Monday, July 3, 2017

Pamola's Quest - The Pushes (4 - 6)

Pushes 4 Through 6

The next three Pushes of the Quest would take us into the Great Smoky Mountains and over the highest point of the trail.  I have read a lot of stories of hikers encountering challenging weather when going through the Smokys.  That, along with the requirement to stay in the shelters (unless full) seems to make hikers rush to get through the Smokys and back to the freedom of having more options for camps.  We had a wonderful trip through the Smokys.  The weather was perfect. We did sleep in the shelters, but not every night and the scenery was magnificent.  We also pushed a little extra at the end of the Push to get to the Hostel a day early and hiked our longest day so far, 18.4 miles.  But first, we had to get to the beginning of the park at Fontana Lake.  

Push 4: The Push to Fontana Dam and the Lodge

Push 4 had us experiencing some of the balds that exist down in the southern Appalachians.  Evidence of last year's fires would also be a theme of this Push.  This Push would be 54.9 miles long and would take us five days to complete. When we hiked into the parking lot by the Fontana Lake Marina on day 17, there would be rain in the air and we would be ready for some pampering.  

Day 13 - 11.0 miles - Wayah Bald Shelter
Day 14 - 10.6 miles - Wesser Bald Shelter
Day 15 - 12.6 miles - Sassafras Gap Shelter
Day 16 - 9.1 miles - Brown Fork Gap Shelter
Day 17 - 11.6 miles - Fontana Village

On the first day of this Push, we still had a few things to take care of in the morning before being shuttled back to the Trail.  I needed to get some fuel and we also paid for and printed our Smokys Permits at the Outfitter across the street at Baltimore Jack's Hostel.  

On the ride back to the Trail, Ron Haven told a great story about Standing Indian Mountain, which we had hiked over a few days ago.  Ron was a very interesting and kind hearted good old boy.  He could speak French and Spanish in addition to his southern drawled English as I witnessed when you was able to communicate with Yves at Unicoi Gap back in Push 2.  He gave free shuttle rides from the Gap into Franklin, even if you didn't stay at his Hotel, the Budget Inn.  He also told a great story about Baltimore Jack (which I was a little sad to learn that no one but myself among the hikers in the van knew who he was).  He told of his unexpected passing the year before.  

After passing Siler Bald we headed to Wayah Bald which had a stone fire tower on top.  The roof of the tower had burned in last year's fires and the whole mountaintop was burnt and singed.  It was a striking sight.  

Fire transformation on Wayah Bald

The next day we stopped for lunch at another bald that you had to walk up to.  We ate, then stashed our packs and walked up to the view.  Grade School, another hiker that had come from behind and we were kind of keeping pace with was there.  After enjoying the view and the company, we continued on to Wesser Bald which had a nice tower on it too.  We could see a piece of Fontana Lake from the tower, our goal for this Push.

View from Rocky Bald

View from Wesser Bald. Fontana Lake in the distance

Day three of the Push took us down into the Valley of the Midday Sun or Nantahala as the Cherokee call it.  The Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) is down on this river where kayakers and hikers come together for fun and recreation.  We had a nice lunch at the River's Edge Restaurant.  LoGear had found a GoPro on the long climb down into the river valley and we easily found its owner when we arrived.  He was very happy we had found it.

After hanging out by the river for a while, rinsing out some clothes and soaking our feet, it was time for the long climb out of the NOC.  It's about six miles of steady up and the only way to get it done is to keep putting one foot in front of the other.  We arrived at the shelter that day, pretty tired, but satisfied that we had accomplished our goal for the day. 

Resting and soaking our feet in the Nantahala River at the NOC

The next day had another challenging climb that kicked our asses.  Jacob's Ladder.  It wasn't a long climb, but it sure was steep.  Once again, just moving along as best as you can is the only way to get it done.  

Jacobs Ladder was a bitch, but we did it

On the last day of the Push, we had more miles than we usually have on our final day, so we got an early start.  It turned out to be the perfect time, because the way it turned out is this; all the other hikers walked faster than us and arrived at the parking lot where the shuttle comes well before us, using the available phone to call for a shuttle.  LoGear was ahead of me at that time and she had just bought a soda from the machine when I came down the last steps to the parking lot.  Just as I stepped foot into the lot, the shuttle van that the others had called pulled into the lot and stopped right in front of us, asking if we had called.  LoGear said, no, we didn't call, but we do need the ride. We all piled into the van and were whisked off to the Fontana Lodge, just as the sprinkles, that would later turn into a downpour had started.   

Misty morning as we head towards Fontana

We checked in, took showers, and gathered our laundry to take down to the laundromat, where there was also a general store and ice cream parlor.  We cleaned our clothes, filled our bellies with ice cream and resupplied for the next Push.  There were a lot of hikers hanging out on the porch.  Some we had met before, some new.  There is something about a rainy day that brings hikers together in close spaces.  We had good conversation and even enjoyed a beer or two as we waited for our clothes to become clean and the rain came down like cats and dogs for quite some time.  We were thankful that we didn't have to hike in that day's rain.  

Push 5: The Push to Standing Bear Farm Hostel - The Smokys

During this Push, we would climb up into the Great Smoky Mountains and remain there for the next six days.  The original plan was to take seven days to cover the 75.9 miles (our longest Push so far), but we set out on the sixth day to soldier on and do that last extra 3.2 miles to get to the Hostel a day early and bank another zero day.  

Day 18 - 7.4 miles - Birch Spring Gap Campsite
Day 19 - 11.1 miles - Spence Field Shelter
Day 20 - 13.5 miles - Double Spring Gap Shelter
Day 21 - 13.4 miles - Icewater Spring Shelter
Day 22 - 12.1 miles - Tri-Corner Knob Shelter
Day 23 - 18.4 miles - Standing Bear Farm Hostel

Since we couldn't do a nearo coming into Fontana, we decided to have a short day leaving the Dam and entering the Park.  To get into the Smokys, you have to climb about 3000 feet, so we went most of the way and spent the first night at a campsite that used to have a shelter.  
Fontana Lake on a rainy morning

LoGear deposits her Smokys Permit in the box.

It was actually a pretty good site.  there were several prepared tent pads, good bear cables, a nearby spring and a nice fire pit.  After setting up, we ate dinner at the fire pit where I made a small fire to enjoy.  There were a couple other hikers that came in after us.  Energizer was a woman who set up her tent about 50 feet from us.  During the night, she got up to pee and saw red eyes staring at her.  She came down and stood by our hammocks for a while, shivering in her fright, but she didn't say anything to us until the next morning. 

Our setup at Birch Spring Gap

When we stopped for a break the next day at the first shelter, Energizer was there with one of the Ridge Runners, Master Splinter.  He recorded her sighting as a bear encounter.  

On this day I really saw the magic of the trail providing first hand.  I had left one of my tent stakes when I did my cat hole business that morning and half-jokingly asked the trail to provide me another tent stake.  Not an hour later, LoGear points to the ground and says, "There's your tent stake".  It was a bag of eight tent stakes that had fallen from someone's pack.  I took all of them, hoping to return them to whoever lost them, but that would never happen.  I eventually took one of the stakes to replace the one I lost, and put the rest in a hiker box at Standing Bear.  

Spence Field Shelter

We arrived at that day's shelter pretty early in the day and grabbed the first two spots in the shelter.  This would be my first time not sleeping in my hammock or a bunk, so I wasn't looking forward to it.  I did end up tossing and turning all night.  I'm just no longer a comfortable ground sleeper.  Quite a few hikers came in late in the evening and most of them set up outside.  One guy, who decided to come into the shelter, sawed lots of logs during the night.  I could even hear him through my ear plugs.  

The next morning started up by climbing up to Rocky Top, a place that has a nice song to go with it.  I had that song stuck in my head for quite a few days after that.  Originally this day was planned at an easy 11.8 mile day, but there was another shelter close and we pushed on to sleep there.  Once again we stayed in the shelter.  

The weather so far had been perfect.  The days were in the 70s with the nights going down into the 50s, with no rain so far.  Each morning dawned clear and calm.  On the fourth day of the Push, we passed Clingmans Dome, the highest point on the trail.  We actually did a blue blaze that had us walking .8 more than if we would have stayed on the AT, but we wanted to dump our trash and were hoping to get a soda at the small visitors center near the parking lot.  We were able to dump our trash, but the visitor center didn't open for another hour, so we continued on.  

Clingmans Dome - Highest point on the AT

Coming down into Newfound Gap on that day was a jarring experience.  There were Muggles everywhere, walking around, asking questions and eating their food.  We tried to look pathetic enough to have someone offer us food, but I guess I still looked too fat and no one responded to our blatant yogi'ing.  We continued on where I realized there were hikers out there that I could blow past while walking.  The Muggles...

On our way up from Newfound Gap, we saw a southbound hiker that looked familiar.  It was Roger, a guy I had worked with during a couple of events in Harpers Ferry and Waynesboro, PA when I was at the Museum.  He was finishing his SOBO hike that he had started the year before.  He only had about 200 miles left to go.  


That night's shelter had a nice view and we enjoyed it immensely.  A lot of hikers were coming in, so we stalled long enough for the shelter to fill up and pitched our hammocks out in the "front yard".  I slept much better that night. 

Sunrise at Icewater Spring Shelter

The next day, we walked by Charlie's Bunion, which is a very cool rock outcropping that you can climb up on.  We did so and took our photos, then continued on along the blue blaze trail until it came back onto the AT about .1 later.  

Whiskey Tango and I think Blue

Us on the Bunion

We once again stayed in the shelter and the next morning was the first that dawned with an overcast sky.  We knew that rain was on its way, we just weren't sure of when it would arrive.  That day was at first planned as a 14.8 day, but as we went along and realized that it was probably going to be a wet night, we kept going on when we came to the last shelter of the Smokys.  We exited the park and crossed the Pigeon River.  After some road walking in the heat and humidity of this lower elevation, we climbed up over a little knob, which promptly kicked our asses and arrived at the road that leads to Standing Bear Farm Hostel.  This was our longest day so far, 18.4 miles.  We were tired afterwards, but still felt good.  

We arrived and got bunks, then started our usual end of Push chores.  This place was rather unique.  Each of the buildings has its own peculiar smell, none of them very pleasant, but this is coming from a smelly hiker, so who can say.  Clark, is the caretaker, who sleeps in the bunk room with us.  He is also the one who can get you a beer from their fridge and also the pizzas.  Of course, I had some of each.  The resupply here is a sub-par pick of outdated foodstuffs, but we only needed a couple of days, so it wasn't a big deal.  We had heard that most of their food for sale is outdated and this is so true.

Clark, caretaker at Standing Bear

A Unique place

A lot of the hikers that were there when we arrived headed out in the van to go to Trail Days in Damascus, so the rest of us had some nice conversation around the fire pit as the rain threatened from time to time.  We did our laundry on a scrub board in a sink that emptied to the floor so it could get to the drain.  In the shower, you had to dig through all the empty small bottles of shampoo until you could find one with something in it.  The pizza was heavenly and I shared my left overs with a southbounder whose name was Smiles.  Others who stayed there were Mouse King, Tiger and Gnome.  Also, there was Dana and Brian who would become Ham Jam and Packman, a nice couple that we kept pace with for a while.  

We had been very lucky with the wonderful weather and knew that before too long, we would be walking in liquid sunshine.  The next push would deliver some of it.  

Push 6: The Push to Hot Springs, NC and The Hostel at Laughing Heart

Push 6 was a quick three day, 33.1 mile trek that would take us to Hot Springs, NC, the first time the trail goes right through a town.  Rain would accompany us into town and keep us somewhat damp as we did our cores and ate some town food, but we would leave clean and dry on Push 7.  

Day 24 - 15.2 miles - Roaring Fork Shelter
Day 25 - 14.7 miles - Deer Park Mountain Shelter
Day 26 - 3.2 miles - Hot Springs, NC - The Hostel at Laughing Heart

The first day of the push had a couple of rainstorms.  The first lasted about 20 minutes and just cooled us off some.  The second was a pretty heave 45 minutes which pretty much soaked me through.  

I had finally started asking the other hikers who we had been hiking with for a while if I could take their picture.  I would usually ask, "Can I take your picture before you walk out of my hike?", since they were usually faster hikers.  Here is the first one I took of Mouse King and Tiger.  They had been hiking at our same distance (but definitely not the same speed) for a few days by then.  They were good people and we would see them for a while before Tiger moved ahead and Mouse King had to wait for a package in Erwin.

Mouse King and Tony the Tiger

By the time we reached Max Patch, the storm had moved off and the sun was out.  We leisurely walked through the fields, seeing others taking a break, but since we had extended the day once again and my socks needed changing, we continued on, enjoying the view as we walked through it, but seeing no need to sit and look.  A couple of overnighters that we passed mentioned that we didn't stay on the bald long.  It doesn't take me long to get my fill of a view.  I don't need to sit and stare at it for long periods, when I can be walking.  Maybe that is my problem.

The storm that moved over us before we got to Max Patch

LoGear on the Patch

The second day had a couple of nice fauna encounters.  As we walked along in the morning, looking only about five feet in front of us, to ensure our footing, I looked up and saw a wide-eyed deer, not 30 feet away, staring at LoGear who was directly in front of me.  I said look and the deer jumped into the woods.  Later, I walked right past a Rattlesnake that was laying just off the trail.  It remained silent when I passed, but when LoGear came by, it started its rattle.  I get real excited when I see a snake, so I was elbowing LoGear out of the way, so I could get a photo.  He obliged us by posing in a coiled position, rattling all the time. 


Gnome had caught up to us about halfway through the Smokys and our daily distance had been close for a few days after that.  Unfortunately, the other world was dragging her back for a bit, so she was getting off trail in Hot Springs, then coming back later. 

That evening at camp, we hung out around the picnic table, making and eating dinner.  I group of boy scouts were there also, training for a Philmont trip later in the year.  One scout sat with us and we had some great conversation. 

Packman and Ham Jam

Packman and Ham Jam were there as well. Even though they too walked faster than us, our daily distance was usually comparable.  It was nice hanging out with them and we traded numbers so we could text each other when needed.  

We once again had camped with a short day in the morning and after a quick 3.2 miles, we were walking into the edge of town, where a nice Hostel sat, not 100 yards from the trail.  It was a rainy morning, but the forest was mostly just drippy as we hiked along.  We were able to score a private room, showered, and got ready to get some town food for lunch.  The rain had picked up quite a bit and the .5 or so walk to the restaurant, left us pretty drippy ourselves.  We ate some burgers and since it was Sunday, had to wait until noon to buy a beer, but it was very good.  

After lunch, we did our resupply at the Dollar General and Hillbilly Market to get ready for the next Push and then hung out on the porch talking to the multitude of hikers who had all come in to take cover.  The Hostel was completely full that night.  Bruno - aka Osprey G, came in late with a hurting back.  He had hurt it on the way down the mountain and was in quite a bit of pain.  This would be the last time we saw him on the trail.  Hopefully he rested a couple of days and continued on.

Rain filled sidewalk AT emblem in Hot Springs

One of the other hikers there was Low Gear.  I guy who's trail name sounded the same as LoGear's, but was spelled differently.  We would leap frog with him from time to time over the next couple of days.  I heard he got off trail not too long after to go visit his son, whom he was missing.  


Our next Push would be a really challenging one, that would test us to our limits.  From back issues, to dangerous weather that forced us to take all three bad weather routes that were offered along this Push.  It was the first time that a positive attitude would fail at making it all good.  

EarthTone and LoGear

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