge.

I topped the ridge and was startled by a brownish blur that darted onto the trail about 20 yards ahead of me. I seriously wondered if I had just seen a sheep. It quickly occurred to me that it was highly unlikely that I’d encounter a sheep in the woods. (Cut me a break! I said “quickly.”) Then I questioned my interpretation of what I’d seen. Had I just seen a bear cub? If so, where’s Moma? (the bears, not mine) Moments later I heard a voice call out, “Luca!” Around the bend came two exceptionally cool ladies, Ashlie and Wendy (I think. Sorry if I’m wrong. I stink at names.) We talked for about half an hour while Luca displayed his remarkable speed and agility, darting in and out of the woods and occasionally signaling the approach of other hikers with a bark or two. Ashlie and Wendy are from Tampa, Florida and come up every year to hike along the Chattooga. I think they and Dana would’ve hit it off due to their mutual love of the river. They struck me as seasoned, passionate hikers and the conversation never lulled as we talked about other places we’d walked. Here’s where I’m gonna let you in on a little secret: I’m working on starting an audio pod-cast. I brought my digital recorder along on this trip and recorded sections of my hike. What I really wanted to do was to record some of my conversations with people I meet along the trail. Some of the most genuine people I know, I met in the woods. I want to be able to share that with potential listeners. I couldn’t do it. I guess one reason is that I’m usually so caught up in meeting them that I forget and the other is that it’s well…awkward. How do I broach the subject? I couldn’t do it. Next time, huh? Well, we realized we were “burning daylight” and Luca was obviously ready to continue his adventure so we resolved to continue our conversation on facebook.

Lunch came late (3:30) and was barely edible (my soup didn’t fully hydrate)…but the view was gorgeous. I stopped at this little beach on a bend in the river, just past Simms Field. Several years back, on our first visit, we camped here and pulled trophy rainbows from the deep pool just past the little falls. After choking down my “less-than-hydrated” vegetable beef soup, I left my haven to a fly-fisherman and started the switch-back ascent of Round Knob.

Our first encounter with Round Knob was not a pleasant one. It was our very first overnight hike, Halloween weekend, and we’d been told by a “local” that we had an easy one hour stroll to Burrell’s Ford. (The same guy told us he’d just discovered an exhausted hunter, recovering from open-heart surgery, who had outrun a bear. I’m guessing that should’ve been a clue.) Nearly 2 miles of switchbacks later we reached the top and began our descent through the gorge as night began to fall and into Burrell’s Ford…around 5 miles total…not an hour. . Dana melted down several times, swore she’d smelled a bear and ended up panicked, moving at a snail’s pace and nearly hypothermic as we completed our hike in the dark. This time Round Knob was much less daunting. Having said that, by the time I had gotten within 3 miles of my destination I was exhausted, aching and sick of walking. It happens.

Dana wouldn’t meet me until 10am Sunday morning so I could’ve very easily hung my hammock right there by the river and finished off the 3 miles in the morning without any problem. My motivation in arriving tonight was two-fold: First, Dana had shown, shall we say, concern that due to my recent inactivity maybe I had bitten off more than I could chew. I wanted to put any concern to rest and prove to myself, as well, that I could (even in my atrophied state) pull off a 15 or 16 mile day. That’s motivation #1. Motivation #2? Have you ever had a smell, or a taste for a food pop up in your imagination completely unprovoked? It happens to me regularly and it happened at just that moment. There’s a little steakhouse about 10 miles down the mountain that has a really tasty flame-seared marinated sirloin and an eclectic salad bar with a delicious in-house-made buttermilk ranch dressing. I figured if I made it to Burrell’s Ford I could beg a ride to my truck at Oconee State Park, drive to the restaurant, put my craving to rest and then make it back to my hammock by nightfall. So with steak dangling before me, I shrugged on my pack and put one foot in front of the other until I made it to the parking lot. Unfortunately, no amount of looking pitiful, dropping hints or outright asking got me a ride to my truck so the steak was out, Idahoans were in and 7pm found me nestled in my hammock by the river in the Ellicott Rock Wilderness. What had been a mild night before was followed by one of the more frigid nights I’d spent outdoors. I donned every item of clothing I had brought with me, zipped shut my weather shield and still spent the night chilled. Seemed like winter had arrived early.

I woke early, packed up and sat on the edge of the woods till Dana arrived, thankfully, early. Using the excuse of retrieving my fly-rod from my truck I quickly hopped into the Montero, cut the heat on wide-open and thawed my aching bones as I drove down the mountain. I made it back and never even took my rod out of it’s case. We hung out by the river for a while before heading back down the mountain once more, to Mellow Mushroom for my traditional celebratory meal: The Brutus Caesar salad with jerk chicken and meatball appetizer. Ahhhhhh. What’s next weekend hold in store?

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