Monday, April 27, 2015

Day 17: Fontana Dam and the Smokies

March 24: Sounds like the name of a band, doesn’t it? “And let’s hear it for Fontana Dam and the Smokies!!!!” But it’s not (so far as I know!)—but it was my day in a nutshell. =)
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It’s my old friend, the Benton MacKaye Trail, once again crossing paths with the Appalachian Trail.
I did my usual wake-up routine of eating breakfast, brushing my teeth and changing into my hiking clothes. Laced up my shoes and was off at the dawn of day! I swear that not two minutes went by when Sonic snuck up behind me. He’s like a ninja of the trail, walking at remarkably fast paces and long distances. I crossed paths with him several times the previous day, but he was usually talking with someone else and we didn't speak much. This time, he was hiking by himself and we chatted a bit more.

When he introduced himself as Sonic, I asked, “Like the screwdriver?” He said, “Or like the hedgehog.”

Yeah, okay… I’m less familiar with the hedgehog version, but I’ll go with that. =)

We arrived at the marina for Fontana Dam less than an hour after I started hiking, and there’s a phone where hikers can call for a shuttle to take them to the resort area a few miles away. The resort area—where hikers can resupply or find indoor lodging—isn't on the trail, so we have no qualms about getting a ride to the area and then getting a ride back to the trail when we’re done.

A third hiker arrived while we were waiting for the shuttle, and again, Sonic introduced himself simply as Sonic.

“Like the hedgehog,” I said helpfully.

“Or the screwdriver,” he replied. Hmph! Seems there’s no right answer for that! =)
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Sonic, like the hedgehog/screwdriver. So far, he’s by far the
fastest hiker I’d seen on the trail. I’m on day #17—and still passing most people!
He was on day #9 or something.
(Even if you back out my 4 zero days, he’s still way ahead of me!)

We probably stood around for a half hour waiting for the ride, which we thought seemed like a long time for a place that was only a few miles away, but eventually our ride arrived and we all piled in.

At the general store, I bought some food to get me through the next few days of the trail. Some of the other hikers had a bit of sticker shock at the prices, and the food was admittedly somewhat expensive, but I didn't find it surprising. It’s not like there’s a lot of choices out here to resupply.

I plugged in my cell phone to an outlet to recharge while repacking my pack with all of the new food I had acquired and chatted with more hikers who had recently arrived.

Then a reporter/photographer arrived saying that they were doing an article for the Asheville Citizen-Times about the Fontana Dam becoming a gateway community and that they wanted a photo of a bunch of hikers in front of the general store, and anyone willing to be in the photo could get a free ice cream or soda from the store.

If free ice cream or drinks doesn’t get a thru-hiker’s attention, nothing will! Everyone herded into the store to grab something (I got an ice cream cookie sandwich) then back outside for our photo. I guess the photo must not have turned out very well, because when I logged into their website later to see it, I only found this. They had a photo all right, but it definitely wasn't of us in front of the general store! Our reporter/photographer didn't tell us we’d be in competition with other hikers who had their photos taken! Actually, taking a close look at that photo, I think they may have reused it from an earlier time—those trees look like autumn is in full swing, but the trees pretty much look dead in the barren waste of winter right now. I can’t imagine that photo was taken this year.
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I was a little disappointed to realize that I’d be missing “Hikers Haze” by a mere one day! It was scheduled to start tomorrow and included such exciting things as a corn hole competition! But I’ll also note that “Hikers Haze” sounds suspiciously like a euphemism for pot…

I have a shell for a jacket, a beige one, that I bought at Fontana Dam during my first thru-hike which I still use today. It’s a lot more worn and ratty nowadays, but I had it in my mind that it would be kind of nice to buy a replacement for it and retire the jacket at the same place I bought it 12 years before. I looked around a bit for a suitable replacement, but I was anxious to keep hiking and get back on the trail and when the shuttle drove up to take hikers back to the marina, I jumped in. The jacket and I would stay together a bit longer after all…. Maybe in another 12 years I’ll be back here again and do a proper burial of it. =)

We got dropped back off at the marina and continued the hike north. The trail traveled about a mile further to the shelter known as the Fontana Hilton, so named because it was such a large shelter and a pretty fancy one at that with free showers nearby for hikers. My most vivid memory of the shelter from my last thru-hike was feeling an earthquake early in the morning and other hikers thinking the dam must have burst because earthquakes just “don’t happen” in North Carolina.

The shelter, 12 years later, certainly looked a lot more run down than it did in my last visit, but the thing that really bothered me most was that it used to have a large entrance on both sides of the shelter. I liked that—it allowed a lot of light into the shelter and a nice airflow—but now one entrance had been boarded up with planks leaving the air inside dark and stagnant. They still call it the Fontana Hilton, but it seemed more like the Fontana Motel 6 nowadays. It was a little sad to see how much more run-down it felt, and I was glad I hadn't done an extra three miles the evening before to get here. I liked spending the night out in the woods better.

I stopped just long enough to sign the register and take a few photos. (In the register, I wrote: What did the fish say when it hit a wall? Dam!”) Then I continued down the trail to the dam itself another half mile or so away.
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The marina at Fontana Dam.

Some sort of construction project was going on that required a short detour for hikers to get around. There are showers by the dam and I tried poking my head into one to check it out. This was where I showered last time I hiked through, and I remembered the shower distinctly because the water pressure was so high, it positively hurt to step into the water! Certainly that problem had been fixed at some point in the last 12 years, but I was curious… maybe it hadn’t? So I tried to push through the doors just to check the water pressure, but the doors were locked. Oh, well. I guess hikers aren't welcome at this shower anymore. (There was another one by the Fontana Hilton that they could still use.)

The gift shop and other amenities at the dam were still closed for the season—they wouldn’t open again for another month or so—and I continued my hike across the dam.

Fontana Dam really is a wonder to behold. It’s the largest dam in the eastern United States standing 480 feet high and stretching 2,365 feet across. I remember Bill Bryson describing it as something of a spectacle for people who like seeing large volumes of concrete, which is most certainly true. The cavernous hole of the spillway looks like the set of a movie where the hero and villain battle it out until the villain falls to his death in the seemingly bottomless hole.

On the dam, I caught up with another hiker named Click, who was snapping photos furiously, and we started walking together chatting.
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I’m nearly mauled by a bear at the general store!

Almost immediately after crossing the dam, we reached a sign informing us of our arrival into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The trail followed a dirt road at first, but after several minutes of walking, I started having doubts that we were on the trail anymore. I hadn’t seen any white blazes marking the trail, and I didn’t remember walking on this road for so long the first time I did the trail. Had we missed the turnoff?

I pulled out my guidebook where it listed the boundary of the Smoky Mountains at the same point we were supposed to enter the woods, and we both decided that we must have been talking too much and not paying attention for the turnoff and missed the turn. We backtracked until we found a blaze, but there was no turnoff and we figured that maybe we really had been on the correct path all along. We reversed course a second time and ignored the lack of blazes this time around.

And sure enough, maybe about a minute past where we had first turned back, we finally saw where the trail turned off into the woods.
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The Fontana “Hilton” is a lot more run down, dark, and stale than I remembered from my previous thru-hike.

Click and I pulled out our permits and wrote our entry date on them, then ripped them in half. One half would go into a container with a slot and the other half we were to carry through the park.

And we formally entered the park and started the long climb to the highest point on the Appalachian Trail.

The trail wasn’t especially steep, but it was relentless in its continual climb. I stopped at a fire tower to enjoy the views. A couple of other hikers were already there when I arrived, and they were saying the place looked ready to fall apart and refused to step into the tower at the top because the floor looked rotted and unsafe. I hiked up it anyhow, and while I’ll admit it looked like it was in serious need of a remodel, I didn’t think the floors were so rotted as to be unsafe and walked into it anyhow. The fact that I’m typing this now means that I didn’t fall through the floor to my death either. =)

I had planned for a lunch at the top, but it was kind of smelly and dirty and decided I’d rather eat lunch at the bottom which I did.

Afterwards, the trail continued its relentless climb ever higher, and at a trail junction at Doe Knob, I finally reached Tennessee—state number three! I’m not done with North Carolina, not by a long shot. The trail will follow more-or-less along the North Carolina and Tennessee border for the next couple of hundred miles, but I had now made it to Tennessee which is still a landmark! There was no sign to mark the occasion, however, so I drew a “TN” in the dirt with my trekking pole and took a photo of it to mark the event.

In the Smoky Mountains National Park, thru-hikers are required to stay in the shelters along the trail, and if the shelters are full, we’re required to camp near the shelter. Which pretty much meant I was forced to camp at Mollies Ridge Shelter—which I arrived at at about 6:00 that evening and called it a day. And what a great day it had been!

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Fontana Lake

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Construction on the dam! The trail is closed! Oh, the horror! Oh, wait a minute, there’s a five minute detour to get around it…

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Fontana Dam. And the Appalachian Trail runs right across the top of it!

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Doesn’t this spillway look like something from a movie set where the villain eventually falls to his death?

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View from the top of the dam looking down nearly 500 feet below!

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Click and I pondered the possibilities of peeing off the top of the dam, but we figured the slanted walls of the dam would make it difficult to get some really good arcs through the air. Neither of us felt we could get the distance to watch our pee fall nearly 500 feet to the bottom. (It’s a guy thing!)

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Click drops his permit into the deposit box.

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I had to have a photo of myself in these throne-like rocks. =)

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I call this tree The Scream.

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It’s a beautiful day in the Smokies!

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Some of the hikers were too scared to go into the room at the top feeling that the floor was too rotted. Not I, however!

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Hmm… those do look like storm clouds coming in, don’t they?

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Fontana Lake, and the dam is slightly visible near the right side of the photo.

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Yeah, but where was this sign when I was in the general store, huh?!

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Woo-who! We’ve made it to Tennessee!

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Ever feel like the trees are reaching out to grab you? That’s how I feel about this tree…

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Bear cables to hang our food bags from.

5 comments:

Scout Mom said...

The water at Fontana is amazing! The colors are gorgeous. Last time we camped at the Dam, the AT entrance at the marina had a huge hornets nest hanging from a tree.....got close enough for a pic and that was it.

Karolina Śmiech said...

I recognize Fontana Dam from the postcard I got grom you! =)

Becky Reed said...

As always - you made me smile. I so enjoy getting to hike the AT vicariously though you Ryan.

Crystal R said...

Really enjoying this trip. Beautiful photos of the lake =)

Earthquakes happen in NC, there were a couple last year we felt all the way here in GA. Maybe it's just a recent thing, though..

StarSAELS said...

*insert sonic screwdriver noise*