The sky opens up with a light rain as we head out out on the Lost Cove Trail around Fontana Lake. This short stretch of dirt will connect us with the Eagle Creek Trail, which we’ll follow into the remote stretches of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was 90-something degrees when we left the valley surrounding Knoxville, but here’s it’s pleasantly hovering in the mid-70s. I can’t complain.
On its face, a 30-mile hike in three days seems like a piece of cake. Equally divided, that’s only 10 miles daily–but as we’re about to find out, legs of this trip aren’t equal, campsites are sporadic, and there’s 5,000-feet of near-vertical mountain between us and the finish line.
My buddy Scott D. has done this before. Not this trail specifically, but the entirety of the Appalachian Trail. I fancy myself a sort of adventure enthusiast, but–full confession–before today I’ve never covered more than 10 miles of trail in a single day. That’s about to change.
Over the next 48 hours (spliced by three days) we’ll face the full vertical force of the Smokies, get mauled by moths, take in breathtaking views, and cross paths with one of the Smoky’s famed black bears. The payoff to this intensive walk in the woods is Shuckstack Lookout, an old abandoned fire tower situated at about mile 25. From there, it’s all downhill back to the trailhead at Fontana Dam and our car ride home. All we have to do is get there.
I should have brought better shoes.
This ain’t so bad. We’re off to an easy start, circling Fontana Lake and following one of its tributaries along a trail with minimal gains. White flowers line the trail here and there, cast offs from the bushy rhododendron that make up a huge portion of the forest’s canopy.
Eagle Creek is wide at its base, narrowing the further uphill you go. The thing is, we’re not gaining much elevation. It’s 11 miles to our first campsite. We walk in just before dark, soaked in sweat and soggy feet. We make it with just enough time to set up camp before being enveloped in the darkness of night.
My shoes are waterproof, but that only holds true if you can keep water out of them. On the Eagle Creek Trail it only takes 30 minutes to reach the first creek crossing. We take off our shoes and carefully wade across the slippery river rocks, hopeful to save our socks, shoes, and feet. It only takes another 2 or 3 minutes to reach the second crossing, followed shortly by a third. Then a fourth. Fifth. Sixth…
In all we crisscross Eagle Creek 17 times our first day out. Waterproof or not, no shoes are going to withstand that kind of inundation. Scott D. is smart enough to wear trail running shoes. They breathe easier and dry faster. I’m wearing water-logged clod hoppers.
At camp I stretch my shoes and socks out on a rock in front of our meager campfire–it’s so damp and humid we can’t get this wood to burn for long. When it ignites at all, it’s mostly twigs and lichen that spark up briefly. It’s so humid nothing dries. Come morning my shirts and shoes are still soaked.
Up and onto the Appalachian Trail:
The Eagle Creek Trail is mostly meandering turns and gradual gains for its entire length — that is, until you hit the last 1.5 miles. Then you make up for that leisure. It’s a steep, seemingly endless climb to get on top of the Smokies.
We sludge up the dramatic incline the morning of our second day out. We pause every couple of feet to gasp for air and muster energy to press on. I’m counting steps, 15 at a time. In my mind I figure if I can make it 15 steps, I might can make it 15 more.
I’m flashing back to that time I climbed a volcano in California. It was similarly steep, mostly sand and rock, and I could only make it 15 steps at a time. Today I’m doing better. I’m averaging more than 100 steps each burst, then I’ll stop and look for the strength to make it at least 15 more.
Finally we make the summit, emerging on the AT at Spence Field–our highest point of the trip, a climb we just made in a single, short upward trajectory. We don’t talk. My legs still wobble. I take off my wet shoes and newly wet socks and sat them on a rock in the sun. We sit on a log and eat lunch.
In another 20 miles or so the Appalachian Trail will deliver us back where we started at Fontana Dam. The most demanding part–the climb up–is behind us, but these are still mountains, and as we set out along the AT we know we’re in for plenty more ups and downs.
I raid the blackberry bushes in Spence Field as we head out. I packed light–too light, when it comes to food–and I’m grateful for the three handfuls of berries I’m able to scourge. It’s a rollercoaster of steady gains and descents for most of the afternoon. My legs are obliterated from the morning climb. Most paths up require a break for energy and moral. I can feel the blisters coming, a steady rub. We push on.
At least there’s a breeze up here along the ridge line. Gone is the stiffly calm and drenching humidity of Eagle Creek, but this is still the South, and it’s still July. But we’re managing a steady 3 mph along the top trail. We make good time to Mollie’s Ridge shelter, where we rest and snack. I shovel a few handfuls of granola into my mouth and set my shoes in the sun to dry. My feet are pruned from the moisture and lumpy from the blisters. I put on a few moleskins and wrap my feet with duct tape to hold them in place, then it’s back to the train.
We had ambitions to make it all the way to Gregory Bald and walk back along the 20 Mile Loop Trail, but we’ve miscalculated the distance on a shitty internet print out map, and we’re too fatigued to make the remaining 11 miles (including up and down another mountain) to our planned campsite. So we stick to the AT, a nice plan B that shorts our route to a campsite by 9 miles.
We reach the turnoff for Birch Spring Gap campsite about 5:30 p.m. Or rather, I make it there around that time. Last I was Scott was about a mile back, right after we ran into the black bear. Lucky the bear saw me before I saw it and took off running. I sat my pack down near Birch Spring Gap and lay down in the dirt, my head resting on a log, waiting for Scott to catch up.
I wake up 45 minutes later. “What the hell is going on here?” I think. Scott was just a mile behind, a 30 minute walk even meandering, but here I am still all alone, no sign of the lanky trail blazer. What to do?
After some deliberation I decide to set up camp. Then, if he still hasn’t shown, I’ll start to backtrack up the mountain and search him out. Hopefully a bear didn’t get the best of him…
I string up my hammock between two trees and start to secure the tarp. Just as I get things tied off, here comes Scott strolling into camp. Turns out he had taken a nap, too, leaning up against a tree and dozing off further up the trail. It’s been a long day. We sit around the communal campfire talking with a gal fresh to the woods. She’s from Illinois and plans to spend the next five days navigating along the AT through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We wish her luck.
It’s all (mostly) downhill form here:
I wake up at 3 a.m. to take a piss, falling out of my hammock onto the leafy forest floor. I flip on my headlamp and canvas the forest. BAH! What the?!? A whitetail deer is staring me down, just 100 feet away. The glare of its eyes caught me off guard, half asleep. I walk towards it but it doesn’t budge. A deer in the headlights. So I shine my light down so it can see me, and as soon as it realizes I’m more than a floating light it bolts into the night.
Day three we’re up and at ‘em with the sun. A quick breakfast and it’s back on the trail. We have one more sizable hill to make it up, this one leading to the fabled yet abandoned Shuckstack fire tower. We make the climb to the cut off with a little effort, sat our packs down and wind on up to the mountain’s summit.
The rickety metal lookout sticks up about 208 feet like an ill-conceived lightning rod. It looks less than safe, but I didn’t come this far to be left without a view. We clomp up the stairs to the small room at its pinnacle and look out. The hills of the Smokies unfold like ripples in the ocean, a seemingly static tide of endless waves enveloping our meager forms. There’s Fontana Lake and our path to salvation. We catch our breath, chug some water, and head down hill.
It’s all downhill from here, a steep decline that dumps us at the foot of the mountains where we started. Now my knees are blown, a consequence of traveling without hiking poles. We pass two groups of hikers gasping for air as they head up towards Shuckstack.
“How much further to the fire tower?” one of them asks.
“Oh, a mile or a mile and a half,” I quip. They’ll get there eventually. It’ll be worth the climb.