Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Unexpected Peril on Gunter Fork

That final crossing on Gunter Fork Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park--the crossing of Big Creek itself--loomed ahead of us, hopefully the only thing standing between us getting out of the park this day.  As we rounded the bend at the crossing, the water levels were high and getting higher. We knew none of our choices were great ones: turn around and go back up the treacherous 4-mile stretch of trail we had just barely been able to descend before it began to rain, stay put on the side of the stream probably for the entire night, or attempt to cross.  Those were our choices. None held much appeal at that particular moment and the window of opportunity for crossing was closing rapidly. The storm we were caught in had dumped torrential rainfall on the Cosby and Greenbrier area. Unbeknownst to us, a 6-ft wall of water was headed down Ramsey Cascades, just two ridgelines over from where we stood trying to make our decision.

Our day had begun with an early meet in Maryville and a relatively quick trip up and over Newfound Gap to the trailhead of Beech Gap I Trail just outside of Cherokee, NC.  We had planned to be on trail by 10:00, but surprisingly, we began our ascent of Beech Gap Trail at 9:35. We had no idea at that moment just how critical our early start would be. Our shuttle driver, Steve, husband of one of our little group wished us well and told us he'd see us in Big Creek! Now that, my friends, is a dedicated hiker's husband! We made good time, hiking strongly up the 2000 ft elevation gain of Beech Gap Trail to the intersection with Balsam Mountain. This trail had kicked my butt about a month earlier, and I had dreaded having to do it again; but this time, unencumbered by the stomach issues I had experienced the two days prior to the first trip, I made it up with no problem at all.  We took a few minutes to snack and drink a little Gatorade then took off up and over Balsam High Top. This trail required a bit more elevation gain, but the surrounding forest makes for a delightful trip across what would be our highest point on the trail this day--approximately 5700 ft.  Although there are no views from the summit, you know you've reached the top because you begin a quick descent to Laurel Gap, home of one of only a couple shelters that are not along the Appalachian Trail in the Smokies.

The Laurel Gap shelter appears relatively new when compared to the other shelters we've seen in these mountains with newer construction, non-leaking skylighted roofing, and even a thermometer! It would be a nice place to stay, and we knew that if anything happened on Gunter Fork, if we decided to turn back, we could take shelter at Laurel Gap after climbing back up the mountain. We had a contingency plan, but we were not carrying overnight equipment like sleeping bags. And with no way to communicate what we had done, our husbands would be very worried, not a good scenario if we wanted to continue hiking.

After a short rest and snack break at Laurel Gap, we made the short climb up to the intersection of Balsam Mountain Trail and Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail, a place where we had enjoyed lunch only 24 days earlier on our 3-day backpacking trip across these ridges.  On this trip, we only stayed on the Balsam Mountain Trail another .9 mile where Gunter Fork turned off to descend steeply into Walnut Bottoms.  We knew there was danger on this trail when waters were high, but there had been a drought in East Tennessee in recent weeks and water levels everywhere were low. The forecast for this day was of only minimal chance of showers and those were predicted to begin well after we should have been able to get down the mountain.

As we stood at the trailhead of Gunter Fork, the skies were a beautiful blue with no sign of impending weather in any direction we could see. The air felt cool compared to the heat and humidity of previous days, and as such, gave no warning of the thunderstorm that was brewing somewhere beyond our view. We felt confident that all would be well as we made our way down the trail.  I knew this trail would be overgrown, and it was! I still have scratches on my arms from the briars that snagged me as I pushed them aside with my poles. What I wasn't prepared for was how narrow and eroded this trail would be in places. There were numerous spots where the mountain seemed to want to pitch us off the side, down the steep slopes to the valley below.  There were a couple places where I had to proceed down rock scrambles on my derriere because my short legs (I'm only 5' 5" tall) simply wouldn't reach the trail below with any surety of not slipping off the slope entirely. Our progress was slow--painstakingly slow, something for which we had not allotted sufficient time.

Almost 2 hours into our attack on Gunter Fork Trail, we were still not to the first stream crossing. It was about that time that we heard the first rumblings from the violent storm that was quickly approaching the area. We had passed the slide area which had closed this trail a couple years ago. It was an impressive area to say the least. Much work had been done to make it passable, but honestly, much work remains that is still undone on this trail in order to make it safe, in my humble opinion.

The rumblings continued, and we quickened our pace although that was difficult due to the condition of the trail. A stumble in the wrong place on this trail could be bad. When we finally arrived at the first cascade, falling 150 ft from the precipice at the top, over diagonal sandstone formation at the bottom, I was, honestly, a little disappointed. Very little water fell from the cascade, but a part of me took solace in that, hoping that the drought would keep any rainfall that might begin with this approaching storm from keeping us from being able to make all of the water crossings that still lay ahead of us. We paused only briefly for pictures.  Our sense of urgency was increasing.

Within minutes the storm became more intense as we approached that first water crossing.  It hadn't yet begun to rain, but it was imminent, and we knew it. We stood for a half a minute trying to decide whether to take the time to change into water shoes. Boots would give us better traction on this slippery, sketchy trail and changing would take precious time--we pressed on in our boots, able to just rock hop this first crossing. By the time we reached the second crossing, the water levels were still fine, and we were able to rock hop again. The thunder and lightning were intensifying and raindrops were beginning to fall, albeit sporadically still. When we approached the second falls area, where you have to leave the trail to really get the full view, I hesitated. I probably wouldn't have gone down if it hadn't been for my hiking partners, but we decided we had come this far, and we needed to see it, so we descended the side trail to see this:

It was beautiful, but I was seriously distracted by the storm and the rains that were beginning to fall in earnest now. We took time to don our rain gear, then quickly climbed back up the side trail to continue making our way out. Thunder and lightning raged around us, one lightning strike coming so close, I'll admit it, I screamed! Thankfully, the condition of the trail improved in this lower section except that it was now a stream bed itself with spots standing or running with water shin deep. We were able to increase our pace though, pushing on through I'm not sure how many more water crossings. Each one was passable, but also each one was a little deeper than the one before it. Finally, we rounded the bend and faced a much more difficult crossing, this one of Big Creek although I didn't know it at the time.  I had seen this crossing from the other side on our last hike in this area. We had gone the quick tenth of a mile or so up Gunter Fork to see what that crossing looked like. On that day, it had appeared a wide, amiable wade across the creek--no big deal. Not this time! I didn't even recognize it as the same stretch of water. What I saw ahead at this moment was deep, fast-moving water, not raging yet, but moving quickly for sure. Directly in front of the trail, I had my doubts we could make it over. However, about 8 feet or so upstream I thought it looked a little wider, a little more shallow, and a little less swift. I've waded lots of rivers as a fly-fisherwoman, so I'm used to surveying a river for a passable spot. I headed up that way and my hiking buddies followed. I was just going to test it out--wade out a bit and make a decision, but when I looked back to my left, they were following me. Kirsten reminded Jennifer and me to face upstream, bend our knees, and lean into the current, all of which we did. It wasn't too bad yet, but the water was swift and the current got stronger as we moved further into the river. About half way across, at Jennifer's suggestion, we decided to use the only other tactic we knew about to make this easier and that was to lock arms. The three of us locked arms while still using our hiking poles to steady us and feel for the bottom of the stream which we could no longer see because of the ever-increasing current. At this point, we were hip deep in the water, deeper than I have ever been in any water crossing and deeper than I ever want to be again especially in swift current. I slid my right foot tentatively across the bottom, looking for places where there were small stones instead of large boulders to stand on and steady myself. We all took increased balance from each other as we inched across the stream. I noticed a cairn that someone had built on a rock within 4 feet or so of the bank. I hoped that marked the clearest passage. We had all been praying for help and guidance; we felt this was a good sign. The torrential rains continued, unrelenting. Determinedly, we made for the cairn, slowly edging closer to the bank. I felt we would be okay now, but I kept looking upstream, hoping against hope that no wall of water would come barreling down toward us. I had seen video footage of a flash flood like that on social media, and I could not get that image out of my head. If it had, there would have been nothing we could have done about it, and you would not be reading this account. Prayers and progress continued. Finally, we reached the cairn, but just beyond it my pole sank very deeply into the water. The bottom here was the deepest yet, but this close to the edge, the current was significantly diminished. We waded through it with no trouble. Once on the other side, we all embraced--relieved, shaken, but fine. We had made it across. Thinking that this still wasn't the last crossing because it bore no resemblance to what we had seen in that spot weeks earlier, we quickly continued down the trail. I cannot possibly relate to you the wave of relief that washed across me when I saw that trail sign at Camel Gap! No words can communicate that feeling. I approached it and laid my hand on it just to confirm the reality of its presence. We were finished with Gunter Fork; we had survived the crossings, and we would make it out at last, at least, that's what we hoped. 

Aggressive bear activity had closed campsites 36 and 37 which we would walk right past on our way down Big Creek trail, but I don't think any bear in his right mind would have approached us that day. We were absolutely not in the mood for any tomfoolery out of any bear! Wherever he was, I am thankful he decided not to mess with us. We made our way down Big Creek Trail, while the creek began to rage and froth violently. We realized that any ten minute delay for us at any point of this day and we would have been stuck on the other side of Big Creek with only our daypacks, probably for the night. The longer we walked, the more wildly the river raged. I began to honestly worry about whether the bridge just above Mouse Creek Falls could take the abuse that this now raging river was dishing out. We hiked as fast as we could on diminishing energy levels that were waning as our adrenaline rush wore off. Water levels reached within only a few feet of the trail in some spots, much higher than we had ever seen it before. The rain had long since subsided, but the river continued to rise and the trail remained a small stream itself in places. Finally, when we approached the large steel bridge that spanned Big Creek, it still stood solidly providing us safe passage over a river that no one would survive in now.  Too much water and too much force was exerted. We crossed the bridge, looking out over this scene:

Beyond this point, we were able to relax and simply walk the last couple miles of the way out. We did take a quick stop at Mouse Creek Falls which was extraordinary with this much water flow. We looked for Midnight Hole, but to us at least, it was unrecognizable in the raging currents. I must admit that I was pretty thrilled to see the trail sign at the end of Big Creek and the car that our kind shuttler, Steve, had driven around all day to come and pick us up at the end of our hike. It would be a bit of an understatement to say we were glad to see him!
Not only did he pick us up, but he brought us a nice buffet of snacks and treats to bolster our spirits as he listened to our tale of adventure.  

I did make a decision on this hike, though. I have firmly decided that if I am lucky enough to finish hiking all the trails in the Smokies and become a member of the 900-Miler Club, I will only do it once.  I will never, EVER, step foot on Gunter Fork Trail--not ever again in my lifetime. If you see me on Gunter Fork, call a doctor, because you can rest assured that I have lost my freaking mind!  

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Let's Get Hiking--Trail Training and Nutritional Preparation

Right up front, let me say, I am NOT a natural athlete, nor do I have the body of one! But I have hit on a combination that is working for me and my body currently. Last fall, I was a bit out of control. I had let myself gain weight as the hormonal effects of my age had reduced my metabolism to a crawl. I was struggling to do long hikes. My knees hurt. My feet and arches hurt...a lot! I would be tired and sore for a couple days after a long, strenuous hike. I told my husband late last year that if I didn't do something, I didn't think I was going to be able to finish my quest for the 900 (all the trails in the Smoky Mountains) because the vast majority of the trails we had left were long--really long! And I meant it...I was having some serious doubts about my ability to finish. But I'd been working on this goal for almost four years, and I didn't want to give up my dream.

Lifestyle Changes
I asked for an elliptical machine for Christmas and put it in my den where I cannot ignore it. Right after Christmas I began using it heavily. It felt great for a while, but then my knees (2 knee surgeries in my past and I'm quite sure more in my future) began to really hurt. I was doing it too often and for too long, I think. I had to stop for a while and try something else.  I tried going to the gym and doing other things, but not with the regularity that would make a real difference.

I have had a Fitbit for a while now and would track my steps, but didn't really pay that much attention to it. Then in early April all that changed. For some reason, I began trying in earnest to make sure I got 10,000 steps in each day. That meant making extra laps around aisles when I was shopping, parking a long way away from whatever store I visited when running errands, or taking walks around my neighborhood in the evenings after work. At first, it was hard to maintain continuity, but by mid-April I was in the swing of things and haven't looked back since. Since April 17, I have averaged between 12,000 and 15,000 steps a day over a week's time. Yes, the hikes help keep that average high each week, but there hasn't been a single day since April 17 that I have gotten less than 10,000 steps. Most non-hiking days are more like 13K+.  I cannot tell you what a difference this has made in my hiking ability! Now that I'm not depending solely on the elliptical for exercise, I can use it again (on much higher difficulty levels) without pain to my knees when it's raining or I need/want to get in another thousand or two of steps at the end of the day.

The other lifestyle change that I have made during this time is a simple one. My husband and I now eat the biggest meal of our day at lunch. We aren't really dieting, but we are conscious of what we eat and try to be good (most days). But what we have for supper is usually fruits, cottage cheese, good cheeses and crackers, nuts, fruit/yogurt parfaits, salad from our garden...things of this nature. I think having the heavier meal in the middle of the day has played a huge role in how much better we are feeling. Both of us have lost weight without really trying.  These lifestyle changes are something that aren't painful but are things that we can sustain for a long time, I believe.

Trail Nutrition
I have also learned how to eat (and how NOT to eat) before and during hikes.  On April 18, I was hiking up Mt. Sterling and down Swallowfork Trail in the Big Creek/Cataloochee area of the park. It was only about a 13-mile hike, but I made a huge mistake, nutritionally, the night before and was mostly miserable the entire day. I was trying to honor our pact to eat light at night, right? So I created a salad at Whole Foods (we had been shopping at REI right next door) and ate that for dinner. What a mistake that was! I ran out of energy about half way up Mt. Sterling and never got it back. We also exacerbated the problem by not stopping to eat anything until we were only a couple miles from the end of our day. As the heavier person hiking with two skinny women, you don't really want to stop them and say, "Hey, I'm hungry and need to eat something!" So, I didn't. I was miserable that whole hike, and it took me a couple days to really feel better again.

So, now, I have a different routine beginning the night before a hike. I make sure that I get some pasta the night before--either homemade or from a restaurant. I also make sure to have some protein at that meal as well. (I'll put in a plug right here for Anthony's Restaurant in Bryson City and their yummy Chicken Marsala! I've eaten that twice now before big hikes out of Bryson City and felt GREAT the next day!) This is the only time we break our pact to have our heavier meal of the day at lunch. I have found though, that I don't eat nearly as much even on those nights, but I do make sure there are some carbs and protein in that meal.

On the morning OF the hike, I will try to have a biscuit/egg/sausage combo or English muffin/egg/bacon combo followed by a banana just as we are approaching the parking lot for the trailhead. That seems to provide me enough sustained energy to get off to a good start. Then, when I start to feel my stomach growl or begin to feel the least bit loss of energy, I will either eat a protein bar or snack on yogurt-covered cherries and/or chocolate covered almonds from Publix. Just a couple of either of those gets my energy back up. I keep a Ziploc snack back of the almonds and cherries in the side pouch of my daypack or backpack. I can pull a couple out while continuing to hike and eat them quickly with ease. If it's a long hike and we will actually stop for lunch, I have been making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich out of a Thomas' Light Wheat English Muffin and packing that in for lunch. The muffin holds up better than bread in my pack, it seems. The protein and sugars from the PBJ seem to provide my body with just what it needs to walk on. In the summer, I also pack in a Gatorade or Propel drink to supplement the water I carry in my hydration bladder.

For those times when I need a boost of energy on the trail in a serious way, I am finding that Clif's Shot Bloks Energy Chews do the trick for me. They are block-shaped gummy chews that are delicious and provide a powerful energy boost with no side effects. I cannot tell you how many times I've reached into my pack pocket to get one to help me make it up a long, steep climb. I have also shared them with other hikers. Everyone I share them with says they can really feel the boost of energy it provides.

As a result of these changes, I have lost 20 pounds and the scale is still moving in the right direction, slowly but surely, almost of its own accord. I am able to hike further and faster. My aches and pains have diminished considerably, and my recovery time after a hike is small or nonexistent. After our recent 3-day backpacking trip, I wasn't even sore or stiff!  I have had others ask me what I do nutritionally to prepare for hiking, so I thought a post about my preparation might benefit someone else. I do not profess to be a nutritional or fitness guru, in fact, I am the exact opposite. But, I have finally learned enough about my body and how it hikes on best that someone else might benefit from my mistakes and successes.

Have nutritional or training tips you'd like to share? I'd love to hear your ideas and what works for you. I am always looking for ways to improve. Please post in the comments below!

Happy Hiking!

Monday, June 8, 2015

A Glorious Three Days in the Backcountry of the Smokies--Day 3

I sat down yesterday evening to write this final installment of our three day backpacking trip in the Great Smoky Mountains but was distracted by a post on Hike the Smokies Facebook page. A female hiker was reported as missing...this was "not a hoax," the post said--she was one of "our own." It stunned me. As the evening wore on, I never made it to blogger, but instead was reading, hoping, and praying fervently that Jenny Bennett, exceptional off trail hiker would be found quickly and alive. I woke up many times during the night worrying about her and offering more prayers for her safe return. Her blogs of her trips through the deep backcountry were awe-inspiring and beautifully done. Her love for these mountains was woven through every word and photo. No, I did not know her personally, but I do respect her and her achievements. She has touched me through her blogs. I don't even consider myself a hiker compared to her; I couldn't lace up her hiking boots. The thoughts of her having become injured while we were enjoying our amazing trip won't leave me. I decided not to write this account at all---until I thought longer about it today.  Jenny would not have wanted me to wipe out wonderful memories of time spent in the place she loved the most. She would want those good times to be celebrated, I believe. So, humbly, and still a bit painfully, I will write. Jenny, as you smile down on your beloved mountains from Heaven, I hope you find peace. I know our mountains brought you JOY!

Having drifted off to sleep on the evening of May 31 surrounded by myriad numbers of fireflies flashing brightly enough to light up the entire tent, I slept amazingly well. I awoke on the morning of June 1, my 56th birthday, amidst the beauty of Walnut Bottoms in the breaking light of day in the presence of my two hiking buddies and great friends. Not a bad way to start the day! I thought of my husband at home who had given his blessings to this adventure even though it meant I'd be out on the trail on my birthday instead of celebrating at home with him and my grown children. That in itself was a great gift! I know he understands how much I need my time in these mountains.

Our camp had not floated away during the night once we had moved the tents, even though it did rain again at some point because I vaguely remember hearing it begin, and I got up long enough to close the doors of the rainfly that I'd left open to watch the fireflies. As we emerged from our tents, we checked the bear cables to make sure our packs were still intact. Everything appeared to be just fine, but boy were we wrong about that!

I went down off into the woods to find a privy bush, and when I returned I noticed that Kirsten and Jennifer were fiddling around my tent. I wondered what was up, but then noticed bright colors inside that hadn't previously been there. They had filled my tent with birthday balloons while I had been away from camp! What a sweet gesture, especially when you consider that Kirsten had carried those balloons and the dental floss she would use to tie them to my pack for over 30 miles through the backcountry!

Soon, we were ready to begin our breakfast and went off to retrieve our packs from the bear cables. Jennifer got hers down first and quickly realized that we had been invaded! Invaded during the night by what seemed like a veritable army of mice. Much to our dismay, they had chewed a hole right through her brand new Osprey Antigravity pack. My pack was victimized too, but no structural damage to the pack itself was done. They did make Swiss cheese out of my dry sack which held all my food and ate what I had planned to have for breakfast. There was more mouse poop in my pack than I care to think about still. They must have had a real party in there! Finally, we did scrounge together enough food to have a breakfast that might actually get us up and back down Gunter Fork, though, then packed our packs lightly, leaving much of our equipment in our campsite, getting ready to slack pack Gunter Fork.

As we walked down the trail toward the trailhead for Gunter Fork, it began to rain in earnest again. Considering the warning signs we had seen the previous two days, we debated, but decided to play it safe and not do Gunter Fork that day. We would return on a day that held less uncertainty about the weather so we would be able to enjoy the amazing cascades that trail holds waiting for us. We silently returned to our campsite, broke camp, and began the quick 5 mile hike out on Big Creek Trail, a little disappointed, that's for sure.

I began to look at the bright side though as we walked down the trail, my birthday balloons now attached to my heavy (because almost everything in it was soaked) pack. We'd had three awesome days in the backcountry of my favorite place, experiencing the wilds and the thrills of accomplishing goals.

We had been able to spend a night at Tricorner Knob Shelter, something that I love doing and that many people never get to do. We had experienced the synchronous fireflies unexpectedly and in its full regalia. I am a stronger hiker than I've been in the past, making better time, doing longer distances, hurting less, and recuperating much more quickly. I have much to be thankful for, not the least of which was that this early ending would allow me to celebrate with family too.

I cannot help but think of Jenny Bennett's family and friends tonight as I post this. My sincerest condolences to her family and to her hiking buddies--what a terrible loss! May the good Lord send you his calming presence to soothe your aching hearts and spirits. May you take comfort in the mountains that she loved so dearly.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

A Glorious Three Days in the Backcountry of the Smokies--Day 2

Thru-hiking couple at Tricorner Knob
When you overnight with thru-hikers, bedtime comes pretty early if you are respectful of their adventure.  An Appalachian Trail hiker once told me that the reason thru-hikers go to bed at 8:00 is because it takes them 11 hours to get 8 hours of decent sleep! The thru-hikers in our group that night went to bed as soon as they finished eating their dinner, so that ended up being about 8:00 p.m.  The rest of us were tired too, so in order to keep from disturbing them, we just all crawled in bed by around 8:30—it wasn’t even dark yet!  The warmth of our sleeping bags on this chilly, high-elevation night was also partly the reason for our retreat. That meant, too, that by the time the sun was coming up, we were all pretty ready to get out of bed.  However, we didn’t expect the wake-up call known as “Boomer” running across the bunks just inches from our heads, but that is what we got! He didn’t stick around long, but it was almost like he was saying, “I’m hungry! Would you please get up and cook breakfast so I can get any crumbs you drop?” 

A long section hiker and another thru-hiker
Our day began with breakfasts prepared with our JetBoil cooking systems after retrieving our packs from the bear cables. Mine on this day was the Breakfast Skillet meal (one serving size found at Walmart) wrapped in the two wheat wraps I had carried for this express purpose.  I don’t like all of the Mountain House meals, but that is one of my favorites! I had attempted carrying the Mountain House meals on an earlier backpacking trip without searching for the single serving size, but ended up packing out the excesses of too many rehydrated meals. Instead of getting lighter as the days wore on, my pack was getting heavier because the ends of the meals that were too big for me had been rehydrated, and thus, were no longer light weight. This single serving size worked just great! Thanks to Matt (aka @GSMNP_Hiker) for telling me that Walmart had them.

After breakfast, the thru-hikers left, one by one. I made sure to tell them about the beauty they were about to experience as they crossed one of my favorite sections of trail in the Smokies. The six miles between Tricorner Knob and Camel Gap passes across the shoulders of
Across the grassy helipad area near Mt. Guyot
Mt. Guyot, also traversing across the helipad area, a relatively flat open expanse that bears a concrete marker that can, presumably, be seen from the sky by helicopter pilots.  It is old and slightly overgrown, but I imagine it can and probably has been used to airlift folks out of this most remote section of the Great Smoky Mountains if they are in trouble.

This section of trail is almost always moist, if not from rain, then from the dew of the morning or clouds that had settled around the mountaintops overnight.  Snails are a frequent sight on the trail as are mushrooms of multiple varieties. On this trip, the mountain laurel and Catawba rhododendron were blooming, lining the trail with laurel tunnels and carpeting the path with spent rhododendron blossoms.  My favorite thing about this section though is the vista of the surrounding peaks and forests.  The sense of renewal here is real—almost tangible—both in the sense of the nature around you, and also in the sense of the renewal of your own world-weary spirit.  Heaven on Earth? Yes, in my opinion, it’s pretty close!

View from the helipad

Jennifer and Kirsten standing on the helipad

After reluctantly leaving the helipad area, we continued along the Appalachian Trail, looking now for the fighter jet wreckage found, probably less than a mile down the trail.  A marker, in case you want to look for it, is the stone staircase. Once you come to the stone stairs carefully laid in the trail by ATC trail maintainers, begin looking to your right and down the hill a bit. You’ll see a few remnants right along the trail’s edge, but most of debris is maybe 20 yards off the trail. There are well-worn footpaths you can take to explore what remains of the jet that crashed headlong into this mountain in bad weather a very long time ago.
View near Snake Den Ridge intersection w/the AT
The sweeping vistas continued to stop us in our tracks as we made our way beyond the wreckage on toward Camel Gap, marked by the intersection with Camel Gap Trail, which we would take to head back to lower elevations and our campsite for this second night. At one point, though, we were passed by a fast-moving thru-hiker who would have zipped by us without a word had we not spoken to him. When asked how far he was going, he replied, “well, I’m getting out of the Smokies tonight, that’s for sure!” I told him that sounded as if that were a good thing, and he responded with, “not as much elevation change; easier paths.” How sad! He didn’t even slow down to appreciate the breathtaking vistas—he just wanted out! That’s funny because I was to the point I never wanted to leave.  I have serious doubts as to whether someone with that attitude has what it takes to finish the AT. I didn’t get the sense that he was smelling very many roses along the way. 

 Camel Gap was a nice trail with gentle descent down into the valley of the Big Creek area.  It shouldn’t have taken us very long to get down, but it did! I can’t help but think that trail is mis-measured. It surely must be longer than the 5.1 miles that the sign says it is.

Finally, we made it to the trailhead for Gunter Fork trail to see yet another sign (we had seen two the previous day) that is lettered in bright red or orange paint warning that Gunter Fork is IMPASSABLE in high water! Our plan was to do that trail on our final day, but the weather was threatening rain now and the forecast had not been favorable at all for the third day, so we were going to make that decision at the last moment. We did go up Gunter Fork to the first crossing, just to see what it looked like and it seemed fine at that moment. We made our way on to Campsite 37 though with dark clouds building overhead and a bit of rumbling in the distance.

Once at our campsite, we picked out a spot, pulled out the tents we had not needed at the shelter, set them up, and then went to filter water out of Big Creek. We prepared our dinners just before the heavens opened up to dump a deluge of water on us and our belongings. Retreating to our tents, this would have been a great time for a bear to have taken advantage of the situation, because two of us left our packs where they had been placed before cooking dinner in our speedy retreat from the storm. Thankfully, no bears bothered our stuff, but there would be other critters we’d have to worry about before morning! We were able to come out a bit later and hang the packs on the bear cables before going back into the tents to escape the rain.
Rained into my MSR Hubba Hubba tent at 6:30 p.m.
You could tell we had not done much tent camping in the backcountry before though, because during the hardest part of the rain, we began to notice that our boots and other items we had set under the vestibule were floating in what was becoming a deep pond underneath our tents.  I took a shovel and went out to try to dig a trench to route the water away from us, but could tell pretty quickly that was going to be a futile effort.  Quickly looking around for higher ground that wasn’t standing in water, I told the other girls we would have to move our tents.   Once the tents were secured on higher ground and we had secured our other belongings on the bear cables, we took refuge from the rains inside our tents and eventually fell asleep, again much earlier than would have been true at home. 

The blessings of this second day, however, were not yet over! Somewhere about 9:15, Jennifer got up to go to the restroom (some shrubbery in the woods, really), only to exclaim that the fireflies were out! The next hour or so was simply, unimaginably magical! By  9:30, hundreds of thousands of fireflies (mixed in with enough mosquitoes that I am still scratching as I type this) totally surrounded us, caught up in their synchronized mating ritual for which thousands of people flock to the Elkmont area of the Park each summer. We were nowhere close to Elkmont, but apparently not all of the fireflies know that they are supposed to go to Elkmont to do their thing. Either that or they’re not very good at reading maps!

My phone wouldn't capture the fireflies, so this pic is from firefly.org.  Even this doesn't do it justice! 

This spectacle rivaled any fireworks or light show I have ever witnessed! For 5-10 seconds, the woods would be engulfed in total darkness, then all at once, flash-flash-flash-flash, they would be lit by a gazillion fireflies all vying for the attention of the females in the area! Then, almost as suddenly as they began, they would stop and we would be standing in utter darkness again. The cycle repeated itself, getting more and more powerful and more synchronized as it went along. Finally, with mosquitoes feasting on our bare legs and blood, we retreated again to the enclosed space of our tents, but since the rains had stopped while we had napped, we were able to open the rainflies of our tents and watch the display from inside. Not a bad way to fall asleep, now, is it?  

To read about the third and final day of our adventure, CLICK HERE.