Huckleberry Knob is one of those iconic hikes in the western Carolinas. It was picked along with its intended pair – Stratton Bald because of the relative proximity of the trailheads to each other. Also because the Georgia SOTA Association stopped giving winter bonuses after the 15th of March, I had to pick another pair of summits from the Carolinas or Tennessee Mountains. The Tennessee and Carolina Associations awards bonus points until the 31st of March and this is the last week to cram in those bonus points. I worked out the logistics. We were to do Huckleberry Knob first.
On March 27th, Dave KE4EA met at 7:00 AM as usual. It was a long car ride from Travelers Rest to the Cherhola Skyway in the Nantahala National Forest – about 3 hours. The banter during the drive seemed to make the drive a bit shorter. We arrived at the trailhead around 10:30 AM and about ½ hour behind schedule. Dave was having a little bit of a problem getting a reading from his heart rate monitor. Dave was conscientious about not pushing his heart rate too high on the climbs and so this would make it difficult to keep tabs on where his high limit would have been. He eventually decided to do it more or less by feel and not rely on the heart rate monitor. The trail was a grassy trail and about 1.5 km long. It was not too steep – we only had about 80 meters of vertical to ascend. We arrived at the bald summit – just a wide expanse of grass with a 360 degree panoramic view of the surrounding mountains. The temperature was in the high 40s and very calm. The sky was mostly clear. It was just about perfect hiking weather.
Near the summit we encountered a metal cross with a grave stone. Inscribed on the stone was the short story of Andy Sherman and Paul O’Neill, a couple of lumberjacks who set out on a hike one cold morning on December 11, 1899. Their bodies were found almost a year later on September 6, 1900. A jury determined that after having been inebriated they got lost and froze to death. Andy Sherman’s body was buried there near the summit of Huckleberry Knob. That was a sobering start to an otherwise beautiful day.
Dave and I set up our radio stations at the summit except that Dave had left his mast at the trailhead by the truck in his rush after fussing with his heart rate monitor. Dave found a small sapling and the apex of his antenna was only 6 feet off the ground. There was no cell service at the summit so I could not post a spot to tell our chasers we are ready to make contacts. I yelled to Dave to get on 7.065 MHz and hope that reverse beacon will pick us up and post us. I started calling CQ on 14.065 MHz at 1500 which is my usual calling frequency. At 1530 UTC, my first caller was W1BV Mike Fishman, a young ham from Peabody MA. He was a random caller, and not a SOTA chaser. The second caller was Lars Markus SA4BLM from Sweden, a familiar call, finally a SOTA chaser. I asked him to post me on the SOTA spotting cluster. He called me at 1533 UTC in response to the reverse beacon network picking up my CQ from just a few minutes before.
One by one they started to call. Soon it was Jorge EA2LU from Spain and then Jan Lavicka OK2PDT, the most prolific activator in SOTA history, from the Czech Republic, and then another Swede SM4CJM Hans. Then a whole bunch of familiar SOTA chasers piled in W5BOS, K0RS, VE2JCW, etc.
Dave walked over from his spot. I asked how he was doing. He replied – “I had one random call on 40m”. I said to him to get on 10.113 on 30m and call CQ from there.
In the meantime, I kept getting calls. I got a call from Alan Shapiro NM5S, a prolific activator from New Mexico. He was on a summit at W5N/SE-037 and so it was a summit to summit call on 20m. I changed frequency to 40m knowing that Dave is on 30m. I started calling on 40m. The reverse beacons must have picked me up at 1630 UTC and the 40m chasers started to call. Dave walked over again and said “I have been calling CQ on 30m for a half hour – nothing. I still have only one”. I told him to get on 7.065 and my callers will work him. So I worked a couple of chasers on 40m and told them in Morse twice “QRX, QRX PSE WORK KE4EA”. I let Dave take over my frequency and he worked the rest of my chasers. Dave’s activation is now safe. He will safely get his minimum to score the summit. After going to 30m for a bit, we packed up and hiked down to proceed to Stratton Bald.
Still not having cell service, we proceeded to the Stratton Bald trailhead using my printed directions. We were to proceed SW on NC143 for 6.8 miles and find a forest road FS81 on the right. We found the paved road leading up to the forest service road but found road entrance gated and locked. We plugged in the GPS coordinates of the summit and it was 5 km away “as the crow flies”. It was supposed to be an 11 km (6.7 mile) drive on this forest road to the trail head plus a 2 km hike. We did not plan on walking 13 km one way to the summit. A 26 km hike – out and back will take a long time.
I told Dave, “It is not the end of world, we just lose out on winter bonus points”. Dave replied “But we invested so much time driving here, it would be great if we can activate another summit in the area”. I recalled that Barnett Knob is on the way home not too far from US74 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I also recalled that they had just re-opened that section of the BRP past mile marker 451. I told Dave, “We can activate Barnett Knob W4C/WM-055. It is on the way home and it is an almost drive-up”. Barnett Knob just a short hike from the BRP to summit – about a half mile or 1 km. We departed from FS road 81 and proceeded back to the main highway US74 heading home and had cell service again. I had Google Maps find our way to the Blue Ridge Parkway near Barnett Knob. I plugged in the coordinates left by Patrick KI4SVM into the GPS for the trail head. I read over Dean’s (K2JB) notes that the trail head is between mile marker 462 and 463 on the Parkway. We were only 30 minutes away.
Soon we were at the entrance of the forest road that leads up to the summit of Barnett Knob. Ironically, the forest road gate was open. We could drive all the way up to the top. We decided to hike it, not letting us be robbed of the opportunity for some more exercise. It was 10% average grade – about 112 meters to ascend the 1 km.
As I was hiking up, I got a call from my aunt “Are you going to pick me at the airport? I am here in Atlanta ready to board the plane to Greenville Spartanburg. We were delayed.” I replied, “Is that today? I thought it was tomorrow.” She replied, “No - did you not get my text?” I looked at the text message she sent me, and sure enough, it was to be today at 5:30. I thought to myself “Rats, I am at least 2 hours away by car”. I told her “I will be there as soon as I can – just wait for me”.
Dave turned to me and asked “Do we turn around and head back to the truck?” I replied “No, let’s keep going. I will be late getting there regardless”.
I told Dave – “we will split the bands – you take 40m and I will take 20m and 30m”. We finished setting up around 5:30 PM and within about 10 minutes I made contacts with 9 chasers. Dave was done as well, having made the minimum plus a few more on 40m. We packed up, and reminisced about our day as we walked down the mountain. It was a good day. Dave said “I did get a lot of practice calling CQ” – at Huckleberry Knob. I just smiled. It was not per the original plan but things worked out just as well.