The Morning After

After a night in the Balsam Mountain campgrounds in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, we give up on sleep as soon as there is enough light to see. Watching the lightness of the sky increase through a rain fly is not actually very exciting.  So much of the campgrounds is still asleep that I try to lay there as long as possible, not wanting to disturb the quiet.  We whisper to each other, wondering what time it is.  Pat has an uncanny ability to tell what time it is; he usually guesses within 2 minutes of the actual time.  But today, he is operating on little sleep and he guesses it’s only 5AM.  Since I have been getting up at 4AM, I know that the sun doesn’t rise until after 6AM, so I guess it’s sometime after 6AM.  We lay there contemplating whether we could possibly go back to sleep, But then our nearest neighbor’s baby starts crying again and I decide it’s time to throw in the towel.  For the second time since going to bed, I unzip the tent and head down to the restrooms.

This time, I take my toiletries with me and a camp towel.  I wash my face in the cold water and wish there were a way to take a shower.  After cleaning up, I walk back to the campsite where Pat has gotten up and started putting our gear away.  He has also checked the time and we are both surprised to learn that it’s almost 7AM!  I get out the park maps we’d collected at the visitors’ center the day before and we quietly discuss what we’ll do today.  Amazingly, we hear our neighbors on two sides still snoring in spite of the noisy children.  The neighbor to our left has a large, multi-room tent with a screened “porch” area that we can see through.  We see their dog sitting alert, watching the squirrels that keep chattering from the trees.  We didn’t know they had a dog with them until just now–it hasn’t made a single sound.  The dog sits silently amusing himself by creature watching, moving only his ears and head, patiently waiting for his people to wake up.  What a great dog to camp with!

We decide we will drive towards Cherokee and find a place to eat breakfast and then drive up to Clingman’s Dome to see the view and hike along the Appalachian trail as far as we have time for.  Pat amends our plan to add that he wants to find a hotel for the night–he’s not up for another sleepless night next to noisy neighbors.  We decide we will head North through the park after our hike and find a place to stay in Gatlinburg.  Our plan settled, I go about making a cup of coffee on our camp burner while Pat heads down to the restroom to get ready.  Unfortunately, I discover that when we were packing, we grabbed the mug that did not have the coffee filter stored with it.  Since morning coffee is something that I can’t live without, when Pat returns, he helps me look for the other cup with the filter.  Having no luck, Pat shifts into MacGyver mode.  He suggests making a filter from a Wet One, a sock, and a mesh sack, but I prefer not to strain my coffee through something icky and opt to just put the grounds straight in the cup.  After stirring and waiting for the grounds to settle, I sip carefully so as not to disturb the grounds on the bottom.  This actually works better than I expect–especially since you can’t drink coffee too quickly from a Titanium mug, it transfers too much heat and will burn your lip.

Now fully awake, I join Pat in tearing down the campsite.  We take the rain fly off the tent and turn it over, spreading it on the picnic table to give the condensation from the night a chance to dry.  We un-stake the tent and flip it over, exposing the damp bottom to the air so it, too will dry.  We pack away all the other gear and wait, our tent and rain fly still damp in the humid air.  There are heavy clouds and no rays of sunshine to help dry our gear.  Eventually, we dig napkins out of the glove box and dry off the rain fly as best we can, tired of waiting.  I make a mental note to make sure to get the gear out again when we’re at home so it can dry properly–I don’t want to have to deal with a moldy tent.

Having packed up, we stop at the restroom one last time on the way out of the campgrounds for a post-coffee brush of our teeth.  The same two rangers pass us as they start their morning rounds and we exchange enthusiastic smiles and waves as if we see each other all the time.  After finishing up, we head back down the road for the final time this weekend, hoping to see our friend the elk on the way out, but he has disappeared into the woods.  We do see an entire flock of wild turkeys with nearly a dozen young ones following their parents on a grassy slope.

Near Cherokee, we find a restaurant serving breakfast.  They have a buffet, but when we look at it, we decide to order from the menu.  Since we have a cell signal again, I’ve taken my iPad in with me to get my daily blog post done.  The waitress comes over, sees my iPad, and says, “Oh!  I want one of those!  If I had one of those, I would read all the time!”  I think she would do a lot more than read, but just smile and agree–I contain my enthusiasm for my iPad and stop myself from launching into a spiel about all the wonderful things you can do with it.  Pat gives me a look that indicates he is grateful for this–he often tells me I should work for Apple.  Breakfast comes and we eat hungrily, shoveling down eggs and bacon, toast and hashbrowns without attempting to savor it.  It’s not the best breakfast I’ve ever had, but it’s hot and we’re hungry.

We decide to go to a grocery store while in Cherokee and get some provisions for a day of hiking.  We find a large Food Lion not too far from the park entrance and wander through the store collecting apples, bananas, trail mix bars, beef jerky, and water.  We had prepared a gallon jug of filtered water to bring with us, but discovered it didn’t make it into the car when we went to refill our day-pack water bladders.  That task accomplished, we head back to the road to make our way to Clingman’s Dome.  I look forward to this–the last time we were in the park it was December and the road to Clingman’s was closed for the winter.  Although it’s overcast and visibility was poor on the way to Cherokee, I hope for clearer skies and spectacular views.

Hiking Flat Creek Trail

I’m not sure who named Flat Creek Trail, but I suspect they have a twisted sense of humor.  The first half mile of the trail is virtually straight down to a creek.  The second is almost straight up.  This repeats several times.  I’m not sure where the “flat” part came from.  Since it’s close to 5Pm by the time we leave and sunset is around 8:30PM these days, we calculate how long we have before we need to turn back around.  Given that we’re on the shady side of the mountain, it will get darker earlier.  We decide we want to be off the mountain in 2 1/2 hours and that we should allow 15 extra minutes for the return trip.  This is a habit we have developed after many years of hiking together.  We always assume it will take us longer to return since we seem to always choose trails that end uphill.  However, we always take far less time on the return than on the way out.  This is mainly because I want to stop and shoot frequently on the way out, but rarely on the way back.  In any case, since we’re always relieved to be back in plenty of time when we’re racing against nightfall, we continue to pretend the return will take longer than the way out.

We work our way down the steep mountain trail and I relish the feeling of my feet sinking into the earth.  That is what I most love about my fivefingers shoes–the feeling of being barefoot when I’m not.  However, the thing I love the least is how it feels when I kick a rock with my pinky toes–something I seem to do every third or fourth step.  I wonder how long it takes to learn to keep track of your pinky toes after they have been sheltered inside a toe box for so many decades?  As we work our way down to the bottom of the trail, the trail gets narrower, encased in berry bushes.  If it were a month earlier, I’m confident we would find an entire bear family cheerfully munching on the berries, but since this berry crop has been completely stripped, there is little chance of a beer encounter here.  That’s a good thing.  As much as I want to see a bear, these are the kinds of tight quarters where the risk of sneaking up on one accidentally is too high and too dangerous.

I continually hear rustling in the bush as we walk.  I stop frequently and ask Pat if he hears it.  He doesn’t–although he asks me if I’ve heard the gun shots that keep going off in the distance (I have).  Each time I stop, the noise stops.  This is usually a sign that I’m hearing something rubbing that I’m carrying or wearing.  Each time I start again, I try to figure out what could be making the noise I hear.  I am never able to figure it out, but then Pat starts hearing noise in the brush.  We stop and spot wild turkeys at the side of the trail.  By the time I get my camera in position, on, and the lens cap off the last one tucks her head behind a weed and they disappear.  I decide to leave my camera on, although I do put the lens cap back on.

We walk on and I continue hearing the underbrush noises that I can’t quite reconcile with any explanation that makes sense.  Then Pat stops me again.  This time, it’s a female pheasant (I think–I’m not too good with game birds) working her way back and forth on the path ahead of us.  I manage to get a couple of shots off this time, but who knows if they will be clear?  We wait for her to find her way up into the woods before we pass, keeping our eyes open for any friends or family that might be lurking near by.  However, she appears to be alone and we continue down the path.

We come to the first creek crossing and walk carefully across a single-log foot bridge.  It’s smooth under my feet but my fivefingers grip the surface securely (another thing I love about them).  We both manage to cross without getting so much as a toe wet.  We see interesting mosses and lichen growing on the trees near the creek.  Pat always spots the most interesting fungus.  Unfortunately, I didn’t bring my macro lens with me and neither lens I do have is good for these kinds of shots–my wide angle won’t focus from close enough and my telephoto requires brighter lighting for close up shots.  I pass on taking the time to try to get a shot, knowing what I’ll get won’t likely be worth the effort.

We trek on, crossing a second creek.  This time, we work our way across on the tops of rocks.  Pat opts for the path most travelled, while I head up stream a bit for a route that seems a little drier, not wanting to walk in wet feet.  My fivefingers make me feel like a rock climber the way they stick to the rocks.  I cross with dry feet and we continue on.

When we get to a flat area (maybe that’s what the trail is named after?) where the creek runs through fern-covered ground and the trees are small and young, we spot many small birds flitting around the branches that hand low over the water.  I do not even try to shoot them in the dim light.  I have a hard time shooting song birds in bright light because they are not so cooperative when it comes to sitting for my camera.  We spot a yellow-rumped warbler and a goldfinch, but several others remain a mystery, silhouetted against the sky.  We watch for a while, catching our breath and waiting to se if more of the birds will fly down to reveal what they are.  I ask Pat what time it is and if we need to turn around.  He tells me he left his phone in the car.  Neither of us has our phone or a watch, so now we have to guess at how long we’ve been hiking and whether it’s time to turn around or not.

Pat votes for turning around given that it’s getting darker faster than we expected and we have a lot of uphill climbing to do to get back.  I agree and back we go.  now we are on a mission.  I’m not exactly sure what it is that worries us so much about getting caught in the woods after dark.  We have a flashlight with us and it’s not like we’ve never hiked at night.  But, for some reason, getting back to the car before dark seems imperative.  Maybe it’s more about our growling stomachs and only one paltry bag of salted peanuts in our day pack that drives us to set this artificial deadline?  In any case, we put our heads down and hike out like there’s no tomorrow.  We pass by another group of wild turkeys, but otherwise see no more wildlife.  Whatever the sound of something in the underbrush was that I kept hearing on the way out, I don’t hear now.

When we get to the final climb, we slow down and pace ourselves.  Our goal now is to finish our hike without smelling so bad that we can’t go out to eat.  We prepare ourselves for a long, slow, uphill climb and are surprised when the total climb is less than half as long as we expected.  I comment that maybe it’s like the first time you drive somewhere–it always seems a lot longer on the way there.

Returning to the car, we get out wet wipes and clean shirts and clean up the best we can on the side of the road.  As we stand there cooling off, a ranger pulls up in a pick up truck and asks if we’ve just come off the trail.  When we affirm that we have, he asks if we saw any wild boar.  Apparently, wild boar are a problem in the area.  They were first introduced here by Europeans for hunting hundreds of years ago, but they have become an invasive species in the woods of the South ever since.  After the ranger leaves, we wonder if that’s what they were shooting.

After making ourselves semi-presentable for a casual dining spot, we once more pile into the car and head down the road.

A Room with No View

Pat and I arrive at the South entrance to Great Smoky Mountain National Park around 3PM on Saturday.  We pull into the visitors’ center and I ask for available front-country campsites.  The ranger at the visitor’s center checks her list and rattles off all the campgrounds that are full.  It’s the first time we’ve had to ask a Southerner to slow down–we can’t keep up.  She shows us the list and advises us on which camp grounds with vacancies are closest.  We opt for Balsam Mountains even though there were only 12 sites left there as of 11AM.  It’s relatively close and it’s less popular, so we figured the odds that it will have filled are slim.

We drive through the Cherokee reservation to get to that part of the park, taking the Blue Ridge Skyway for a stretch.  It’s such a beautiful part of the country.  While Colorado and the Rockies have long been personal favorites, the Smokies have their own charm, covered in trees and draped in “smoky” clouds.  We enjoy the drive up to Balsam Mountain campgrounds although it takes longer than we expected.  It’s something I forget each time we go to a remote place–8 miles doesn’t take 8 minutes like on a highway.  As we crawl our way up the winding mountain road, we see wild turkeys along the road.  Each time, I get a step further in getting my camera together, but they disappear into the underbrush before I can get a shot off.

Then, Pat comes around a corner to see a motorcyclist pulled off in the grass on the left.  Across the grass field, a large bull elk stands with his head down, eating grass.  Pat stops the car and I get my camera out.  Having been well versed on personal safety and elks in the Canadian Rockies (where we were told that the vast majority of animal/people encounters resulting in injury are between elk and humans), I stay in the car.  However, I’m shooting with my big lens and sitting in a running vehicle.  I curse my aging eyes that I can’t tell if the pictures are clear or not from the LCD on the camera.  As soon as I put my camera down and we start to roll forward, the elk lifts his head and looks at us straight on with a mouth full of grass.  What a great shot that would have been.  We wind our way slowly by the elk, who watches us go as if he appreciates the entertainment of us stopping to gawk.

We make it to the camp grounds and go on a quest to find an empty site.  The first site in is empty, but it has a handicapped sign.  We debate the rules of occupying a handicapped site.  Is it like a parking place, which you can never park in without a sticker?  Or is it like a handicapped stall in the restroom, which you would only use if all other stalls are full?  We decide to drive on and see if anything else is open just so we don’t have to deal with the dilemma.  Fortunately, there is another site that looks to have good shade.  The sites are smaller than in most state parks and a little more on top of each other than I would like, although still more private than some of the commercial campgrounds I’ve seen.  There is a gravel pit framed with wood for pitching the tent.  The gravel is fine enough not to be bumpy but large enough to hold stakes.  We pitch our 2-man tent (which Pat says is perfect for 1 person) quickly, spread the rain-fly over it, stake it all down, blow up our Big Agnes air mattresses, and I crawl inside to get things positioned properly.  It’s good that there is no view from the campsite because the rain-fly prevents us from seeing anything other than an orange glow from inside the tent anyway.  Deciding not to put our sleeping bags in the tent yet, we head back to the entrance to fill out our site information and pay our $14 for the night.  We also make a pit stop at the restroom, which has running water, although only cold.

When we return to the site with our permit, two rangers are making rounds.  They stop to warn us about bears and about not keeping food in our tent.  One is familiar with Chattanooga and he and Pat end up chatting while I talk to the other about potential places to go for an evening hike.  He recommends Flat Creek Trail, which has one end near the campground and the other end a few miles down the road.  He says there have been many bear reports in that area and I look forward to the opportunity to see a bear (although preferably not too close).  We’ve encountered black bears several times on various hikes and have never had a problem.  However, I wouldn’t want to run into one in close proximity or come between a mother and her cubs.

We gather up the gear we’ll need for the hike.  We plan to go no more than 5 miles round trip with the amount of light left, so only one day pack will be needed.  I will, of course, haul my camera gear along with us just in case I get the chance to shoot a black bear.  Packing everything we don’t need back into the trunk of the car for security, we load back into the car and head back the way we came, deciding to start at the far end of the trail where we will be further from the humans at the campground.

As we pull out of the camp grounds, Pat spots 3 wild turkeys on the side of the road.  I’m excited by the number of wild turkeys in the park–they were once such a rare occurrence.  They, of course, dart behind tall grasses and disappear down the slope before I can get a shot.  If only they would pose for me instead of running away!  But, I suppose their quick retreat into hiding partly explains the resurgence of the population, so I’m glad that they know not to trust humans.  After we go around a few more curves, we encounter our elk friend again.  This time, a white SUV is stopped in the middle of the road and a woman is standing outside the vehicle with the door closed shooting our friend who has bedded down in the grass.  We stop and wait.  The SUV pulls off to the side to allow us to pass and the elk decides to stand.  Now, if I were that woman standing there completely exposed with no quick escape, I would start walking backwards and get into the car.  However, she takes two more steps forward, trying to get a close-up shot with a small point-and-shoot camera.  Pat passes the SUV slowly, although I really want to stay and watch just to see what happens.  As we go by, the elk looks at us with an expression that makes me think he’s asking us, “What the heck is up with this woman?”

We head on down the road and just a few curves later, find our trailhead.  We gear up and prepare to head down the trail.  Pat wears the day pack with our water and I sling my big lens on its monopod over my shoulder and we start off.