2005 Father-Son Trip, GSMNP, Craig's Version
Craig finds evidence that we're on the right trail
Well, where to begin...the explanation of my family, the explanation of the trip, or a mixture of both? I guess that we will start out with this being the first year we wore out one hiker before we started. Jim Moyar could not make the trip this year because his knees let him down. He missed quite an adventure this year, and after the story he will surely be starting his workout for next year's hike.
I guess we will start with the safe arrival of all those involved to the McBride Resort. The discussion this year was a backup plan—we never had one of these before, and I guess as the story goes on you will see why. The original hike was for the Appalachian Trail across the mountaintops, and the backup plan was the “Lakeshore Trail” around the lake. Upon arrival, I found that the Appalachian Trail was booked solid at the shelters (no camping outside of shelters on that trail), and they had a few inches of snow up there. So in came the backup plan. You will find out that not much effort was put into the backup plan. The plan was simple, a boat was going to take us to the far end of Fontana Lake and drop us off. We are going to hike along the side of the lake back to the dam where we started. My first question was about the boat. I was told that no, they didn’t want our names, they didn’t want a contact number, basically all they wanted to know was how many and said to show up between 8:00am and 8:30am. So what is your definition of boat? One thinks about the Elk Lake canoe with bailing can, a Viking ship including paddles and whips, a party boat, or a yacht with full wet bar—wait until tomorrow. We went to the camping store to pick up a few last minute items. On the bulletin board they listed all the camps that were closed due to bear activity. Oh yea, this one is easy—one of our camps was closed.
I started out with a wake up from Deanna. For some reason she felt that I needed to be woke up before Dan and everyone else. It was kinda nice to watch everyone else wake up...I guess. The ladies put on a wonderful breakfast and, with smiles, at 6:30am sent us out the door. You know that they were up to something. As we get underway (Steve being the sucker in the front of the van this year), Dad gave us a warm up in the fog with a trip up the mountain. Steve wanted to make sure that Dad’s cataract didn’t match up with the hole in the frost on the windshield that Dad was looking through. We had the usual face impressions on the side windows of the van and some mild tugging on the seats with our ***. Dad started to tell us about the Dragon Tail. For those of you that never heard about it, it is a highway through the mountain that has 350 curves within an 11-mile track. Yes, that just happened to be between the lake and us. That fancy coffee that everyone talks about has NOTHING on Dad. By 8:00am three shaking individuals and one man chuckling arrived at the marina.
The lake has been drained 35 feet low for the winter. We go into the office to see an older man with a bushy beard and a knitted cap on his head that came to a point over each ear with a string dangling down. When we told him where we were to be dropped off, he laughed and said that we were going to freeze to death. You know how it feels to be the object of a joke—he told everyone that came into the office where we were going, so that they too could make a comment about freezing and that we were fools. After a few customers came in, including four Mexicans who also laughed at us, we stepped out onto the dock to pick out the boat that we wanted. There were flat bottom boats, pontoon boats, bass boats, and ski boats. The fog was hanging in and the wind was blowing a cold chill down our backs. We noticed that many boats had caps on them to protect us from the cold...not ours! A speedboat was pulled up and fueled up for us, like we were interested in water skiing. After emptying our packs of clothes, we put them in the front of the boat. We looked like Eskimos climbing in the boat. Dan doing his safety check pointed out to me that there were no life jackets in the boat. When the bushy-bearded captain climbed in the boat I pointed out that we didn’t have any life jackets. He looked at me with that blank stare for a minute and then asked, “Do you really want one?” I could tell by his voice that there had never been a life jacket in that boat. Also, as he immediately turned and started untying the boat saying that “the water was warmer than the air”, there wouldn’t be any put in the boat today either.
We putted out into the marina in the fog. As soon as we got out into open water, the fog really socked us in. At the same time the captain really socked it to the throttle and we were screaming across the lake in zero visibility. The Captain stood up a few different times, pretending that it would help him see. The wind caught Dad’s pack and almost blew it out of the boat. Everyone panicked, except the captain who acted like nothing was going on. Luckily it stayed in the boat. Every now and then you could catch a glimpse of the mountains on either side of the lake. During one of these sightings I noticed that there was a sign with a large number on it at a finger in the lake. Quite a while later, I saw another one and pointed it out to Dan. The Captain looked over at it too and immediately started turning the boat around. “Oops, we almost missed our turn.” As he pulled down the finger of the lake we noticed that there were other boats out on the lake. Some bear hunters and fishermen. It kinda made us feel lucky that we didn't hit another boat. As we were idling to a finish of our boat trip I, being impressed at his confidence, asked the Captain how long he had been working at the lake. He informed me, “Two weeks!” After seeing the lack of humor in my facial expression, he informed me that he had been there three years. He did say that not many people went this far down the lake. He pulled up to the shore, still thirty-five feet down from the woods, and pointed to the end of the finger. I asked how he knew the trail was down there, and he quickly pointed out that he had already been paid and would be out of sight before we got there. It took us a good five feet from the boat before seeing our first bear tracks. They headed to the trail as well.
The trail started off as a road and a sign was not far ahead with a nice bridge crossing the river. I pointed out that none of the trails on the sign was the one we were supposed to be on. Our guide pressed on with courage. A while later we came to another trail intersection with a sign missing our trail name. The guide then confidently removed the map from his pack and after many minutes of “Hummmmm” stated that we were on the wrong trail. We had taken the wrong turn when we got out of the boat. So back to the beginning we went. Nice warm up. Surprisingly, our trail went straight up the side of the mountain. This would end up being the last time we saw the lake on Lakeshore trail. You know that old saying “Does a bear sh*t in the woods?” Well, no they don’t—they sh*t on the trail. This hike had more bear sign than any of us had ever seen. There was no surprise when we saw the first one. A bear about thirty yards above us, headed over the top of the mountain. Dan and I were the only ones to see that one. We did think about our old buddy, Jim, and his bear bell from last year.
That night while we were sitting around the campfire, the topic about how many miles we might have to hike tomorrow came up. Certainly this should have come up in the planning stage of the trip! I believe this would be the third sign that the backup trail wasn’t properly planned. As the manly talk continued, the cracking of branches came to everyone’s ears. It was almost like a pattern going around our camp. Have you ever seen a lighthouse out of control? You should have seen the flashlights going in every direction. Never did catch him in the light. We didn’t have any other visitors in camp that night (that we knew of).
We started the next day going straight up. We did get a glimpse or two of the lake from a distance. I noticed that out in the middle of the lake there were two giant hills. I know that I didn't see them in the fog yesterday morning. I asked everyone else and, surprisingly, nobody else saw these life-taking hills in the fog. Dad had read from the good book last night about the sights that we would see today. Well, we did actually see some of them. The good book didn’t say anything about Gators. Yes, in the middle of the trail we found a Gator. Two rangers had driven it up to do some maintenance on the trail. They looked like; well like, yea, government workers. It was going to take a long time to fix that trail!
Craig contemplates taking the Gator the rest of the way to camp
The trail had some beautiful sights and by the time we got to the new campsite we were all ready for a break. As dinner was being prepared we had some entertainment by Dan. He had raised his water bottle for a drink. One wouldn't think that he would mess up drinking from a bottle. Soon water was shot all the way across camp. We all looked at Dan, who couldn't see anything with water running down his glasses. We inquired as to what went wrong, and he told us that, as he was taking his drink, he noticed a "Daddy Long Leg" sitting on top of his bottle looking back at him. There's another hour of laughter. We had a campsite solid with trees and no two trees were the right space apart for our hammocks. After we set up it looked like the ghetto, with tarps running into other tarps. We spent all night trying to burn wet wood. Another adventure completed.
The campfire provides a setting for conversation and a chance for Craig to dry his pants
Day three: we had our hiking legs. Steve’s knees were hurting, Dan’s feet were hurting, Dad had kicked every rock and stump on the trail (because of the cataract), and away we go. To get things going today I thought I would put on a little entertainment. The shoelace of one of my boots hooked on the hook on the other foot. So, picture one of those Chinese women walking very fast down hill. The first twenty feet I was keeping up with the upper body that was traveling ahead of my feet down the hill. Then the crash…along with the foul language. As I pull my face out of the trail and look around for the helping hand, I notice,as is the usual family tradition, that all I could see was cameras. After everyone got their breath back, they helped me up and we continued along the trail.
We came to the mystery part of our trip. On our map there was an ink line that represented the new or changed route of the trail with a mileage mark put on it. What I later found out, which was on the trail sign, is that our map showed the estimated mileage that Steve came up with. The trail sign showed that he was within a few miles of the actual length. This is when we passed the horse back riders. I asked if they came from the dam and they hesitantly stated that “you could get there that way.” It kinda sounded like "within a few days". This was also the most unmarked part of our trail with many trails running off of ours.
Now for some wildlife, about fifty yards down below us, at first looked like a bear because of the size, turned out to be a wild boar. Running away, it stopped and let us look at it for a second before it disappeared. Around the next mountain we got to watch a black bear digging around for food. He was down below us and either didn’t know we were there or just didn’t care. Many pictures were taken there. Dad, not wanting me to out do him, took his turn. The cataract kicked in and he hit the trail. He tripped over a bolder in the middle of the trail. His military training took over and he did the proper parachute fall, landing on his pack. I did happen to notice that he was immediately helped up. Where were the cameras? Many sights were taken in, from the good book they said that the trail would follow the lake and be gentle... WRONG! We came around a corner and noticed a black bear with two small cubs down below us. We watched for a while and more pictures. After we went around the corner we came to a stream so we stopped for water. As we dropped our packs I notice a black bear with two bigger cubs coming down the trail towards us. Had we not stopped, we would have met them at the top of the mountain, which, I believe, would have been very very bad. You know: the screaming, the sh*t on the trail, the out running of the bear, and the sacrifice of the weakest hiker? Ranger Dad made some noise so that they would know that we were there. They stopped, looked, and then headed back over the mountain.
We continued to fetch our water. Water pump one failed, pump two failed. Luckily Steve had the purifying drops to finish getting our water. Knowing our cross trails, as planned, we came to the first sign showing only 6 miles left. My guide said that was a misprint, “Only about 45 more minutes”. The longest 45 minutes of my life! Remember the trail book: lake front and gentle…still WRONG! No lake, up and down mountains we went. We began checking the batteries of our flashlights, as the sun started setting over the mountain. Finally we saw the lake and the dam. As we walked off the trail we looked at the sign that showed the trail at 6.5 miles. Had we stayed on the path much longer, we would have never got off it, as it would have continued to grow. Quite sore and tired, we made it across the dam to the waiting van. We stopped for a congratulatory ice cream cone.
The dam was a sweet sight
The dragon's tail on the way home was even more exciting, as Dad had some competition. There was a Toyota pickup that had obviously experienced the drive before and was smoking up the road. Dad was not happy until the truck wore smooth-out from being tailgated finally pulled over and let him pass. I apologized to Dad ahead of time about what I had done to his van seat. I told him that when we stopped, I would spit out the buttons that had previously held the material to the seat. I think he only hesitated twice during the trip when the tires chirped trying to keep the van on the street. We made it home in record time to the hot pizzas that the women had ready for us. Overall we had a wonderful time and a great hike. I'm thinking next year we might cut it back about 10 miles so it will be a three-day hike like we meant it to be this year.