Friday, October 17, 2008

A Tough Day With A Surprise Ending (Get A Cup Of Coffee, This Is A Long Story)

Clingmans Dome Hikes – 10/11/08 – Day Two – Forney Ridge Trail/Forney Creek Trail/Jonas Creek Trail/Welch Ridge Trail/AT – 19 miles

Today would be a very long hike so Jim and I woke up in the dark and drove up to the Clingmans Dome parking lot. Surprisingly, there were more than a dozen cars already there, though none of them appeared to be hikers, just folks awaiting the sunrise and the view…although, as usual, Clingmans was covered in clouds. We ate a quick breakfast of bagels and OJ and made an executive decision. Today’s hike was Hike #2 in the Hazel Creek section of “The Day Hiker’s Guide” which the author admits is tough in either direction but she has written it going counterclockwise, beginning on the Appalachian Trail. But if we chose that direction we would be walking in the clouds, whereas if we chose the clockwise direction we would have great views from the AT at the end of the hike. So we went down the rabbit hole on Forney Ridge Trail.

There has been major rehab work on the Forney Ridge Trail down towards Andrews Bald and we could see the results on the mile we trekked before turning right onto Forney Creek Trail. Our gamble proved correct as we quickly dropped below the clouds. The first two miles of Forney Creek is fairly steep and at Campsite 68 we saw backpackers relaxing as the day cleared and warmed up. After the campsite the trail is not as steep and it becomes evident that it is an old railroad bed, wide and gentle with rock walls in some places, but we did negotiate our way through four serious blowdowns that need attention. And here is Jim at an odd spot where the creek bed is bone dry but he decided to walk across the 10-foot-high footlog where the hand rail had fallen off. (I took the safe route.)

Today we were both hiking in our running shoes, but we knew that we would face some major crossings of Forney Creek so we carried our water shoes. I also had my trusty hiking sticks, but Jim doesn’t have any. Usually he finds a nice walking stick to help him across streams, and as he was thinking aloud about needing to look for one we heard a loud cracking sound and – I cross my heart and hope to die – a stick fell out of a tree in front of us, just a straight stick with no leaves or branches. Really! 

Water shoes work best if you actually put them on your feet. We crossed the creek several times by easy rock hopping and mistakenly thought that we could get through the entire hike this way. Eventually we came to a sketchier crossing. I actually stood there and debated changing my shoes for an easy shallow stroll across a large section versus rock hopping, then decided to go for it. In the end, Jim hopped across and I…slipped and stepped in with both feet. On the other side I sat down to wring out my socks, pretty angry with myself for not simply using my water shoes that I was toting, and as I was muttering a couple of dads with several pre-teens walked up, rock-hopped across and continued on their merry way. Ah well… 

After that we did rock hop a few more times successfully, but I no longer trusted my footing and took a lot of time. For the crossing at the junction with Jonas Creek Trail Jim and I both put on water shoes. See how simple that was? Further up Jonas Creek Trail I was able to rock hop while Jim scooted across on a big log. Ouch!

Jim and I have different hiking styles. He is pretty fast and believes in going a little bit fast and then resting frequently. I like to hike slower and stop less frequently. He is also a slow starter in the mornings and has to be told to take the toothbrush back out of his mouth. I am strong and perky in the morning. So I got us to the trailhead and heading in the right direction…and when I began to seriously tank on Jonas Creek Trail, Jim kept me going. The latter half of our 19 miles was mostly uphill and my legs seemed to weigh 300 pounds each. I stopped and rested, I drank water and I ate, but nothing seemed to help. We were seeing the most wondrous views and colors, but I was miserable. I kept looking at my watch and calculating when we would get back to the car, very much worried that we would not get out before dark (we did). I pretty much ruined my own hike by too much clock-watching. I thought about how days like this make some people quit. But Jim kept coaching me along, telling me where we were on the GPS, how much elevation we were gaining, all the way up Jonas Creek, turning right on Welch Ridge (where he and I had been on our first hiking weekend back in April – hey, exactly six months ago today) and then finally turning right onto the AT. 

We had seen perhaps a dozen people all day, a busy day for hiking in the Smokies. On the AT we saw at least 15 more, some heading for Double Springs shelter, some dayhiking. We met one couple originally from Australia, currently managing an orphanage in Peru, and spending a week hiking the AT from Fontana Dam to Newfound Gap. How interesting is that?! As we had hoped that morning, we saw beautiful clear views at many points in our 4 miles along the AT back to Clingmans Dome. I was still extremely tired and wanting to get the hike over with, but we got some great photos and arrived at the observation tower at about 6:00 PM – a 10-hour hike. Instead of taking the bypass trail back to our car, we chose to go up to the observation tower and then take the paved trail back down. The wind was very strong on the tower, chilly, and we did not stay long. 

Back down the paved trail, we stopped at the restrooms, and then I came outside to wait for Jim. I was feeling kind of down and disappointed with myself. I had three more days of hiking planned – could I recover in one night? I was walking along the pavement, dodging lots of people milling around, saw a Park ranger talking with a group …and then I heard someone yell: “SMOKY SCOUT!” 

Can you imagine? 

I looked around and saw a guy standing beside the Park ranger and smiling. I said, “Yes, how did you know it’s me”? And he says, I’m Smokies Hiker, and your picture is all over your blog.” Smokies Hiker is the mastermind of and a couple of weeks ago he completed hiking all of the trails in the GSMNP each in all four seasons, backwards and forwards, no assistance, no car shuttles, no key swaps, no overnights, and all in one year! And why am I complaining about how tough my day has been??? We have followed and commented on each other’s blogs, and it was unbelievably great to meet in person at Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Park (and the highest point of my day). 
For consolation after a tough day, Jim and I drove to Cherokee and found the Pizza Inn, where we consumed large quantities of pizza, breadsticks and soft drinks. Then it was back to camp (don’t forget the earplugs) and I played Scarlett O’Hara – I can’t think about anything right now, I’ll think about it tomorrow.

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