Out There

8 06 2015

Night 2/Day 3: Hazel Creek/Forney Creek Loop.

Planned itinerary: “an easy 12.3-mile cruise east on the Lakeshore Trail.”

Hazel Creek/Forney Creek Map

We woke up in the middle of the night to the pitter patter of rain on the tent. This was our first experience using the tent in rain, so we clicked on a light to make sure we weren’t getting any rain inside. There was a small pool starting to form on Bill’s side of the tent, so we looked around for other signs of leaks.  As I was searching, I noticed some clips on the four corners of the tent, which attached to a loop on the “bath tub”. Oh, we should have attached those earlier, as it helped lift up the sides of the bath tub to prevent water from entering the tent. Duh. Our lack of experience showed a bit, but we were lucky. Thankfully there were no other wet spots, and we could get back to sleep mostly confident that our tent would keep us dry through the night.

I had a bit of difficulty falling back to sleep. Not because of the rain, but because my whole body ached from our hike so far. I could not believe we still had 3 more days to go. And long ones at that!

snail

This snail was on the outside of the tent when we woke up!

By morning, the rain had stopped, so we got up and started our morning chores. Bill pulled down the bear bag and searched for any dry fuel he could find for making breakfast, while I packed up our sleeping kits. We enjoyed some hot oatmeal with dried strawberries and bananas with a cup of vanilla chai on the side. We were fueled and ready to go, looking forward to our “easy cruise.” I put on my Vivos again; just the thought of putting on my Lunas made my feet hurt. I knew we didn’t have a lot of river crossings today, so these would probably do just fine.

We initially left camp by turning right, which took us along the shores of Fontana lake, where the water was crystal clear and we could see hundreds of trout swimming around. I’m not a fisherman, but I’m pretty sure I could have caught something there. We  also spotted a small snake and heard what I’m presuming was the call of an elk, or some other large mammal. We quickly realized that we had gone the wrong way out of camp, because the trail ended. Whoops. We backtracked to the sign that had directed us to the campsite, and realized that we needed to go in the opposite direction. At that crossroads, we saw our first real hiker since we left the AT. There was a man stopped at the sign, who had been backpacking with a few others who were on the other side of the bridge at that point. He told us that they had come from campsite 81, pointing in that direction. That’s the direction we needed to go, so we got to it!

snake

We were barely 25 yards into the real hike, when Bill got a sharp pain in his foot. We stopped, he adjusted his shoes a little, but I could tell he was in pain. He was limping along, and we were moving at a snail’s pace. This was not good. It’s a good thing today was going to be easy. Easy? Yeah. Right. The “gentle roller coaster” was, to us, more challenging than the sharp downhills and stream crossings we had completed on day one. And we need to do this for 12.3 miles? Just great.

It took us several hours to get to site 81, which I guessed was about 4 miles from where we had spent the night. We were ready for a break, so we stopped there for lunch, to bathe, and to wash our clothes. It was a beautiful day, probably nearing 80, and we hadn’t seen any other hikers on the trail so we figured it was as good a spot as any to strip down and freshen up!

After lunch, we were refreshed and ready to tackle the next 8 miles of our journey. Bill’s pain came and went (he’s a tough one, so I couldn’t really tell when he was really hurting or not), and my feet started to hurt again. All this walking in barefoot shoes with little training was catching up to me.

We crossed paths with a couple on the trail- only our second set of hikers since we’d left the AT- smiling and saying hello, but not stopping to chat, since we knew we had a ways to go before the day was done. Time was ticking by, and these miles just felt SO LONG. How come we hadn’t passed the next campsite yet?

Bill and I started talking about a plan B for the night: we could stop at site 77, camp there for the night, and then play catch up the next day. I was a little hesitant to stray from our itinerary (after all, that’s what we told the ranger), but by the time we reached site 77, I knew we needed to stop. We were exhausted and it was late in the afternoon. If we rested here for a little and then kept up this pace for the last 4 miles, we’d probably roll in to camp as sun was setting, which is not what we wanted to do. We figured it was in our best interest to take a “short” day (8 miles), recover, and hit the trail hard the next day.

The campsite was empty, with the exception of two XL cotton tee shirts sitting in the fire ring- signs that someone had been here recently. Other than that evidence of humanity, this camp really felt like we were in the wilderness. We were certainly OUT THERE, and it felt both freeing and scary at the same time.

Since we were in camp fairly early and it had been dry all day, we gathered up plenty of firewood and made a real fire! Camp fires may be my favorite part of camping. They just make the whole experience feel real.

campfire

We sat by the fire and ate some Backpacker’s Pantry Veggies in Peanut Sauce, which I found to be quite tasty, but quite messy. As I opened the peanut butter packets inside (which were Peanut Butter and Co, by the way!) I had a mini freak out in my head wondering if bears like peanut butter as much as dogs do. I don’t know the answer to that, nor do I want to find out! So I made sure to be as neat as possible, but still ended up with stickiness and peanut butter on my hands. Multiple trips to the stream to wash off were necessary!

campfire site 77

We wrapped up dinner, and just relaxed by the fire before heading to the tent for bed.

It was dusk at this point, and off in the distance we heard an owl, and then some other bird that squawked for so long that we questioned whether it actually was a real bird. We weren’t as beat up as we had been the first two nights, so we actually were awake when it finally got dark out. We were just taking in the vastness of the forest around us when we heard a loud rustle not far from our tent. Both of us stiffened up. What was that?

Bill can make this incredibly realistic barking sound, so he barked a few times and then we sat and waited. He barked some more, and you could hear it echo a little in the distance. Dear God I hope this is just in our heads because we are way the heck out here…

We shined the light out into the distance and saw the last few sparks from our camp fire surrounded by darkness. We turned off the light and sat in stillness, looking out into the night. When our eyes had adjusted back, we saw a little flash of light off to the left, and then again off to the right, and then out front of the tent. There were fireflies! They certainly weren’t the thing that had made the rustle we had both heard, but they lightened the mood a little.

Bill barked again, cutting the stillness, still on high alert. I convinced myself that he had scared whatever it was away, and let myself fall asleep. Hopefully we’d be left alone for the night.





Did We Bite Off More Than We Can Chew?

3 06 2015

On Sunday, we woke up to an overcast morning. No big deal, maybe it will burn off.

We headed to breakfast at Peter’s Pancakes and Waffles in downtown Cherokee, as recommended by the Backpacker.com article. We filled our bellies with pancakes, eggs, and coffee; our last “real” meal for five days. On our way out the door, I grabbed a few of the jelly packets from our table; they would be great for the bagels we’d be having over the next few days.

Peter's pancakes and waffles

Peter's Pancakes and Waffles 2As soon as we left Peter’s, it started to rain. Not a downpour, but just enough for it to be annoying. Ever the optimist, I thought that maybe it would clear up before we hit the trail.

oconaluftee visitor center

When we got to the visitor center, the friendly ranger asked if I had called the backcountry office to get my permits. I recalled reading something about permits in the Backpacker.com article, but I had assumed that the backcountry office = the Oconaluftee visitor center. Not so much. Thankfully, I could just call the backcountry office right then and get the permits. As I dialed, I was slightly embarrassed about not having planned ahead and nervous that our itinerary would need to be switched around if campsites were full.

Hazel Creek/Forney Creek Map

I told the ranger on the phone our planned campsites, which I had carefully marked on our map. He took note of them, asking the standard, “You’re experienced backpackers, right?” for hikes indicated as “moderate to advanced.” Why yes, of course we are! (We hiked the Chilkoot 2 years ago but other than that we have relatively limited hiking experience).

Once I had confirmed our last campsite, he told me that the stream crossings near campsite 69 were thigh high right now and dangerous. I told him we’d be careful and reiterated that I knew the alternate route if things got hairy. Thirty two dollars ($4/person/night) and a fax later, we had our permit in hand and were ready to hit the trail. Well, after a 30 minute drive to the top of Clingman’s dome in rain and fog.

fog at clingman's dome

Clingman’s Dome is the highest point on the Appalachian Trail, at 6,643 feet. Up here, it was chilly and the rain had started to come down steadily. Bill and I sat in the car and stalled the start of the hike, fiddling with our packs, making sure every last thing was perfect. Finally, we decided that we might as well just get out there and start, because it wasn’t going to get any better. Let’s do this.

But where exactly do we start? We came to a trailhead, just to the right of the parking lot, but based on the trails listed on the sign there, it seemed like it was not the one we wanted. So, we started up the paved road towards the top of Clingman’s.

Maybe a half mile in, there was a sign that said “Appalachian Trail”. This was where we needed to go. Because we were starting at the highest point, all of our miles on the first half of the trip would be downhill. Because of the rain, the trail was muddy. Mud + decline = slippery trail. Thankfully, my Lunas were performing just great. I had opted to wear the sandals on the first day because I knew that we would have upwards of 20 stream crossings before we made camp that night. While on the AT, we passed a handful of hikers, all of them traveling north on the trail. We came across a group of 4 guys, who told us about a dead baby bobcat a mile or so behind them, which was a little startling, because what predator leaves his prey after killing it? When we passed the “bobcat” we realized it was actually a rabbit, but we didn’t spend any more time investigating. If there was a bear coming back for his prey, we didn’t want to be there for it!

trail sign appalachian trail

We kept moving ahead, stopping at the Double Springs AT shelter for a quick snack, where we met an AT thru-hiker who was actually from St. Petersburg, FL! The man was 18 days in, hoping to make it all the way to Maine. We wished him well and kept moving, since we had a big (for us) mileage day ahead, and we hadn’t started until after 11am.

Shortly after we turned off the AT and onto the Welch Ridge trail (to Hazel creek) we realized that the article wasn’t kidding when it said “the real solitude starts” there. The trail became very narrow and slightly overgrown. I started to wonder if we should have invested in a GPS unit for this trip…

By mid afternoon, we were getting hungry and wanted a reprieve from the on again off again rain that had been pestering us all day. So, we pitched Bill’s Jacks R Better Poncho and Shelter and pulled out the Solo stove for its first real test. We had done a mini trial run of the stove before leaving, but it was not in the middle of a rainstorm. This should be interesting. Finding dry tinder and fuel in the middle of a rainy forest actually wasn’t as difficult as I had thought. There were a number of downed trees and logs, which had enough dry material under them for our small fire. Win! The little break was nice: fire, food, and a little reprieve from the rain gave us a morale boost and energy to continue our journey. I looked at the time when we left- it was already 4, and we hadn’t yet gotten to the Hazel Creek trail, which was less than 2 miles from when we got off the AT.  Once we were on Hazel creek, we still had 6-7 miles until camp. I wasn’t worried yet, but I knew we needed to pick up the pace.

Smoky Mountains Trail

We made it to the Hazel Creek trail, and spent the first part of it going back and forth, back and forth, switchbacking down the mountain on a narrow trail. I kept yelling “Snail!” every few steps, because I kept seeing them, and tried to keep our voices in the air to alert bears that we were there. Once we had made it down a bit, we started crossing creeks. One creek, two creek, three…We were somewhere in the low teens when we came across this little waterfall and what appeared to be our biggest crossing yet.

Hazel creek loop

Hazel creek 2

After stopping for these photos, Bill scouted out the area to see where the best place to cross was and where the trail continued. Something was wrong. Every path Bill tried was a) challenging/scary and b) didn’t have a clearly marked trail on the other side. He tried for a good 45 minutes, to no avail. We went into problem solving mode, and backtracked a few hundred feet to a tiny open area, where charred wood indicated that someone had spent the night recently. It wasn’t the best camping spot, but we sat down and contemplated spending the night there and then reevaluating in the morning, since it was 6 or so at this point. Before making that decision, Bill looked for crossings near this “campsite” and I backtracked a little more in search of the trail. Less than 50 feet later, I found it! Where we had gone straight and crossed over what looked like a tiny creek – that was actually our trail! The rain had flooded it some, and it was a sharp right turn, which we completely bypassed. I was SO thankful we had found the trail, but I was definitely nervous about how much time we had lost and how much further we had.

Back on track, we picked up the pace. We only had a little over 2 hours of sunlight left and I was guessing 4+ miles left until camp site 82. We kept counting the streams we crossed, knowing that our total would be somewhere in the 20s, thanks to a YouTube video of some others doing this hike. When we hit 20, we started getting the “We must be close to camp”-itis. It has to be just ahead! The sun was getting lower, and I was getting nervous. Would we make it to camp before dark?

Finally, we crossed a bridge and came to a little clearing. There was an old horse corral, and it looked like it was at the end of an old service road. Was this camp? If it was or wasn’t didn’t matter. This is where we were sleeping tonight.

We had limited sunlight left, so we got our headlamps out and got to work setting up camp and getting our dinner together. After our nice hot dinner of Mountain House Mac N Cheese and a hot chocolate, we packed up our food and put it into our bear bag. The dead giveaway for this NOT being camp was that there were no bear-bag rigs set up, so we needed to set up one ourselves. It was quite comical actually, since it was night 1 and our bag was the heaviest, and the only branch that we could string a rope from wasn’t very thick. We worked together to jerry-rig our line. I pulled down, lifting the bag as much as I could as the branch bent like a willow, trying not to let it snap, while Bill pushed up on the bag with his trekking pole. We finally got the bag up high enough, and tied the rope off on the horse corral. Hopefully no bears would get our food!

We curled up into our tent, beat from a long day. I couldn’t believe we didn’t make it to camp. I fell asleep wondering if we had bit off more than we could chew on this hike…