Monday, March 11, 2013

trail tales

Good morning!  How was your weekend?  The weather here in Central Virginia was pretty much perfect this weekend.  Sunny and somewhere between 60 and 70 degrees.  My brother-in-law was here visiting all day on Saturday so we got to spend lots of time with him and some others from Will's family that live in the area.  Since we hadn't all been together since Christmas, it was nice to catch up.  Then yesterday we went to church and spent the entire rest of the day outside.  We cleaned up flower beds, played soccer, pumped up all the basketballs and rubber balls and soccer balls, played some basketball, hung out with the neighbors, and did some fishing.  A most perfect early spring day.  

For today's trail tale, I'd like to tell you about our experiences on the AT as we made our way through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  

Before hiking into the Park, Swiftcreek, YooHoo, Hodge, Tree Frog, Show Me, Lone Wolf and I stayed at the Hike Inn in Fontana.  We cleaned up, got all our supplies (read:  food), did our laundry, and got a good night's sleep in a comfortable bed.  The couple who run the Inn are very sweet and gave us rides to and from town, and also picked us up and dropped us off at the Fontana Dam, which is where the trail heads up into the Smokies.  On the ride to the Dam in the morning, Jeff, the caretaker at the Hike Inn gave us a pep talk that went something like this:  "Gettin' through the Smokies can be tough, but you can do it.  Here are the things you gotta watch out for: poisonous spiders, bears, snakes, scorpions, wild boars, lightening, and hypothermia.  Those are all the things that can kill you."

Nice.  After that, I was super excited to hike into the Smokies.  


So we got dropped off at the Dam and filled out our paper work (all hikers have to have passes to walk through the Park) and got moving.

Note:  I don't know if they're still a problem, but wild boars were a real issue the year that we hiked.  We walked by several areas that had temporary fencing put up and caution signs letting people know that more than one boar had been seen in that area.

Fontana Dam - the AT goes right across the top
At the entrance to the Park

Swiftcreek heading up Rocky Top Mountain in the Smokies.  Watch out for wild boar!

It was a pretty nice day, and the hike up into the Park wasn't too steep so it was a relatively easy first day.  I had a little trouble with a recurring blister that slowed me way down, but we made it to the shelter just before five and checked everything out.  Since the Smokies are a popular hiking and camping destination for lots of other people besides thru-hikers, there's a system in place for who gets to stay at shelters.  Basically, it goes like this:  day-hikers rule.  A thru-hiker could be totally set up in an empty shelter, ready for bed, in their sleeping bag, and if 15 day-hikers come in with passes and fill the place up, the thru-hiker has to get out.  While I do understand this logic, it could potentially be very very frustrating to a thru-hiker.  Luckily, this scenario did not play out for us.  We happily arrived at the shelter, set up our tent since the shelter was already packed with day-hikers, and went about our evening "chores" (getting water, cooking dinner, cleaning up dinner, hanging our food bag, airing out our feet, tending to any blisters, writing in our journals).  

YooHoo and I hiking into Spence Field Shelter near Rocky Top Mountain in the Smokies
View through the trees

The next day is when things got interesting.  We woke up, did our morning "chores" (get food bag, make breakfast, clean up breakfast, brush teeth, top off water bottles, pack up gear) and headed out under the clouds.  As we were hiking along, the weather started to get nasty.  First it started raining, then it was sleet, then snow, then ice, then back to sleet, some more ice, snow, and finally some freezing rain.  Hikers are required to stay either in the provided shelters or camp in the designated areas directly beside the shelters, so instead of heading further up the trail in that mess, we stopped 11 miles into our hike at the first shelter we came to.  We walked in (in the Smokies, the three-sided shelters have a big thick piece of plastic hanging down in front of them to keep out the weather) and saw that a large group of people had already had the same idea as us.  Somehow they had managed to start a fire (all Smoky Mountain shelters have a fire pit inside them), which was completely amazing.  As I took off my pack, I looked down and noticed that I literally had icicles hanging from my sleeves.  Even though we were wearing our rain gear, there's only so much rain that that stuff can keep out.  We were completely soaked from head to toe, and freezing.  We quickly hopped up on the top bunk and started getting out of our wet clothes.  Once we were dry, full of hot chocolate and hot food, and in our warm sleeping bags, we hung our wet clothes all around the fire and started to relax and enjoy the sound of the large chunks of ice that kept falling off the trees and hitting the roof of the shelter. And then....

Then the door burst open and a guy in shorts and a t-shirt stands in front of us, panting, and looking like he's about to pass out (there were probably 15 thru-hikers gathered in the shelter by then).  Soon after, two more of them come crawling in and collapse on the floor. Turns out, they were a group of spring breakers hiking through the Park for a few days.  None of them had rain gear, their sleeping bags were soaked, and they were all hypothermic.  We got to work warming them up in front of the fire, making them hot drinks and food, and giving them any extra clothing we could.  Slowly, they came around and started to act normal again, and we were all able to get a good night's sleep.  Sheesh.  

The next day, one of the guys in our group hiked the spring breakers down the trail to a ranger station where they could get a ride back to their cars.  The rest of us hiked up Clingman's Dome, the highest point on the AT at 6,643ft., in a thick fog.  We couldn't see a thing from the top, so headed back to the trail.  Since it was warming up a bit, the little six-inch path through the woods that we were following was basically a small river as all the run-off slid right down the mountain on the AT.  Our feet were soaked in seconds.  At that point, we decided to head into Gatlinburg (a place where we did not intend to stop) to dry out.  We managed to find a chilly ride in the back of a pick-up truck down and out of the Park.  Hodge scored us a cheap stay at the Shamrock Motel (complete with a shamrock-shaped pool!) where we stuffed 5 of us into one room.  We got all our gear dried out, had a hot meal, and settled down in a slightly scary bed (the place wasn't exactly clean).  Also, the kid running the desk let Hodge know that he had "the good stuff" and could give us a good deal if any of us needed, thanks, but no thanks.  We packed up as fast as we could the next morning.

I don't know if this is still the case, but back then, we were told that hitch-hiking was illegal not only in the Smokies, but also in the state of Tennessee.  Lucky for us, we were able to get a ride the next morning before we got arrested.  When we got back up to the trail, we stepped out of the car and onto a sheet of ice.  

Watch your step!
I have such fond memories of this day on the trail.  The scenery was breathtaking and the woods were silent...except for the sound of my hiking buddies yelling out as one after the other, they all bit the dust.  I spent the entire day not only watching my feet very very closely, but also laughing hysterically as every single one of the guys I was hiking with slipped and fell on the ice more than once.  Important note:  I laughed only after I inquired about injuries.  The only thing bruised was their ego.  Also important:  I didn't fall once  :)  

I've shown this picture before, but it's worth showing again.  Here's a sample of what we saw on the trail that day:

Ridiculously amazing.  I don't even have words to describe what we saw.  Also on this day, we hiked up Charlie's Bunion...

...and felt like we were on top of the world!  Thankfully this part of the rock was in the sun, so all the ice had melted off and it was safe for us to climb up.  Again, ridiculously amazing.

We hiked up to Tricorner Knob Shelter, unpacked with YooHoo, Hodge, and Captain Kangaroo, and spent a freezing night (temperatures in the teens) sleeping in all our clothes and huddled close together.  What I remember most about the next morning was deciding to eat breakfast in our sleeping bags instead of at the picnic table because it was so cold, and then trying to stuff my warm feet into rock-hard frozen shoes.  My shoelaces were literally sticking out the sides, stiff as boards, frozen solid.  Important note: wearing frozen shoes is decidedly not fun.  But the good thing about hiking is that once you get moving, you warm up.  A couple miles into our hike that morning, I was finally able to stop and tie my thawed out shoelaces.  

Tricorner Knob Shelter

We definitely had some amazing (and scary - stupid spring breakers) experiences in the Smokies.  Despite the fact that I really enjoyed our snowy adventures through the woods, I was really glad to hike the five miles downhill and out of the Park.  Lucky for us, it was too cold for there to be any wild boar, poisonous spiders, bears, scorpions, or snakes to kill us, we didn't see any lightning, and we managed to not get hypothermia.  

Swiftcreek and Small Wonder:  1
Smoky Mountains:  0

Goodbye Smokies!

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