Last night’s starry sky fulfills its promise with bright sunshine today. It is the best weather we’ve had since the first day at Mollie’s Ridge. The shelter is abuzz with all occupants preparing for their day’s hike. This AT trip has gone very smoothly, so much so, it is almost boring. Nothing exciting from weather or wildlife to spice the adventure. It ain’t over yet, however. We are headed to Cosby Knob 7.7 miles, traveling first north around Mt. Guyot and Old Black to Inadu Knob then due east.
The AT takes a hard left to avoid the 6,621-foot summit of Mt. Guyot, crossing over the mountain’s long spur that extends west and gradually declines over four miles. It finally peters out where Ramsay Prong joins the Little Pigeon River. What Mt. Guyot cannot claim in height (it is the second highest peak in the park and fourth highest in the Eastern U.S.), it can claim in perfect solitude. Other high summits have trails and tourists. Guyot has Red Spruce and Fraser Fir. To quote Harvey Broome, author of Out Under the Sky of the Great Smokies, “It must be one of the least frequented places in the Smokies — the land of the bear and of the winter wren and of the sad winds.”
There is a little-used manway to the top of Mt. Guyot, supposedly near a spring that feeds into Ramsay Prong. Clarence and I would like to find it, but caught up in the glory of this fine day, we nearly forget. Recalling our mission, we can’t be certain we have not already crossed a spring, and ahead of us are three good springs. Surveying the land near each, we locate a few possibilities but nothing with any certainty.
By the way, I have always pronounced Guyot phonetically (guy’-ot) for lack of any other idea. Horace Kephart set me straight, and the dictionary confirmed it. It’s gee’-oh with a hard G sound. That will require some getting use to.
The trail makes a serpentine curve around the Ramsay Prong drainage, heading northeast along the flank of Mt. Guyot, then northwest along the southern flank of Old Black, curving just below its 6,370-foot summit. Once the trail crosses the Sevier/Cocke County line, it heads northeast again through Deer Creek Gap. The gap is a reasonably wide open space that affords good views into the headwater drainage of Big Creek. Looking back, Old Black (named for its dark Spruce/Fir forest covering, it is now more light green with a sprinkling of dark conifers) and Mt. Guyot rise behind us. Balsam Mountain is visible in the distance. This opening was created by a fierce wildfire in the mid 1920s.
It is flat enough at Deer Creek Gap to accommodate a helipad. Two sets of skinny, rectangular concrete footings in a ‘V’ shape are sunk ground level right across the AT. Someone has erected a rock cairn presumably to call attention to them. The helipad is not discussed in any of the trail guides I have, but it is noted on the elevation profile in the little brown book. This would be a good spot to quickly access a fairly remote section of the park, and I assume it is still used when needed.
The AT continues northeast toward Inadu Knob and the junction with Snake Den Ridge Trail. Close to that junction, twisted remnants of a military airplane are lying just off the trail. Resources conflict on the identity of this wreckage.
The little brown book account penned by James Wedekind says it is an Air Force F-4 Phantom jet that slammed into the mountain Jan. 4, 1984, killing the pilot and navigator. Ken Wise, author of Hiking Trails of the Great Smoky Mountains: A Comprehensive Guide, identifies it as a twin-engine Air Force plane that crashed on Nov. 11, 1962, killing both crew members. He also says there are parts of a Navy plane that hit the knob on Dec. 9, 1945, (that crew ejected safely). Jeff Wadley and Dwight McCarter, writers of Mayday! Mayday!: Aircraft Crashes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park 1920-2000, indicate the F-4 Phantom crashed on the other side of the ridge about 0.3 mile down Snake Den Ridge Trail where wreckage may still be found, though they also say that wreckage was scattered over 20 acres.
No matter the date or identity, the sheered and burned bits of metal are somber reminders of two lives tragically lost. It is heartbreaking to see how close they came to clearing the ridge. We offer a moment’s quiet respect.
Past Snake Den, the trail heads straight east with a small bump around Camel Hump Knob. Since we left Tricorner Knob this morning, we have been perambulating the top of the long and wide gulf that encompasses Big Creek and its feeder streams draining eastern and southern sides of the Smokies crest and the northern side of Balsam Mountain. When we get near Ross Knob, there is a great view of Mount Sterling Ridge slanting northeast from Big Cataloochee Mountain. This marks the far side of the Big Creek drainage.
I find a Doghobble (Leucothoe fontanesiana) shrub still in flower, and Catawba Rhododendron blossoms adorn the trail in many places. There are piles of uniformly-sized, cut and decorticated logs spaced along the trail. Each stack contains at least ten or more logs. Perhaps they are intended for trail maintenance projects. Their general diameter makes them suitable for waterbars or drainage ditch construction.
We pull into Cosby Knob Shelter early afternoon to eat a late lunch. The father and son from last night are finishing their lunch. While dad walks around the shelter’s environs, sonny boy is carving his initials in the bench. I glance over and remark, “Would your mom like you doing that to her dining table?” Looking up sheepishly, he replies, “No.” “Well, this bench belongs to all of us in the national park.” He puts away his knife, grabs his pack, tells dad he’ll be waiting at the trail, and gets as far away from me as he can.
Socks, shoes, gaiters, and other damp items are laid out in the sun to dry and air. A Red Admiral butterfly sips salty sweat from Clarence’s stinky socks. A Bumble Bee checks out my gaiters. I slip away to clean up and don fresh clothes.
The shelter sits within a lovely protected cove. The land contours and forest understory are more open. There is plenty of elbow room here, unlike the more confined spaces at Pecks and Tricorner. The ground in front of Cosby Knob slants down in terraced stairs to a set of food cables and roomy, flat campsites. The first site is the largest with a fire ring. To the right of the shelter is the spring and a path leading to other well-positioned campsites. On the left is the path to the AT, another set of food cables, and the privy path.
Blackberry shrubs are in flower, likely Smooth Blackberry (Rubus canadensis). Broad Striped Maple leaves, lobed like the webbed foot of a goose, catch filtered sunbeams and glow in the understory. Vase-like clumps of Fancy Fern (Dryopteris intermedia) picturesquely flank an old stump near the spring. In the marshy flow of the spring’s water, a large Umbrella Leaf (Diphylleia cymosa) produces a showy cluster of white flowers over massive leaves.
Three older gentlemen arrive; one rather dramatically, falling hard on the approach path to the shelter. Two are retired pilots, the other a retired teacher. Another man breezes in, loudly laying claim to a sleeping spot and bragging of his outdoor exploits. He is immediately dismissed as an egotistical jerk. Evening brings more thru-hikers, and these later arrivals are settling in the campsites just below the shelter. One group sets up on the hillside behind and above the shelter.
We’ve received reports, from southbound hikers and in the shelter journal, that two bears have been bothering people here for a few days. Thus far, all has been quiet with no evidence of bear activity. Just at dusk, as we are slipping into our sleeping bags for the night, we hear shouts from the campsites below. No one is particularly alarmed. Occasional shouts continue for several minutes, but no one in the shelter moves.
A young hiker points to my backpack hanging on a nail and says, “Whose pack is that? Mice are running in and out of it.” Like good park campers, we have hung all our food and any other items with a fragrance or likely appeal to wildlife on the food cables. What they are attracted to, I cannot imagine, but after the damage done the night before, I’m taking no chances. I get my pack and prepare to haul it up on the food cables, too. Virtually every other person, follows my lead. Mary finds a bag of trash on the cook counter. It belongs to the egotistical jerk. “It’s just trash,” he says. “Bears will take it and not bother us.” OK, so he’s an idiot too.
The shouts from below become more frantic. Clarence and I walk down there to investigate. A young, shellshocked-looking girl stands by the fire. Packs and gear are scattered around on the ground. Apparently, two bears, one big and one yearling size, seized the pack of a hiker camped just below them as he was setting up his tent and ran into the woods with it. The hikers at her site and a couple of others are helping him chase after the bears in an attempt to retrieve the stolen pack.
Unsuccessful, they return to the shelter to see if anyone has bear spray. Clarence lets them use his can. Grabbing headlamps, they set off into the darkening night to try again. We hear more shouts followed by, “The douche! It ripped the zipper!” The big bear has torn open the top zipper pocket on thru-hiker “Y-Knot’s” pack and strewn its contents on the ground, damaging his sunglasses case and cell phone. They shoot the bear with a blast of capsaicin, and it runs away. As they gather the scattered items, the bear returns!! They blast it again.
Within minutes, the bears are back in the campsite, the smaller bear near the privy. Several guys, including Clarence, grab rocks. Clarence goes down to the campsite peering into the gloom. Two glowing eyes look back at him, and this big bulk lumbers between him and the fire. He hurls a rock at the bear’s head. Just then, those who had been going after the smaller bear near the privy begin throwing rocks down slope at the big bear. Some land in the fire ring, sending a shower of sparks up into the night.
Camping hikers gather their gear and retreat to the relative safety of the shelter. We all squeeze together to accommodate as many as we can. One of the older men, snoozes on a short bench, and none of us can figure out how he ever got comfortable enough to fall asleep! A thru-hiker lies down on the ground; two others hang hammocks. There are at least 18 people in here, and it is possible that a couple more sit up all night or sleep on the other benches. It takes a while, but things finally calm down. The rest of the night passes without incident.
This trip can no longer be called boring! (Side Note: When I got home, I contacted the park’s Backcountry Office and reported the specifics of that night. The shelter was closed soon after.)