Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Appalachian Trail 2016 Update 3: Fontana Village NC to Hot Springs NC

May 11 to May 17
Start Location: Fontana Village NC (mile 164.7)
End Location: Hot Springs NC (mile 273.7)
Total Miles Hiked: 273.7
Miles Left: 1915.4
Miles Since Last Update: 109.0

May 11
Start Location: Fontana 28 AT Crossing (mile 164.7)
End Location: Mollies Ridge Shelter (mile 177.3)
Total Miles: 12.6

My alarm went off and as I reached over to shut it off I fell out of bed and bashed my head on the bedside stand.  What a way to start the day.

I took a shuttle from the lodge to the Fontana Marina and backtracked about 50 yards to make sure I didn't miss any trail.  I returned to the Marina and hiked to the Fontana Dam Shelter, better known as the Fontana Hilton.  It is considered one of the nicest shelters on the trail, largely due to the fact that it has showers.

The Fontana Hilton

I hiked to the Fontana Dam Visitor Center and bought some drinks to take on the trail.  I watched a short film on the history of the dam, before finally crossing it.

Fontana Dam

I wasn't on the trail for too long before I heard the news that would dominate all conversations on the trail for the next several days.  Apparently, the night before at Spence Field Shelter (mile 183.2) there was a bear attack.  What I was told was that a very habituated bear (that hikers had apparently been feeding) went to the campsite and attacked a man in a tent who was wearing coconut scented sun screen.  The man was bitten in the leg and the bear chewed up his tent, before moving on to another tent.  The man who was attacked was evacuated by horseback the next day, and from what I heard, it was expected that he was going to be okay.  Hearing about this kind of attack before heading into a park known for having very habituated bears was very unnerving to say the least.

I began the climb from Fontana Dam into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, gaining around 3000 feet in elevation before the day was done (from here I would be hiking the North Carolina/Tennessee border for several days, typically unsure of what state I was in).  On the way up, I found a very large toad.  It was definitely a very neat wildlife find.

On Shuckstack Mountain there was a side trail that went to an old fire tower.  I was told that the views were quite nice (by a man with a mountain goat skull strapped to his pack), so I decided to take the detour.  The view was quite amazing, but climbing the tower was very unnerving.  It was extremely rickety, and it didn't help that the higher I got, the windier it got.  I would say it made me feel more nervous than skydiving, which is saying quite a lot.

View from the fire tower to Fontana Lake

At Birch Spring Gap I stopped for a break, and heard something loud coming down hill towards me.  I turned around and saw a medium sized black bear charging at me.  For a moment I thought I was a goner, so I grabbed my broken pocket knife and said to myself "the meaning of life is to die in battle".  Fortunately, the bear turned to the right before it got to me, but it was still a very frightening experience.

I pushed on, making it to Mollies Ridge Shelter before dark.  The shelter was not full, so as per park rules I was required to stay in the shelter.  That was my first night in a shelter on the trip, and I hope it is my last night in a shelter.  It was very claustrophobic, with not enough room to sit up.  I did have a dinner of freeze dried spaghetti, which, while not nearly as good as my dad's spaghetti, was still a spirit booster.  I drifted off to sleep to the sound of rain on the tin roof of the shelter, sounding a little bit like a city getting air raided by the Nazis.

May 12
Start Location: Mollies Ridge Shelter (mile 177.3)
End Location: Double Spring Gap Shelter (mile 196.7)
Total Miles: 19.4

I was up by 3:30 am and out by 5:00 am.  I would have left earlier, but I didn't want to go through the bear attack campsite in the dark (one of my few sensible decisions on this trip).  I was initially hiking in rain and mist, and due to low visibility I had to stop for about 30 minutes to wait for dawn.  It rained on and off throughout the day, sometimes raining with blue skies overhead.

View from Rocky Top

I stopped at Derrick Knob Shelter for lunch and saw a wild turkey.  I vowed to buy a freeze dried turkey dinner at the next opportunity.

I got to Double Spring Gap Shelter around 5:30 pm.  I intended to push on, but I was going too slow to really make it much farther, so I elected to stay.  The people in the shelter agreed to call it a full shelter so I could set up my tent, and a fellow thru hiker (Merlin) helped me put my tent up in the rain, getting it set up fast enough that the inside stayed relatively dry.

May 13
Start Location: Double Spring Gap Shelter (mile 196.7)
End Location: Pecks Corner Shelter (mile 217.3)
Total Miles: 20.6

Despite getting to bed early the night before, I didn't start on the trail until 9:00 am.  I hiked to the parking lot at Clingman's Dome and went to the gift shop, hoping to by a cold drink (which the guide book indicated I could do).  I found that all they had was bottled water, which was disappointing, but a park worker was handing out packages of oreos to thru hikers, which was a bonus.

The weather had gotten quite cold and foggy, with the occasional misting of rain.  I was actually contemplating putting an insulating layer on for the first time on the trip.  I got to Clingman's Dome and climbed the tower, officially standing at the highest point on the Appalachian Trail (at 6667 feet).  I smiled at the thought that, technically, it was all downhill from there.

The tower on Clingman's Dome

I pushed on to Newfound Gap, where hikers can access Gatlinburg.  I was tempted to go into town, but the weather was improving, so I decided to push on.

View from Newfound Gap

I climbed out of the gap and back into the mountains.  The stretch of trail from Icewater Spring Shelter (mile 210.1) to Pecks Corner Shelter (mile 217.3) (the part around Charlie's Bunion) was easily the most scenic part of the trail so far.  The trail stayed on a ridge, surrounded by dramatic views.  A number of times I almost went over the bank I was so distracted.

I hiked the last 7 miles in 2 hours and 50 minutes.  I was finally beginning to feel like I was getting my trail legs.

May 14
Start Location: Pecks Corner Shelter (mile 217.3)
End Location: Green Corner Road (mile 240.6)
Total Miles: 23.3

I got a very late start, leaving at 10:30 am.  Despite the late start, I continued my momentum from the night before and averaged better than 2 miles per hour to Tri-Corner Knob Shelter (mile 222.2) where I stopped for a lunch of freeze dried macaroni and chili.  Thru hiker Alex from Florida shared some of his coffee with me, which was definitely a very welcome bit of trail magic.

At one point on the trail there was a little detour that went to the wreckage of an old war plane.  It was definitely a worthwhile side trip.

I crossed the I-40 and continued hiking in the dark, running into a number of fireflies.  I eventually found a camp site near Green Corner Road and set up, having walked 23 miles in 11 hours, definitely my best day (pace-wise) so far.  As I went to bed I found a spider in my tent, but I lost it.  It is a testament to how much the trip has changed me that I managed to sleep just fine knowing there was a creepy-crawly on the loose.

May 15
Start Location: Green Corner Road (mile 240.6)
End Location: Walnut Mountain Shelter (mile 260.6)
Total Miles: 20.0

I woke up the several spiders in my tent.  I don't know if they all got in while I was putting stuff in my tent the night before, or if the spider I found the night before was Catholic, but regardless, it was an unpleasant way to start the day.  I spent several minutes squishing spiders, and being a good hiker, I put all of them in my garbage bag and packed them out.

After a 3000 foot ascent up Snowbird Mountain, I was surprised by some amazing trail magic being done by some locals.  I was given homemade ice cream, bananas, a cold soda, and a freshly made pbj sandwich.  It is amazing to me that there are people who do this kind of thing for hikers, expecting nothing in return.  It was definitely a huge spirit booster.

View from Snowbird Mountain

FAA Tower on Snowbird Mountain
 I continued on, climbing Max Patch, possibly the most famous bald on the trail.  I had a dinner of freeze dried lasagna there, and basked in the calmness.  As I was leaving, a man asked me if I was a thru hiker.  When I said that I was, he gave me two scratch tickets that had won twelve dollars, and told me I could cash them in if I made it to Damascus.

Climbing up Max Patch

View from the summit of Max Patch

Tortoise on Max Patch

I continued hiking, intent on getting as close to town as possible.  I climbed Walnut Mountain and watched the sun set on the summit, before continuing on a tenth of a mile to the shelter where I spent the night.

May 16
Start Location: Walnut Mountain Shelter (mile 260.6)
End Location: Hot Springs (mile 273.7)
Total Miles: 13.1

I woke up around 2:00 am, feeling something on my head.  Due to the size of my tent, and my tallness, my head is typically pushing against the back of my tent.  Sometimes a leaf gets caught between my tent and fly and tickles my head, and I assumed that was what was happening.  Still, I opened my eyes, and to my horror, saw an object climbing up my tent.  It could only be one thing: a mouse.  Ah the mouse, the natural enemy of the tortoise.  Mice and tortoises have been going at it for thousands of years, locked in a bloody war that will run until the end of time.  In keeping with the tradition of the mouse/tortoise feud, I flicked the mouse of my tent and turned on my headlamp, hoping to deter it from returning.  However, moments later, that little (insert your favourite expletive noun) climbed up the front of my tent, its beady little eyes staring right at me.  This enraged me.  A tortoise can only take so much before he snaps.  I cocked my arm back and sent my fist flying, hitting the mouse in the face with enough force to knock him off my tent, and rip a couple of tent stakes out of the ground.  Mickey learned his lesson, and didn't return to my humble abode that night.  Still, I couldn't fall back asleep.

I spent the next several hours trying to convince myself to get out of my tent and start hiking, knowing that I was only a few hours from town.  It was quite cold though, a few degrees above freezing (and that was in my tent; outside of my tent it was almost certainly at or below freezing).  Around 6:20 I finally got out of my tent, and by 7:00 am I was on the trail.

I kept a good pace, even on the few moderate climbs I encountered.  After a few hours I saw the town of Hot Springs below the mountain I was descending.  The rest of that descent felt painfully slow, even though I was going fairly fast.  It felt like no matter how much I hiked, I couldn't get any closer to town.  Finally, around noon, I got into town, having covered a little over 13 miles in 5 hours.

I went to the Iron Horse Station, a restaurant and inn, and got a room for a couple of nights.  The building was quite cool.  It was apparently built in the 1800s, and was restored 12 years ago.  It was definitely one of the more interesting places I've stayed.

I got a big lunch at the restaurant and set about doing my chores, getting my laundry done and buying supplies to get me to Erwin.  Deciding that I hadn't been carrying enough food, I splurged, and as a result, I will be enjoying about 3500 calories of food every day until I get to Erwin.

I went for supper that evening at a local tavern, joining fellow thru hikers Kryptonite, Derby, and Elena.  I then went back to my room and went to bed, falling asleep almost instantly.

May 17
Start Location: Hot Springs (mile 273.7)
End Location: Hot Springs (mile 273.7)
Total Miles: 0

Today is a day off for me, and I have very little planned.  I went for breakfast at the Smoky Mountain Diner, being joined by Pancake and Map Man.  I don't have any chores left today, so I intend to just take it easy.  There is a resort that offers hot mineral baths at a fairly reasonable price, so I will check that out a little later.  I'll eat a few more big meals, get a good night of sleep, and then set off again, my sights set on Erwin, Tennessee.

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