Great Smoky Mountains: Forging Rivers and (not) Charming Snakes

So far, I’d been having a fantastic time in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Our first wilderness Ladycation in almost a year was proving to be just what the doctor ordered. Fresh air, sunshine, and none of the distractions of normal life; I already felt more clear and relaxed than I had in months.img_8095

Lindsey was sleeping soundly when I got out of the tent to a warm, sunny morning in the wilderness. We only had about 4 miles of hiking to do that day, so I was in no hurry to wake my bestie and get moving. I used the couple hours of morning alone-time to journal and sort through some of the thoughts swirling through my mind, while I listened to the sounds of the waterfall, and the song of the birds.img_8108

Morning also brought a new backpacking experience for me. I had yet to dig a hole to poop in, but the bliss of that ignorance had come to an end. So here’s my assessment of pooping in a hole in the woods: it’s really not that bad, but it’s a pain in the ass (no pun intended). The actual act itself isn’t wholly unpleasant, it’s the digging that sucks. Just finding a spot to dig your hole can be a challenge. Leave No Trace requires you to dig 200 feet from any campsite, water source, or trail, so depending on the terrain this can be nearly impossible. Once you find a spot, the next hurdles are the roots and rocks you’re probably digging through. Suffice to say, don’t wait until you really have to go to start looking for a spot, or things could get a bit uncomfortable.

Once Lindsey woke up we ate some breakfast and began packing up camp. We didn’t anticipate the short distance would take that long. However, we hadn’t taken the many river crossings into consideration.img_7917

The first crossing came shortly after leaving the campsite. We switched from our hiking boots to our water shoes, waded through the cool water, then dried our feet, and put our boots back on. It was less than a quarter of a mile later that we came upon the next river crossing. Clearly, switching our shoes out that often wasn’t optimal. We changed into our water shoes one more time and decided to keep them on for the remainder of the hike.

The downside to hiking in water shoes was our lack of ankle support or traction. The trail and riverbeds were uneven, and riddled with rocks, dips and tree roots. Throughout the course of the day I rolled my ankle three times. The final time I rolled it, it made the most horrific, bubble-wrap-popping sound I’ve ever heard. Lindsey thought I’d stepped on and crushed a stick. I had to keep going. No one was going to come rescue me (although, I would’ve given anything for Ranger Blondie Buns to come walking out of the forest at that moment), so I womaned up, and we kept on moving.

I had been hiking in front of Lindsey for a while, totally in my own world, when I heard her behind me, “Oh hell no, what the fuck, Steph?! Did you see this thing? How did you not step on it?!” I turned around to see what she was freaking out about, and was alarmed to see a rather large, unmoving, but definitely scary looking snake right in the middle of the trail. Judging from the diamond-like pattern down his back, there’s a good chance it was a rattlesnake, but I didn’t get a closer look for fear of finding out the hard way that I was right. The fact that I somehow didn’t step on him is an absolute miracle. Lindsey gave him a wide berth as she passed, and we spent the rest of the hike hyper-conscious of the path before us.

img_8046Our next obstacle was a downed tree that was blocking the trail at one of the river crossings. We’d climbed over and around several trees that day already, but this was an old, tall, thick-trunked tree that was perched in such a way that we weren’t immediately sure how we were going to get past it. In hindsight, a simple solution would’ve been to just take off our packs and climb under, but that thought somehow never occurred to me (or maybe I was just too lazy to take my pack off). Instead, we decided to climb over. Both of us, balancing precariously, nearly face-planted into the ground from the weight of our packs pulling us down, but were grateful we didn’t since we landed right in the middle of a deep mud puddle. Covered in sweat, mud, scrapes and bruises, we were really starting to look like mountain-dwellers.

The final major river crossing of the day was a straight-up river forging. The swiftly moving water was waist deep, and very intimidating as we surveyed it from the bank. Before we set out to cross, we took a break for a snack and a smoke, and honestly to gather our courage.

Regardless of the low mileage in this hike, it was strenuous. So many ups and downs, and wading through rivers tends to use up more energy than hiking on more even, dry land. Add to that the fact that it was hot as balls out, and we were definitely running out of fuel quicker than we thought we would, on a hike that was taking significantly longer than we’d anticipated.

We stepped carefully into the river when it was time to cross. The current was powerful as we waded into deeper water and we were grateful (once again) for the extra stability our trekking poles provided. I have a feeling things would’ve gotten ugly if we hadn’t had them. I lost track of how many falls they prevented by the time the trip was over.

When the water reached our waists I was practically giggling with glee. It was so much fun! It felt incredible on our hot, sweat-sticky bodies, and the force of the waterfall trying to take us down gave us the adrenaline rush we love; just enough risk to be know we had to be careful, but not so much that we were paralyzed with fear.

This trail, though beautiful, didn’t have some of the advantages of the other trails we’ve traversed. There weren’t any sweeping views after leaving Clingman’s Dome, no massive volcano peaks, giant trees, rock formations, or ocean shores. But forging the river, and the plethora of waterfalls, gave this trek the unique characteristics that set it apart from your average hiking trail.

Once we emerged from the river we didn’t hike that far before coming to a bridge crossing that leads to campsite 70. The site was considerably larger than campsite 68, but far less aesthetically pleasing, and with a far more prominent critter population.img_8132

There were several separate areas for tents, all with their own fire pits. We chose a spot near the bear wire, where a makeshift table had been crafted from a downed tree. We set up our packs at the table, and put the tent in the shade of the trees near the riverbank.img_8126

The bugs were vicious. Mountains of mosquitoes, flocks of flies, boatloads of bees, and gnats galore were swarming everywhere. No amount of bug spray seemed to help, so it was time to get the fire going. This project was temporarily put on hold when we went to set up our tarp near the fire pit, and were greeted by a small, harmless, but totally snakey snake. He was only about a foot long, and was minding his own business, but he had to go. “Gray Worm,” as we chose to name him due to his color (and our affinity for Game of Thrones), had no desire to leave. We’d nudge him gently with sticks and he’d slither a few feet away, then coil right back up like, “Bitch, I live here. You leave.” If snakes had fingers, his middle one would’ve been extended for sure. It took some coaxing, but we were finally able to successfully evict him back to the forest, and were then able to get our fire roaring, and settle in for the night.img_8115

The lightening bugs didn’t have as much of a presence at the new campsite (basically the only bug that wasn’t there), but the fire was absolutely bitchin’. We stared at the stars as the light drained from the sky, and talked about how badly we’d needed this Ladycation. It felt so good to get a break from reality, a few days away from the chaos.img_8143

Lindsey went to bed early that night. As usual, I was not ready to hit the hay, so I stayed up and kept the fire blazing while I smoked, and admired the stars.

I kept hearing a scurrying sound behind me, and upon shining my light over the campsite, I saw a big, fat mouse darting around under the makeshift table. He took off once he saw my light, but he kept coming back, hoping he could find some dinner, and escape unseen.

I turned my light back on when I heard more movement near the table, this time it was an enormous frog. Or toad. I don’t really know the difference, honestly. But whichever he was, I wasn’t looking to hang out with him. He hopped away from the flashlight, but I saw at least a half dozen more before we left the site in the morning.img_8127

I started to get paranoid about all the creatures that could be lurking in the dark. I swore I heard something much larger rummaging around in the bushes in the adjacent campsite, but I never saw anything. I was a bit concerned it was a bear (or that Gray Worm had returned with his entire family, seeking revenge for our acquisition of their land). After a few minutes of trying to ignore the potential company, I decided to go just go to bed. My imagination was running wild, and whatever was going bump in the night wasn’t anything I wanted to come face to face with in the dark. Besides, the next day we’d embark on an eight mile trek up the mountain; I needed my rest.

Thanks for reading! I hope you’ll check out my other posts, and be sure to come back for Ladycation Sunday, with a new blog post every week! Follow Ladycations on WordPress, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips and tales. Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

~Steph

 

 

Back to Backpacking: Hiking the Great Smoky Mountains

It had been over 6 months since I’d strapped on my backpack and headed into the wilderness. The winter had left me yearning for green trees and wide open spaces. Seasonal depression is no joke. Add to that the loss of endorphins due to stress fractures bringing my running to a halt, and I was one giant snowfall away from a full-on meltdown.

I always go west when I travel. I just feel drawn to it. But there’s some pretty spectacular country east of Ohio, and most of it is only a day’s drive from home. With time and available funds being an issue, Lindsey and I decided we’d explore some of what the Eastern US has to offer.img_7776

I ultimately settled on Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I’d always heard Asheville, North Carolina was my kind of place: good food, near the mountains, full of hippies, lots of art, and a drum circle on Fridays. Yes, please. It’s less than an hour from the National Park, and seemed like the perfect place to recover from some mountain hiking. Before long I had our entire trip planned and booked.

Speaking of recovery, it had been a rough winter. . . My year of activity had taken its toll, and a series of athletic injuries had left me laid up for months. I was most definitely not in the same shape I’d been in the last time we’d trekked into the forest. I had gained some weight, and lost all the muscle I’d worked so hard to build. So though I was determined to hike in the mountains, I should’ve realized how much more of a challenge it would be this time around.Screenshot_2018-08-19 Backcountry Permit System - Great Smoky Mountains National Park (U S National Park Service)

The first two days of hiking I’d planned only totaled roughly eight miles, and were all downhill. We’d start at Clingman’s Dome and take the Forney Creek Trail to campsite 68 for the first night. Day two we’d hike to campsite 70. The third day was going to be the challenge: eight miles and almost 4000 feet of elevation gain, we’d trek all the way up Jonas Creek Trail, to the Welch Ridge Trail, until finally meeting up with the Appalachian Trail, and spending the night at Double Spring Gap Shelter. We’d take the AT back to Clingman’s Dome to complete the loop on day four, then drive to Asheville for a night before heading back home. I definitely overestimated my athletic prowess and backpacking readiness when planning this trip.img_7736

Unlike our previous Ladycations, we were road trippin’ it this time! We met at my house on a Wednesday after work, loaded our packs into Mary Jane, my trusty VW wagon, and hit the road.

Since we didn’t get on the road until after 5:30, we had reservations at a cheap motel just outside Lexington, Kentucky for the night. Finding cheap motels in Kentucky is like finding corn in Nebraska. They’re everywhere, and for $56 a night, I was impressed. The Quality Inn in Berea, Kentucky was clean, quiet, with comfortable beds, and a limited, but decent continental breakfast. I will, however, say that the guy working night shift behind the desk was creepy as hell. He was most definitely on drugs and potentially a serial killer, with a stare that, when directed at me, I can only describe as feeling like I’d been visually licked. I dead-bolted the door that night.

We set out the next morning and drove to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The forecast had been predicting rain, but the sun was shining down through puffy, white clouds on an absolutely perfect day. We walked around the observation area, admiring the brilliant green of the forest covered mountains, and I could feel my spirit start to lift.img_7787

We headed towards our destination for night one: Campsite 68. It was only a few miles, and all downhill, but once we’d gotten past the first half mile of well maintained, gradual, man-made steps, things got a little trickier.

The trail winds back and forth across Forney Creek and was riddled with rocks and tree roots. We hiked more slowly than usual, using extra care so as not to roll an ankle or face-plant into the dirt when a root caught one of our feet. Every so often the creek would cross the trail, making the uneven path wet and slippery. Despite my best efforts my clumsiness kicked in, and I bit it while crossing a particularly slick spot. I went down on my side, my pack slowing the crash. Apart from the bruise to my ego, I was unharmed, and we were able to laugh at my mud-covered self and keep going.img_8239-1

I’d read that we would encounter over a dozen river crossings throughout this trip, and as we’d crossed over slippery, but not particularly “rivery,” points I wondered if that’s all we’d come across. Shortly thereafter we came upon a legit river crossing, where the trail ended at the riverbank and picked back up on the other side. We took a break and had a snack as we assessed the situation and plotted our course. Once we were ready, we changed into our water shoes and stepped into the river.img_8043

The water was cool and refressing, moving fast and ferociously as it cascaded down a series of waterfalls that didn’t seem to have a beginning or an end. I could feel the knee-deep water pushing against me, and we were cautious about maintaining our footing. Had we slipped it would’ve been nearly impossible not to get injured in the fall. Knowing that one misstep would mean certain disaster, and feeling the might of Mother Nature as we fought against the current was such a rush. We’d been nervous when we began, now we’d realized that what had given us apprehension turned out to be the most fun part of the hike. Just another example of why ignorance is not necessarily bliss.

 

We reached Campsite 68 by early evening and were absolutely blown away when we arrived. Though the name is a bit lacking in pizzazz, the site itself was incredible. It’s a beautifully shaded site nestled in the trees, and right on the riverbank. There are several spots for tents, a central fire pit, and a waterfall that rolls effortlessly down polished stone like Mother Nature’s water slide. The sound of the water flowing down the smooth, flat rock, and crashing into the boulders below was indescribably soothing. As an added bonus, the entire fire pit was filled with firewood. Home sweet home!

 

We set up camp and did some yoga stretches before Lindsey decided to meditate for a while, and I started to get our campfire going. Though we’d had a perfect, sunshiny day, it had definitely rained recently (which also accounted for the river being so high). All the wood was wet which made getting it burning a challenge, but eventually I had that bad boy roaring. There’s something about starting a fire that feels good on a primal level. It’s like the caveman instinct that tells us, “fire good, fire life,” is still hiding in a corner of my psyche.

 

We ate our dinner around the fire as the sun went down and the shadows crept in. When darkness descended, the light show began. With the stars shining brightly through the treetops, the forest itself lit up with hundreds of lightening bugs. I mean, they were everywhere. It was so spectacular that we just sat there for hours watching the whole world sparkle all around us.img_7997

Unlike when we hiked in Washington and had to pile on layer after layer at night to stay warm, the temperature never dipped below 65 degrees that night. Though we didn’t need the fire for warmth, the bugs were eating us alive when we weren’t near it. Next to the fire there were no bugs, but I felt like I was melting. One of the benefits of the seclusion that comes with camping in the backcountry is the lack of dress code. As I discussed in a previous post, I love being naked in nature. There aren’t too many feelings as liberating or humbling as standing stark naked before the stars, surrounded by the trees and all of Mother Nature’s other creations; unified in a state of natural, bare vulnerability. So, since I knew Lindsey wouldn’t care about seeing my boobs, I ditched my shirt and sports bra, and let the cool night breeze and the warmth of the fire kiss my naked flesh. It was the perfect combination of sensations.

Eventually I put my shirt back on and we settled in next to the fire. We stayed up late, or rather Lindsey stayed up later than usual, talking and alternating between watching the lightening bug show, the blanket of twinkling stars, and just being mesmerized by the flames dancing in the fire. We were consumed with our surroundings, acutely aware of every sound, every movement in the forest, every crackle and pop of the fire. I felt so present, so grounded and serene. It was everything I’d been craving throughout the long, Cleveland winter.img_8223

Lindsey ultimately called it a night around 1am, and I followed not long after. We’d had as perfect a day as we could’ve imagined, and went to bed with the sense of tranquility, clarity, and strength that we’ve come to expect from our outdoor adventures. It’s like immersing yourself in the loving embrace of Mother Nature’s arms. And who doesn’t feel great after a hug from Mom?

I was also pleased to discover that I don’t have to fly to far away places to get my nature on. I could hit the road in the morning and be in the mountains by dinner time. Knowing such a beautiful place for my forest therapy is always within reach provided a sense of relief. Like, Well, if I approach a nervous breakdown, I can flee to the woods on one tank of gas and be sleeping on a mountain within hours.  Ohio may not have much by way of serious backpacking opportunities, but it isn’t as out of reach as one might think. That’s good information to have.

 

Thanks for reading! I really appreciate you taking time out of your day to take this journey with me. I’d love to hear your comments! And don’t forget to come back for LadycationSunday to read all about the next chapter in Lindsey and I’s Great Smoky Mountain Ladycation Adventure!

Check me out on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, and make sure you follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips and tales. Stay chill and keep hiking my friends!

~Steph