Since I am soon to be moving to the coastal flatlands of southern Georgia, I thought that I would put my backpacking gear to one final test on the AT before I left the mountains behind. I put the projected offer on the table, from Fontana Dam to Clingman's Dome, and was able to snag one sucker, er uh, taker.
Day 1 (08/19/05) - So Andrew gets here Thursday evening, we pack that night, and leave way too early Friday morning for the Greater Smoky Mountain National Park along the North Carolina/Tennessee border. After we drop one car at the end, and drive to the start it is around 10am. We load up, walk a half mile across Fontana Dam, and realize that cloud above us is awfully dark. Too far from the safety of the Dam's Visitor Center, we take cover under a big tree, but getting soaked was inevitable. The first 4 miles were quite difficult, changing from an elevation of 1715' to 4020'. We stopped at a firetower to check out some views. Once up to the ridge line the hiking wasn't so bad, only minor ups and downs. We took a nice long break at the ridge, along with some mixing of Gatorade. Never has it tasted so good, mmmmmm. After a long 7 hours of hiking, we stopped at Mollie's Ridge Shelter for the night. After cleaning up down at the spring, I changed into some cleaner clothes, only to realize that had forgotten to pack a couple important items, extra boxers. Doh! So I solved that problem the easiest way possible. Aaaaahh! Is it breezy in here? 9.3M, 7hrs.
Day 2 (08/20/05) - We were by ourselves at the shelter overnight. We expected other hikers to arrive, but no one ever showed up. It was a very sticky and humid night at the shelter. The full moon didn't help by making ever shadow in the distance look like a bear. After pulling down the bear bag, filling up with water, and stretching, we set out for on our longest day of the three. ooh, oww, ooh, the legs were stiff. Still around mid-morning, I thought I saw something moving on the trail, about 100yds. ahead. It was a large black bear, but by the time we stopped he must have heard us (or smelled us), because he was blazing a new trail across the hill. He was basically a black blur, a very fast animal. There are approx. 1800-2000 black bears in GSMNP, so we saw one, we were happy.
Our next task was to top Little Bald, Rocky Top, and Thunderhead, 3 seemingly endless uphills. The fact that it was sunny w/ about 80% humidity didn't help either. We managed to make it to the top of each after many breaks, and pauses to catch our breath. There are some excellent views from the top of Rocky Top. I would have liked to have stayed longer on the summits, but the sun and heat on a tree-less mountaintop was incredibly draining. We needed some shade.
Once back down in the shade, we were quitely passing through some heavy brush and trees, only to come around the corner to see several large trees and bushes rustling as if they were in a hurricane. The shaking bushes were accompanied with loud footsteps, grunts, and growling noises. We jumped back around the corner and started making as much noise as we could. We never did see what it was, but assumed that it was a couple bears resting on the trail, and then running down the hill away from us. One however stayed on the trail growling at us, so we continued to yell, and slowly built up the confidence to peek around the corner. We made as much noise as possible for the rest of the day. Andrew was good at that. Finally, after the phrase "I'm sure this is the last gap" was repeated 5 times, we reached Derrick Knob Shelter for the night, and were relieved to see that it had a chain-link gate on the front of it. 11.7M, 9hrs.
Day 3 (08/21/05) - Again, no one showed up at the shelter to spend the night. It was another sticky night, but there was more of a breeze. After the morning routine, we got going on what we thought be a somewhat easier day w/ shorter mileage, excluding the dome at the end which rose over 6500'. We were wrong. Getting to the dome was the hardest part.
On a small hill before going up one of the last mountains, we were taking a much needed rest, laying on our packs. Just when I was at the point I realized I was sleeping, I heard some people talking. "Do you hear that, Andrew?" "yea" "Me too, sounds like people." So I start to stand up to greet these people and say hello, and simultaneously we hear some familiar rustling. Still thinking it's just the people coming up the hill, I get up to look, only to find a large black bear running directly at me at full speed. *oops, I crapped my pants* In that split second we both start yelling only to have the bear change direction about 15-20 ft. in front of us. Phew! Nothing gets your heart pumping like a 250lb. black bear charging at you. Then Bill & Ted come up the hill, and say hello. "Hey you guys, we just saw a bear on the trail. So watch out." Uh yeah, we saw him, thanks for scaring him our way.
Once we changed our shorts, we headed toward the final mountains. They were difficult and slow, but the isolation, the views, and the very cool breeze made it all worthwhile. Once you get that high, the terrain changes so much. It's like you are on a different world. It's kind of eerie, as there are no sounds other than yourself, the wind, and maybe a bird or two. I kept waiting to see Gollum following us when I looked back. After a very long day, we finally saw our destination in the distance, the Clingman's Dome parking lot. I have to say that I think it was the most beautiful parking lot I've ever seen. Since it is a touristy area, with the Dome and the views and all, we were looked at strangely as we walked to my jeep. Being all dirty, smelly, and carrying large packs. "Why?" one might ask. "Why not?" is the answer they get. 10.2M, 10.5hrs
Once down the hill into Cherokee, we rewarded ourselves each with 4 double cheesburgers and a large coke. It was wonderful. I am pretty sure school will determine how soon I return to the AT, but I will let you know next time I go, so we can go find some bears.