An excerpt from “Challenging the Linville Gorge”
by Eric Crews
as seen in The High Country Magazine (June, 2010)
The Franklin Challenge
For most people, a short day hike to one of the many overlooks of the Linville Gorge for a view of the river below is all the challenge they need. But for a small group of avid hikers and backpackers, the Linville Gorge is the perfect place to challenge themselves to go farther, and faster, in one day, than most people prefer to hike in a weekend. They do so by racing from the far southern terminus of the Linville Gorge near Shortoff Mountain to Linville Falls in a 16.7 mile jaunt that has become known as the Franklin Challenge.
According to Chris Blake, the author of the recent book on the Linville Gorge, River of Cliffs, the Challenge was first inspired by a mountain man named Franklin.
“A mountain man named Franklin, well known for his reckless as well as other spirits, took a dare and a bet that he could go up the Gorge in one day…a trip that usually takes three to four days. Well, he started at the Beach bottoms, just above Lake James; tied his pants legs to his boots; stuffed his pants with dried leaves until he looked like a Dutchman in pantaloons; drank a pint of white lightning and started up the Gorge.
A companion who followed him said that before he go 2 miles up the Gorge, he had 3 copperheads and 1 rattlesnake stuck to his britches like barbed wire around a fence post. But he won his bet…with his leather boots and pants full of leaves, he didn’t have to worry about snakes.”
After the publication of Blake’s book, the legend of the Franklin Challenge took hold, and inspired a renewed interest in long-distance hiking in the Gorge. First organized in 2007 by Allen Hyde as a hike amongst friends to see who was up for the challenge, the event has taken on a life of its own and is regarded as one of the latest adventures to be summoned in the Gorge.
For Nathan Buchanan, an avid hiker of the Linville Gorge, the Challenge presented a great way for him to experience some seldom seen areas of the Gorge, but little did he know the extent of the challenge he was in for.
“The first time I met Alan Hyde, [author of The Linville Gorge Hiker’s Guide] was on race day in the first year,” Buchanan recalled. “It was still dark and I couldn’t see his face and he couldn’t see mine and he said, ‘First off, we’ll need the make and model of your vehicle so that if you’re still in the Gorge when we’re out we’ll know that you’re still there because your vehicle will still be at the finish line; and, secondly, we need a phone number for the next of kin so that somebody can identify your body if you fall.’ I think that’s a pretty good way to sum up how dangerous it really can be down there. Especially during the race when people are going as fast as they can, but on any given day it’s slick on a whole number of spots down there and one fall could bust you up real bad or end your life, truly. Of course it’s dangerous and there’s a risk involved, but I think it’s worth it.”
Buchanan went on to hike the entire Gorge in seven and a half hours that day, finishing the 17 mile race in third place.
“The first year I ever did the race was a completely new experience for me,” said Nathan Buchanan. “I hadn’t been in the Gorge a great deal and thought it would be a great way to see a whole lot of it in a day. It turned out to be a very challenging race – I nearly crawled to the end I was cramping up so bad.”
Last year, in 2009, Buchanan bettered his time by more than an hour, and won the Franklin Challenge. And while racing up the Gorge with a group of friends is something most people might not have the desire to ever attempt, Buchanan believes it is something most people would really enjoy, given the proper training and preparation.
“It’s important to be prepared and know the trail when you’re going into the Gorge on a hike like this,” Buchanan said. “Take a lot of food, and a lot of water, but more than anything just have a good time. As tough as the race is, it’s still fun. And, in the end, it’s still about enjoying the natural landscape and seeing everything that’s there because some of those views that you can see from the middle of the Linville Gorge trail you just can’t see from an overlook.”
“I think the Linville Gorge is so special because, unlike many other areas that are so easily accessed, it just feels very pure, very pristine – like you’re in a place that, truly, has stood the test of time. It’s just a truly beautiful place.”