Monday, August 10, 2015

1995 Backpacking Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountain National Park, commonly called the Smokies, was named for the hazy smoke often obscuring its higher reaches. It was designated an International Biosphere Reserve in 1976, calling this 800 square miles "the best-preserved temperate deciduous woodlands in the world." It provides a home to 1500 types of flowering plants, 130 species of trees, 50 ferns, 330 mosses and liverworts, 230 lichens, and 1500 fungi. More tree species grow in this park than in all of northern Europe. Over 100,00 acres of the park are virgin forest. The park is also home to over 50 species of mammal, 200 of birds, 80 species of reptiles, and 70 types of fish.

Over 850 miles of trails, most maintained, lead to 98 backcountry campsites and 18 shelters. Black bears know where all these locations are and visit them regularly. 69 miles of the famed Appalachian Trail traverse the park's crest, including the highest peak on the AT, Clingman's Dome at 6643 feet. The 34 miles between Silers Bald and Crosby Knob represent the longest continuous stretch of the AT above 5000 feet. If you complete the entire 69 miles of the AT in the park, traveling from the southwest to the northeast, you will have ascended 4608 feet and descended 7678 feet of elevation.

Since it is so famous and so heavily traveled, I always expected the Appalachian Trail in the Smokies to be the superhighway of hiking trails, probably several feet wide, but often it is merely an 18 inch treadway with lush foliage (at times it is like a rainforest here) overhanging the trail. In fact, we hiked the trail without gaiters and the heavy dew on the overhanging foliage soaked our socks and consequently our feet.

Our first night we camped at Big Creek in the area around Walnut Bottoms Campground. At least one of the park's 1500 black bears was hanging around the campground at the other end and we heard the campers over there banging pots and yelling several times.  Two 15 foot high poles are provided to hang packs, and a metal food box is also provided to keep the critters honest, but still they come looking for food. And one of the poles has a huge S-shaped bend in it about halfway up -- want to guess how it got there?

On one section of trail, Len was leading and kept complaining that he was getting bitten by something. There were no mosquitoes around and no flying bugs of any type. A bit later he realized that there were single strands of spider webbing across the trail, and when he broke one with his body, a small spider would swing onto him and bite.  He solved the problem by carrying a stick in front of himself, thus breaking the strands before his body was near the strands. A bit later we encountered a backpacker coming the other direction and he was doing the same thing with a stick!

Below are some twisted metal remains, parts from an Air Force F-4 jet that crashed into the mountain on January 4, 1984. There were no survivors. The airmen apparently mistook their elevation and smashed into the mountain at high speed. People as far away as Newport, TN reported hearing the thunderous explosion.

Our loop backpack took us on these trails:  Big Creek, Swallow Fork, Mount Sterling Ridge, Balsam Mountain, the AT, and Lower Gap Trails. We slept in Laurel Gap and Tricorner Knob shelters on nights two and three. Back in 1995, the national park still had chain link fences on the open side of the three-sided shelters as seen below. One morning, an adolescent black bear was at the fencing looking in at us. I tried to take a photo but the old camera back then focused on the fencing and not the bear and all I got was two green eyes in the photo. It felt to me like a reverse-zoo situation, with us in the cage!

The bunks are double deck, with six or more on each level. You can see three hiker's things on three bottom bunks in this photo. Food bags are hung from the ceiling with old cans on the string trying to keep the mice away from the food. One guy spending the night with us set an unabaited mouse trap on his stomach as he went to sleep. I asked why? He said he lived nearby and hiked here often and always caught several mice each night. Sure enough. The critters were scampering over us at night, and two or three times I heard the trap spring shut on one. The guy had a little pile of mouse corpses the next morning.

I anticipated getting lots of great scenery shots, and while we were on the trails approaching the AT that was true. Everything was verdant and wild flowers were abundant...

...but for our days on the AT, the namesake "smokiness" enveloped us, hampering our views as seen below. The Cherokee Indians of Tennessee and North Carolina originally named this area "The place of the blue smoke," then caused by naturally occurring oily residues and water vapor from the forest. Nowadays, though, it derives from dozens of metropolitan areas such as Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and sometimes even New Orleans and New York! 70% comes from sulpher pollution which reduces visibility from 93 miles to 22 miles! And sometimes lowers visibility to only one mile, which might have been fairly accurate on our days there.


Hiking Trails of the Smokies edited by Don DeFoe; Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association, 115 Park Headquarters Road, Gatlinburg, TN, 37738; 575 pages.

Appalachian Trail Guide to Tennessee/North Carolina by Kevin Edgar; Appalachian Trail Conference, PO Box 807, Harper's Ferry, WV 25425, 263 pages.

No comments: