Haze on the Trail: Week 3
Thursday, 3/10: Wayah Bald Shelter to A. Rufus Morgan Shelter (15.5mi)
I woke up, ate breakfast, and got out of the shelter at a fairly leisurely pace, but was still on trail shortly after 8am. I had a couple of options for the day, and was in good spirits as the fog and general mushiness seemed to dissipate throughout my morning hike. A few hours in, I stopped briefly at Cold Springs Shelter to eat a quick snack and get some water, but mostly stayed moving.
The day was mostly downhill, which was challenging in its own right, but a nice reprieve for someone like me whose asthma is fairly unforgiving on even the more tame of hill climbs. The descent from Copper Ridge Bald down into Tellico Gap was unexpectedly long and tough on my knees (it wasn’t exactly steep, but very rooty and frequently slick). So much so, I even found myself being somewhat relieved to be going back uphill toward Wesser Bald.
At the top of Wesser, I saw Kelly and Julyan, and caught up with Eliza at the observation tower. The views were beautiful, but coming back down the steep, overlapping stairs was a doozy.
Putting my pack back on, I checked the time and decided that I still had enough hours left in the day to push more miles than I typically do and that I didn’t want to stop at the Wesser Bald Shelter I would soon be approaching. I filled up on water at the stone cistern just before the shelter but otherwise kept truckin’ along.
The Jumpoff was intense, and I suddenly felt surprised that I hadn’t heard much mention of it— For the first time, I was frequently deciding to put my trekking poles aside and truly climb down the jagged, large rocks that this section of the trail was comprised of. At one point, I noticed an oddly clean bag of tent poles in the brush off the side of the ledge and fished it up with one of my trekking poles. It didn’t feel right to leave it and didn’t look intentionally discarded, so I decided to carry it along with me.
I still had a few miles of slow downward trail ahead of me— I fired off a couple of texts to let those back home watching my Garmin Mapshare know that I was okay, but likely going to be at camp later than usual, and forged ahead.
About a mile from the end of my hike, I realized that my ankles were unusually swollen (likely from the two extended descents of the day) and I actually ended up hiking the final half-mile into camp in my Crocs to relieve the tingling, obnoxious pain in my feet.
I got into camp slightly past five and quickly took care of finding a place to hang my bear bag and set up my hammock. After a quick, exhausted dinner I was ready for bed and greatly looking forward to the short hike to the NOC my extra mileage had earned me for the following morning.
Friday, 3/11: Nero from the A. Rufus Morgan Shelter to the side trail for NOC Bunkhouse (1.1mi)
The hike from the shelter area was essentially the final continuation of the descent from the previous day and brought me down to the Nantahala River and the Nantahala Outdoors Center (mostly referred to as the NOC or “knock”).
As the stores at the NOC began to open for the day, I was able to start the process of getting my laundry going, and found out that the tent poles I found just past The Jumpoff belonged to Cowboy who I had just seen earlier that morning. The incredibly helpful NOC employees said he had just replaced the tent after his poles had fallen off of his pack the day before, and set about getting in touch with him in order to see if he’d want to have the old tent (and poles!) sent home.
I did a brutally bare-bones “resupply” at the General Store while longing for the variety of options Mountain Crossings had gone out of its way to make available. A pile of various bars would be sufficient to get me to Fontana, but it wasn’t by any means particularly appetizing.
What was appetizing, however, was the prospect of lunch at the River’s End restaurant that Kelly, Julyan, and I had all been eagerly looking forward to since days earlier— Almost the moment they opened, the three of us had added our packs to the growing collection of them outside the front doors and were seated with menus in hand.
(If you ever have the chance to stop in at River’s End, do not pass up the opportunity to get some of their fries. They’re incredible. Absolutely incredible. Well-seasoned garlic-Parmesan goodness to the core— I can’t suggest them enough.)
As the afternoon wore on and more and more hikers descended into the NOC to wait out the cold snap, the area around the bridge that the AT passes over became a hub for hikers waiting for their lodging and enjoying each other’s company in the spring-like sun.
Eventually, check-in time had come, and I was able to make my way back to the General Store to get the key for my bunkroom. I eagerly purchased my towel rental, and made my way across the bridge and up along the AT to the side trail to the Bunkhouse where I would be staying that night. The Bunkhouses aren’t exactly anything fancy (I strongly suggest earplugs, noises there really carry), but it was cool to be in lodging with such a deep AT history. (Plus the showers were hot and had impeccable water pressure— I was happy.)
Saturday, 3/12: Zero Day @ The NOC & Gorgeous Stays
I was up and ready early, but with the frigid air and fresh snow on the ground, I stayed in my room until it was time to check out and the stores at the NOC would be open. Shortly after checking out, I went over to the outfitter and talked to them about switching out my hammock for a tent (and shipping my hammock home). A few factors on trail (such as the Smokies requirement that hikers set up camp in the nearby vicinity of Shelter structures) had me wanting a little more nighttime privacy than my hammock tarp would be able to provide. The NOC only had one tent in stock, but it was a good one and they were very helpful when it came to making sending my hammock home as easy as possible.
A few moments later, I saw Tim, Timberwolf, and True Grit and excitedly made my way over to them. Tim was planning on a handful of days off-trail with friends, and Timberwolf and True Grit were sorting out a space at Gorgeous Stays for the night. After I mentioned that maybe I would call there myself, they invited me to join in on their arrangements and I gladly accepted. (A couple of other kind souls had offered me crash space to stay out of the cold, but I was glad to find an arrangement that wouldn’t be imposing on anyone.)
True Grit, Timberwolf, and I headed back to River’s End for lunch, and Tim’s ride came to pick him up. Lunch was just as delicious as it had been the day before, and we all drank an egregious amount of coffee. Shortly afterward, Helene from Gorgeous Stays came to pick us up, and we were brought back to her charming, unique “glamping and tiny home” complex and our New Orleans/jazz-themed abode for the evening.
Sunday, 3/13: Sidetrail for NOC Bunkhouse to Sassafras Gap Shelter (6.8mi)
When Helene’s employee dropped us back off at the NOC the following morning, Timberwolf and True Grit printed off their Smokies Permits, and then we got back on the trail to re-cross the bridge and begin the climb away from the Nantahala.
Everything was still coated in a layer of snow, and the wind was brutally cold. The ascent paired with the frigid, raw air was also much more difficult on my asthma than I had anticipated. It was a slow, exhausting climb and I was embarrassingly tired by the time I reached Sassafras.
Monday, 3/14: Sassafras Gap Shelter to Brown Fork Gap Shelter (9.1mi)
While somewhat less cold than the day before, the trail was surprisingly slick and icy at times. Often, one side of the hills and mountains would be completely normal while the other would still have a solid amount of snow remaining. Rocks and logs continued to be slippery, often even when I didn’t really expect them to be.
The topography was slightly more gentle than the previous day, but the climb up Jacob’s Ladder after crossing Stecoah Gap was steep and felt like it was going on forever. Mostly, though, my hike was kind of nondescript.
I was happy to arrive at Brown Fork Gap and was amused by how odd a shelter construction it seemed to be. This shelter had higher rise from the ground followed by a large gap on the edge that required you to climb up and then step across the chasm or use one of the three fairly narrow, thin boards to walk across. Another hiker mentioned the design is apparently intended to keep “problem porcupines” from entering the shelter, and I absolutely thought that “porcupine pit” is one of the funniest design elements of building construction I could possibly imagine.
After dinner, I fell asleep pretty early. A few others (Timberwolf, True Grit, and Bridges) were planning to get up early and start the morning with a little night-hiking. I figured I’d do the same if I felt like it upon waking, and got my things arranged in an attempt to be as non-disruptive as possible for those around us if I chose to do so.
Tuesday, 3/15: Brown Fork Gap Shelter to NC28/Fontana Village (11.8mi)
When I heard the others begin to start rustling around in the morning, I rolled with the punches and got myself going as well. Not feeling up to cooking breakfast, I shoved a couple bars in my hip belt pocket after collecting my bear hang, packed my sleeping gear, and wound up being first out of camp.
My headlamp was more than sufficient, but my pre-sunrise hiking was slow-going with a healthy amount of very slick mud and some interesting rock traverses shortly after leaving the shelter area. (That said, clearing the cobwebs I didn’t see in time to whack with my trekking poles with my face is not one of my favorite on-trail activities. Ick.)
At Yellow Creek Road, there was a mother and daughter with water, muffins, and fruit for trail magic, and I had a phenomenal little pack break talking with them and eating a snack before heading on past Cable Gap Shelter.
The rest of my afternoon was slower-going than I would have liked, and I was pretty beat by the time I reached the parking lot at the Fontana Marina after crossing NC28. A shuttle driver from Fontana Village had just pulled up to pick up a couple of other hikers, gave me a quick, friendly run-down on the pertinent information, and I decided to see it as a sign and head to the Lodge for the night.
I was relieved that I did. I hadn’t been on trail long since my last zero day, but I had been noticing a lot of unexplained bruises (looking at the back of my legs in the mirror at the NOC had been a shock), and suspected that I was beginning to deal with some slight anemia, which is something I’ve experienced off and on for well over a decade. I was fatigued far more than I wanted to admit, and the extra comfort for the night and a hot meal at the Lodge’s Mountainview Bistro seemed like a restorative prospect while I figured out my game-plan.
Wednesday, 3/16: Nero from NC28 to Fontana Dam Shelter (aka “Fontana Hilton”) (1.2mi)
After getting as much iron-rich food as I could from the Lodge’s mini-store (and finding a bag of quinoa in the hiker box!) and the plan to pick up some iron supplements at the next pharmacy or grocery store I had the opportunity to get to, I took it easy and got the shuttle back down to the Marina parking lot after sending out a couple pieces of mail at the post office in Fontana Village.
When I got to the Marina, I went down to the store and got my AT Passport stamped and signed the banner outside, then walked back up to the trail and made my way around the lake to the Fontana Hilton.
A couple of other hikers were already there, and as the afternoon wore on a bunch more joined us. The view of the lake as the moon rose and the packs of coyotes howled across the water was beautiful, and I was excited to get back on trail and head into the Smokies the next morning.
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