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By Kathy Schrenk

The beginning or end of any significant trail is a big deal. It’s arbitrary in some ways, but like the arbitrary beginning of a new year or a birthday, it invites contemplation. The northern terminus of the Ozark Trail hosts no great monument or commemorative plaque, just one of thousands of small “OT” blazes that let hikers know they’re on the right track.

Most sections of the OT are very well-marked with blazes like the one on the tree to the right.

When we started out from the trailhead at mile 0, just south of Onondoga Cave State Park, it was in a forest very typical of the Ozark Trail. Less then a mile in, we saw a fat morel just inches from the trail. It seemed like a good omen. And we had good hiking all day, except for a section about a quarter mile long that was unusual in that we didn’t see any blazes–and it was right after a trail junction. Luckily our instincts were correct and we picked the right direction. There were some lovely views, especially in the last mile when we came into view of Courtois Creek. For much of this portion the trail was sandwiched between the creek and the cliffs, giving us close-up views of the pock-marked sandstone. We walked past Bat Cave and through a needle-hole-like opening.

There’s a car-camping campground at mile 4.5 where we saw lots of families and hunters making camp in the evening. We walked past them and found a nice sandbar on the river, just below  Bear Cave.
Evening was lovely with comfortable temperatures in the 60s, and the sounds of a few small riffles for falling to sleep by. The rain started around midnight. It was a light but steady rain that stuck around all day, despite a dry forecast. In the morning we broke down camp and only got moderately damp. Then we crossed the creek. I’m 5’2″ and the water was not quite to my waist at the deepest point, so my hiking partner, Alan, and our tall 7th graders didn’t have any problem. It was 20 feet or so across. The success was a nice way to start the day.
Then we trucked up a steady but not-too-steep hill and then spent about a mile along a scenic ridgetop between Courtois and Huzzah creeks. Every mile was scenic and lovely. The rain picked up and it was basically pouring the last half hour until we got to our car at Bass River Resort. It was a 7.5-mile day finished around 1 p.m. Despite the rain everyone had a great time. And completing the first 12 miles of the 200-plus-mile trail through some of the most scenic hiking in Missouri got us dreaming about working our way through the rest of the sections…
Kathy Schrenk is the author of Best Hikes with Kids St. Louis and Beyond, due out in June, 2018 from Mountaineers Books.
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As my big backpacking trip was less than three weeks away, I decided to start thinking seriously about trail safety and how to stay alive. Shortly into my research I realized, hiking might be a little more dangerous than most people expect.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, your chance of dying while mountain hiking is 1 in 15,700 annually, or a .0064% chance… this doesn’t seem to too bad until you compare it to, say… skydiving, where your chance of dying is 1 in 101,083, or .00099%. That’s right, you’re 6.4x more likely to die while hiking than you are while skydiving.

What’s making hiking so much more dangerous than skydiving? Of course, the obvious answer is bears. You seldom, if ever, encounter a bear while plummeting towards the ground at 120 MPH, whereas bears are constantly eating hikers on trails as if they are at a sushi bar, pulling treats onto their plate as they drift by on small boats. As I went to confirm my hypothesis, I realized that bears are pretty much the only thing that isn’t going to kill you while backpacking. So, statistically speaking, what was the most likely thing to prematurely re-route my backpacking trip to the hereafter?

I was unable to locate a definitive source of hiking or backpacking deaths only. The American Alpine Club publishes and annual Accidents in North American Mountaineering report, but that doesn’t address hiking specifically. I found a promising article, What’s Killing America’s Hikers? but the statistics were around search and rescue reports and summarized the primary causes as lack of knowledge, lack of experience, and poor judgment, whereas I was really hoping for categories like “eaten by a bear”. A final source of inspiration for fear was 17 Things Scarier Than Bears On The Pacific Crest Trail, which didn’t provide statistics but did help expand the breadth of options for concern.

I pieced together what seem to be the specific categories of risks that actually sound frightening (really, you’re never going to see a movie, Friday the 13th: Lacking Knowledge, or Scream: Poor Judgment). Here’s my assessment, in countdown order:

7. Animals

I’m counting down from least risky to most, so as much as I want to blame bears, they are pretty much bottom of the deadly risk list and only made the list because they are grouped with all of the other animals that can kill you, including (but not limited to) mountain lions, snakes, mosquitos, spiders, and bees. Each animal requires a different risk mitigation strategy, and sometimes requires that you quickly classify the variety of the species about to attack you, since the same strategy applied to the wrong species can lead to provocation rather than being a deterrent. As you’re being mauled, be sure to check if it is a grizzly bear or a black bear before taking any action.

6. Temperature (too much, too little)

If you get too hot, your brain starts cooking. The good news is you probably won’t notice, because you’ll be more interested in your convulsions, except you might not notice the convulsions because you’ll be delirious.

On the other hand, cold can happen very quickly as sudden changes in weather can result in severe temperature drops in a matter of minutes. You also experience a state of delirium, making very poor decisions and often coming to the conclusion that you are too hot – many freezing victims are found outside of their shelter and in a state of disrobe, potentially giving new meaning to the phrase, “frozen stiff”.

5. Lightning

Lightning has the advantage of range when it comes to contributing to an untimely death, making you generally unsafe within 6 miles but strikes have been recorded at distances of 10 miles. In the US, lightning kills about 50 people each year, about 11 of those are in Colorado. There are numerous tips to reduce your chances of being struck by lightning, but if you’re not minutes away from being inside a properly-grounded building or vehicle, most of the tips just lead to variations of an, “oh shit” scenario. And you might not even go out with a glorious bolt of lighting reaching from the sky to your body… 50% of lightning induced injuries and death come from ground current and an additional 30% from side splash, where lightning jumps from person (or object) to person, so death can happen as far as 60 feet from where lightning strikes the ground.

4. Health Issues

While hypothermia, heat stroke and bleeding from the neck while a mountain lion eats you are arguably health issues, I’m placing things like heart attacks, ruptured appendix, and spreading infections in this category. All of the health issues that have a high recovery rate if you can seek prompt medical attention can become life or death issues when isolated in the woods. As a solo hiker you’re screwed, with a companion you also probably screwed. Since dysentery is both a health issue and can be the result of drinking untreated water, I will blend this with the next highest risk…

3. Water (not enough)

Not enough drinkable water can kill you in a few ways. Continuing on with the general “health issue”, water than has not been properly treated or filtered can give you a variety of health problems, a common one being the Giardia parasite . Of course there’s the more obvious problems caused by lack of drinkable water, dehydration and the follow-up problems leading to death, heat stroke and hypothermia. If you’re thinking that hiking in cold weather reduces this risk, not so much… cold, dry weather can use more water than warmer, more humid air and you may require even more water.

2. Water (too much)

If not having enough water was going to kill you, having too much water, especially when it is surrounding your body, is even more likely to kill you. Evidently a surprising number of hiking deaths result from bodies of water making it difficult for gill-less hikers to breathe, smashing hikers into other objects, or causing hikers to free-fall off waterfalls. Most of this time the body of water presents itself in an obvious fashion and bad choices lead to death, but occasionally flash floods can make death more or a surprise.

1. The Ground (falling into it)

A few years ago I hiked Half Dome in Yosemite. The park averages 12-15 deaths each year, although the Mist Trail takes a lot of the credit, especially as tired hikers return from Half Dome and glide off slippery rocks. As I was ascending the cables, I couldn’t help but think that a slip and fall would be several thousand feet before I landed quite abruptly in the Yosemite Valley, but would be preceeded by most of the flesh being scraped off my body as I slid across about 250 feet of steep granite… too slick to get traction, just abrasive enough to take skin samples on my journey, possibly making meeting the valley floor a welcome relief. It made me hold the cables that much tighter.

If anybody has reliable data sources they can cite, or if you just happen to be super knowledgable about hiking death statistics and suggest a re-ordering, please leave a reply!

Update: I found Forget bears: Here’s what really kills people at national parks, which has some statistics for national parks, not hiking in general, and seems largely consistent with my assessment, adjusting for activities engaged in by most visitors to national parks.

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You want a great partner when purchasing backpacking equipment… often times you need experienced backpackers to accurately guide you to the products you need, and you want products that are reliable, since your life could depend on them. The customer (and product) experience matters.

Sometimes a customer experience is so amazing that you want to share it with others. In this case, I have two customer experiences that I want to share…

If you’ve read about my hikes, you may recall that my Osprey Atmos 65 AG Pack would squeak, making otherwise peaceful hikes somewhat distracting. I finally reached out to Osprey, and they offer an amazing lifetime All Mighty Guarantee for most of their equipment. Throughout the repair process, the staff at Osprey was polite, humorous, and extremely helpful. This is a company that makes a great product and stands behind their results. Long story short, they felt the best solution was a new pack and recommended I get fitted with the current model.

When I went to my preferred national recreation retailer, I got checked by two different associates that told me I needed a small. This was odd, since the same store had fitted me as a large just 2 years ago (and, I’m still just a little over 6’2″, I did not shrink). I was skeptical.

Andy from Sports Basement, offering amazing customer service

I decided to get a second store opinion and went to Sports Basement in Berkeley. I told Andy, the associate, that I wasn’t purchasing and I just needed to be fitted properly. I also told him about my recent fitting at another store. I can imagine many people in Andy’s position would have thought, “oh great… not buying and keeps spending people’s time getting fitted.” Andy didn’t think this way… Andy was great.

Andy treated me like a valued customer, discussing the various aspects of correct pack fit, sharing some of the on-the-trail fit issues he’s seen, patiently trying various configurations, and sharing his trail experiences (while also asking about mine). It was a great experience, and I had extremely high confidence in the results Andy delivered, knowing I had the correct pack size. I previously had a very good experience with snow equipment rentals from Sports Basement, but Andy’s attention has won me over, and this will be my default store.

Andy also shared that he writes about his adventures, so I encourage you to check out Andy and Laurie Hike.

As a reminder, this site does not receive any paid sponsorship for products or services – any gushing reviews are from the heart, not the wallet. 

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This is day 6 of the Smoky Mountain Appalachian Trail backpacking trip.

Peaceful morning companions

The shelter lacked the morning peacefulness of previous days, as the teens from the high-school football team rifled through their haphazardly-stored equipment to prepare breakfast and gear up for their day’s hike. In contrast, three deer in the meadow adjacent to the shelter grazed in silence and grace.

Our previous day’s decision to skip Silers Bald and push through to Double Spring Gap meant we had a short trip for the last leg of our hike – a 1,296 foot assent over a distance of 2.8 miles to reach the highest point on the Appalachian Trail. This first half of the trail provided a lush environment, with ferns, mosses, and fungi lining the path, creating continual opportunities to stop and appreciate the beautiful structures created by the constant cycle of growth and decay.

Fungi on a decaying stump

As we entered an area of the trail with bright beams of sun cutting through the shade, we saw something that seemed like it had to have been created by magical forest fairies… balloon flies (empididae) had the appearance of mosquitos flying with balloon sacks appearing to be several times the mass of the fly itself. In the hopes of attracting a mate, male empididae try to impress the females, by creating and presenting these “balloons”. The process is risky for males since they lose a lot of their mass in producing and carrying these gifts, so the presentation of the silk balloon is the reproductive equivalent of the ‘max out your credit card on her’ approach. It’s not always a happy ending for the suitors… males approach females, who sometimes mistake them for prey rather than potential mates and eat them.

Balloon Flies - YouTube

Views of endless mountain ridges on the climb to Clingmans Dome

The second half of the trail opened up, providing incredible views of the Smoky Mountains, with the color of each ridge transitioning from a rich green to blues and grays as they forever fade into the distance. The views combined with the blue sky and perfect temperature made for an incredibly rewarding final day of hiking. Within a mile of Clingmans Dome, the traffic of casual day hikers and large groups of people signaled that we were leaving behind the tranquility that comes from being miles away from easy access to the conveniences of the civilized world.

As the trail turned to gravel and then to pavement, we reached Clingmans Dome. A short path leads to a circular cement ramp the ends at a lookout point atop the mountain. The ramp provides good bird watching opportunities in the trees surrounding the lookout, and the lookout itself offers a 360 degree views of the Smoky Mountains. We visited the lookout but we hadn’t yet adjusted to being around so many people, so it was a brief visit before we headed back down the paved path to the visitor center and parking lot where our shuttle would take us back to our starting point.

Awaiting our shuttle. We smell horrible.

Our shuttle was provided by A Walk In The Woods, and was driven by Vesna, one of the company founders. The 1.5 hour trip back to Fontana Village was quite possibly one of the most informative car rides of my life, as Vesna was both incredibly knowledgeable and a great conversationalist. Topics ranged from the biodiversity of the regions, the history of the town of Cherokee, the flooding of the Fontana region, bears, and hosting REI Adventures. Coincidentally, we learned that the friendly group leaders we met on day 2 at Russell Field Shelter were guides from her company. I can’t say enough great things about the service and flexibility A Walk In The Woods provided, especially in accommodating our changing plans throughout the week.

Arriving in Fontana Village our priorities were clear… put all camping clothing into sealed bags, scrub a week’s worth of filth off our bodies, and enjoy a hot meal with a cold beer.

Map and elevation, Double Spring Gap to Clingmans Dome on Gaia GPS:

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This is day 5 of the Smoky Mountain Appalachian Trail backpacking trip.

It wasn’t raining but at the top of the mountain, Derrick Knob is cold… rain jackets were the only long-sleeve clothing we had.

Our new plan required us reaching Clingmans Dome (our Appalachian Trail extraction point) the following day no later than 2PM. The hike to Silers Bald would be about 6 miles, leaving about 5 miles to cover by 2PM the next day, which seemed very doable.

The Smoky Mountains are the most biodiverse park in the National Park system, with over 19,000 species documented in the park and scientists believe an additional 80,000-100,000 species may live there. This biodiversity is noticeable as the plants and critters you encounter change every few miles on the trail. Leaving Derrick Knob the terrain started to remind me more of the California coastal regions, with ferns and mosses becoming more prominent. While researching some of the species we saw, I found this amazing Great Smoky Mountains National Park Species Mapper, which provides a great visualization of the diversity within the park.

It didn’t take very long to warm up. As you can see, paparazzi are all over the trail trying to sneak a photo.

One animal that was consistent across all of our hikes was a small bird, Junco hyemalis, the Dark-eyed Junco. Looking at the species mapper, it seems like this bird should be the official trail bird of the Smokies, since it overlaps the trail maps almost completely. We frequently encountered  Dark-eyed Juncos foraging on the ground near the trail, seemingly quite comfortable with hikers getting within a couple of inches before they would fly a few feet away, and sometimes startling us with the abrupt nearby rustling sound when we didn’t see the birds on our approach.

Silers Bald We discovered where the government started construction of “the wall” and, like the rest of the wall, we got around it pretty easily.

Just before 1PM we arrived at Silers Bald, our shelter for the evening. The shelter was completely vacant, so we unpacked our equipment, secured the best spots on the platforms, started another 1-match fire, and prepared a hot lunch. We had a lot of time to kill until dinner and the arrival of other hikers.

While boiling water for lunch, Ryan from Chicago joined us and let us know that as he was coming North on the AT he experienced some bear activity, although we couldn’t understand from his description how close it was to the shelter or what the actual activity was. As a precaution, we immediately moved all of our non-sleeping equipment onto the bear cables. We sort of assessed the situation as threat level “yellow”, so we continued to prepare lunch anyway. After a brief rest, Ryan continued heading North and we enjoyed a bear-free dining experience.

One of a small patch of trees that had cool features… assuming these were fairy houses.

Silers Bald was pretty comfortable… somebody had left a lot of pretty thick branches for firewood and nobody else was around, so we had bellies full of warm food, peace and quiet, and a big fire. Evidently it was too comfortable, as we decided that there was still plenty of time in the day to make it a few more miles up the trail to the next shelter. So, we re-packed all of our gear and kept on hiking.

The ~2 mile trail from Silers Bald to Double Spring Gap (the next closest shelter heading north) provided more lush-green forest, with few clear areas to get a view of the Smoky Mountains, and making it hard to figure our where the mountain reached its peak. But there were a few places where the trees cleared and provided some stunning views.

A stunning view from the trail between Silers Bald and Double Spring Gap

I’m not sure if it was because a few days into the trail we were building our hiking stamina, or if the long rest and meal at Silers Bald just gave us the extra energy we needed, but I believe we made the fastest progress of our trip on this 2 mile section, even with taking small breaks to appreciate our surroundings.

Double Spring Gap

Around 5PM we arrived at Double Spring Gap Shelter, which looks out on a small, lovely pasture and has a fresh water spring very conveniently close to the shelter. There were also deer that were pretty consistently hanging out with us, usually within about 30 feet of the shelter.

Once inside the privy, it is ADA compliant. (photo from http://blueroadstohikingtrails.blogspot.com – contact me if you do not want me to re-publish)

One of the more perplexing amenities at Double Spring Gap was the ADA compliant privy, featuring hand rails near the seat. The ADA compliance was perplexing because, to get into the privy, one would need to go up four stairs. Further, the privy is located no closer than 2 miles from anything vaguely resembling a paved (or even smooth) pathway. That said, as far as shelters go, my only complaint was the size of the sleeping platforms, which seemed to be just a touch over 6 feet, making it somewhat uncomfortable for somebody that is slighter larger than a touch over 6 feet in height.

“Reese Witherspoon”, probably my favorite character from this journey, is a fascinating combination of Papa Smurf and Radagast.

There were already two people in the shelter when we arrived – Jeff from Nashville (trail name “Reese Witherspoon”) and we reunited with Ryan (the guy we saw earlier at Silers Bald). Jeff was some combination of Papa Smurf and Radagast from The Lord of the Rings – he clearly belonged on the trail and when you were in a shelter, you were visiting his home.

I don’t know how to describe Jeff’s personality other than saying he’s my kind of jackass. I look at him and see myself in 20 years, and it’s actually sort of a comforting thought. Jeff initially started the conversation with a little recon discussion to get a read on our general political bend and test the thickness of our skins. Once he felt comfortable, he opened up with his irreverent opinions, digging into politics, people and anything vaguely representing authority. At one point he commented on my sparkly-blue toenail polish “being a little gay”, to which I responded by describing to him the acts that actually qualify as gay. Jeff understood that I had zero f***s to give and, at that point, I believe he welcomed me in this shelter… his shelter.

We all got comfortable with each other and enjoyed friendly banter. And then this happened…

A Disturbance in the Force

Audible from a surprisingly far distance, they started approaching in waves. They descended on the camp site with the force and grace of a herd of sea lions taking shelter on a beach. Awkward travelers, tired and unfamiliar both the basic trail protocols and backcountry social norms.

One of three deer that were constantly hanging out at the Double Spring Gap shelter.

It was a high-school football team from Indiana on a leadership-building exercise. At first Jeff got silent, with a far-off stare in his eyes, but he quickly snapped back to to become fully present in the situation, reinforcing his role as chief instigator.  His first question to the boys, “so how many games are you going to lose this season?” He then talked to the coach, suggesting that it would be a good idea for Jeff to give a talk to the team, to rally the troops. Unfortunately, and for reasons I completely understand, the coach passed on the opportunity.

Kathy built a fire using NO MATCHES! A few embers were left behind and she did her magic.

In all fairness, there was nothing particularly wrong with the kids that were joining us, they were just teenagers at that awkward point in their lives where the obvious evades them, they can be unaware of their affect on others, they don’t know about some of the basic dos and don’ts of trail life, and they could have benefitted from a little more structure on their trip. It was amusing to watch one of them give himself a liberal application of Axe body spray (or, as bears call it, “seasoning”)… it was less amusing to watch somebody assume that the fresh water spring doubled as a urinal.

At least 20 people were with the football team… far, far too many for this (or any) shelter, so they planned to have the whole team eat and then a majority would head down the trail to Silers Bald shelter (we later ran into hikers from Silers Bald that complained about being on the ass end of that experience that night).

As we got ready to sleep I had to ask a few of the team to please take the candy out of the sleeping platforms and hang it from the bear cables, and I reminded them that after bears eat they are ready for romance, and bears find humans attractive. The next morning when I went to the bear cables they were a mess, and somebody’s backpack was on the ground… it would have been a buffet situation if bears had visited that evening.

Working in Mysterious Ways

And so there we were, all squeezed in for bed: the liberal instigator from Nashville, the quiet guy from Chicago, the strong-willed lady from New Orleans, the lefty guy with queer toenails from Berkeley. But mostly the shelter was packed tightly with high-school football players – a leadership building exercise for seniors from a conservative town in Indiana. Everybody was settled into their spaces on the platforms, exhausted from their efforts that day.

It wasn’t time for sleep. It was story time.

Every night of the trip we had read The Handmaid’s Tale, whispering, to avoid distracting fellow hikers as they drifted off to sleep. We didn’t intentionally pace ourselves with the book, so I can only assume that what happened was the result of some higher deity having a master plan… deities tend to work in mysterious ways. The previous evening we had stopped reading as we reached chapter 16. We didn’t peek at chapter 16 and make this decision, that just happen to be where we left off.

If you haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale, or if you simply haven’t memorized the chapters, chapter 16 happens to be when Offred describes the act in which her Commander completes a ceremony intended to conceive a child, with descriptions including, “with a regular two-four marching stroke, on and on like a tap dripping“. If the football team had just scheduled their trip on another night they would have heard about Offred shopping for oranges, or the pillow in her room embroidered with the word “FAITH”. Not tonight… tonight they learned about conception in the dystopian future imagined by Margaret Atwood. Whatever skills these young men built on the trail, whatever strength they found in themselves as they challenged each other on their adventure, I can’t help but think that those few moments where I read in the shelter may be the memory that sticks with them 20 years from now.

Equipment Notes
  • This was the night we had the Mountain House Raspberry Crumble, which is my favorite trail dessert. Again, it didn’t disappoint… warm, too sweet, a perfect treat after days of hiking.

Map and elevation, Derrick Knob to Double Spring Gap Shelter on Gaia GPS:

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This is day 4 of the Smoky Mountain Appalachian Trail backpacking trip.

It was refreshing to enjoy a solid night’s sleep in dry sleeping bags and wake up to another beautiful day. Again, most of the other hikers headed out early to optimize for mileage, we were happy to move at a relaxed pace and take the opportunities to stop and appreciate everything around us.

Starting the day refreshed, dry, and slightly less stinky!

At Russell Field we learned that the top platform in the shelter can be noisy, so we were quick to claim a lower platform position in the Spence Field shelter. This is how we learned that, when the top platform has gaps between the boards, dirt from the top platform occasionally cascades onto the lower platform. As a bottom platform sleeper, this means an occasional light dusting on the face or, if you’re a side sleeper, having to empty out your ear a few times during the night. We reassessed and agreed the top platform is better.

Rhododendron catawbiense decorates the trail around Rocky Top

For the first time on our trip, the Appalachian Trail started to open up, and rather than being embedded deep in a tree-lined path, we hiked through small open fields and mountain tops with stunning views. One of the first great views comes when reaching Rocky Top, a sub-peak of Thunderhead Mountain (supposedly this is the same “Rocky Top” in the 1967 song that became the unofficial University of Tennessee fight song).

The views from Rocky Top provided a good excuse to take a break, sit in the sun and enjoy a snack, which consisted of Quest Nutrition Coconut Cashew protein bars and Yumbutter Almond Butter Superfood. This was officially the point where I hit the wall with the Quest bars and decided I would rather go hungry than keep eating them. Kathy pointed me to (what we think was) a blueberry bush with very-immature green fruit on it… so I had a single, bitter, green blueberry instead of my Quest bar. I decided I could be a little hungry until we reached camp.

Top o’ the mountain to ya!

As we hiked along the mountain ridge there was a low, deep, growling sound that was very close to us. Kathy immediately stopped and whispered, “did you hear that?” I had heard it… it was my empty stomach voicing its complaint about my decision to skip snack time. For the remainder of the day’s hike I had to call-out when my stomach was grumbling to avoid a bear scare.

Momma grouse in the house.

We noticed a large chicken-like bird on the side of the trail which we thought might be a pheasant or a quail. We later determined it was a grouse (which is part of the order “Galliformes” that includes chickens, pheasants and quail, so our initial guess wasn’t too silly). The momma grouse was escorting her chicks through the grass quite close to the trail and eventually hopped-up into a tree where she could get a view of all of her chicks on the ground.

We arrived at Derrick Knob Shelter around 5PM, joining Mike from West Palm Florida. Mike had a lot of trail experience, hiking with his wife on the better-known  US trails and even Camino de Santiago in Spain, but he was solo on this trip. Mike did have tortillas though, reminding me how much I miss California Mexican food and that this trip may be the longest I have gone without a quesadilla for a meal.

No idea what these are but they look like little emerald-green fireworks coming out of the ground.

Unlike the previous shelters, Derrick Knob was very much at the top of the mountain and the temperature difference was immediately obvious. It got cold. We wanted to get warm meals in our bellies, and a nice fire to help heat the shelter.

Quest for Fire

After the fire-starting challenges of the previous day, we needed a clear success demonstrating our basic survival skills. Again we gathered all of the basic fire-making requirements… tinder, kindling, branches. Kathy carefully constructed a burn-optimized structure in the fireplace. We got a single match from Mike.

Sweet, sweet heat coming from the 1-match fire

Kathy lit the match and carefully placed it in the core of the tinder. She skillfully tended to the initial flames. And… then… FIRE! The tinder burned, the kindling caught fire and then the branches burned! The single-match success was a glorious redemption over the previous fire-building tribulations. Again we used the fire for boiling our water to save cooking fuel… the fire was impressively hot, bringing water to boil about as fast as my stove.

The Smell of the Trail

I’ve briefly mentioned the topic of odor in previous posts about this trip, but I seem to get a lot of questions about the subject, so I think the topic deserves a little more attention. People get stinky on the trail. Very stinky. Teenage locker room stinky.

A few fun guys we found on trail

Usually people ask me, “can’t you wash”? Well, probably, but it’s not that simple… you reach a point where a quick rinse with water isn’t really going to do much for the situation, so you need soap. In most protected wilderness using soap means you need to procure water from one location and move it very far away from the water source so that you don’t pollute the water (yes, even with the most eco-friendly soaps), so it’s a pretty big hassle. And, even if you do manage to get the smell off of your body, the odor is engrained in most of your clothing, so it’s not just hauling enough water to wash yourself, its a full wash and rinse regime for your clothing. And, there’s a good chance that even if you do go through all of that effort that you will just be stinky after the next day of hiking.

The Smoky Mountains provide bear cables in all of their camp sites (way better than using a bear canister)

The next question people ask is, “won’t deodorant help?” Deodorant brings up a few more issues… Importantly, especially in bear country, you really don’t want to be doing anything to make your body smell pleasantly fragrant. This guy was sleeping in his tent when a bear bit through his tent to taste his leg (coincidently, that event occurred at Spence Field, our starting point this day of hiking). And after a few days on the trail it’s not just your armpits that stink… it’s really an all over sort of thing.

Finally, even if you do succeed in eliminating your personal stink, you’re almost certainly going to be smelling other people’s stink. I’m not sure if it’s more reassuring to know that you’re smelling your own stink, or that you don’t stink, so the smell is coming from somebody else, but either way, you’re getting the same olfactory experience.

On the bright side, as soon as you’re off the trail, your next shower is a life-changing experience. Keep your eyes (and nose) on the prize.

An Intimate Audience

The shelter was relatively empty that evening, with only four other people joining us (a father and his two sons and his hiking buddy). The smaller, all-male crowd made the evening whispering of The Handmaid’s Tale a little more awkward, but that was only because we didn’t have the following night’s reading to really provide perspective on uncomfortable reading situations.

Equipment Notes
  • I needed an extra shirt and picked up a REI Co-op Screeline Crew before our trip. It is comfortable, moisture-wicking, and seems to be a lot more durable that the Smartwool shirt. The only downside is, like many wicking athletic materials, it tends to develop and retain odors pretty quickly.
  • I purchased a 3-liter Osprey Hydraulics Reservoir for this trip, largely based on being envious of Kathy’s smaller version. I had been using the bladder from my smaller CamelBak which worked fine, but the quick-release hose, larger capacity, and magnetic clip make the Osprey super convenient and easy to maintain. I’m very pleased with the upgrade.

Map and elevation, Spence Field to Derrick Knob Shelter on Gaia GPS:

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This is day 3 of the Smoky Mountain Appalachian Trail backpacking trip.

Russell Field Shelter

Aside from the minor distraction of an eclectic chorus of bodily noises, the night sleeping in the shelter with 12 other people was a nice improvement over a damp tent in the rain. Most of the hikers were going for mileage and headed-out pretty early… we were planning on a shorter day to dry out our equipment, so we slept-in and were last out of the shelter.

The starting bloom of Chamaelirium luteum – Fairy Wand, Devil’s Bit, False Unicorn Root, Blazing Star, Grubroot, Squirrel Tail, Rattlesnake-root.

As two of the women in our shelter put on their packs and headed for the trail, I noticed they did not change out of their open-toed sandals. Evidently Chacos are their footwear of choice for 15+ mile days on the AT. This lead me to believe that either they are part of a ridiculous marketing campaign or Chaco might be producing some of the most comfortable, durable sandals on the planet. Perhaps it was just a pair of crazy hikers. On the trail it can be hard to tell the difference between experience-based knowledge and insanity.

It was a gorgeous day. The trail was still soaked but there was sun in the sky and, for the first time this trip, I was able to pay more attention to the plants and critters.

Flame azaleas, discovered by William Bartram in 1791 and described as, “certainly the most gay and brilliant flowering shrub yet known.”

We arrived at Spence Field Shelter around noon to find that Savannah and Conrad (trail names Smiley and Hitch), hikers that stayed in Russell Field with us the night before, we taking a break and using the opportunity to wash some clothing. Taking advantage of the sunny day and open space of the shelter, we decided to run some clotheslines and give a quick wash and rinse to some of our more… aromatic… items. We also used the bear cable system to hoist the tent and sleeping bag and let the air flow through them. Somebody left behind a very sharp, knife-like hand saw that I used to make some old-fashioned clothes pins, and also aerate the tip of my thumb a little.

One nicety of Spence Field was it offered a privy! The previous sites had offered… a shovel, so having a semi-private wood structure, something with a seat, and wood chips was quite an upgrade. Sometimes its the little things that make the difference.

Kathy diligently showering tinder with hot sparks next to the saw that ventilated my thumb.

As Smiley and Hitch hit the trail, Kathy and I decided we should start a fire. We gathered all of the fire prerequisites (most of which were sub-optimally damp) and since we only had a striker (tungsten carbide striker and ferrocerium rod), we used the it to light the stove and the flame from the stove to light the tinder. Except… it… just… wouldn’t… light. Even the paper we added would just turn to ash without making a flame. Kathy was on a mission though, and whittled the ferrocerium rod down by about a third as she kept spraying showers of hot metal into the tinder pile to produce… nothing. It was hard not to feel a little inept after about 35 minutes with still nothing burning.

We were soon joined by Doug from Oklahoma, a seasoned hiker that mentioned he has denatured alcohol that we could use as an accelerant to get the fire started. He also had a lighter. Finally, we had the little something something to get the fire started. Doug poured alcohol over the tinder and as we lit a match a nice flame was produced by the alcohol and then… nothing… caught… fire. It is a little hard to recall how the fire eventually did get started, but I do remember it was a considerable, time-consuming process and it involved much more denatured alcohol, extensive use of a torch-type lighter and a lot of fanning.

Cooking it old school

I wanted a fire for the obvious benefits of warmth and comfort, but I was also concerned that I had miscalculated the amount of cooking fuel we needed for the trip and we would run out, leaving us with cold “coffee” and colder meals that take hours to rehydrate. With a fire I was able to take a steel cup I picked-up on day one, wedge a branch into the handle and use the fire to boil our cooking water, ensuring that we would have plenty of fuel to heat water for our Café Bustelo each morning. The system worked pretty well, minus a few slips where water extinguished part of the fire. We continued using a campfire for our meals, ensuring we had more than ample fuel for the trip. There’s a decent chance we actually had enough fuel for the entire trip anyway, but I didn’t want to risk having to drink a cold cup of Café Bustelo, and using an open fire for cooking felt like it bestowed some roughing it credibility compared to everybody else using their stoves. Of course, I would have preferred to be using my stove.

Culinary Review Intermission

I don’t remember the exact days we ate these items, but I do have notes on each. I’ll start by saying that I am not a fan of beef stroganoff or lasagna, and pretty much never eat them in the real world. The Mountain House Beef Stroganoff with Noodles Pro-Pak and the Mountain House Lasagna with Meat Sauce Pro-Pak were both super satisfying trail meals and I will definitely seek them out for future trips. The GOOD TO-GO Thai Curry also delivered a tasty meal, reinforcing what has been a pretty good track record for the GOOD TO-GO brand (except for their Pad Thai, which as I mentioned before, was as disappointing as every other trail Pad Thai).

We also tried Mountain House Macaroni and Cheese on this trip. I’m not generally a mac and cheese person, but when I do eat mac and cheese I like the horrific day-glow orange, act against nature stuff that Kraft produces… the fancier, home-made, “four kinds of real cheese” doesn’t appeal to me. Apparently Mountain House collaborated with various elementary school lunch programs and delivered to my satisfaction. We did, however, use too much water and, since you have to carry out everything it was easier to chug the 3/4 cup of saline cheese slurry rather than pack it out as garbage. I still haven’t decided if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

…and We’re Back Ridge Runner Morgan (in the background) stops hikers on the trail to ensure papers are in order.

By mid afternoon our equipment and clothing were pretty much dry, and we pulled everything down to make space for any other hikers that might be joining. Shortly after, Carl and his son Charlie from Arkansas joined. Carl had recently had heart surgery and had the respectable perspective that he didn’t want to live out the rest of his life being afraid to experience the things he loves, so he hit the Appalachian Trail, one of the items on his bucket list. Doug offered-up some cigars… Kathy and I passed but the others enjoyed a smoke around the fire ring. This was comforting, as I assumed the smell would have to be a bear deterrent.

Which brings me to something I discovered on this trip…

So very happy to not be hiking in rain gear!

When planning the trip I had intended to avoid the Appalachian Trail and camp in mostly back country sites, since the Smoky Mountains require you to stay in shelters on the AT (you can’t use a tent). I find the trail is a unique opportunity to get away from people, so I was less interested in starting and ending each day with 10+ strangers, possibly some that might make you look for any opportunity to escape an engagement, like hoping a bear attacks (flashbacks to Mary Ellen in Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods).

I found that each person I met had something interesting to offer. Even if I wasn’t particularly interested in engaging with somebody, I was able to walk away feeling good about the encounter (at very least if it was because I was thinking how much I appreciated my trail experience in contrast). In many cases I might simply learn equipment tips or get insight into what drives somebody to hike the way they hike, but even the most anti-social hikers contributed to the story as I fondly look back on this trip.

Laundry day at Spruce Field Shelter

As we reached early evening the shelter filled-up. We were joined from a small group from Idaho, and they were handing-out small plastic potato-shaped pins, and a couple of women that may or may not have been hiking buddies, as one of them did an impressive job of remaining independently isolated in a tiny structure with not much more than elbow room for personal space.

Of course, we continued the traditional evening whispering of The Handmaid’s Tale… And while we were trying to be quiet and polite, I’m sort of expecting to read some hiking blog complaining about the annoying guy from Berkeley that audibly read in the shelter.

Lessons Learned

  • Bring matches (in addition to the striker, which works great 95% of the time). Matches probably would not have produced better results, but I would rather have a few for times when a simple spark isn’t going to do the job.
  • While splitting fire wood I generally used the lever approach of wedging a large branch and bending it until it breaks. At one point I tried the brute force “baseball bat” method, which resulted in the branch breaking, bouncing back to hit me in the face with a lot of force, and puncturing my cheek. Leverage is better.
  • Somewhat related, bring liquid bandage. With cuts on my cheek and thumb, I realized I would rather have the flexible, water proof, and antiseptic covering instead of bandages.
  • After watching others and getting a little more experience with the break-down and repacking, I want to look at compression sacks and dry sacks (although I think a contractor trash bag will suffice for water issues). These sacks seem to make for modular storage, making it convenient to access / stow gear based on function (food and garbage being the most obvious).
Equipment Notes
  • As much as I like the Smartwool Microweight Crew T-Shirt for its comfort and its stink resistance, the durability doesn’t justify the $75 price. I returned my first shirt because it developed a large rip within a few days and my current shirt has many small holes where various equipment rubs on the hike. I’m also seeing that the Smartwool Boxer Briefs tend to show wear / damage pretty easily, so as much as I love these products I’m now looking for something more durable as a replacement.
  • Previously I hiked with a water bottle that had liquid measurements on the side, so I was cooking food with the right amount of water. My current equipment does not have measurements built in, so I need to record the capacity of my cup and pot so that my food has better consistency.
  • My Osprey Atmos 65 AG Pack seems to be squeaking again.

Map and elevation, Russell Field to Spence Field Shelter on Gaia GPS:

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This is day 2 of the Smoky Mountain Appalachian Trail backpacking trip.

After the previous day of hiking in torrential downpour, we woke up to… rain.  Lots of it. All things considered, our wet sleeping bags warmed up pretty quickly in the night and the tent prevented us from getting more wet. The situation wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t miserable.

Home, home in the rain.

Our original plan was to exit the Appalachian Trail this day and proceed to back country sites in the Smoky Mountains.  Given the water saturated equipment, we discussed the possibility of changing our plans so we could dry out and reduce the distances we planned given the less-pleasant trudging up the small streams that were formerly trails. Based on last year’s experience of needing to change plans on the Pacific Crest Trail, I had learned that it is better to optimize for enjoyable time on the trail vs. sticking with the original plan. We agreed to see how the day went and make a decision on-the-fly.

We did learn from the previous day and relocated items in our packs to keep clothing and sleeping gear dry (well, not dry, but not getting more wet). We had a few plastic bags that helped.

Food Rant

We opted for bars and Yumbutter Almond Butter Superfood for breakfast, saving the hassle of preparing a meal in the rain. Of course, we also had our traditional cup of Café Bustelo instant coffee, and at this point I can’t tell if we actually think we like the caffeinated brown liquid it produces or if we just enjoy talking about Café Bustelo so much that we can’t switch to anything more coffee-like.

Yumbutter on beef jerky delivers a makeshift Thai beef satay

For anybody unaware of Yumbutter, it’s the type of thing you eat only if you’re on a trail or you have a serious need to gain weight.  The 7 oz. package is loaded with a paste of almonds, chia, hemp seeds and goji, providing 1140 calories, and making its weight-to-calorie ratio a winner on the trail.  It is also easy to reseal the package. It also happens to require about a cup of water per spoonful to get down your throat, as the paste sucks all moisture from your body the second it hits your tongue.  The package suggests putting it on bananas, apples and candy bars, but we found the best thing was adding it to beef jerky, providing a makeshift Thai dish of trail beef satay, and resulting in the best trail Thai food I’ve experienced.

Notophthalmus viridescens, the Eastern Newt. The Smoky Mountains are known as the “Salamander Capital of the World!”

The bars we ate were Quest Nutrition Coconut Cashew protein bars, and Vanilla Almond Clif Builder’s Bars. On a previous trip I believe that I came to the conclusion that the Quest bars were good, although I’m not sure how I reached that conclusion… I had a surplus of about 12 starting this trip and they quickly became the “anything but that” trail snack. The Builder’s Bars were great, although I prefer the chocolate peanut butter over vanilla almond. A few days later I couldn’t even bring myself to eat the Quest bars when I was hungry, so we offloaded them onto an unsuspecting hiker (sorry, Ryan from Chicago).

Mollies Ridge Shelter A millipede wades across the Appalachian Trail

The trail leaving Birch Spring had about 3-4 inches of dried, broken leaves that had been soaking in rain for the previous 48 hours, resulting in a substance that was something like pouring a bowl of Raisin Bran and milk and returning to it an hour later.  It was a comfortable substance to walk on, with every step sinking 2-3 inches into the flaky mush and extracting the water into a tight puddle surrounding my boot.

Our first break was Mollies Ridge Shelter, a welcome sight for a lunch break. Backpacker’s Pantry Charros Beans and Rice provided a welcome warm meal after a morning of hiking in the rain.  In general I’ve found the various bean and rice combinations offered by Backpacker’s Pantry to be good but needing more seasoning, which was also the case with this meal.

Warming up and attempting to dry out in Mollies Ridge Shelter

As a special bonus, we arrived to the shelter while it already had a large fire providing warmth and drying out various garments. The fire builders were an antiques dealer, a butcher, and a track coach having a USMC reunion on the Appalachian Trail. All of these guys were super nice and they had brought enough supplies for a 75 day trip across Antarctica, so even though it was their first day on the trail they were quite eager to dump a bunch of supplies and food. At one point somebody produced a pillow-case sized ziplock bag of almonds to share. While I did enjoy a handful of trail mix, I passed on the other supplies, and I would later regret not taking the fuel canisters and the packages of tuna fish.

We kept waiting in 15-minute increments for the rain to clear but the onslaught was merciless and we decided that we just had to continue up the mountain. We thanked the marines for their service to country and for their hospitality in the shelter, and we hit the trail again.

More… Wet… Trail… and, OH SHIT! A river runs through it. The Appalachian Trail is a creek.

The rain just wasn’t going to stop. At this point the uphill just looked like a small creek flowing down the mountain. The benefit of this much water was it became easy to de-fog my glasses by simply looking up for 2 seconds.

After about 30 minutes of hiking we heard a loud grunting / heavy-breathing noise on the trail about 40 feet ahead of us… I saw a very large brown animal bolt across the trail and I quickly shouted, “BEAR!” About 2 seconds later I processed the situation a little more and realized it wasn’t a bear, it was a boar… something about the size of a bear, and probably in the neighborhood of 300 pounds. Given the choice between the two, I would have rather been dealing with a bear. Bears want food but hate noises and will go away… boars are assholes that will attack for no reason.

Thar be boars!!!

Fortunately we seemed to have startled each other, and while we paused to blow whistles and make sure we didn’t surprise it again, it seemed to have fled the scene. Kathy and I normally keep a pretty big distance between each other when we hike, but at this point we started staying within about 5 feet of each other. We also moved our knives to the front of our belts… not that we could defend ourselves against an angry boar, but there is a chance we could give it a paper cut as we are bleeding-out while being gored.

Gimme Shelter Wet clothing adorns every surface of Russell Field Shelter

We reached Russell Field Shelter… not our planned final destination but given the earlier discussion about adjusting our plans, a dry shelter and ending the up-trail swim sounded too good to pass up. The shelter was almost full with an REI Adventures group and a few additional hikers, but we were able to squeeze our soggy sleeping bags onto the platform. A fire warmed the shelter and helped make some clothing slightly less wet, but there was no hope of getting dry.

Moist sleeping bags squeezed in on the top platform

We ended up in the center of the top platform, just under the translucent skylight. This seemed to have some disadvantage, both in the noise from the rain hitting the skylight and, early the next morning, objects that must of have been chipmunks or falling tree parts making loud “thud” noises. We decided that the lower platform is the prime real estate.

It always feels great to take the boots off after hiking. Sadly, my “sparkly blue 70’s motor cycle helmet” pedicure wasn’t holding up.

Being in a shelter put a new twist on the evening reading of The Handmaid’s Tale… having only one copy (on Kindle), we had been reading out loud, which continued in the shelter but at a very low whisper while everybody was falling asleep. Fortunately we were on the earlier chapters, so it was mostly covering backstory and not touching on the more risqué parts of the book.

Lessons Learned
  • We were filtering water with my Survivor Filter PRO filter, which I love as a filter and because my experience with the company has been top notch. However, pumping water gets exhausting, even if it does give you arms like Popeye.  The REI Adventures leader was using a gravity system, which made producing large quantities (3+ liters) pretty easy… fill a bag and let it drain/filter into another bag. This might be a grass is always greener thing, but I would like to look into the pros & cons of each system again.
  • A seasoned professional suggested that Starbucks VIA Ready Brew is better than all other instant coffees, including our beloved Café Bustelo, so I’m going to run the Pepsi Challenge on the next trip.
Equipment Notes
  • This was day 2 of my Osprey Atmos 65 AG Pack not being annoying loud, either as a result of being soaking wet or from the silicone lubricant I liberally applied before the trip. Rey, another hiker in the shelter, had a new Atmos 65 and said he had not noticed a loud squeaking, leading me to believe that my pack may have a defect rather than the “ambient bedsprings” being a feature.

Map and elevation, Birch Spring Camp to Russell Field Shelter on Gaia GPS:

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This is day 1 of the Smoky Mountain Appalachian Trail backpacking trip.

A quick stop to adjust rain gear before reaching Fontana Dam.

We started our Smoky Mountain adventure in Fontana Village, a resort located 2.5 miles away from the Fontana Dam AT shelter, which is referred to as the “Fontana Hilton” based on the services available at that shelter. The day started with rain similar to that described in the story of Noah’s Ark, and pretty much continued the torrential downpour for two full days. As a result, we both got a lot of (hard) learning about backpacking in severe rainfall.

We (thought we) prepared ourselves for the rain… I wore Marmot PreCip Rain Jacket with the PreCip Full-Zip Rain Pants, and protected my pack with the  Osprey Pack Raincover (which required moving the tent and sleeping pad to be attached to my pack vertically like scuba tanks to that the cover would fit over all of my equipment). Kathy wore her new REI Co-op Rhyolite Rain Jacket and protected her pack with the rain cover it included, but she did not have rain pants, accepting that her hiking pants would deflect some rainfall and dry relatively quickly. The decision to skip rain pants was the first learning, when the torrential downpour quickly seeped through her hiking pants and streamed into her boots, soaking her feet.

View looking onto the Little Tennessee River from Fontana Dam

We took a rest break to appreciate Fontana Dam, the tallest dam in the Eastern US, sitting on the Little Tennessee River and creating Fontana Lake. In the process on damming the river, the towns of Fontana, Bushnell, Forney, and Judson were flooded and are now underneath Fontana Lake.  Learning this immediately reminded me of George Clooney with cans of Dapper Dan floating to the water’s surface in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? (the lake in the movie is Mississippi’s Arkabutla Lake, not Fontana Lake).  The scenery walking across the dam is beautiful, with long views down the Little Tennessee River and unique overhead perspectives of Barn Swallows swooping across the face of the dam.

Our first real “trail” part of the AT.

Uphill backpacking wearing rain gear in the 70+ degree Smoky Mountains quickly made me aware that I was going to be wet one way or another… it would either be from the rain getting to my clothing, or the rain gear keeping the rain out and creating a sauna-like environment inside the rain gear, producing drenching amounts of sweat.

A photo of Kathy captures the elusive Captain Underpants in the background

We encountered very few hikers on the trail and the first person that passed was a gentleman hiking in his underpants. This being my first encounter with an AT rain hiker, I assumed it must be a strategy that hikers use to minimize their equipment and keep their pants dry.  I later learned that no, this is not a strategy – everybody else we later encountered on the AT mentioned “Captain Underpants”, and while the best theory seemed to be “lost a bet”, nobody actually knew why he is in underpants, but this has been his outfit rain or shine. After reviewing my photos from the trip, I realized that I captured an image of Captain Underpants while taking a picture of Kathy… this is probably the modern-day equivalent of having a Bigfoot photo.

Rain and humidity provide a natural sauna while hiking

With the heavy rains I found myself looking down a majority of the time, focussed on the trail to maintain footing, and not taking-in as much of the forrest plants as I would have liked.  This did give me a chance to observe small critters on the path, including the Black-chinned Red Salamander (Pseudotriton ruber schencki), and various millipedes. I also encountered a large assortment of fungi, and plants new to me like bear corn (Conopholis americana, American cancer-root, or squawroot), and the petals looking like candy corn, produces from a plant or tree I never identified (I did not take a photo at the time as I thought I would get an opportunity on a sunnier day, and I didn’t realize how regional the species can be in the Smoky Mountains… while these littered the trail the first two days, they were absent from the rest of the trip).

The not-so-glamourous dinner table in the rain.

We arrived to Birch Spring Campground (site 113) to find that we appeared to be the only campers this evening. The campground accommodates about 8 tents and has hitches for tethering horses. A large fire ring sits in the middle of the camp, conveniently close to the water source (a spring that requires purification). Like all campgrounds we visited in the Smoky Mountains, bear cables are provided for securing food and gear.

The rain let-up for a few minutes and we very quickly pitched our tent, and tossed-in the equipment we needed for the evening before attaching everything else and our packs onto the bear cables.  This is where we learned a pretty important lesson about pack rain covers… while they are great at deflecting rain off of your pack, they are also great at collecting and pooling water, soaking everything in the lower part of your pack. If your sleeping bag is stored in the bottom of your pack without additional water protection (like ours were), you will have a very wet sleeping bag.

When it’s raining, a warm meal feels great at the end of the day

Dinner consisted of GOOD TO-GO Pad Thai and GOOD TO-GO Indian Vegetable Korma.   The GOOD TO-GO brand was highly recommended by a salesperson at REI, “worth the few extra bucks”. The Vegetable Korma was pretty good… nicely spiced and overall enjoyable. The Pad Thai was very disappointing and we ended up eating less than half of it. This was also my assessment of the Backpacker’s Pantry Pad Thai on a different hike, so I’m starting to think that either good trail Pad Thai is an impossible dream or that trail food manufacturers have never eaten good Pad Thai. Really, spaghetti noodles, peanut butter and Sriracha Hot Sauce would have been more authentic.

While most of this section of trail was lined with trees, occasional gaps provided great views of the Smoky Mountains.

We climbed 3600 feet over 8 miles in a torrential downpour, with our packs at their heaviest, both fully supplied and the added soaking water weight. Kathy’s feet were a puffy, ghostly white after a day soaking in waterlogged boots. We were crawling into wet sleeping bags, my down bag filling the tent with the disgusting smell of wet poultry.

It was hard not to end the day feeling a bit defeated.

But we had bellies full of warm food, the tent warmed pretty quickly and kept additional water out, and we started reading our trail book, The Handmaid’s Tale, which provided both a good story and a perspective that falling asleep to the sound of rain in a beautiful forrest is really pretty great.

Lessons Learned

  • Quick-drying pants are no substitute for real rain protection. Even if you don’t mind wet legs, rain pants or gators are necessary to keep feet dry.
  • Use water-proof sacks or a large contractor-grade trash bag to protect everything inside your pack (or at least your clothing and sleeping gear) from heavy rain… a pack cover is unlikely to do an adequate job.
  • Its hard to dry out the inside of boots on the trail, especially on very wet days.  Wearing dry socks is effective at soaking-up the water from the boot, so carrying 3 pairs of socks can help speed the drying process.
  • I had a challenge with my eyeglasses – hiking in the warm, humid, and wet conditions with rain gear resulted in my glasses fogging every few minutes.  The best solution I found was occasionally spitting water onto the glasses, resulting in distorted vision instead of obscured vision.
Equipment Notes
  • The REI Co-op Half Dome 2 Tent worked great, did an amazing job keeping the rain out, and having two doors made it a lot more comfortable by not requiring climbing over another person to get in or out of the tent.
  • I switched to the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol Sleeping Pad for this trip, mostly to reduce weight. It seemed comfortable enough, and while very light, it is bulky, needing to be on the outside of your pack.  Kathy used the REI Cirrus Insulated Air Sleeping Pad which looks like it provides more cushion and definitely packs to about 1/3 of the size of the Z Lite.
  • Before the trip I sprayed a bunch of silicone lubricant onto the support rods of my Osprey Atmos 65 AG Pack in the hopes of eliminating the really annoying and loud squeaking sound.  The pack did not squeak but it was unclear if it was the result of the lubricant or the pack being wet.
Elevation and Map from our Trip

Map and elevation, Fontana Village to Birch Spring Camp on Gaia GPS:

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This is day 5 of the Sierra Buttes Trip, fourth trail day.

Next stop, Sierra Butts Fire Lookout

After calling an audible on our previous itinerary, we decided to head to Packsaddle Campsite at Packer Lake and do a loop hike, figuring out the exact path on the fly.  After my bout with dehydration, it was Kathy’s turn to get hit with something and her back was indicating this was not a good time for her to have a big trail day.  We decided to split-up and regroup later in the day.  I was still carrying my backpack but, with the exception of three protein bars, I left all of the food back at the campsite, so my pack was slightly less heavy.

View of Tamarack Lakes from the Tamarack Lake Trail

The hike started on the trail we had hiked the day before, heading from Packer Lake to Tamarack lakes, but at this point I took the Tamarack Lake Trail, which heads South and up to its connection with the PCT and the Sierra Buttes Trail.  The hike fromTamarack lakes to the PCT was steep but relatively straightforward,  with an easy-to-find trail, packed dirt, minimal snow, and 650 feet to the PCT connection at 7400 feet.

Hello PCT, my old friend

At the PCT the trail got a little more technical.  Much like the previous experience with the PCT, there was a decent amount of snow pack at this elevation, so the majority of the Sierra Buttes Trail was covered with snow and hard to find, with multiple sets of random footprints in all directions to help mislead a wandering hiker.

Young America Lake as seen from the Sierra Buttes Trail

It is worth mentioning that, at this point, most of the views are stunning and just keep getting better and better.  The rocky landscape is covered with beautifully pristine white snow that creates an almost unreal turquoise color as the ice cascades into the lake edges.  As you look further, the mountains become green, and as you look at far-away mountain ranges, you get blues and grays.  Or, maybe I was just getting loopy from the altitude.

A welcome set of stairs on the trail to Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout

On my ascent to the lookout, I didn’t encounter anybody else on the trail.  It was a very peaceful feeling being so alone in such a vast area, but there were contrasting thoughts of what would happen if I needed help, or a bear decided to get hungry, or worse, a bear decided to get amorous.  I tried to keep focused on appreciating the beauty of the Sierras and trying to make myself less attractive to bears.

The final push to the Sierra Buttes Lookout was snow-riffic.

Near the final climb to the Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout is a parking lot, which was closed for the winter, but left me thinking there was a way, way easier way to get up here.  From the parking lot on, the trail had plenty of snow, including one large bank of snowpack that concealed a several-hundred foot drop, to what would have been a horrible death in some beautiful lake, below.

Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout Stairs

At one point I needed to climb up snowpack to get to the lookout tower.  This was mostly stupid, as I realized that there was no easy way to get back down, and it would have been quite easy to slide and break and ankle.  Dumb luck was on my side.  The actual lookout is up a flight of metal stairs, and given the sky presenting some gray clouds, the flexible (wobbly) nature of the stairs, and my solo existence, I chickened-out and decided to enjoy the views (and my life) from the less-conductive location.

Amazing views from 8,597 feet!

I treated myself to a protein bar on the way back to the PCT and it was at this point that I first encountered other humans.  There was something comforting about knowing that my dead body actually would have been found relatively quickly if something had gone wrong at the lookout.  About 20 minutes later I ran across another set of hikers and this would be the last people I would see until I returned to the campsite, over 10 miles and many hours later.

Trail fading to snow on the PCT

My initial thought had been hiking to the lookout and then returning to camp, but I was already on the PCT and I still felt like I had a ton of energy, or at least I had adrenaline that was keeping me excited and wanting to keep hiking.  Besides, I had two more protein bars, so I was set for the rest of my adventure.  I kept hiking.

A view of the Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout from the PCT near highway 93… I was just up there!

This stretch of the PCT between the lookout and highway 93 shares the trail with the Sierra Buttes Trail.  Shortly before highway 93, the dirt trail turns into a short span of paved road.  A few vehicles were parked but no people were around… I assumed these were day hikers or, more likely, mountain bikers.  I wouldn’t know for sure because I wouldn’t see any of them.

Sierra Buttes Trail Head at Highway 93

Highway 93 descends directly into Packer Lake, so this was another opportunity for me to head back to the campsite.  The PCT was still calling to me… I had to keep going and I still had one and a half protein bars to give me the energy to power through whatever was ahead.  I also had ample clean water and a really poor understanding of the distance to my next opportunity to head back to camp, so I was super excited to keep hiking!

Another amazing view from the PCT

Northbound from highway 93 the PCT runs parallel and close to Deer Lake Road, a 4×4 dirt road.  Being a stickler for trying to get as much authentic PCT time milage as I could, I kept to the narrower, more interesting PCT.

The Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout as seen half way between highway 93 and Deer Lake. I was just there a few hours ago!

It was on this stretch of the hike that I started thinking I may be trying to cover more mileage than I am capable of.  I didn’t have the bear bin of food, and other than one remaining protein bar, I didn’t have much to eat.  But I did have my puffy jacket, a sleeping bag , rain cover and enough the survive an evening on the trail.  So, worst case I would be hungry but could survive the elements (minus any angry or amorous bear).

Snow on the PCT.

After the PCT passed Butcher Ranch Road and nearby Wallis Mine, I came upon another set of switchbacks and… more snow.  For some reason this area felt a little desolate, and as I hiked along the ridge line towards Deer Lake, I saw tree after tree that appeared to have been burnt in isolation, suggesting lightning was sort of a thing around here.  The weather was much more clear that earlier on the lookout, so I enjoyed the serenity of nature and pushed the more electrifying aspect of nature out of my mind.

The beautiful Deer Lake as seen from exactly not where I wanted to be

As I approached Deer Lake and started feeling fatigued, I checked my map and confirmed that I needed to take the second trail exit, which would circle the lake and send me back to my starting point.  I headed down the 4×4 trail, a rocky slope that was way steeper than I can imagine a vehicle traversing.  As I reached the water I quickly ran out of trail.  Re-checking my map and GPS, I realized it was actually the third trail exit that connected to the trail and I had, in fact, reached a dead-end that required me to hike all of the way back up the rocky slope to the PCT.  Crap.  Feeling a little more exhaustion, backtracking was a morale hit.  I took a few minutes to appreciate the beauty of the area and mumbled to myself, “how about I just keep hiking“.

A slightly more challenging section of water on the trail between Deer Lake and Packer Lake

I reconnected with the PCT and traveled North to connect to my intended Deer Lake trail connection.  For the most part, the rest of my hike would be downhill with a few tiny climbs.  Three times I would encounter water on the trail that was higher than my boots and provided some technical challenge in crossing.  None of the water posed any risk greater than filling my boots with water, but I got a little sense of accomplishment as my real-life game of Frogger! worked out and I maintained dry feet.

One of the easier water crossings between Deer Lake and Packer Lake

The hike between Deer Lake and Packersaddle went surprisingly quickly.  I was smelly and exhausted but my legs seemed to be on autopilot, the muscle memory moving them like pistons, pushing me forward with laser-like focus on my objective.  I lost the trail at one point where it became rocky, with thin paths like veins through large groves of waist-high manzanita, but I knew I was headed in the right direction and couldn’t have been more that 50 feet from whatever thin path was the actual trail.

A PCT trail marker that was most definitely not on the PCT.

I exited the trail and it took a few minutes to reach the tent.  I was greeted by Kathy, who quickly commented that I had generated quite an odor on my travels.  She was right… I was really stinky.  It was approaching dinner time, so we  headed to Packer Saddle Lodge, where I was able to take a very quick shower (probably more for the benefit of the other people dining there) and enjoy a much-needed, big hot meal with some wine.  It was a little chilly in the tent that evening but, with the combination of a tired body and a full belly, I don’t think it took me more than about 2 minutes to go from slipping into my sleeping bag to being soundly asleep through the night.

According to Gaia GPS, the total trip was 16 miles and over 3500 feet of ascent.  I realized that I still had half of a protein bar with me, so I had fueled myself on about 650 calories (plus the extra supply of calories I store in some of the softer parts of my body).  Surprisingly my body felt fine the next morning, with no more stiffness or aches than normal.  This hike helped me realize that my sweet spot for backpacking is probably 10 miles per day and 3000 feet of climb.  And, I felt some pride that I became neither food nor love interest for a bear.

Lessons Learned
  • It was sort of after the fact, but I learned that poison oak doesn’t grow above 5000 feet.
  • Susie at Packer Lake Lodge informed us that the flies that had been biting us lay eggs in the wound, and we need to scratch until the wound is open and squeeze the eggs out.  We’re not sure if this is true, but 4 months later, both of us have bites that haven’t healed completely and seem to have a cyst-like bump.
Equipment Notes
  • I still haven’t figured out how to make the zippers on my Osprey Atmos 65 AG Pack functional. They are relatively easy to open and nearly impossible to close while wearing the pack.  I ended up just leaving them open the whole time.
  • I didn’t want to carry a pillow, assuming my puffy would have worked fine.  It didn’t, it was slightly too thick and too slippery to stay in place.  Ultimately a boot under the air mattress was the best solution I cam up with.
Elevation and Map from the Trip

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