Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Best Laid Plans...

We had reservations at Derrick Knob Shelter on Saturday night as our "dry run" for our upcoming 4-day trip on the Appalachian Trail in the Smokies this summer.  We were testing out new equipment and getting a feel for what it is like to hike with really loaded packs.  Our trip next month is planned so that we are hiking a maximum of 11.5 miles each day to keep it fun, but since we'll be starting in the middle of the Smokies and hiking to the outer edge, the hike UP to the AT from Elkmont was going to be much more strenuous than what we expect to endure on any given day on the big trip.  But we were ready--Pumped, really!

As the weekend approached, however, a damp forecast for the weekend turned into a torrential rains prediction.  Either way we had planned to go to and from Derrick Knob (up from Elkmont and down to Tremont) required a substantial water crossing that the "Brown Book" warned about doing during periods of high water.  We weren't worried about getting up there on Saturday, but we were very worried about getting DOWN on Sunday when the forecast was for as much as 4 inches of rain overnight. Those water crossings were intimidating, to say the least. Standing in the driveway of a group member Saturday morning, we made a decision.  We wanted to hike and test out our water filters, JetBoils, and other such equipment, but we wanted to be safe about it.  I quickly went back home, grabbed a couple of tents and a tarp, and instead of hiking up to Derrick Knob, we drove to Smokemont Campground--ahead of the rain.
Setting up camp before the rains

Since we beat the rain to the campground, we took the time to set up camp before heading out on the hike we had picked during our change of plans--Mingus Creek Trail.  My son's old Boy Scout tent and my newer MSR Hubba Hubba went up quickly, and the tarp we hung over the picnic table (with my Leki hiking poles as center supports) proved to be the item that saved this trip from being a washout.  Then we headed out to Mingus Mill, piddled around the mill taking pictures and looking at wildflowers before beginning the hike.

With water, my Deuter 60+10 pack weighed about 35 pounds.  I had carried it similarly packed on a previous hike on the AT in Virginia a couple years ago, but it's hard to remember from one trip to the next just how heavy that really is.  Heavy as it was, though, this pack that I purchased at Blue Ridge Mountain Sports in Knoxville, TN and that they fitted to me perfectly, rides very nicely on my hips and back.  It really is pretty comfortable except for the fact that it's so freaking heavy!  I plan to change that before we leave in June!
Wake Robin

Wildflowers abounded on this hike, including wake robin which was a new sighting for me, and water crossings that weren't in the Brown Book at all suddenly appeared because of all the previous rain we've had and the rains that were now beginning and that must have been happening for an hour or two higher up.  All of the seeps were full of water and some of them became difficult rock hops before we returned to camp.  I can't imagine what the "real" water crossings must have looked like by sundown on Saturday or sunrise on Sunday morning. We knew without a doubt that we had done the right thing!  The forest takes on a different shade of lush green in the rain in the spring.  The heavy rains wash the pollen and dirt from the leaves exposing the almost effervescent glow of new spring foliage.  It was a lovely hike!
Elk near Oconaluftee Visitor Center

Returning to Smokemont Campground from the Mingus Mill area proved to be an exciting adventure in itself.  Driving along, deep in conversation and laughter, we were surprised as a herd of elk emerged from the woods and crossed the road right in front of us! These majestic creatures paid no attention to the people who stopped their cars, got out in the rain, and started taking photos of them.  They were seemingly oblivious to our presence and were enjoying the wet, young grasses that populated the field into which they had made their way.  Again, I realized how blessed I am to have this park in my own backyard!

We passed the evening by going down to the Bradley Fork River and pumping/filtering water even though there is running water available at the campground.  I used my MSR Miniworks EX Filter and someone else used a gravity-based filter system she had just bought.  We boiled our water in our JetBoil stoves and tried out freeze-dried meals we had brought with us.  The rains came down in torrents and we had to lift the tarp over the table periodically to allow the water to run off the sides, but I haven't had that much fun in a long time!  Camaraderie like that is hard to come by and I am lucky to have such a great group of women to hike with.  I am truly blessed!

The next morning we broke camp in the rain, and drove over to the Visitor's Center to do one more quick hike.  The Oconaluftee River Trail leaves from the Visitor's Center and goes over to the Cherokee Boundary.  People looked at us like we were crazy as we got out and prepared to hike that trail. The trail is only 1.5 miles each way, so we left our packs in the car, but there was no way our rain gear was going to protect us from the downpour in which we were going to hike.  We all knew we'd be wet and so did everyone else at the Visitor's Center who saw us depart.  I guess that's part of why hiking the 900 is such a feat--you have to do some crazy things to actually get it done!

All in all, our "dry run" couldn't have been said to be "dry," but it was an amazing weekend spent in my mountains.  I wouldn't have missed it for anything!


  1. I was out last weekend and my plans changed to. I am such a fair weather hiker. But girl, you need to get some pounds off your pack. If you post a gear list I can try and help. I am usually around 27 pounds for 4 days so I am not ultra-light. Yes I think you should post a gear list.

    1. Do you weigh your stuff on a scales to help you get the weight down? See my other reply below too!

  2. Melissa, I'm working on getting the weight down. I've purchased a new 1lb 7oz sleeping bag and a new sleeping pad. Part of my problem is I am obsessed with being prepared for everything that could go wrong. Blue Ridge Mountain Sports said when we know what the weather will be they'll help me pack less too. But I'll try to get a gear list posted here too. I'll take help wherever I can get it! I'd love to be looking at 27 lbs. Is that with food and water or before?