Death Prong, Part Three

3 02 2011

[ This is Part Three of a Four Part Series. A true tale of getting “turned around” in the woods a few years ago in NC ]


“Naked people?” I said…


“What are they doing?” I said. It would have been funny, but by this time I was (unknowingly) well into being dehydrated and all I could think of was getting back to camp.

“They’re swimming…I guess…” said milliam.

He slowly waded out into the creek and I followed him. My back was beginning to hurt again, but that was nothing unusual. I noticed that the sun was going behind the mountain behind us, and that the shadows from the big boulders were getting very long now. We sloshed across the creek to the other side and met the two “naked people.” They were now wearing clothes and greeted us with shy smiles.

Something was strange though. They didn’t look or sound like they were from the area. Turns out they weren’t. They were exchange students from Sweden! They’d come down to the creek that weekend from school in Asheville or some such and they’d decided to hike in and camp. We talked with them for a few minutes, Milliam asking them about how they got in there to where we were. At this point, I think we both still thought that we had some distance to go before we’d hit the main river. In front of us, rising up from the creek was a mountain. Creek. Trail. Mountain. A span of no more than 20-30 feet between them all. There were at least three trails. One going up and down the creek, and one or two perhaps going straight up the mountainside in a series of switchbacks. We asked the skinny-dippers rather desperately which one they’d come in on, and did it take them very long to get back to the “parkway?” – that being the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Milliam, off-trail and just before crossing the ridge and heading down into Death Prong...

The looked so eager to help us! They smiled and shook their heads as if to say “noooo, it wasn’t very long a trail to get here.” OK, actually they said “nooooo, it wasn’t very long a trail to get in here.” They pointed us downstream and said it took them no time at all to hike in to where they were camped. Their friends, all college kids, were camped out between the creek and the trail just a few yards downstream. We hustled downstream, past their friends, nodded hello and “booked it” as fast as our tired legs and my back would take us. Darkness was falling on the valley now, quickly – as it does in these parts, even in summer. We wanted to try and make it to the main river before the sun set because on the round, slick rocks it would be difficult to try and cross in the dark. Of course we both had headlamps, but just the same we’d rather not cross a freestone stream at night.

So we practically flew downstream.

Soon, though….I got this “feeling.” Like we weren’t going the right way. I have a sort of “built in” compass that, although not always right, amazes my dear wife from time to time. And this time, even though I was tired and dehydrated and finding it very hard to focus on anything but my pounding head and aching back….I thought the creek was getting much bigger than it should be. Add to that the fact that the trail (and the river) were going steeply downhill. The mountain on our immediate right – and I do mean immediate as I could reach out and touch it easily as it sliced straight upward into the evening sky – was getting taller. This was not right. I’d poured over topo maps for quite a few hours before this trip and I tried to tell Milliam that I thought we should turn around. He thought I was wrong. We kept on racing downhill. Who can blame him though? I’m known for “owl time” and “owl distance” – always saying someplace is “two miles, maybe three” and it turns out to be six or ten!

So, we kept on hustling down that trail. And I think I must have said ” I think this is wrong”  about two more times before we saw it. It was big. It was light blue, with white letters and it read something like: ” WELCOME TO SKITTERING ROCK WILDERNESS AREA.” In other words, you guessed it….we were “flying” down the mountain going the wrong way! I’m wondering if Milliam thought the same thing I did. Those sneaky Swedes! They saw we had no pack! They knew we weren’t going to make it out of there before dark! Were they just screwing around with us? Were they back at their camp laughing because they’d sent us off into the night going the wrong way? Had I been feeling better than I was, even slightly better, I’d have been more angry. As it was, I was merely furious. We turned around and started back up the trail. It was getting pretty dark by then and I asked Milliam if he’d mind getting my headlamp out of the back of my  pack for me. I turned around and he put his on, then started to fish around for mine. “Ummmm” he said. “It’s not in here.” “Are you sure…….check the other pocket, maybe…” He said ” Sorry, it’s not here….”

I could not have been more dejected. In that moment I think I knew that we weren’t getting back to camp before the next day, but I never let it stay in my mind for long. After all, I was too busy whining about my back hurting and breathing hard and being tired, and my feet hurting and it being dark and being thirsty…that’s when it finally hit me too that I was thirsty. Really thirsty. Like I’ve never been before. Everything was dry. My mouth. My eyes. My skin. My nose and sinuses. I think I was leaning on a tree trying to catch my breath for the fiftieth time when I realized that maybe we’d bitten off more than we were prepared to chew.

I pulled a small single-LED keychain light from inside my pack’s front pocket. “This will have to do” I thought. With a lazy wave of my hand I motioned for Milliam to start heading up the trail. He’s always the leader whenever we bushwhack or hike. He’s braver than I am, knows more about the woods and complains less. Actually, he never complains unless the tarp over the picnic table in camp won’t align itself just right. He’s an engineer by trade, you see. He’s the guy you’d want in your foxhole if anything ever hit the fan. And he’s the guy that kept me going when my brain was telling me to just sit down and rest.

Soon we make it back to the area where we crossed Death Prong. We walk into the Swedish Deep Woods Semi-nudist Camp and they aren’t laughing at us. They look very surprised to see us again. They are sitting around quietly enjoying the woods and each other’s company, but… I notice something isn’t right. There’s no campfire. Instead they have a “ring” of tea lights. I find this to be almost amusing, and ask what’s up with the funny lights? It’s getting really cold out by now and this seems odd to me. We explain to them that we didn’t want to go out the way they came in tonight because it was much too far. They looked puzzled. I knew something wasn’t right. Milliam got me some water in his space-aged light-thing and I told him if he’d fill it up again I’d drink every bit of it again. Stupidly, we didn’t’ fill it up when we left the Swedes behind. I could have used a gallon at that point, I’m sure. Or maybe it was better that we didn’t because I surely would have drank until I was sick. We had the students pull out a map and they told us that that they were on “bumblebee creek” ( we’ll call it ). Well, we might not know the exact right trail that would get us to the Blue Ridge Parkway, but I knew we sure as heck weren’t on Bumblebee Creek! They were as lost as we were, maybe more so! You can’t have an open fire in the Wilderness Area. You know, the one where we’d just left (the sign, remember?). But they weren’t in the wilderness area, they were outside of it and on a totally different creek. They told us how they’d walked in and they thought they were on Bumblebee Creek but heard cars earlier in the hike where they shouldn’t have heard them. WHAMMO! It all suddenly made sense. When we’d come out of the woods and interrupted those poor kids’ skinny-dipping session, we weren’t crossing Death Prong!  We were actually downstream from the junction of Death Prong and the main river and we were crossing the main river! Because the main river and Death Prong are about the same size at that point, we couldn’t tell the difference! Suddenly, I knew exactly where we were. What I didn’t know was which trail would get us up the to the BRP the fastest. Or the easiest. Turns out there wasn’t a trail that would accommodate either of those requirements!

So, then. There we were. What do to….what to do? Find a place to lie down, build a fire and sleep near people we didn’t know? We were both unarmed and neither of us like to take chances. Or, do we push on to the Parkway in the middle of the night? Would my little LED light hold out? How far could it be to the top of the ridge? And if we got there, how far a hike up the Parkway would it be from the trail-head to the parking lot where the car was? Could we hitch-hike a ride? Did we even want to do that in the middle of the night?  I wasn’t sure how far it would be….. Two miles, owl distance….maybe more. So we stood there, Milliam looking at the water and the trail and me trying to stay up on two feet. I knew he didn’t want to camp there. Another two guys passed us and were setting up camp nearby. They were nice enough to tell us what the Swedes didn’t know, and that was the fastest way up the trails to the Parkway….but we didn’t know them. They could be druggies or illegally armed. We didn’t know and we weren’t really sure we wanted to risk it. I knew Milliam wanted to push on, at least to get away from other people. It might seem strange to some people – this paranoia about being unarmed around fellow outdoorsfolk – but at that time they were looking for what could be a serial killer in that very area. It sounds like the beginning of some scary campfire story, but it’s the truth…two people had been murdered very near where we were camping that night and they thought the same person had murdered others near wilderness areas in TN and GA. I told him I thought I could hike some more, so we looked toward the trail they’d pointed out. It looked steep, but then again – they all do in the Blue Ridge.

We started up the trail, Milliam in front with his full-sized headlamp and me dragging behind, holding that single-LED light in front of my feet, hoping I could make it to the Parkway so we could hitch a ride back to camp…back to food and water I’d rather drink….and back home the next day. There was nothing else I could do but to keep telling myself after each footstep landed to take another.  My head was pounding. One more step. One more step. My back was killing me…both sides…aching like mad. One more step… one more step…one more step…

We slogged our way slowly up into the darkness….it was now 12:30 am and we had no idea how this night would end…




3 responses

3 02 2011

Naked Swedes. No headlamp. Possible serial killer. That was quite an adventure. Looking forward to the next installment.

3 02 2011
d nash

this is like the blair witch project with naked people. I like it.

4 02 2011

This story needs naked photos!

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