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  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.

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