11/26 14 miles
We got going in the morning before dawn and headed downhill towards Fontana Dam. The trail got better and better– obviously the locals around here care about the condition of the trail.
We weren’t sure exactly where the side trail to Fontana Lodge was, so we wound up taking a side trail to a road, where we were a bit lost. With the help of some people passing by, we were able to get there. John used the restroom while I got our resupply boxes and sat down on some comfy couches to try to log into their wifi. After spending some time investigating our food, we decided that we’d try to do the whole Smokies in one go without resupplying in Cherokee. That would save us trying to find a ride in and out of Cherokee, and the hassle of town and finding our way around. Plus we’re running behind schedule slightly anyway, so we wouldn’t have been able to spend the night in Cherokee either way.
From the Lodge we walked to the General Store, which surprisingly was closing at noon today for the entire winter season. What good timing! We bought some additional food (at high prices) to supplement the food we mailed to ourselves. We also bought a few microwave burritos to eat right then, because they also had a microwave we could use.
From there we hiked further along to the Fontana Dam Appalachian Trail shelter. The Benton Mackaye Trail intersected briefly with the Appalachian Trail past Fontana Dam, and during our brief time there, we saw at least 3 groups of southbound hikers. Thru-hiking the AT has become so popular that even the southbound crowd is getting big!
The Fontana Dam AT shelter is also called the “Hilton”. I’ve always thought this was funny, but it makes so much sense, because they have a small bathhouse a few yards away from the shelter with flush toilets and a men’s and women’s shower. The water was still on for the season, so we were delighted to be able to take a free shower. The small shower stalls were pretty dirty, and I was thankful that I packed some Dr. Bronners (high concentration soap) in order to wash ourselves with.
As we were finishing our shower, a southbound AT hiker showed up, and we got chatting. It turned out that he was from the same county on Long Island that John grew up in!
From Fontana Dam, the BMT followed the Lake Shore Trail. It was like walking on a highway. We were so used to the poorly maintained, extremely strenuous sections of the BMT which were now behind us, that we felt like we were floating along. In fact, we were so fast that we got to camp at 4:30pm – somehow covering the 14 miles for the day many hours earlier than I had anticipated. We couldn’t hike further, of course, since in the Smokies you have to reserve specific camp sites in advance. So basically, from here on out, each day has been precisely planned out.
Since we got to camp so early, we decided to make a fire. This could possibly be the first fire we’ve started on our own on a hike ever. Does that make us weird?
There were cables to hang your food away from bears, so we obliged. The Smoky Mountains probably has the highest rate of black bear encounters with humans, and possibly the most black bear incidents (injuries/deaths) anywhere in the world. I’m just guessing, but someone can correct me if I’m wrong. The campsite here (Lost Cove Campsite) has a warning that there has been bear activity in this area, so we’re extra careful!
Tomorrow will be our longest mileage day in the park at just about 19 miles. Hopefully since it seems like the trails around here are well maintained and easy going, it won’t be much of an issue!
11/26 18.9 miles
The night went by uneventfully. No bears. We woke up to a tent full of condensation as expected. The difference now was that most of the condensation inside the tent was frozen.
We wore our sleeping bags for a couple hours this morning to dry them out. The gentle terrain and wide trail was perfect for this activity.
The whole day we were traversing slopes. Early in the day we had a nice roadbed to walk down and we passed by a few more broken down old cars.
Around lunch-time we reached a house strangely placed in a forested valley. The house was one of the last remaining structures left from a town called Proctor. A plaque described the history of the town and mentioned how the town had exploded in population when a railway was installed. We probably have been walking on the old railroad bed this whole time.
The town was a lumber boom town from the 1920s. It was funny to see that the one house still standing was built the same year as the house we live in in Asheville.
After we left the ghost town of Proctor the trail narrowed and often was on a steep slope. We found ourselves yet again using our feet to search for our steps under a foot or so of dry slippery oak leaves.
We were relieved when the old railroad bed joined the trail periodically. After a number of miles my shoulder started to have increasing amounts of pain from my frozen shoulder. Somehow in the calculation of how many miles we had to do today, I didn’t take into consideration how heavy our packs would be just having left Fontana Dam yesterday. The last few miles dragged on.
When we finally got to Chamber’s Creek campsite we were drawn back into the valley by the site of an old chimney, another forgotten relic of old. We were glad it was there because we found a place to pitch our tent on higher ground.
We have high hopes of a warmer night with less condensation.
11/28 16.7 miles
I woke up and noticed that water wasn’t dripping off of the ceiling of our tent! Upon further investigation, this was because the entire inside of our tent was frozen. My sleeping bag was wet nonetheless, and as we started moving about the tent, the ice started to melt and we tried to act quickly to put stuff away before it got too wet.
It was really cold. John wore his sleeping bag around his shoulders again, trying to dry it out, but I decided to pack mine away since the terrain wasn’t as flat as before.
It felt like forever before the sun made an appearance, and the temperature started to rise.
The Benton Mackaye Trail soon spilled out onto a road where we had to walk through a tunnel and then over a bridge. This road leads to nowhere- it just ends in a parking lot right around there. There wasn’t a soul in sight.
When we left the road to head back into the woods, the trail followed an old road bed, and the walking was ridiculously easy. In fact, so far, the entire Smoky Mountain section has been a cakewalk compared to what we had been through before. Along this road, I found a cold monarch butterfly in the middle of the trail. I wanted to move it so it would be out of harms way. It barely moved as I picked it up.
The trail went up a creek, and we had to cross it several times. There were footbridges the first few times, but the last crossing was a true ford, and we strategized on how to cross this icy cold stream. We decided to take off our pants, our socks, and take the insoles out of our shoes- then cross as quickly as possible. Even so, when I got to the other side, my legs and feet were in agony from the ice cold water. The ambient temperature was in the 40s. We walked quickly on to try to warm up, and Upper Ripshin Campsite, where we were stopping, was only a few tenths of a mile ahead.
I debated which would be worse– fording that stream first thing in the morning, when the temperatures were below freezing, or waking up and having to put on completely frozen shoes from having forded the stream the night before. I thought frozen shoes was a better option. John thought fording the stream in the morning may have been the better option. In the end, who knows, but we now will have frozen shoes to put on tomorrow. Yay.
I’m also a bit worried about how wilted my warmer sleeping bag looks. Apparently it may rain tomorrow, and I won’t be able to dry it out, which makes me very worried for tomorrow night. I think I’ll already be cold tonight, and I’m sure we’ll get condensation again.
Unfortunately, we don’t get to choose not to camp by a stream because basically all of the designated campsites in the Smokys are next to streams. I kind of wonder what other people do about this. Next time maybe I’ll consider a synthetic sleeping bag, but I hesitate to buy more gear. I’m just so thankful that we both decided to bring two sleeping bags each!
11/29 13.2 miles
I eventually warmed up overnight, but in the morning, my top sleeping bag was more wet than ever. I hoped that rain would hold off long enough for us to get a few rays of sunlight to dry everything off.
Luckily our shoes weren’t frozen as we kept them in the tent with us overnight.
After looking at the map, it seemed possible that we had another ford. Great, I thought, we’ll get to test our theories.
Not a mile later, the ford appeared. It was still the early hours of the morning, and the ambient temperature had not gotten above freezing. Before I could say anything, John plowed into the stream. I started to take off my shoes in order to take my socks and insoles out, when I realized that my socks and insoles were already wet anyway. Fearing I would lose even more heat by stoping to take off any clothes, I decided to plow into the stream after John. At this point, I was wearing all my clothes.
Half way through the stream my hiking pole got stuck between two rocks, and it slipped out of my hand, which had a glove on it, causing me to fumble. The pole fell into the water and the current started to carry it downstream. I quickly lunged towards it to catch it and in the process I fell hands first into the stream. A wave of intense pain shot through my shoulder, and I screamed in agony. I somehow caught the pole and threw it at the shore. Meanwhile I was on my hands and knees in the stream, clutching my arm, screaming fiercely.
“Get out of there!!” I heard John shouting. “You need to get out, NOW!”
I staggered to shore where I continued to cry out in pain, dripping wet.
As I sat on the shore sobbing and evaluating my condition, John was mesmerized by something glistening next to the stream. He picked it up. It turned out it was someone’s wedding ring with “Love Penny” inscribed on the inside along with a date, and “14k” proving it was gold.
John slipped it onto his finger and for an instant became invisible. “It fits perfectly” he said, taking it off again.
Once I pulled myself together, I took note of all the clothing that I had gotten wet. My long underwear, my fleece, my down jacket, and my gloves. John handed me the wedding ring and said “Here, wear it. Maybe it’s powers will make your shoulder feel better.”
I put it on my middle finger, and forced myself to hike on. Luckily, we were headed uphill, and I quickly warmed up. Also luckily, the sun started to shine, and when we got to the top of the mountain we were climbing, we hit the sunny side, and we stopped to take out all of our wet gear to dry it out.
We spent a good hour there, spreading our gear all over the trail, and watching it dry out. Meanwhile, it was quite warm, and I was happy to let my feet dry out as well. I was so thankful that we got these moments of sunshine- it saved the day.
We descended into another valley which was full of stream crossings, but none that required us to get our feet wet. We took our time picking the best rocks to hop over each stream. At the last stream, we were collecting water for the next uphill, when two gentlemen came down the trail from the opposite direction. They were section hiking this part of the Benton Mackaye! These were the first other hikers we had seen in about 2 or 3 days.
We traded information, and were excited to learn that the weather forecast had shifted, and now it wasn’t supposed to rain until tomorrow afternoon. Gotta love how unreliable the forecast is around here! I was pretty happy that it wrong was in our favor because we’re camping at 5000ft tonight, and we won’t have to worry about getting rained or snowed on. Whoopee!
The climb up to the ridge was slow and steady, easy trail, as has been the case for this whole section. We got to our campsite with plenty of daylight time, and we were surprised by how warm it was up there. We picked the best spot to pitch our tent, and we took our time getting ready for bed.