Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Day 18: Deeper into the Smokies

Dscn5424March 25: The night turned out to be extraordinarily windy, whipping the tarps across the front of the shelter into a frenzy. The tarps, I was told, were put up by ridge runners to help keep heat in the shelters and would be taken down later in the year when temperatures warmed more, but I was ready to get up and rip them off myself with all the noise they made in the wind.
By morning, the sky was clear and beautiful, but the wind was still whipping away wildly. However, hikers who checked their smartphone weather reports started reporting new weather concerns with heavy rain and thunderstorms being forecast for tomorrow, and a cold front would push through the day after that dropping temperatures into the teens and throw a dose of snow on the trail for good measure. I didn’t find the weather reports too concerning—I was prepared to handle cold and snow—as long as it wasn't more than a few inches, it should not be much of an issue. If the snow was a few feet deep, I might have trouble following the trail, but a few inches wasn’t going to be a problem.

But then, I have experience with cold temperatures and snow. Not to mention that I had planned to go into Gatlinburg to resupply the next day—I might miss the snow completely! I kind of hoped I’d see some of it just to make my photos more interesting. These dead-looking trees of the winter are becoming boring, but many of the other hikers seemed like they were in a total crisis mode trying to decide what to do about the weather.

This day’s hiking was largely uneventful, however, and I pulled off my longest day yet of 19.5 AT miles. If you include the side trails to water and shelters that I visited, I actually hiked over 20 miles. I stopped at the Double Spring Gap Shelter for the night.

Before I sign off or the day, I’d like to talk a little bit about the shelters in the Smokies. These were not the same shelters I saw 12 years ago during my first thru-hike! Last time, they all had chain-link fences across the front to keep out bears, but those were now gone. I don’t remember the shelters having a “front porch” like they do now, nor skylights in the roofs to allow light in. I remembered these shelters being dark and kind of creepy, but they’re positively beautiful things now and have obviously had a major makeover at some point in the last 12 years. I was later told that the chain link fences were removed because some morons would deliberately leave food out in front of the shelter to attract bears then lock themselves into the shelter. Now if you’re a moron, they just let the bears kill you. =) I rather like that policy, and not just because I always hated those ugly chain-link fences. They now had tarps instead of chain-link fences, which probably doesn’t deter bears very much, but the tarps—as I understand it—are just temporary until the weather warms up. Privies have also been added to many of the shelters. It used to be they all had shovels and you were expected to dig a hole to do your business. Some of the shelters still had the shovels, but I’ve been told that eventually all of the shelters will have privies.


The shelters have changed dramatically since my last thru-hike! The chain link fences are gone, replaced with temporary tarps. And I don’t remember the shelters having these covered “front porches” like they do now. You can’t see it in this photo, but there are also skylights in the roof of the shelter allowing a lot more light inside than before as well. The shelters in the Smokies are positively wonderful compared to how they were back in 2003!

The views today were awesome!

Cookie Monster (L) and Mile Marker (R) take a break on the trail.

From Silers Bald, I could pinpoint Clingmans Dome (the highest point in Tennessee and the Appalachian Trail) because of that monstrosity of an observation tower at the top.

The view from Silers Bald looking towards Clingmans Dome. (Before I zoomed into it in the previous photo.) That right hump looks higher, but that’s only because it’s closer in this photo. The highest point is actually the hump on the left.
I’m basking in the sunlight and nature! =)

Not only are there now privies at the shelters, but they’re handicap-accessible as well!

A few thru-hikers I’d be spending the night with at Double Springs Gap Shelter. From left to right, Stoat, Poppins (or HPoppins—I wasn’t clear on the distinction), Marco and… well, I’m not sure who the person in the red coat is.

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. =)
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! =)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!

Fontana Lake

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…

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

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


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

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!)

Click drops his permit into the deposit box.

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

I call this tree The Scream.

It’s a beautiful day in the Smokies!

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!

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

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

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

Woo-who! We’ve made it to Tennessee!

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

Bear cables to hang our food bags from.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Day 16: The March to Fontana Dam

March 23: It rained hard overnight, but much to everyone’s surprise, the sun was back out again by morning. It looked like it would be a clear and beautiful day! I was among the first to wake up in the morning and tried to quietly go about my business of eating breakfast and packing my backpack.
Another beautiful day! This was my view from Cheoah Bald early in the morning.

The day was largely uneventful. Downright boring when you get right to it. At Stecoah Gap, someone had left bananas on a picnic table, presumably for thru-hikers to help themselves.

I had originally planned to stop at Cable Gap Shelter for the night, perhaps the smallest shelter I had seen that looked like it would be crowded if more than two people stayed in it. I was feeling a little anti-social at the moment in any case and decided to go on a few miles further, cowboy camping between shelters.

Late in the day, I saw views of Fontana Dam and the lake it created. Life was good! I could have totally hiked there for the night, but I refrained because if the shelter at Fontana Dam was anything like I remembered from before, it was going to have a huge number of people there. It was among the biggest shelters of the trail and in a somewhat populated place. There would be hikers partying all night long. Or drinking. Or whatever. I didn’t want to be a part of that.

So I set up camp at an area my guidebook describes as a “stream” with a “footbridge.” If the stream or area has a name, neither are mentioned in my guidebook, but it left me about 3 miles short of Fontana Dam and—more importantly—largely to myself. It would be my first night on the trail all to myself. It didn’t look like it would rain so I didn’t even set up my tarp. Cowboy camping on the trail! And about an hour’s walk in the morning to Fontana Dam.

Step count today: 44,325 steps
Distance today: 18.3 (a new longest day!)
Total distance: 171.1 miles
My shadow picks up my pack. You didn’t know it could do that, did you? =)

A few trees look like they haven’t figured out that fall has already come and gone and that they should be in their winter hibernation state.

Mushroom colony on a dead tree.

Banana trail magic at Stecoah Gap.

Stecoah Gap


Cable Gap Shelter looked so small, it would feel crowded if it had more than two people in it!

Through the trees, I could see Fontana Dam and the lake it created behind it.

My campsite for the night. =)

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Day 15: The Nantahala Outdoor Center

Dscn4967March 22: I was the first to leave the shelter this morning. NOC or bust! More likely, I was just with others who preferred sleeping in later than I did since I didn’t start hiking at a particularly early time—just my usual time between 8:30 and 9:00.

The trail descended steeply down to the Nantahala Outdoor Center, or NOC for short. Some of the other hikers weren’t sure what the NOC was. Was it a city? No, not really. I think of it more like a super-outfitter. You can buy gear and such, there’s a small general store, restaurants, lodging and a focus on water sports like kayaking down the Nantahala River which happens to run through the area. I remembered it being so crowded with people that it was difficult to breath! But all-in-all, I liked it. It was a scenic area, and anytime I could eat food that didn’t come out of my pack was a bonus.

The first thing I did was hit the restrooms. Running water! The second thing I did was hit the general store and get a few food items to resupply my dwindling supplies. I just needed a little bit—enough to get me to Fontana Dam.

Then I wandered over to the outfitters where they had set up a computer for thru-hikers to print permits for the Smokey Mountains. I logged in and printed the permit I had filled out on my smartphone a couple of nights earlier. I was set! Well, I also asked about some sort of strap or elastic cord that I might be able to use to keep bags hanging off my pack from swinging around. I made my pack a bit too small and have trouble getting everything I need in it—especially when I have more than a couple of days of food—so I took to hanging a couple small bags off my pack. But they had a bad habit of swinging around annoyingly. The outfitter was out of the thin elastic that I thought would work best, so I got a couple of small straps that I could cinch tight as needed. Hopefully that would do the trick.

And finally, I wandered over to the riverside restaurant where I ordered a Wesser Burger for lunch in their outdoor seating area next to the river. While waiting for the meal, I repacked my pack and added my new straps to hold the bags hanging outside of it in place. I also pulled out my smartphone to give Amanda and my mom a call to update them on my progress. It was a nice place just to sit down an relax next to the river and watch the occasional kayaker floating by.

But as all good things must come to an end, so did my meal and my time at the NOC. I didn’t intend to spend the night here, although I knew a lot of hikers would because the place can suck you in like a vortex. Unlike my first visit, this one wasn’t crowded with claustrophobic hoards of people. It was quite pleasant and probably a slow day by their standards, but I was happy with it!

The next part of the hike, however, I wasn’t looking forward to because I remembered it well from my last thru-hike: a steep, exhausting climb with many false summits. My guidebook showed it as a 3,000-foot climb—the biggest so far of the trail.
Filling up with water, again with the help of a leaf cleverly positioned by another hiker.

I started up and kept on going with barely a break. It was steep and tiring, but once again, not as bad as I remembered it. I passed quite a few people on the way up who seemed to be struggling a lot worse than I was, and about seven miles and a couple of hours later, I finally arrived at the Sassafras Gap Shelter. There was still plenty of room in the shelter and I joyfully piled into the top deck. It was supposed to rain overnight so I definitely preferred to stay in the shelter if there was room.

About 15 minutes after I arrived, it did start to rain and I was surprised at how well I timed it! Usually it seems like the rain starts about 15 minutes before I reach the shelter! The weather was quite considerate to wait until after my arrival this time around! The wet stragglers who soon showed up after me probably wouldn’t agree, though. =)

A couple of those stragglers who arrived had a clearly non-American accents and seemed to already know everyone else in the shelter. (I knew absolutely nobody upon my arrival, but that seemed to be the case most days since I was hiking faster than most people.) They all chatted for awhile, and when there was a lull in the conversation, I asked the girl where she was from. Switzerland. Really?! So I told her, “Gwita morka!” (not the correct spelling—it’s how I wrote it phonetically when I learned it).
The NOC—a small piece of civilization on the trail.

Which took her by surprise. “That’s Swiss-German! Not just German, but Swiss-German!”

Uh… yeah. She did say she was from Switzerland, after all.

“It means good morning,” she told me. 

“Yeah, I know that, but that’s the only thing I know how to say in Swiss-German.” Which dissolved into a conversation about my learning how to say “Good morning” in a couple of dozen languages, but “Gwita morka” was the first and only a handful that I can remember off the top of my head.

“You pronounce it very well!” she also told me, seemingly surprised at that as well.

“I guess I had a good teacher,” I told her. =)

When her significant other came back from wherever he had gone, I told him “Gwita morka” as well, but he seemed less impressed with my skills.
My Wesser burger, with the Nantahala River flowing in the background. That bridge in the background crossing the river—that’s the Appalachian Trail. It crosses the river on that pedestrian-only bridge. =)

“You just learned that, didn’t you?” while looking at the girl.

She answered for me, though. “No! I didn’t teach him that! He already knew it!”
The shelter eventually grew to be quite full by dark, and eventually everyone headed off to sleep. It was the end of another day!

Step count today: 30,699 steps
Distance today: 12.6 miles
Total distance: 152.8 miles

Kayakers would sometimes float down the river. I took this from the bridge crossing the river. (I ate at the restaurant in the background, although the outdoor seating area where I actually ate has been cut off. It’s just to the left of the photo.)

Coming out of the NOC, the Appalachian Trail crosses its first railroad track. Watch out for trains!

‘Twas a long, steep climb out of the NOC!

A memorial on the trail to a fellow who lost his life battling a wildfire exactly 783 feet from this plaque in the 1960s. I’m a little curious about the exactness of that 783 feet, though. Whose job was it to measure the exact distance from where this man died to the monument? Why did it need to be so precise?

The clouds are starting to look threatening!

The view from my second-floor spot in the shelter.

This was a special shelter—it came with an electrical outlet! =) That Swiss couple tried all night to use them, but didn’t realize that their devices used a different kind of outlet. (I’m totally kidding about that. In case it’s not obvious, this isn’t a real outlet and it was drawn in by hand. Nobody will ever connect anything to it!)