Day 21: Hiking Down Off the Mountain & Shelter Math

An Early Start

At 6:00 am I gave up staring at the bottom of the top bunk of the shelter and climbed out to do the morning essentials. The Icewater Springs Shelter has no privy, but it does have a sign that directs campers to a “toilet area.” The toilet area doesn’t look and smell all that bad for having had several thousand visits per year, but those weren’t white lilies popping out of the ground everywhere.  One more strike against shelter life.

When I came back, Brian had dressed and set up his stove on the cooking shelf at the front of the shelter. Some shelters have cooking shelves on the outside, probably to minimize noise levels for anyone trying to sleep, but not this one. We managed to pack and cook quietly to not disturbed anyone. That is, until I tried to jam my trowel into the ground by my pack but instead hit a loose piece of tin roofing material. I might have just as well hit a gong or played reveille. I caught a few nasty glares and deep sighs from the bunks, but by the time we left at 7:00 am, everyone but the section hikers had gotten up to watch a multicolored sunrise spectacular.

Brian Gets Buff

Brian started out calling himself Fry-Hiker when asked his trail name, but I could tell his heart wasn’t in it. After watching Survivor’s ordeal with his namesake buff, Brian decided to get a comfy buff for himself. He liked it so much, he decided to adopt it as his new trail name. The name fits. He looks good in it and he is pretty buff. For an old man.

Shelter Math

The GSMNP regulation requiring shelter stays plays havoc with thru hike planning. While many thru hikers seem to plan their daily mileage by the distances to upcoming shelters, others (like me) plan to hike a certain number of miles or hours and camp wherever that puts them. But with only a dozen or so shelters spread unevenly across the Smoky’s 73 miles, the daily miles are often too short or too long between shelters.

Today was a perfect example. We started out at the Icewater Spring Shelter at Mile 210.8. The next shelter, Peck’s Corner, is only 7.4 miles north, too short a day for us.  Tri-Corner Knob Shelter, at 12.8 miles from Icewater Springs, seemed like a good target given the daily mileage we logged hiking between Fontana Dam and Clingman’s Dome. But with our early start, the spectacular weather, and superior trail conditions we arrived Tri-Corner Knob at 12:30, just in time for lunch.

Our legs felt every inch of the morning’s 12.8-mile walk, and as the first to arrive, we could have claimed any bunk spot we wanted. But neither of us felt like sitting around a shelter for eight hours waiting for sunset. Plus, if we could add a few more miles, we thought we might be able to outdistance some of the Icewater Springs party crowd. But the next shelter wasn’t until Mile 231.1, which would make it a 20.3-mile day. With a full backpack and +4,400/-5,900 feet of ascent/descent, 20.3 miles seemed like too much.

An extra four or five miles and a stealth camp would have been optimal, but neither of us wanted to break the Park rules or risk a fine. In the end, I left it to Brian, er…Buff, and he decided on the hero miles. For him, the better weather, a nice cooked lunch and a coffee at Tri-Corner Knob, a 1:40-long lunch break, and positioning ourselves to hike out of the Smokies on Sunday instead of Monday tipped the scales.

The Long Grind

So we did the 20 miler and were rewarded with spectacular views. In many places, the AT follows a knife-edged ridge with huge, steep drop-offs on both sides. The grades are relatively easy, with few of the rocks and steps that add to the difficulty of the trail south of Clingman’s Dome.

In the morning, we walked above the clouds that filled the bounding valleys. I kept stopping to take pictures and narrate videos. As I was oohing and ahhing at one vista, Buff agreed that it was a great view, but he’d already seen it 10 times this morning. In fact, he said, all his pictures looked the same.

He’s right, of course, but isn’t that the AT? We see a lot of the same thing. Green trees and round mountains. If you don’t love that view, it could be a tiresome walk. Fortunately, I love the woods and still find every view inspiring. A little less so when I’m tired.

By mid-afternoon I was that tired. I found myself staring at the trail, lost in thought and trying to block out my ear worms. I walked right past Bear Stare,* a hiker I’ve been leapfrogging for at least a week. When he passed me some time later during a break, I asked him where he came from, since it seemed like he appeared out of nowhere. He said he was sitting on the edge of the trail when I went by. He had even called out to me. I must have been in the get-‘er-done zone.  *(Bear Stare got his name from a midnight stare down with a bear who was stealing food bags at Carter Gap.)

More Shelter Life

About five miles out from Cosby Knob, we passed Mantra, Proton, Over-the-Counter, and two others who had been at Icewater Springs and were also doing the 20-miler. As we passed, I joked that we’d be getting the last two shelter spots. Buff shot me a look to let me know I should have kept my mouth shut and not given them any motivation. Sure enough, with less than a mile to go, they all zoomed past, grinning as they went. But alas, as we came down the last hill, they all came walking back up the trail saying the shelter was already full and that they were heading for the tent spots above it.

Buff and I walked into the shelter to see for ourselves, thinking there might be room for two. Not only was there no room at the inn, we were (not) greeted with palpable hostility. This shelter’s crew were loud, surly, and vulgar. Aside from my favorite Quentin Tarantino movies, that’s not my vibe, so we just walked past and found an (almost) level spot for our tents, and set up in preparation for the rain that was quickly moving in.

We were both tired enough that we’d sleep through almost anything the shelter tribe could dish out. But if not for the GSMNP rules, we’d have found our own quiet spot in the woods and had a much better evening. Strike two for shelter life.

Wrap Up

Today’s 20-miler took us out of the mossy conifer forest and back into the spring deciduous woods. I’ll miss that the look, feel, and peace of that forest. I wonder when and if I’ll see it again on this hike. I’ll also miss Buff when he leaves tomorrow. The miles pass so much faster with good conversation and company.

Daily Stat’s:

  • Start: Icewater Spring Shelter (Mile 210.8)
  • End: Cosby Knob Shelter (Mile 231.4)
  • Weather: Sunny and chilly
  • Earworm: Key Largo
  • Meditation: Jn 12:42-43
  • Plant of the Day: Drooping Trillium & Shelf Fungus
  • Best Thing: Tree blow downs that take the root mass with them and make little caves
  • Worst Thing: Shelter life, once again

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Comments 1

  • thetentman : May 4th

    I encountered a field of ‘white lilies’ in Pa once. Boy Scouts had ‘planted’ them. My feelings for Scouts was lowered a lot that day.


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