Great Smoky Mountains NP - May 2005
Between May 14 and May 22 I hiked the 74 miles of the Appalachian train that goes through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The trip was organized by my good friend Diana Christopulos.
Click HERE to see pictures from the trip. Thanks to Bill and Dale for letting me mix some of their pictures in with mine.
Below is Diana's description of our trip:
GREAT SMOKIES, MAY 2005
Okay, okay, we did the 72-mile hike of the Great Smoky Mountains the “easy” way. It’s true. My rule is “Start high and end low whenever possible.” At 6,643 feet, Clingman’s Dome is the highest point on the entire Appalachian Trail. It is also right in the middle of the hike. It only makes sense to hike down to Davenport Gap (1,975 feet) on the north and then down to Fontana Dam (1,800 feet) on the south. It’s not all downhill though. There are a few little 5,000 and 6,000-foot mountains plus many, many knobs and gaps in between.
Dale Edelbaum (Second Chance) and I (DC Turtle) had already spent 8 days hiking about 95 miles north from Springer Mountain into North Carolina. We were ably assisted by Mark McClain (Bagman). Dale had a compound fracture of his leg less than a year ago on the AT in Virginia, but his hard work paid off, and he had hiked more than 18 rocky miles in one day. Barb Nash (Late Start), who thru-hiked last year, joined us for the first four days.
On May 13th we took a day off and moved to the kitschy tourist town of Gatlinburg to do laundry and gather the Smokies crew. Arthur Kuehne (Answer Man) arrived that night. The three of us day hiked from Clingman’s Dome to Newfound Gap (7.9 miles) the next morning, and we were lucky. They were forecasting thunderstorms, but we started early and did not get a drop until we reached the parking lot at the Gap. We were on the trail by 9 AM. It was very foggy and almost deserted when we started. The trail signs confused me, but we finally got it right. The AT is rarely blazed in the Smokies, much less than in other sections. We saw bear scat twice on the trail. Many bears survived the winter thanks to a great fall crop of acorns and beechnuts. The National Park Service (NPS) believes there is now one bear for every two square miles. This is about half the density that Marcos Paredes estimated where we horse-packed in Mexico south of Big Bend National Park 15 years ago. I was not worried about black bears. Lightening on exposed ridges scares me.
We also noted places where feral hogs had dug up the ground, and the NPS actually built fencing in one area to protect a beech grove from their snouts.
We saw no thru-hikers, just a few day hikers coming up from the Gap. We finished by 1 p.m., and the parking lot was filled with cars and people, including a large contingent of Indians (the continent) in native garb. Everyone cleared out when the rains came. We headed down to the visitor center, where we talked to a backcountry volunteer about permits and recent bear activity. We also watched a very well done movie and browsed the museum (very dark!) and store.
Barb Nash and Bill Greer (No Trail Name) arrived in time for dinner, so our northbound contingent was complete.
Newfound Gap to Peck’s Corner Shelter, 10.7 miles
We started the four northbound days of backpacking on May 15. The Smokies have very restrictive camping rules, especially for people who are not hiking the entire trail. Absolutely everyone must camp at the shelters that occur every 5 to 10 miles along the trail. Section hikers like us must also register ahead of time for space in a specific shelter each night. Here is the kicker for busy people: you cannot reserve shelter space until 30 days or less before your hike. I won’t go into the gross inconsistencies among NPS officials in granting these permits. Let’s simply say that Arthur Kuehne reserved our northbound shelters while Mark and I were in England, and I reserved the southbound shelters when we returned.
The shelters themselves can be a problem. Only thru-hikers can even think about pitching a tent, and they can only resort to tents if the shelter is full. So forget about privacy. You must imagine being in a two-story stone lean-to with a dusty wooden floor and up to 14 people inside, 7 per layer. You have room for your sleeping bag and pad plus a little bit of gear. The other human residents may not have bathed in some time, but this is not so bad, as you have not bathed either. Some of them may snore really loud, though. And they can have other annoying habits. Then there are the other potential residents, including mice, snakes, ants, bees, wasps and the occasional skunk. And of course there are the famous bears. In the past, all of the shelters had chain-link bear fencing and locking gates. These are gradually being removed in favor of bear cables - metal wires for hanging up your food bags between two trees. Updated shelters also include covered cooking areas and skylights. The perfect shelter would also have a nearby clean water source and a self-composting privy.
Those who followed our hiking last year know that Arthur is not a fan of shelters. He manfully agreed to this trip, though, and even left his sardine lunches at home!
I astonished the group, especially Barb, by ordaining a late start at 10:30 AM due to a forecast of morning rain and afternoon clearing. We had a Keystone Cops beginning as we took two vehicles up to Newfound Gap. I forgot that Arthur and Bill had to drop off our backcountry permit at the visitor center, and we thought they made a wrong turn. Not to worry.
It was foggy and rainy at the trailhead. I offered an over/under bet on clearing weather by 1 PM. Dale was the only one who took me up on it, picking 12:30 PM – he is an optimist! The rest of the group preferred sniping action. They asked which day I meant and argued detailed rules of what constituted “clearing.” We agreed on no rain plus enough sunshine to see shadows. It was just drizzling until we reached Icewater Springs Shelter at 2.7 miles. We went in for a break and it really started pouring. Pretty soon there were 14 people in the shelter, with more arriving. Thru-hikers Bing and Erin boiled water so everyone could have tea. We left after about 30 minutes and it wasn’t raining too hard. We saw mostly fog and rain for a long time, missing the view from Charlie’s Bunion. Then we started getting dramatic views on the Tennessee side (our left) as the rain tapered off and high pressure began to blow the clouds out. The ridgetops were steaming and fir trees lined the sheer drops. By 3:30 PM even Bill and Arthur admitted it had cleared. But where the heck were we? In the Smokies, almost the only definite landmarks are trail crossings. Otherwise there is a steady diet of hiking up a knob and down into a gap.
We reached Peck’s Corner Shelter about 6:30 PM, with plenty of daylight. The shelter is 0.4 miles off the AT on a side trail that is also open to horse packing. We met people hiking out who said there was a rowdy party group of horsemen in the shelter the night before. They were gone when we arrived. We had a friendly crowd in the remodeled two-story lean-to with a skylight, covered cooking area, bear cables and no bear bars. The shelter is exactly one mile high. In addition to our five trekkers the occupants included four thru-hikers. Santa was a tall cool old dude with a white beard who hiked really fast. Erin and Bing, a young couple from Boulder, Colorado, were the same pair who made hot water for everyone during the earlier rain break. Bing thru-hiked several years ago and apparently can’t get enough punishment. The fourth was a solo guy whose daughter hiked with him to the Smokies and dropped out because of blisters.
Just before sunset we added three inexperienced young guys from Miami, Florida. They were supposed to reach a more distant shelter but totally misjudged their hiking time. They were nice guys but had gear like giant D-battery flashlights, a dozen extra D batteries and a large bottle of Scope.
We were packed in like sardines, but we were tired, and no one snored very loud.
Peck’s Corner Shelter to Tri-Corner Knob Shelter, 5.6 miles
This was our shortest northbound day. We awoke to a beautifully clear day after a chilly night. We spent the day between 5,000 and 6,000 feet, hiking over or around Mt. Sequoyah (6,000 ft) and Mt. Chapman (6,250 ft.). Our photographers – Bill, Arthur and Dale – took lots of pictures this day. About 1 PM we met two guys in little shorts who were running from Davenport Gap to Clingman’s Dome – almost 40 miles, with thousands of feet uphill! They were already done with the hardest climb and halfway home.
The Miami boys were at Tri-Corner when we arrived, even though they started long before we did. We had a nice message from Bing and Erin in the trail register, saying they had enjoyed our smiling faces and looked forward to eating at the Homeplace near Salem. I patched up the badly blistered hills of one young guy, applying Second Skin, moleskin and duct tape. He was amazed at the difference.
Again our shelter was full, but the crowd was different. Little did we know this, the highest shelter at almost 6,000 feet, would be the low point of the trip. Things started well. There were two nice young guys from Iowa who had driven 12 hours the day before to reach the Smokies. They were doing a loop hike. Then came two nice guys from Duke, both involved with the athletic department. A quiet southbound section hiker, an older guy, had the bunk next to me. Finally there were two northbound thru-hikers, and one of them was pleasant.
The Iowa boys latched on to the thru-hikers, who had a lot of bad advice, especially from the one wearing a Confederate flag on his head (bandanna). I dubbed him False Rebel. We had to hear his life story whether we wanted it or not, as he sat at the fire ring outside the shelter and made loud pronouncements for several hours. He went to school and worked in Pennsylvania and Maryland, and he pronounces “Appalachian” like a Yankee (“apple-LAY-chun” instead of “apple-LATCH-un”). He smoked cigarettes, as did one of the Iowa kids, so of course he wanted to build a fire. This is when the drama began.
Act 1. False Rebel decided he wanted a campfire. The young Iowa guys adopted him as a mentor. “Gentlemen,” he announced, “it is time to gather wood.” The boys jumped up and start gathering. Of course they picked up wet junk off the ground. In short order Fake Rebel had a really smoky fire going. The wind was light but swirling.
Act 2. The wind soon swirled into the shelter, where we are all in bed, watching. I had been quietly singing “Smoky the Bear.” Barb was chuckling. Arthur and Bill were less humored. They started yelling about the smoke. Fake Reb said all would be well in 10 minutes. Instead, the smoke got worse. The guy had no idea how to make a fire. Bill became more strident with comments like, “Children must play with fire.” “Put it out.” “That’s what water’s for.” Reb became aroused, too. He walked into the shelter and demanded a vote on the fire and saying he had four in favor. The guy next to me abstained, saying he took a candy bar from Reb. Bill and Arthur voted no (and “hell no!”) I said I didn’t care about fire but am allergic to the smoke. Everyone else was silent. The allergy thing helped a little. Reb announced he’d just let the fire burn down. The four of them talked so loudly that no one could go to sleep. Reb advised the youngsters that wood smoke one your skin keeps mosquitoes from biting. If only. He recommended always starting your hike late in the day, around noon perhaps, so that your gear would be dry and weigh less (nothing dries on the AT). Finally, he suggested hiking hard right away, to the point of exhaustion, and remaining exhausted all day. This, he felt, would build endurance. We vowed to follow none of his advice.
Act 3. The minute the fire makers went to bed the older Duke guy, who was in the middle of the top shelf, started snoring about as loud as a B-52 taking off. Arthur was freaked. He got up to find his earplugs, muttering, “Shelters suck!” I thought about other things and was toasty warm, shedding layers. I slept pretty well, especially after I figured out that Kleenex and a little spit make tolerable earplugs.
Act 4. We awoke to another beautiful morning. The snorer was the last one up and the only one who really slept well all night. He said he did not snore loud, that others were making the noise.
Tri-Corner Shelter to Cosby Knob Shelter, 7.7 miles
Another ugly day in paradise – nice weather, many views, flowers in bloom all over the place. We made our miles between 9:30 AM and 3 PM, keeping a gentle pace. Cosby Knob Shelter is only 4,700 feet, so we were dropping into the lowlands. The campsite has a large cove with a nice cooking and camping area. Too bad you can’t pitch a tent, as there were several nice sites. There was bear scat near the privy.
The shelter did not quite fill up, but we did get the obligatory loud-mouth. More on him later. There was a middle-aged southbound section hiker and a young foreign guy who was pretty quiet. Also a northbound thru-hiker we had met earlier on the trail. He had a Maine Guide patch on his pack, and he thru-hiked in the 1980s. His trail name was Walking Home. He was off the trail for several weeks with a strained Achilles tendon, and I don’t think he will catch up with the crowd. He complained that the trail was “wide enough to drive a Volkswagen” but then noted that “it is all hard.” He was kind of schizophrenic in his comments – macho one minute, sensitive the next. He swung to the macho side when the final guy arrived, a middle-aged southbounder. Bill dubbed him Great White Hunter because he spent so much time loudly describing large animals he had stalked and killed in various remote places. He and Maine Guide bunked together, talking themselves into a testosterone frenzy.
Cosby Knob Shelter to Standing Bear farm, about 12 miles
The final morning of this leg was great. We hiked and extra 1.6 miles on the side trail to Mt. Cammerer Lookout, getting our best views of the northern trip. Then we began the long descent into Davenport Gap. It was quite gentle and well-graded. We met an elderly couple that was on the way up. They had started from Marion, Virginia 31 days ago, making less than 10 miles per day. They had gone only 3 miles in 6 hours, but they looked fine.
The last few miles downhill were very beautiful as we followed a creek with many small waterfalls and dense rhododendron patches. After reaching Davenport Gap, we crossed a very hot and dry power line clearing and saw our first mountain laurel in full bloom. Soon we were back in civilization with Interstate 40 and the Pigeon River. We crossed the river just as a group of solo open canoes and a couple of paddle rafts were running the rapids. The wife of one paddler was parked on the bridge – she was doing their car shuttle. They were Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) members from New York and Massachusetts doing a week of white-water rivers. We later learned that the river was polluted for many years by a local paper mill. Now that it is clean, river running is bringing millions of dollars into the county every year.
We finally reached the spot where Mark dropped us off last year, but we still had to climb a mile for our own shuttle. It was 80 degrees, sunny and very humid. We trooped up a long flight of stone stairs, then wound our way through dense forest. After so many days at altitude, we had suddenly dropped into full summer, and I was sweating buckets.
At last we hit the gravel road with the little neon paint on a rock pointing to Standing Bear farm. It’s a neat old farmhouse complex run by Curtis Owen (former NPS employee) and Maria Guzman. I had arranged the shuttle by email . There stood Curtis, eyes smiling, saying, “The five amigos!” He is a really nice guy, probably in his late 30s. He and Maria have two little girls aged two and three years. She also has a son in seventh grade. Walking Home was there, nursing his Achilles tendon. I don’t think he is going to make it. Curtis built or restored the outbuildings. These include two bunkhouses, showers, laundry, Internet connection, kitchen, library and self-composting privy. There is also a little store with cold drinks and snacks, which we immediately invaded.
We piled into a minivan with Maria and got our 45-minute shuttle back to Gatlinburg. She reported that local schools are better than expected. They started their business 4 years ago and got 30 people the first year. Last year they had about 1,000. They’ve had 500 already this year – the thru-hiker rush – and are on track to repeat last year’s performance. Most of the business now will be section hikers.
We all checked in to the Guest House, sharing rooms. After showers, we had dinner at a local rib joint. Not bad. Then we finished repacking for the southbound backpack trip. I added a small paperback novel to my stash, as we had some short days coming up.
Clingman’s Dome to Silar’s Bald Shelter, 4.6 miles
No rest day for us! We awoke early and had breakfast at the motel. After saying fond goodbyes to Barb and Bill, we drove both cars (Arthur’s and Dale’s) to the visitor center, where I dropped off my permit with an officious backcountry volunteer. He gave me a little scare when he insisted on looking it all up on the computer. I had this sinking feeling that someone might have made a mistake somewhere. But no, we were all legal.
We wanted to start early because they were forecasting thunderstorms in the afternoon, all night, and then scattered thunderstorms the next day. Our first sight at Clingman’s Dome was Ironman, an older thru-hiker that Dale and I had met in Georgia. He was catching a ride into Gatlinburg. We later read a trail register suggesting that his knee had done him in. Then, at the restrooms, we met Paul from Nova Scotia, another friend from our Georgia hiking. His buddy from New Brunswick also succumbed to knee troubles and took the bus home. Paul was hiking with Ironman. He looked fine.
Clingman’s Dome was hazy – we could see only dim outlines of mountains. The southbound trail was well groomed and really much prettier than the northbound section. The north is sparse and rocky. The south has beech groves with lots of grass and wildflowers. We saw a tame deer at Double Spring Shelter, less than 3 miles down the trail. After a pretty easy climb up Silar’s-No-Longer-Bald, we dropped down to a shelter that has it all: covered cooking, bear bars, skylight, stone fireplace, nice spring, bear cables. Oops, no privy.
We arrived around lunchtime, spread out and took our rest day at the shelter. I took the lower bunk at one end to have a wall I could lean on for reading and only one bed partner. There was a small piece of plywood between my bunk and the stone shelter wall. I picked it up, turned it over and saw yuck!!! a recently dead mouse in a trap. Fortunately it was still lunchtime, so I ate it (see photo).
We were soon joined by two ultralite northbounders from Iowa who were just taking a break. Next came Vagabond, a Rainbow Family guy who was carrying 50 pounds, walking barefoot and doing five to seven miles a day. He reported that he spends winters in Florida and works somewhere in New York in the summer. He usually bicycles between New York and Florida, but he decided to do something different. He was obviously a very skilled outdoorsman and soon set up a nice clean fire outside. If only Fake Rebel had been there to take lessons!
The shelter filled up with nice people. This was lucky for us, as we would be spending almost 24 hours there. Our first new friends were four recent graduates of Notre Dame University, two women and two men. One of the women is hoping to become a navigator in the Air Force; the other is doing volunteer work for an environmental organization in Kentucky. One of the guys is a history major who will be doing graduate work at Harvard. The other is in environmental studies and will be working at Scripps Institute in La Jolla. Nice, smart kids! Then came three guys from Alabama – two pastors and a younger guy. They were also very nice.
The rain started in the late afternoon and continued all night. There was very little thunder and lightening.
Silar’s Bald Shelter to Derrick Knob Shelter, 6.6 miles
It kept raining until about 10:30 AM. We left at 11, reached Derrick’s Knob Shelter by 3 PM, and did not get a drop. There was a strange dude in the shelter when we arrived. He was a younger guy, passing himself off as a thru-hiker. He had a cotton sleeping bag and was eating soup with a wooden stick. He left a piece of cheese on the bunk, too – a real no-no in bear country, not mention incredibly unsanitary. He rolled all his gear up into a big blue plastic tarp and attached it with some red webbing around his shoulders. Then he hung his canteens on the back (see photo). We were not sorry to see him go, as he was leaving food all over the place.
Then it started pouring again for a while. Derrick Knob is an old shelter with bear bars and no covered cooking area or privy. It was Saturday night, and our shelter collected 14 residents. In addition to Dale, Arthur and me, our 4 buddies from Notre Dam rejoined us. Arthur had a great time with the rest of the group, since all of them had gear problems. He got to pretend he was teaching beginner backpacking. First was a group of 3 (a woman and two guys) whose stove did not work. Arthur tried to repair it, but they ended up cooking on Fire Ribbon, the napalm-like substance that is normally used to prime stoves. Then we had a daughter-father team whose water pump failed. They had a good working stove, though, so we advised boiling. Another pair of guys had a nonworking stove, and Arthur fixed it.
Not only did we have no thru-hikers, we had some clueless, rude shelter mates. One laid his pack on my bunk for over an hour and left gear all over the place. I finally ask him to move the pack and carried his other junk away myself. Apparently he lost some gear in the process. Oh well.
It was quiet in the shelter but I slept poorly. I was not tired enough after such a short day of hiking.
Derrick Knob Shelter to Mollie’s Ridge Shelter, about 12 miles
Enough fannying about! Time to do some hiking. It is May 21, the anniversary of Dale’s accident last year. He called it his tragiversary and spent it on two fine mountains, Thunderhead and Rocky Top! We started at 8 AM in clear, cool weather. After some steep climbing we followed a rhododendron-shaded path to the top of Thunderhead. For the first time it was clear enough to see another group on the peak ahead of us. We ambled over to Rocky Top for lunch and great views, probably the best views we had in the Smokies. We sang the song, too. “Rocky Top you’ll always be/Home sweet home to me/Good old Rocky Top/Rocky Top, Tennessee/Rocky Top, Tennessee.” Yee haw!
The rest of the day was pretty easy until a long climb near the end of the day. We did over 12 miles, as we went down to a shelter that was off the trail for a break. We had great views and nice weather. Along the way we noticed that someone had been doing trail work very recently, clearing out the water drainage bars that became clogged during yesterday’s rain. Soon we ran into a maintaining crew that included one of the pastor’s who had stayed in Silar’s Bald Shelter with us. All three of their group worked with the crew that day. The pastor told us a story about someone who saw a big coyote on the trail. The coyote saw him, too. Instead of running away, the coyote sidled around him, went over to a big tree, and raised his leg. Sounds like a challenge to me.
We had been wondering if we would meet anyone else from our time in Georgia, and we hit the jackpot near the end of the day. Smoky and Wildflower were looking great, almost finished with the northbound part of their thru-hike. They would stop at Newfound Gap and head up to Maine, then hike southbound all the way home. I gave them a card and invited them to stop by in Virginia. Then we ran into Blazin’ and Backtrack at Mollie’s Ridge Shelter. They were just taking a break. Scoobie will rejoin them at Hot Springs, so maybe we will see them, too.
Even better, Dale made it safely through his tragiversary.
The shelter did not fill up, which was nice for a change. We had only eight people and no bad snoring. There was a solo guy from Roanoke. Also a northbound woman. She was using Coleman fuel in an alcohol stove, which apparently is a bad idea. She burned her dinner in gigantic yellow flames. We also got two local guys, and one of them was the Great White Talker. He thru-hiked several years ago. Like Fake Rebel, he set up in front of the shelter and talked very loudly so that all must hear him. Some of his stories were quite interesting for the first hour or so, but I was bored with him after 2 hours and wished he would move to another shelter after 3 hours. He never shut up. I got up to pee about 9, and GWT said, “Look, there’s a full moon.” I was happy with that and noted that Dale and I had a new moon when we started hiking. “Oh well,” he says, “at least you’re out here.” What a patronizing twit!
The night was great, though, with lots of barred owls and coyotes on a kill. It was the first time I had heard coyotes in the East. Their cry seems more doglike than in the West. I miss the full-blown chorus.
Mollie’s Ridge Shelter to Fontana Dam, 10.6 miles
We awoke to find two young bucks with fresh antlers roaming our foggy breakfast camp. The Great White Talker was the last one up. He got excited when he saw one of the bucks. We mentioned that two had been around all morning. “Oh well,” he said, “that’s nothing compared with the bear I saw yesterday.” Aarrgghhh.
We smelled the barn and were ready early. Not far down the trail we finally saw our first bear. Arthur spotted it about 50 to 70 yards below the trail, sitting with its back to a tree like Winnie the Pooh. It was very small – I thought it might be a cub at first. Perhaps it was a young female. We were downwind of her, and she seemed uncertain what we were. When she finally decided, she turned and ran away.
By noon we were at the Shuckstack Mountain Fire Tower, eating lunch. It is rather decrepit, and the wind chased us down to the base for our meal. Two fairly tame deer soon joined us. We had only four miles to go.
Our morning fog turned into haze and clouds. It was breezy at 4,000 feet but warmed up considerably as we dropped back into full summer below 2,000 feet. The last mile or so is on a paved road that crosses Fontana Dam, and it was sweltering. We could see the visitor center but no sign of Mark. Ah, but then a little red car came down the road right on time. Dale said, “He’s good!”
We checked into the Fontana Inn and enjoyed showers, cold beer and a nice big dinner.
All those miles, and not even a blister.
Did we like the Smokies? Yes, it was a good trip. The most interesting thing to me was the combination of northern and southern plants. For example, even around 6,000 feet you would see northern firs and rhododendron mixed in together. The views were good, the wildlife better than average, and the trail was really well groomed. On the other hand, the crowded shelters and the many rules and regulations were nice to see in the rearview mirror. On to Katahdin!