Friday, May 13, 2016

Don't Mess With The Smokies

Happy Friday the 13th! As I write this, I am sitting in a minivan with a full stomach, a bag of ice on my knee, all while laughing a lot with my comrades. But let's get caught up on the last few days.

After leaving Fontana we entered the Great Smokey Mountain National Park. The Smokies are known for rough terrain and an aggressive bear population. Along most of the AT you aren't required to stay in the provided shelters, you could tent in a number of campsites outside of the shelter areas. But in the Smokies, due to the bear activity, all camping must be done in the shelters. This can make planning difficult, as we are restricted to camping sites. The reason I'm in the minivan now is to go to Trail Days - a huge hiker festival - in Damascus, VA. Our planning for the smokies included some really long days, in order to make this festival.

The first day of hiking brought us over the top of the Fontana Dam which was neat to see. We had a really long climb up a few thousand feet of elevation into the Smokies. We saw a lot of thru hikers that we had been leap frogging over the last few weeks. The climb was tough, but there were numerous switchbacks to help with the elevation gain. It was all worth it when we came to a fire tower with some of the most amazing views. Many people probably know that I don't love heights, especially man made ones. However, I dragged myself to the top and I'm glad I did. We ended our first day at Spence Field shelter after passing a shelter that was closed due to bear activity. Spence Field was under what the ridge runner (an AT caretaker) described as a "Bear Warning." And for good measure, as two nights later at this shelter a man was attacked through his tent and had a piece of his calf chomped off by a black bear. He was evacuated the next morning and should be fine from what we've heard. Luckily for me, we had no such encounters with bears. In fact, I was the only one in our group who didn't see any bears while in the park. I did see a coyote run across the trail about 20ft in front of me. Other wildlife that I saw in the Smokies includes a spike horn deer, a rabbit, numerous squirrels, and other thru-hikers.

On Tuesday I had two major milestones! I crossed the 200mi mark and also summited Clingman's Dome, the highest point on the AT at 6,667ft. There was a unique tower with a circular, ramp-like path to the top which provided amazing views of the surrounding areas, including most of the mountains we had just hiked over. After many hard miles to get there, it was tough to see everyone who had driven to the top of the mountain in their cars. We were told there was a visitors center by the parking lot with snacks. All I wanted was a bag of chips. My left knee was starting to hurt at this point and the extra mileage to the snack shack needed to be worth it. It wasn't. All they had was "healthy" granola bars and some chocolate. That added serious insult to injury. We treked back up to the summit and continued the few miles to our shelter for that night.

The rest of the Smokies were absolutely beautiful. Every viewpoint provided miles of views without any sign of human trace. Just valley after valley and mountain range after mountain range of green rolling hills. The fog was definitely very present throughout the Smokies, which is presumably how they got their name. We were lucky to have a clear day for the views on Clingman's. With all the high mile days (18, 19, 19, 15) that we did in the Smokies, my left knee started aching more and more. My right knee, as luck would have it, was actually feeling much better from the week before. I almost got off the trail on Wednesday to rest and ice my knee, but decided to press on to stay with the group. In hindsight, I maybe should have left the trail then. I hobbled my way through 15mi yesterday and into the shelter in the thunder and rain. Between Tylenol, ibuprofen, a new knee brace, and exercises from my PT friends, I somehow made it. However, I definitely need a few days of rest and ice to tackle this. Continuing on in my current state would be nonsensical. Luckily, we had planned not to hike today or  tomorrow so we can visit Trail Days. I'm not sure that I'll be ready to start hiking again on Sunday, but will rest as long as I need to until my knee is in good shape. Hoping this is a quick turn around, as I really don't want to leave my Trail Family. For now, I'm icing my knee and will be enjoying all of what Trail Days has to offer - a hiker parade, drinks, booths, exhibits, and the chance to meet a bunch of other thru hikers.

The Smokies were beautiful, but they sure did a number on me. 


  1. If you promise to make it back bear incident free (don't interpret that) and without blowing your knees out, I'll buy you chips and beer. It's rainy and cool here, but spring is showing some promise.

  2. Reminds me of the time we hiked the Na Pali coast in Kauai. Trudged through miles of rainfiorest and mud you weren't supposed to come in contact with(?!) due to the feral pig (goat?) excrement. When we finally got to the camping area, people were getting off boats with their umbrellas. 😫😖