2005 Father-Son backpacking trip, Great Smoky Mountain National Park, October 27-29
Steve's Tale (Also, see Craig's Tale)
One of the rare views of Fontana Lake from the trail
This year's 15th annual Father-Son outing was full of constant alterations in plans. It started with the timing of the hike itself, when we moved the dates to coincide with a weekend for easier scheduling of the many participants. Then came the proposed routes. Dad had selected two options, one along the Appalachian Trail, the other along Fontana Lake in North Carolina. We decided on the higher route to take advantage of changing Fall colors and expected sunny skies. Alas, when we called to get reservations for the shelters along the Appalachian Trail route, we found a critical one to be full. We mulled over the map, looking for a practical way to circumvent the shelter to no avail. So, the Lakeshore Trail became our route by default. Then came a last minute call from Jim notifying us that he wasn't going to be able to join our little party--he had been unable to overcome the knee trauma precipitated by last year's assault on the Smokies.
Our reduced party of four headed to the departure site, Fontana Marina, only to discover that our chosen campsite for the second night was closed due to bear activity. Another change in plans was required! At least this one was fairly minor, or so we thought until the long trudge of the final day. Another change was one of the trail itself. Our maps and the trail guide indicated one route for the western end of the Lakeshore Trail, but a newer book described a reroute of the trail. Unfortunately, no mileage notes were available, so we guessed at it based on the map--of course we were wrong, but only by some 40% or so! But, I get ahead of myself, so on to the story itself.
The Lakeshore Trail travels along the northern shore of Fontana Lake. OK, to be more accurate, it travels somewhere north of the lake, between the lake and the mountains. There is no "lakeshore" on the Lakeshore Trail. Anyway, we needed some method of getting to our starting point, it being too far a drive to leave a vehicle at either end. Given the presence of the lake, a boat shuttle was the obvious solution. Fontana Marina offers such a solution, so we headed there early Thursday morning. It was cold, breezy and still a bit dark on our arrival. A dense fog covered the lake. The good ol' boy at the marina and his cohort got quite a laugh out of our thoughts of crossing the length of the lake in the cold weather. We were a bit worried about that too, so while we waited for the boat to be fueled, we layered on every bit of available clothing to prepare for the frigid crossing. The boat was chosen for its speed, not comfort or protection from the elements--that boy just wanted to get us there and get back to his warm office. We loaded the packs in the bow, seated Dad in the passenger seat (privilege of age) and filled the bench seat in the stern with the rest of our well-insulated bodies. We gave our captain another good laugh when Craig asked about life jackets--only a laugh, no answer. Once out of the harbor, the fog thickened. Not to be troubled by such trivialities, our driver threw open the throttle, and we raced off into the blinding fog. After almost losing Dad's pack and almost missing our turn at the end and somehow missing the obstacles in the lake, we arrived at Forney Creek.
Dan and Craig inspect our "ferry" at Fontana Marina
At Forney Creek, a beautifully constructed bridge guides the trail across the river. After all the water crossings of the last two years' trips, we were excited to see such a bridge and took it immediately. Only problem was, we weren't suppose to go that way. Fortunately, a sign post a half mile in gave us pause to consider our actual location. This was a fortunate event, because we would later discover that signs are only located where they aren't needed along the Lakeshore Trail, and we needed this one! So, after a one mile warm-up, we were back at the start of our trail. Our first day's hike took us some nine miles to Kirkland Branch (campsite #76). Dan spotted a bear down in a valley that disappeared before I could get a look, but it provided some entertainment for everyone else. The hiking was good, and we arrived in camp early enough to wash, set up camp and have happy hour before dinner. Craig and Dan built a fine campfire, and we enjoyed solving the world's problems until it was late enough to hit the hay. Something large, presumably a bear, circled us for quite a while in the dark, but the expected bruin was never heard from after we went to bed.
Our second day on the trail brought us some nine and a half miles to Mill Branch (campsite #81). The day started without a trace of the fog that made the boat ride so exhilarating. The trail was a bit more hilly than the first section, but we made good time. The main event at lunch was "siesta time" when we hung our hammocks and took a pleasant break before polishing off the rest of the trail. Craig, in repeat of a maneuver he performed last year, managed to catch the laces of one boot on the hooks of the other and danced his way in tiny steps to a crash landing on the trail. No harm was done, but it exercised our sides for a while. The evening at Mill Branch was somewhat a repeat of the previous night, without the sounds of a prowler. We had to be a little more cautious hanging the hammocks due to an abundance of poison ivy at this site, and the trees being not quite as conveniently spaced. A walk to the second, more off-the-trail portion of the camp brought us views of the lake, something distinctly absent from the trail. Dan entertained us at breakfast when, while drinking from his water bottle, he found himself staring eye-to-eye with a spider. Water went everywhere, and, of course, we were all doubled over in laughter.
(Left) Craig takes a tumble (Right)Beautiful Eagle Creek, site of our closed campsite
Day three was our most grueling day. It was made longer by the closed campsite, the missing mileage on the map and the climbs. The weather was, again, beautiful, with sunny skies and temperatures that got into the sixties. The views of the lake were, again, nonexistent. This was wildlife day, with the spotting of a wild hog and seven bear. Lunch was briefer, in deference to the longer mileage (approximately 13.5 miles). Dad, eager not to let Craig show him up, took a spectacular rolling tumble on the trail after finding a boulder in the trail with the toes of both feet. Downhills were becoming a bit painful for me as my previously injured knee started to feel the cumulative effects of the trail. After much anticipation, the dam came into view, and we struggled along the last mile to the van.
We celebrated our trip with ice cream at the Fontana Village General Store, then Dad treated us to a screaming trip home along the Tail of the Dragon, an 11 mile strip of US-129 that averages over 30 curves a mile. The Tail of the Dragon has chewed up many motorcyclists over the years, but we made it!