View north to the Great Smoky Mountains from the observation tower on top of 4627' Wesser Bald, NC.
Dates .... Saturday, April 20, 2002 through Sunday, May 12, 2002 - 23 days on the trail
Miles .... 244.5 miles, total.
From .... Amicalola Falls - Springer Mt. GA Southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail
To ......... I 40 Davenport Gap, At the TN - NC border Northeastern (Upper) end of Great Smoky Nat. Park
This hike dedicated to the CCC crews that laid out and made portions of the AT possible and all the wonderful volunteers that make and keep it what it is today. I sincerely thank them and appreciate all their efforts.
Special THANKS go to the warm, lovely people operating Neels Gap Walasi-Yi, Gary and Lennie Poteat of Blueberry Patch Hostel, Jeff and Nancy Hoch of the Hike Inn, and the unforgettable and kind "Mountain Mamma" of the hostel with the same name near Davenport Gap, NC.
A very special THANK YOU goes out to John Clum for the ride down to Georgia and to Jim Yeich for the ride back home. They made this hike possible.
This Appalachian Trail (AT) backpacking adventure began in the Chattahoochee National Forest in northern Georgia at Amicalola Falls State Park, up over Springer Mountain, GA, preceded north through the Nantahala National Forest of North Carolina and then finished with a scenic adventure trek through the Great Smoky National Park. Getting there entailed a 14-hour, 2-day drive to a little gold mining tourist town, Dahlonega (pronounced duh-lon-eh-guh) GA. From our overnight motel there, John took me to Amicalola Falls State park, where the 8.8 mile long access trail to Springer Mountain and the official southern terminus is located, and I started my trek. I hiked 15.4 miles my first day out with temperatures hovering around 80.
With the completion of this section of Appalachian Trail I will have hiked about 1836 miles of the 2168 mile trail, leaving 332 miles to hike in New Hampshire and Maine. I have hiked the AT from Amicalola Falls / Springer Mt. GA to Mt. Washington, NH. This fall I will hike the last remaining section from Mount Washington, NH to Mt. Katahdin Maine. My final AT challenge, after completing all of the trail, will be writing and publishing a book on long distance backpacking, how to plan, condition and equip for it along with a version of my journal.
I carried a backpack that, over the years, has been refined to contain just what I need and nothing more. Everything in it was selected based on multiple functionality, light weight and serviceability. Although it weighed a manageable 21 pounds before food and water, it contained everything I would need to continue comfortably even if the weather turned nasty and wintry like it did last year. I carried a quart of water (2 pounds) and from 2 to 7 days of food. Food averaged 1.5 pounds per day.
I spent about 4 weeks prior to my trip aggressively conditioning myself, in addition to my usual rugged, active outdoor lifestyle. I broke in new hiking boots and carried a pack up and down the Endless Mountains of PA, often hiking with my good friend Jim Yeich. Additionally, I did intense workouts on exercise equipment at home. Planning, conditioning, and the right gear are essential key elements of successful long-distance or through hiking.
I resupplied four times by mail, a tactic used to keep pack weight down: Neels Gap GA (Walisi-Yi), Nantahala River NC (Nantahala Outdoor Center), (Blueberry Patch hostel) Hiawassee NC and Fontana Dam NC (Hike Inn and post office.) My last mail drop at Fontana Dam would be the largest and heaviest with provisions for the anticipated 7-day trek through the Smokies. I mailed myself jars of peanut butter and jelly, bought bread and made sandwiches at mail drops. When in town or at a food source (hostel) I would eat heartily (burgers, pizza, etc.) one or two meals there and get sandwiches or food to go (pack) for 2 or 3 more meals. This provided a tasty variety. I did not cook food or carry a stove. I ate granola bars, P&J, and pop tarts for breakfast, trail mix (gorp) and candy bars during the day, and mixed nuts, P&J, cookies and leftovers for dinner.
I made it a practice to purify three quarts of water in the evening. I drank one then and one in the morning and packed the third for the trail. Depending on the weather and ruggedness of terrain, I had to get one to three more quarts along the way. Drinking two quarts in camp ensured I would not dehydrate in the event water was scarce along the trail. Though there was plenty of water on this trek, I chose to pass up some water that required a long (0.7 mile) hike off the trail. Recent rain made little springs (not listed on map or guides) abundant and running strong enough to supply what I needed.
I started the trail hiking alone, but with lots of "weekenders" in the woods. I was only really alone on this hike once when I tent camped in a mountain gap, hiking four additional miles from a shelter. I met Dan, who assumed the trail name Dan "the Goat" near Springer Mountain on the first day out. He was a spirited and charming young man and we hit it off right away and stayed together for several days. I was glad to be able to help Dan lighten and refine his pack and get some of the things he needed. He was a real pleasure to be with and I hope to see him again.
Brett the "Firefly", one of my best friends and an enthusiastic, strong, hiker joined me at Siler Bald NC and planned to hike through the Smokies with me. After 5 days, he injured his knee, could no longer hike, and had to return home - just as we neared Fontana Dam. We were both very disappointed. Luckily, the Hike Inn was nearby and from Fontana Dam another kind hiker known on the trail as Chainsaw, gave him a ride most of the 700 miles home. I hiked a good part of the Smokies with Caribou Frank from MA, a retired guy that took serious pleasure in his hiking, was a real outdoor enthusiast, and was a great deal of fun to be with. And, I hiked with many others for varying periods of time along the way, all of which I enjoyed meeting. They all added to this adventure in a great way.
In the 23 days I spent on the trail I met some of the nicest people on earth and saw some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable. High mountains and splendid vistas, unique and intriguing rock formations, tranquil waterfalls and nature's finest garden of wildflowers awed me. I was continually treated to the indescribably pleasant scent of spring forest, all sorts of wildflowers and trees blossoming and the absolutely incomparable heavenly aroma of woodlands after a spring rain.
The people I met were as widely varied as the shapes and sizes of trees in the forest - and, for the most part, just as beautiful. While some were out seeking definition or meaning of their lives, others were out to enjoy the grandeur of nature. Some were seeking a challenge - and there was plenty of that to be sure, while others were escaping the trappings of today's fast paced high tech world. Some wrestled with mid-life crises while others enjoyed the prime of their lives. Some hiked just to experience the pleasure of the trail and wilderness, some for the experience of meeting or helping others along the way. Some wandered in search of adventure; others had a defined plan they were executing.
Some, but by no means all, of the wonderfully unique characters I met: Dan "The Goat", Paul "El Toro", Caribou Frank, Powder Man and Mattress Man (2 of the "Three Blind Mice" hiking crew), Mongoose, Andy (SquidlyMan)Hall, Top and his dog Copper, Pete "Peaks" Lane, Utah family of 4, Mountain Mamma (Kuntry Kitchen), Chainsaw, Roger "Many Sleeps" Dunton, VQ, Jeff, Randy and Jim with pooches Elvis and Willy, Jim, Scout Troop of Home-Schooled boys, Tom (LA), Neal, Copperhead and Cynic, Gary and Lennie Poteat, Ed "Turtle", Evelyn, Freakshow, South GA Heathens (3 ex-thru-hikers), Irish Gypsy, Thumper, Radar, Booger, Renegade, Kitchen Sink, Julie and Kraig, Scott and Matt, Mike and his dad, Pablo, Ryan and his dad Rick, Shrek, Rafferty, Mike and dad Steve, and many many more wonderful folks.
Some of the nicest people I met were not hiking. They were running hiker hostels or outfitters or performing some sort of support role. I have found a common thread among hiker hostel operators: They all love hikers. Outfitters may have a bit of a profit motive, but they seem to put that second to helping out the hikers. At least that has been my experience. I have seen several cases where a hiker in need shows up at a hostel and is helped far beyond any reasonable expectation of assistance. At Unicoi Gap GA I happened upon some serious "trail magic"; a bag full of candy bars and orange juice and several bottles of COLD BEER left along the trail by a former thru-hiker. Trail culture is that one hiker always helps another. It all makes for great humanity. The rest of the world should take a hike!
For record keeping purposes, there are three categories of hikers. Through-hikers (or would-be through hikers, at that point) complete a continuous hike of the 2168-mile long AT from end to end in one season, usually taking 5 or 6 months. It is a vast undertaking. The attrition rate of through hikers is brutal, somewhere around 80 to 90 percent. Those that make it have a right to be proud of their accomplishment. Long-distance backpackers or section hikers (myself) are out on the trail for more than 10 days at a time usually covering 100 miles or more on a hike. Just "camping out" doesn't count. All others, "weekenders", campers, those out for 10 days or less, recreational and short distance hikers are considered "hikers". This tidbit of information came from the quasi-official Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) trail census taker and record keeper that I had the pleasure of meeting near Fontana Dam.
I met a lot of through-hikers. Sadly, I saw a lot of them fall by the wayside in the short distance and time I was on the AT. I met a few long-distance backpackers and lots of hikers. Especially on the weekends. Friday through Sunday saw the most hikers on the trail or in the vicinity, and in the shelters. Weekdays were less congested. Weekends tend to bring out groups, too, such as the Boy Scouts. Basically, you can expect trail solitude Monday through Friday afternoon and competition for the shelters and best campsites Friday afternoon through Sunday.
On more than one occasion a friend and I were first and alone at a shelter by suppertime only to have it fill up with other hikers by dark. Unless you are a late arrival to a full shelter, it is always "the more the merrier". Conversation is lively and interesting, often about hiking gear and methods, the trail and the people themselves. As I said, you meet the nicest people on the trail. There are VERY FEW exceptions. Those you can usually just ignore and they go away the next day.
Hikers and backpackers are a family. They help one another out, share their food and gear, and go out of their way to help someone else enjoy the wilderness. Real hikers and backpackers are extremely respectful of the environment they are there to love and very considerate of others and nature. They are a great group of people. I made two significant errors in planning and packing my re-supply boxes for this hike, both resulting in a food shortage. I never went hungry, though, thanks to my fellow hikers.
One day I met a couple of backpackers in their late 70's and soon after I hiked with a family of four from Utah hiking north as far as they could in six months. Their children, an 8-year-old girl and 6-year-old boy, were backpacking 12 mile days and being home-schooled at the same time. What a fabulous education. I shared a shelter with them as these curious, bright and well-behaved kids experienced one of their first hailstorms. The parents were an amazing and ideal couple. I met three sets of father-son hikers.
The challenges of this section of trail were arduous and many. Unlike some other sections of the AT, flat sections of trail were practically non-existent. It was almost constantly up and down, often steeply. Many long downhills even required frequent uphill climbs over knobs and knolls. This was real wilderness. Road crossings and signs of civilization were few and many miles, often days, apart. A long-distance backpacker has to live off what he carries on his back and the water found along the trail. Though the miles do not come easily, the rewards are many.
The two major river crossings proved a challenge because it was there the elevation extremes were found. For example, at the Nantahala River, approximately 1750 feet elevation, the next day's climb was to a mountain over 5,000 feet high. The net climb of 3300 feet was spread over 8 miles. That day's total climb was 4032 feet. Net climb is simply the difference in elevation between two points. Total climb is the sum of all the climbing to get from one point to another. The climb up from the 1740 foot elevation Fontana Dam to 4019 foot Shuckstack Lookout then on to 4775' Devil's Tater Patch and finally to Russell Field Shelter was a real grunt. That was a net climb of 3065' and a total climb for the day of 4769 feet - my biggest ever. Both of these climbs were done with packs just filled with food.
Probably the most exciting part of the trek was Charlie's Bunion rock formation and ledge and the nearby rock cliffs, knife edges and fascinating landscape. The 6621-foot Mt. Guyot was awesome as was the Shuckstack fire tower. Both provided a fantastic view. The 4627' Wesser Bald and tower platform gave Brett and me a rewarding and breathtaking view of the Smoky Mountains poking above mist covered valleys. Clingmans Dome, at 6644 feet elevation, the highest point on the AT, was probably my biggest disappointment. Its misplaced and ugly monstrosity of a concrete viewing platform was mired in the fog of the low clouds, providing no view and about 100 feet of visibility. Many of the mountains in GA and NC provided spectacular vistas while some were limited by thick haze and some provided no view at all because they were in the clouds or rain. Albert Mt., at 5250 feet, was particularly rewarding when you reached the top after a grueling near-vertical climb. Blood and Tray Mountains were awesome. Some of the higher ridges provided spectacular vistas. Always, the woods were beautiful whether basking in sunshine and shadows or cloaked in clouds of fog and mist.
Danger and wilderness beauty go hand in hand. It's dangerous to stand on the edge and peer over a sheer vertical rock face cliff hundreds of feet above the valley floor below. It's dangerous to walk along a narrow rocky ledge a couple of hundred feet in the air with your shoulders brushing a vertical rock wall. It's dangerous to hike along a four-foot narrow ridge that falls away on both sides, hundreds of feet, precipitously to the forest floor below. But it's oh so indescribably beautiful and exhilarating. It's a legal high that beats all others!
The trail and wilderness beat and humbled many. Injuries and ailments temporarily sidelined some and sent others home. Many a hiker learned his or her limits and paid dearly for having the wrong gear, or not having the right gear, for not planning adequately or for not being in peak physical and mental condition for the rigors of hiking this rugged, demanding and beautiful trail through the wilderness. Many other hikers persevered and reaped the bountiful rewards of their efforts.
Wildlife is common along the trail, though it seems to avoid the heavily traveled AT in the daytime. Certainly there is always an abundance of birds. I was dazzled by the brilliance of an Indigo Bunting perched on a branch only three feet away and thrilled as I watched a bright red male Cardinal sing cheerily from a nearby tree branch. I saw dozens of Juncos feign injury along the trail to draw me away from their nests and many Rufus Sided Towhees flitted along the bushes next to the trail. I saw and heard Red-Headed, Red-Bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers ply their trade
One hiker lost her entire pack to a hungry black bear while another's food supply was yanked off a not-so-bearproof cable system and carted off into the woods to be enjoyed. Though I saw many signs - scat, tracks and scratchings, I saw not a single bear on this trip through the supposedly bear-infested Smokies and North Carolina's bear reserve. I saw some irony in the many bear cage-equipped shelters along the Smokies. We (human hikers) were the ones imprisoned, on the inside looking out! We were in the cages while the bears roamed freely about. Perhaps it was as it should have been.
I saw a few deer, some very close to a shelter in the evening. Several places along the trail showed evidence of the rootings and tracks of wild boar, but, sadly, I saw none of the furtive creatures. I saw only one lowly little garter snake - none of the big bad copperheads or rattlesnakes would show themselves or pose for my camera. I heard but did not see wild turkeys calling. I heard wild grouse make their eerie thumping drumbeat sounds and heard barred owls calling to one another from mountain to mountain. I got within 4 feet of a chipmunk clucking and chirping from his perch atop a moss-covered log. Certainly I would have seen and heard more if I remained still, especially if I got off the trail for periods of time. But, I had to keep moving for the most part.
The weather was probably typical of the southern Appalachian Mountains in the spring. About a third of my time was rain, a third was clouds, mist or fog, and a third was sunshine or partly sunny. Although I experienced some horrific and long-lasting thunderstorms and a nasty hailstorm, and a few horrendously hot (for hiking) days, I have no complaints. One severe storm had lots of high wind and contributed to the large amount of blown down trees along and blocking the trail that I encountered. Blowdowns are just another part of the challenge - as long as one does not hit you.
I actually enjoyed hiking in the rain, wearing only a quick drying polyester T-shirt and shorts. I only wore a rain jacket once or twice when it was near 40 degrees, windy and raining - usually approaching or leaving the top of some mountain in the clouds. I did not experience the blizzard conditions of mid-April last year (Mount Rogers, VA) or horrendous tropical storm conditions of Sept. 1999 (Tropical storm Floyd, MA). I actually enjoyed the cool wet or damp hiking conditions far more than the hot, humid sunny conditions, which require copious amounts of drinking water.
Last year I was introduced to the southern AT's economy version of a privy - dig-your-own with shovel provided. However, I was relieved (pun intended) to see some progress being made. Some shelters had primitive privies while some even sported moldering or composting privies. As I said - progress.
At times I was feeling so high spirited and absolutely overwhelmed at the beauty of it all, I was just bursting with ecstasy. I wish I could describe the positively wonderful feelings I experienced so often on this trip, and give them to others. I did not have the cloud of Sept. 11 hanging over me as I did last fall. I did not experience any "blue" days as I and many other hikers often do. The constant challenge was good for my body and soul, and evidently, my spirits. The mountains and wilderness were so beautiful and unique in their own ways that they were indescribable. To stand on a mountaintop and see only more mountains, forest and sky, to be surrounded with wildlife and wildflowers, or to experience climbing up into the clouds, and to experience a warm bond of true friendship from a previously total stranger, to meet a physical challenge, and to feel so close to God in His great creation, that is the essence of nature, happiness and life. That is the essence of long-distance wilderness backpacking.
Those of you close enough to visit my home in New Milford PA may make arrangements to come and browse through my AT photo journals. I have seven, one for each backpacking journey. Each contains hundreds of photographs, a summary, maps, and daily journal.
Al "Free Spirit" Robbins.