Camping in winter is something I never imagined doing. Who in their right mind would willingly embrace a winter’s night outdoors? Clarence first raised the idea of a January trip in 2010. Many things that had once been unimaginable were quickly becoming comfortable, even common experiences, and I should never say never. In 2011, I increased my outdoor experience in the backcountry, which included some fairly chilly evenings, and acquired more cold weather gear. Absent winter storms or subzero conditions, I’m now ready to test my mettle. Clarence and I map out an overnight at the Russell Field Shelter in late January.
This season has been remarkably mild, as if Old Man Winter simply wore himself out last year and needs a break. Just a few nights have dipped well below freezing. Folks in Memphis, TN, have dubbed the month June-uary. Now Memphis and Nashville are no reliable indication of the Southern Appalachians’ higher elevations, but the National Weather Service reports from the park, at LeConte, Newfound Gap, Oconaluftee, Cades Cove, and Sugarlands, have not dropped much below the rest of the state’s temperatures.
The first 1.6 miles of Anthony Creek Trail are easy walking past the horse camp and over Anthony Creek on some fine bridges. At the intersection with Russell Field Trail, both paths become steeper in their divergent climbs toward the Smokies crest. Russell Field rises 2,000 feet over the next 3.5 miles. There are a couple of sections where the trail moderates, but given the steepness of the first two miles and the weight of my pack, I hardly notice the relief. I’m breathing heavy and sweating. Clarence shows nary a sign of struggle. When questioned, he can’t resist the brag/dig, “I’m fit.” He then discourses at length on the body as a tuned engine (or one in need of tuning) until I’m ready to heave a rock at him. He doesn’t buy the argument that I’m carrying much more external weight, percentage wise, than he is – perhaps close to a third of my body weight. My sweating indicates my “engine” is having to work too hard, and I need to get in better shape. He should thank heaven I don’t feel like stooping to pick up a rock, or we’d see how well his finely tuned engine can execute a sudden evasive maneuver.
There is varied evidence of recent bear activity along the trail. We see a muddy print that could easily belong to a yearling. The bark of a dead or dying tree has been roughly torn away in places. A little further up the trail, the ground under an American Holly tree is littered with downed leaves and twig tips, and its trunk shows claw marks. This area, containing a grove of hollies, looks like prime bear habitat.
Not all visual attractions are green. Shiny, round Galax leaves are rich maroon; many lichens are pale, dusty sage; and a suspected Turkey Tails fungus is a beautiful, softly grayed blue. The skeletal remains of herbaceous plants can be of interest too. Round, tan seed pods of Rattlesnake Plantain are split open along suture lines. In many shaded places, water oozing from the earth forms large, flat clusters of dense white ice needles two to three inches tall and dusted with a coating of dirt lifted from the ground.
We walk past Campsite #10, a small place with one rather wet and one drier site, and work our way up Leadbetter Ridge. Several times the top appears tantalizingly close only to have the trail continue upward. At last, we hit the ridge line of oaks and pines for a bit of a breather, before pushing on to Russell Field. Taking a short worn path off trail to the left, we find the well maintained, grass clearing maybe 40 yards square, representative of open fields or balds used by settlers to pasture cattle in summer. To the left is another open area with a few large trees. To the right is a smaller clearing with smaller trees and a second path leading back to the main trail. Without regular maintenance, these grassy balds would likely revert fairly quickly to forest unless lightening fires or other natural phenomenon intervened to preserve the open spaces.
The trail dips down for a bit and swings past a deeply shaded spring to the right that supplies backpackers at the shelter. Water on the ground is solidly frozen in places, but the spring itself is flowing freely. The steep, final approach is terraced into steps, and the shelter’s silhouette on the ridge line is a lovely sight. We arrive mid-afternoon with plenty of daylight to relax and explore.
The shelter sits right next to the Appalachian Trail within a delightfully open woodland that must be maintained to keep brambles from taking over. Behind the shelter is more open woodland heading in the direction of Pole Knob. Limited views north and south can be teased between tree trunks this time of year. Those tree trunks are liberally adorned with a dizzying variety of lichens, mosses, and liverworts. One maroon liverwort, Frullania sp., occurs in small but dense patches on most trees. I long for my macro camera lens and tripod.
The shelter itself is simply beautiful. Recently renovated, there are more benches, a new roof, and a crystal clear skylight. Horse hitches are a short distance in front of the shelter. Someone hung a white tarp over half the opening as a wind break. Clarence and I set our sleeping pads and bags on the upper level behind this screen. He goes to the spring for water while I watch our belongings and prepare for dinner. The sun has felt good all day countering a slight breeze, but as the rays get weaker and more distant, light winds from the west get the upper hand and drive me behind the shelter’s walls for protection. I will need my winter coat until bedtime. No one else shows up, and I bore Clarence into a stupor reciting poems.
The night sky is black and full of brilliant stars; the waxing quarter moon shines brightly through the skylight. The winds stay light, blowing mainly against the back of the shelter. Occasionally the tarp puffs taut then relaxes making a soft crinkling sound. We hear coyotes whining like puppies in the distance. I get up once for a bathroom run and manage to back my bare behind into one of the few brambles left standing. It is cold, perhaps mid to low 20s, but my down sleeping bag, Polartec base layers, and merino wool socks keep me warm all night.