Who would have thought that my computer would become a springboard for wilderness adventure? This past winter, I stumbled upon backpackinglight.com searching for a gear review (great review, Will). I shot E some links, he shot me some back, and within days, we were planning another trip. We could only squeeze 3 nights away from our loving wives, and from board discussions, we agreed that The Lakeshore trail fit the bill. The trail is a historical, 37 mile journey around the northern side of the magnificent Lake Fontana in the Great Smoky Mountains. We heard this was the least visited area of the park. Solitude was paramount. Might see more bears than hikers. Perfect.
I was at E's house by 6AM for the alpine-ish start. We had packed everything the night before, so he just threw our bags in the back and we were off. Pack weights with 4 days of food and 2L water were 25 and 23lbs respectively. We had each shaved 10-15 lbs off our base weights and were excited to float down the trail with our airy aura. Before we knew it, we were already in the Great Smokies and wisps of cottony fog hung over the tree tops. at 9:30AM, we pulled into the Hiker’s Inn and met owners Jeff and Nancy, whose hiker shuttle service along the southern AT is quite an operation. After saying goodbye to our car, it was an informative drive with Jeff to our trail-head in Bryson City, the famous Tunnel at the end of the "Road to Nowhere". We would be walking back.
In true ultra light fashion, E and I finished off our heavy turkey sandwiches so that we didn't have to carry them. It felt good to stretch our legs and stomachs in the crisp mountain air. Then, with micro-lights donned (so that we could read the generations of graffiti), it was 500 feet through an old hole carved through the side of the mountain. It was like we were going back in time. As the tunnel ended, and the concrete broke down into dirt and rocks, we took our first steps off the pavement and into the woods. My trail runners began to purr. In order to quicken our immersion in the wilderness, E and I did something we usually do, we shut up and hiked in silence for 30 minutes. The effect was instantaneous. I could actually hear myself think. As the rigors of daily life melted away, I could feel myself buzzing with a new found energy. This was more than a feeling. I could hear it loudly in my ears. I could see it around my face. Bees swarmed around my head, and I was standing next to a rather large underground bees nest. We both hightailed it out of there (without saying a word mind you) and smiled as we slowed our pace. The trail was beautiful, wildflowers were out and our path followed lots of old growth. We took our first break at a bridge overlooking a fairly large creek. After unsuccessfully looking for the troll, we ditched our shoes and headed down for a quick wilderness baptism. The cold mountain water was like Gatorade for my being, reminding me that everything we needed was either on our backs or around us in nature. Reassured and refreshed, we hit campsite 98 in what seemed like no time. The site rivaled any Four Seasons (tonight’s season was spring), and overlooked the confluence of roaring river #6 where it flowed into Lake Fontana. We set up our tent and dug into two Mountain House dinners. E realized he had forgotten his spoon and used my knife to carve some chopsticks. Life was good as we scraped our bags (my spork doing the lion-share) and watched the sunset dance on the lake.
That night, E slept fireside and I slept in the tent. At 7AM, E awoke first to do some fishing. We decided to take our Coleman mini fishing "pens" and were eager to test them out. Within seconds, E landed a big trout as it sucked in the colorful lure. The fish jumped, exposing its beautiful torpedo underbelly, but when he landed, the line popped faster than the Jonas brothers. E stayed by the water for another 10 minutes, pumping with adrenaline, thinking he could reel him in manually if he could just find the end of the line. But of course he never found the line. Instead, we dined like kings on our favorite mountain breakfast…Cinnamon oatmeal w/ dehydrated strawberries and mangos. We washed it down with one of those new instant coffee kicks and packed up camp with renewed fervor.
For the second day of hiking, we had another 10.5 velvety miles from campsite 98 to our destination, campsite 81. Today the trail followed the lake, but did so at a steep vantage. The views were spectacular down through the trees to the unique aqua marine water. We passed what seemed to be a neighborhood of abandoned homesteads scattered along creek banks and back into the woods. All that remain are the chimneys, standing like tombstones in remembrance. I spotted some old glass apothecary bottles that were still intact but E standards made me drop it (carefully) within 1 minute. Any longer, and he said it would become my karmic trash even though it was thrown away fifty years ago. Pretty serious stuff. After continued lengthy philosophical conversation, we both stopped in our tracks as we rounded a switchback. We both saw it; the small side trail down to the water was calling our name. We didn't hesitate to jump in. Instantly, the feet and back relaxed in cool weightlessness. We sat and floated on our backs until the perfect moment was over. When it came time to dry off and put our shoes back on, we did so only after finding a patch of the softest moss this side of the Smokies. Both E and I commented how we wish we could clone this moss and plant it as carpet on the roof of our dream mountain home. Nothing better.
After a couple more hours of historic hiking (we passed some junked out cars from the 1930’s and the lone hill top graves of the mysterious, "Ellen and Daughter Cook"), E and I had a nice wild life encounter that most hikers would dread. E stopped on a sunny switchback, and when I rounded the corner, I almost stepped on a 6 foot rattler. It instantly recoiled and curled into striking position with rattler rattling. I held my trekking poles out in front of me and backed off. We took some video and audio of the snake and continued on as E reminded me that stoning snakes, however poisonous, is strictly prohibited in Great Smoky Mountain State Park. I wonder if that was a descendant of the snake that got Ellen and her daughter? With a spring in our step, we were already at our campsite for the night, 81, a nice private spot next to a small stream. Again, there was clearly evidence of wildlife, as HOGZILLA tracks were trampled in the crusty mud behind the site. Jeff had warned us that these were the real trail killers and to stay close to camp at night when they begin hamming it up. Someone had cleaned and mounted a small skull on a stick Lord-of-the-Flies-style in the middle of camp I’m guessing to ward off the evil swine. I set up the tent while E started the fire for mood and bug relief and in no time the MSR Pocket Rocket hit Mach 1 and water was choppy in our GSI Hae Kettle (one of my fav’s @ 5.5 oz for only $19.99). We used our Mountain House dehydrated food bags from the night before to prepare our prix fixe dinner of Mediterranean couscous and chicken (could have been snake). As the bags cooled (each sitting on one of my knees delivering soothing heat therapy) our afternoon soundtrack of far away thunder echoed closer. The gods rolled into the 7th frame, and we packed up our belongings and zipped up the Golite Utopia 2 as the first big drops began to fall. The Utopia seemed very roomy (43sq ft area) and both of us had no problems sitting in our crazy creek therma-rest chairs with all of our gear close at hand. Because it is a single wall tent, we did see some light misting as the bigger drops hit the silnylon fabric, but that was minimal and to be expected. Overall, we stayed 99% dry, which made us 99% happy. After an hour in the tent, the quick but violent thunderstorm seemed to blow itself out. We restarted our fire from the covered coals and admired the freshly rained night before dozing off.
The third day would take us 8.5 miles from campsite 81, through historic Proctor and campsite 86, to campsite 90. We made good time in the morning and broke camp after cherishing our warm oats and de-re-hydrated strawberries and mangos and instant coffee. We made it to the historic town of Proctor by lunch and instantly realized why this area was first settled in the mid 1800’s. The views from the bridge over Hazel Creek would have made for great postcards had they had access to regular mail.
E and I decided to eat our tuna and cheese lunches at the crudely maintained Calhoun House. This was a trappers house in the 1920’s and now serves as a rat motel. The front porch however, complete with cushioned porch furniture, was the impossible to reserve table with the view. Luckily, we had the restaurant to ourselves. After lunch, we left our wooden nickel on the counter, and was back on the trail to burn off some tuna. About half an hour outside of Proctor, we were obliged to stop and pay our respects at what I think is one of the most amazing cemeteries in the entire South East. As you come over the top of a small hill, you find yourself in a secret clearing, standing amongst tombstones and wildflowers. Tombs from civil war soldiers, day old babies, and even Moses (b1794-d1863) and Patience Proctor, the first residents of Hazel Creek, are buried here. From Moses' tomb, we read that the cemetery is located on the very spot where he built his cabin in the 1800’s. I think Jacob used it sometime after that for season 3 of Lost.
The trail continued on with beautiful intermittent stone wall borders. We followed it up over an unnamed peak and back down, over an old iron bridge, and then a short jaunt to our site which had river views to the right and lake views to the left. Although this was the first night we had to share our isolation with fellow hikers (and even some boaters), we had our relative privacy. The river frontage and lake back yard made up for any human invasions and served as the perfect backdrop for evening fishing. Because the lake was unusually high, the tops of half submerged trees sprung forth from the water in bright green leafy explosions. Again, the thunderstorms caught up to us in late afternoon, and we spent another hour in Utopia talking about our trip and how fast it was progressing. After the storm, E again restarted the fire from coals and we ended up throwing our lines in the darkening water and sat quietly listening to the frogs as they chanted their moonlight mantra. Soon, E and I were both chanting our own mantra, deep in the down of our sleeping bags. *NOTE*This is when I misplaced my Photon Freedom Micro light (it's that small, but hella bright). If you find it, you can keep it, but I would put an orange string on it if I were you.
When we awoke on day 4, the first thing that hit me like a bag of bricks was that this was our last day. Then it hit me like a bag of feathers, my Pack! We only had 7 or so miles to the car and we knew it would go fast. We were both down to about 15lbs and were light on water due to the numerous stream crossings and the instant availability of E’s sweet tasting Katadyn. In no time, we were at the AT trailhead and a small parking lot, where someone had left an unopened Guinness sitting next to the trail sign. I didn’t need a written invitation, as I know a Karmic reward when I see one. We popped it open, and heard that beautiful sound of nitrogen releasing into the sweet and creamy dark brew. We split it and both commented how that was one of the best beers ever consumed. How could it not be?
From there, we seemed to float down the remainder of the trail about .5 miles to the famed Fontana Dam, the end of the road. To the left, Fontana lake and all her fingers stretched out before us. To our right, a 600 foot concrete ledge with the tamed river running free below us. We walked over the dam in awe, like little kids. On the opposite side of the dam was E’s car, a bag of jerky and a change of clothes. But first, hot showers behind the visitor’s center to contrast our recent stream cleanings. It was the perfect ending to the perfect trip. Everything we needed we had comfortably carried, and we were comfortable doing it no matter what the circumstance. That to me is the real thrill of camping. Finding inspiration in places that others tend to overlook. And have a great time doing it.
Till next trip-