An infuriating discovery awaits me. Mice chewed my backpack overnight. The drawcord enclosure on the pack extension is riddled with holes, and one section is missing completely. Fortunately, it does not affect the pack’s function and is repairable. This is my only stroke of bad luck, but I’m still ticked. Pesky little rodents!
It’s another short day, and the only drawback is the persistent blanket of clouds draped over the mountains. Despite an early prospect of some sun today, views remain mostly elusive behind a blank, foggy mask. Temperatures are mild.
The trail takes us on a mini roller coaster ride from Pecks Corner at 5,500 feet, up and down Eagle Rocks at 5,800 feet, up and over Mt. Sequoyah at 6,000 feet, and up and around Mt. Chapman’s flank at 6,200 feet, cruising into Tricorner Knob at 5,900 feet in 5.2 miles. The trail itself is relatively smooth, easy walking and familiar too. Mary, Clarence, and I hiked this stretch in August of 2010 on my first multi-night backpacking trip.
It is difficult to imagine just a century ago this part of the park was considered such rough wilderness that few people, including the Cherokee, ever ventured here. To either side of the crest is a large, deep gulf of rugged landscape without a single trail — the Raven Fork and Straight Fork drainages between Balsam Mountain and Hughes Ridge in North Carolina and the Eagle Rocks, Chapman, Buck and Ramsey drainages between Woolly Tops Mountain and Pinnacle Lead in Tennessee. The Appalachian Trail was the first established route opened through this area in the 1930s and remains the only one.
The Porters Creek and Bradley Fork drainages passed yesterday are no different. For a fun account of two men hiking from Lufty Gap (near Newfound Gap) to Mt. Guyot, read Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders, chapter three “The Great Smoky Mountains.” How they would have appreciated the trail work done by AT volunteers!
The vista we enjoyed from Eagle Rocks cliff in 2010 is shrouded from view today. Everything appears muted and dull in the cool mist. The trek over Mt. Sequoyah (named for the inventor of the Cherokee alphabet) and Mt. Chapman (Col. David C. Chapman) is uneventful. Chapman wasn’t just another park supporter. He was a mover and shaker with connections who knew how to get things done, making some fierce enemies along the way.
At this point, we are cruising over 6,000 feet through Spruce/Fir forests. The forest floor in this community is dark and spongy with moldering conifer twigs and needles. Not much grows in the acidic soil and meager light, but vigorous clumps of Mountain Wood Fern and large patches of Bluebead Lily’s broad foliage rosettes have found a way to thrive in these conditions and enliven the drab litter layer.
In a more open location, there is a single Erect Trillium still in flower, though clearly its best days are behind it. Not so with Rosy Twisted-Stalk (Streptopus lanceolatus), it is at the height of loveliness. A member of the Lily Family, this rare plant has one or two pink bells striped a darker rose dangling from each leaf joint. Leaves are fringed with little hairs and alternate along a zigzagged stem.
Just before we get to Tricorner Knob, light rain begins to fall. A quickened pace gets us to the shelter without the need to stop for pack covers or unfurl umbrellas. Speeding up the shelter’s side trail, I hear loud, high “peep,” “peep,” “peep” sounds from the vegetation. Frogs?? Up here?? Yes. There are 10 frog species that are or could be found within the park. Most are primarily low elevation on the western end in Tennessee, particularly around Cades Cove. One species, however, Northern Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) is found throughout the park and loves to sing in the rain.
In front of the shelter to the right, the ground drops away in a shallow ‘V’ carrying spring water downslope that eventually feeds into Left Fork of Raven Fork. A mass of Cutleaf Coneflower plants fills the notched slope and provides excellent cover for what sounds like a sizable population of these tiny frogs. This is definitely Spring Peeper weather. The light shower morphs into a heavier rain that comes and goes all afternoon and into the evening. As the shelter fills with occupants, our amphibian neighbors strike up their call-and-response chorus to serenade us regularly, even in the middle of the night.
A short distance north of the shelter is Tricorner Knob, the eleventh highest peak in the park; so named by Guyot for the triangular junction of Balsam Mountain to the Smokies crest. It also marks the junction of North Carolina’s Swain and Haywood Counties with Tennessee’s Sevier County.
The shelter has gotten a new privy since our 2010 visit. This one is handicapped accessible. At first I laughed at the irony of government adherence to ADA run amok, but on further reflection, Balsam Mountain Trail is one of the easier trails in the park, and horses are allowed at Tricorner. It is quite possible for a disabled person to reach this shelter. The stairs and narrow confines of the other privies are limiting, and this version is level and roomy. Now getting from the shelter to the privy might be a bit rough, but it’s doable.
Last time we stayed here, the shelter was overflowing with a trail crew. Today, we have another full house. Seventeen people are in the shelter, one in a hammock just outside, and four more camped nearby. A few are AT thru-hikers, but most are simply out to enjoy the Smokies.
Observing fellow hikers can be instructive. There is no one way to do things out here. Different methods of cooking or packing, food and clothing choices, attitudes toward the end goal, and dynamics of various personalities make for some entertaining (and irritating) moments. That said, I’m finding that most people fit into one of a handful of ‘types’. Thru-hikers are, of course, a separate breed, but those we met in March on our practice hike seemed more prepared and determined than these May hikers, who are a somewhat motley crew with a looser approach.
Smokies hikers run the gamut — old, young, experienced, clueless. Tonight, we have quite a few in the clueless category. The prize must go to two young men overnighting in the park. Never dawned on them it would be cooler at higher elevations, hiking up in shorts in the rain. With no sleeping pads, their thin sleeping bags do nothing to soften or warm the wood platform. However, they maintain cheerful attitudes. Mary mothers them.
A group of teenage boys with two older male leaders shows up, who we suspect may not have made reservations. Supposedly, the two men lead this group hike yearly, but they are quite disorganized with gear spread everywhere. One of the leaders left his raincoat at Cosby Knob and lost a compass while here. The other is interested in learning something about the park’s high elevation flora and fauna, consulting a brochure “Discovering Diversity in the Smokies.” He asks for help with a few organisms but claims a good knowledge of trees. He soon discovers that he doesn’t know trees either, having misidentified many of them, but at least his heart is in the right place.
A father and his young son (maybe 10 years old) arrive. They are better organized and have decent gear. We are encouraged to see them until the boy takes out his knife and carves his oversized initials deep in the bench. Dad does nothing.
Meanwhile, the rain continues intermittently, the Spring Peepers tune up from time to time, and Mary shows me some photos she took today. One shows a pebble smiley face with dead-leaf hair on a cut stump. Somehow I missed that. She generously shares it.
The night is mostly quiet. About 2 a.m., the Spring Peepers become amorous. It’s a curious situation. One little frog lets out a loud peep. After a moment, he lets out another. A second frog decides to challenge him and peeps back. More and more join the increasingly chaotic cacophony. In a while, they start dropping out and eventually fall silent. We make it through this arc to silence, and just as I’m drifting off to sleep again, darn if one of the tiny buggers doesn’t let out a loud peep. I’m lying there trying to will the rest telepathically, “Don’t answer him, don’t answer him!” Someone answers (damn!), but their squeaky peeps don’t prompt any others, and they soon give up.
I have to make a privy trip later. The sky is full of stars. Yay!! A beautiful portent for tomorrow.