Backpacking

Hiking the Great "Soaky" Mountains - My Flash Flood Experience

I recently had a brand new experience during a guided trip - a flash flood.  While many of us go through our daily lives and hear or see the words "Flash Flood Warning" pop up on our phones or scrolling across the screen during a weather report, none of us ever actually get a chance to see or experience one.  While I hope you never do, I'd like to recount my experience, share a video, and let you know how you can avoid a situation like that while you're out on your next hike.  

During my most recent Women in the Wilderness trip thunderstorms were again in the forecast.  So far this year it has rained on every single trip I've taken.  Granted, after our severe drought last year, the rain is a welcome sight.  Even though I'm grateful for the rain and the fact that we are now two inches over our normal rain level, I'm starting to get a bit sick of it.  Knowing rain was in the forecast I made sure I had packed my usual rain kit for a guided hike, including my uncomfortable and hot rain jacket and a large and incredibly heavy (when it's dry) tarp for my clients to relax under.  While our first day on the trail only gave us a sprinkle or two when we first took off, our second day was calling for afternoon thunderstorms.  It was while we were lunching that we heard our first thunder clap, but after about 45 minutes of all bark and no bite the storm never materialized.  However, just as we arrived at camp, around 3:30 in the afternoon, the sky in front of us was nearly black.  I knew we'd be pushing the rain and we hiked downhill to my favorite campsite in the park, campsite 49 (Cabin Flats).  We walked back to the farthest site from the trail, right next to the river, and immediately put up our tarp to keep us dry.  We assembled all the tents and got underneath the tarp as the first rain drops started to fall.  Our group joked how this would be our trip high point - we assembled the tents and tarp just before it got wet, assuring that when we finally set up our tents on the inside (putting our sleeping gear inside) it would be nice and dry.  

At first, the rain was steady and not out of the ordinary; however, after approximately 15 minutes, the rain began falling in heavy sideways sheets.  The tarp quickly slackened from becoming wet and due to the sideways rain and winds we ended up holding some of the edges, moving to the middle of the tarp with all our gear and hoping the storm would let up.  The sideways rain continued for about a half hour before it finally let up, but the rain continued steadily.  After approximately 1.5 hours the rain had let up to the point where one of my clients asked "so, how much longer will we have to do this?" meaning stand under the tarp before we set up the rest of our gear.  As if on cue, as soon as those words escaped her mouth, we all heard a deafening roar.  Looking toward the river, we all watched the water level rise from normal to just at the shoreline and ready to breach.  After looking at each other and saying "did everyone just see that?" we ran over to the tents, picked them all up, and moved them to a higher point in the campground.  After standing for a few minutes and chatting, we decided I would head up to the top of the campsite, which was higher up, and see how the river looked.  When I got there, the water had risen to above the shoreline and was beginning to cover the upper part of the area.  I instructed everyone to grab their packs and head up the hill, leaving the tents for the moment.  

After bringing all our gear, minus the tarp and tents, to a safe point we came up with a game plan.  We definitely weren't staying at the campsite because it could still be raining upstream and the water could get higher.  We now had a few choices - grab the tents and stay right on the main trail, hike up to a different site about 3.5 miles away and stay there illegally without a permit, or hike out to our cars.  My group was shaken, but not ready to call the trip.  We decided to grab the gear and camp somewhere else.  Staying as a group, we broke down the tarp and three tents quickly and brought them up the hill to pack them up.  On our way back the second time, the water level had risen even more, despite the rain stopping where we were.  We sloppily packed the gear as best we could and decided to make the 3.5 miles trek to campsite 50.  

My biggest concern with hiking down to campsite 50 was the fact that it was at an even lower elevation than our campsite at 49.  I also knew the water would be higher down lower and that we had four bridges to cross to get there.  After approximately half a mile we came to the largest and what I considered the most secure of those bridges and I looked to see the water was only about a foot and a half from the bottom of the bridge.  This water, at normal levels, comes up to about my mid calf.  We paused on the bridge to take photos of the water and I shot a video as well.  You can see that below: 

For reference - this is what the river normally looks like. 

For reference - this is what the river normally looks like. 

Our walk continued along the Bradley Fork Trail and over a few more bridges that spanned the raging river.  We could see several walls of debris that were freshly piled up on the shorelines at the turns of the water.  Thankfully though, the water never breeched the trail.  When we got to campsite 50 we were shocked to find it was empty on a Saturday night.  We set up our tents, cooked dinner, and spent a dry night cozy inside them.  

I would be lying if I told you I felt 100% calm about the situation.  I've never experienced water like this in the Smokies before, although flash floods have been known to happen in other parts of the park.  Now that I've been through the experience, I can be better prepared for dealing with this situation in the future.  Here are my tips for dealing with a flash flood: 

1) Stay Calm:
If you panic your body won't help you make a rational decision.  In retrospect, it may have been safer to break down the tents and the tarp first to avoid taking that second trip down to the site.  Either way it would have taken the same amount of time.  

2) Know your outs:
Even if you're backpacking someplace new to you, having an evacuation plan is key for a situation like this.  The most important thing you can do during a flood like this is getting yourself to higher ground.  Knowing how you can get back to your car is even more helpful, but it's not always possible. 

3) Keep paying attention:
Even though we had a plan to continue onward with our hike, and even though we were still talking, laughing, and joking, I was still paying attention to that water and listening for anything out of the ordinary.  While you want to get out of the area quickly if possible, it's also important to stay safe while doing so.  

4) Report the incident to the proper people ASAP:
I had no cell phone service on this entire trip.  For me to report what I had seen I actually had to talk to the backcountry office at the park once I drove to it.  Letting the proper people know will get someone out there to check the site for anything unsafe and possibly close it to keep other people safe as well.  

While I hope I never have to deal with a situation like that again, I know that hiking for a living in a park with more than 3,000 miles of flowing stream it is a distinct possibility that I will.  I'm hoping to be better prepared and even more in control if I ever do. Have you ever experienced a flash flood?

An REI Adventure - Hiking the AT SoBo

My very first backpacking trip with my new job came as kind of a surprise.  I was in our office filling out my new hire paperwork and prepping to go out over the coming weekend when the office manager let us know that I couldn't get into the trip.  However, if I was flexible, I could leave the very next day on a trip with two other guides.  Wanting to jump in and start working right away, I decided to take the trip.  I headed directly from our office to the store to pick up my snacks and hardly slept with my mind anxious and excited. 

This easy and beautiful trip began after meeting our five wonderful clients and doing a shakedown of their packs before shuttling up to the highest point on the Appalachian Trail - Clingman's Dome.  It was in the 40s and windy when we arrived, not a view to be seen as the Dome was high in the clouds.  It was a short and easy three miles to our first campsite for the night at Double Spring Gap shelter.  I hadn't been here since my thru hike on the Appalachian Trail in 2012 and I hadn't actually ever slept in this shelter before.  We were the only people there for the night, but we had lots of other hikers pass through on their way south to Siler's Bald Shelter.  We had a great evening of getting to know our clients and stargazing before heading to bed.  

Skies clearing near Clingman's Dome

Skies clearing near Clingman's Dome

Day two of our trip consisted of hiking up and over Silers Bald, now viewless, and southbound on the Appalachian Trail toward Derrick Knob Shelter.  While there weren't many views to be had on this section, the leaves had started to change and I got some great lessons in the history of the park as well as learned more about the plants growing on these hillsides in the Smoky Mountain high peaks.  The fall colors were starting to become more vibrant and the skies cleared to a beautiful blue for most of our walk today.  When we reached Derrick Knob Shelter, we shared it with a woman and her autistic son.  She is local to the area and began hiking as a way to help her son lose weight.  They were out on a three day hike to finish the AT in the park and have hiked nearly every trail in the Smokies.  We had a small campfire that night and spent time talking around the fire before heading to bed. 

Witch Hobble changing to fall colors on the AT. 

Witch Hobble changing to fall colors on the AT. 

On the morning of day 3 we had an amazingly beautiful sunrise.  The AT was high in the clouds again, but the sky above was a beautiful shade of blue and made for some epic photos.  On this day we were able to take a solo hike, which gave us all time to reflect on our trip and spend some quality time walking the trail while lost in our own minds.  I love doing a solo hike on backpacking trips with a group.  The peace and quiet that come along with the feeling of being so small in the world can really help you walk off your worries.  We all came back together before making the climb up to Thunderhead and Rocky Top.  Both summits were in the clouds this day, but we spent some time at Rocky Top anyway where we were rewarded with some breaktaking views any time the clouds broke for a moment.  We walked on to our destination for the evening at Spence Field Shelter.  For dinner tonight, we hiked our food up to Spence Field (the place) to watch the sun set over the horizon with fabulous views of Fontana Lake.  The skies had cleared to allow for some wonderful vistas. 

Clouds breaking on Rocky Top

Clouds breaking on Rocky Top

The fourth day of the trip came quickly and we had a short hike down to our cars at the Cades Cove pavilion.  While we only had 5 miles to walk, we took our time and walked slowly.  This morning we got to see different plant life from what we had been walking through on the AT - we even tasted some yellow birch bark and sourwood tree leaves.  We ended our morning by learning about ring-necked snakes and seeing two small doe near a creek at the campground. We were very lucky to have nice weather the entire time without any rain and said our goodbyes at the pavilion. 

Sunset from Spence Field. 

Sunset from Spence Field. 

I really enjoyed my first trip as a training guide with REI Adventures.  I can't wait to take another trip on the AT and share my love of the trail with anyone who will listen!

"But How Can You Afford That?!" - Working Hard to Play Hard

It might look relaxing, but a TON of hard work went on behind the scenes before doing a hike!

It might look relaxing, but a TON of hard work went on behind the scenes before doing a hike!

The number one question asked to me upon finding out that I enjoy long-distance hiking is "how can you afford to do that?!"  Similarly, "you must be independently wealthy!" is a common followup.  The truth of the matter is if you find your passion, most of the time there is so much behind-the-scenes hard work involved in making your dream a reality that many people often don't see your struggle to reach your goal.  This post is brought to you by hard work, folks!

When I had decided I wanted to attempt a thru hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2012 it was July 2011.  I had a vague notion I'd want to thru hike one day, but I made a firm decision in July and immediately began planning.  When you plan for a long-distance hike there is a lot of research involved and the thing I noticed in many failed thru hike attempts was running out of money. This was back in the days before everyone and their brother ran a GoFundMe.  I knew immediately that if I wanted to up my chances of finishing a 2200-mile hike I would need to prepare financially.  

Saving money has never been hard for me.  I grew up in a family where if we wanted something, we saved up for it.  I bought my own cell phone and plan in the early 2000s from part job after school jobs.  I bought my first laptop computer when I was 17 through the same hard work.  Keep in mind these were the days when laptops were $1500 and cell phone plans were only 200 minutes a month with no text messaging options!  I've always been a saver, so this task wasn't hard for me at all.  Although, as an adult with a home mortgage and a fairly brand new car recently purchased, saving money wasn't as easy as it was in my teenage years! The first thing I would need to do is supplement my income with a second job. 

In 2011 I took a job with a temp agency.  The agency I was with specialized only in medical offices, my area of training.  I worked part time at night from home as my regular job, so that left me free for day shift jobs.  In the medical field I quickly found fairly regular work as a temp from 7:30-5 p.m. and still had time for my regular job.  Some weeks found me working as many as 65 hours, but I was okay with this as all that money from temp work was going into my savings and my trail fund.  By the time I left in 2012 I had expanded my network in the healthcare field and saved some money to thru hike. 

The same methodology applied to my summer 2015 thru hikes.  Although the medical field in Syracuse was much smaller, I had to get more creative.  I worked an early morning shift at FedEx and then worked a normal 8-5 job like any other person.  While doing these shifts I often found myself working 70-hour weeks in the Christmas season, but the result was still the same - I was able to funnel the extra cash into my savings for thru hiking.  For months I was often tired and I wasn't the most social person, but the end result allowed me to take off an entire summer to live my dreams.  I am personally not a fan of the GoFundMe campaigns for people to take the time to do a thru hike.  If you want to take the time off from life to do a hike, you should be willing to work just as hard for it as you would any other dream! Kickstarters, however, are different.  If you're a filmmaker or a writer I find this a viable option for production costs.  I have nothing against people who do use GoFundMe for trips, I have just found it's not something I could see myself doing for a trip I've chosen to do. 

Once again I've found myself back in the real world dreaming of my next adventure.  While my new job as a backpacking guide will help me live out my passion on a smaller scale for the next several months, I know that if I want to get back out and take a season away from my adulting hard work and little free time will be the key.  How did you save for your adventuring?  I'd love to hear some of the methods you use!  Please leave me a comment or connect with me on Facebook!

 

Day 5 - a zero in Downsville

We woke up early, around 6:15, and decided that a zero day was in order.  After having wet feet for four days and both of us in new shoes our feet have taken a pounding and we both had some pretty bad looking feet.  We made a great decision because we ran into a big problem.  We picked up our drop at the post office at 9 am after a huge breakfast at the Downsville Diner. We hit the market next door for some zero day provisions and then headed back to the hotel for some relaxation.

The cute and tiny post office  

The cute and tiny post office  

We sat down and sorted our box and I started making a game plan for tomorrow's hike.  Here is where I hit the snag.  If you're heading west out of Downsville there is a horse camp about 5 miles outside town.  The map goes on for 12 miles to the next map, which is 25.2 miles.  The only campsite for 35 miles is the one just outside of town.  The entire map that is 25.2 miles is all land owned by New York City.  There is absolutely no camping and they have their own environmental police to bust you for camping (the DEP).  Their headquarters is also at the start of this 25.2 mile map.  Now we have to figure out where to go.  I called a car spotter and he recommended I call a place.  That place recommended I drive 11 miles to a campground and didn't quite understand I was on foot and driving isn't possible.  I called the Finger Lakes Trail Conference for an idea of what to do next.

The FLTC office turned out to be a dead end and a pretty bad experience.  In fact, the woman who answered the phone, when I asked what they tell thru hikers to do in this long section, told me I should have planned weeks in advance and lined up my shuttles to hotels.  I asked her if there was a town between Downsville and Bainbridge that I maybe couldn't see on their maps and she told me no in a very firm tone.  She told me she couldn't help me and hung up.  I was shocked at the treatment I received from the FLTC and I'm really upset that I called asking for help planning our day and they flat out told me they couldn't help me. We again walked back to the hotel.

We decided to blow off steam by taking some kayaks out onto the river.  The Downsville Motel is right in the East Branch of the Delaware River and we took some kayaks out on the very small stream coming from the NYC-owned reservoir where you're actually allowed to boat.  We had a beautiful view of the covered bridge and even saw a bald eagle flying around.  It was a great way to end our long and frustrating day.

Screw it, let's kayak! 

Screw it, let's kayak! 

I won't tell you guys where or what we'll be doing tomorrow.  I will say that this trail, so far, hasn't been the norm for us.  We normally run into people who are full of information and very helpful.  We've been lost, soaking wet, and now told to fend for ourselves.  After nearly 3000 long-distance hiking miles to say we finally have hit a big snag is pretty impressive.  I would like to say thank you to the people we talked to today who DID take the time to help us out on the phone - Richard, Tina, and Jim.  Thank you!  And also a big thanks goes out to Al and his employee at the sports shop/motel who sat down with us and looked at the map and tried to help out.  

It's gorgeous on the Delaware River! 

It's gorgeous on the Delaware River! 

Day 4 - Finger Lakes Trail

We made it through the the whole night and woke up to a morning WITHOUT rain!  Blue skies awaited us and we got a pretty early start.  We began with an immediate steep climb up to Beech Hill, and this climb didn't mess around!  We went straight up to the top and walked through rock formations and stinging nettles that were thigh high. Even with my knee length gaiters I still got nailed.

Walking between rocks, like we did 10 times today. 

Walking between rocks, like we did 10 times today. 

We made it up to Beech Hill and were treated to an amazing view of Little Pond, which is fed by Big Pond, where we camped last night.  We had a flat, albeit muddy, section of hiking before ascending steeply, through more rock formations to the top of Middle Mountain, before coming straight down the hill to Mary Smith Road.  This parking area was great because there was a bench! A bench is a huge deal to a hiker!  We took a short lunch break here to wring out our wet socks before beginning another steep climb.

The view from Beech Hill ooking at Little Pond. 

The view from Beech Hill ooking at Little Pond. 

We once again had an incredibly steep climb up to Mary Smith Hill, which I think could be changed to mountain because this thing was steeper than the last one!  We climbed through more rock formations in stinging nettles up to our thighs (noticing a theme yet), only this time we both took a spill or two landing hands first in the nettles too!  The steepest section of the entire Finger Lakes Trail (according to our map) was coming down this trail to the next road crossing.  It was no joke and it took us longer to get down it (through rock formations and thigh-high nettles) before coming down to Holiday Brook Road.  From here, we had a road walk into the town of Downsville, where there was a motel and food!

Walking into Downsville, NY

Walking into Downsville, NY

The road walk was long, but we walked along the Pepacton Reservoir, which is where the town of Pepacton used to be before New York Coty decided they needed the water from the Delaware River more than these people needed a town.  The reservoir is HUGE and had lots and lots of "no trespassing" signs since it is the NYC public water supply.  This reservoir was beautiful and incredibly clean. 

We made it to Downsville at 5 pm and checked in to the Downsville Motel, taking showers and then walking the FLT over the historic covered bridge and down into town to have nearly 1-lb hamburgers at the SchoolHouse Inn, a restaurant that used to be a schoolhouse, built in 1908.  We stopped by the fire station, the only place in town with a cell phone signal, to make some texts before heading back to the motel to crash for the night.

Walking the covered bridge into town, built in 1856. 

Walking the covered bridge into town, built in 1856. 

Day 3 - Finger Lakes Trail

It poured down rain in buckets for most of the night, so we were incredibly grateful for the shelter!  Another late start waiting for the rain to clear, but it wasn't too bad since we had time and space to dry out our soaked tent in the shelter.  We began our day with a wet hike, both of us wearing gaiters since the trail description warned of stinging nettles and briars.  The trail was incredibly wet and we even ended up fording a stream by accident looking for the trail - this trail is not well-marked for westbound hikers!  After seeing some beautiful small cascades on Beaverkill Creek and walking some old roadbed we came to our first trailhead, which indicated our big climb of the day.

Beaverkill Stream. 

Beaverkill Stream. 

 

The trail started out fairly gradual but then took a turn straight up the mountain to the highest point on the Finger Lakes Trail - Balsam Lake Mountain, at just over 3500 feet.  We didn't go up to the fire tower because it was heavily overcast and we just wanted to get the next 3.9 miles done and hopefully avoid the rain.  This section of trail had lots of new growth so the small trees were very thick.  Thankfully it was free growth and not a lot of briars like the BMT was.  Just as we were about to reach the high point of the ridge again, the sky turned very dark and a thunderstorm rolled in.  We met a large group of young guys who said the shelter wasn't close, and we all ran down the mountain in the coldest rain I've experienced in a long time!  

About 30 minutes of rain was followed by a short period of sunshine, just in time for us to get to the shelter for our lunch break.  We were freezing cold, but we discovered that it was only 2 pm so we were pretty happy about that as we still had about 4.5 miles left to hike and it felt much later.  We had some fairly flat walking to Alder Lake and then is when it got bad. 

The view from Alder Lake- we saw two Bald Eagles here! 

The view from Alder Lake- we saw two Bald Eagles here! 

 

Remember when I mentioned this trail isn't well-marked for westbound hikers?  Well, we made an epic mistake.  See, our guide is only written eastbound and uses words like right and left, so you always have to read a word and think opposite. We had a short road walk from Alder Lake to our next trailhead and we saw a split in the road with a red disc marker (the trail we were following).  Our trail went up and this red marker went up, so we did too.  HUGE MISTAKE.  I started feeling like something was wrong. I got out the compass and discovered we were going northeast and we are clearly westbound hikers!  The road we were on turned west so we kept going.  Then we started going downhill very steeply.  I stopped.  We were definitely going the wrong way!

After I had a mini meltdown and cried a little we had to backtrack.  We had easily walked 2.5 miles in the wrong direction, but we kept thinking we were okay because the guidebook was pretty vague : see large rocks on your left, see stone wall on the right.  After we backtracked we had lost nearly 3 hours and it was 6 pm.  We decided to just go back and camp at Alder Lake and see if those kids who got caught in the rain with us were still there.

This is when we met Richard and Amy.  They were just out for a drive and killing time.  I told them I'd give them some gas money if they would drive us to the campsite we were supposed to be at and they said no problem.  They saved our day in a huge way since we were going to have to do huge miles to make it to our Dropbox after my mistake.  We got set up at Big Pond campground and the rain moved in AGAIN while I was filling our water.  We ate quickly and jumped in the tent for a late bedtime.  Tomorrow we have some big miles to pull if we are going to make it to our drop in Downsville on Thursday.  We are an entire day behind schedule due to having such a hard time getting to the trail on our first day and the rain.

Thanks again Amy and Richard for getting us to our trailhead!  Always follow your compass, hikers!  If something feels wrong, don't keep hiking!

Remnants of a mansion on Alder Lake. 

Remnants of a mansion on Alder Lake. 

Day 1 - Finger LakesTrail

 


Getting to the trail was definitely an adventure today! NoKey's dad had to work this weekend so our ride to the trail fell through.  After getting a friend (thank you, Darryle!) to drive us to Ithaca, we took the bus to Binghamton and then to Monticello, where we got lucky and got a taxi.  Lucky is the word I use because we met Rock- he's a hiker and he knew where we needed to go ... Well, sort of!  We got us to the YMCA in Frost Valley, which I just assumed would be a building but no!  It was an enormous camp encompassing the entire valley, which is on both sides of the mountain range in the middle.  In the end we got to the Slide Mountain trailhead, but not the RIGHT Slide Mountain Trailhead.  Instead of a 1 mile up and back, we had 4 miles one way to the FLT eastern terminus.  We dubbed it bonus miles and walked it happily. 
image.jpg

From here, it was 1 mile to the parking lot where we started our very long road walk.  We walked about 2 more miles before coming to the only campsite we could legally use, so we gladly stopped since it was already 5:30.  We built a campfire and had small dinners before calling it a night.

Don't go any further! Unless you're on foot!  

Don't go any further! Unless you're on foot!  

A cool totem we saw on our road walk! 

A cool totem we saw on our road walk! 

Day 20 - Benton MacKaye Trail

Our last day is finally here!!  Everyone was up and moving around at 7:30 and we were in a hurry to get moving.  Even though the forecast predicted rain, we woke up to sunshine and we were in a race with the weather.  Mt. Sterling, the highest point on the BMT at more than 5800 feet, was waiting for us and I wanted NoKey to get the view I think is the best in the Smokies.  We did a quick 5.8 miles in less than 2.5 hours to get to the top by 10:45 am.  We were definitely rewarded! 

Looking at the AT from Mt Sterling on a nearly perfectly clear morning! 

Looking at the AT from Mt Sterling on a nearly perfectly clear morning! 

From here, we got a few texts out to my family to let them know we would be done by 1:30 and shot off down Baxter Creek Trail for a 4000-foot elevation loss down to Big Creek Campground. 

Finally! We won't be walking in horse poo!! 

Finally! We won't be walking in horse poo!! 

We made it down the hill in 2 hours and finished the trail at 1:20 pm.  There were tons of people picnicking in the day use area, so we were able to get a photo of the two of us together at the terminus of the BMT with my homemade sign.  It was a great feeling to have sunny skies to finish this tough trail. 

We did it! 

We did it! 

I will be writing a recap of the BMT in a few days and sharing it with you all.  This trail had three very distinct sections, broken up every 100 miles or so.  It feels great to be back home in a temperature controlled environment with comfy beds, but two more trails await us this summer! 

Day 19 - Benton MacKaye Trail

It rained all night and finally tapered off just around sunrise.  We got out of the tent at about 7:50 and wiped everything down as best we could before setting out for, on paper, looked to be a tough day.  We began by climbing to the top of Hughes Ridge and meeting the Enloe Creek trail for a few miles before finally heading back downhill.  The trails were slick, but in great shape considering the weather.  We forded Enloe Creek and NoKey actually managed to rock hop the whole thing!  We passed a few pretty cascades before coming to campsite 47 and beginning our next climb. 

A beautiful waterfall in the remote Smokies Backcountry. 

A beautiful waterfall in the remote Smokies Backcountry. 

The next climb to Beech Gap Trail started steep, but leveled out near the top giving us a much needed break. Towards the top of this 5000-foot peak we were once again walking in the clouds, but didn't mind because it kept us nice and cool.  From here we had a steep downhill of nearly 2000 feet of descending down to Straight Fork Branch, where the sun came out for a few minutes and we had a quick lunch before beginning our last big climb!  

Walking a verdant path through the high clouds in the Smokies

Walking a verdant path through the high clouds in the Smokies

After lunch the clouds rolled back in and we had to climb nearly 3000 feet yet again!  We took our time and took lots of breaks at some beautiful springs, filling our water as we went.  This has been such a nice way to end our trip, not carrying so much water!  Near the top of our climb at the junction of Beech Gap and Balsam Mountain, the trail levels out as we walked through a spruce forest at nearly 5600 feet of elevation before heading downhill into Laurel Gap shelter. 

A surprisingly full house for a Tuesday after a holiday! 

A surprisingly full house for a Tuesday after a holiday! 

We camped with 12 people at Laurel Gap and met lots of interesting people!  It was so nice to stay under a roof and be social for the night.  Just around 7 pm the rain started to fall for a few hours - a nice way to fall asleep knowing our tent had been dried out and we were dry, listening to the rain fall on the tin roof.  A great way to spend our last night on trail! 

Day 14 - Benton MacKaye Trail

We woke up to the same rain that had been pouring down all night.  We were camped at 4900 feet so the rain plus high elevations made for cold temperatures.  We didn't leave camp until about 10:30 since we were waiting for the rain to abate.  We were walking downhill through brush and undergrowth so our legs, socks, and shoes got pretty wet.  We had quite a few ups and downs this morning before running into some day hikers about 3 miles from Farr Gap.  We had a quick lunch and then headed to the gap and the infamous Stiffknee/Slickrock Creek trail.

Always a comforting sign to see when you sleep with your food in your tent and you're not even half a mile from camp! 

Always a comforting sign to see when you sleep with your food in your tent and you're not even half a mile from camp! 

 

Now I had heard rumor this trail was rerouted to miss this nasty creek, but if it was we didn't see it! We started down steeply and immediately understood the name Stiffknee Trail!  Our packs are nearly empty and this thing was steep!  We kept dropping down and crossing numerous creeks, fighting our way through numerous blow downs and through brambles.  The trail got muddier and tougher to walk and we eventually reached a junction that let us know we were actually still on the right trail (miraculously!)  all of a sudden we were standing on a rock with a sign reading Slickrock Creek and we knew if there was a reroute we definitely were not on it.  We forded the creek, which was about thigh deep, and shook out on the other side. 

We finally saw rhododendron blooming today! 

We finally saw rhododendron blooming today! 

 

By now we were exhausted, but no campsites were listed in our book and we just wanted to be both dry and warm, as the sun still had not come out and we spent most of the day walking in clouds. We climbed up Ike Branch to Yellow Hammer Gap and looked for the side trail to Tapoco Lodge, but it hasn't been built yet.  Up we went some more crossing Ike Branch about a thousand times before finally reaching the top and crossing it about a thousand more times on the way down.  We reached the Tapoco Trailhead at Cheoah Dam (the one they filmed The Fugitive on) and finishing our day with a half-mile road walk to Tapoco Lodge.

Cheoah Dam - they filmed The Fugitive here. 

Cheoah Dam - they filmed The Fugitive here. 

 

When we saw the lodge we were elated! A big sign greeted us and we walked through the gates and were immediately awestruck.  This lodge only became hiker friendly a year ago, and walking up to it it was more like a private club or a five star hotel. We checked in and couldn't have been treated better.  We had a gorgeous room, a hot shower, free laundry, and a brick oven pizza place on premises! We ate a huge salad and pizza with some beers, had cleaner clothes than we have in over 100 miles, and climbed into the biggest bed I've ever seen to sleep.  What was a tough day turned into an epic evening!

An epic evening awaited us here! 

An epic evening awaited us here! 

Day 13 - Benton MacKaye Trail

 

We were sad to leave Tubby behind at the Green Cove Motel and Store, but we had places to go.  We began with a 1.4 mile was back to the trailhead at Telico Fish Hatchery.  From here we walked old road bed 95% of the day.  Our first old road walk was up the Sycamore Creek Trail.  We walked nearly 6 miles up a gradual hill before hitting a forest service road and climbing all the way up to Whigg Meadow and our first actual good view on the BMT!  We met an older couple here and talked to them during our lunch.  When we did the extra quarter mile up to the top we met some grad students looking to place bat boxes for research purposes.  We had an easy hike down to Mud Gap and the Cherohola Skyway where we had a piped spring waiting on us!

Looking up at Whigg meadow  

Looking up at Whigg meadow  

Haha, I'm only kidding! The book said there was water here, but you know by now there wasn't any!  It was only 1 pm and we had already done 9 miles, but it was starting to get hot!  We passed through the site of a former rock quarry that now looks like a bald and walked down to a forest service road before heading back up to meet the Cherohola Skyway again.  We had another beautiful view at Unicoi Gap before heading back into the woods and following an old jeep road for a little while.

Walking through the old quarry

Walking through the old quarry

 

About 2 miles in we met Kyle who was out hiking with his sister's dog.  It turns out he is friends with All Smiles, a man we hiked with for a few days back on the AT in 2012.  Once again, the trail community is so small!  We continued on and found a wonderful piped spring and chugged as much water as we could before filling up our bottles and heading on our way.  We left the jeep road about a mile later and started climbing.  We spotted a great campsite but there was no water nearby so we kept moving.  We crossed two small streams and came to a large campsite about 1.5 miles later.  We thought this was our destination, but it turns out somewhere in the weeds was our campsite and we had passed it up.  This meant I had to walk back half a mile for water (a mile round trip for those keeping count at home!)  we also fixed a trail sign that is obviously very wrong here. No blazes means it's easy to get turned around in a wilderness area, so the correct signage now will help!  

Even more views! This is Unicoi Gap on the Cherohola Skyway. 

Even more views! This is Unicoi Gap on the Cherohola Skyway. 

Day 12 - Benton MacKaye Trail

Zero day at Green Cove Motel!  A zero day means you don't do any hiking and I didn't expect we would have any days like that on this trail.  After the nightmare that was yesterday's hike we definitely needed a day off and we slept late.  We fell asleep at about 9:30 last night and stayed in bed until 10 this morning.  We wandered down to the store and poked around for a bit before the owner, Tubby, offered us some of her leftovers from dinner the night before.  We had a huge breakfast of cube steak with country gravy, mashed potatoes, peas, and Mac and cheese.  Tubby comes from a family of eight, so she always makes enough to feed an army she said.  We sat with her for about an hour talking about just about everything before we left her alone for a while.

Breakfast of champions on a cool table Tubby made from YooHoo caps. 

Breakfast of champions on a cool table Tubby made from YooHoo caps. 

 

I made a few phone calls, the first to Rick and Brenda Harris - BMTA board members and maintenance directors.  I asked about trail conditions coming up and Brenda assured me that our next section had been worked on very recently. She was aware of the condition of the trail we hiked yesterday and told me they were working on getting it cleared.  Since we were in a wilderness area, they cannot use anything like chainsaws or weed whackers.  The ranger district here is focusing on maintaining horse trails this year so the BMTA is kind of on their own.  I then called the Tapoco Lodge and confirmed we would be there this weekend so we definitely would have a place to stay.  

Bloody and battered hiker legs from the tough day yesterday. 

Bloody and battered hiker legs from the tough day yesterday. 

 

We ate huge dinners and then lounged around the rest of the night.  Even though there are no laundry facilities here, we were able to wash our clothes in the sink with a bar of soap and get them mostly dry for tomorrow.  Laundry on this trail is few and far between!

Drying laundry hiker style- chasing the sun around the parking lot! 

Drying laundry hiker style- chasing the sun around the parking lot! 

 

For anyone looking for a quiet, clean, relaxing place to get away I highly recommend Green Cove Motel.  This place is out in the middle of absolutely nowhere.  There is no TV or phone in the hotel rooms.  No phone service works here.  The windows and doors open up back onto the Tellico River and men are outside fishing all day long.  I was telling NoKey this is how it must have been doing a long distance hike 30 years ago - walking nearly deserted roads to get to town, get a stack of quarters, and use the pay phone to call places.  Tomorrow we go back into the woods with a guarantee of better trails and nice weather. It was been a perfect day off!

Green Cove Motel- middle of nowhere and heaven on earth!

Green Cove Motel- middle of nowhere and heaven on earth!

Day 11 - Benton MacKaye Trail

We started earlier today, about 8:30, and began our first climb of the day to Cantrell Top.  The sun came  out for the morning and we had some easy ups and downs until we reached Hipps Gap, a dry (shocker, I know!) campsite.  From here we had to start climbing but our day looked easy on the map and profile because once we were up, we were on top of the ridge.  We couldn't have been more wrong.

This is a North Carolina State line marker from the early 1800s

This is a North Carolina State line marker from the early 1800s

 

After some crazy steep climbing and an attempt to get water that didn't pan out, we reached Moss Gap, noted for the hairpin turn in the trail and a tree marked with a giant X indicating there is water a mere half mile off the trail.  We decided to head up and get water at one of the few campsites if we needed it.  This is where our day turned to utter shit.  For the next four miles we bushwhacked through immense blowdown.  The trees were thankfully blazed and there was a faint path of where people had gone through a week ago, but otherwise we were completely on our own.  For four miles, which took us three hours in the pouring rain, we climbed through branches, grass up to our necks, and thorns shredded our legs.  Any evidence of campsites and unmarked side trails was completely obscured.  It looked as if a tornado had hit the mountain.

There is a trail in here... Follow the blazes and make your own path! 

There is a trail in here... Follow the blazes and make your own path! 

When we finally hit Rocky Top, we had about half a clear mile before coming to another hairpin turn at Sledrunner Gap - the halfway point of the BMT.  Now, we were coming downhill in the same shit we climbed on the other side.  This side was even worse because it followed and crossed a stream multiple times.  Rhododendron were down everywhere and even harder to climb through. Again, all campsites and mile markers were completely wiped out due to the utter disregard for trail maintenance.  At 4 pm we had to make a decision.  We were at a trail junction where the BMT went up and trail 180 looked to be going down.  The map indicated in about 6.5 miles we could be at the same location 5 BMT miles would take us to.  We had been hiking for 7 straight hours without eating or stopping and we decided the road might be longer, but at least it was clear.

Which way to go now...? 

Which way to go now...? 

This decision changed our entire day.  Trail 180 was an old roadbed that appeared to have a lot of recent foot and horse traffic.  We got down the 1.5 miles in less than 40 minutes. We came out at a campsite and ate a quick dinner before walking FS 126, a gravel road that went up and between two mountains before coming downhill to Tellico River Road.  It was about 6:50 when we finally made it to the road and we knew that the Green Cove Motel was 1.4 miles from the trail.  We walked about a quarter mile before coming to the Sourwood Campsite and some people told us the motel wasn't far.  They even drove us down.  When we got to the store, the woman working there, Tubby, was only there just to stock the place.  She said we were incredibly lucky to catch her as she had just got back from a trip to Knoxville and was shutting up for the night. We grabbed snacks and sodas and checked in for two nights as we were utterly exhausted. 

Day 10 - Benton MacKaye Trail

We woke up to rain and decided to stay in the tent until it stopped.  About 9:15 it sounded finished and we began to pack up, leaving camp about 10 am.  Since we once again had to follow water we had no choice but to hike a 14.4 mile day.  It's really starting to get annoying having to hike a certain way on this trail!  Since we know most water sources aren't even on trail, the map I bought in Blue Ridge has been helpful, but it's still not fail safe.  We hiked out of camp carrying more than 9 liters between the two of us.

NoKey crossing Coker Creek

NoKey crossing Coker Creek

 

Climbing up and over Unicoi Mountain left us saying goodbye to the John Muir Trail we had been following and took us on an easy climb following old roads to highway 68.  After a short lunch and some foot surgery on both of us, we began walking again on the nicest trail we have seen yet on the BMT!  This part of the trail for several miles is also dirt bike trail, so maintenance was great!  After reaching a forest service road that maintains the power lines, it started to turn into more trail like conditions.  We were supposed to pass a campsite with water and once again never saw it, or any evidence it had been there.  We reached the top and saw an old homesite and a nearly dry spring.  We attempted to get water but it was mostly mud. Thankfully, the other side of the hill had a gorgeous spring and we were right at the source!  We completely filled out bottles and camelbaks and headed down the trail to Tate Gap, our campsite.  

Looking ahead at our last climb of the day. 

Looking ahead at our last climb of the day. 

 

When we got to the gap, we had read that there was a secluded and sheltered site 0.3 off the old road.  I left my pack with NoKey and went to scout it out.  There was a nearly dried up spring and a HOUSE with garbage everywhere at the supposed site.  I went back to the gap and we made camp right there on the trail.  This is how the BMT works I guess - no water and no camps... Make your own!

At least we had some pretty mountain laurel blooming! 

At least we had some pretty mountain laurel blooming! 

Day 9 - Benton MacKaye Trail

We didn't leave Reliance until 1 pm, mostly because we are ahead of our schedule and also because Dan at Reliance Fly and Tackle had to go to town and offered to pick NoKey up some antibiotic ointment for his feet.  His blisters are getting infected and needed some TLC.  While we were waiting on the back porch of the campstore we missed a heavy and short rain storm.  We were definitely glad to be packed up and dry!

Walking along the Hiawassee River - the lowest point on the BMT

Walking along the Hiawassee River - the lowest point on the BMT

 

We had an easy walk along the John Muir Trail leaving town, mostly flat and downhill where we followed the Hiawassee River for a few miles. Our first big climb was supposed to take us to a high point where we could get a view of the river, but the trail had been rerouted due to logging.  Again, no views on the BMT.  Once again we were reminded how spoiled we were on the AT thanks to the National Scenic Trail Act of 1968. We did finally have a cell phone signal at the top of this one and were able to get and receive a few texts.

A pretty cascade from Wildcat Creek

A pretty cascade from Wildcat Creek

 

From here it was up and down with a pretty cascade and a bonus side trail a group of fishermen told us about.  Then, we climbed though a ton of rock formations known as the Narrows before coming camp at Loss Creek.  We have a big creek crossing first thing in the morning followed by some uphill, so this is a great stopping point.  The weather is calling for an 80% chance of rain tomorrow so I hope we miss that!

These pretty flowers are called Indian Pink

These pretty flowers are called Indian Pink

Day 7 - Benton MacKaye Trail

Today was going to go quickly because we knew showers and the Ocoee River were waiting for us! We started out our day by seeing two turkey hunters on horseback passing our camp just before we left.  We then had a short and easy climb up, you guessed it, and old fire road up to Hemp Top.  No view here, so we kept going until we made it to the state line at approximately 10 am! We filled up our water and then made the steep and surprisingly quick ascent on Big Frog Mountain, 1100 feet in a mile.

 

Welcome to Tennessee! 

Welcome to Tennessee! 

From here it was nearly all downhill into Thunder Rock Campground and we made it down by 3:10.  When we came into the large campground, there was only one RV there, a tent, and the camp host.  I asked someone where the pay station was, paid up, and went for the bathhouse.  This place had HOT showers!  I even did some laundry in the shower but it didn't really dry due to the humidity. 

The Ocoee River behind our camp. 

The Ocoee River behind our camp. 

While we were laying out clothes, a man came by and asked us if we were Benton MacKaye thru hikers. We told him yes and he said to come over for beers later.  We met Red and his wife, their friends who had recently relocated to NC and their son.  We also officially met the camp host and her son.  We hung out until 10 pm, which is WAYYYYYY later than hiker midnight ;)

A picnic table at our campsite!  Yay! 

A picnic table at our campsite!  Yay! 

Retesting Gear - Making Sure it All Works!

Gracie and me in our Tarptent last night. 

Gracie and me in our Tarptent last night. 

Even experienced long-distance hikers need a refresher every once in a while.  Last night, NoKey and I took our trusty Tarptent Double Rainbow out into the yard and set it up for the night.  We bought this tent a year ago and have so far only managed to use it a half-dozen times or so.  Since we could set up both of our one-man tents in our sleep and we haven't had much practice with this one, we thought it might be good to put this one back together to refresh our memories.  Not only were we getting it out to set up, we needed to set up the tent for the fact that it was due to rain last night.  See, when you order a Tarptent you have the option to have Henry Shires seam seal it for you, or you can buy the tent and save yourself a few bucks by making your own waterproofer at home and sealing it yourself.  While I sealed ours about a year ago, we wanted to set it up last night to see how it held up in the rain and see if it needed any touch ups.  With your backpacking gear, it is so important to try it out at home first so you don't get any surprises out on the trail!

Here's how our Double Rainbow held up:

Nice and dry!  Now we have to wait for the thing to dry out so we can put it away!

Nice and dry!  Now we have to wait for the thing to dry out so we can put it away!

Since I have been so busy at home and haven't had much time to leave the house, let alone go out for a shakedown hike, I haven't put all my gear in my pack yet.  We still have about two weeks before we'll be back down south though, so I still have plenty of time.  The big dehydrator projects are starting to wind down, so expect a "What's in My Pack" post coming later this week!  

Want to make your own seam sealer?  Here's what I used on our Tarptent:
+Approximately 2-3 tablespoons of mineral spirits (found in the paint thinner aisle)
+Approximately 1 tablespoon of GE Silicone II (from the plumbing aisle)
+An empty, clean, resealable wide-mouth jar (we used a recycled salsa jar)
+1-inch wide foam brush (plumbing aisle)
+Paint stick
+Rag or paper towels 

-Stir together the mineral spirits and the silicone until it reaches the consistency of olive oil. Add more of either ingredient to get the desired consistency. 
-Apply the sealer to the outside of the tent while it is set up outdoors.  You need the ventilation for this! Using the foam brush to work the silicone mixture into all exposed seams, applying some pressure as you go.  Work in small sections and use the rag or paper towels to work the excess drips into the seams. 
-Apply to the entire outside seamed area of the tent in small sections, including a logo if your tent has one, as well as any points where guy lines attach or velcro pieces are sewn in.  These places can leak also!  If you want to earn extra life points, paint some horizontal lines across your tent floor to keep your sleeping pad/bag in place while you sleep.  No one likes drifting to the bottom of the tent overnight!
-Allow your tent to dry overnight, until the mixture is not tacky to the touch.  
-Spray your tent with the mist cycle of your garden hose for several minutes to see if the tent leaks.  If you have drips inside, note where they're coming from.  It may be helpful to have a second person spray the tent while you're inside to do this step.  
-If a second coating of the silicone mixture is needed, apply it after the tent is dry using the process above.