Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina, November 2001
My friend Rusty invited me to come backpacking with him in the Smokies for the weekend. It was my first backcountry trip and a lot of fun!
We left early and got to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the
late morning. It wasn't long before we were geared up with our 40 pound backpacks and
starting for the trail. A pileated woodpecker flew by before we even got out of the
Cades Cove parking area...it was going to be a good trip. We found the trail and started
up a wide path next to a rolling stream. The path was full of small, rounded flat stones
that made the footing tricky in places.
As we climbed higher, the trail got steeper and narrower and we diverged from the stream. Most of the leaves were down from the trees, so the higher we got, the better the view. We could see glimpses of the Cades Cove valley down below. The temperature was very pleasant in the sun, probably in the high 60s, but the workout had me sweating like crazy. After about four hours and five miles, we reached the ridge and the Rusell Field shelter. The shelter was a three-sided stone building with a metal roof. A chain-link fence with a door comprised the fourth side. Inside were a small fireplace and two wooden platforms for sleeping. Rusty rigged a stick-on-a-rope for hanging our backpacks, hopefully to keep inquisitive rodents away from them.
Outside the shelter we found a complex set of wires strung between trees, which we dubbed the "bear contraption." You have to unhook a clip from a ring in the tree and then lower the hook within reach. Then you attach your food, crank it up in the air, and clip the line off. The area toilet was located down the slope on the N.C. side of the hill. I had the impression that everyone dug nice little holes for burying their deposits, but the area was strewn with wads of toilet paper. Pretty nasty.
Unfortunately, we had passed the spring on the way up to the shelter, and had to go back down the hill to it. We were hoping there was some other option, as the spring was a big mud pit that horses had tracked through on occasion. We found a shallow pool of water and ran it through Rusty's filter. Despite the filter, the water came through a slight shade of brown.
We thought we might have the shelter to ourselves, but when we got back to the shelter, some hikers had arrived after a long day's hike from Fontana on the Appalachian Trail. Bob and Colleen were AT section hikers from Washington, D.C., hiking pieces of the trail in their spare time. At this point they had logged about 950 miles of the 2,167 mile trail over two years.
While there was still daylight, Rusty showed me how to work the miniature stove, and we cooked up some freeze-dried beef stroganoff. The hot food was very welcome as there was a chilly wind blowing across the ridge. We stayed outside the shelter just long enough to cook and collect some firewood, then went back in to warm up. The fireplace in the shelter was wonderful. We kept a blaze going for a few hours while it got dark, and enjoyed chatting with our "neighbors."
I had planned on reading a bit before going to bed, but my flashlight bulb blew the second time I used it on the trip. The spare batteries I had thought to bring were useless to me now. Bob lent me his flashlight so I could at least find my sleeping bag. I took one last trip to the latrine slope and spent a few minutes enjoying the fantastic night sky. Then we closed the fenced gate and "locked" it by sliding a pin into the latch. Lights out and it was dead quiet except for the occasional critter outside. Except for my toes, I was warm and toasty and slept like death.
We all got up about the same time to see sun filling into the shelter. Bob and Colleen
were quick to pack up as they had another 16 miles of hiking to do. They were soon
on their way. Rusty and I were more leisurely, sauntering off about a half hour later.
I was psyched to be doing my first section of the AT! And hiking on the ridge was nice
because it was pretty level for a while.
Shortly we reached the Spence Field shelter. There we met three people from Montgomery, Alabama. They were just leaving. We had wanted to stay at this shelter for the night, but supposedly it was completely reserved for the night. We'd have to set up camp down the slope toward Cades Cove. The Spence Field shelter looked identical to Russell, but this one had a latrine badly in need of some maintenance instead of the TP-scattered hill.
After a stop to refill our water, we headed east toward Rocky Top. The trail started climbing quickly. My knee began to hurt as I walked. I wondered if it was from wearing the pack or my attempt to break firewood the night before by jumping on it. Whatever the reason, it was painful and throbbing by the time we finally made Rocky Top.
The view from Rocky Top was worth the pain. The sun shone warmly and we had a fantastic view of Cades Cove. Cars taking the loop road were nearly invisible except for little glints of the sun reflecting off of them. Looking toward North Carolina, we could see a small section of Lake Fontana. This was a popular destination and many day-hikers were passing through, but it still was a privilege to see something that most park visitors would miss. A day-hiker from Gatlinburg snapped our picture.
Rusty has suggested lunch on Thunderhead, and that seemed OK with me. We walked east along a more level stretch and arrived at another rocky outcropping. We though that was the place, and settled down to cook our meal. After a while, some other hikers passed who told us that our location wasn't exactly Thunderhead, it was a good clip further east and higher up. After lunch I'd decided that my knee would be lucky to make it to camp as it was, so we headed west and back down. Rusty kept a good pace up ahead and I lumbered along slowly. I favored the good knee a bunch.
Eventually we arrived back near Spence and started to take the trail down the mountain. It was good to be making forward progress but we were back on the slippery rocks, and heading downhill, and that slowed me even more. After a while, I found a stick that looked like I could use it for some support. It was a tad too short, but better than nothing, and I started making better time. The hill and trees cast lots of shadows and things started to cool off. We had some beautiful views of the notches and gullies along the trail. Soon we found the turnoff for the Anthony Creek Trail which would take us to our camp. It was steep and winding, so it was slow going for me, but the stopping point was near at hand!
We came along side the creek, and got a look at some wonderful small waterfalls. Camp area #9 was near these, a bit further down the trail. The ground wasn't entirely level but we were able to find a halfway decent spot near a fire ring. One other tent was setup maybe 500 feet down the creek. Rusty refilled our water and gathered firewood while I rested the knee. Then we setup the tent, a pretty small one, but big enough.
It got cold quickly as the sun went down behind the mountains. I had to bundle up and fetch my gloves. We made dinner and ate a huge feast, since we didn't have to save much food for the next day. The ramen noodles and freeze dried chili were good for the taste and great for the warmth. After hoisting our backpacks up in the air, we sat around the campfire until all the firewood had burned and it was pitch black outside. It might have been 8:30 by then, but with no flashlight, there wasn't anything to do but sleep. That was all I really wanted to do anyway.
We awoke to a freezing morning where the only thing that can get you out of the tent is your bladder.
All the trees and hills would make the sun late warming this place up too. As we packed up the tent
and sleeping bags, eight or so horses with riders walked slowly up the trail. It didn't take us very long
to get our stuff together, and we hit the trail, headed down the mountain. My knee was in better shape
after some rest, but I didn't push it. After an hour or so of easy hiking, we were back at the Cades Cove
parking lot. It was busy with a lot of day-trippers. We got our stash of clean clothes from Rusty's truck
and changed in the bathroom.
Soon we were out of the park and back to the annoyances of civilization, mainly traffic. Pigeon Forge was busy and slow, and we stopped off for barbecue at Bennett's. A good hot sandwich and a tall Coke were what I was craving after our two days of freeze-dried and water.
We headed east to get back on Interstate 40. Right before we got there, we saw a huge cloud of smoke in the distance. It turned out to be a forest fire, and we saw flames as we got closer. A slow, fat firefighting plane flew around and dumped clouds of red stuff. It was an amazing sight. Fortunately, we didn't have any trouble getting on the highway, and after a short drive through some smoky areas, we settled in for the ride back to Greenwood.
I had a great time on the trip and it was worth the knee problems. Hopefully I'll avoid those next time. Thanks to Rusty for planning the trip!