Saturday, March 31, 2018

Mollies Ridge Shelter and the Third State

After waking earlier than usual, I made breakfast, broke camp and set out with Forest by 9 a.m.

The following picture was actually shot yesterday, but I forgot to include it. On a sunny day, the view is just spectacular.

We entered the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a stretch of about 71 miles, after crossing Fontana Dam. For those of you not familiar with Park rules, it's important to note that I had to get a thru-hiker permit in advance, and that permit requires us to stay on the Trail and go through the Park in no more than 8 days. So, as much as I would like to take advantage of some of the great fishing locations that my friends have pointed out, it just isn't possible on a thru-hike. In addition, I should probably note that while pets are not permitted in most areas of the Park, service dogs are. As always, we will be careful not to disturb local wildlife and to Leave No Trace of our passing.

We kept a slow, but steady, pace throughout the day today. Our goal was Mollies Ridge Shelter, which was about a 12-mile hike up the North Carolina border into Tennessee. Twelve miles sounds manageable for a day, until you consider that it included climbing from the Dam (elevation 1,782 feet) up to an elevation of 4,576 feet (from orange symbol to orange symbol in the following GPS profile):

Because the Trail is so busy right now, it was also important to arrive at the shelter ahead of some of the crowd so that I could find a flat space for my tent tonight that was NOT next to the privy. By minimizing our breaks throughout the day, we arrived at the shelter by 7:30 p.m., ate dinner and set up camp, just as planned. We are both worn out, but all in all, it was a very good day. I think we will both sleep well tonight.

Forest is accumulating a long list of fans on the Trail; he gets so many compliments. Everyone knows his name; few know mine. It's pretty cool that way. 😉😀

Friday, March 30, 2018

Fontana Dam Shelter: We're Back!

Forest and I are back on the Trail, as promised. Earlier tonight, we were dropped off back near Yellow Creek Gap to resume our thru-hike where we left off last week.

Forest was full of energy and seemed so happy to be hiking again. We traveled from Yellow Creek Gap to Fontana Dam Shelter (about 7.5 miles), where we are camping tonight. Unfortunately, it is really crowded here, and being the last into camp at about 9 pm guaranteed us the last flat, clear ground in camp: right next to the privy. 😷

Having the last week off gave me the chance to rethink some of my trail plan. I'm determined to make better progress than before now that we have our trail legs. Part of my challenge has been that I haven't been sleeping well. Because of the issues with my back, I really need to be in a hammock, which was my original plan. I'm working on how to get both myself and Forest into it. If I don't figure it out by the time I get to Damascus, VA, I can talk to all of the vendors about it at Trail Days.

I'm pretty loaded down right now. Our next resupply stop will be Standing Bear Farm/Hostel. We should be there in 7 days. Onward into the Smokies!

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Minor Change in Plan

Slight change in plans. My wife had to take Friday off instead of Wednesday. So we head back to the Trail tomorrow. I’m ready! It’s actually a good thing because the trail to Gatlinburg was flooded.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Home Sweet Home and the Plan to Return

After seeing some of the reports from the Smoky Mountains trails and Clingmans Dome, I'm really glad that I made the decision to leave the Trail for a bit. The shelters were full beyond capacity as people huddled to stay warm and out of the worst of the weather. Temperatures were reported to be in the teens, with single-digit wind chills. In addition, the 15-mile stretch of road to Gatlinburg, TN, didn't reopen until Thursday. Gatlinburg was where I was to pick up Forest's food and resupply, so we would have run out while we were stuck waiting. I'm hearing from others that this has been the worst March weather in 100 years. Since it's my first time hiking with Forest, why chance it? I won't ever risk damaging the incredible four-legged gift I've been given.

I've had a chance to repair/replace some gear and relax while I've been home. We had an early birthday celebration for my son so that I could be there for it; happy days. The plan right now is to return to the Trail on Wednesday, my wife's next day off. It was just too much to ask for her to drive out after working a full day again; we didn't get home until almost 2 in the morning last Wednesday. I have to say, she is the best trail angel ever!

For those of you who have been asking how Forest is doing on the Trail, he has taken to it like he's been hiking his whole life. He never seems to take a misstep, and matches his pace to what I ask him to do; we are totally in sync. Because the Trail is so narrow, he has to walk in front of me instead of in his usual Heel position. I created a couple of new commands (e.g., Go Ahead) and adapted his usual Easy, Faster, Left and Right commands, so it's like having three different gears, a coasting speed and turn signals. I just attach his leash to my hip belt with a titanium carabiner and we're off; I imagine it's like having a sled dog that lopes along at a steady speed instead of running. I'm just along for the ride!

And here's a tip if you hike with a dog that carries a pack: Forest's was getting wet and droopy because he wasn't carrying much. I added some closed-cell foam to the inside walk of each side, and he seemed much more comfortable.

More once I'm back on the Trail!

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Yellow Creek Gap and a Temporary Break

I arrived at Brown Fork Gap Shelter after dark last night, so I didn't see other campers. At about 8:30, it started to pour rain and continued late into the night. A family must have been in camp; for about an hour during the storm I could hear a child having a meltdown. Finally, it rained hard enough that it lulled me to sleep.

After I woke up this morning, I learned that the weather in the Smoky Mountains was about to get ugly. Heavy snow was predicted, beginning around 8 p.m. tonight, and continuing through 8 a.m. Thursday. Up to 10 inches of snow was expected along the highest ridge tops, with 3 to 6 inches expected from Fontana Dam to the Tennessee border. I was supposed to be in the Smoky Mountains tomorrow. Because of this weather, my next stretch of hiking would take longer than expected--longer than the rations provided in the resupply box that I was picking up this evening. Besides that, I had lost Forest's rain jacket and was unable to purchase another at the NOC, and my phone and power pack were not fully charged. I decided this was a recipe for disaster. So, tonight my wife is coming to pick me up and take me home for 4 to 5 days. I am fortunate that I live close enough to be able to do this. It will give the weather a chance to clear a bit and give me a chance to charge all my electronics and make some repairs to my gear. This is why it is so hard for me to take zero days to fish or just enjoy nature when the weather is nice. Days taken off for storms or injuries add up quickly and can completely throw my carefully planned schedule.

After I made my decision and when the rain stopped for a bit, I packed up camp and began to head toward Fontana Dam, where I was expecting my wife to pick me up. The weather was incredible at the ridgeline: spotty sunshine to one side, and completely dense fog to the other.

At about 3:30, I decided to stop at Yellow Creek Gap (mile 158.4) and have my wife pick me up there instead. This is where she will drop me off after the weather clears and it's safe to resume my hike. I'll be checking back in then, if not before!

Monday, March 19, 2018

Brown Fork Gap Shelter

At about 11 a.m. this morning, we hit the Trail, pushing hard in order to travel about 13 miles to Brown Fork Gap Shelter (mile 152.7) before it began to rain. We arrived there at about 7 p.m. with just enough light to set up camp.

Depending on the weather, tomorrow I hope to make it to the Fontana Dam Lodge to pick up my next resupply box, and then to Fontana Dam Shelter for the night. That will be another 13-mile day. Snow and colder night-time temperatures are supposed to be moving into the area for Wednesday and Thursday, so it will be good to be settled in tomorrow.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Resupply and a Shout Out to Bill Davis and Tropical Foods

For every thru-hiker, resupply takes tremendous effort. In my case, my wife not only packs and ships everything Forest and I need every six days or so to the next town, but also weighs all of it to be absolutely sure that I am not exceeding what I determined to be my maximum weight. The logistics can be mind-boggling...and very expensive. I am so blessed to have people donating supplies and funds so that this doesn't become overwhelming or break the bank.

For example, just yesterday, one of these supply angels, Bill Davis, Jr., donated the following items from Tropical Foods:

Mexican Party Mix

Organic Trail Mix with Chocolate
Dry Roasted and Shelled Pistachios

And this was his SECOND donation! Bill, I can't thank you enough for your generosity. You ROCK, man!

Nantahala Outdoor Center and the River's End Restaurant

Forest waits so patiently for his chow to cool off, but there's no hesitation once he has his nose in the bowl. Consistent with his training, I always give him a chance to digest his food before we head out on the Trail, especially when we aren't in a rush. This morning he snoozed a little in my lap, while a woodpecker worked in the background. We had a leisurely morning today because the restaurant where we were headed wasn't open until 11 a.m.

After I packed up camp, we headed to the Nantahala Outdoor Center to get lunch at the River's End restaurant. I decided that I didn't dare eat there and watch the river because I wouldn't be able to resist spending the whole afternoon there fishing. For now, I need to spend the nice days hiking, and use zero days for bad weather. Instead, I got my food and took it to the laundry room to eat while I charged my phone and did my laundry. I'm not sure I've ever eaten so much at one time; I had a cheeseburger, fries, giant ice cream sandwich, box of four cinnamon rolls, bag of chips, a Coke and a Gatorade. Then I needed a coffee to wake me up!

By the time I finished my lunch and my laundry, had a shower, and repacked everything, it was
3 p.m. We would end up going less than 5 miles today.

I realized on the last stretch that I had used my phone too much and drained the battery. I'll have to be more careful, so I won't be posting as much online. I'll continue to shoot photos and video, but I'll probably wait until I get into a town where I have an outlet available to post them.

Rufus Morgan Shelter

We started out a little late this morning because of rain. Both Forest and I love to sleep in when it's raining, and I didn't feel too much of a sense of urgency because I knew we only had a 7-hour hike ahead of us.

We waited for a break in the rain to pack up the tent. Cuben fiber really pays off on rainy days. It's similar to plastic in that it does not retain water like nylon tents. So, there's no water weight to carry; just shake it off and fold it up. We finally got moving a little after 11. We headed out figuring on a sloppy day, with maybe an occasional freak view. Boy, was I ever wrong. It turned out to be the most beautiful day I could have imagined, with views that made me just want to sit and gaze forever.

A little while later, Forest let me know that there was some major trail magic going on down in Tellico Gap. He always smells it first. Trail Angels are the best, just amazing people; boy, did that Coke taste good. I'm really starting to relax and enjoy it out here. Everyone is so friendly; I truly am rooting for everyone who is attempting a thru-hike this year. Somewhere after lunch, Forest's raincoat slipped off my pack. If anyone happens to come across it, please let me know either via comment here or via the Appalachian Trail Class of 2018 Facebook page. Otherwise, I'll be hunting a new one at the outfitters in Wesser.

After lunch, we continued on until the majesty of the view stopped me in my tracks. We live in an absolutely beautiful country. I feel so sorry for people who don't have the opportunity to see it, or even know about it. Fontana Lake in the distance, backed by the Smoky Mountains. I was completely stuck here for about an hour, even though I knew I was still about 4.5 miles from Rufus Morgan Shelter, our target for the day. One day I will be back with my wife, and we'll just sit here for a few days with my DSLR camera on time lapse.

We stopped for the night at Rufus Morgan shelter, which is about a mile away from the NOC. Lots of thunder and lightning, so we are hunkered down in the tent. Because the vistas on the Trail delayed me so much (and because, to be honest, I stink!), we didn't make it to the NOC for dinner. Instead, we'll head there for breakfast tomorrow. Total miles covered today: 9.5

Friday, March 16, 2018

Rocky Bald

After having breakfast and packing up, we headed out at about 10 a.m. today. It was such a beautiful day; perfect for hiking. The kind of day that makes you happy just to be alive, on a mountain, with a dog. Taking the morning slowly for a change, we focused on the scenery around Wayah Bald more than miles.

After stopping for lunch at Licklog Gap at about 1:45, we continued on through Burningtown Gap and caught a quick nap. I lost my balance and fell a couple of times today (it would have been hilarious to see...must have looked like my backpack got mad at me and out of nowhere slammed my head in the dirt); no harm done. True to his training, each time Forest ran back to me and tried to scoop me up with his nose. When that didn't work, he stood and braced perfectly, so I could use him to get up. We are definitely in synch when hiking.

Once we got to Cold Spring Gap, I had a decision to make. We could camp there, but then it would be a very long day tomorrow if I wanted to get to the NOC in Wessen in time for a meal. I decided to get enough water at Cold Spring Gap to get us through breakfast tomorrow and then continue on to a small camping area 2.5 miles farther up the Trail, which resulted in a total of 10 miles for the day. We set up camp near Rocky Bald at about 6:30 p.m. Unfortunately, the only place to camp was on a slight slope. Forest and I keep sliding to the low side. I guess we'll be sleeping very cozy tonight.

Tomorrow the plan will be to get to the NOC at Wessen in time for dinner and then travel on just a bit to camp, or backtrack a mile to a shelter, so I can get breakfast on the way back through.

How It All Began

In August 2017 Canines for Service Inc. in Wilmington, NC, provided Service Dog Forest to me (U.S. Army Veteran "Fisher"). It was ...