Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Curses! Foiled Again!

There's a stretch of the Appalachian Trail that has become my nemesis of late. I should have completed it last year with Jennifer and Kirsten on our backpacking trip that is traditionally scheduled just as soon as we get out of school each year. That trip was to have been from Clingman's Dome to Fontana Dam done over the course of three days. But last year, I was injured just a couple weeks before the trip, and my knee just wouldn't go on a strenuous hike yet. The girls went ahead at my insistance; I even dropped them off at the trailhead. But I missed it. So this past weekend, Jennifer had graciously agreed to do the stretch of the Appalachian Trail between Rocky Top and Derrick Knob with me as a one-night trip. I was excited to go up and over Thunderhead Mountain!

We left early Friday morning to drop one car at Middle Prong trailhead and then drive the other car up to the large parking lot at Cades Cove Campground. We had debated going up Lead Cove to Bote Mountain and accessing the AT that way, but we decided that since we were leaving early, Anthony Creek Trail would be a nicer walk since it would be alongside water some of the way and put us out on Bote Mountain with less of that trail to travel. We did realize that this path would be a bit longer, but decided it would be a good trade off. Bote Mountain is not one of my favorite trails, especially in the summer. Heat and gnats are constant companions on that trail.

When we arrived at the parking lot at Cades Cove, we had planned on just walking over to the back of the picnic area from whence Anthony Creek trail departs the Cove. Just as we were getting ready to take off though, a school bus about half full of middle school aged children pulled up and an adult got off to fill up some water bottles. Hey, what could it hurt to ask, right? I walked over to the bus driver and asked if he'd give two backpackers a ride to the back of the picnic area and he was more than happy to oblige! We climbed aboard the bus, appreciative of the lift. When we pulled up at the trailhead, a doe was picking her way through the woods just behind the trail sign, so the kids got to see a deer they wouldn't have seen if they hadn't given us a lift. It worked out great for everyone and they were very excited to see a deer that close.

Anthony Creek is a really nice trail! It crosses over its namesake several times, sometimes on large bridges and sometimes on footlogs, but it never requires a wet crossing. Most of the lower couple of miles is within view and/or earshot of the creek which always makes for a pleasant hike.

Even when we were not near the creek, the trail was lined with beautiful mushrooms and wildflowers in bloom. Bee balm is in bloom lots of places in the Park, but there were many other summer wildflowers blooming, most of which I cannot identify.

We had left early that morning, in part to beat the heat, which we did for the most part. As we reached Bote Mountain Trail, the humidity was beginning to build and become uncomfortable, but by then, we were almost done for the day. With only 1.7 miles to do on Bote Mountain, we made good progress up that steep and rocky stretch and before we knew it we were at the intersection with the Appalachian Trial and finally up on a ridgeline which is where I love to be--MOST of the time!  This day was absolutely gorgeous with only a few puffy white clouds in the sky as we passed through what remains of Spence Field.

This former pasture where stock were grazed in the days before the park became the park is now not being maintained as a bald, so it is in the natural process of returning to woods. This in-between stage is lovely in many respects. In places the field is still fairly open and there are glimpses of what must have once been spectacular views. In other places, tall grasses grow in large clumps under the protective arms of some type of tree that I do not know the name of. If any of my readers knows what they are, I'd love to know. Please put it in the comments below.

For our destination on this first day, the remainder of the hike was very short as we made our way down to Eagle Creek Trail and the .2 mile stint down to the Spence Field Shelter.  It was only about 1:00 p.m. as we dropped our packs and visited with the two young men who had been resting there when we arrived--one a member of the Army (on leave) and the other his nephew. They left after a little bit going on further up the trail.

Shortly after they left, another pair of men came through, stopping for lunch. They brought with them a real surprise! Chicken of the Woods!

The older of the two men sat at the shelter table, got out a couple of large chunks of the wild mushroom, and began to educate us on how to look for it and how to cook it.

He carried with him some olive oil in a packet he purchased from www.minimus.biz. I had never heard of this site, but they do offer many products in very small size packaging, so it might be of use in the future. I usually just stop at Subway and pick up some olive oil packets when I need them for backpacking.

He prepared the shrooms in his camp stove and then graciously offered some to us, so we had to try them. He told me they would taste like a combination between chicken and scrambled eggs.  I guess he was right, but I'd rather have either chicken OR eggs instead! But you only live once, right?

Spence Field shelter is a great place to spend a night. Because of its elevation, it provided us with a nice respite from the heat and humidity in the Tennessee Valley. The shelter is roomier than most, especially in the design of the sleeping area. In this shelter, the upper bunk is higher than is typical, so we actually chose to set up on the bottom bunk area with plenty of headroom and no need to climb the stairs. There's also a strong running water source which is encouraged to pass into and through a pipe which makes it easy to fill water filter bags. I was also surprised to learn that there was a privy there! What a nice surprise indeed!

With all of the extra time we had on our hands that afternoon, I spent some of it going through the shelter register where thru-hikers and others had made notes of their journeys.  One that I found was really cute, so I took a picture to share it with you here:

Seems like thru-hikers may be safe, but weekenders really need to be sure to hang our food!

The fact that we had done this leg of the hike on the first day meant that we would only have about 15 miles to do on our second day.  Having arrived at the shelter early in the day meant that we would be fully recovered from our climb up to the AT (which is never easy no matter which trail you do it on). We decided that we would get up early in the morning, pack up and head out before having breakfast so that we could make it across Thunderhead before the heat of the day. There was also a forecast of storms for later in the day, so in doing it this way, we would have time to get to Derrick Knob before the heat built up and thunderstorms could materialize. At least, that was the plan.

In reality, when we awoke on Saturday morning, I knew our plan was suspect. We were totally surrounded by fog. As we got up and began to pack, a cool wind rustled through the leaves of the trees which envelope the shelter. We were afraid that wind was blowing in weather which would not bode well for us crossing that exposed ridgeline to Derrick Knob. We were out of the shelter by 8:00 a.m. We made a quick trip back across Spence Field and made the climb to Rocky Top hoping that the weather would break and the skies would clear.

The REAL Rocky Top!

So far there was no rain, so I was hopeful that the fog would burn off and we might get some nice views as we crossed over Thunderhead Mountain. We sat at Rocky Top to eat a protein bar to give us energy to make it up and over. I had taken about three bites when the first round of thunder roared. I immediately lost my appetite, put the remains of my Clif Protein Bar away, then reached down to shoulder the pack and hike on. Just as we got past Rocky Top, which would have been the beginning of new miles for me, more thunder rolled, this time closer. I knew in my heart that the thing to do was to play it safe and turn around. My understanding was that much of what lay ahead was exposed to the elements which, I've heard, are much magnified from weather that might be happening below. I walked only a short distance when I turned to Jennifer and told her I thought we might should go back down the way we had come up.  After a little discussion, she wanted me to make the decision since it was new miles for me. We finally agreed to play it safe. I was crushed!

Once we had made the decision, we made quick work of the trip back to cover on Bote Mountain Trail. We kept talking about what a good time we had had at the shelter, and how even though we were disappointed, we were glad that we had made the trip. And all that is true! I am very glad we made the trip to Spence that night and had enjoyed the company of several other hikers at the shelter. But I cannot help but be disappointed that I still have not accomplished that stretch of trail. All I could think of while hiking down the trails back to the car waiting for us at Cades Cove was the Snoopy and the Red Baron song. "Curses, Red Baron! Foiled again!"


  1. That is NOT the outcome I was anticipating when I kidded you about posting! So, so sorry. I know how much you were looking forward to getting that accomplished. It will happen. Better safe and able to continue hiking than to take a chance and be injured or worse! I'm proud of you - never, EVER easy to turn around.

    1. Thank you, Sharon. You know sometimes stuff like that gets in the way of me being able to record the trip, so I'm glad you encouraged me to post it. I am confident we did the right thing, even if we had been able to do it without incident, I'd have been worried about it all the way across. I want to be able to enjoy it when I do get to do it!

  2. Pretty area! Sorry you didn't get to hike the entire route. But you made the right decision. There will always be another day.

    1. Linda, I'm sure it is beautiful, and I cannot wait to be able to hike it when I don't have to be worried about the weather! Part of the challenge of doing the 900, I suppose!