Current impact of COVID-19 on TEHCC and regional activities

Aligning with guidance from our partner organizations and employer, the following actions are being taken in response to the current situation for the coronavirus.  If the principles of social distancing are being properly employed, the risk of contracting COVID-19 is still considered to be low in our region. However, further adjustments will be made as the club leadership learns more about the continuing impact.

  • 5/27: No hikes will be scheduled until Eastman Chemical starts the process of reintegrating employees working from home back into full-time presence on-site.  A recent announcement has been made that first business personnel will be allowed on-site starting June 10th; however, the Steering Committee will need to decide if conditions are right.  Present hope is that the 2020 hiking program can commence later this year.  Check the Events calendar for outings once this restriction has been lifted.
  • Hot Springs, NC Trailfest 2020 (formerly April 24-26) has been cancelled.
  • Erwin, TN Great Outdoors Festival (formerly May 2) has been cancelled.
  • Roan Mountain, TN Hiker Palooza (formerly May 8-10) has been postponed.
  • Damascus, VA Trail Days 2020 (formerly May 15-17) has been cancelled.
  • 5/7: Roan Mountain Rhododendron Festival, normally third weekend in June, cancelled for 2020.
  • Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) requested that thru and section hikers suspend their plans in case of exposure while on the trail.  Most shuttle services have temporarily halted operation thus do not count on finding a ride.
  • As of 5/22, Cherokee (TN) and Pisgah (NC) National Forests reopened all A.T. trailheads including Hampton blue blaze and Dennis Cove accessing Laurel Fall, Osborne Farm/Cross Mountain, and Roan Mountain/Carvers Gap.
  • Pisgah NF has closed through August 13, 2020 or until rescinded the Roan Mountain area including A.T. shelters (Stan Murray and Overmountain – latter was already closed due to structural damage). The use of trail shelters on the Tennessee sections of the Appalachian Trail is discouraged.
  • Tennessee and Virginia have begun phased reopening.
  • Eastman Recreation says club rental backpacking and camping equipment may now be checked out from Building 310. Their open hours have been reduced to 7:30am to 4pm weekdays.
  • Present understanding is that day hikers are allowed on area trails but keeping group size to a minimum with less carpooling.  Take hand sanitizer to use liberally.
    • 5/30: Bays Mountain Park (Kingsport) is open for trail use.  Nature Center and some programming will resume Monday, June 1 with limited capacity.
    • Appalachian Trail Conservancy is still stating to stay off the A.T. The issue is avoiding congested parking areas such as Carvers Gap/Roan Mountain or Hampton blue blaze/Laurel Falls.  
    • Trails in Cherokee National Forest are open for use, but ranger stations are closed.
    • Trails in TN state parks are open for use (Rocky Fork reopened May 4th, Warriors Path now allows overnights) , but most park facilities remain closed. Some hosted events will restart in June.
    • Virginia State Parks opened for day-use activities on May 21, including trails for hiking, biking and equestrian use. Campgrounds and restrooms are opening for Memorial Day weekend, but picnic shelters are staying closed. Bring cash for entrance fees which are being collected.
  • In all cases, maintain social distancing of at least six feet. If parking area is full, head somewhere else. There are much lesser used access points and trails in the region.
  • 2020 Konnarock Crew has been cancelled.  (June dates for TEHCC.)
  • Regular Thursday maintenance crew and Third Saturday Hiking with Tools have been suspended until guidance changes from the ATC.
  • 5/27:  Pisgah (NC) and Cherokee (TN) National Forests are now allowing volunteers with restrictions under Phase 1 to complete site assessments, trash pickup, and minor maintenance and repair.  These conditions include limiting group size to maximum three, only travel with immediate family, not sharing tools, and maintaining 6′ social distancing.  Do no maintenance at the closed shelters, including trash pick-up. 
  • Invasive Species event to Devils Creek Gap planned for April 25th was cancelled. We’ll lose ground on the treatment.
  • Roughly every two weeks, ATC is hosting a teleconference to update the clubs.
  • Spring Dinner meeting (was 4/17 then 5/8) has been cancelled. Awards and recognition will be presented to our Fall Dinner (details to be decided during the summer).
  • Tuesday Evenings: Johnson City Roll Practice are suspended as Freedom Hall Pool is closed.
  • Thursday Evenings: Kayak Sessions are not being held as Kingsport Aquatic Center is also closed until further notice.
  • USFS has reopened most river launch sites.  Outfitters are offering trips with limited number of same family in each raft.

Reference Resources (links may not function from Eastman network)

ATC’s Guidance to Hikers

ATC’s Letter to Long-Distance Hikers 

ATC’s Current guidance to Volunteers 

ATC’s Notice on decisions related to Visitor Centers and Ridgerunners

Overmountain Shelter closed until further notice due to structural concerns

US Forest Service announced (News Release) that for public safety, the Overmountain Shelter (aka Yellow Mountain barn) has been closed pending further evaluation of options for the structure and site management. Tent camping in the area is still allowed (and the privy remains open!).

No timeline has been set for the review and decision.  The situation with the barn has been discussed and monitored for several years.  Damage observed for a key support beam triggered the closure action. 

Injury due to Lightning Strike on Roan Mountain

NC Appalachian Ranger District shared an injury report from mid-July with the club to bring attention to this severe weather hazard.  Two couples, one with a small baby, walking across the open balds on the Appalachian Trail across the Roan Highlands were indirectly hit by lightning.  The bolt was described as a fireball coming towards them through the water flooding the trail path during a heavy thundershower.  The young mother apparently got the brunt of the lightning jolt which catapulted her two to four feet into air.  The lightning strike numbed their feet temporarily with blood circulation gradually returning to their extremities.  While all victims were able to subsequently walk, the mother also exhibited some signs of shock.  The group was led back to the Carvers Gap parking lot but was scared by any further thunder in the distance.

The weather that day was scattered thundershowers.  The group had hiked out onto the open balds during sunshine, but a passing front quickly changed the situation.  Awareness of any forecast for thunderstorms should change your plans especially for trails in the elevated areas common in our region.  If thunder is heard, immediately seek safe shelter which is likely your vehicle back at the trailhead, even if your weather is currently good since lightning can strike many miles away from the storm.  Stay sheltered for at least 30 minutes after you heard the last clap of thunder.   If unable to safely reach your vehicle, seek lower elevation away from tall and/or isolated trees.  Being alert regarding the weather to take appropriate actions is the best safety approach.

Note: The August 17th hike on A.T. from Tanyard Gap to Rich Mountain Firetower was rescheduled from original June date due to prediction of thunderstorms.  Who wants to be in a metal box raised high above a ridgeline in a lightning storm?

Goodbye, Watauga Lake Shelter

Built in 1980 by the US Forest Service, the basic three-sided shelter was designed for six people and located 50 yards off the Appalachian Trail south of TVA Watauga Dam not far from the lake.  The original shingled roof was replaced with metal in 1997.  The shelter was further maintained in 2007 by staining the outside and installing a gutter on back.   A BSA Eagle project in 2011 by Seth Douthat provided a bear pole for food protection. 

Former Watauga Lake Shelter (built in 1980)

In 2013, activity by multiple families of bears, and not just a couple of bears, at the TVA campgrounds (Watauga Dam and Little Wilbur) and along the A.T. around Watauga Lake led to the US Forest Service issuing a facility closure notice for the Watauga Lake Shelter.  Instructions were to not stop between US321 to Wilbur Dam Road to eat, rest, or camp overnight to reduce any potential encounters.  TVA successfully implemented strategies to reduce access to food/ waste in the campgrounds with elimination of tent camping, banning (with fines) outside storage of food, improved trash containers, and education signs.   Options for the shelter area were extensively discussed between the partner organizations.

The temporary closure notice for the shelter was lifted in Spring 2016, and unfortunately, bear encounters immediately resumed.  A bear destroyed two tents at the shelter, was scared off, then returned to climb the food pole.  A bear appeared the next night to destroy another tent holding equipment and supplies while hikers slept in the full shelter and another nearby tent.  The bear then came back to successfully acquire food bags hanging from trees.  The ranger district immediately imposed the bear closure again “Until Further Notice”.

Situation with bears at Watauga Lake Shelter was further discussed during 2016-2018 to conclude it was not going to be improved with available administrative and physical controls.  The shelter itself was deemed not suitable for relocation, thus decision made by the partner organizations to take down the building.  In March 2019, the bear pole, steps, and table were removed to discourage use.  Finally, the shelter was disassembled in May with the metal parts and shingles hauled back across the lake by TVA boats (many thanks for the assistance!) for disposal while the wood components were burned in place.  The closure notice for camping between US321 and Wilbur Dam Road remains in force.

While Watauga Lake Shelter provided nearly forty years of service, it is a disappointment that the recreational use on and along the lake could not sufficiently practice Leave No Trace principles to avoid creating an attractive enticement for the bears. 

Bear Activity near McQueen Knob – May 2019

ATC has received multiple reports in early to mid-May of bears taking food in the trail section around McQueen Knob – from south at the old farmstead to the emergency shelter.  This same stretch of trail had bear activity in 2018. 

Several campsites were visited by a bear that was circling around until able to grab insufficiently hung bags or broke the low branch to gain access to the food.  Sometimes the hanging bags were just torn in place to drop the contents. 

Please take necessary precautions to limit risk of encountering a bear,  Hikers should camp 200 feet away from where their food and “smellables” are stored for their own safety. For most adults, 200 feet is about 80 steps.  Bear canisters should be sealed correctly and not stored in shelters. (Certified list)  Proper use for Ursacks are to tie securely to the trunk of a tree.  (Link to their How to Use page)  Hanging bear bags should employ a very high branch away from your campsite. (Instructions – practice at home first!)

Mount Rogers/Grayson Highlands reopened to dispersed camping (10/2), but be aware of possible bear activity

As of 10/2/2018, the National Forest lands, including section of the Appalachian Trail, temporarily closed in the Mount Rogers NRA and Grayson Highlands SP are now available for dispersed camping; however, maintain caution.

Since closure on August 30, the Forest Service and partner agencies have monitored the area with no further issues regarding black bear activity and human encounters. Habituated bears may still be active in the area, so visitors should remain alert. Campers should be extremely vigilant about storing their food according to recommended guidelines. Dogs should remain on leashes to avoid surprise encounters.

The prior notice involved the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests prohibiting overnight camping in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, Grayson Highlands State Park, and surrounding National Forest lands. This order impacted 17 miles of the Appalachian Trail between Elk Garden/VA-600 and Fox Creek/VA-603, including the three A.T. shelters: Thomas Knob Shelter, Wise Shelter and Old Orchard Shelter. Backcountry camping within Grayson Highlands SP was also closed, not just along the A.T., which changed the plans for other groups such as BSA Troop 48.

Kim Peters – August 2018 ATC Volunteer of the Month

Kim Peters is the ATC’s Volunteer of the Month for August 2018!

Kim has been an active TEHCC member for more than 18 years, and over time, has taken on more responsibility by providing trail maintenance leadership. In 2010, she began serving as TEHCC Maintenance Coordinator engaging many different volunteers, from new members to retirees, in various maintenance activities. TEHCC typically has more than 13,000 hours invested in the Appalachian Trail each year, by roughly 450 different volunteers, across regular outings and special events. Therefore, the role of volunteer coordinator is critical to our club’s success

A search of club newsletters reveals that Kim started out hiking with TEHCC on April 1, 2000 with a trip to the Sand Cave/White Rocks in Ewing, VA. Since then, her retirement has enabled her to spend more time in the outdoors through both hikes (TEHCC Hiker of the Year in 2001 and 2007) and trail maintenance. Kim has hiked the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain to Harper’s Ferry. Over the years, she has logged personal maintenance time of nearly 5,000 hours over 600 events. Currently, Kim invests around 450 hours (~56 days!) each year; thus is the third most active TEHCC maintainer.

As Maintenance Coordinator, Kim recruits volunteers for our 36 trail sections and 15 shelters over 134 miles of the Appalachian Trail. She hosts a large winter meeting to kick off each new maintenance season with recognition, safety, and training. Inquiries from potential volunteers are matched with the weekly trail project crew, section groups, or a regular monthly outing. In 2012, Kim rebranded the third-Saturday events to “Hiking with Tools” to reach out to those who are new to maintenance, have a weekday job, or desire lighter tasks such as cleaning out waterbars, lopping rhododendron, breaking up fire rings, or painting blazes/shelters. This latter effort has been very successful in recruiting new maintainers of the Appalachian Trail.

The Tennessee Eastman Hiking & Canoeing Club sincerely thanks Kim for her service and leadership over the years. And congratulate her on being further recognized as ATC’s Volunteer of the Month for August 2018! Please contact Kim (atmaint@tehcc.org) if you’re interested in helping with the Appalachian Trail.

AT near Watauga Lake no longer rerouted

June 2018 – The lake level has receded, thus the Appalachian Trail has returned to its normal path.

May 2018 – Due to recent heavy rains, TVA has temporarily raised the Watauga Lake level, so that a couple of bridges on the Appalachian Trail are now under water. The trail is temporarily rerouted on US 321 and Oliver Hollow Road. Signs are posted and route is blue blazed. If heading trail north on Shook Branch Road, cross US 321 and walk left or west along US 321 for about a quarter mile and then go right along Oliver Hollow Rd. Follow the road for a third of a mile and take the short woods path to the right to the A.T.

This situation previously occurred in April 2017.

For future reference, Watauga Lake levels above the 1961 foot level trigger the need to put up the re-route signs.