Awake before my 4:30 alarm, I slip out of bed, take what will be my last shower for three days, get dressed and make my way downstairs. Last minute additions (and deletions) to my backpack, a quick bite to eat and off I go to meet Salt.
In less than an hour we are speeding toward the Smoky Mountains and another Trail Dames adventure. (For the record, the Ellijay Starbucks doesn’t open until 6:00am) A cup of coffee, and a beautiful sunrise later we arrive at Fontana Dam Visitor Center to wait for the rest of our party.
S.H.O.E., Hemlock, Still Waters, Ratchet and Monica soon arrive, gear is consolidated and we pile into cars and head to the Twenty Mile Trailhead to begin our journey. It is warm and sunny when we start but the trail is wide and climbs gently as we all work out the kinks, shifting our packs, tightening straps and stretching our legs.
We soon come to the Wolf Ridge Trail and begin our “have you lost your mind” 3000 foot climb to Gregory Bald. It isn’t long before the heat of the day climbs into the 90’s and the repetitive movement of nothing but up starts to have an effect on all of us. Activity ranging from discarding clothing, laying in the middle of the trail, yoga on our magic silver carpets, cursing, heavy breathing and sheer grit propel us forward.
As we press on, we are warned that there is a Mama Bear and two cubs on the trail about a mile from Gregory Bald and sure enough as that point is neared we begin to see evidence. Logs rolled over, dirt pushed around and ginormous piles of bear poo. (this makes me want to poo…) I check carefully for signs of seeds, berries or …hikers and see none…..
Still Waters leads with myself, Monica, Hemlock and Salt close behind.. and suddenly we hear, “GET YOUR CAMERA!!” AND there it is, a real…….live…….BEAR sitting up to the right of the trail…..and she is watching us…. We all stop in a bunch and watch. As we holler and bang our hiking poles, (in accordance with instruction from the official park service video) she is not impressed and lays back down. Not spotting her cubs, we are unsure whether to take the high road or the low road and stand in the trail waiting for the rest of our group. Thunder begins to rumble in the distance and alternating between mild panic and the urge to take more pictures and video, we back up as a group, when she stands up and crosses the trail to scratch her back on another tree. As we look up, the two cubs are spotted high in the foliage!
As SHOE and Ratchet approach, we share the news of the bear and make the easy decision to take the low road , giving wide berth to our bear friends and pick up the trail further down.
Adrenaline propels us to Parsons Bald, an unmaintained bald taken over by blueberry bushes and bramble and finally we are on flat ground. The unmaintained trail grabs at our legs with thorny bushes and we fly trying to outrun them as well as the thunderstorm on the horizon. Another mile and we make it to Campsite #13.
Exhausted from climbing for over 7 miles in 95 degree heat, (those little words just do not give it justice!) we empty our packs and set up camp. Our site is visited by a doe and her fawn who are oblivious to our activity and the group camping next to us announce the entrance and unfortunate demise of a large rattlesnake. (I make a mental note, to potty early while I can still see what might be lurking beneath me!) Water is retrieved from a thin trickle a quarter mile away and dinners are picked over as we have little appetite from the days climb and heat.
I barely make it to “hikers midnight” before climbing in my hammock for the night. The wind is brisk and wakes me after midnight as the tree I am attached to is swaying, but my tarp doesn’t budge and my new Incubator under quilt keeps me warm and toasty and soon am drifting back to sleep.
Morning breaks, a bit cloudy and cool and we all go through our routines, some breaking camp, some eating before we all load our packs to begin day two of our three day trip. We start again by going UP heading to Gregory Bald and are rewarded by the sky clearing and views of the mountains and valleys below. There is the usual singing and dancing and a wonderful discovery of magical trees which we all climb. (How sweet to be able to enjoy childhood activities and not be judged. ) We spend a good bit of time on the bald but finally head down the trail. AND just as yesterday was all UP today is ALL DOWN the Long (itchy, scratchy, brambly, briar filled) Hungry Ridge Trail. We pass several backpackers heading up and say silent prayers for the pull that we know is ahead of them!
Five miles down the trail Campsite 93 is reached. Our swollen blistered feet are dipped in the cool stream, we watch the blue butterflies dip and twirl, observe a strange little band of campers who thought it was a good idea to set their tents up directly UNDERNEATH the bear bag cables…….and decide to go a little further(3 more miles….) and spend our last night at Campsite 92. Thankfully the trail spreads out and the grade is not so steep. We soon pick up the creek and crisscross as it switches sides with the trail.
Campsite 92 sits right on the Creek making for easy water access and soon three hammocks and two Hubbas had made it home. Ratchet and S.H.O.E. soon catch up with us to complete our family. Kellye, a victim of the heat exhaustion from the day before (the one who tore her clothes off) and the weather predicted to become severe was a factor in their decision to continue to the car. We remain….5 crazy women…….
As the sky darkened and several more hikers passed us due to weather concerns, we tightened our tarps and discussed an action plan in the event of a storm. The safest place for protection was deemed to be the bridge underpinning and a drill to make sure we all knew where to go was practiced. Still Waters was our “emergency management leader” and at some point went to filter water and started yelling “Tomato, Tomato!!” (actually it was tornado tornado but we all missed that!) A slow drizzle began that would alternate between showers, annoying mist and downpour for most of the evening. In spite of the rain, Still Waters manages a small fire and we gather round enjoying its warmth.
Around dark we are joined by a lone hiker, exhausted from his 1.5 mile trek from the parking lot, carrying a huge pack. He is beyond thrilled to see us and after setting up his tent joins us at what is left of the fire. We share with him the “emergency “Tomato” plan” and he seems relieved. As the rain picks up we all drift off to our sleeping quarters where I spend a fitful night tossing and turning, checking to make sure water is staying on the outside and contemplating lowering the foot of my hammock…..
As soon as the first light of day is apparent, I see that I am not alone as everyone is crouched beneath their tarps, packing up gear and it is not very long before we are all ready to head back to the car. It is raining but the trail is again, wide and easy and we enjoy the green of the forest accentuated against the dark wetness. We walk along water most of the way back and are grateful for the rain, our trip, the challenge and the experiences shared. I read this quote on the Section Hiker blog this week and thought it very appropriate.
”It’s moments like these that I savor on backpacking trips. When my wonder of the world around me becomes more absorbing than my other thoughts about the past or future, I know I’ve reached my destination……”