Sunday, April 10, 2011

Eagle Creek Trail - Smoky Mountains

Well, there was no hiking done this past weekend as we did spring cleaning, yard sale and got the garden planted. Worthy excuses to have to give up hiking for. Next weekend, we are tackling some trails in Uwharrie. Look for that.

Anyways, while there was no hiking, there are plenty of trails Id like to report from times in the past, especially trails that really have stuck in my memory for various reason, be they challenging, visually satisfying, or due to something interesting happening on the way. A three day trip into the Smokeys back in the autumn of 2008 had all three elements.

That fall, myself and a group of my high school students hit the trails in the Smokeys starting at Fontana dam. This impressive dams (arent they all really?) holds the water back on Fontana dam, although it had been partially drained to get it ready for the spring rains that swell it up. That look gives it a peculiar look as 20-40 feet from the normal shore its as if there is a drought. The boys and I got our gear ready and headed out northeasterly on the Lakeshore trail.

As you can see from that picture, one of our first challenges was up. It was raining when the forecast had called for nothing for three days. Of course, the unexpected would happen. It was about to make that day very interesting. Our hike started out around 1 pm that Thursday with a light drizzle leading us into the first trail.

The Lakeshore trail is a long trail that extends for 21 miles along the Fontana Lake. It intersects with a wide variety of trails along the way, most of them heading straight up the mountains up to the Appalachian trail. While not entirely challenging, its visuals are nice as one is constantly in view of the lake from about 400-800 feet above it as the trail winds around the mountains. In the heavy woods of this trail, the rain wasn't pouring down on us as badly as we thought it would. What IS visually interesting on this trail is the fact that a good portion of it used to be an old road back before this area was a national park and people lived in these areas. The path is wide enough for a small modern vehicle and there are clear remnants of this long past era alongside the trail, in an eerie reminder of humanity's progress.

The section of the Lakeshore trail we were taking was only 5.2 miles. At about mile 4.5, it climbs up steeply, maybe 200 feet then drops steeply again to our campsite about 900 feet below. At the top of this really short climb though, there are no trees, and we were suddenly poured on by the heavens above. Only half of us really had our rain gear in a really good spot to get it and thankfully it wasn't that cold or we might have been in trouble. Lesson learned, keep the rain gear in a quick to access location.

We reached campsite 90 at about 4 pm, a slower hike that I would have liked, but the boys were still getting used to carrying extra weight. Campsite 90 is one of the few non-shelter sites that actually require reservation.  Its got ample space, a very large river nearby and a nice open meadow with a large circular rock formation thats great for sitting under the stars and talking the evening away. Sadly, as we descended into this great campsite, we were still being drenched. Luckily for us, one of the boys had brought along a nice lightweight tarp which we strung up between two trees and got ourselves out from under the rain. We snacked and waited for the rain to stop before pulling out the tents. That would be 2 hours later. We all crashed to bed tired, wet and hoping it would be a better day after a good night sleep.
My tent and the tarp we managed to set up the night before.
The next morning came with bright sun and hopes for no more rain. Many of the boys had slept in next to nothing in hopes of their clothes drying out. This is, though, the Smokey's. Nothing dries out until you leave. Lack of a fire the night before helped keep everything damp too. There were plenty of moans and groans as the boys put on their damp clothes back on. It was going to be an interesting day.

The plan was to take Eagle Creek trail up to the AT, spend the night, then return back down it, the Lakeshore once again, then head out. We had chosen Eagle Creek because it offered 15 stream crossings, something the boys had really asked for. They were even more excited as we moved out, and we saw our first stream crossing as a rudimentary log bridge.

What we didn't know was this was a luxury that was soon to be our last.

Eagle Creek appears to crawl up this seemingly little stream up the mountain. But at every "stream crossing" we were suddenly faced with a far larger stream than it appeared. This criss crossing action continued for about 7 miles, and while we had a good pace on dry land, each stream crossing turned into a 20 minute or more affair as in most cases, we could only cross one at a time. A few of the boys fell in, nothing deep, but more than enough to soak up boots. The sound of sloshing boots became common after only six crossings. A few of us learned tricks, using our trekking poles to balance our way across, looking for larger stones just barely under the water or moving downed logs into position to cross. After crossing the stream for the last time (15th) we took a break and had our lunch at about 3 pm. At this point there were only two miles left, so we thought wed done great.

The last two miles though, would prove to be killer. From this point the trail veers off the stream and follows an old creek bed straight up. Yes, apparently, they forgot to implement switchbacks of any degree on this trail, especially where it probably needed them the most. We were already quite tired when we began hiking straight up, along a path that was made mostly of slick stream bed stones. The pace was brutal. I remember at one point, taking one step, stopping, breathing, then taking another step. On two occasions, the trail would level out a bit and we would cheer, thinking we had arrived. We were tricked on both occasions with yet more incline. I have no pictures of this section because I was far too tired to even think about taking out the camera. Those last two miles we went up almost 3000 feet.

We did all finally reach the top, to the shelter called Spence field. There was a nice small spring next to it which I think we dried as we sucked down water as fast as we could filter it. We got up there at 7 pm right as the sun was about to go down over the top of the mountain and most of us just sat there in stunned silence and exhaustion. I was able to get up and walk around a little bit, hoping not to get too stiff. It was during this period that I was able to take some of my favorite pictures ever taken.

After about 15 minutes of rest, I got the boys up. We gathered enough firewood to get a nice large fire going inside this shelter, which was one of the nicest ones I had ever seen here in the Smokeys. As the fire settled, the boys cracked out their large variety of meals, all of us happy that we would be able to enjoy hot food tonight without threat of rain. As they got their bellies full, their voices rang out with the tales of the day, the slipping in the stream, the sloshing of the boots (most were drying next to the fire) and the lessons learned from that day. By 9 pm we were dead asleep.

The return trip was quite uneventful. It was of course, all downhill now and despite the soreness from the day before, we had a head of steam heading down the mountain. On top of that, we all had dry clothing on for the first time in two days. The lessons learned from crossing the stream helped us cross the 15 crossings with only one slip. We were all in really good spirits, first knowing that a really large meal awaited us after Fontana dam, but also knowing that we had defeated Eagle Creek. As we reached campsite 90 and stopped for lunch, this time at 1 pm, I took time to take one last meaningful picture, another one that makes me love these mountains so very much.

They were nice and loud at the restaurant, but at the hotel we had that night, there was silence and most were out by even 8...after showers of course.

Happy Hiking,


1 comment:

Brenda W. said...

What a trip!! Wonderful trip report. And those pictures from Spence Field --- utterly gorgeous!