Friday, May 30, 2014

Backpacking in the Smokies; or, How I Almost Died Many Times in the Woods

OK, so maybe my subtitle is a little on the alarmist side….there was probably never any real danger of my dying while hiking in the Smokies last week, though spending even a night in a tent in a forest is generally enough to give me the willies.

Why do we put ourselves through this? This question was on my mind the whole time, starting, many weeks ago, when K. first suggested we go backpacking in the Smokies when her sister L. and brother-in-law C. came to visit. We’ll just find an “easy” or “moderate” trail, we’ll reserve our backcountry campsites in the Smokies ahead of time, and we’ll pray it doesn’t rain the whole time. Easy-peasy.

Backpacking is never an easy endeavor, however. First off, choosing a trail without ever having walked it before can be treacherous. You have to read the topo maps very carefully with an eye to elevations; you have to research the trail online and see what previous people have reported. What is “moderate” for some might be “treacherously exhausting” for others. Then you have to figure out how to pack food that is a) light, b) doesn’t spoil, c) is not disgusting, and d) can be eaten uncooked or cooked over a teeny tiny gas stove. You also have to pack clothes for all kinds of weather (luckily in the Smokies we don’t have to worry about snow in May, at least not at our elevation), your tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, said stove & pots, a pump to clean the river/lake water, emergency whistles & blankets, Swiss army knife, toilet paper, camp spork…the list goes on and on.

It takes a lot of preparation to leave civilization!

We decided to hike around in the Lake Fontana area, which is actually in North Carolina, though much of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is actually in Tennessee. It sounded like it would be nice, with few other campers to contend with. Plus, to get to the Hazel Creek Trail, we would be taking a ferry—exciting! There would be lots of access to water and the weather was promising. The ferry was a little expensive, so we figured we’d just hike back to our car over the course of days 2 & 3.

Day 1 would be a “short” 5-mile hike to a campsite, day 2 would be backtracking plus an additional 4 miles to the next camp site, and day five would be 5 miles. Sounded a little daunting to me (I kept thinking about my first time backpacking when we went the wrong way down the AT and ended up having to go up switchbacks and rock scrambles in the rain, camp in an undesignated site, and backtrack the next day, during which I could barely move because I was so sore), but K. assured me it was an easy-to-moderate trail.

Ride the Dragon

Our first adventure happened on the way to the ferry. In all our planning, we had never really looked closely at the roads we would be driving to and from the Park. Of course, I think we knew, vaguely, we’d be driving in the mountains, but compared to the Rockies, the Smokies seemed like they should be relatively easy. We rented a car so we wouldn’t have to worry about mechanical problems and set off. We were in a bit of a hurry to catch the noon ferry and contending with losing an hour by crossing into Eastern Time when we started seeing signs for the “Dragon.”

WTF is that? we said. Is that some not-so-subtle reference to the KKK? There were lots of signs signaling twisty roads, but for a while, nothing happened. We were gaining some elevation when we saw a photographer sitting next to a car that had a big URL on it. They were taking our photo! WTF srsly!? Then, around another turn, there was another photographer, and a little further up the road, another. Suddenly, the road turned into nothing but hairpin turns, one right after the other. I was driving, which was good, since it meant I wasn’t getting carsick by all the turning; it was bad, though, when suddenly I pushed down on the gas pedal and nothing happened.

And I mean nothing. I pumped it and pumped it and still nothing. The car slowed down to almost a stop as we went uphill around another turn. There was a turnoff area just ahead—up the hill. We were all starting to freak out when someone asked, “Is there gas?” I looked at the gas meter—E! Totally and completely empty. In our rush to get to the ferry on time, combined with the fact that it was a rental and had a different display that I wasn’t used to, I had completely neglected to note where we were on gas.

For a moment, I think we were all shaking. I mean—there we were, on a curve, up a hill, with no gas, on a one-lane-each-way road roaring with motorcyclists who were taking the curves like they were no biggie. K.’s sister stood on the other side of the road to warn motorists of our inanimate vehicle blocking the road, and luckily, for us, very quickly a grizzled Vietnam Vet named Eddie pulled over and declared (after informing us that we “can’t park here” and learning that we had run out of gas) that he would help us. He drove a beat up sedan that had seen much better days, the backseat of which was home to four fat Chihuahuas. Eddie himself looked like he had seen better days, but he was friendly enough and his own volunteer spirit encouraged 2 motorcyclists, both young men in their prime, to pull over and help push our car up the hill to the pull off area. Afterwards, Eddie drove C. to the nearest gas station and returned him with a gallon (they only had a 1 gallon canister!) and then followed to the gas station to make sure we got there ok.

At the gas station, we learned that we had been driving on Route 129 AKA “The Tail of the Dragon.” Next to the parking lot stood a chained dragon with a sign “The Dragon: 318 curves in 11 miles.” ‘Nuff said!

Flora and Fauna

Finally, with a full tank of over-priced gas, we arrived at Lake Fontana Marina. We were able to take the later ferry, at 3pm, and enjoyed a fried lunch at “The Pit Stop,” the only place around that seemed to offer anything other than chips and trail mix. The ferry ride was lovely—cool breezes and beautiful views of the lake made us all feel that the trip was worth it. We were joined on the ferry by an older couple who were staying at the camp site right next to the ferry landing—the one I had hoped we would end up staying at! No such luck…we still had miles to go before we slept.
The view of the lake from the ferry.
The trail was an old road, so it was nice and wide, shaded by trees on either side. It followed Hazel Creek, so the sound of the rushing water filled our ears along with the chirping of birds and rustling of leaves. It didn’t take long, though, for my pack to feel heavy. We stopped to take some photos at a bridge, and K. declared she thought we might be more than half way; when we checked the map, it turned out we were only a third of the way to the campsite! It was a beautiful hike—but it was also hot and muggy and our packs, it being the first day, were the heaviest they were ever going to be. Somehow we managed to make it to the campsite, though for a little while I seriously considered throwing my pack down and howling in frustration.

The evening and night passed without incident. We slept to the sounds of the rushing creek after a long day of driving and hiking and no bears or other fauna disturbed our slumber (though a deer approached our campsite at one point). The next morning we had a leisurely breakfast and reluctantly (on my part) left for the rest of our adventures.
Hazel Creek & the woods. Gorgeous.
Day 2 was our “hard” day: 10 miles in one day (it was supposed to be 9 but it was more like 10). The first five were not so bad; the trail was flat and even and a little downhill even. We stopped to have lunch by an abandoned house, after which we stuck our overheated, rather battered feet into the creek for a bit before packing up again—and heading straight for a hill.

Well, maybe this hill is the only one, we said to each other. It’ll probably even out—and it did, occasionally. For the most part, we were climbing up and up—and it was tough. I’m not gonna sugarcoat it; that was a hard day. We did get a little bit of an adrenaline jolt, however, when we saw a gigantic rattlesnake on the trail!

K., walking on the left side of the trail, passed by it without even noticing. I, however, was walking on the right side of the trail and spotted it when I was about 2 feet from it. I jumped backwards with a loud shout—but not so loud that I didn’t hear its distinctive rattle, which gave me goosebumps even in the heat.

It was a massive snake with big brown diamonds down its thick body. It was at least as thick as my arm, if not thicker in the middle. It slithered to the right, off the trail, but not before giving us a warning look and rattling its tail a bit more. We didn’t need to be told twice though! No stopping to take photos here—it was time to book it up the trail. And we did, only to spent the next hour debating what we would have done if one of us had had the misfortune to get bitten—especially given that we were in the middle of nowhere on the trail and hadn’t seen a single soul since lunch.

Luckily, that didn’t happen. Instead, slowly but surely we made it finally to the next campsite, which was practically on the banks of one of the inlets of the lake. It was beautiful there, though we made sure to set up camp and eat dinner in a more timely fashion than the day before. And a good thing we did, because somewhere around 8:30, the sky clouded over, the wind picked up and we felt a couple of rain drops.
A view of the lake from our campsite.
After a moment, they stopped, and all of us crossed our fingers that maybe Mother Nature was just faking us out.

No such luck. Fifteen minutes later, we heard a crack of thunder and a lightening flash. We started cleaning up a bit faster, but the food still needed to be hung up out of the reach of the bears. Moments later, big, fat raindrops began to splatter all around us—and on us—and most of us, except C., ran for cover in the tents. I got in just as the heavens ripped open and sent forth a fury of rain. K. joined me in the tent moments later, already half soaked. We pulled everything we could into the tent and hoped the rain fly would hold.

We heard C. running around in the rain for a while, hanging the food and securing our stuff, and then there was just the sound of the rain and thunder and lightening. I had already changed into pjs, which is a good thing, because changing clothes in a backpacking tent is pretty much only achievable in a horizontal position. K. changed, and we lay down—there was not much else we could do. It was about nine pm.

The rain raged on and on. After a while, I noticed that the sides of the tent inside the tent were went with rain drops. We pulled out our trusty camp towel and dried off what we could. It was just rain that had come up under the fly and gotten in through the mesh of the tent.We managed to stay dry, but the rain never let up. When it became apparent, though, that our rain fly was solid and we were not, as I feared, going to get hit by lightening or float away on a rivulet or rain water, we just went to sleep. At 9:30pm.

The next day, we woke up to a very wet world. The campsite next to ours was also occupied. The people next door had been on a boat on the way to the campsite when the storm had started! K. and the others claimed to have heard them arriving (and setting up camp in the rain) the night before, but I had apparently slept through it. In any case, we cleaned off what we could and set off, noting with some dismay that it was 5.6 miles to the Lake Fontana Dam—not 5. At this point, all our feet were sore, our shoulders were sore, our packs were wet, and L. had twisted her ankle the day before.

We didn’t have any cell reception, either, so we couldn’t call the marina to pick us up by ferry; we’d just have to walk, a prospect I didn’t particularly relish.

Trail’s End; or, OMG We made it!

The trail the 3rd day wasn’t as hard as the second half of day 2, but we were definitely tired and sore and moving slowly. Oddly, I seemed to have finally found my rhythm on day 3—figures it wouldn’t happen until the last day. Not that it was an easy day—the trail constantly dipped down and then pushed us back up.

I often wonder how it is I can work out, go for runs and play derby and still get winded going up hill, but I do. I don’t like hills and they don’t like me. But slow and steady wins the race—or so I think to make myself feel better.

Unfortunately, we were going pretty slow—and we didn’t have any lunch packed. I don’t know if we forgot it or if we thought we’d be back by lunchtime, but we had to make do with granola bars and trail mix. Funny enough, I’m not very hungry at all while hiking with a pack on—it doesn’t usually hit me until I’m resting, so I was ok.

After 2 days of hiking and not seeing any other hikers, we finally ran into some hikers—or should I say, horseback-riders. They informed us that we were getting close to the trail head. Then we passed a couple hiking (with nothing to drink on this sweltering day but a bottle of Coke!) who said they had only been hiking for about 10 minutes. Of course, they had been going downhill, with no packs, so it took us probably another half an hour to get to the trail head—but we made it! The line of cars in the parking lot was a welcome sight.
We also saw tons and tons of moutain laurel along the way. Pwetty.
By then, L.’s ankle was swelling and she was tired, and, frankly, we were all about ready take our feet off, eat a horse, drink a lake (of beer…), and sit in some air conditioning. So, when the couple from the trail showed up, we coerced them gently into giving K. and C. a ride to our car at the marina. And thank goodness—I don’t know if I could have walked another 1.5 miles to the car! (Somewhere along the line, our counting of the miles on the trail got off…not in our favor, either.)

The Wonders of Modern Civilization

When we got back into the car, I could hardly believe how good the air conditioning felt. When we got to the dam and used the public restrooms, they seemed like the most amazing thing—which, after doing it in the woods for 3 days, it kind of was. It’s astounding how quickly living without the comforts of civilization loses its novelty.

That’s not to say that sleeping, eating, and hiking in the woods don’t have their charms (though admittedly shitting in the woods is never charming). The woods were beautiful, and we pretty much had them all to ourselves for 2 days. It’s frightening to think that if something happened out there, there would be no one (and no cell coverage) around. But isolation and quiet can also be restful and beautiful, and we certainly got big doses of those out in the Smokies.

Overall though, after that trip, I am soooo thankful for all the comforts of modern civilization…and not dying on a mountain in the Smokies.
A view of the Smokies on the Cherohala Skyway on our way to Chattanooga for more civilized adventures.

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