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Proctor Bridge over Hazel Creek, site of the town of Proctor

Proctor Bridge over Hazel Creek, site of the town of Proctor

Four years ago, I hiked the eastern half of Lakeshore Trail (17.9 miles). Over the next two days, I will complete this roughly 35-mile trail (16.9 miles), walking to Chesquaw Branch and returning to finish at the dam. I’m on my way Sunday morning before most campers at #86 are even awake. With the majority of my gear secure in a bag on the bear cables, I can more comfortably tackle the 12.8 total miles to and from Chesquaw plus the 0.6 mile out and back on Ollie Cove Trail.

Struttin' Street

Struttin’ Street

A kiosk next to Proctor Bridge tells of the area’s evolution over two centuries. Wilderness largely untouched for thousands of years began to harbor settlers farming the land in the 1830s. It became the town of Proctor in 1886 with the establishment of a post office. Twenty years later, W.M. Ritter Lumber Company turned sleepy Proctor into a booming “company town” complete with cafe, barber shop, movie theater, and its own dentist. Twenty years after that, Ritter left town having harvested the timber, and Proctor became a quiet farm community once more. World War II sealed its fate with impoundment of the dam and Tennessee Valley Authority deeding land north of the lake to the new park.

Ollie Cove Trail

Ollie Cove Trail

Images of the town 100 years ago on the kiosk are hard to reconcile with the bucolic scene today. A wide grassy avenue that is now Lakeshore Trail was once Struttin’ Street. The only things struttin’ here this morning are American Plantain and White Clover. Lakeshore exits the grass-covered roadbed and starts uphill following another old road that had connected farmsteads and small communities near the Little Tennessee River, now Fontana Lake.

At 0.7 mile, Ollie Cove Trail drops to the right along another old road ending at the lake. This 0.3 mile route is often used by boat shuttles when lake levels are too low to access Hazel Creek. Steep and eroded, its utilitarian purpose is all that recommends this trail. There are some colorful Indigo Milky mushrooms fruiting here, and the lakeside view has merit.

Fontana Lake at Ollie Cove

Fontana Lake at Ollie Cove

These old roads expose a soil type that is prone to serious erosion, particularly when the grade and trail trajectory provide a perfect sluice for rain water. Add the churn of horse hooves, and deeply trenched, rocky trail sections are insured. This is the case climbing Welch Ridge. It’s a short but steep half-mile haul. Following a one-mile descent, Lakeshore Trail bottoms out below 2,000’ and remains there the rest of the way. Small stream crossings like Whiteside Creek, Mill Branch, and Calhoun Branch plus low mucky areas dot the next 1.5 miles.

Fairview Cemetery

Fairview Cemetery

Before Campsite 81, Lakeshore crests two small ridges. Spur trails follow these ridges to cemeteries, Fairview and Cook. Fairview sits on a small knob overlooking the lake and ringed by trees that obscure the view in summer. The access trail just outside the cemetery is lined with three long picnic tables. Graves in these small cemeteries typically face east, an orientation that places the approach to Fairview from behind. Each site is graced with colorful plastic flowers.

Naked-flower Tick-trefoil

Naked-flower Tick-trefoil

A half-mile past #81, the trail no longer follows old roads and becomes a pleasant footpath through the forest, rising and falling with each hillside wrinkle. The area between Calhoun and Chesquaw branches was farmed using stone terraces. Despite vigilance, the only evidence of terracing I can see comes just before Chesquaw, where at least three levels of stone walls can be detected.

Chesquaw Branch is somewhat unique, its waters sheeting down a narrow rock slide for almost 30 feet, one of a few such stream conditions found during my hikes and, interestingly, most on the North Carolina side of the park. I sit next to Chesquaw to eat lunch and rest before heading back. I’ve seen this lovely little stream twice and may never have occasion to visit again.

Naked-flower Tick-trefoil fruit

Naked-flower Tick-trefoil fruit

Yesterday at Proctor Bridge, today walking to Chesquaw, and again on my return trip, I encounter an older man (father or grandfather) and his teenage son (grandson). Both look tired and the teenager also looks bored and sullen. They are hiking an ambitious loop from Clingmans Dome following the A.T., Hazel Creek, Lakeshore, and Forney Creek. The man’s maps are so tiny as to be worthless, not even realizing he’s looking at them upside down. He knows little about the trails, and I suspect has no camping permit from the park. I show him my National Geographic map so he can get a better idea of where he is and what is in store. He’s a nice guy, but what makes this duo stand out is the teenager’s hair. This skinny white kid is sporting a massive reddish-brown afro that reminds me of the movie Naked Gun’s club scene flashback with O.J. Simpson character Nordberg’s “doorway-wedging” do. The kid needs a two-person tent to accommodate his hair!

Strangulated Amanita

Strangulated Amanita

Naked-flower Tick-trefoil’s (Desmodium nudiflorum) tall racemes of pinkish purple flowers and strings of triangular seeds are a consistent presence on trail, joined sporadically by Sweet Joe Pyeweed. A few mushrooms, False Fly Agaric and Strangulated Amanita, can be found. Otherwise, it is an uneventful stroll through the summer forest.

Back at Campsite 86, I filter water (it’s hot and I’ve been drinking a lot), eat a snack, and load up to move 1.4 miles further down Lakeshore to Possum Hollow, Campsite #88. Across Proctor Bridge and past the Calhoun House, Lakeshore is a gravel road (formerly Calico Street) heading uphill a quarter mile then dropping slightly past Proctor Cemetery. In this section, Lakeshore Trail moves away from the lake and cuts straight across a thumb of land between Hazel and Eagle creeks, working its way up Shehan Branch through Possum Hollow for the first half. A tall chimney rises from a flat bench just below the road surrounded by lush greenery.

Chimney in Possum Hollow

Chimney in Possum Hollow

Campsite #88 hides off trail 0.1 mile, camouflaged amid a resurgent forest. Look carefully for the small wooden sign as the faint access trail will escape notice. This isn’t helped by the fact that you must cross a tiny walled creek, then meander aimlessly a bit before reaching the campsite. This site is listed for 12 people, but there was only one tent location anywhere in the vicinity. It would be hard pressed to accommodate 2! Heaven knows when the last person camped here. The water source is that little trailside creek. Its walled sides make access more difficult than it needs to be. I feel more ‘stuck in the boonies’ here than at any other time on trail. I hang my gear on the cables and half-joking think it might be a good move to hoist myself up there too. However, the night is quiet aside from a coyote yipping around 5:00 a.m.

Hiker Sign

Hiker sign

Monday morning I’m off early for the final day…10 miles to my car. Lakeshore climbs the side of Pinnacle Ridge and joins the ridge line during a 3.5-mile stretch to Eagle Creek and Campsite #90. The fallen tree that blocked Lakeshore and Eagle Creek trails on Thursday is still there. I snack at #90 and keep going, 5.6 trail miles to go. Lakeshore continues to do what it does best…up and down, up and down, up and down…working its way around the bases of Snakeden and Shuckstack ridges and major draws in between.

Three miles past #90, the trail’s route mirrors old North Carolina Highway 288 for 1.5 miles. The road must have been a tempting alternative to the trail at one time. NPS posted a little metal hiker sign with an arrow to indicate the true path. The road behind the sign is now dense with impenetrable vegetation. No one could mistake it for a viable route. Yet the sign remains, bearing all manner of scratches, including a rather devilish looking smily face.

American Beautyberry

American Beautyberry

The 288 stretch is level and wide, though vegetation is trying to reclaim the inner half. One plant proves a shocker, American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana). I would never have anticipated finding this southeastern native species in the Smokies, but it is healthy, happy, and flowering. The park lists it as a rare plant at low elevation. Its clusters of pink flowers will result in thick bracelets of magenta purple fruit encircling the twigs at each foliage node. Mockingbirds love the fruit.

An abandoned car on trail

An abandoned car on trail

Old Highway 288 boosts some interesting cultural artifacts as well. World War II not only necessitated electrical generation through impoundment of the Little Tennessee, it also made rubber a scarce commodity. Some locals leaving their homes before the dam was closed did not have tires for their vehicles and were forced to abandon them. Scavenged car bodies litter the trail. I find 5 chassises in varying states of disassembly.

Hog trap art

Hog trap art

I don’t see very many wild hog traps on trail these days, but here is one with its door raised close to the path.  Someone has exercised artistic license to decorate the solid door panel with a cute cartoon rendering of this exotic animal.  This will be the only time “cute” and “wild hog” occur in the same paragraph.

A bit more up and down, then the trail levels out through a groundcover of Japanese Stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) and slips into the trailhead at Lakeview Drive West. It’s 1:35 p.m. My car is at the dam visitor center one mile (25 minutes) away. On the road is a doe and her fawn. The little spotted deer is frisky, prancing and dashing about on the asphalt, as mom stands like a statue, giving me an unwavering stare.

Doe and fawn on Lakeview Drive West

Doe and fawn on Lakeview Drive West

Fontana’s bathroom facilities provide an opportunity to shower away the stink and grime and don fresh clothes before my five-hour drive home. It’s a fantastic feeling to have this trip successfully behind me!

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View of Fontana Lake from the picnic parking area

View of Fontana Lake from the picnic parking area

I’m back in the Smokies to tackle a section of the park I’ve been dreading for years — the network of trails on the western end of Fontana Lake. A dry weather window opened, three days of sun with a 10-20% chance of thunderstorms. It will be enough to get me past the toughest trails on this 5-day, 4-night backpack. I book the campsites and cross my fingers. The forecast holds until the day before I leave. The first day on trail is now 80%, sigh. Most of that day will be spent wading across Eagle Creek anyway.

Lost Cove trailhead on teh A.T.

Lost Cove trailhead on teh A.T.

I drive to Fontana Dam the afternoon prior with the intention of spending the night at the shelter known as “Fontana Hilton.” It’s a large A.T. shelter open through the center like a barn with a set of sleeping platforms to either side. It has a great view of the lake, a fresh water spigot, and access to bathrooms with showers nearby. Thru-hikers love the relative luxury of “Fontana Hilton.” There are several people milling around when I arrive around 6 p.m. I ask one section hiker if there is room for me. “Maybe,” she says.  “There’s a group of 14- to 17-year-olds on a camping trip staying here. They are ADHD kids,” she notes with a slightly troubled brow. That’s all I need to know.  “Yeah,” she adds, “I may be pitching a tent tonight myself.”

Brilliant red spore cases of Hot Lips fungus

Brilliant red spore cases of Hot Lips fungus

The tenting area above the shelter lines a ridge arching steeply above the lake. Concrete pads take up most of the narrow space and are not conducive to a non-freestanding tent. I’m resigned to spending the night in my car.  After dinner, I settle down with a cushy sleeping pad and pillow for a surprisingly decent night’s sleep.

Red and Yellow Bolete

Red and Yellow Bolete

Next morning, I move my car to the dam’s visitor center parking area and am on my way before 7:00 a.m.  It is cloudy and certainly looks like an 80% chance of rain. I waste no time covering the nearly one-mile walk to the trailhead. To reach Lost Cove, requires a 3.7-mile hike on the A.T. past Shuckstack fire tower. Climbing to 3,700 feet, I’m ready to begin the first of seven new trails.

Lost Cove descends eastward from the A.T. at Sassafras Gap opposite Twentymile Trail, following Lost Cove Creek’s carved path between Red Ridge to the north and Little Shuckstack’s Snakeden Ridge to the south. Over 2.7 miles, it drops 1800 feet and merges seamlessly into Lakeshore Trail continuing eastward toward Campsite #90.

Corrugated Bolete

Corrugated Bolete

Starting inauspiciously as a narrow slit through Jewelweed, Early Meadow Rue, Wood Nettle, and tree seedlings, the Lost Cove quickly opens into one of the more lovely trails in the park. No one knows where the “Lost” part of its name comes from, but the “Cove” part is obvious. The trail meanders 2.7 miles through beautiful cove forests.  All the markers of a rich and diverse flora, particularly in spring, are here — Mountain Silverbell, Cucumber Magnolia, Lady Fern, Richweed, Cinnamon Fern, Catesby’s Trillium, Blue Cohosh, Nodding Mandarin, Geranium, Great Merrybells, Bloodroot, Sharp-lobed Liverleaf, Maidenhair Fern, Crested Iris, Seersucker Sedge, and many more.

Eagle Creek becomes Fontana Lake

Eagle Creek becomes Fontana Lake

Fungi are in full reproductive mode this time of year, sprouting colorful sporocarps along the trail. Little red knobs of Hot Lips (Calostoma cinnabarina) are beginning to push through the soil, still encased in their firm, clear gelatinous covering. Fresh, velvety Red and Yellow Boletes (Boletus bicolor), wrinkled caps of Corrugated Boletes (Boletus hortonii), and everyone’s favorite summer gastronomic ‘shroom Chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius) brighten my morning.

Iron bridge over Eagle Creek on Lakeshore

Iron bridge over Eagle Creek on Lakeshore

A half-mile down, the trail’s grade takes a nose dive for another half mile. Progress slows as smaller steps are needed to keep the descent under control. It’s a shame attention must be diverted from the beautiful surroundings to footsteps. The same is true near the end due to multiple stream crossings, some of which could be dicey in high water. My mid-summer hike downhill has the dual advantage of far less exertion and low water.

Both Lakeshore and Eagle Creek trails are blocked by the precision fall of a tree.

Both Lakeshore and Eagle Creek trails are blocked by the precision fall of a tree.

An uphill hike could work on a colorful cool fall day, and, if the water is not too high, on a colorful cool spring day. On this hot and very humid summer day, I meet two women backpackers struggling up Lost Cove. They look completely wiped, and though I hint at the steeper section to come, I don’t have the heart to undermine what energy they have left.

The upper stream crossings are completely dry. After Campsite #91, a wide level site, lower crossings also pose no problem. The junction with Lakeshore takes me a minute to figure out.  Lost Cove appears to continue straight ahead, but a trail sign indicates I’m now on a different trail. Lakeshore eastbound falls in line with Lost Cove’s trajectory along the creek. Lakeshore westbound toward the dam turns sharply upslope away from the creek.

Cinnabar Chanterelles decorate the mossy banks of Eagle Creek at many crossings.

Cinnabar Chanterelles decorate the mossy banks of Eagle Creek at many crossings.

In 0.4 mile Lakeshore makes another dramatic turn at Campsite #90, a very large and well-used site, though no one is here late on a Thursday morning. Little trails, I guess to bathroom locations, spiral out from the main camp. It takes a little wandering around to relocate Lakeshore Trail proper. Look for a footlog spanning Lost Cove Creek’s last gasp prior to joining lake-tamed Eagle Creek.

I am now walking beside a new creek companion, Eagle Creek. Its eponymous trail splits off in a half mile. Just before the junction, Lakeshore crosses the creek on a bridge trussed in a maze of iron struts, overkill if you ask me, but I’m no engineer. At the trail junction, I’m again stumped momentarily. Not because the paths are confusing, but because a large tree has fallen and strategically blocked both trails at the start. Fighting my way through limbs and foliage, I begin Eagle Creek Trail.

Pinky-beige blush of Lactarius quietus var. incanus

Pinky-beige blush of Lactarius quietus var. incanus

Within minutes, I’m at the first crossing. It’s 12:15 and a good opportunity to eat lunch before shedding my boots. While eating, I’m startled to see a man through the trees walking upstream. He’s fly fishing.  A second man appears.  Both move methodically up Eagle Creek casting their lines. Neither notice me.

With water shoes on and boots secured in my pack, I roll up my pants legs and begin the first of 16 fords across Eagle Creek. The fishermen are walking back downstream, and I can’t resist asking, “Is your name Dwight by chance?”  Dwight, the distracted fly fisherman, is a reader of this blog, and it would be quite cool to catch him in the act. “No, I’m Bill,” he says and asks me where I’m headed. He confirms that the water level is low, and I shouldn’t have much trouble. He tells me to take care; I wish him luck fishing.

Eagle Creek crossing with a logging rail

Eagle Creek crossing with a logging rail

Indeed, I’ve chosen an excellent time to hike Eagle Creek Trail. The water level is easily manageable and not very swift. It comes over my knees only a few times in one or two spots. It is still important to exercise caution, however. The flow remains powerful enough to throw off balance while walking through. Trekking poles are essential gear, providing extra stability with a second pair of ‘legs.’ On one crossing a downed log was perfectly positioned to lean against. The water feels cool and refreshing on my feet.

Thelephora vialis

Thelephora vialis

The first 4.6 miles of Eagle Creek (which is 8.9 miles total), run a serpentine course up the creek valley, crossing and recrossing the creek 16 times. The valley, seeming wide enough on the ground to question the merit of this routing, looks quite different on a topographic map. Eagle Creek is hemmed by an odd collection of steep ridges emanating from the Smokies crest. Though I still question the true need for so many crossings, on this hot summer day, I’m enjoying the regular relief. That last-minute 80% chance of rain was either a misprint or it simply evaporated. The day is as clear and sunny as originally forecast.

Yellow Blusher

Yellow Blusher

This section of Eagle Creek rises a scant 700 feet in elevation. It’s a little rocky and rooty in places, and I’ve encountered a handful of small blowdowns. Yet all in all it’s been smooth sailing. The stream crossings slow the pace somewhat.  At 1.6 miles is Campsite 89, and at 2.7 miles, the trail bisects Campsite 96 with a small site to either side. The Smokies hiking book says #96 is an ‘island’ campsite, but this is certainly not evident to me. However, it’s rather overgrown, and I didn’t stop to explore. If that area is a stream island, it’s a big one.

Ruddy Puffballs on a downed mossy birch

Ruddy Puffballs on a downed mossy birch

As with many areas of the park, Eagle Creek watershed was heavily logged in the early Twentieth Century. I come across two long strips of iron train rail, one lying in the creek. At times the valley widens enough during a straight run of the creek to lay out an avenue. I’m strolling creekside through a park in every sense.

The moist valley is a boon for evergreen Rosebay Rhododendron, Doghobble, and Partridgeberry, all prevalent along Eagle Creek. There are also impressive showings of New York Fern and Hayscented Fern. Fruiting Cateby’s Trillium and budding Yellow Fringed Orchid dot the trail. A female Diana Fritillary suns on a downed branch.

Could this be Amanita frostiana, Frost's Amanita?

Could this be Amanita frostiana, Frost’s Amanita?

Mushrooms are happy here too. Bright red sporocarps of Cinnabar Chanterelles (Cantharellus cinnabarinus) complement the dark green mossy banks of Eagle Creek at several crossings. Understated Lactarius quietus var. incanus features a soft pinkish bloom over the purple-brown caps. False coral (Thelephora vialis) sprouts fresh rosettes, shining like lights against the dark earth.

Around 4 p.m., I arrive at my destination for the night, Campsite 97.  The hiking book indicates there is a site on the far side of the sixteenth and final creek crossing. Not so. The space has been unused for some time with plants sprouting all through it, and there are no bear cables. I cross back to the real site and set up camp.

Montagne's Polypore cap

Montagne’s Polypore cap

It turned into a beautiful day in the mountains, yet there were few people in this remote area of the park. I saw four hikers on the A.T., two backpackers on Lost Cove, and two fishermen on Eagle Creek. No one else comes to Campsite 97 tonight. I sleep well lulled by the shushing sound of the creek.

The next morning I strike camp, cross the creek one last time, and prepare for the final 4.3 miles of Eagle Creek Trail. The grade begins to steepen and undulate and the valley narrows, yet the first 2.7 miles remain easy enough with one stretch perched along a raised rail bed. Wood Betony joins the plants already listed as a notable presence on trail.

The concentric gill-like pores of Montagne's Polypore

The concentric gill-like pores of Montagne’s Polypore

Mushrooms include Yellow Blusher (Amanita flavorubescens), Powdery Amanita, Ruddy Puffballs (Morganella subincarnata), False Coral Mushroom, Gem-studded Puffball, young sprigs of Hericium americanum, and possibly Frost’s Amanita (Amanita frostiana). One bolete looks like a massive pancake bigger than my hand. Montagne’s Polypore (Coltricia montagnei) is a widespread but uncommon fungi whose pores radially elongate to form gill-like concentric rings beneath the cap.

Toothed fungus Hericium americanum

Toothed fungus Hericium americanum

With 1.6 miles to go, the real fun begins on Eagle Creek as the trail makes an abrupt change in grade at 3500 feet and climbs alongside Spence Cabin Branch.  A slow and deliberate pace with pauses to catch my breath and drink water proves a good strategy. One steep section is actually a cobble corollary to the branch, and the rocks are sturdy and stable enough to make decent steps. The trail moderates as it crosses the branch just past the mid-way point.  Here the forest is lush and beautiful. Grasses and sedges that make Spence Field so lovely are here along with Bee Balm, Cutleaf Coneflower, Cardinal Flower, Heart-leaf Hedge-nettle, and White Wood Aster. Blue Cohosh is loaded with green fruits not yet ripe.

Raised rail, now trail, bed on the upper half of Eagle Creek

Raised rail, now trail, bed on the upper half of Eagle Creek

I pass three men coming down from Spence Field. They are pleased to learn the stream crossings ahead will be easy. I’m pleased to learn I’m almost at the top. One final steep push puts me at the spring for Spence Field Shelter. I stop here to filter a liter of water, then rest a bit at the shelter, eating a snack and drinking. I’ve got 0.2 mile left on Eagle Creek Trail through the sea of sedges carpeting this area to reach the A.T.  Another 0.3 mile past some tasty blueberry bushes will put me at the start of Jenkins Ridge Trail. It’s a long trail (8.9 miles), but it is mostly downhill. I feel good knowing the hard part is over.

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