I was up this morning once I started hearing birds chirping outside of the hotel room. So much for alarm clocks.
I went up to the lodge to get breakfast and grab my package. I checked on the shuttle schedule and then headed back down the hill to my room. Along with my sleeping pad, I had my wife throw in a bunch of food for a resupply. Flat rate shipping, and all.
When I got back to the room, I laid out all the groceries, threw in what I still had left in my food bag, and started sorting stuff into each day of the smokies. I wanted to try to get through in five days. I figured I’d go ahead and carry six days of food, just in case.
I got everything packed up, changed back into my hiking clothes, and headed up the hill to catch the shuttle. Shortly after checking out, the shuttle arrived and I was on my way back to the trail. The climb out of Fontana was supposed to be terrible. We’d met a ridge runner down in Georgia and his wife specifically mentioned Shuckstack as being her least favorite climb on the entire trail. It’s not that it’s really steep, hard to hike, or anything like that; rather, most everyone who makes the climb has just refilled all of their food, fuel, and water.
With my pack seeming heavier than it had in weeks, I started the six mile climb to the fire tower. Fortunately, the first two and a half miles were relatively flat. I still had to pass the “Fontana Hilton,” as it’s known. This is a shelter right on the lake with running water and showers. Many hikers elect to stay here on their way through. I may have, except USPS.
Next was about a mile walk from the Hilton down the the visitor center and the dam. It was nice to get to log some time on the trail while also being on a flat paved surface.
This was the same dam I’d seen during the last several days of hiking. The trail actually goes across the top of the dam. I’ve heard several people with a fear of heights have actually quit at this point.
On the other side of the dam was a sign welcoming everyone to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
From this grassy little area, I could actually see the fire tower atop Shuckstack Mountain. It was WAY up there and forever away, as well. Should be fun.
I decided, since there was a picnic area just beyond the sign, to stop and have a quick lunch (read: lighten my pack, a little). After a few SPAM and tuna salad tortillas, I was hiking down the last half-mile, or so, of the paved portion. When the trail diverged from the asphalt, a volunteer was there taking thru-hiker permits by hand, rather than the drop box to which most hikers are accustomed.
The trail seemed to go on forever. That climb took a few hours, or so it seemed. Occasionally, I’d get a glimpse of the fire tower from the trail. More often than not, it seemed only to throw salt into wounds. However, it did start appearing to get closer, so I took another picture.
When I had almost made it to the top, I was able to find a spot with a clearing that offered a view back down the mountain to where I’d stayed the night before. That little community nestled in the mountains is the Fontana Village Resort.
After a final switchback, I was on the final climb to the summit. The fire tower was down a side trail. Where that side trail met the trail, several hikers had gathered to take a break, drop gear to make the trip to the fire tower with only a camera, or have a meal. In the mix was 6’12”. He’d started the day from the dam. I guess, the day before, he’d arrived at the marina, called the shuttle, and then had been offered a ride by some folks who had parked at the visitor center. While I’m sure he wasn’t thrilled about walking the extra mile or two to get from the marina to the dam the day prior, it rewarded him with a head start today. He liked my plan of trying to do the smokies in five days, meaning we’d need to average about 15 miles a day. We still had nine miles left from this point. I ran up for a few pictures from the fire tower while 6’12” made sure that particular tree, against which he was leaning, didn’t fall down.
When I got back down to the trail, a few had left and a few more had shown up. One guy had these. Blog worthy.
I think, at this point, it was about 2:00. We still had nine miles to go. I loaded up and moved out, 6’12” in my wake. There was a campsite a bit further down the trail. In the smokies, as a thru-hiker, you’re required to camp in shelters. I think this campsite was placed here so the weary hiker would have an easier place to stay after the climb out of Fontana Dam. The first shelter was Mollies Ridge and is about 10 miles from the southern border of the park. We still had plenty of daylight, so we carried on.
Our goal was the Russell Field shelter. There was another shelter, Mollies Ridge shelter, about two and a half miles closer. It was tougher hiking than I’d imagined. As I was approaching the Mollies Ridge shelter, I told myself I’d press on if I arrived before 6:00. If I arrived before 6:15 and there was space available in the shelter, I’d also keep going. You see, if the shelter is full, a thru-hiker is allowed to set up his or her hammock or tent in the immediate vicinity. Had I arrived at Mollies Ridge to a few open spaces in the shelter, I would have been required to sleep in the shelter. Therefore, I’d continue hiking if it were a bit later.
As it were, I arrived to the Mollies Ridge shelter at 5:56. I didn’t even break stride, I just waved at the few friends I saw settling in for the night and charged on to my destination. I covered the next two and a half miles in exactly an hour, arriving at the Russell Field shelter at 6:56.
Several buddies were there, including John (Salmon). His sister, Clothesline and her boyfriend, 12, were visiting over the Easter holiday and we’re going to hike with Salmon from Fontana Dam to Clingman’s Dome. There, they’d get a ride down the mountain to their car and return to Fort Bragg, NC, where 12 was stationed.
Also at the shelter, were two park rangers on a search and rescue mission. To be fair, it was more of a rescue mission as the hiker in question was located at the Mollies Ridge shelter, no search needed. I had no idea anything was going on as I passed through. Apparently, the guy was fairly malnourished, possibly dehydrated, and didn’t think he had the energy or ability to get off the mountain. MRE’s in tow, the rangers set out to feed and aid the desolate hiker. That job seems pretty cool. Hmmmm.
I hung out for a bit talking with 12 and Clothesline about the Army. As hiker midnight approached, I climbed into the hammock (shelter was full) and called it a night. There was supposed to be a red moon, or some type of lunar rarity, that evening. I didn’t get up to see it.
Day one of the smokies complete. 15.1 miles. On pace to make it through in five days. I didn’t see 6’12” at the shelter before I got in bed. He’s either still on his way or he stopped at Mollies Ridge. Tomorrow’s goal is Silers Bald shelter, 15 miles away.
Good night, folks.