The interesting life of a guidebook writer
Writing books about hiking and backpacking is always interesting. Sometimes, it’s more interesting than others.
As March rolled around, I realized a gap in my perennial winter hiking plan: I had yet to hit the coast for a long trek. And as 2011 rolled on, I realized a gap in my 8-year-hiking plan: I had yet to scout the 8-year-old Weetock Trail. The Weetock being at the coast, it seemed the perfect way to double dip on the to-do list, especially on a cool (upper 40s) sunny Friday.
The Weetock Trail is an 11-mile meander in the coastal Croatan National Forest. It’s the smaller, lesser-known cousin of the 22-mile Neusiok Trail. The Neusiok is in the northern Croatan, roughly hemmed in by Havelock to the west, Morehead City to the east, the Neuse River to the North and NC 308 to the south. The Neusiok was blazed in the early 1970s by the Carteret County Wildlife Club, which also developed the Weetock Trail. The Weetock, the Algonquian name for the White Oak River, which borders the trail almost entirely unseen for five miles, opened in 2003.
I’d often wondered why I hadn’t heard much about the Weetock. I wondered even more after I’d been on the trail for a few minutes. The Weetock begins within yards of NC 58 but quickly distances itself from the busy two-lane that funnels inlanders to Emerald Isle and the Crystal Coast. The Weetock heads north and west initially, through a young coastal forest dominated by pines and the occasional gathering of old growth hardwoods (often indicating an old homestead). Some stretches were devoid of understory, surprising for a typically lush coastal forest, some were thick with various bays. And there was a surprising amount of relief, thanks to small creeks that, over the years, have carved mini-valleys throughout the otherwise flat forest. Perhaps most intriguing was the bluff the trail hugged over Holston Creek, rising as much as 20 feet above the creek bed. There was just enough variety to keep a hiker engaged, but not so much that you couldn’t drift into a reverie now and again. It was this trait that gave the Weetock it’s mischievous personality. One minute you’re hiking a clearly defined, trenched path, the next ... hey! Where’d the trail go?
The trail’s playful nature first reared a mile and a half in. The Weetock came up to FR 157 and, based on the obvious trail directly opposite, appeared to cross it. Quickly, though, that trail became less and less obvious, until I was engulfed in briars. I consulted the crude map downloaded from the Carteret County Wildlife Club’s Web site and noticed that it didn’t show the trail crossing the road; in fact, according to the map the trail didn’t come close. I retreated to the road, walked slowly northwest (based on what the map suggested) and within 30 yards saw where the trail cut back into the woods.
Two miles farther the Weetock did it again. Crossing FR 146 just below Haywood Landing, the CCWC’s trademark 1-inch x 5-inch metal strips were nailed to several trees across the road. But again, they quickly fizzled. I stood at the last strip and did a 260-degree sweep. Nothing. I got out the map, got out my compass and began heading due southwest, where the map said I would find the trail. Within two minutes, there it was.
On I went, five miles, six, seven. Walking for five minutes on the friendliest trail imaginable, then getting dumped. I’d stop, scan, and 30 yards in a totally unexpected direction I’d see a strip of metal glinting on a tree trunk. Adding to the confusion was a temporary trail that had been in use not long ago, a false path that beckoned a hiker to go astray. About 8 miles in the trail dispensed with the pathway part altogether; the metal strips seemed to lead through the path of most resistance, through bays and particularly pesky briars. Still, the generally reliable metal strips seemed to be keeping me on course, as far as my orienteering skills could tell. Then I encountered the clearings.
The first began at mile 9.17, according to the GPS. I emerged from the forest into a wildlife clearing the size of two football fields, with no immediate sign of where to go. I stepped 30 yards out into the clearing, looked west, then east. To the east, the smallest strip of metal clung nailed to a tree, another strip about 40 yards farther down the perimeter. I walk until I was certain I’d missed an opening in the woods — then I’d see another metal strip waving on down the line. I continued to a roadway that led, shortly, to another clearing. More scouting suggested the trail skirted the southern edge of this larger clearing. I slowly walked the perimeter, keeping an eye out for those metal strips that now reveled in playing hide and seek.
Every disappearance of trail was accompanied not just by stopping to search, but once the trail was found, to try and describe, in my rain-resistant yellow notebook, where the trail picked up, then marking the trouble spot on my GPS. The plan, of course, being to create a map that would help future hikers avoid my frustrations. It’s a time-consuming process and as long as there’s daylight I’m content to forge ahead. Alas, this day’s effort had already consumed six and a half hours and I only had half an hour or so of good daylight left. I knew I didn’t have much more than a mile of trail left, but had no idea where that last mile might be. And the last thing I wanted was to be in the middle of a coastal forest searching for a barely existent trail in the dark. I consulted my GPS, found a forest road less than a half mile east and bailed — for the time being. Since it’s part of my job to map trails and help others find their way, I’ll be back. I’ll likely start from the southern trailhead and work north, hopefully punching through the connection that alluded me on Friday.
Looking forward to returning for another interesting day on the trail.