| Newfound Gap to Fontana Dam |
OCTOBER 16-21, 2015
AT HIKE : Newfound Gap to Fontana Dam
A 45 mile, four-day hike with an Appalachian Trail first-timer…
In October 2015, I had the pleasure to introduce a multi-day Appalachian Trail (AT) backcountry hiking trip to my father-in-law, John “PapaJohn” Atkinson.
John had the built-in trail name …”PapaJohn.” PapaJohn goes with his wife (my mother-in-law) CiCi…you know Papa John and Ci-Ci Pizza…. It is their grandparent’s nicknames….. So John’s trail name could be no other than “PapaJohn.”
Going back some month and a half, I proposed a potential hike that coincided with our family going to the Smoky Mountains for a quick get-away like everyone else in the fall season to leaf peek. The plan was for John and I to drive up to Fontana Dam to start our hike heading northbound a few days earlier with the timing to be at Newfound Gap for our family to retrieve us at the trailhead; all in order for them to shuttle us back to Fontana Dam where our car would be parked only 4 days earlier.
As life usually happens, my wife whom assists an Alabama State Judge had a somewhat expected jury trial that came to trial on the already scheduled vacation dates that John and I had scheduled with our employers. My mother-in-law would not go unless my wife went…so the family trip turn to a guys’ trip along with any other friends that desired to go at my invitation.
My father-in-law and I ended up being the only two to go when one commitment injured his previously replaced knee therefore causing him to respond with regrets that his surgeon advised him to postpone his commitment to go.
TRAVEL DAY: On October 16, PapaJohn and I drove 4.5-5hrs up to the southeast end
of the GSMNP in North Carolina via the “Tail of the Dragon” from Birmingham, Alabama to shelter at the “Fontana Hilton” (Appalachian Trail shelter). We did this to stage ourselves for an early AM shuttle pick-up. The shuttler was to take us to Newfound Gap trailhead in order for us to hike around 42 miles back to Fontana Dam where our car would be waiting on us as the end point.
Being the only two to go; I decided, due to logistics and elevation profile, to change our direction from northbound to southbound. We could hike back to our car at a pace that was suited for us and not worry about being at an appointed destination for pick-up by a shuttler. This just made more sense to me, given PapaJohn was a first-timer to multi-day backcountry backpacking. Besides, the iconic Smoky Mountain setting of Fontana Dam made for a grand destination to end our Fall hiking season adventure.
While traversing the “Tail of the Dragon,” we witnessed no less than 500 corvettes zooming through the hair-pin turns on their way to Deal’s Gap to meet up with various Corvette clubs. It stands to reason, this weekend in October, was “Corvette Weekend.”
That evening, we decided to have dinner at the “Wildwood Grill in Fontana Village after checking out the dam and Fontana Hilton Shelter. I elected for their burger while PapaJohn chose their Carolinian pulled pork sandwich. We left there satisfied and ready to get some rest at the shelter.
When we got to the shelter around 8pm, we found two other hikers already set up and in their sleeping bags. I coached PapaJohn to the sleep mat and sleeping bag set up along with making sure all snacks/food were out of his backpack to combat the typical shelter-mice vandalization of packs to get to a smell.
Around 10pm, a father, son, and their friend showed up after driving there from Huntsville, Alabama. They went through the same familiar sleep set-up as we had due to their friend being new to hiking and sheltering.
Well…, fast forward a few short hours….. all the snacks in PapaJohn’s pack, were not out and hanging. Around about 1am, one the hikers woke me up telling me he witnessed a mouse nosing around PapaJohn’s pack looking like it was starting to chew into it. Sure enough when I examined his pack, I found mini granola muffin bites….. PapaJohn learned very quickly, mice are more of a problem than bears in regard to stored food. He was taught the lesson to double-check the pack to make sure all smell-ables were out and hung….especially in shelters or you would be awaken by a nibbling sound or worse….a hungry bear!
After the 1am mouse incident and making sure all food was properly placed, we all fell asleep to a night that started out fairly comfortable in temperature to being in the low 30’s for our first morning of packing up our gear. I coached PapaJohn the previous night on proper sleep gear set-up, now I had to show him proper gear packing to secure it in the pack correctly. Believe it or not, gear isn’t haphazardly tossed into the pack. There is a distinct placement depending on what it is and when you will need it again.
TRAIL DAY 1: We meet our pre-arranged shuttler for him to transport us to Newfound Gap AT southbound trailhead. We planned to hike around 10.8+ miles to Double Spring Gap shelter. On this day’s section, the highlight was our traverse over Clingman’s Dome. Clingman’s Dome is the highest point (at 6,643 ft) on the entire AT and we took full advantage of the day’s clear, very cool, and abundance of sunny weather.
The observation deck and walk-way from the parking lot was “ZOO-LIKE” with hundreds of people taking advantage of the perfect Fall day. To be candid, I found myself wanting to get back on the trail ASAP.
I felt privileged to be able to take the AT to and from Clingman’s Dome as opposed to the winding road via automobile.
As the day was winding down and we descended down the trail, we spot the night’s shelter…Double Spring Gap shelter. The shelter was already starting to fill with the other hikers we had met during the day. By happenstance, the hikers at the shelter were from the Birmingham, Alabama area too.
That evening as the temperature began to drop, we benefited from the operating fireplace that the backcountry shelter offered. We set up our sleep area on the lower level of the shelter as close to the fireplace as possible. The night was to offer a 20degree low and would definitely test my new ZPACKS 10degree down sleeping bag that I had not gotten a chance to test on a more controlled trip than a 4-night high elevation backcountry backpacking trip in the GSMNP.
In my ever-increasing desire to cut pack weight, my choice in a down bag; the ZPACKS 10degree down sleeping bag combines the best aspects of a down quilt and a down sleeping bag with each baffle being overstuffed with 30% more of 900 Fill Power Premium Goose Down which yields only 19.4 oz of weight. Interestingly enough, one way the sleeping bag weight has been reduced by ZPACKS is the elimination of the draft tube, draft collar, and attached hood. The correct way to use this bag when the temperature does drop, is to sleep on the flat-lay zipper (in combination with an insulating sleep mat/pad) to compensate for not having a draft tube and to wear a hooded down jacket (or the ZPACKS goose down detached hood) for heat retention at your head/neck. I can attest to the warmth-to-weight-ratio and quality of the ZPACKS down bag offering. I stayed comfortably warm every night with the light-weight ZPACKS 10degree down sleeping bag. I would recommend it to those individuals that are looking to decrease your pack weight and dislike the mass-produced $600+ 900 Fill Power down bags. specs link: ZPACKS DOWN BAG
The other new addition, in regard to gear, is my modified ZPACKS 60 Liter Arc Blast in “ALL BLACK.” In keeping with the previous statement about my “ever increasing desire” to cut pack weight, the Arc Blast weighs in at 21 oz. versus the typical pack that starts out around 4 lbs. The Arc Blast load capacity is at 35 lbs. This trip’s backpack weight came in at 21 lbs, so my pack-weight reduction journey continues! The Arc Blast performed very well as I am impressed by the quality and capacity to swallow everything I placed in it.
specs link: ZPACKS ARC BLAST
TRAIL DAY 2: As the next day begins, it offers a cold yet again sunny forecast. The high for this day was between 35-40 degrees. The 20 degree overnight temperature got cold enough to cause ground to give up its moisture in the form of ice at some places. We found several frozen spots that crunched under our feet as we crossed ridges.
Our plan on this day was to hike 13.8+ miles to our destination of Spence Field shelter. We make an earlier start than the previous day as we would need it with the elevation gain and loss… and gain again. The elevation gain was slowing…but steady. PapaJohn always fell behind my pace providing me with an opportunity for a necessary rest while he caught back up. When he did catch up, he rarely stopped…he just kept steadily trucking along…one foot in front of the other.
When in the GSMNP on the AT, a common theme of elevation gained and lost, and gained again becomes very evident. As this common theme continues to be experienced and re-experienced, we find ourselves topping Thunderhead Mountain yielding wonderful views of Cades Cove in the valley below. PapaJohn is astounded at this opportunity to see something he could’ve never pondered. It seemed as though a surreal moment happened in this moment as he had been through Cades Cove on several occasions; never knowing this view was even up here. We even spoke to why I hike the places I hike… in that I am fortunate in health and have a strong desire to see things that the average person isn’t willing put the effort into seeing… or they are just oblivious to such wonderful things.
As we descended off the ridge of Thunderhead Mountain to Rocky Top and the day’s sunlight is escaping us, I know PapaJohn somewhat wondered if we would make Spence Field shelter before the darkness overtook us. I assured him we were very close and to keep pushing. When we got to the Anthony Creek trail that connects to the AT, the intersection sign gave him him confidence that Spence Field was indeed under one mile. Back-tract an hour earlier, when PapaJohn would ask, “How much further?” I would give him the typical hiker’s answer…”Oh…a mile or two!” However, now wasn’t that time to make that hiker’s distance statement as we both were feeling somewhat spent for trail day two…
As we meet up with the spur trail leading down to Spence Field shelter, there was a hint of campfire in the cool and crisping air. As usual, I found myself being ahead of PapaJohn arriving at the shelter before him spotting a welcoming smoke emitting from the stacked stone chimney.
The shelter, we had obtained a permit to use, had a tarp in front of the double-decker platforms shielding your view of the what sounded like a large party of people. As I dropped my pack, and proceeded in to take notice of where PapaJohn and I would be placing our sleep gear, I found more than the shelter maximum occupancy of 12. After a moment of quick calculations (being aggravated that there were 5 unpaid squatters ), there were currently 17 hikers (including PapaJohn & myself) on the premises. I saw a narrow opening on the bottom platform just behind the ladder leading up to the upper platform, I asked where can two “PERMIT-HOLDING hikers” could set their sleep gear up? In hind-sight, I probably should’ve been less snide in regard to my question. I always desire for the people I am guiding on a hike to have just as good of a time as I am having. After hiking all day and it being PapaJohn’s first AT hike on top of his longest single day total mileage (13.8 mi), I wanted to make sure we had a spot. Needless to say, since we had gone through the proper way and expense to secure two spots, it was only logical that we be assured of the opportunity to utilize the shelter. I felt it was just simply VERY POOR trail etiquette for those individuals to squat in the fashion we experienced. Fortunately it all worked out…
We proceeded to set our sleep gear up in the two “shoulder-to-shoulder” spots we were fortunate enough to secure. Shortly after completing the sleep gear set-up, an AT Southbounder Thru-hiker (Kimberly AKA “Hollywood”) showed up inquiring about a spot in the shelter. The upper platform squeezed in just as the lower platform had done for PapaJohn and myself. The late Thru-hiker addition increased the shelter’s occupancy to 18 for the night. Her story was that she had Thyroid cancer and decided to hike south from Katahdin to be ok with herself. She told us all that she would have to come off the trail for doctor’s appointments; to return after the appointment. She was extremely up-beat and humble…, she had used her diagnosis to live.
TRAIL DAY 3: We wake up to a warmer morning than the previous day’s; witnessing the sun rise over the ridge giving its light fully to the shelter. While PapaJohn and I prepared and ate breakfast; the fireplace warmed, overcrowded shelter slowly birthed one hiker after the other until mostly empty, then leaving us to be the last ones to leave. Our goal on this day was to hike 12.5 miles from Spence Field shelter to the Upper Lost Cove campsite.
We make great time and get to Russell Field shelter where we see some of the previous night’s shelter mates from Texas. We decided to push on to have lunch at Mollies Ridge shelter along with re-supplying with water. We actually get to the shelter a little ahead of schedule to have an early lunch.
After Lunch we get back on the trail with around what I thought would be about 6 miles or so to our little camp area. I thought it was just off of the AT around .9 miles or so (reliance on previous hike….). When PapaJohn and I get to the trail intersection, to our surprise, Upper Lost Cove Campsite is …3.9 miles from the AT. He asks if we can just set-up camp just off the trail. I explained to him that camping anywhere except a designated camp area is not allowed and if caught doing so would result in a fine. He said he would pay the fine as he didn’t have any desire to hike 3.9 miles more….So I acquiesced to his request. I decided we would just hike up to Shuckstack firetower to camp in the old Fire Marshall’s cabin foundation’s footprint. This would put us there for the evening’s sunset and the next morning’s sunrise. I’m sure some reading this will frown on this decision, however I didn’t want PapaJohn to go any further when the old cabin footprint was a solid dated foundation that I’m sure had hosted many impromptu tents. The impact was minimal to zero as I left it unrecognizable to being a tent location.
Once we get to the Firetower’s spur trail, I have PapaJohn post up there to wait on me as I needed to go retrieve some water for the night’s camp. The pocket map I had, showed water only 0.9 mile away. So I proceed down the trail trying to keep pace with 2 southbound thru-hikers to no avail…
0.9 miles come and goes without any water to be found. I come to around mile 2 from where I had placed PapaJohn to find a light, almost none existent flow of spring water. So I hop into the gully to follow the moist ground. After about 1,500 yards, I find a weakly flowing spring coming out of the side of the mountain. So I dig it out some to expose a small pool. I can’t dip into it due to the shallowness. So I take a large rhododendron leaf and strategically placed it where it produces enough of a shelved stream flow to the opening of my 2 liter Sawyer filter bag; filling it up after to what seemed to be 20 minutes. When it filled as much as the bag could possibly hold, I got back on the trail and double-timed it back to Shuckstack and PapaJohn. I knew PapaJohn was probably wondering where I was as I had already been gone longer than expected. I didn’t want to worry him…plus I didn’t want to miss the sunset from the 60 foot tall Shuckstack firetower. While double-timing it up the trail, I jumped a black bear that had been lounging in an old growth Oak tree. I scared him so badly that he almost fell out of his high perch. Once on the ground, he made his way toward PapaJohn’s area that I had directed him to stay at while I retrieved the water. When I get back to PapaJohn, he made no mention of the bear after asking him if he had seen it. Come to find out, PapaJohn had taken a quick wilderness nap while waiting for me.
However, I think the bear continued around the slope, skirting the mountain. After catching my breath, we both head up the spur trail to Shuckstack. We got to the tower with plenty of time to set up, filter water, cook dinner, and witness the sunset from the tower. After camp chores were completed, we turn in to the tent for the first time of the entire trip.
The night’s ridge-top camp is a peacefully clear night that offered immense starlight to the point of seeing through the tent mesh. The night also seemed to be the warmest of the trip…especially since the elevation was around 2-3,000 ft less than every night on the trail up to this night thus far. I found myself being not as restful as the previous nights …for whatever reason.
TRAIL DAY 4: The dark night gives way to the early morning’s light as I could tell the sun was starting to come up. Taking full advantage of the Shuckstack camp locale, I arouse myself to ascend the firetower once again to take in its view. On the cold clear morning, the enclosed perched cabin atop the firetower was a welcomed shield.
PapaJohn shortly joins me as he knew the view was going to be something of a lifetime experience. As the sun slowly illuminated the Fontana Lake valley, the fog rising from the lake provided a truly special event. Surely we witnessed some of GOD’s grandeur… To quote the famed Poet Laureate of the High Sierras, John Muir from his writings; My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), – “The place seemed holy, where one might hope to see GOD.”
After taking in the morning’s show, we descend down the firetower’s steps to get the last trail day started only having around 5-6 miles to check off in order to make it to our awaiting car.
After a few short miles downhill mostly, PapaJohn and I break clear away out of the wooded mountains to stroll along the eerily leaf-laden Fontana Dam road. The Dam has been shut down to auto traffic for a few months now; allowing the fall foliage to accumulate along the asphalt. It was at this point when he spots the Dam not realizing the car was closer than ever.
Understanding the distance left to make, PapaJohn receives a second wind and almost bounces across the Dam happily.
Once we get to the car, PapaJohn takes advantage of the hot shower facility near our parking area that entices Thru-hikers to reference the Fontana Hilton as the best shelter on the AT. I opt to not shower and pass the time waiting for PapaJohn to finish by speaking to a hiker from New York that had started at Springer Mountain only a few weeks earlier. I apprise him to the upcoming terrain and water situation or the lack there of… He states he is going to go as far as he can until the pending and predictable wintery weather shuts his adventure down. I wish him luck as he made his way down to Fontana Dam to cross.
Shortly after the New York hiker and I had finished talking, PapaJohn had returned to the car. We attempt to stop at the Wildwood Grill in Fontana Village for a post-hike lunch. However, they were only open on the weekends and the day of the week was Tuesday. So we settle for raiding the Fontana Village camp store’s snack area to hold us over until we can find a suitable place to stop for lunch.
Instead of going home via “The Tail of the Dragon,” we opt to take the Cleveland Expressway which takes us through the Nantahala Forest and by the popular Nantahala Outdoor Center(NOC). When we get to the NOC, I know this is a special place to treat PapaJohn to lunch and explain the significance for Thru-hikers at this location. The significance is that the AT actually crosses the Nantahala River at the NOC. We finally get to sit down to have our post-hike meal at the River’s End restaurant’s open-air porch at the water’s edge. I partake in my normal post-hike bacon cheeseburger and PapaJohn goes with the salad and chicken option. We both finish our meals and walk around the NOC with me pointing out the AT crossing and visiting the NOC outfitters.
All good things must come to an end and we decide to get back on the road to make our way south off the Cumberland Gap to the land of the pine. Luckily not having to thumb my way out of North Caroline….Sorry, every time I’m in North Carolina, I think of the song “Wagon Wheel…”
Anyway…, the experience for an Appalachian Trail First-timer (PapaJohn) was a good one. He learned a lot! He learned the GSMNP-AT was elevation gain after elevation gain and that everyone on the trail had the same goal in mind…to put one foot in front of the other allowing the day’s cares to drop away like the leaves of Autumn (another John Muir muse…in case you were wondering).
As for me…, well…THE MOUNTAINS ARE ALWAYS CALLING BECAUSE IN EVERY WALK WITH NATURE, I KNOW I RECEIVE FAR MORE THAN I SEEK.
Until next time on the trail,