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Hiking Great Smoky Mountain National Park (Tennessee)

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Saturday, September 20, 1997

We were not prepared for Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. I had been warned that Gatlinburg – the town closest to Great Smoky Mountain National Park – and it’s nearby cousin Pigeon Forge – were overdeveloped and touristy. We even knew we’d be right near Dollywood – Dolly Parton’s down home country theme park – and some morbid curiosity threatened to take us there. But we were not even a little bit prepared for the reality of what we found on the outskirts of the most visited park in the country. The main strip in Pigeon Forge is 10 or more miles of hillbilly eye candy, country western extravaganzas, billboards with the likeness of Dolly Parton, video arcades, bungee jumping platforms, wedding chapels, novelty acts, freak shows, fast food, motels, hotels, chalets, museum-like tributes to police, bizarre Americana, cars, movies, and of course, anything country. Amazingly – or perhaps not – bumper to bumper tourists flock to this hills of Tennessee meets Las Vegas destination. Gatlinburg was definitely less tacky, but equally crowded. Ironically, we were in this mecca to get away from it all.

Very few of the people we saw actually looked like they cared that magnificent mountains lurked just behind them in an ominous blue fog. In fact, we wondered how many of these people came for the park at all. But we’d driven 12 hours to be here, and it was getting late. Upon arriving in town, we went straight to the park Ranger’s Station to apply for our backcountry permits, and buy a decent trail book ("Hiking Trails of the Smokies," is the one to get, although we couldn’t find it anyplace but the park Visitor’s Center). The Ranger Station was closed for the day, but we took notice of a sign on the door listing campsites closed due to "bear activity." To keep the park from suffering the effects of overuse, about 80 locations are designated as "backcountry campsites" and it is illegal to camp anyplace else. None of the campsites we had planned on staying at were closed, but many in the area where we planned to be were – or had bear warnings. Fearing overcrowding at the remaining open sites, as well as the bears themselves (they walk, don’t they?), we discussed taking a different route.

After buying our trail book, we headed down the road to a commercial campground. We chose not to stay in the park campgrounds because they don’t have showers and cost the same as the commercial ones that do. We pitched our tent at Trout Creek Campground on a level, grassy, spot right by the creek. The we followed up on our temptation and went into Gatlinburg for some dinner. We quickly found "No Way, Jose" for some decent and reasonably priced Mexican grub, and a waiter who was only too proud to tell us about his hound dog – "a slug with fur", chosen after the hound dog mascot of the University of Tennessee. After dinner, we walked about 30 minutes through the rainy city and went to the Gatlinburg Visitor Center to sprawl out our trail maps on their coffee table and comfy couches to see if we could find a new route through the backcountry that kept us safe from bears. And so we did. We planned a 4 day route, and then a 2 day route – planning on a day off in between. Then we headed back to the campground for some rest.

Sunday, September 21, 1997

Up with the sun. Although it was not raining anymore, it was rainy. We showered in an effort to start clean, and headed up the road to the Ranger Station to get our backcountry permits, and a stern warning from the ranger – Don Ho (seriously) – about lack of water and no lack of bears.

We drove to the Elkmont Campground in the park, donned our heavy packs, and set off for four days of backcountry adventure. The Little River Trail was gentle and road like, climbing slightly, and as expected, following a little river. We made great time over that trail and the Cucumber Gap trail (it takes a really good imagination to believe these plants look like Cucumbers). We stopped for a light snack on a rock in the middle of Jake’s Creek. While we were there, two backpackers came from the other direction and told us a Mamma bear and three cubs raided their campsite this morning – at campsite 26, which was coincidentally our destination for that very evening. They also told us there was no water to be found at that campsite for miles around. We took note of the bear warning, filled every bottle we had with water, and continued again along the Jake’s Creek Trail. The trail climbed steeply up rocky switchbacks, and our morale weakened. Jeff, who had been suffering from a particularly nasty and lingering sinus infection was really suffering. The combination of the illness itself, stomach ripping antibiotics, and a summer filled with busy-ness and illness leaving him not enough time to pursue fitness, and the stagnant, rainy air left him really miserable. I felt terrible for him, and encouraged him as much as possible.

At Jake’s Gap – the junction of Jake’s Creek Trail and Miry Ridge Trail we took a long break. As soon as we stopped. Jeff started showing signs of Hypothermia despite temperatures in the 70s. He was shivering, too exhausted to go on, and too nauseated to eat. I suggested he nap for a short while, while I wrote in the journal and munched on some GORP. After an hour or so, a group came by on horseback. We chatted with them for awhile, and then packed up and continued our ascent into the ominous dark fog.

We continued our uphill battle to campsite 26. Jeff’s spirit was frighteningly low, and we stopped often for him to rest. I was feeling pleasantly strong, but concerned for Jeff – and perhaps feeling a bit guilty for feeling so nice while he was suffering so much.

We eventually made camp and cooked some uninteresting dinner. Jeff hardly ate again, and we were discussing alternate routes. We could hike as little as 6 miles a day and still make a nice route, or we could if we got really desperate hike back out tomorrow – something I really didn’t want to do, but I could tell Jeff was considering. We’d decide in the morning.

Because of the bear warnings, we took every precaution to keep them away. We were very clean and planned to wear different clothes for eating and sleeping, and planned to tie our food in a tree for the evening so it would be out of reach of the bears (a technique known as bear bagging ). But this was obviously a well used campsite, and there was little in the way of adequate branches for our bear bagging. We did the best we could, and as dusk settled, we began to pack and cover everything.

I was about to get into the tent when Jeff came over and announced in a calm shocked sort of voice, "the bears are here." And sure enough, I looked through the dim light to see Mamma bear and her three cubs eyeing our carefully suspended food. According to Jeff, they’d walked within 10 feet of him, but were not at all interested in him – only in our food. Jeff yelled at them, but they didn’t care. We watched from a distance as Mamma bear leapt high into the tree, unsuccessfully grabbed at one of the bags, and easily broke the branch and downed the other one. For over an hour, we listened to them tear into our snacks, occasionally letting out yelps as they fought among themselves. Eventually, we gathered up some sticks and rocks for throwing if we needed to, and got into the tent and hugged eachother tightly. There was no light left, and we could only hear them. We didn’t know when or if they left, and even when things quieted down we decided to leave everything "as is" until morning – including our uncovered packs and the mess they’d made.

Monday, September 22, 1997

I think I can safely say that we both slept fitfully, waking which each rustle of wind through the trees, and concerned about what the day would bring. Shortly after 7 A.M., the light shined through the trees. I looked up to see that one bag of food (our dinners and desserts) was still safely in the tree. I imagined eating chocolate pudding or salsa soup for breakfast. In the short time between awakening and getting out of the tent, the bears returned. Mamma bear walked in, nose high, and stopped directly beneath the remaining bag of food. Unlike the prior evening, we had the benefit of light his time. We were able to watch the whole ordeal from our tent (where we were essentially trapped). The bears were amazingly agile and strong as they maneuvered across branches, suspending themselves in all sorts of positions. Once, Mamma bear even hung by her teeth. They were amazingly focused as well, and after a while we were wishing they’d just get the food and leave – because it was obvious they weren’t leaving until they got it – and we couldn’t go anywhere until they left. She and the cubs continue to work together for half an hour until the managed to tear apart the bag, break the branch, and liberate another tasty meal for themselves. We watched and listened, trying to identify what they were eating (pasta made a very distinctive noise, as did the bite through an "unbreakable" Nalgene bottle).

We considered trying to get over to our packs, counting our losses, and just getting out of there as soon as possible, but we decided against it. Our packs were close to the bears, and we’d seen them carry some of our clothing and my boots over into the area where they still were. The risk was worse than the wait, and wait we did.

After a long while, they’d eaten every morsel we had. They walked over to our packs and sniffed around some more. Finding nothing, they looked over at us and started walking. They got about half the distance to us and I said to Jeff, "yell." He did, but they continued towards us. Then, Jeff desperately cried, "please go away." With that, Mamma bear stopped in her tracks, turned around, and with one last sniff led her three cubs away from our campsite.

We waited 15 minutes to be sure, and got up to survey the damage. They had destroyed both bear bags, and the Nalgene water bottle packed with them, as well as anything else that contained food. They left behind a pile of ziplock bags, shredded canvas, tooth punctured plastics, and absolutely no food. Our packs were relatively unharmed.

Jeff cleaned up while I took down the tent. We packed up and hit the trail in record time, leaving a warning on the signpost for the next camper. Since we had no food, we decided to take the quickest route back to the trailhead and our car.

I was nauseated and dizzy with hunger, and Jeff was still suffering as much as he was the day before. Fortunately for him, the journey was primarily downhill (unfortunately for me, since downhill is much harder on my easily blistered toes). The fog had lifted some, and we were able to enjoy some of the views that had been hidden the day before. We stopped for a break on the same part Jake’s Creek, and enjoyed the quiet air and the loud water. As we continued our descent, we passed some deer, and the we passed a solo backpacker heading up to campsite 26. We warned him, and he listened but continued on.

Finally, we returned to the Ranger Station to report the bears. As we arrived, there was a ranger talk in progress --- on bears! So we stopped and listened in, and told our story to a group of anxious listeners (and perhaps a bored ranger), and then formally reported our incident. We were told that they’d close the site until further notice, and that rangers were on their way to investigate.

The rest of our adventures in Great Smoky Mountain National Park will be day hikes.

Tuesday, September 23, 1997

We were both quite sore from our hike our on empty stomachs, and Jeff was still suffering from his sinus infection. We took the day off and just toured around town – which as you may remember – is astonishingly overdone. We took the Ober Gatlinburg tram to the top of a mountain, and enjoyed the views far more than the amusement park and lame looking alpine slide at the top. The rest of the day was spent just walking and relaxing, and planning day hikes for the remainder of our stay.

Wednesday, September 24, 1997

Shortly after midnight, the rains started up again. Heavy and continuous this time. We’d been told that there had been a drought this summer, but the river running through our tent told us otherwise. We abandoned the tent, and went out for breakfast – hoping the weather would clear while we were away. It didn’t, so we packed up as best we could, dried our sleeping bags in the campground dryer, and hit the road. The forecasts were calling for several days of this, and we decided that an alternate plan was in order. We decided to go to a bookstore, buy a "Let’s Go USA" book, and enjoy a driving tour of the south for a few days. Unable to find a bookstore, we ended up in the Visitor’s Center and were informed that there were no bookstores in this country (seriously). On their advice, we headed up to Knoxville. We arrived in Knoxville and were greeted by the Sun Sphere from the world’s fair decades ago. It was smaller than expected, and uglier as well – kind of a tarnished gold. Feeling a bit like Bart Simpson and his buddies (either you know the reference or your don’t) we tried to make the best of it and decided to go the sphere itself , which was also home to the Knoxville Visitor’s Center. In the 10 minutes we took in the Visitor’s Center, the elevator to the top had broken. The stairs were not open to the public. Frustrated, we headed for the mall to find a bookstore.

We found the book, and saw little in the viscinity that interested us. This was perhaps the first time in my entire life that I found myself with no plans, no place I had to be, nothing I had to do… And so many places I could be. I found the ambiguity both interesting and frightening.

We decided to drive through the park and camp on the other side, hoping for something better in the morning. Because of fog, the scenic drive wasn’t. It was still raining hard, we decided to continue moving right onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. The fog was threatening our safety and we exited the Parkway in Asheville, North Carolina for the night. Sadly, the part of Asheville we were in is exactly like every other city. We recognized every store, restaurant, and hotel as part of a chain. Wal-Mart, Chili’s, The Olive Garden, Don Pablo’s, Econo-Lodge, Holiday Inn, etc. It’s the same everywhere. The genericization of America, I guess. We washed the tent in the tub (yes, really, but we were very neat about it), aired out as much of our soaked gear as possible, and walked up the street for dinner at a chain restaurant.

Thursday, September 24, 1997

It was still a little foggy, especially on the peaks of the Blue Ridge, but we continued our slow drive north. The Blue Ridge Parkway is nearly 500 miles of twisty, curvy, limited access roadway with a speed limit of 45 miles per hour (in ideal conditions), and lots of vistas (some above the clouds, some below, most in). Except for a 2 mile hike to a waterfall (Linnville Falls – if you go, make sure you go to the lookout at the top, it’s worth it), and a stop at a picnic area for a late lunch, we spent the whole day driving.

Because we were camping, we tried to keep our activities to daylight hours. We’d been sleeping 11 hours a night. That, combined with the inactivity of driving, and the frustration of not being able to live the vacation we’d planned was really eating at me. I was begging for activity, really enjoying the short hikes we took, and hoping to spend some time in Shenandoah National Park on the way up for some longer ones. It was hard to read Jeff, but I think he was just fed up and wanted to go home.

When we’d started on the Blue Ridge Parkway, we turned off the radio. Reception was bad, and none of my cassette tapes interested us at the moment. It was intended to be a temporary measure until the reception got better, but we found we liked the lack of intrusion, and ended up driving without it for the full length of the Parkway and Skyline Drive. When we are home, we are both distracted by our jobs, television, books, the Internet, newspapers, the telephone, etc. The absence of such distractions really provided a pleasant setting for conversations we keep forgetting to have. It wasn’t that we were saying anything particularly important – it was just that we were enjoying each other’s company in a way that sometimes gets lost.

As dusk descended, we stopped for the night at a campground, pitched our tent, and ate some hot mocha pudding for dinner (it was a late lunch, after all,) and hit the sack.

Friday, September 25, 1997

With the prospect of a perfect clear day finally, we hit the road early, enjoyed the remaining 120 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and got on Skyline drive into Shenandoah National Park. We stopped midday at Loft Mountain Campground, found the "best spot in the whole park" where we’d pitched a tent two years ago, and headed out for a 5 mile hike down to South River Falls. We went past the "main" viewing point for the falls, and on the advice of a trail book, took a fire road down, and then an unmarked trail up and to the right to a great view of the base of the falls. This rugged part of the trip was definitely worth it. We hiked back up, and returned to the campground for dinner, a quiet view of the fiery sunset from the AT and a ranger talk. The talk was an interesting slide show presentation the start of the park and the people who made it happen. Then, Jeff lit a campfire for me so I could toast marshmallows. Amazingly, in all the times we’d been camping together, we’d never done this. Not surprisingly, he likes to slow-toast (artistically) while I like to burn my marshmallows (functionally sufficient engineering). Then a good nights sleep in the chilled air.

Saturday, September 26, 1997

Up early, showered, and enjoyed breakfast at Skyland Lodge just before the weekend crowds came in. Then we donned our hiking boots and headed down the crowded Whiteoak Canyon Trail for some more waterfall viewing. The first fall was pretty, but we continued down the steep and rocky (but obviously very well maintained) path to see some more spectacular falls, sand crowds now. As the trail got narrower, the falls got prettier, and we eventually stopped at the base of the last one, and sat on a rock in the middle of the river just below it. I sat for awhile and enjoyed the cool breeze while Jeff climbed on the rocks. Then we ascended the nearly 4 miles we’d gone down, returned to our car, and drove back home. We arrived home just before sunset.


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