I am calling out Bob “Sir-Packs-Alot” Gabrielsen. During his “How to Successfully Thru-hike the Appalachian Trail” speech way back at the Top of Georgia Hostel, he stated that on a difficulty scale of 1-10, the northern Georgia mountains were a 4, the southern North Carolina mountains were a 6, and the climb out from Fontana Dam was a 10. He may have over 7,000 trail miles, and it might have seemed like a 10 to him at the time, but that is simply not the case. A.T. hikers don’t need that kind of exaggeration, so I’m calling Shenanigans! It was actually only a 7.
We ended up getting a later start than we wanted because breakfast wasn’t served until 8:00 am and the shuttle didn’t start until 8:30 am. But after a nice, hot meal, we piled into the van like clowns in a mini car and started our adventure. Sadly, CCOTT decided to take a zero day (the Lodge is gorgeous, so who can blame them), so I’m not sure when I will see them again.
The A.T. actually crosses the top of Fontana Dam, which is a pretty cool experience. Completed in 1944, Fontana Dam is the highest Dam east of the Rocky Mountains, and it is dizzying to look over the railing to the bottom. More importantly, it is probably the only flat section of the A.T. that we will ever see, so we enjoyed the easy walk while it lasted. Most of the gang had exited (and subsequently returned to) the trail yesterday at the NC 28 crossing, so it was just Mandrake, Rock Hopper, a me walking from the visitor’s center.
As soon as we had crossed the dam, we came to the sign announcing the entrance to Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GSMNP). We road walked for about a mile before we came to the box where we deposited our park permits, and started climbing.
The highlight of the day came after a little over two hours of climbing from 1,700 feet to the Shuckstack fire tower at 3,889 feet. Although it was overcast, we luckily remained below the clouds and had a magnificent view when we climbed the top of the tower. If you look closely at the featured picture, the fire tower is located on the middle peak. The picture below is looking back towards where the featured picture was taken.
The remainder of the day was spent either climbing steep hills or descending steep hills. The highest altitude of the day was 4,775 feet at Devils Tater Patch where I neither saw taters, nor met the devil. Along the way, I came across a really unusual old tree, and after checking it throughly for snakes, decided to become the old man in the tree.
We also encountered our first (at least for me) Ridgerunner. Ridgerunners are paid employees of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy who are out here to educate and assist hikers. Today’s education was to let us know that there had been some reports of hikers with stomach bugs, and to give us instructions on proper hygiene techniques to prevent such occurrences. In addition, he was checking to make sure that we hadn’t had any issues with the permitting process.
After a solid eight hours of walking, we finally arrived at the Russell Field Shelter, our destination for the day. GSMNP regulations require thru-hikers to sleep in the shelter if space is available, but that wasn’t an issue today. Since it is the weekend, the shelter is packed with day hikers, and there are at least a dozen tents setup in the area.
I met a man here that is with his son and his father. Beginning when the son was in the eighth grade, they have taken time to section hike the A.T. together during spring break. They started at Springer Mountain and have continued northbound throughout the years. Now how cool of a family tradition is that?
The wind is howling outside at around 35 mph. In my tent, it sounds like a hurricane, so sleeping is going to be difficult. The gang is all here, even those that started at NC 28. I received a text message from Cotton (the hiker from Pensacola that started a week before me) saying that he is at the Derrick Knob Shelter, which is only nine miles ahead. Maybe I can catch up to him in Gatlinburg.