My date with the A.T. is looming large, and I haven’t been out with a heavy pack since September. It’s time to load up the Deuter and visit my favorite mountains. Easier said than done. First, Highway 441 collapses just above Smokemont campground, my destination for five days of NC hiking. Some trailheads are no longer accessible and the trip gets pared to three days. Next, my son needs out-patient surgery for a cyst in his knee, delaying departure a couple of days. Then, bad weather throws its monkey wrench into the works for another two-day delay. Is someone trying to tell me something? Well, I’m not listening.
I finally take off on Saturday afternoon and spend the night with my favorite people in the whole wide world, Susan and Allen Sweetser. From their cozy home in an East Tennessee holler, I’m two hours from Smokemont via interstate following the secondary snow route for closed Hwy. 441. Those delays have fortuitously given me a small but pleasant window of moderate temperatures and no rain. The sun is shining early Sunday afternoon as I finish setting up camp and start the Smokemont Loop Trail.
Hiking it in reverse to the Little Brown Book, I begin at the stone bridge crossing Bradley Fork just before it pours into the Oconaluftee River. Smokemont Campground and the Oconaluftee Ranger Station are to the right. This old road goes straight back about 0.15 miles to an open area. A small wooden sign points to the trail starting its two-mile uphill trek along the exhausted southeastern remnants of Richland Mountain.
I miss the turnoff to Bradley Cemetery. My trail senses have dulled during the long break, plus I get turned around and operate under the misconception that I’m hiking in the direction of the LBB description expecting it at the end rather than the beginning. The trail rises about 1,400 feet before rounding the top of a knob to descend 1,200 feet in 3.9 miles.
The forest shows the effects of harsh weather. The ground is soggy in many places from the torrential rains that washed a 200-foot section of Hwy. 441 down the mountain. Areas with little direct sun still have patches of more recent ice and snow. The afternoon is warm, though; my jacket comes off as the uphill climb and 33 pounds in my pack (counting the camera) demand sweaty exertion. Since it’s been so long, I fully expect one or both knees to protest, and the right one gets mouthy heading back down to Bradley Fork. It has become a tradition of sorts. The first day usually features some pushback, but it is short-lived. By day two, they are steeled to the inevitable and ready to go.
There isn’t much happening in late January. Most living things are gone or hiding out. A few clicks and chirps can be heard. For the most part though, it is the basic elements — earth, wind, and water — that characterize the forest in winter. Smokemont Loop doesn’t offer many opportunities appreciate the landscape. Trails planned the next two days will take care of that. The wind today is very light and soft, hardly a factor. Water is scarce in the middle of this trail, but on either end, a cold mountain stream strikes a sharp, confrontational tone. Water is boss here, telling everything else what to do and where to go.
At the end of Smokemont Loop, a long narrow foot log crosses over noisily quarrelsome Bradley Fork. Upon reaching the far side, several steps mount the steep bank to a wooden bench and the junction with gently graded Bradley Fork Trail. From this point, it is 1.7 miles to the back end of the campground.
Along this stretch I meet the first people of the day. The mild weather and sunshine bring out a few visitors. I pass a family of five, two horsemen, an older man with a young child on his back, a couple with an unleashed dog, a couple backpacking to Cabin Flats (I assume), and another man with two small dogs at the campground.
About a mile from the end, something brown flashes by my head. My first thought, oddly enough, is a butterfly. As I turn to get another look, I think small bird, an LBJ (little brown job) nearly impossible for a non-birder to identify. I watch it fly up and down the trail, hovering near the ground over puddles, then swooping up again, diving into rhododendron bushes and out again. The flight pattern is wacky, and I realize it’s a bat.
A recent newspaper article warned of “erratic bats” in the Smokies. They have been reported flying during the day and diving at people. The flight of healthy bats on summer evenings sure seems erratic, yet it is not. They are using sonar to locate and run down insects. In winter, however, bats should be hibernating. Fungus-generated White Nose Syndrome causes bats to wake up and fly in winter when insects are scarce, depleting energy and resulting in death. WNS was found in the park earlier this year.
This bat appears very disoriented. At one point, it flies into a tree branch, struggles a moment, and takes off again. I try to get a photo, but it just won’t slow down or settle anywhere long enough. It flies right past me several times, once at ground level inches from my feet, then disappears into rhododendron shrubs.
Today’s plan also includes Tow String Trail, a 2.2-mile horse trail from Tow String Horse Camp a mile away. The junction is a short walk off Bradley Fork along a path reserved for concession horses and hikers of the Benton MacKaye Trail. This side trail connects Newton Bald (part of BMT) across from Smokemont’s main entrance to Bradley Fork Trail (also part of BMT) and bypasses the long stretch of asphalt, probably a mile or more, associated with the campground. Tow String Trail begins at this side trail.
One look at Tow String convinces me to give it a pass. It is little more than a U-shaped swale full of leaves snaking up the hillside. Given the rocks I’ve seen in this area, I’m none too keen to risk an ankle injury carrying a full pack. I head to camp.
Smokemont is a large campground, long and narrow. It takes 10 minutes to walk from the back end to my campsite in front. Only the front section B is open. There are a few cars, but they belong to day hikers. As evening approaches, others leave, and I’m alone. One car, the backpackers I guess, remains. There are no other campers.
The night is quite cool. There is an eerie quality to the air. As darkness falls, I chicken out and climb into my car. Mentally I’m more at ease, but physically I’m miserable. I can’t stretch out or find any comfortable position. I would have been much better off in the tent.