The five of us rise early and drive to Wolf Creek Grocery and Gas Station four miles up the highway in Stecoah for a hearty breakfast of homemade waffles, bacon, hashbrowns, biscuits and gravy — delicious carbs and fat to help power us up Shuckstack Mountain. Susan and Allen drive Clarence, Mary, and me to Fontana Dam just six miles from The Hike Inn, take our picture, and even walk a short way with us over the dam, past the park boundary, up the road, and onto the trail proper. Once we put a little distance between us and the rush of early morning excitement, the calm forest enveloping trail and mountain settles us into an easy, swinging rhythm of footsteps and trekking poles accompanied by bird song.
When I first began contemplating a park AT “thru-hike” two years ago, it was this section, Fontana to Mollies Ridge, that nearly dissuaded me. The 2,700-foot climb looks formidable in profile covering 10.7 miles. The water sources are usually noted as unreliable. Add a weighty backpack fully loaded with food and water, and you have the potential for an hellacious day. I remain nervous and skeptical about this first day despite numerous backpacking experiences that prove my abilities, and perhaps this is best. Since things are rarely as bad as we fear, they can often wind up seeming quite easy in comparison. Such is the case here. I anticipate hardships that never develop, and in place of this imagined misery, I find a smooth, comfortable trail that appears to coast along level ridges as much as it ascends.
Clarence and I are both amazed at the excellent condition of the trail. Few rocks or roots interrupt the path, and those that do create steps that facilitate rather than hinder progress. Flat sections and a few gentle descents allow us to catch our breath and even pick up the pace. Downed logs seem strategically positioned for periodic snack breaks.
The AT is something of a super highway. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy estimates two to three million people hike some portion of the AT each year. In 2011, 1,700 optimists started from Springer Mountain in Georgia, most with the intent to hike to Maine in one or multiple years. Half that number made it midway to Harpers Ferry, WV, and half of these arrived at Katahdin, ME, by year’s end to become official “2,000-milers.” Add Southbounders hiking the trail in reverse, section hikers like us, and the park’s usual complement of visitors, and the AT in the Smokies receives a tremendous amount of foot traffic. ATC volunteers help maintain all 2,180 miles of trail including shelters and campsites. We can attest to the beautiful results of their hard work.
The day begins cloudy and dull, but nature can’t help smiling on our adventure. The sun burns through the clouds and delivers a bright afternoon of dappled rays lightening the forest interior and our moods. Who could be sour on such a glorious May day in such beautiful mountains along such an iconic trail?
Two miles in we come to a jumble of boulders featuring a throne-shaped rock. It is mentioned in David “Awol” Miller’s The A.T. Guide. Clarence copied the park’s trail pages from this book for us to consult. We will see this book in the hands of many thru-hikers in the coming days. It provides a running elevation profile of the trail noting any unique features or sites, such as gaps, springs, knobs, trail junctions, shelters, etc. The level of detail regarding trail amenities (privies, shelter size, campsites, camera-worthy views) and local towns (motels, stores, showers) makes it worth the weight in any hiker’s pack.
We stop for lunch at the Shuckstack Fire Tower side trail, which heads straight due east. The AT continues down to the left. After eating, Clarence and I walk up to the summit where the full chimney and cistern from the caretaker’s cabin snuggle at the base of the tower. I’m the only one interested in climbing it. I’ve never been to the top of a fire tower and am eager to do so. The only disconcerting part is transitioning into and out of the cab. For this, my hands, knees, and butt are indispensable. The floor is a small concern too. Slabs of old plywood appear to cover rotting boards. The footing is solid, however, and the 360-degree view is well worth the trepidation.
Back on the AT, we pass Sassafras Gap and the park trails (Twentymile and Lost Cove) that are part of the Benton MacKaye Trail, which also originates at Springer Mountain, GA, and covers a string of park trails on the North Carolina side to BMT’s conclusion at Davenport Gap. Further up is Birch Spring Gap followed by a climb to Doe Knob and the Gregory Bald Trail junction. We pause briefly, and Clarence directs me to slowly remove my cap. For some time, a Robber Fly has been hitching a ride while dining on a Crane Fly. I snap a picture before it takes off, Crane Fly in tow. From here, we descend to Ekaneetlee Gap, the lowest point of the Smokies crest, described as one of the few places along the crest where Tulip Poplars are found.
Herbaceous wildflowers are enjoying this glorious day too. Rattlesnake Hawkweed, Yellow Stargrass, Summer Bluets, Four-leaved Milkweed, Yellow Pimpernel (Taenidia intergerrima), Yellow Wood-sorrel, Fire Pink, and a few stragglers from earlier in the season — Wild Geranium and Purple Phacelia — lift their brightly colored faces skyward. White Milkweed (Asclepias variegata), also known as Variegated Milkweed and more descriptively as Redring Milkweed, is a beautiful plant with spherical clusters of closely packed, white flowers each encircled by a purplish red ring at the base of the floral crown above the reflexed corolla lobes.
Mountain Laurel flowers join Deerberry, Blackberry, and eye-catching clusters of Flame Azalea. Hydrangea shrubs are in bud. Marginal Woodfern and the lovely blue-purple flowers of Zig-zag Spiderwort (Tradescantia subaspera) are scattered all along the trail. A dense mass of deep blue hairs on the filaments of Spiderworts’ stamens set off bright yellow anthers. Along the ridges, we see Cinnamon Fern, Catesby’s Trillium, and Showy Skullcap (Scutellaria serrata).
As we near the end, we pass a couple from Michigan that we would later get to know. Selfishly, I want to get in front to secure good spots in the shelter. Just after overtaking them, a bug flies down my throat. I cough a bit to dislodge it and drink water, but it only gets stuck deeper. My coughs turn to gags. The couple stop in alarm as I turn red-faced and struggle to breathe. Clarence begins to think he’ll have to perform the Heimlich maneuver on me. The bug finally gives up, and I calm down. We manage to stay in front of the other hikers, but Karma lets me know my actions are not appreciated.
To complicate things a bit more, my one tactical mistake of the day is to forego a mid-afternoon snack, a decision that comes back to haunt me on our final 1.5 mile climb to the shelter. My energy flags significantly, and despite a quick bite, it is too little too late. The effects don’t kick in until we reach the shelter. This one bump aside, though, I am thrilled with my performance. I have dominated a section of the AT that until today had terrified me!
Mollies Ridge Shelter is a long and low rectangular stone building at the edge of a flat open space. The covered cooking area with benches and prep boards is attached to the side of the shelter, leaving the sleeping section wide open and quite exposed. There is no privy. A short shovel rests against an outer wall, ready to accompany guests down slope to the designated “toilet area.” The shelter’s spring is flowing well enough to provide everyone with ample water.
Neither the upper nor lower sleeping platforms have much head room. Clarence and Mary prefer the bottom to avoid bonking noggins, and I acquiesce, putting aside a definite prejudice against this location. I hate the fine sift of grit that showers down all night long from the muddy, dusty gear of those currently and previously above. Yuck!
It is late afternoon, and thru-hikers are arriving for the night. There’s an older man from Atlanta, “Spirit Walker,” who has washed clothes in a plastic bag (his “Maytag”) and strung them along the inside wall. A young college student studying environmental science records copious journal notes. He arrived just ahead of us and saw a mother bear and cub a short distance from the shelter. The Michigan couple show up , “Drifter” and “Strutter,” and they saw the same mother bear and cub just behind us!! A 71 year old man, “Froggy Pete,” is making his second journey on the AT, having completed it in his early 60’s.
As twilight gathers, a final group of five hikers, two couples and a solo man, show up. They also saw the bears that eluded us earlier. Tents go up around the shelter, and everyone settles down to long night’s sleep.