Thursday, September 22, 2016

Day 12 - Downward to the Dam!

The rain I'd experienced the day before stopped overnight, but the shelter remained wrapped in a cool, heavy mist as morning crept in. I'd set my alarm for 6 AM, but overslept and found myself stowing my gear well after 7 AM.
Russell Field Shelter in the morning fog. 

With only 13.5 miles to go, and most of it downhill to Fontana Dam, I was anxious to get an early start and skipped my usual hot morning coffee for some "trail cold-brew" to go. Just add two packets of instant coffee to a liter of water, shake it up, and start walking.For some miles the fog lay heavy, but blue skies gradually broke through and it turned into a sunny day.
Shuckstack fire tower

I gradually began running into hikers starting their own GSMNP traverses. For whatever reason, more people seem to hike the Smokies starting at the south and working north. It may be because the climb out of Fontana is not as steep and rugged as the route I took to enter the park. And trail conditions in the southern half of the park were generally smoother as well. In each case, I had to pass along the bad news about the lack of water at the next few shelters. Most seem well prepared for this, but a few looked rather concerned as I passed along the info I'd gleaned while hiking south.

With about 4 miles to go, I took the short side trail (uphill, of course) to the Shuckstack fire tower. The tower supports only a small observation platform at the top, while the remains of the foundations of a firewarden's cabin are located below. The climb was a bit daunting, given my natural aversion to heights, but the view was excellent, and I could clearly see Fontana Lake and Fontana Dam, my ultimate destination.
It's an impressive view!

After a quick lunch break, it was time for the final push homewards, and I found myself jogging along the trail as it went down the mountain - an interesting sensation with a 30-pound  pack on your back.
Approaching Fontana Dam.

It was with real satisfaction that I strode the final yards across the top of Fontana Dam. 12 days, 175 miles, an average of 14 miles a day. Not Karl Meltzer speed, for sure, but pretty solid hiking over some big mountains and rough terrain. And best of all, nearly everything had gone according to plan. Yet I had one final surprise awaiting me.
Dead battery...
My trusty Subaru's battery was dead as a door nail. Fortunately the good people at the Fontana Dam Visitor's Center let me borrow their phone (no cell service at the dam), and I soon had AAA on the way. While waiting I talked to Samurai - the only true SOBO hiker I saw during the trip. Three months out from Maine, and with only 160 miles to go. Thin and ragged, but in good spirits.I offered a ride when my car got started, but he moved along before I was running again.
Samurai checks his trail guide
Eventually, I was on the way, with a new battery, a hot shower, and clean clothes. It was a great trip, and I'm looking forward to the future, when I can come back south to knock off the last miles between Fontana and Springer Mountain.
My white knight pickup truck.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Day 11 - Smoky Mountain rain

K9/18/16 - It's 8 PM - hiker midnight - and my journey has almost concluded. I have the spacious Russell Field Shelter all to myself, and overhead I can hear the intermittent patter of water dripping from the leaves onto the metal and plexiglas roof, a reminder of today's events. 

Today it rained. Except for some brief showers in the early morning hours of the fourth day, it's been dry throughout the trip. 

Hiking doesn't stop when it rains. You've simply got to gear up, put your head down, and plow ahead. As thruhikers say, "no rain, no Maine."
Morning scene - Silers Bald Shelter

Our threesome of last night grew by four after we'd turned in, as a group of four college students showed up under the guidance of their headlamps. They quickly settled in, and we all spent a fairly restful night.

By morning the wind had picked up and fog had rolled in. A sudden burst of wireless connectivity provided me with a weather forecast: a 90% chance of afternoon  thunderstorms, starting around 1-2 PM. With about 17 miles on the docket, that meant I needed to hustle.

The first 6 miles went smoothly, but then came a 6-mile stretch NOBOs had been warning about, with ascents up Thundee Miuntain and a stiff ascent over the exposed ridge of Rocky Top.

By the ascent of Thunder Mountain, the rain began in earnest, and on went my hat, rain jacket and pack cover. A steep and rocky trail made matters even more unpleasant. But as I hit the top of Thunder Miuntain, the rain eased, and I was able to traverse the exposed ridge lines with nothing worse than gusty winds and sheets of fog and mist whipping by. 

Eventually I descended to the Spence Field Shelter, the last reliable water source until Fontana Dam. I tanked up with a full four liters and made the decision to push on while the weather held.

The weather quickly turned back to sometimes heavy rain, but now I had the advantage of the best trail I'd seen in the Smokies so far - well graded, smooth, and sandy. I quickly knocked off the three miles to the next shelter and called it a day.
Gear drying time at Russell Field Shelter.

After a change of clothes and a hot mealI had time to get organized for the morning and laze away the afternoon in my sleeping bag, sipping hot tea and listening to football on my radio.

So ends another day on the trail. Tomorrow should be a fast downhill to Fontana, a shower, then the drive home to sleep in my own bed for the first time in almost two weeks. Can't wait!

Monday, September 19, 2016

Day 10 - Over the hump!

9/17/16 - Every journey or adventure will have its highs and lows. Geographical, physical, and emotional.
The observation tower at Clingman's Dome - the highest point on the AT, at 6600 feet.

Today I passed the geographical high point, while physically recovering well from yesterday's rocky 20 miler. And mentally I snapped out of a bit of a funk I'd gotten into over the last couple of days. While I've met many interesting and pleasant people, the lack of familiar faces each day was causing me to feel a bit lonely.

But if I'd lacked for human contact before, I didn't today.
Parking lot at Newfound Gap.

In the course of my first 3 miles I passed at least 75 day hikers, tromping up from Newfound Gap to see some of the sights, particularly Chatlies Bunion / think Humpback Rocks if you're from C-ville.

The crowds at the parking lot were a bit overwhelming, but I had a great opportunity to empty my trash (pack it in, pack it out), and actually use a toilet that flushed.

While at the parking lot I connected with a pack of three hikers heading north and exchanged trail notes. Despite our differences in age and number of tattoos or piercings we clearly identified as part of the same tribe.

Heading north, the crowds thinned, but I still had my pick of day hikers and groups passing by. Notably, I ran into a group from the Friends of the Smokies, a non-profit support group, accompanied by no less than the Asst. Superintendent of GSMNP. The group was supporting three of their members doing a northbound hike of the park. After chatting a while, they took my picture and promised to write about meeting me on their daily update. I promised the same!
Mementoes of my encounter.

I eventually reached Clingman's Dome - packed with tourists - and whiled away a while with Charlie, who was looking forward to a zero in Gatlinburg, watching football and drinking beer. I was jealous.
Charlie at Clingman's Dome.

I finally rolled into Silas Bald Shelter after a stress-free 15 miles, and met a local Tennessee father and son out for the weekend. After a career as an Army Ranger he'd come back home to settle down, and couldn't think of a place he'd rather be.
Father and son.

Gracious, dignified, and thoughtful, I think I'd cast Gary Cooper to play the fatherin the movie version of my trip. 

We relaxed by the fire with some sipping whiskey, and I went to bed pleasantly relaxed, turning over the words he'd spoken. "I'm glad you showed up Spike, you bring good karma with you." One of the nicest compliments I've ever received.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Day 9 - The sublime (mostly) Smokies. And "trail talk"

I I had to put in big miles today, so I crawled out of bag shortly after our NOBO flip flop hiker broke the ice. By 6:30 I was on the trail, guided by my headlamp. 

Dawn was a treat, casting light through a wonderfully varied forest. The surrounding mountains gradually sprang into relief as the light grew and they shed layers of fog at their summits.
The Sawteeth, near Carlie's Bunion.

There's a sense of space and wildness in the Smokies that you don't find in Shenandoah. And the sheer variety of plant, animal life, and forest types is readily apparent. I saw Sarvis trees with brilliant red berries, experienced moss-covered forests, and heard bird calls that were completely outside my experience. A truly awesome place.
An all too common sight.

The bad side? The trail itself. The soil is thin on the mountain tops, and erosion often leaves the trail a mass of rocks and roots. After 20 miles, my feet and psyche had taken a beating. A hot meal helped, and fortified with that and (hopefully) a good night's sleep I'll be able settle into a few days of somewhat less mileage.
Room with a view.

So what are the main topics of conversation on the trail? 

Number 1 is, without a doubt, water. A recent dry spell has put a strain on springs, so it's courtesy for hikers passing by to share intelligence about the reliability of sources.

Number 2 is the bear situation. There were some shelter closures earlier this summer, but the trail telegraph assures me that the rangers have taken out the main problem bear, and tagged and relocated others. So all the shelters are open and everyone is breathing a little easier. 

And that's the news from the trail - you AT correspondent, signing off.

Day 8 - Stairmaster to the Smokies

9/15/16 - The first thing I check when planning the next day's hike is the elevation profile. Today's looked pretty daunting, with several long climbs and an elevation difference of almost 4000 feet. Thank goodness I was only going 11 miles.
The dim, dusty bunk room at Standing Bear Farm.

My stay at Standing Bear Farm was a mixed bag. The good - $20 for a bunk, shower, and do-it-yourself laundry, plus frozen pizzas and beer (I'll have two pints of Fat Tire, please). The bad - a distinct lack of any basic housekeeping skills. Rustic is cool, but would it hurt to pick up a broom?
Carl, the go-to guy at Standing Bear (he has the key to the beer).

Despite that, I had a relaxing stay and left clean and resupplied, thanks to my mail drop. Soon I dropped my permit in the box and started up.
I'm official!

What was left was a hot, steep climb, made worse by a miscalculation that left me short of water over the last few miles. But all finished well, and I was the first into my shelter for the night. 
The view from my bunk.

Business picked up, and we've got 9 in the shelter, including a young lady who'll finish her flip-flop in Rockfish Gap. 

Shooting for 20 tomorrow, so it's just about bed time for me!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Day 7 - Max Patch to Standing Bear Hostel

9/14/16 - Max Patch lives up to its billing. 360 views above the tree line, with nothing but mountains as far as they eye can see. After watching the sunset, I slept in my tent under a nearly full moon, with gentle breezes blowing all night. 
The sun sets, as seen from Max Patch.

Around 3 AM I stepped out for a nature call and gazed in every direction at the moonlit mountains - a sublime experience only equaled by the sunrise. I thought about what music it needed - Strauss? Sibelius? In the end, the wind blowing through the grass was music enough.

Tough to beat that, and the rest was routine hiking, with one stiff ascent but plenty of easy cruising too. After about 13 miles, I reached my destination, the very rustic Standing Bear Hostel. There I picked up my mail drop, showered, and did laundry, and gorged on a frozen pizza and two pints of Fat Tire. I'll head out first thing tomorrow to tackle the Smokies!
The Smokies - just ahead!

Day 6 - Karl and Max

Karl Meltzer (in yellow) leaves me in his dust while attempting an AT fastest time.

I'd been on the trail for about 90 minutes when I suddenly heard footsteps behind me. "Karl?" I asked. "Yes" he said. I congratulated him, wished him well, and he even obliged for a photo. Class act.

He trotted away, but I soon caught him at the nearby road crossing, where his crew was set up. After he departed, they offered up food and drink to me, and chatted about my trip. Kind of cool to have Scott Jurek (the current record holder) shooting the breeze and wishing you well on your trip. 
Historically significant trail magic.

Now back to the business at hand, the 2000 foot ascent up Bluff Mt. I paused for my crew-supplied Coke and PBJ and tackled the ascent with no problem. No doubt, I'm feeling stronger and covering miles more easily each day. The rest of the day went smoothly, and I was even moving well enough to take a leisurely one hour lunch break. 

After 15 miles Instopped for dinner at a shelter and shot the breeze with a duo from Key West. No doubt, they should have cast these two in the film version of "A Walk in the Woods." They're struggling south from Damascus at a painful 5-8 miles a day, while continuing to carry all the important essentials, like a fold-up saw and wind-up radio.
Summit view - Max Patch

Now the second highlight of the day - Max Patch. It's a grassy bald with 360- views, and one of the must-see spots on the trail. The perfect trifecta is to camp on the bald, so you can watch the sunset, stargaze, and then catch the dawn. Sunset down, two more to go!

Day 5 - Hot Springs Near-O Day

What's a "near-o?" In hiker lingo, a "zero day" is no miles hiked. A near-o is very few - either a short hike into a town, or a short hike out of town. Here's how my Hot Springs stay unfolded.

For dinner last night I went down the street to Creekside station with Kiwi, another guest at Sunnybank. He's a retired New Zealand Navy officer who spends his time traveling and doing outdoor education. One of the lines on his business car reads "Tramper/Traveller." Now that's a job description I'd like to have!
Kiwi at Sunnybank Inn

In the morning, Elmer served breakfast to the crew: myself, Kiwi, Lewis and Clark - a young couple from Richmond, plus himself and his assistant, a young 2009 thruhiker. Elmer had us all introduce ourselves, and conversation flowed from there, mainly ranging to all topics trail related.
The Wash Tub

Next, it was town chores - laundry at The Washtub, then a stop at Bluff Mountain Outfitters for food and stove fuel. While I was there, the clerk picked my brain on my new Altra Lone Peak 3.0 shoes. My take? Two thumbs up - thanks Crozet Running!
Ever notice that outdoors people love stickers?

A quick lunch, then back to Sunnybank to pick up my pack and I was on my way. A short hike up a steep mountain, and I settled in at the first shelter. Joining me tonight - Hank, an aspiring thruhiker testing everything out on his first trip (and doing well, I'd say!), and Anthony, a young man with a massive pack heading NOBOfrom Springer. He's in no hurry and enjoying life on the trail.

I'll leave you with Iron Chef, AT edition - Hiker Pad Thai. One package Lipton Teriyaki noodles, one package spicy salmon, Texas Pete, red pepper, salt, and a spoonful of peanut butter. Yum!

Monday, September 12, 2016

Special - Elmer's Sunnybank Inn

The oldest home in Hot Springs, circa 1840.

In 1948 the first AT thruhiker, Earl Shaffer, spent the night at a rooming house in Hot Springs. Since then, under one name or another, Sunnybank has hosted weary hikers.
Some Sunnybank history.

It's current owner, Elmer, has run Sunnybank since 1978. While the home still maintains much of its Victorian charm, it also shows its age as well. But the upside is found in the low-key comfort and eclectic atmosphere. You can easily imagine grabbing a book from the large library and dozing off on one of the many shady porches.
View from the back yard.

I'll talk a little more about Elmer and Sunnybank in my next post. For now I'll share some pictures.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Day 4 - Southbound Express to Hot Springs

Some people can pick up their pack, whistle a happy tune, and stroll along without a care until they get where they're going.

For better or worse, I'm not one of them.

Planning my daily hike means calcuating miles and pace, and annotating my AT guide so I can check my progress along the way. 
My AT guide, with notes

Rain showers overnight and into the morning pushed back my planned start time. Let's just say that a yoga pose has not yet been developed that replicates packing all your gear while in a one-man tent. But the rain stopped, and I dug in to put in the miles to Hot Springs.

Walk, walk, walk. Downhill, earwiging the Scherzo from Beethoven's 7th. Cranking an uphill, the Marche Funebre from the Eroica Symphony. Checking off a section at a time and plowing ahead. 
Quick lunch stop at a creepy AT shelter

Nearly 19 miles later, I'm in Hot Springs, NC, on lovely French Broad River. A weird combo of AT hikers, river rats, bikers, and weekend redneck vacationers.

And my lodgings for the night, Elmer's Sunnybank Inn - a post on that and Hot Springs tomorrow!
1840s Victorian meets 2016 hiker trash.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Day 3 - A wrong turn and a flexible plan

After adjusting to noise from hooting screech owls, scampering shelter mice, and snoring Homo sapiens, I had a pretty good nights sleep and was ready to roll at 6:30, with a 20+ mile say on the docket. 

30 minutes later, after realizing I'd taken the wrong trail out of the shelter in the dim morning light, it was time to retrace my steps back to where I'd started. With an hour lost, It was also time to reevaluate my plans for the day.

Some quick math told me that it could very well be past 8 PM before I got to my original destination, so I punted and decided to scale back to the second shelter ahead, 13.2 miles away.

Since there was no rush, I hiked conservatively, taking the time to collect some Chicken of the Woods, and take an extended lunch break. 

The highlight of the day was the climb over Firescald Bald, with a tough 1.5 mile section of rocky trail and rock scrambling. 
Some of the fun on Firescald Bald.

From there it was a case of checking off the miles to the shelter. Despite having seen very few people on this trip so far, we've got quite a crew.
18 Wheeler, Web Walker, and Papa Jack

At the shelter already were three affable NOBO section hikers, out for 4-5 days; with myself and my trail family from yesterday - Brenda, Beth, and Larry - tenting in the vicinity.

Tomorrow I'll start early and push the 18 to Hot Springs. I should make good time - a hiker's speed is directly related to how close cold beer and a hot shower is!

Day 2 - In the routine (and a bear sighting!)

After a good nights sleep, I was dressed, packed, fueled with instant coffee and on the trail at 7. The key for today was to put in some good miles and settle into a sustainable hiking routine while I built strength.
Morning view from Big Bald Mt summit

After a mile or so, I hit the open views of Big Bald Mt. After stopping to talk to volunteers trapping, cataloguing, and banding migratory songbirds, I climbed to the top and took a good 15 minutes or so just taking in the view.
Obligatory artistic selfie on Big Bald

After that highlight the day settled into a routine of stopping on the 30s for a drink and a quick break, then stopping on the hours for an obligatory 5-minute "pack off" break and snack - jerky or a little trail mix. 

After 10 miles I stopped at a shelter to refill water and have lunch, then decided a nice siesta would be a good idea.
Feet up, shoes off - Siesta time!

After my break I plodded through the afternoon heat, clicking off the miles as I tackled the biggest climb of the day. The descent from that wound through some breathless woods and I had to fight a case of the blahs, though a flock of wild turkeys livened things up a bit.

Crossing the last road, things picked up as I climbed into cooler woods and smoother trail. Then, about a mile or so from the shelter - Bear Sighting! A mom and 4 cubs about 40 yards away. After I got some pictures with my camera (sorry can't post them from the woods) I barked at them and they turned tail and ran.

So after18.9 miles I'm sharing space with some (slower) middle-aged SOBOs, Brenda, Beth, and Larry (One Stick). Good company. Another big day tomorrow, so I can have an easy descent into Hot Springs on Sunday.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Day 1 - Head for the mountains

There are a few reasons the first day of an AT backpacking trip is one of the most challenging. Your pack is loaded with food. The specific conditioning of hiking with the pack is lacking. And finally, AT trailheads are at the low points of the trail. 
Starting my hike - Erwin, TN. Elevation 1770'

Case in point - Erwin, TN is nestled in the Nolichucky River valley, at 1770 feet above sea level. Right off the bat you're looking at a 1500' climb.

And so the course of the day was set. As the trail wound south from Erwin the sounds of town and highway faded away, replaced by the sound of my steps and the rustling of leaves in rhododendron-filled secluded coves. 

Always, though, was the realization that I was moving further into, and further up, the mountains. The last six miles presented two stiff 1000'+ climbs, accompanied by rough trail conditions. So it was a relief to see the side trail to the shelter and have a chance to clean up, fix dinner, and regroup for tomorrow's hike.
Bald Mt Shelter - 5100'

It's been quiet on the trail so far, with only a handful of northbound section hikers, so it looks like I've got the shelter all to myself.

Total time on trail - 9:15
Total distance. - 16.8 miles
Avg speed - 1.8 mph