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 and wearing of face masks in public spaces are being properly followed along with avoiding hot spot areas, the risk of contracting COVID-19 is still considered to be moderately low in our region. Tennessee and North Carolina plus the Appalachian Trail Conservancy are in Phase 2 of their respective plans for reopening activity. Virginia has remains in Phase 3 plan with some restrictions.

TEHCC Fall Lunch

See the event notice about the club hosting a ribbon-cutting for the revitalized Forest Walk loop trail at Eastman Recreation park on Sunday, October 25th.

TEHCC Hiking Program

  • As Eastman Chemical has started to bring more employees back full-time on-site, the Steering Committee decided to begin the 2020 hiking program in July.  Watch the Events calendar for outings and read the newsletters for details.

Appalachian Trail

  • Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) reminds users of the A.T. to remain safe with several recommendations found in this blog post.
  • Many shuttle services are still temporarily halting operation, while few have reopened.
  • 7/8: Cherokee NF notice: “The Appalachian Trail is open, however trail shelters and privies are temporarily shut down“.
  • 7/14: Pisgah NF has closed the A.T. shelters (Stan Murray and Overmountain) link to order – latter was already closed due to structural damage. While the order says through July 8, PNF still considers these facilities to be closed.
  • ATC advises: Overnight hikers should carry a personal shelter and camp at least 200 feet from any source of water and 100 feet from the trail. Also, bring a trowel to bury your fecal waste at least 70 adult paces from campsites and water sources.
  • Pisgah (NC) and Cherokee (TN) National Forests are now allowing volunteers with restrictions under Phase 2 to complete maintenance and repair.  TEHCC has interpreted these conditions include limiting crew size, only travel with immediate family, not sharing tools, wash hands or use sanitizer frequently especially before eating, and maintaining 6′ social distancing in the field.  Do no maintenance at the closed shelters and privy, including nearby trash pick-up. 
  • Regular Thursday maintenance crew is operating but with just 8-10 crew members arranged by the A.T. Projects Coordinator.
  • Saturday Hiking with Tools will be held on the second Saturday in October to provide training for some new volunteers. Check the newsletter and club calendar for details.
  • Overall, the A.T. section managed by TEHCC is clear and open. Some pockets of heavy growth are still being pursued with the record-setting rainfall experience early in 2020.

Other Trails

  • 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.
    • Bays Mountain Park (Kingsport) is open.  Nature Center and some programming resumed with limited capacity.  
    • Trails in Cherokee National Forest are open for use, but ranger stations are closed.
    • Trails in TN state parks are open for use, but some park facilities remain closed.
    • Virginia State Parks opened for day-use activities, including trails for hiking, biking and equestrian use. Campgrounds, restrooms, and picnic shelters are open. Face coverings are required in all park facilities. 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.

Rental Equipment

  • Eastman Recreation says club rental backpacking and camping equipment may be checked out from Building 310. Their open hours are 7:30am to 4pm weekdays. Good use has been reported, thus recommend making reservations at (423) 229-3771.

Area Events

  • 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.

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.