In preparation for the AT I decided it would be good to try backpacking solo. Since I was trying to do everything alone, I opted to hike out of the Abrams Creek area of the Smokies since the area was recently devastated by an EF4 tornado (more information: http://bit.ly/keIrXp). I also knew some trails in this area were still closed, so I decided to hike up to campsite 14, resupply my water, hike to Parson’s Branch Road and back, and set up camp there for the night. This backpack was a lesson of “Nothing Ever Goes as Planned” and I did quite a bit of improvising. I think for my first solo trip, however, it was good as it let me think about ways to improve my situation. Let’s begin with the trip!
It was quiet at the trailhead yesterday morning. There was a ranger truck parked about 0.15 miles in, so I knew I’d at least see someone. There was only one other car in the hiker parking area, so I didn’t know if I’d see anyone else at all. I quickly crossed the foot bridge leading across Abrams Creek and the trail began immediately running uphill to Pine Mountain. Here, I ran into the only other hiker I’d see all day, a trail runner who wasn’t having fun running up the 1000’ incline. I slowly climbed upwards, passing the runner, on his way back down and much happier now, and about 0.25 miles from the top of Pine Mountain is where the tornado path is present. I took a lot of photos and could see all the way down into Happy Valley from the top of the ridge. About 0.25 miles from the trailhead I could hear lots of noise and human voices, so I figured I must be close to Scott Gap and campsite 16.
When I reached the gap, I was surprised to be greeted by not only four rangers, but also a dog! I’d actually seen this dog before on Cooper Road Trail and I told the rangers they’d think it was crazy that I knew the dog. They weren’t surprised. They said his owner lived in Happy Valley and that the dog, who I named Buddy for the day, always follows them out when they work on the trails and stays with them all day. The rangers told me they’d just finished doing work on Rabbit Creek Trail, which is now clear all the way down to Cades Cove, and they’d built some stone walls on Hannah Mountain Trail running down to Abrams Creek. They also gave me some information about the tornado path and what I could expect to see on my way to Parsons Branch Road. I wished them a good day and headed on up Hannah Mountain with a new friend. Buddy decided to come keep me company.
The trail immediately began a slow, gentle climb up to Polecat Ridge, where I saw several wild turkey just off the right side of the trail down the ridge. The trail curved off to Deadrick Ridge, which had a dried up seep of water running across the trail. I started to get a bad feeling about water at campsite 14 when I saw this. Continuing on about 0.75 miles and navigating a large, fresh blow-down I came to campsite 14 and was immediately not impressed. The site, located at Flint Gap, was very small with one fire ring and only one flat site for a tent immediately next to the trail. I stopped here for a snack with Buddy, who was ready for a nap in the shade. After snacking, I set out to find water. I went up the trail where my map showed a small stream, but it was dried up. I went back to the campsite and looked for the water source said to be below the gap and found no evidence of water whatsoever. Since I was planning on heading up to Parsons Branch and back (8 miles total) and had only 1 liter of water for drinking and cooking my dinner, I made the executive decision to go back down to Scott Gap and camp at 16. Buddy seemed to be pleased with this decision as well, good thing since he doesn’t speak English!
I backtracked to campsite 16 and got there in about an hour and 10 minutes. Campsite 16 is the site of a now torn-down shelter, so I figured this would be a better place to stay the night. I’d also read in the brown book that water here was usually good. Today, however, it was not. I followed the sign to the water source to find stagnant water in deep mud. Buddy was happy about it and drank up. He then decided to head home. I left campsite 16 and went back to the trailhead at Scott Gap. I decided that since the rangers told me the trail was clear down to campsite 15 I could go down there and get water and come back, only 2 miles round trip. This option was better than my alternative, go 2.8 miles there and back to Abrams Creek at the end of Hannah Mountain. I set off down and back to campsite 15 through a thick rhododendron forest. I will admit, though, that this hill completely wore me out to come back up and I was exhausted, but hydrated.
I set up camp and took some photos of the area before heading to bed (thanks, Benadryl!) I woke up at 5:50 a.m. this morning and couldn’t get back to sleep… I guess that is what happens when you go to bed at 9 p.m.! I decided to wait for the sunlight to show up and then pack it up and head on home. The ascent back up to Pine Mountain wasn’t too hard this morning and the sky was blue and cloudless like yesterday. I made it out from Scott Gap to my car in less than an hour and 10 minutes. I didn’t see a single person (or Buddy for that matter) this morning.
I’m glad to have my first solo trip under my belt and know that I’m confident enough to make good decisions about my situation. I’m very glad I didn’t risk staying in at 14 without adequate water and, although I was exhausted, I’m definitely glad I thought about running down to campsite 15 for water. As for the things that go “bump” in the night I feel better too. After looking around and figuring out what was making noises, I did much better and was able to sleep better as well. I am, however, very glad to be home.