Great Smoky Mountains National Park, May 2014

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, May 2014

Big Creek, Gunter Fork, Balsam Mountain, Baxter Creek Trails

With its usually mild weather and palpable sense of renewal and verdancy, May has become one of my favorite times to backpack in the Southeast. This 23.1 mile loop in Great Smoky Mountains National Park had been on my regional to-do list of backpacking trips for well over a year and early May seemed like an ideal time for myself and a friend to hike it.  Planning the trip for mid-week helped us avoid crowded trails and campsites, and early May typically has abundant wildflower displays at varying elevations.  The decidedly unambitious mileage accommodated our usual style of backpacking, where as much time is spent in hiking boots as in Crocs. This left us plenty of time to experience just being in a natural landscape, in addition to enjoying the exercise and pleasure of hiking through one.

Prior to this trip, I found myself pondering the notion of when a backpacking trip actually begins. Is it somewhere in the planning and conception phase? Does it begin on the drive to the trailhead? Does it really only begin when the boots strike the trail, the cell phone is off and the car is locked?

When I do my bikepacking trips in the Red River Gorge the “adventure” begins as soon as my bike is loaded, pushed out into the driveway and I swing a leg over the frame and clip into the pedals. With traditional backpacking trips, I find the the lines are a bit more blurry. I feel like a trip for me starts sometime in between when I leave work for the last time prior to the trip and when I’m headed down the trail and out of sight of pavement.

Despite us each owning a pair of trekking poles, an inordinate and amusing amount of time was spent actually procuring them for this hike. I’d left my pair in a friend’s car after my last backpacking trip and had to drive about 70 miles roundtrip to retrieve them two days prior to the “beginning” of the trip. Since I rarely drive except for backpacking trips I decided to look at it, in a shining moment of optimism, as a warm-up drive rather than merely wasted time.

When Justin, a long-time friend and diligent backpacking partner, arrived the night before the trip without trekking poles (“I thought maybe I’d left them at your place, since I couldn’t find them at my place”) I couldn’t help but laugh at the situation. This led to a discussion of wants versus needs (“You might not need them like you need your sleeping bag, but you’ll really want them when you’re losing 4,000 feet of elevation on the last day” . . . “True.”) and we decided to stop at an outdoor store on our way down so he could pick up a set of entry-level trekking poles. Those left behind were cheap Wal-Mart poles and not a big expense to duplicate, just to assuage any notion of us being made of money.

That issue settled, we packed up food and gear, discussing the various merits and weights of most pieces before placing them in stuff sacks with care and placing them in backpacks with an industrial-like efficiency. We debated the literary entertainment we might bring; for example, a book about Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and writer, was deemed to be too heavy both literally and figuratively for the trip, whereas a lighter book of poetry made the cut.

Aside from stopping for trekking poles and sushi, the four-hour drive to the trailhead was nothing more than an exercise in cruise-control, an opportunity for good conversation (mutual interests in music, philosophy, nature and the humanities, as well as similar approaches to humor and remarks upon the everyday-absurdity of life, kept the drive interesting) and a chance to listen to a new album (“Farmer’s Corner” by Wooden Wand) released the day before the trip.

Once we’d parked, stretched our legs, shouldered our packs and headed down the trail we only travelled a few hundred feet before we stopped to chat with two National Park Service employees on their way out. One checked our permits for the backpacking campsites, a bit of a novelty since we usually backpack in areas that don’t require permits, and informed us that a landslide had been reported on Gunter Fork Trail (our main trail for the second day) and that he had been instructed to steer people away from that trail since it could potentially be “impassable”.

This was quite the disappointment as Gunter Fork Trail was one of the anticipated highlights of our route and a critical part of our loop. Described as “a gem among Smoky Mountain trails” by a guidebook and passing a stunning cascade, we would now have to choose between an inconvenient re-route and trying our luck. We thanked the ranger for the information, confirmed that it was OK for us to proceed at our own risk if we decided to do so, and headed down the trail to the idyllic and quintessential swimming hole where we would take our first break.

Early May is often too cold to swim in the chilly waters of southern Appalachian streams, but fortunately for us it was a pleasant and unseasonably warm day and after 1.5 miles of hiking we were ready for a break. After a few toe dips and false starts into the chilly water, we committed to the experience and each jumped off the large boulder into the pool several times before drying off and heading down the trail for another brief stop at a waterfall. The feeling of refreshment we felt after swimming was one no soda or mass-marketed commodity could imitate. It was pure, unadulterated, natural euphoria.

The remaining miles to the campsite went by quickly and the scenery remained consistently, but not monotonously, pleasing to the eye. The campsite was large and we had a great spot, tucked away in a grove from the other groups of campers and conveniently located near the bear-hang cables provided by the NPS. After setting up camp and filtering water, we hung out in hammocks, threw a Frisbee and ate a filling meal before going to bed with the sound of Big Creek in the background.

While sipping coffee the next morning, we discussed the ranger’s warning about the reported landslide and our options. After careful consideration we decided to attempt the Gunter Fork Trail. Things started off well. Fording Big Creek and several other streams in the first mile or so of the trail posed little problem, we didn’t even need to remove our boots. The further up the trail we advanced the more enchanting it became. The singletrack trail was a nice change of pace from the old roadbed that we had hiked on the previous day.

After a mile and a half, we came to a small but exceedingly beautiful cascade and pool. Eager to relive the refreshing feeling of the previous day’s dip in the crystal-clear and cool waters of a mountain stream, we decided to take a break. We brewed up some tea to sip on and took turns swimming in the cramped but deep pool. We were only on the trail for a few hundred yards after our swim before we reached the base of a large section of exposed bedrock streambed. Partially covered in moss and with a waterfall at the top this was was so alluring that we set our packs down and paused for several minutes to admire it.

The trail began to steepen after the waterfall and we started to become more anxious about the landslide we had been warned about. The trail climbed higher through the forest, the tree species had changed noticeably, and then suddenly we reached the landslide. Although it was certainly dramatic we had no difficulties crossing it, but its condition will certainly deteriorate rapidly. Shortly after the landslide, we would encounter the only other hikers we would see that day — a group of six “older” folks in the middle of a 20-mile dayhike. Inspiring, to say the least. Doing 20-mile dayhikes ten or more years after I am eligible to join AARP is definitely a goal of mine now. At the next junction we reached the end of our climb, took a brief rest and started toward the Laurel Gap shelter. This section of trail was level or downhill and was a great way to end the day.

One of the few shelters in the park not located on the Appalachian Trail, Laurel Gap shelter is constructed of stone and located in a cozy opening in the spruce forest. It was renovated in 2011 and we found it to be a comfortable if not downright charming place to spend the night. As an unexpected bonus, we had the shelter completely to ourselves. We arrived at the shelter mid-afternoon and after unpacking and filtering water from a nearby spring we spent the rest of the afternoon dozing in our respective hammocks or throwing the Frisbee in the grassy field next to the shelter. Backpacking is tough — purely about survival, man versus wild.

As on my previous trip, I had a thin book of modern poetry. However, on this trip it remained almost unused. It made a single, brief appearance after a seemingly random and rambling but coherent conversation prompted me to dig it out for reasons ultimately unremembered. After careful perusal, I read one of the shorter poems aloud. I’ll share the closing lines of the poem below:

Sometimes I’m awakened in the middle of the night
by the clatter of a room service cart and I think back on Kitty.

Those summer evenings by the government lake
talking about the paradox of multiple Santas
or how it felt to have your heart broken.

I still get a hollow feeling on Labor Day when the summer ends

And I remember how I would always refer to her boyfriends
as what’s-his-face, which was wrong of me and I’d like
to apologize to those guys right now, wherever they are:

No one deserves to be called what’s-his-face.

– from “Classic Water” by David Berman, appearing in the book “Actual Air”

I tend to appreciate both good company and solitude to a greater degree when I’m on a backpacking trip. When I backpack alone (which has been at least once per month lately) the sense of profundity and the experiences of reflection and contemplation seem more intense and appreciable. When backpacking with another, the sense of shared enjoyment, opportunities for stimulating conversation and the addition of another perspective to witness, observe and appreciate the features of a landscape — both subtle and superlative — are truly pleasures beyond words.

We slept in well past sunrise the next morning and started our morning routine at an unhurried pace. We only had six miles of relatively level terrain separating us from Mt. Sterling and our campsite, so there was no need to rush. The hike was perfect for our last full day; medium length, minimal elevation gain or loss and beautiful forest. At the time we hiked it the wildflowers were incredibly abundant, which made for some visually overwhelming sections of trail.

I suppose looking at large swaths of wildflowers is, for me, alluring and captivating for the same reasons as stargazing: a complete inability to quantify or comprehend what you are seeing.

We arrived at the Mt. Sterling campsite and fire tower early in the afternoon and set up camp. The day was overcast and it had started to rain intermittently during the last leg of our hike. We made sure our tents and a small dining tarp were pitched and guyed out before exploring the fire tower, in case the weather turned wetter and windier, which it did later in the evening. We made two trips to the top of the fire tower to soak in the 360 degree view. A bit limited by the overcast skies, the view was still absolutely breathtaking.

Much like the previous two days, the afternoon proved to be an endurance contest involving hammocks, Frisbee and general campsite banter. Two other pairs of campers arrived early in the evening and set up in the remaining flat spots. The wind picked up and a steady rain began to fall, forcing us to seek shelter under the tarp at different intervals, but a lengthy break in the rain allowed us to cook and eat dinner outside the cramped quarters of the tarp.

It became more windy after dark and we headed to bed early. The wind was steady all night and quite powerful at times, but we each got a good night’s rest. We woke up reasonably early (we set an alarm for 6 a.m. to allow us to catch the sunrise from the top of the fire tower, but it was too overcast and foggy so we slept in another hour), packed and began our descent to the trailhead via the Baxter Creek Trail. This verdant and narrow trail loses (or gains) 4,000 feet of elevation over 6.1 miles. Our trekking poles were definitely going to be handy, especially once a steady rain shower began halfway through the hike and the roots and rocks became deceptively slippery.

We made the descent in a couple of hours and felt immersed in the lushness of the forest and enjoyed the high quality of the trail. We would both occasionally stop to look back up the trail and shake our heads with wonder, amazement, admiration and sympathy at the two campers we met the previous night who were on their first backpacking trip and had hiked up the trail carrying car-camping equipment and a gallon and a half of water (a spring is 0.2 miles from the campsite), among other questionable items.

There were some nice patches of wildflowers along the lower part of the trail, but the simple deep green vibrancy of the forest was enough to keep us in near-constant awe. The forest seemed to be the type whose character is enhanced during downpours. The sound of the drops hitting the leaves, then hitting the ground, the smell of moss and rain and new spring growth, the feeling of the cool rain on warm skin; all of it made it worth the light drenching we had received by the time we arrived at the parking lot.

As I hope can easily be inferred, this was an absolutely outstanding trip. The route, campsites, the scenery — all combined for an experience that seemed to be the essence of backpacking.

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