I fell for the old trap of commenting in my last post how good the weather had been and set myself up for a fall, and what a fall it was...
In my last update I was on the verge of the Smokey mountains, a national park which is loved by the locals for its soaring peaks (the highest on the trail at 6643 feet), pristine nature and of course the bears.
The pristine nature is guarded on the trail by enforced camping at the shelters which are of a much larger size than their preceding kind, so I guess I should talk a little about them. Shelters are small building usually made of wood, sometimes stone with three walls and a flat wooden base allowing people to camp underneath without the need for a tent. Generally they are 5 to 10 miles apart and can fit between 5 to 12 people underneath depending on the size of the shelter. They are usually near a water source (spring or creek) and have a privy (bush toilet) on the opposite side to the water.
Sometimes they are on the trail itself but just as often they are a short walk off the trail (or in one case 1.2 miles off the trail as in the rarely visited Whitely Gap Shelter)
Up until the Smokey mountains I hadn't even visited any of the shelters on the trail because there are plenty of campsites where those of a solitary bias (ie me) can camp in peace and usually at a much more scenic location. That and the weather had been great.
In the Smokies however, you have to stay at the shelters and are only allowed to camp if the shelter is full. The shelters at the Smokies are much bigger given the increased traffic in them and had a double storey wooden platform so that up to 14 people can stay in them. They include such luxuries as extended roof awnings, stone construction, wooden benches/seats and even indoor fireplaces.
All of these luxuries however dont really compensate for the loud snorer that invariably picks the sleeping spot with the greatest acoustics and falls asleep before anyone else.
Despite the regulations, I only have only had to sleep in a shelter for one night so far (Silers Bald Shelter) as the rest of the nights the shelters were full due to the abundance of thru and section hikers so I happily pitched my tent which gives me my happy little space.
The walking through the Smokies... The night before at Fontana Dam a group of us hikers hitched a ride (6 hikers and 1 dog into the back of a pickup truck) into the local servo which also doubled as the bar. We had a few drinks, played some pool and then headed back to the shelter (the Fontana “Hilton”). I was primed for the Smokies albiet camera less because I am a hopeless luddite, I had laundered, swum in the dam, showered, resupplied, updated blog, filled in my permit form and on a mission to get to Hot Springs. The start of the walk was all uphill which I tackled with gusto and soon caught up with James (Gandalf) and Dallas (Bush Goggles) who had started a little earlier. I've ended walking with them and John (Lady Slipper) through the whole Smokies. Well walking together is a bit of a misnomer as sometimes we do but generally we walk at our own pace and meet up in town or at a campsite.
The first day the weather was grey but the rain held until the afternoon which was just before I got to a shelter. As the next shelter was 7 miles away that was it for the day so I set up my tent as the shelter was full (well technically it wasn't but I was sure it was going to fill :)). The rain went through the night and continued through the morning so I decided to read my kindle instead of braving the elements like the rest of the hikers. Some may call it 'soft', I prefer 'safely negotiating hazardous environments' which I did until 11 am. By then the rain had stopped so I packed and walked to the next shelter where as I arrived the rain started again so out came the kindle and I waited for another hour until it stopped. Once it had I made a bit of a dash to the next shelter and only got a little caught out by the rain so by the end of the day I was quietly satisfied that I had 'dodged' the weather. For the Smokies however that was only round one.
Round two was day 5 in the Smokies which came after some great scenic walking through clingmans dome, a visit to Gatlinburg (which I'll go into some more detail later) and some awesome ridgewalking (great views on either side) on day 4.
Day 5 was at the northern boundary of the Smokies and pretty much involved the descent out. We'd (James, Dallas and I) had camped just outside Tri-corner knob shelter in a bit of a tent city as the shelter was full. We had just passed the 10% mark of the AT trail and were planning to push hard that day so that we could get out of the national park and go back to camping away from the shelters. John caught up with us early in the morning and seeing as he and Dallas are the fastest walkers they took off together. Then the rain came and there was no avoiding it. Walking downhill in the rain on a hiking trail is pretty much like walking down a steep creekbed. You're trying to avoid walking in the puddles as much as possible as you want to keep your feet dry but seeing as the kickers on my boots have separated from the soles a little due to all the times I've kicked stomes or tripped on roots it was kind of a lost cause.
Still I plodded on, trying vainly (both in the hopeless sense and the ego one) to catch the boys ahead of me. I found some shelter at an overpass after I had finished my descent and I managed to ring my socks dry and pushed on hoping to find the boys camping nearby.
Unfortunately for me, I walked past their campsite as I was climbing Snowbird Mountain and so I kept pushing on, soaked into the cold rain cursing the boys for their indifference to the weather. By 6.30 odd, I'd had enough so I warmed my hands enough to pitch my tent and set up a soggy camp. Luckily my 50 cent black garbage bag (instead of a $50 bag cover) had kept my bag dry so my gear was dry and I was in pretty good spirits that I'd catch them up tomorrow.
TBC.. got to go meet up with the boys to go for a dip in the springs