Smoky Mountains Backcountry Camping

June 25, 2008

The Smokies - I worried all winter about how I would ever manage this 30-mile expanse of back-country. An intimidating prospect for someone who doesn't really like to carry a heavy pack and live without the lounge chair and French Press coffee maker, getting across this remote high-elevation area (which is however highly managed by the Park Service - reservations required at shelters, no primitive camping allowed).

Now I've done it! I'm in the best condition ever, due to this extended expedition I've been on since April. And, it turns out if you are a long-distance hiker (which I am, having just hiked all of North Carolina and most of Georgia) you are exempt from the reservation requirement. So I just filled out a back-country permit as a through-hiker and took off at my own pace, bringing my ultra-light tiny tent.

I made two out-and-back trips -- one northward from Fontana Dam for about 15 miles, camping one night and then staying in the Spence Field Shelter, returning back in one day (downhill all the way!). The second was up from Elkmont on the north side of the Park, camping on the access trail and then staying at two shelters to complete my Smokies trek.

Definitely the most rigorous part of my trip - 10 to 15 miles a day with camping gear, including the 3000 foot elevation change and up and down numerous "knobs" along the way. Exhausting, but it's exhilarating to be physically able to accomplish this feat!

The top photo is the Spence Field Shelter with Rick and Bubba, two high school teachers who were hiking across the Smokies together. Below is the Spence Field with turkey, and Rocky Top and Thunderhead Mountains beyond, waiting to be hiked over (Rocky Top has the best views of the hike, right down into Cade's Cove and Fontana Lake).

Over the Little T

June 18, 2008

Here's Fontana Dam - built during WW II to provide electricity for Alcoa's aluminum plant over in the Great Valley, but secretly also for Oak Ridge to refine uranium for the bomb. Actually, Alcoa had planned the dam years earlier and started buying up the land at the site, so when TVA took it over in 1942 it was a project well along in design.

It was built at a spot called "The Narrows" on the Little Tennessee River, covering up a number of small towns dating from lumbering and mining activities.

The dam and its visitor center are quite a model of International Style design, including some Breuer furnishings still in place in the marble-lined Ladies Room (I mean it, marble walls all around and terrazzo floors) which still has all its vintage fittings and light fixtures. The original segregated bathrooms have been converted into excellent free showers for hikers.

The view south (top - you can see the Visitor Center at the right) shows where I've already hiked; the view north (below) with the spillway gates, looks at the route up into the Great Smoky Mountains.

Eeyore Has Company in the Woods

June 17, 2008

I was hiking along as usual, getting a little bored with the green woods, no views, no special microclimates to get excited about. Then along came a speedy hiker - we chatted as she passed, and her trail name was - Tigger! She was through-hiking southbound (SOBO in the lingo) with three other women, and they had picked Pooh names, too (but none of them was Eeyore!).

Here are two of them taking a break at the Cable Cap Shelter; it's located on the slopes down to Fontana Dam where the Trail crosses the Little Tennessee River at Fontana Lake.

The guy with the dog is from Chicago, just out to try some backpacking with his dog. He's a bookstore manager from Chicago, who wants to move to North Carolina.

Crossing the Nantahala Gorge

June 12-13, 2008

The Nantahala River runs through a gorge that is eroded deep down into a marble layer, so we Trail hikers have to go down and up 2700 feet from the mountain tops of Wesser Bald and Cheoah Bald to the river level.

These photos are from the Jump Ups, which are little promontories at the 3800-4000 ft level on both sides. I suppose they represent some particularly hard strata in the overlying rocks, which resisted erosion. The top is looking north from the Wesser Jump Up, at the ridge I've just climbed up, with a little glimpse of Fontana Lake in the distance, and the Smokies beyond. Below is a view south from the Cheoah Jump Up - it's been raining and the clouds are amazing. You may be able to see the river down there at the bottom. It's a popular rafting section, I think with water releases from a hydro-electric dam upstream.

As I climbed out of the gorge heading south, the rosebay rhododendrons were blooming along the shady north slopes.

Good-bye, Georgia!

June 10, 2008

And that's it for Georgia - I finished the last mile of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia today, and I'm under 400 miles to walk! Here it is almost full summer; the flame azaleas are the only relief from all the green.

I'll remember Georgia for its luxuriant acres of poison ivy and the huge bugs attracted to the lights in the campground bath houses, but also for its orange azaleas and magenta rhododendrons.

Civilian in a war zone

June 10, 2008

I was hiking in Georgia, about 10 miles from the southern end of the AT, coming down a hill toward where the Trail crosses a dirt National Forest road, when I heard the sound of trucks. Three of them ground to a halt and soldiers swarmed out, took up their guard positions aiming machine guns out into the woods right at any innocent passing hikers, while the rest of the troop climbed out.

I did know from my trusty guide book that Camp Merrill is just down the mountain and one may encounter Army trainees, but still it was a shock. I think now I have a hint of what it feels like to be a civilian in the midst of a war zone, thinking they probably weren't aiming at me specifically but it was hard to be sure.

On an 85 degree, 100% humid day, these guys were dressed in full coverage desert cammo suits with bulging backpacks, helmets, and machine guns. Yet they looked like hardly more than kids, and I couldn't help thinking of the memorial portraits at the end of the Newshour for these last 5 years ...

And just a little earlier I'd been passed by a group of boy scouts of similar age in shorts and t-shirts, with typical brightly colored packs, fresh from a trail crew work party, joking about the heat and the rocks in the trail.

I had plenty to reflect on during my hours of walking.

Side Trip - Decatur, Georgia

June 7, 2008

I took a break from the woods to go see my cousins Pam
and Chris Martin, who have moved into a brand-new house in an older street-car suburb of Atlanta. They are thrilled with their empty-nest home which has a perfect studio for Pam (a pianist who is doing a project on the two-piano music of Cecile Chaminade) and a home office for Chris (a wine merchant - there's even space for a wine cellar in the ground level).

Chris and their son Brian went to the baseball game by MARTA (transit) while Pam & I ate at home and took a walk around the neighborhood.

Here are doggies Thor and Nemo enjoying the back yard before breakfast.

Making Friends on the Trail

May 30 to June 3, 2008

Here is a friendly group of scouts from Fayetteville, Georgia, who I met four times, as they were steadily hiking south and I was day-hiking from a different trailhead each day.

Tray Mountain Wilderness

June 3, 2008

Now I'm in Georgia, traversing this wilderness area. On top of Tray Mountain the catawba rhododendrons are in bloom, and the view is over to Double Springs Knob, 7 miles away, which I have just walked over from. In between are numerous ups and downs. It's the Blue Ridge - on one side is the Piedmont and on the other side drainage to the Tennessee Valley and the Mississippi River.

One of the dips is the Swag of the Blue Ridge, which the trail maintainers don't want us to miss!

Crossing a State Line

May 30, 2008

I did an overnight backpack trip to pass this spot, a famous gnarled tree just north of the North Carolina-Georgia border. Most of the day was hiking in fog, which is beautiful if not too thick. But it can be discouraging - my spirits rose a little later when the sun broke through and I sat on this same tree to eat lunch and dry out.