The Appalachian Trail begins its flirtation with Tennessee at Doe Knob, the Gregory Bald Trail junction 6.8 miles north of Fontana Dam in the Smokies, and tap dances along the Tennessee-North Carolina border, rarely straying far into either state or staying for very long. There are three significant deviations. The first occurs a few miles past Max Patch through Hot Springs to Rich Mountain where it veers from the border as much as 4.5 miles into North Carolina.
Rejoining the state line at Rich Mountain, the trail’s next major deviation comes after Little Bald, looping into North Carolina through Spivey Gap before crossing back into Tennessee for a pit stop in Erwin. Eight miles later, just before Indian Grave Gap, border and trail overlap again until Hump Mountain, where the A.T. makes its final, brief foray into North Carolina then commits to Tennessee at Doll Flats. The northeastern corner of the state carries the trail to Virginia’s border and passes the baton.
Day Seven, June 12, Curly Maple Gap Shelter, 4.7 miles: With something of a near-o (low mileage day) planned, I indulge and sleep in. At most I’ll do 7.3 miles to a campsite not far from Indian Grave Gap. I’d like to go further than the first shelter to shave a couple of miles from tomorrow’s hike which includes Unaka Mountain. The late morning is cloudy and looks like rain. ‘Trouble,’ a hiker helping out at the hostel for a while, leaves some trail magic at my door — a banana, OJ, a bag of dark chocolates, and pastries. Wow! A pleasant surprise. I eat the first two, take some of the chocolates, leave the rest for another deserving hiker, and thank ‘Trouble’ for his kindness before I go.
Catty-cornered from Uncle Johnny’s, the trail immediately crosses the Nolichucky River, ducks into the woods for a moment, and pops out on an active railroad, complete with cautions to look carefully before climbing over the tracks. Trains sometimes stop briefly in Erwin. A sign warns hikers to resist the temptation to crawl underneath and wait for the train to move instead. No trains in sight as I cross.
Following the Nolichucky upstream for a mile, the trail turns up Jones Branch, crossing multiple times on bridges at least one of which was built by Daniel Sprinkle, Eagle Scout Troop 4 of Piney Flats, TN. The forest is dense, and thick stands of Rosebay Rhododendron clog the stream’s course. A few short sections are very steep and virtually carved from bedrock. I’m in no particular hurry and, given my replenished load, set an easy pace and rest often.
This is the weekend before Father’s Day, and during the coming week, I’ll meet several fathers with their children on trail. First up are two young men in their 20s and their 50-something dads out for a few days. We play tag over the next couple of miles to the shelter.
Curley Maple Gap Shelter is spacious, with double sleeping platforms and an extended roof covering most of the picnic table. When I arrive, ‘Giggles’ is there sweeping out the place. She’s bagged trash left by previous occupants with the intent to carry it out. I decide to rest a while and eat lunch. The sons and dads rest too and consult my Miller trail guide for their evening destination.
Not too long after the guys leave NoBo, a father and daughter (in her 20s) arrive SoBo. They rest as well and eat a snack before heading to Erwin with ‘Giggles’ load of trash. While they are here, the clouds finally shed some of their moist burden. Movement from the fire ring calls attention to a five-foot Black (Gray) Rat Snake making a beeline for the shelter.
The area below the lower sleeping platform has been blocked with hardware cloth, but on one side rocky ground prevents a clean tackable edge. This snake knows its neighborhood. Sliding up to the wire, it looks left at first, then quickly moves right, heading straight for the sliver of space allowing entry. Within minutes two mice bolt from the shelter! I cordially invite the snake to stay as long as it likes, but soon after the shower ends, it comes back out and heads toward the trail. Later, a Fowler’s Toad hops up and scoots under the wire. Must be a well-known hangout for area wildlife.
In a bit, father number three arrives with his daughter, an eleven-year-old sporting gorgeous dark red hair, a winning smile, and the not-so-flattering trail name ‘Roachy,’ a corruption of her real name, Rachel. They have just begun their journey and hope to make it all the way to Damascus. They too continue to a campsite further up the trail.
I’ve become fairly comfortable here and enjoy ‘Giggles’ company. A Texas native, she started at Springer but is only going to Hampton, TN. She exits there for her summer job as a camp counselor in North Carolina. I take a peek at her Miller guide, the new 2015 version, which no longer shows the campsite I’d planned to occupy, so I decide to settle in. The extra rest should more than prepare me for tomorrow’s miles.
Two other Maine-bound hikers join us for the evening, ‘Jukebox’ (always whistling) making his second attempt at a thru-hike before beginning his third year at Princeton and ‘Shamrock’ (green backpack) whose family name graces an A.T. shelter in VT. ‘Jukebox’ is whistling an unusual tune for wilderness hikers. “That’s ‘Jupiter’ from Gustav Holst’s The Planets.” He looks up with a surprised and appreciative smile. Being a 50-something classical music aficionado among 20-year-old hip-hop fans can have its rewards!
In the shelter is a book of verse by Bill Alexander, “The Appalachian Hippie Poet.” On the whole, it’s drivel — painfully predictable rhymes about drinking, loneliness, ‘my-woman’s-gone’ stuff. I read a few aloud in a southern/country twang that has ‘Giggles’ living up to her trail name.
For some inexplicable reason, shelters north of Erwin do not have food cables. Even with these high-mounted, steel systems of pulleys and hooks, bears are difficult to deter. Two nights ago, a bag was damaged at No Business Shelter (my toad’s home).
Bears have become the talk of the trail. Word has spread of the attack in the Smokies, and sightings are a regular occurrence. Without the convenience of cables, everyone is on her own to confound determined bears each night. No avoiding the low-tech, rock-and-rope approach now.
The main problem with hanging a bag is locating an appropriate limb. Is it high enough? The bottom of the bag needs to be a minimum of 12 feet above the ground. Is the limb far enough away from the main trunk and other trees? Bears are smart and will climb neighboring trees if they offer a way to snag the bag. Is the limb strong enough to hold the bag’s weight but not big enough to hold a bear? Everything has to be just right. It is possible to spend an hour or more trying to find something that will pass muster and rig the rope. Complicating things further, trees’ tendency toward self-pruning of lower limbs in a shady forest results in a dearth of decent choices that aren’t 30 feet high or pointing straight up. Understory trees are usually too short or too weak to support the weight. It can be very frustrating.
At Curley Maple, all the choices are 20 feet high or more. ‘Giggles’ claims the lowest branch, but it doesn’t look strong enough for two bags. The only choice left towers overhead. As noted earlier, my little rope system is a decent option under reasonable conditions, though I fear the rope may be too short for this height — just one of many food bag problems.
After several attempts to hurl a rock over a limb, one’s shoulder begins to feel a bit like that of a major leaguer late in the sixth inning. It’s also important to watch out for the rock coming down. Duck and cover is good advice. Finally, my biggest nemesis — rope tangles — has the potential to make this necessary chore a nightmare!
Weight and height are the issues tonight. To attach my food bag to the carabiner, the rock sack dangles well above my reach. With fingertips, I push the food bag as far overhead as I can but still am unable to grab the rock sack and hoist my food. ‘Giggles’ is quite a bit taller than me and comes to the rescue. The freshly stocked food bag is as heavy as it can be, a worthy opponent in this tug of war. One vigorous pull leaves me staggering backwards with the detached rock sack in my hand, the food bag on the ground, and the rope’s end with its toggle clip wrapped four times around the limb 20 feet above my head.
Repeated tugs — soft ones, hard ones, bouncy ones — accomplish nothing. I put my whole weight into it and nothing. ‘Jukebox’ comes over. He points to a skinny broken snag behind me. “Run the rope around this, maybe it will give you enough leverage to break the limb.” I do and pull as hard as I can, the slender rope cutting into my hands. Nothing happens, and I let go in disgust knowing I’ll have to cut off a significant portion of my rope. I turn around in time to see the toggle clip and rope drop gently to the ground.
Apparently, the angle of the pull set in motion reverse winding of the rope’s toggle clip when the tension was suddenly released. Neither ‘Jukebox’ nor I can believe my good fortune! I rethread the rope through the sack and tie a much bigger knot behind the toggle clip. Back in business, I finally get my food hung and retire to the shelter exhausted.
There is one more wildlife story at Curley Maple. While cleaning the shelter, ‘Giggles’ spotted this huge arachnid hunkered by a wall stud, a massive fishing spider, Dolomedes tenebrosus, I believe. It did not move all day, but in the gathering dusk, it ventures forth. ‘Shamrock’ is enamored. He and I take several photos. By morning, this fierce looking beauty has disappeared.
Day Eight, June 13, Cherry Gap Shelter, 12.8 miles: ‘Jukebox’ and I are the first ones up and out. ‘Giggles’ sleeps late and hikes fast. She gets her kicks later in the day blowing past all who left well before her.
The trail cruises north of the state line remaining nearly level, then climbs to the crest about a mile from Indian Grave Gap (3,550 ft) and levels again. The ridge is dry and dense with Mountain Laurel and Teaberry lining either side. Energized on this beautiful morning, I’m hiking strong on the ridge, hoping to give ‘Giggles’ a run for her money until a sound I’ve never heard in person pierces my consciousness and activates a response as instinctive as it is immediate.
From a brisk walk to stock still, I am frozen by rapid rattling and direct my attention downward. A Timber Rattlesnake lies stretched across the trail less than five feet in front of me. Irritated by my aggressive approach, it sends a stern warning, “Slow down, Sister!” It isn’t a very long snake, maybe four feet, but its circumference appears close to three inches, and I count 12 rattles.
Not at all pleased to move on my account, it gradually works its way into the thick cover of teaberry and laurel. After that tail disappears, I listen for further movement in the underbrush before continuing and a moment later assume the coast is clear. One step and the snake directs another harsh rattle at me. “Aw, come on…I don’t want to upset you, I just want to get by.” I wait another few moments then hug the opposite edge of the trail in a slow side step without triggering any more angry retorts.
Evidence of civilization isn’t restricted to roads and towns. The A.T. often crosses beneath transmission power lines through wide, sunny openings barren of most woody plants. Many are full of various herbaceous species, including grasses and maybe some brambles, but an opening today is tinted pink down the hillside from a profusion of Mountain Laurel blossoms.
Rising in stages toward Unaka Mountain, the trail bisects a grassy hilltop called Beauty Spot at 4300 ft. Visitor’s can drive to the top and spend a day enjoying the views, picnicking, or walking a bit of the A.T. Erwin is visible to the west, with another good view of mountainous terrain to the south.
I read somewhere that trail work on the A.T. is done by hand, no machines to ease the labor. Past Beauty Spot, I can hear the whine of a small gas engine and assume it comes from nearby private land. In a few minutes though, I see two people running weed eaters up either side of the trail, their truck parked on a forest service road. They pause to let me pass and resume their work. I’ve always thought the purity of spirit behind the injunction against mechanical aid was admirable but archaic given the sheer volume and intensive nature of trail clearing and maintenance required annually.
Other meadow openings dot the trail on either side of Beauty Spot. One features a lone maple tree shading a log and small campsite. I take a long break to eat lunch. Spruce-topped Unaka Mountain, the last big stretch of the day, is visible. I’ve been on the lookout for ‘Giggles,’ rather surprised she hasn’t passed me yet.
Deep Gap is on the southern end of Unaka Mountain with Low Gap on the northern end. This reminds me of a conversation ‘Giggles’ and ‘Jukebox’ had last night. She was complaining about all the gaps called either “Low” or “Deep.” “Why don’t they give them a different name? They could name one after me!” ‘Jukebox’ suggests that a knob might be a better choice but finally argues against attaching a personal name to both saying, “Hikers would hate you either way. Gaps kill the knees, and knobs kill the quads.”
The trail up Unaka is steeper and a bit rocky but not too hard, covering 1.5 miles and rising over 1,000 feet to an elevation of 5,180. There are American Chestnut sprouts along the way and Flame Azaleas in flower near the top. I meet ‘Roachy’ and her dad ‘Storm.’ The three of us cross Unaka together.
Unaka’s summit is very broad making it essentially flat. The highest ground is solid Red Spruce (Picea rubens). Few other plant species are present. The spruce canopy is high overhead, and from eye level it’s like walking through a shady plot of telephone poles. There is no understory. Apart from a fern sprig here or there and occasional patches of bright green moss, this forest is a brown monochrome — dark tree boles contrasting a carpet of pale dead needles. The trail surface is indistinguishable from the rest of the forest floor, and though the path runs straight, it’s wise to keep an eye peeled for white blazes. Disorientation at dusk or in fog could present quite a challenge to find the trail again.
The back side of Unaka is a gentle descent among lush waves of sedges and ferns. My feet are beginning to ache as the day winds down and I pull into Deep Gap. Cherry Gap Shelter is 1.1 miles away, involving two short climbs, one short descent, and 35 minutes.
The shelter, a lousy dump, is located on a ridge, with decent tents sites spread widely along the trail just past it. I find a perfect spot, locate a great food limb, set up my tent and get water from a very good spring a short walk behind the shelter. ‘Storm’ and ‘Roachy’ stop here too. It is a lovely, calm evening. I settle down to dinner.
‘Giggles’ shows up and stops by my site. She took long breaks at Beauty Spot and Unaka’s summit, both captured her imagination. As she talks, a loud racket behind us prompts me to turn around. “Oh, that’s just the church group,” says ‘Giggles.’
At least 15 teenagers, late high school or college age, and two adults (a man and woman) swarm the campsites. Their din of nonstop chatter and laughter annihilates any hope of peace. In something of a cat herding exercise, the adults direct the students in camp preparations their first night in the mountains.
They drove in from Nashville (my city) this morning. As with the boy scouts last week, they have arrived at camp so late in the day, they are still engaged in important chores (in this instance cooking food) as night falls. Amid the roar of their gas stoves, they are shouting at each other while I’m trying to go to sleep. One girl’s voice in particular pierces the night air, rising well above the others.
At 9:00 p.m. (Hiker Midnight), I walk over to politely ask if they could please keep it down. The woman says, “This is their first night.” “I understand, but I’ve had a long day and would really like to get to sleep.” She tries again, “They’re just excited.” “I understand, but I really don’t think yelling is necessary.” With a slight look of frustration, she turns to the kids, “We’ve had a request to keep the noise down.”
To my delight, they comply. Back in the tent, I pop two Ibuprofen to ease my aching feet. Ear plugs firmly in place and “Vitamin I” coursing through my system, I fall into a blissful sleep, unaware of the drama unfolding around me.
Day Nine, June 14, Clyde Smith Shelter, 9.2 miles: Proper hydration on trail usually leads to a middle of the night bathroom run. This night there are people in the church group’s camp milling around with headlamps. I still have my ear plugs in place and have no idea what they are doing, nor do I care. More sleep is my focus.
Each morning, I dress and assemble all gear in my tent before emerging, ready to eat breakfast and pack. Each evening I filter all water needed for the next day and usually have at least a liter left in the “dirty” bag for breakfast and to top off water bottles before leaving. I leave this unfiltered water bag hanging from a limb at my campsite overnight, threading the tube and filter cartridge through the bag handle to keep them from dangling. No wildlife have ever bothered it in three years of hiking.
At this site, the bag hangs from a small bump on a young tree where a little limb used to be. It is just enough to hold the bag without slipping. This morning I notice the bag is tilted to one side. I also notice it is empty. There is a clean puncture at the base of the tube port about the size of a BB. Stunned, I try to figure how on earth something could puncture the bag from below without knocking it off the tree. The tube and cartridge are not damaged or even disturbed. Just one perfect, devastating hole.
My first suspicion is not charitable. Could one of the church kids have done this as retaliation for my noise complaint? They were up in the middle of the night. I can prove nothing and have to find some way to make this bag operable for at least four more days. I pull out my repair kit and make a temporary fix with Tenacious Tape then head for the spring. It still leaks, but holds enough for breakfast.
When I’m packed, I walk back to the church camp to thank them for being quiet last night and apologize if it put a damper on their fun. Just in case they did punch a hole in my bag, I want them to feel really bad about it. The man’s Platypus bladder is hanging from a tree and I warn him, “Be careful, something punched a perfect hole in mine last night. It’s ruined.” He gives me a funny look. I ask where they plan to camp tonight. Greasy Creek Gap. Good. I’ll be going two miles past.
It’s a shorter mileage day with no big mountains but several smaller ups and downs hovering near 4,000 feet. The trail is easy, skirting the summit of Little Bald Knob and crossing TN 107/NC 226 at Iron Mountain Gap. From the gap, it follows the ridge line onto Iron Mountain. This is North Carolina’s Iron Mountain, a short ridge southeast of the long, straight, and impressive ridge line of Tennessee’s Iron Mountain still ahead beyond the town of Hampton.
I meet ‘Zippy,’ a SoBo section hiker striking camp. He’s very pleasant and true to SoBo nature, quite chatty. It’s another beautiful day, a mix of sun and clouds with refreshing breezes along the ridge, and the trail passes through several sedge-filled woodlands and lush fern glades, New York and Hayscented ferns mainly. On top of NC’s Iron Mountain are slanted rock formations that make a great rest stop. I break for lunch here.
Walking along, I begin to regret my suggested suspicion to the church group for my water bag woes and wonder what I could do to make amends. Nothing says, “I’m sorry,” like a magical night of Blue Ghost Fireflies, so I determine to leave them a note at their intended destination. Fortunately for me there is a sign attached to a tree that announces “Greasy Creek Gap” removing any doubt, and I sit down to write about the fireflies and provide important instructions for good viewing — full nightfall, no lights — and express hope that this will make up for putting a damper on their first night in the mountains. I sign it, “Your cranky Nashville neighbor at Cherry Gap,” and leave it on a stump at the fire ring anchored by a small rock. Greasy Creek Gap is also the location of a 0.6 mile spur trail to a hostel that receives good word-of-mouth reviews from hikers.
Two couples with four dogs are resting at the Greasy Creek campsite when I arrive and leave the same time I do. The women and dogs move ahead, but the two men talk about the rich spring wildflowers along the trail past the camp. They point out an orchid, Platanthera orbiculata, Large Round-leaved or Padleaf Rein Orchid, a northern species that dips south to NC and TN through the Southern Appalachians but is considered rare within most of its range, preferring damp, rich forests. Two broadly oval leaves lie flat on the ground beneath a 10-20 inch stalk holding numerous greenish white flowers aloft in a raceme. I’ve seen one or two other individuals along the trail, but this is the first in flower. [I wish I’d given it the sniff test; botanical descriptions say it is fragrant.]
The shelter is a 0.1 mile off the trail, and the water source is another 0.1 mile from the shelter. Larger than most, Clyde Smith is still dark and dingy. Tent sites behind it are preferable. I plunge into evening chores, including the all-important food bag limb, and spread out sweaty clothes, socks and shoes to air in shafts of sunlight. Next up is the water bag. Tenacious Tape isn’t working, so I remove it and try again with duct tape. A close inspection reveals two small scrapes on the side of the port and another dent on top. Something really did try to bite it.
I will discover later that bears terrorized the church group last night, grabbing one girl’s backpack and dragging it into the woods. Considering these troubles, I can only assume my culprit was a bear. Now it might have been a squirrel with very big teeth, but a bear, probably a cub, is most likely and makes a much better story. It is still amazing, because that cub had to take the gentlest bite possible to avoid knocking the whole thing to the ground! I am very thankful it wasn’t ripped to pieces.
The tube port projects from the base of the bag with rounded contours. I clean and dry the area, cut precise sections of duct tape, and carefully apply each piece to make solid contact and minimize potential leakage. It looks good and works great. Not a single drip. ‘Storm’ admires my handiwork, “You could be on Survivor.”
Beginning this evening, ‘Storm,’ ‘Roachy,’ and I become official camp buddies. We set our tents in the same area and enjoy each other’s company. ‘Roachy’ is an adorable doll — cute, funny, smart, and as good a hiker as anyone on trail. I like her so much, I invite her to share my Oreos!