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2003 Father/Son Backpacking Trip--Steve's report

Day three, Forney Creek Trail

The initial planning for this year's father-son adventure began in early August while we were at Elk Lake. Dad and I poured over maps and a trail guide for the Smoky Mountains while Craig looked on with some trepidation. I think he was still shell-shocked from last year's rain-soaked epic hike. Dad came up with his initial plan. It looked OK, at first glance anyway. Later, browsing the hiking books in a local outdoors sporting goods store, I happened upon a book called Hiking, Great Smoky Mountains National Park by Kevin Adams. He has a great table listing the various trails in nice categories like "stream hikes," "hikes with good views," "hikes with big trees," "wildflower hikes," and "hikes to avoid if you don't want to see lots of people." Turning the page, I found the category "hikes for people training to be Navy Seals." Can you guess which trails were listed under this category? Three of the trails included in Dad's plan were boldly listed there!

The plan was ultimately scaled down as Dad and I contemplated it over a couple glasses of single malt. Now things were looking good. To spice things up a little, I added a new twist--camping in hammocks (otherwise affectionately known as bear piņatas, or, by Craig, as cocoons). After a month of email exchanges with Craig, we finally hammered out a date, or at least we thought we had. Now, I know it may seem more reasonable to discuss things like dates over the telephone, but I can scan the Hillbilly Dictionary faster while reading email than when on the phone. If you don't know what I mean, just call him sometime! Anyway, I'll have more clarifications to add to your Hillbilly Dictionary later in the story. Suffice it to say, we were still off by one day. Next year I think we'll just send a calendar--hillbillies like pictures (more on that later).

The flight to Tennessee was as smooth as they come, which pleased Kathy to no end. We arrived on a Saturday morning. After getting settled in to the McBride lodge, we toured the arts and crafts fair in Maryville (that's pronounced Maaaarrrrville for those of you updating their dictionaries). Noting that we all had developed a bit of a thirst, Mom and Dad took us to get something to drink--at Hooters. Now, this was somewhat amusing, because neither Kathy or I had ever visited a Hooters, but here it seems Mom and Dad were regular customers.

Craig arrived the next day. Having lost a cargo of Mom's rocking chairs over the tailgate of his truck last year, he had taken no chances with her antique sewing machine this time. That sucker was strapped down with one of those straps you see truckers use to secure steel beams to their semi beds. Craig brought significantly less clothing this year (we discarded most of what he brought last time). You could tell he was getting more experienced. His main concern this year was the quantity of Scotch we were packing. Dad and I figured a couple shots each at cocktail time was fine. What we didn't figure on was more than one cocktail time per evening.

We all went on a short hike to stretch our limbs. Craig entertained us by bunny hopping down the trail after getting his boots tied together by a stray shoelace. To his credit, he was successful at avoiding a nose plant in the trail. It hadn't been long before that a stranger heading the other way had offered Craig his walking stick--must be something in the way he looked. Craig wasn't amused. In hindsight, he should have taken it. Later that night we finished our preparations for the hike, gathering food and going over equipment lists.

Now there are a few things about the Smoky Mountains that bear discussing to get the full flavor of them. These peaks are only half the elevation of the Rockies, where Kathy and I have done many miles. But the trails in the Smokies are of a unique nature. The trail guide speaks of many trails gaining 2000 feet or more, where we are used to 1000 to 1500 foot gains, and these trails go straight up. Out west we had switchbacks. Here, if the trail takes a curve, they call that a switchback. The guide book puts little diagrams before the description of each trail that shows the elevation profile (remember what I said about hillbillies and their pictures). Another thing is the preponderance of water. There are springs everywhere, even way up on the side of the mountains, and they all flow across the trails. Craig loves this abundance of water due to a childhood issue with lack of water on a trail--but that's another story.

Then there's the language (get your hillbilly dictionary out). You might think you could identify a "flatlander" by their license plate--wrong! The broader definition is anyone who Dad can catch up with on a winding mountain road. This includes most everyone except Mario Andretti and his rare associates. If they can get two wheels off the road on the curves, he might cut them some slack. Then there's the all-too-common (as we shall see) b'ar. This is the critter the rest of us know as the bear. It is not the local watering hole--remember, this place is a dry county. By the way, the lack of bars (not b'ars) has nothing to do with religion. It's just not economically feasible. If you listen to "Rocky Top", the only song that is played with any regularity in eastern Tennessee, you will learn about their source of corn--they drink plenty.

The weather was great as we started our adventure, in stark contrast to last year. Dad cranked up the van (cranked and cranked and cranked...), and we headed up to Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Smokies. The view was incredible, with the Fall colors on the distant ridges. Our first day would be mostly downhill hiking. Stopping at a campsite by a river for a hearty lunch of turkey sandwiches prepared by Kathy, I unpacked the hammock and demonstrated its usefulness during siesta time. After a refreshing nap we headed further downhill to our campsite for the night. This was a large camp used by horseback riders, but we had it to ourselves. A nice river flowed by and we had arrived plenty early, so we washed up before cocktail hour. Craig decided to take a little swim. The howl that left his throat surely would have scared off any critters east of Clingmans Dome! Cocktail hour was followed by dinner hour. Then Craig decided to entertain us with a fire. Proving that firemen are not only good at extinguishing fires but preventing them as well, he struggled to tease forth a flame. Dad, having pity on him, finally threw some stove alcohol on the tender, and at last we had a flame. This was when we discovered the second cocktail hour, but we had to save some Scotch for the next evening. Craig was right, we should have filled another bottle.

Darkness overcame us and we finally went to bed. Sometime late that night I was awakened by a loud splash in the river. It sounded like someone threw a boulder in the water. It was followed by 10 or 15 more loud splashes before it finally settled down. I slowly relaxed and started to doze. Then came "the sniff", actually more of a sniff followed by a loud snort, right in my left ear. It's amazing the shear volume of information that flows through your mind during adrenaline overload, all sorts of plans and ideas. Had there been a full moon, the reflection off my saucer-sized eyes would have scared the beast away. Deciding to start slow and escalate from there, I cleared my throat loudly. "Pad, pad, pad," off walked the bruin (heavy sigh of relief). I waited a while then slowly sat up and peered about with my little flashlight--nothing. There was an urge to get up and find a local tree to water, but I decided to postpone such adventures until first light. Apparently my two compatriots slept in peace through the affair.

My hammock suspended in the woods with tarp pulled back

The second day's hike took us up and over Forney Ridge. As we hiked down the far side, we observed fresh scat--bear scat. Craig joked that we would probably overtake the beast. Not too long afterward we heard a crashing in the brush up the mountain side to our right. A little ball of fur came hurtling down the mountain, hit the trail and rushed toward us. I was in the lead, and seeing the cub flying up the trail, immediately put it in reverse. "Cub, cub," I warned as I backed into Craig. He, too, had seen the cub and recognized the implications. Dad, bringing up the rear, couldn't see anything except my expression and us in reverse. "Huh?" was his response, to which I replied again, "cub!" Mom later told me that he would have caught on a lot quicker if I had said, "b'ar!" Craig, of course, had seen the PICTURE and understood. Fortunately, the cub saw us and hit the brakes, reversed and fled off the other way down the trail. Shortly thereafter, momma bear tore down the trail in hot pursuit. A sigh of relief then laughter overtook us.

Our siesta that day was punctuated by Craig crashing on his backside after failing to tie a proper knot for his hammock. After re-hanging it, we all took a quick nap while we allowed some clothing and our bags to air out a bit. The largest of our creek crossings came after our break. Most of the many creeks had been successfully crossed by fancy footwork on the available rocks. This crossing would be too dangerous to rock hop, so Dad and I forded in. Craig, seeing the water rise above our knees, decided to search a little further and found a line tied across the river downstream of us. I'll spare you the part of his anatomy he feared might get wet and chilled, being of shorter leg length than me. He used the line to successfully cross with little need to get wet.

Dad fords a creek

Camp that night was again along a pleasant creek. Dinner was followed by another fire, again laboriously started, and cocktails. We were joined at the fire by a young computer programmer named Jeff from Chicago. He would join us the following day for the hike back up to Clingmans Dome. The night was peaceful with no wildlife interruptions. Craig woke to assess each sound created by Dad or I getting up in the night.

The hike the next day proved to be nowhere near as bad as we had imagined. Even though it gained over 2000 feet in elevation, the incline was not severe enough to give us trouble. Arriving at the top, we still had enough energy to hike up to the overlook tower. The views were again spectacular. As we prepared to leave the parking lot, Dad discovered his door wouldn't close. Apparently he had lost a screw in the lock mechanism and it failed to catch. Craig joined him to inspect the problem and announced he had seen a similar issue with a neighbor's car. Hunting around, he found a stick and proceeded to use it to jam the lock mechanism back in place. Observing the goings on from inside the van and the thought of holding vehicles together with twigs, I couldn't help but observe, "You know you might be a redneck if...." As Dad climbed in, I made certain to see him buckle his safety belt. I didn't want our driver flying out the door on one of those curves on the way down. Dad cranked (and cranked and cranked) up the van, and we were off. Another excellent adventure.

We saw Craig off Thursday morning then took the women on an eight mile hike, stopping by a waterfall for lunch. The superb weather continued to hold up, as did the colors. Mom decided the next day we should see some shows at DollyWood. Get your dictionaries out again. It turns out "shows" is a code word for revival. Yes, it was gospel music month at DollyWood, but they assured us that there was really quite a variety of music to hear and it was not preachy. Well, you should have heard the preaching and "Hallelujahs" and "amen brothers" and seen the arm waving. Not only that, it turns out those Southerners have multiple birth certificates. They don't hesitate to get up on stage and tell you how they were born on this day or that, long after they were really born. Anyway, Mom swore she didn't remember it being that way, but I don't know.... In all fairness, there were some beautiful voices. One guy even talked about b'ar huntin'. We also got to meet Debbie and Dennis, two of Mom and Dad's good friends--very nice people. Dennis was a riot, talking about how it was the Baptists that were up on their feet, the Catholics that remained seated and the Jews walking out the doors.

I also got to meet the new neighbor. If you think Craig has a deep accent, you ought to try to listen to him! He was up on the hill with a mechanic trying to get a front-end loader running after he had rolled it. He had rolled a backhoe a couple weeks earlier. After they heard about my bear incident, they started talking about b'ar huntin'. From what I could gather, nobody up there carries a loaded gun, which explains the large number of wildlife in the area. They spend all their time unloading each other's guns because someone is drunk or plain crazy or used his gun as a walkin' po' and dun plugged it full up with mud and dey's scared dat somebody dun gunna git hurt. I got a good laugh out of it all.

Life is good! That was our vacation in Tennessee. It was full of great times, fond memories and good laughs. We can't wait until the next adventure.

Dad's Story

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