This morning, Clarence taps me on the shoulder and points out the right side of the shelter. The sun is rising behind the mountains, and the eastern horizon is suffused with soft pink shading into the palest robin’s egg blue. Snuggled deep in my sleeping bag, it is easy to smile and appreciate the beauty until the reality of getting up sinks in. It is FREEZING out here, and the thought of unzipping this bag is very unappealing. I kept my hiking clothes inside the bag with me overnight, so they’d be warm. Dressing inside a sleeping bag is challenging and quite humorous, but enough gets done to minimize exposure, making it worth the effort.
We eat breakfast, pack gear, write an entry in the shelter log book, and prepare for our return trip via the AT, Bote Mountain, and Anthony Creek. By the time we start, the clear skies have become cloudy. Rain is predicted tonight, and we waste no time lingering on the AT. Clarence, Mary, another friend Michelle, and I plan to hike the Appalachian Trail through the park later this year. This particular section trends upward over 1,000 feet in elevation past Spence Field to Thunderhead Mountain. We will turn down Bote Mountain Trail just beyond the Eagle Creek junction, a distance of approximately three miles from Russell. Along the way, we find two very large and very hairy clumps of coyote scat. One appears to contain the complete tip of a squirrel’s tail. Maybe that is what they were whining about last night!
Clarence and I take a brief detour down Eagle Creek to the Spence Field Shelter. Our AT plans include a stay here, and we want to check it out. It is OK, but there’s no comparison to Russell Field. Back on the AT, Bote Mountain is hardly a stone’s throw away. I stop to photograph the sign and take a look down the trail. Oh, man! It’s a leg-breaking jumble of small, large, and huge rocks with little to no dirt in sight. Clarence and I mutter a few unprintable words and get going. About a tenth of a mile down is a small spring dribbling from a length of white PVC piping. The water flows across the trail and creates a slick patch of ice requiring careful steps. There are a few such springs with icy patches, none large enough to pose problems though. You can hear and see water gurgling under the top coating of ice. After the first spring, the trail smooths out considerably. However, this characteristic comes and goes on the upper reaches of Bote Mountain. As soon as you appear to be home free, the rocks return, but thankfully not the intimidating obstacle course first encountered.
Parts of the trail are deeply eroded. In some areas, these trenched sections are smoothed over with a bright green carpet of soft moss. In other areas, the soil is bare and raw with dangling, exposed roots. Rhododendron tunnels are common along this stretch.
According to the Little Brown Book, Bote Mountain Trail follows a roadway first built in the 1850s by Cherokee laborers for Dr. Issac Anderson of Maryville College as part of a route to the ridge and state line. The Civilian Conservation Corps improved the first 5.5 miles to a wide turnaround, and the road was sometimes used to access Spence Field as late as the 1960s.
Clarence and I stop at the turnaround for lunch, resting on a large pile of gravel. The clouds have departed, and the sun is shining brightly in a clear sky once more. Anthony Creek is a quick 0.3 mile away. I hiked parts of Bote Mountain on two previous occasions, covering everything up to the Anthony Creek junction. With these upper 1.7 miles complete, I can now officially check Bote Mountain off the list.
Anthony Creek is a steady and easy descent for about 2.5 miles of its 3.6 mile length before flattening out at the bottom marking a total elevation change of 1800 feet. Within in the first mile is Campsite #9, located in a fairly wide valley with an open understory. The sun’s winter angle slices through the bare trees throwing long, cool shadows across the warm, brown forest floor, uninterrupted except for an occasional evergreen fern.
One of the best advantages of winter is the ability to readily see the actual lay of the land. Subtle undulations, clandestine crevices, slopes both steep and gentle are easily discerned, even while driving the park’s roads. The larger forest ecology is on display as downed trees scattered like pick-up-sticks emphasize the cyclical flow, both in nutrients and time, of a patient and conservation-minded nature. Remnants of last year’s fullness, the promise of a new generation in the germ of a seed, can be found still clinging to bare branches or blown to the ground.
Anthony Creek is not too rocky, it is fairly easy to watch your step and work your way around them, but rocky enough to require vigilance and prevent full enjoyment of the surroundings. While I’m watching for rocks, Clarence spots the approaching park residents first. Three deer are walking toward us up the trail. They stop to observe us for a brief moment. We return their gaze. The first one steps off the trail, and the others follow, trotting quickly past us on the left.
Periodically, we spot large rocks in the ground with one or more bored holes in them. Clarence and I speculate the origin and purpose of these holes — pre-park industry such as logging? Markers or guide posts? It’s a mystery for sure. As we near the picnic area, the vigorous green of tall, healthy Eastern Hemlocks is a pleasant sight.
We shed our packs at Clarence’s truck around 3:00 p.m., completing a little over eight miles for the day.