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.

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