Monday, April 6, 2009

Little House in the Big Woods

Lakeshore Trail Overnight Backpack – 4/1/09 – Day One – Lakeshore Trail/Ollie Cove Trail/Lakeshore Trail to Campsite 76 – 13.5 Miles

Finishing the Lakeshore Trail was the last overnight hike to plan and there were not a lot of options for timing. Because of other obligations for both me and Judy, April 1 & 2 was do-or-die. The weather forecast was rain and thunderstorms, but we were sucking it up and getting prepared. I called up Fontana Marina to arrange a boat shuttle to (gasp) Hazel Creek. Would we get to see the infamous Ollie Cove drop-off point? The Marina guys remem- bered us as “the girls who missed the shuttle that day” and offered us a free ride, which I was quick to accept. And great news – the lake level had risen again to where we could be dropped off at the original Hazel Creek point! For those of you who haven’t read the back story on this, click here before you go any further.

I left my house in Charlotte at 5:45 a.m. and drove in the rain all the way to Bryson City, where I met Judy. We put a car at the Tunnel on Lake View Drive and headed over to Fontana Marina, still drizzling. We met up with Danny, our shuttle driver, and left the dock in a little pontoon boat at around 10:45 a.m. Along the way to Hazel Creek he spotted two wild boar on a hillside and took us up close to see them. He said he sees them along the shore quite often.
The lake was very still and the reflections in the water created awesome optical illusions. The bare shoreline seems to jut out like an overhanging cliff.

We rode around the last curve and there it was – Hazel Creek. When we were here (was it just a month ago?) the stone pylons of the washed-out bridge were at least ten feet tall and now they were visible barely a foot above the water. The bridge itself is lying up on the side of the mountain. (Click on photo to see full screen.) Danny said that the Park Service removed the beams that went across because they didn’t want people walking across them and getting hurt. When I was here back in April ’08 for my very first hike the bridge was still intact – and totally underwater. I didn’t even know it was there. Today there was a feeling of closure and triumph in coming back and conquering this place.

The rain had stopped when we got off the shuttle and – well, what it this? Shadows equal sunshine! Suddenly there were blue skies and white puffy clouds – April Fool’s! Today would have been my dad’s birthday, so I chose to see this as a gift from him. On his last birthday a year ago I spent the day with him and his sister, Rose, her husband, Clyde, and their daughter, Kim. We went to an all-you-can-eat buffet and had a grand time. He and Rose were both having health problems, but they laughed and joked and said things like, “We’re doing better than most folks, aren’t we?” The last photos taken of my dad were at lunch that day.

From the shuttle point we walked past Campsite 86 and to the Hazel Creek/Lakeshore Trail junction, waving at the Calhoun House where we had spent our dry night. (Here’s the new trail sign that includes Ollie Cove in case you ever need to know where that alternate shuttle point is). Then we walked down the Ollie Cove Trail, just in case it gets included on the next Park trail map. Soon we changed to short sleeves and zipped off pants legs as the temperature climbed – the one time we checked it was 77. Finally we got out the sunscreen. As we walked along the view of the lake stayed with us.

“Hiking Trails of the Smokies” or the “brown book” is invaluable for its trail descriptions and the Lakeshore Trail is an important one to read about. My only critique is that the description is written in sections and does not follow the trail in a linear fashion (same with its description of the AT). The logic is that it is written as the average person would hike sections of it, and some sections are written from the direction of the Fontana end, some from the Tunnel end. But notwithstanding this limitation, it has great information on cemeteries and homesites along the trail and greatly enhances the hiking experience. Judy and I have learned to recognize potential homesites – flat areas with a creek nearby signal us to look for piles of stones or stacked stones, then low stacked walls and chimneys.

Today we took the spur trail to Fairview Cemetery, which contains a significant number of graves (more than 30?) I continue to be fascinated by them. Here, among others, we saw the marker for a Confederate soldier and for twin infant boys.

Not too much farther along Lakeshore we saw another side spur to a cemetery, but very near the main trail were two graves. From the marker inscriptions (which we believe were placed later by descendants) we guessed that they are a young unwed mother and her infant, and that she probably died in childbirth. The spur trail continued on, presumably to the Cook cemetery, but we did not go farther. Interesting that these two graves were not actually in the cemetery…

Lakeshore Trail changes character frequently, a mixture of old roads, well-developed trails and sometimes barely discernable paths. (The “brown book” is a bit dated; its description cautions that the trail is hard to follow, but in reality there are plenty of signs to keep you on the right track.) It is not uncommon to walk around large trees growing in the middle of the otherwise wide road bed, which is evidence to me that Mother Nature will take care of herself just fine when we humans are not around to disrupt her.

We were actually surprised to meet one backpacker today who was doing a huge loop beginning at Big Creek, following the Benton MacKaye Trail to the AT at Fontana Dam, then planning to hike the AT back to Big Creek. But if you are looking for solitude, consider the Lakeshore Trail. It is underused because of its relative inaccessibility. All of the campsites are first come, first served, but I’ll bet they have never been full. (You should still register your plans at the Marina, though.) The hiking is easy to moderate and there is so much to see.

We passed Campsites 81 and 77 and arrived at our home for the night, Campsite 76. I was a little surprised to find it sitting right on the trail rather than slightly away from the trail. It is a very small campsite. But hey, we were the only ones here, right? The weather was warm, we had a babbling brook right there, and it was time to ditch those big backpacks. (We were prepared for rain, remember? We had tarps and rope and extra clothing and tons of stuff we didn’t need…thank goodness…)

The first order of business was setting up sleeping and I got a tour of Judy’s new tent. Here’s the scoop: Judy is an extraordinary seamstress and makes couture clothing and alterations, but she has recently branched out into – backpacking tents! Yes, boys and girls, the woman can do anything! Backpackers love cottage industry gear, and Judy is going to score big with her tent. It is a double-wall, one-person tent, weighs about 1.5 pounds, and the poles that prop it up are your hiking poles. How cool is that? There is tons of room inside, two people can sit up and play cards, and you can even bring your pack inside. Her website is still under construction, but she is already selling her creation at festivals and will be at Trail Days in Damascus on May 15-17, 2009. Or you can email her at Tell her that Smoky Scout sent you and she’ll say…thanks!

After the tent tour, I wandered back into the woods away from the trail for a bathroom break and discovered a stacked stone wall. Going a little further back, I saw a second stacked stone wall and further still, a stacked stone chimney. Remember, this is a small campsite because there is a creek on one side and then the mountain rises up on the other side. This was a very cozy little spot for a homesite. It is not mentioned in the “brown book” at all so I felt like we had really discovered a hidden gem.

We reclined on comfortable rocks and ate dinner and by 8:00 p.m. we were ready for some rest. The sun was nearly gone, and then that big old moon popped out and lit up the night so that there was really no need for headlamps outside. I lay there and imagined living in the little house like Laura Ingalls, hearing that creek every night (it seemed to get louder as the night wore on) and waking up there every morning in the little holler in the mountains.

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least - and it is commonly more than that - sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. ~Henry David Thoreau

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