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

 

 

5 Lessons Backpacking Taught Me

I discovered my love for camping about ten years ago. I camped for a week on Madeline Island (where I grew up) with some friends and was immediately hooked. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t been doing it all my life. But that was car camping, party camping. Sure, we were in the woods, but when you’ve got a car and all the gear it will hold with you, you’re not really roughing it.

When Lindsey and I decided to try our hand at backpacking, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Neither of us had done much long distance hiking, much less with 50+ pounds of gear on our backs. As we set out for our first trip, we had no idea how transforming an experience it would be!

I Don’t Need That Much Stuff. When I go car camping I take the whole damn house with me. Multiple outfits (just in case), all the food and booze I could possibly want, extra blankets and pillows, chairs; half the time I’m in an area with cell service, or at least I don’t have to drive far to reach it. Backpacking is a completely different ball game.

The first things I threw out were beauty and fashion. When you’ve got to carry everything in with you, how cute you’ll look in the pictures doesn’t seem to matter. I brought the essentials and nothing more, and I can’t tell you how liberating it is to be out in the wilderness, not giving a damn what you look like. My hair was a mess, my skin hadn’t seen its anti-aging regimen or a speck of makeup in days, I’d been wearing the same two outfits for 4 days, and I’d never felt better about myself.

The next thing I chose to live without was the booze. I originally thought, I’ll fill a camelpak with vodka. No, so unnecessary, and not very smart. The last thing you want to be in the back-country is without your wits. And finally I accepted that I wasn’t going to eat the most delicious meals for a couple days, but eat primarily for nutrients and energy. As it turns out, I don’t need booze or a large variety of foods to enjoy my camping experience. And it makes me appreciate a good, hot (fried cheese) meal and a (more like 3 or 4) glass of wine even more when I reemerge into civilization.

Backpacking truly teaches you what’s essential and what’s extraneous. The words, “I can’t live without my cell phone,” ring hollow and untrue. Instead you learn what you really can’t live without. Spoiler alert: it’s a short list.

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Solitude Isn’t Scary, It’s Soul-Cleansing. There’s so much noise in the world that we forget just how loud it is until we get away from it. We learn to tune out the passing cars, the distant sirens, the hum of the electrical lines, the barking dog, the lawnmower, the kids playing. It’s a part of the soundtrack of modern human existence, and it subconsciously reminds us we’re not alone, even when we’re by ourselves.

When you hike miles away from civilization, all that noise is gone, and you know you’re alone. You can sense it. And knowing you’re truly alone allows you to focus on yourself and your surroundings, to live in the present, to appreciate simplicity, and truly enjoy your own company.

Immersing yourself in nature is like hitting control-alt-delete on your mind. The hard drive; all your memories, remains intact. But it deletes your cookies and search history; all the worries, anxiety, and the negative voice inside your head that makes you doubt yourself, and compare yourself to others. It helps you to sort through all that clutter and get back to basics; remember what matters, let go of what doesn’t, and move forward with focus and clarity.

Victory

Backpacking is Empowering. When you hike into the woods with everything you need on your back, it gives you a sense of badassery. You are relying on yourself for everything. Every mile you hike, every meal you eat, every ounce of water you drink; it’s all you. You did that.

We rely on so many modern conveniences in our everyday lives that we forget just how capable we are of surviving without them. Realizing you can make it out in the wilderness on your own, feeling that connection with nature, and putting all that mileage behind you is a pretty awesome accomplishment, something to be proud of.

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Mother Nature Does It Better. Mankind has come a long way, and we’ve created some amazing things. But “things” are nothing compared to what Mother Nature has been up to since before human being even existed. I have yet to find anything man-made that has had such a powerful effect on me as standing atop the Grand Canyon or staring up at Mount Rainier.

No matter how many ancient wonders or advances in modern architecture I see, they don’t compare to the majesty that’s in the natural world. The mesmerizing sound of ocean waves crashing ashore, the peacefulness of the sun sinking down over the Grand Canyon, the sheer beauty of Mooney Falls . . . Mother Nature beats man 100% of the time.

Reflections

You Get the Privilege of Seeing Things Most People Don’t. I’m not saying places like Niagara Falls, or the Eiffel Tower aren’t amazing. Absolutely they are, but you’ll be one of thousands of people seeing that same thing, that same day. You’ll be taking the same selfie, shopping in the same gift shops, and dealing with even more commotion than usual. And now that it’s 2018, those tourist hot spots are filled with selfie stick wielding tourists who, from my experience, are a surefire way to make any trip less enjoyable (literally had to grab a woman’s selfie stick that she had tucked under her arm because she kept hitting me with it).

When you backpack, you’re seeing things only a dedicated few have ever laid eyes on, areas that are virtually untouched by man and time, and you’ll see it without all the noisy crowds and long lines of the more popular tourist destinations. You won’t pay obscene entrance fees (usually), you won’t spend a bunch of money on mass produced souvenirs, and you can take the time to really explore and absorb your surroundings.

Trying to take a picture of yourself holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa is fine (albeit overdone), but to stand on a fire lookout tower on a mountaintop, staring at the peak of Mount Rainier, with no one around for miles, no sound but the wind, is next level amazing. It’s nothing short of a great privilege.

Thanks for stopping by! Be sure to come back for LadycationSunday with a new blog post each week! And don’t forget to follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips and tales. Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

~Steph