2006 Father-Son Trip, Great Smoky Mountain National Park, October 22-24, 2006
Day one: Big Creek Campground to campsite #37 at Walnut Bottoms (5.3 miles). The hike follows Big Creek, with a nice little waterfall, Mouse Creek Falls, at mile 2.0.
Day two: Cosby Knob loop (10.1 miles). Big Creek Trail to Camel Gap Trail to the Appalachian Trail, then back down Low Gap Trail to campsite #37. Cosby Knob shelter provides a nice water and bathroom break.
Day three: Campsite #37 to Big Creek Campground via Swallow Fork Trail, Mount Sterling Ridge Trail and Baxter Creek Trail (12.1 miles). Wonderful views from the Mt. Sterling fire tower.
The 2006 Father-Son team (yes, that's the ubiquitous bear bell in Jim's hand!)
The planning for this year's Father-Son outing became almost comical, as bear problems in the Smokys caused one after another of our intended routes to be scrubbed. The inital route, planned casually over drinks on the picnic table at Granny's cottage seemed to offer the best of everything: streams, waterfalls, views, a good camp site, and a circular route. Then, sometime in late summer, the camp site was closed. After a hasty telephone conversation with Dad, he proposed an alternative route. That, too, got canceled as bear activity forced the closing of those camp sites. Craig proposed an alternate route from last year, taking us along the Appalachian trail and staying in shelters (clearly he didn't care about lack of sleep). Pretty soon, up came the bear warnings for those sites, but at least no closures. At the last moment, the original plan's sites opened up. As we would discover, it was a good thing we chose the more sheltered route.
This year we started by setting the mood with an invasion of Rick and Linda’s house to party and watch UT and Notre Dame both come out victorious. Sure is great having them in town these days. After the fun, we came back to the house to get the packs and the food ready for the big adventure. There was a careful weighing of the packs this year to make sure Jim Moyar didn’t win the prize for the most excess baggage again. This time they all weighed in at slightly over 30 pounds. Little did we know at the time, we would need everything in them to keep warm on the trail.
The next day the girls did their usual wonderful job of filling our tummies and fixing our first day's lunch before we hit the road to the far eastern side of the park and the trail head. Although it isn’t that many miles, it took us 2 1/2 hours to manipulate the curves and finally find the dirt one-lane road that came to Big Creek Campground. While everyone unloaded and made the last trip to a real bathroom, I realized that the place to register for our hike was back at the Ranger's Quarters we passed on the way in. With a short trip back, I made us legal and we hoisted our packs and finally got started.
Mouse Creek Falls, our first lunch site
The weather was warm and, although some rain was called for, the optimistic amigos headed out. We found a little waterfall on the way, where we decided to take our lunch break. As usual when you find a nice quiet spot, this was our first encounter with the red necks. We had the professional photographer that took her pictures holding her tripod off the side of the camera as a handle. We had the professional hiker that was combing his hair and eating tuna out of the can--BEAR BAIT! We were glad that he wasn't eating tuna at the campsite that we were going to stay at.
We had an uneventful trip to our campsite, where we found the usual sign posted warning about bear activity in this area--we have become accustomed to this over the years. After settling on the campsite we began to set up the hammocks. Jim had a new hammock set-up this year (Eagle's Nest) and we all had to check it out. After the camp was set up we began to gather the damp wood for the campfire. During this activity I came across our first live wildlife sighting. As I was dragging a rather large branch across the creek, I laid gracefully down in the creek and found myself eye to eye with a small brown snake about three foot long. He had the same thought that I had: "What are you doing here?" Thinking that he probably had more of a right to be here, and given the painful way I was laying, I decided to get up and continue my fire wood drag.
We've become quite accustomed to sharing our outings with bear
We pumped our water and as dinner was getting ready, Jim (the official Boy Scout) handled the fire starting. Let me set the scene for you: we had damp wood and some damp leaves to start the damp wood with. The official Boy Scout had spent quite some time prepping some fancy dry wood (he called it "fat wood") for a fire starter. Had he not left it in the van, it would have come in really handy right about now. After sending smoke signals to all of the critters in the mountains, we actually came up with a flame. Are you familiar with cold fire? It is a flame that you can see, but not really feel any heat from. That pretty much sets up the scene for the next night as well.
At about nine o'clock we headed for the hammocks. Some time that night I woke to sound of sleet hitting the tarp. I thought, "Darn." Then I thought about the firewood. Tomorrow's campfire didn't seem to have much hope. I dozed off again and was glad to hear that the sleet had stopped. I got up to use the bathroom. The reason that I could no longer hear the sleet was because it was snowing! I could just picture getting up in the morning to a couple of feet of snow. I had just been saying that I had never slept inside my sleeping bag because it was too hot. I slept inside my sleeping bag! Luckily we woke up to just flurries. Steve broke out the old thermometer, and it had gotten down to 30 degrees. We sent out smoke signals. Dad said that there was a bear in camp that night. We also found that a mouse had found that the bear bag we hung up was not sealed all the way. This was not Steve's fault! He enjoyed the trail mix, and we found that he recycled it quite quickly all over the inside of the bag.
The next day we started off with some more hyperventilation exercises to get the fire going after a little snow and sleet overnight. Then a warm breakfast and it was time to hit the trail. We did a 4.5 mile climb to the AT and then a little more climb on that trail and then came all the way back down in 2.5 miles for a good knee check. Both Steve and Jim reported no knee problems, so we were in good shape. I should modify that by saying having not hiked since July, I was not in good shape. I sounded like the "little engine that could", trying to go uphill. That evening was much like the previous one. We had a good warm meal and then huddled around a not quite sufficient fire waiting for bedtime. My only excitement that night was a loud and rapid flap, flap, flap noise coming from under my hammock shortly after I had fallen asleep. After the noise stopped and the "what the hell was that" thought got out of my sleepy head, I realized that I had lowered my tarp all the way down to the ground to keep the wind from blowing under my hammock and evidently a bat had chased a bug in the end and got trapped under there. Steve reported that the bear was back again and he thought it was three times, but it turned out the third time was Jim, who got a little disorientated getting up to relieve himself and wandered around the campsite trying to get back to bed. We all went to bed a little better prepared that night, so kept warm all night.
The next day we found the seal on the bear bag was still intact so no clean up to do. Thank goodness as it was only 25 out and trying to do anything without gloves was short lived at best. It was my turn to huff and puff that morning, as I was the first up. There was just enough of an ember left to coax some leaves to start, and I had a flame going by the time everyone else came out. After breakfast we pack up all our stuff and hit the trail again. There was some talk about whether we really wanted to climb 3000 feet just so we could come down 4400 feet on the other side or go out the way we came in. Never ones to pass up a challenge, we headed up hill. Part way up I was beginning to think that was a really dumb decision, but determination took over and on we climbed.
Lunch was a chilly affair when we arrived at the pass where the Swallow Fork Trail met the Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail
Today the high got up to 25 degrees. We got pictures of the icecicles hanging off the trees lying across the river. I think I can, I think I can...all the way to the top. Lunch was very hard on the hands. Trying to eat with gloves on was a mess and with the gloves off, the wind bit your skin. At the top we were rewarded with a view from a fire tower. The actual building on the top was frozen over so you couldn't see out the windows, but at the top of the stairs you could see for miles. There were some day hikers up at the tower that were freezing, because they didn't think that it would be that cold on the top of a mountain in October.
A beautiful view from the Mt. Sterling fire tower
On the way down the mountain I was just complimenting Dad on his fast controlled pace down the steep slope when he did the expected and took a dive. His sleeping pad went shooting out the side of his pack. I knew that he wouldn't let me down. Steve made it clear that I had let him down. He had his camera ready at all times for my fall and I never took it.
For some reason, maybe the many miles, we got out of the woods a little late. The Women folk did not let us down. Pizza and beer were waiting. Make sure that you don't mention to Granny about the whipping that Steve and I put on her and Dad the next night playing Schmear. The following evening, we got to enjoy a hayride that Mom and Dad put on for us at Cades cove. I was telling Steve that the deer in the cove are so use to people that I could probably walk up to one and just start gutting him with a knife. Wouldn't Dad be proud to come back to the van and see a deer strapped to the top? Well, we had a great trip and all had a good time. We will consider this a successful trip.