Saturday, July 15, 2017

DAYS 2: RUSSEL FIELD SHELTER TO DERRICK KNOB SHELTER


After a restless night and little sleep, morning greeted us with fog, left over from rain during the night.  It was about 6:30am, the time that most hikers seem to start to stir.  I was filled with relief, knowing that I'd made it through my first night ever sleeping in a shelter with other hikers...and, truth is, it wasn't that bad after all!  I'm not sure, but I think the nighttime temps had dipped into the mid-50's so there was definitely a chill in the air (especially for us Floridians).   Climbing down from my spot on the upper platform, I stretched my aching muscles and wondered what the day ahead of us held in store.  We were excited because it was going to be much shorter than the day before, coming in at just under 10 miles. Breakfast consisted of oatmeal, and I should have figured it was going to be a rough day for me when me sudden distaste for all things sweet wouldn't allow me to eat very much of my breakfast.  I knew I need the calories for energy, but every time I tried to swallow a bite, I gagged.  I choked down what I could, then set about the task of packing up my gear.  The age-old saying that nothing ever fits back in the box once you take it out certainly holds true when it comes to re-packing my backpack.  For some reason, I always have trouble with it.  Still, I finally managed to get it done and before we knew it, we were ready to head out.  Derrick Knob Shelter was our destination that day.






I'm not sure how long we'd been walking, but we stopped to catch our breath after a particularly long, taxing climb.  Out of breath, we didn't speak.  After a couple of minutes, we were ready to start out again, so we turned and took a step.  Suddenly, we realized that we were not alone!  Off to our right came the deepest growls I've ever heard!  Startled, my brother, who was in the lead position, began to bang his trekking poles together as he yelled, "Go on bear!  Get out of here!"  The bear, as startled as we were, continued to send us those deep warning growls as he ran down the slope of the mountain.  Ironically, just that morning my brother has said the he wouldn't mind seeing a bear, but only from a distance.  Ask and you shall receive!  He got to see the bear's butt as it ran away from us.  While we're certain that we heard other bears over the trek, this was the only one we actually caught sight of!

As we approached Rocky Top, after a climb that seemed to go on forever, the terrain opened up to beautiful flowers and grasses:








Once we reached Rocky Top, the weather changed quickly, the clouds rolling in across the mountains and chilling our sweaty bodies to the core.  There's a certain beauty in the power of the mountains...they "make their own weather," as our shuttle driver had told us.  One very valuable lesson we learned was that in the Smoky Mountains, you need to be prepared for any kind of weather!




Still trying to keep a smile on my face

I'm not sure what exactly was going on, but my boot seemed to hit the top of my left ankle with every step I took.   Uphill wasn't as bad as going down, and there was no blister, but the pain was often almost enough to stop me in my tracks.  Looking back, all I can figure is that having my left foot on the inside of the trail and often close to the mountain itself must have caused me to pronate my foot inward, thus pounding the boot against my ankle.  Nothing I did relieved it so all I could do was drive on.  The thing is...once you're in the Smoky Mountains, there aren't all the forest service roads we'd come across on prior hikes, so there's nowhere along the way to stop, call, and get picked up.  I certainly wasn't going to call the Back-country office and have them come get me so I just kept on walking...sometimes moving at a pace slower than anything I'd even call a walk.  What else was there to do?
The calm before the storm...



We tried to eat something as we took a much-needed break up on Rocky Top, but all I was able to get down was not even half of my Big Sur bar.  Before long, the wind picked up and we decided to move on.  We barely got started down Rocky Top before the rain hit.  And it hit hard, complete with thunder and all the fixings!  Instantly soaked through to the bone, we opted to push on without undoing everything to get our rain gear.  We were already soaked...it wouldn't have made one bit of difference.  Crossing Thunderhead Mountain, the trail was instantly transformed into a rapidly-running river, making traversing the descent treacherous at best.  I'm still not sure how I managed to get down that mountain without serious injury.  I'm not stable on rocks and frequently slip in mud, but somehow, I managed to stay on my water-logged feet.

I honestly didn't think it was possible for the trail to be any harder on me than it had been the day before...on all of us, really...but that 9 miles was far worse than the 13.5 we'd logged in the day before.  By this time, I'd hiked two long, difficult days on very little food, in constant pain, and was almost beyond what I'd call exhausted...but I couldn't quit.  I wouldn't quit.

I think I almost cried when the Derrick Knob Shelter came into sight at last...


Several other hikers had beaten us to the shelter, so there was very little room to hang any wet clothes but we were just so glad to finally be in out of the rain, that we didn't care.  We claimed our spot in the shelter (on the lower level this time) and then changed out of our cold, wet clothes.  A cup of coffee, some dinner, and a shelter full of other amazing hikers helped to make us feel better.  Thankful that I was able to keep my dinner down, I was more than ready to climb into the warmth of my sleeping bag at what couldn't have been much later than 7:30.  Using my rain poncho as a cover to protect my head from bugs, and whatever else might crawl around inside the shelter at night, I remember being amazed at just how comfortable my little 25"-wide blow-up sleeping pad was.  For the first time since early that morning, I was finally warm and it didn't take long for sleep to overcome my exhausted body and spirit.  I didn't have time to contemplate what lay ahead of us the next day.  I had no idea when we'd set out the day before just how deep down within myself I'd have to dig just to keep putting one foot in front of the other. 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

DAY 1 IN THE SMOKY MOUNTAINS: FONTANA TO RUSSEL FIELD'S SHELTER

     Today is July 8th, and I've been home from my Appalachian Trail section hike for a month but still haven't really been able to put the experience into words.  Like one young lady I met along the way put it, I didn't really go out on the A.T. to discover the meaning of life or anything....but I did learn a few things about myself. 
     I can't really put my finger on why I felt different going into this hike.  For two years, we'd been talking about heading into the Smoky Mountains...


 ...but as we sat in our room at the Hike Inn, Fontana Village on the night on 6/2/17





 I found that my stomach was tied in knots and my mind was filled with doubts:  What would it be like to sleep in the shelters with 9 other hikers?  Would we encounter any black bears along the way?  What would that first climb out of the Fontana Dam area be like?  The night passed quickly, and before long we found ourselves loading up our gear into the back of our shuttle driver's SUV.  As we traveled the short distance to the trail-head, she gave us the customary "critter talk."  That mile across the dam itself only served to add to those butterflies in my stomach. 

And suddenly, we were there:


Renee waited patiently as we situated our packs and said our farewells.  There was nothing left to do but put one foot in front of the other and begin our 40-mile trek that would take us from Fontana Dam to Newfound Gap, NC.  Day 1 loomed largely ahead of us, packing in almost 14 miles to the Russel Field Shelter.  Within the first 5 minutes, I was huffing and puffing as we began our ascent to the Shuckstack Fire Tower.  It didn't take me long to figure out that I the Smoky Mountains are no joke and that I was extremely ill-prepared physically for what lie ahead of me.  Still, I did my best to keep a good attitude despite the way my body kept reminding me that I was a little bit short of being crazy to think I was ready to take on this hike. 

Stopped for a break!



Because the mountain wasted no time with kicking my butt, I didn't get very many pictures on the first day of our hike, but the woods did open up a couple of times to provide us with some amazing views:


Still managing to smile!
 I did take the side trail to the Shuckstack Fire Tower, but chickened out once I got up to it!  There was only one side-rail and I just couldn't make myself do it!  I did, however, take a few shots of the beautiful flowers along the way!



Taking time to enjoy the little things!


The trail went on.  The trail went up.  The trail was relentless, kicking butt and taking no prisoners!  Thinking back on it now, I don't think I've ever felt the multitude of physical, mental, and emotional feelings that I experienced on that first day.  I'm not sure what came over me, but I found myself suddenly unable to eat the Big Sur bars we'd planned for our lunch.  The snacks (meant for quick energy) also made me gag after a bite or so.  So, I pretty much was unable to eat anything other than breakfast and dinner each day.  Exhausted from the lack of calories, I didn't think it could get much worse...but I was wrong.  I'm not sure how far away from the Russel Field Shelter we were, but I had to stop suddenly because I felt like I was going to throw up (although I'm not sure what would have come up as my stomach was empty).  This continued on for the rest of the hike actually...

Before we started the day, we were certain that we would be the last hikers to arrive at the shelter.  Turns out, however, that we were the first! 

Russel Field Shelter
We claimed our spots, and I had to sit down.  Typically, I volunteer to go get the water for the night, but this time, I simply couldn't.  I had nothing left in me.  My brother and sister graciously offered to go fill everything up, and while they were gone, I had to visit the "toilet area" (there was no privy), where I finally did throw up the contents of my empty stomach.  By the time they returned, I felt a little better.  We did our best to relax and enjoy a cup of instant coffee before making dinner.  The ever-famous "hiker midnight" came around 7:30, as well all (and I do mean all 12 of us) slowly began to climb into our sleeping bags.  We drifted in and out of sleep, making sure to get up to pee one last time before darkness finally set in.  I have to say that everything I've ever read about the snoring in the shelters is absolutely true, but I didn't mind.  The noise brought some much-needed comfort from the thought of hearing the black bears raiding our camp.  As I lay there in the dark, those voices in my head were saying, "Great job today, Domingo!  You made it through Day 1!"  I drifted off to a restless sleep, wondering what Day 2 would hold....




Saturday, May 27, 2017

T-MINUS SIX DAYS AND COUNTING: THE SMOKY MOUNTAINS ARE WAITING

We've talked about it for almost two years now.  I've read countless posts about it on various Facebook pages.  I've even posted my own questions about it.  And now, in one week, I'll finally be doing it...


...I'll be taking my first steps into the Smoky Mountains.  As with all of my section hikes, as the departure dates draws closer, I'm starting to feel that excitement that always comes with heading back out on the Appalachian Trail.  But this time, I'm feeling something different.  It comes from the fear of the unknown, with this hike being filled with a few "firsts" for me:

1.  I am required to sleep in the shelter.  I prefer to sleep in my tent.


  Yes, I typically stay in the shelter areas, but enjoy the privacy of my tent when darkness falls.  I don't fancy the idea of trying to sleep as the mice run across my chest while the bugs and other creepy crawlies attempt to make themselves at home in my sleeping bag.  I consider myself to be a rather social person, but don't relish the thought of spending the night immersed in a group of total strangers.  That being said, everyone I've asked said it's an experience not to missed, so I hope that turns out to be true. 

2.  I am terrified of bears...

....and the Smoky Mountains is full of black bears!  I've always been pretty anal about my food storage habits, and I go out of my way to secure anything that has any smell to it, whether it be food, deodorant, or even toothpaste.  Still, just knowing that the chances are very good that I'll encounter one of these beautiful, impressive creatures puts that knot of fear in the pit of my stomach.  Honestly, it's my fear of bears that makes sleeping in a shelter full of other hikers not seem quite so bad!

3.  I am questioning my physical abilities...I'm not a fast hiker and being from Florida, I have no opportunity to really get in adequate practice climbing mountains.  Knowing that I've got almost 14 miles to go the very first day, up some grueling elevation changes, carrying 35lbs on my back...well...I'd be lying if I said just the thought of it is daunting to me.  For the last week, every time I begin to doubt myself, I stop and repeat, "I can do it," to myself.  Hopefully by the time we hit the trail again, I'll believe it.

I do have to say that I've never gone into a hike without wondering what the trail holds in store for me.  I've fallen.  I've hiked with blisters.  I've walked in water that covered the tops of my boots, as the rain pelted me in the face.  I've cried.  I've laughed.  I've danced a jig.  Most of all, I've taken deep breaths and let go of the excess baggage I'd carried into the woods with me.  So, as I deal with my emotions this week, I'll be looking forward to returning to the woods once again.  I'll be looking forward to spending time with my siblings.  I'll be looking forward to showing myself, yet again, just what I'm capable of doing when I put my mind to it!



Sunday, August 7, 2016

PUTTING THINGS ON HOLD FOR A WHILE...WHAT LIFE STEPPING IN HAS TAUGHT ME


It's no secret that one of my passions is hiking on the Appalachian Trail.  Each year, I look forward to that particular week when we load up our packs and head out for our section hike.  We usually can only go for a week at a time, which includes 5 or 6 days of hiking and a couple days of travel time and it's become my "event of the year," so to speak.  But, as we all know, sometimes life steps in and things just don't work out according to plan.  This has been one of those years.  Many things have come to pass since we came back from the A.T. last October but we made tentative plans to return for a hike with a wonderful man we'd met a couple years ago who doesn't live far from us here in Tampa.  I'd planned our route.  We'd picked the dates.  All that was left to do was work out those last-minute details before heading up to Hot Springs, NC next month.  In spite of our best efforts, however, our plans have fallen through and we now have to set our sights ahead to next summer when we'll hopefully take on the Smoky Mountains.

Ordinarily, having the rug pulled out from under our plans so close to our departure date would have filled me with a sense of disappointment that's hard to describe.  What I'm feeling is something totally different.  Yes, I'm a bit disappointed because I do love our time on the trail.  I'd even been given the green light to go ahead and go on the hike as planned, minus my hiking partner, my sister.  I didn't even have to think about it really.  What having to put things on hold till next year has taught me is that going out on the trail without my usual hiking partners isn't what I want to do.  It just doesn't seem right to me.  The section hikes are something I share with my sister and my brother, whenever he can work it out to go.  Until the day comes where they tell me flat out that they no longer wish to take those hikes with me, I'll wait for them.  Perhaps that's because what I love about the A.T. isn't just what I get out of it personally, but more importantly, the memories I make with my family members.  So, as we head skate towards the end of 2016, the year will come and go without me stepping a foot on the A.T.  We'll get there next year.  I know we will.  Here's to us and taking on the Smokies in 2017!



Thursday, April 7, 2016

USING YOUR KATADYN HIKER WATER FILTER


As we all know, water is key to our survival.  When out on a trail such as the A.T., you'll have to gather this valuable resource from small creeks or even piped sources along the way.  The water may look clear and clean but please...don't drink it straight from the source.  I know there are those out there that do/have, but it's always best to either boil or filter your water before drinking it.  In the long run, this can save you from some really horrible stomach issues down the line.

There are many filter system choices available these days, but the one I'm partial to (and that has never let me down yet) is the Katadyn Hiker series.  Yes, these add about 11 ounces to your total pack weight (and probably about a pound when the filter is wet inside) but it's weight I'm not willing to sacrifice.  I thought it might be useful if I listed a few tips here for those first-time users to (hopefully) make the process easier.  Some of these tips might seem like common sense, but I'll mention them anyway.


1.  Before the first use, the filter must be primed.  This is done by unscrewing the body compartment of the filter, removing the filter cartridge, putting some water inside, putting it back together, and then pumping it through the unit.  I always do this the night before at the hotel.  It doesn't take much water to get the system working properly.  (Note:  It can be difficult sometimes to remove the outside compartment so don't give up!)


2.  Before using your unit, secure the weight on the tubing to help keep the tube from floating to the top of the water. 

3.  Always (and I learned this the hard way because I didn't read the directions before using my filter the first time) secure the filter basket in the end of the tubing. This is essential to keep fine debris from clogging up your filter cartridge. 

4.  After use, try your best to keep the piece of tubing that was directly in the water source away from the tubing that you put down in your water bladder, ect.  I don't go out of my way to do this, but I do remove the inflow tubing from the filter and try to keep it separated from the rest of the unit just to try to minimize cross contamination.  Again, don't stress over this too much.

5.  In the even that your filter clogs and you're unable to clear it, you can always boil your water before drinking.  This is a bit time consuming but better than the alternative of big belly issues.

Hopefully those tips will be helpful to anyone using the system for the first time.  Also...just know that your arm might get a bit tired while pumping but you'll be super strong when you get home!  Overall, I've been very pleased with the effectiveness and quickness of this filter system and plan to continue to carry it with me on future hikes!

HAPPY HIKING!

Friday, December 18, 2015

WAY PAST DUE....MAKING IT TO THE SMOKIES






DAY 6: CABLE GAP SHELTER TO SOUTHERN BOUNDARY OF THE GREAT SMOKIE        
             MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK  (7.9 MILES)

We woke on the last morning of our section hike to the sound of rain.  This presented us with a whole list of new challenges.  Don't get me wrong.  We've hiked in the rain before.  In fact, we have yet to hit the trail and not get rained on at least once.  This hike we were about to end was actually delayed by a day thanks to Mother Nature.  What we hadn't had to do yet was break down camp in the rain.  After deliberating for a few minutes, we decided to just throw everything into our packs and make a run for the shelter where we could lay it all out and pack it correctly.  I'll give credit now to my sister because she has an innate ability to get things done faster than anyone else I know.  By the time I was done fumbling around inside the tent, trying to get my sleeping bag rolled up and stuff, she had practically shoved all of the gear we had left out by the fire pit into her bag.  We took the tent down and shoved into one of the empty odor-proof bags.  The clouds and rain made it much darker out than we were use to.  Still, Debbie worked with a purpose and we were soon donning our Crocs and ready to make a run for it.  Now...our camp was downhill so the trail was wet and a bit steep (what isn't steep on the A.T).  We had water running down our legs and into our camp shoes, which served to make it next to impossible to keep them on our feet, let alone get traction on the slick ground.  After what seemed like forever, we made it to the shelter where we made short work out of spreading our wet gear out.  We sat there in the quiet of the early morning, having our last cup of instant coffee before making our final meal for breakfast.  I say final because before we left the NOC, we counted out exactly what we thought we would consume over the next few days and then stuck in one extra coffee and meal just in case.  Well...our "just in case" breakfast consisted of re-hydrated chicken and rice.  For dinner, that was tasty.  For that last breakfast...we had to force it down, knowing we couldn't hike on an empty stomach and we didn't really want to stop for a hot lunch later...so there we sat, water-logged and exhausted, literally gagging as we forced that chicken and rice into our empty bellies.  All that was left was to pack up those last items, put on our hiking boots and head on out.  While my sister made one last trip to the privy, I stood in the silence, taking in my surroundings.  This is where the mixed emotions came in.  I won't lie....I was MORE than ready to stop hiking, get a shower, real food and an ice-cold Diet Coke.  But on that morning, as I stood in the woods, it all had a sense of finality about it....like when I left the woods this time, I wouldn't return.  I can't say why it felt that way.  It just did.  After a few more moments of reflection, we hit the trail and began our final day.


The rain still threatened as we walked amid the clouds.  It was humid.  It was eerie.  It was also beautiful...




The colorful leaves carpeted the trail...


The Benton MacKaye Trail meets the A.T.

Yes...those are stairs....more downhill!


 Without warning, we came out of the woods and into a huge parking lot.  To our left was a boat ramp for Fontana Lake...and this building, our first actually bathroom since leaving the NOC!  Better yet, there was a vending machine filled with ice-cold soda.  I didn't even notice the restroom.  I went straight for the vending machine!  We both chugged a Diet Coke faster than ever before.  Damn, did that taste good!  The last thing I wanted to drink that day was more water!  We didn't spend much time at our pit stop...the end of our hike was in sight at last...








The 1.8 mile trek around Fontana Lake was beautiful!  Every now and then, we'd get a break in the trees and got to see the lake.  The water level was incredibly low and what shocked me was the amount of trash that lay along the shoreline.  I mean big stuff....plastic chairs, coolers, and all kinds of stuff that truly shouldn't have been there.  It was sad to see such a beautiful place in that condition.  It made me wonder what our world is coming to....what made the ones who thought it was okay to dispose of their trash in this manner...dumping it into the lake.  It was also along this 1.8 miles that my sister made the observation that a "mountain mile" and a "road or sidewalk mile" must not be the same distance.  It seemed to take forever to traverse that lone mile.  We finally happened upon the shelter lovingly known as the Fontana Hilton:




 The Fontana Hilton is one of the nicest shelters we've been to yet.  There are picnic tables, grills, and the visitor's center is just down the road so showers and restrooms are available.  The views are stunning!  I wish we'd had the time to spend a night at this one.  Maybe next time....





 The walk down to the Fontana Dam Visitor's Center is an easy one and when we rounded the corner and the dam came into view, I felt a new spring come into my step.  Our journey was almost over.  We still had to cross the dam and set foot in the Smokies before our hike was considered complete.  They're doing work on the road that crosses the dam so we had to go down through the center and up some stairs in order to cross the dam.  Our walk was a slow one.  We were completely exhausted and hungry and just wanted to sit down.  It was impossible to ignore the view from the dam...




View from the middle of Fontana Dam
 We continued across the dam...


Looking back towards the Visitor's Center

 I felt almost giddy as we approached our landmark...the sign marking the southern boundary of the Great Smokie Mountains National Park.  We walked up to the sign and stuck our foot into the Smokies, but not too far in....that's to be saved for another time...



I made it!

 There's a certain sense of pride that is almost overwhelming when I reach another goal.  Since we crossed the GA/NC state line last year, all I've thought about or wanted to do was get to Fontana Dam.  Now, at last, I had done it.  I felt a renewed energy, yet I was more than ready for a zero day (a day with no hiking).  We slowly made our way back across the dam to the Visitor's Center, where we grabbed a bag of BBQ chips and a Diet Coke and then took our place right outside the little gift shop in two rocking chairs.  As we sat there, savoring our snacks, several people walked by, carefully eyeing us.  It took a few minuted for it to dawn on me, but I looked at Debbie and said, "I think this is the nastiest I've ever been in a public place."  We'd been 6 days without a shower.  We had dirt and scratched and wild hair, tucked under a Buff to tame its appearance.  We'd put on clean clothes that morning but I'd been on the rocks a couple of times so so much for clean clothes.  Finally, one by one, people began to speak to us.  They all admired us for what we'd just done and some had their own stories.  We met up with two guys we'd seen at the Brown Fork Shelter.  They'd showered and looked a bit different by that time.  As tired as I was, I was filled with tremendous pride in our accomplishment and in myself.  Sure...there are faster hikers who go longer distances....but I don't compare us to them.  We hike our own hike and we get where we're going.  That's all that matters!

Looking back, almost three months later, I still have fond memories and laugh often when I see a certain picture.  As for that feeling of finality...well....I don't know if we'll make it back next summer to do the Smokies but I'm glad for the chance to do what I've done...and for the memories I've made with my siblings.  Here's to hoping there'll be more where those came from!





HAPPY HIKING EVERYONE!