Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Polar Vortex is coming...let's go play!

Last year a close friend of mine and I had been planning a camping trip for some time. We both had done a ton of research on a lake high in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina and we were stoked and ready. Our plan was to go to Lake Nantahala, load our kayaks with camping and fishing gear for 3 nights on an island in the lake. This lake has intrigued me since the 90's, that's when my brother gave me the book "Trout Fishing Southern Appalachia" by Jimmy Jacobs as a Christmas gift. In it Mr. Jacobs mentions that Lake Nantahla has Kokanee salmon and he explains that the state stocked them as forage for the other predator fish in the lake. Since reading that book I have dreamed of catching those salmon and cooking them over a fire...we were set to go and January the third couldn't get here soon enough. If you don't know, part of the waiting game for any fishing or camping trip is watching the weather,as a matter of fact, it's probably the most important part of the trip. As my long weekend got closer the weather forecast was getting bad. The lake sits at over 3000' in elevation and an arctic blast was bearing down on the southeast. Temps in the negative numbers with a wind chill of minus 20 and up to 8 inches of snow were being predicted for Topton NC, the closest town to the lake and that's at the bottom of the mountain. God only knows what the top would get. We still contemplated going but I had to be back to work on the following Wednesday and any warmup wasn't expected until the folowing Thursday. With that information and a risk of being snowed in on a mountain top lake that is a virtual ghost town in winter we started brainstorming for other options...we were going into the woods, no matter what the weather channel was saying, we just had to decide on the place. We both had different systems we used for camping, I sleep in a hammock and Sherill uses a 1 man bivy tent. Neither of us had ever tested our gear in this type of extreme cold weather that was forecasted and this was going to be our only chance to do it without having to drive to a more traditionally cold state like ...Maine. As 3 January 2014 closed in on us we settled on leaving our kayaks at home and hiking into Ellicot's Rock wilderness area. This place is in the extreme northeast corner of Georgia and has the Chatooga river running through it...a world class trout stream. It was still going to be cold but the snow band wasn't supposed to travel that far east. We would camp on the South Carolina side of the river about 2 miles in, which would put us about a mile south of the spot where Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina all meet. This spot is marked by a rock that has the longitude and latitude chiseled on it by John Ellicot, the government surveyor that mapped these states borders back in the early 1800's. I discovered this river also while reading the book, "Trout streams of Southern Appalachia". I'm very familiar with this awesome place and have hiked in, fished and camped there a dozen or more times. The river holds a healthy population of stream bred brown trout and the setting reminds me of an ancient medieval forest with giant hemlocks a hundred foot tall. On the third of January we drove to the parking area for Ellicot's Rock, loaded all of our gear on our backs and hiked in. The weather was actually nice with temps reaching 50 degrees but we knew what the weatherman had said and we set about gathering more firewood than we thought we'd need and getting our shelters set up. This was a fun fishing trip on the surface but at the heart of it was a test of our equipment and second...our own skills as woodsmen. If disaster struck we had an easy out which was a shor hike back to the car but that was only a last resort. On day two we woke up to cooler temperatures but nothing abnormal, we ate breakfast and set out alone to fish. By mid afternoon the temps had dropped drastically into the 20's and by 4 o'clock my fishing line was freezing on the spool and the 3 fish I'd kept were frozen solid. Back at camp we had built the fire ring up on one side so it would reflect the heat and skewered our fish on sticks to roast over the fire. At 8 pm that night I set my phone a good distance away from our camp so I could get an accurate reading on it's built in later read 8 degrees. This cold front had a name and we soon would realize that "Polar Vortex" perfectly described what was in store for us. As I mentioned earlier, I sleep in a hammock and I had little information on if it could be set up for a comfortable night's sleep in these bitter cold temperatures so I used what I thought would work. First, I chose a spot right next to one of those felled giant hemlocks. I decided on the south side of the trunk, shielding me from the north winds. When hanging my hammock I made sure to place it very close to the ground, so close that when I was in it there was only about 6 inches between me and the ground. Inside I placed my thermarest pad and one of my two sleeping bags...a 0 degree bag, on top of that for added insulation, the other bag with a 20 degree rating, would be what I would sleep inside of while wearing fleece long johns, wool socks and a wool beanie. I could shed these clothes if it was too much but it would be hell having to get up to put them on if needed. That night it was brutally cold and I heard wind make the most eery sounds as it blew down the gorge we were camped in, it was high pitched almost like a whistle and at 3 a.m. I woke up and had to pee...I didn't want to get up because I was actually comfortable and had been sleeping like a baby, now I had to get out into the coldest weather in 50 years. I made quick work out of this dilemma... I was out, relieved and back in at a record time. I noticed Sherill snoring and thought of it as a good thing because it meant he wasn't frozen to death and his sleep system was working also. We awoke to a sunny 2 degree morning, broke camp and headed out. The trail hugs the river almost the whole length of it and it had been so cold that slush was flowing in the bend of the river, over half of it was choked with ice. Back at the parking lot we were happy to be back in a warm car and headed for home but I believe we were most excited that with our trip's success, because of our planning and equipment we pulled this adventure off without feeling any ill effects from the weather. We knew for a fact that in a worst case scenario we could handle extreme cold temps...even a "Polar Vortex".