7 NOV 14
Davenport Gap/Snowbird Trip: Day 1
I-40/Waterville School Rd-Lower Mt Cammerer Trail-Davenport Gap Shelter
Miles today: 6.8
The farther one gets into the wilderness, the greater is the attraction of its lonely freedom.– Theodore Roosevelt
“So you want to be dropped off at Exit 451?”. Kelly was slightly bewildered. “Yep” I replied. She paused for a moment with her eyebrows scrunched together, trying to make sense of what I just said. “So, I’m just going to get off on some random exit off of Interstate 40 in the middle of no damn where, pull over, and let you out, and you’re going to start walking?” Again, my response was yes. “The Appalachian Trail runs right under I-40 at the Waterville School Road exit. Trust me, I’ve studied the map, the guides, AND we drove right over it last year”. Another pause, then she asked “okay, when/where do I pick you up when I come back?”
She was headed to Clarksville TN to visit her kids, so I decided to hitch a ride and knock out a quick 2 1/2 day section hike. “Call me when you get to Newport, and I’ll meet you at the same exit you dropped me off at”. She shook her head, not really believing that her friend was going to be dropped off and picked up like some vagabond on the side of the highway. “Hiker trash”, I responded to no one in particular. “It’s a hiker trash thing”. That’s how my last hike of 2014 began.
I was leery of hiking the Appalachian Trail in the Smokies, for no other reason than the mandatory sleeping in the shelters rule. I don’t like the thought of sleeping in the shelters, nor being forced to. I like my privacy, I paid good money for a tent, and I don’t have to worry about bugs and mice crawling over me and chainsaw snorers. I’m just not a shelter kind of person, BUT, I figured “hell, I’ll just do one night at Davenport Gap shelter, just to say I hit part of the Smokies (no matter how miniscule), and maybe I’ll get accustomed to the shelter sleeping deal”.
The plan was to hike from I-40 to Davenport Gap Shelter, crash for the night, then boomerang back down the AT past I-40 up to Snowbird Mountain (or as far NOBO as I could get), then meeting Kelly at Interstate 40 Exit 451 around 3. An easy-peasy 3 day, 2 night section. A week ago there was a pretty bad ice storm in this area. Since many of the trees still had some foliage on them, the ice and snow felled a great many along the trail. I was aware of the storm, but didn’t expect what lay ahead for me.
We pulled off at Exit 451 (mi 240, elev 1,500′) and I got my pack out of the trunk and got situated. While I was making my last-minute adjustments, two NOBO hikers were walking up from the underpass. One was an older gentleman with a sizeable beard, the other was in his 20s. They were carrying regular 60 liter or so packs, so I wasn’t sure if they were SOBOs slackpacking or not. “There’s some trail magic about a half mile up” said the older guy”. Sweet. I hastily explained to Kelly what trail magic was, saying it could be anything from water & Gatorade on the side of the trail to a cooler full of snacks, to a full-on “hiker feed”.
I asked the guys for the trail conditions, and the answer was “there’s a few good blowdowns between here and the shelter- watch yourself”. I had figured as much, but wasn’t sure how bad it would be. After a cursory photo-op in front of an Interstate 40 route shield with the white blaze, I bid adieu to my friend and set off towards the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The trail followed a road under I-40, crossed over the Pigeon River, then steadily climbed a hill over a few log steps, with one or two trees blown down across the trail, but they were easy to step over. I saw the trail magic, that was a Rubbermaid container with a few Gatorades, cookies, banana bread and a couple of Smirnoff Ices, left by someone who did a NOBO hike this year. There was a guestbook for hikers to sign, and the message inside said “Almost there SOBOs, keep trucking, you’re gonna make it”. Tempting as it was, I figured there were some who would appreciate a few snacks headed to the Smokies more than me, so I passed it up, but thinking “if it’s still here tomorrow I’ll grab a cookie”. (Hopefully the home-baked goodies aren’t laced with anything, lol).
At the top of the first hill the trail widened out to a relatively wide, flat area dominated by pine trees. There were a few decent looking campsites off to my left, but as I walked further on I noticed a whole mess of pine trees blown down right over the pathway. Stopping to assess my next move, I realized that circumnavigating the blowdown would take me way off-trail into some thick brush, so I decided to walk over/through the blowdown. It was all pine branches and boughs, so as long as I stepped carefully and used my poles, what could go wrong?
A potential hike-ending serious injury is what could go wrong.
I stepped on the first bough with my right foot, setting my left pole down al little further to my left than normal so I’d have a wider base, then I planted my left foot and started looking where I’d step next. Just as I lifted my right foot of the ground, suddenly something shifted underneath my left foot, causing it to drop about 8 inches slipping between two branches. In slow motion fashion, I tried hard to shift my weight forward onto my poles but my pack (which was about 28 pounds) was having none of it and apparently decided it wanted to go down to the LEFT.
Immediately I let go of my poles and grabbed on to a smallish pine tree in front of me, about 6 inches in diameter, in an attempt to arrest my impending fall. The little tree only acted as an axis and allowed me to not only swing around harder to my left, but gave way just enough for me to fall on my back. My left foot, mind you, was still firmly pinned between two branches. I caught my breath, waiting for the seemingly inevitable *snap* or *pop* of my knee or ankle.
It never did happen. There I lay, on my back, with my right leg straight, at a 45 degree angle from my body, and my left leg bent at a 90 degree at the knee, pointing away from my torso, but my left foot was jutting 90 degrees away from my leg. Not wanting to stay in that position, the first thing I did was get that damned backpack off of me so I could roll onto my side & take the ligament-snapping pressure off my leg.
After a few not-so-quietly uttered profanities, I managed to stand up (on a level surface) and asses the damage. My left ankle was fine; not sore or achy at all. It was my right ankle that must have hit a large branch in the way down because it was pretty tender and there was a small cut on it. The hiking pole in my left hand also managed to get bent.
Okay, so that was a close call. Not anything like slipping down a steep slope or falling iff a rock ledge, but that would have seriously ended my hike. To think I wasn’t even more than a mile and a half into it. That would have made for a long ass weekend. Making a mental note of the clusterf*** of trees in this area, I decided when I come back down this way tomorrow, I’m going AROUND them.
The trail up was covered in leaves, several inches in some spots which made for slow progress since I couldn’t judge where the nefarious tree roots and rocks were. The last thing I wanted to do was press my luck further and tempt fate with a twisted ankle again.
Right before Davenport Gap (mi 238.1, elev 1975′), a road crossing that marks the far northern boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP for short), I remembered that this was deer hunting season, so I stopped to throw my blaze orange vest on my pack. Usually on a weekend like this I’d be the one out hunting, but I doubted I’d get any chance to. It felt weird, knowing hunters were out, seeing their trucks with the dog kennels in the back, parked along the side of the road.
A few weeks earlier on Whiteblaze there was a story of a lady who was out hiking with her two dogs in an area not too far from here. She was approached by a pack of hunting dogs that subsequently attacked her and her dogs. The owners didn’t show up until later, and we’re pretty nonchalant about her dogs’ welfare (they were pretty badly banged up). That of course sparked a big debate, but as a dog owner, if mine gets attacked I’m going to defend her at all costs, regardless. Needless to say, I was on the lookout (and well prepared) for any rogue canines that wanted to harass me. Here’s her post on Whiteblaze: http://whiteblaze.net/forum/showthread.php/106890-Be-careful-and-help-if-you-can?p=1915410&viewfull=1#post1915410
On past the road and the box where the SOBO thru hikers were supposed to deposit their permits, the trail widened a little and seemed to be a bit better maintained. So, you’re finally in the grand old Smokies, huh? Well, technically I’d been in the Smoky Mountains since I got out at I-40, but this was my first foray into the famed park (which by the way is the most visited National Park in America).
The recent storm had stripped many trees of a lot of their leaves and all the way up my feet made all kinds of racket. Crunch crunch crunch. No way I’m going to see a bear with all the noise I’m making. There was still a good deal of foliage still out and it made for some beautiful pictures!
The trail climbed steadily up and before I knew it I’d reached the Davenport Gap Shelter (mi 237.2, elev 2,572′). It was one of the few on the park that still had a chain link fence and gate in front of it. Sometimes referred to as “people zoos”, they’re in place to keep the bears out of the shelter. I noticed there weren’t any bear cables here, and a sign on the side of the building advised to eat away from the shelter, but there didn’t seem to be any suitable place to do so.
I decided it was way to early to stop for the night. This was November, so nightfall came around 5:30, and the last thing I wanted to do was be bored out of my head for 15 hours, so I got back on the AT and walked for another hour southbound to the Lower Mt Cammerer trail (mi 235.2, elev 3,490′), where I had a snack (and my dinner) and headed back to the shelter.
When I got back, a guy was there standing out front, smoking a cigarette. He said his name was William a/k/a “Night Owl” and he was doing a SOBO section. We’d talked about how many people were supposed to have reservations tonight and if they’d show up. In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, visitors must make reservations and obtain permits for most backcountry campsites and all shelters. When I planned my trip, I was going to do a loop in the park around Cosby Knob Shelter, but since it was full, I had to resort to this out-and-back instead. Supposedly 8 spots were reserved here tonight.
Wanting to top off before sundown, I grabbed my Platypus bladder and my water bottles and followed what seemed to be a path downhill following a ravine where I figured the piped spring was. The footing was slick with wet leaves and rocks, and a couple of times I almost bit it trying to negotiate my way down. I’d gone about 200 feet down and could HEAR a trickle of water, but couldn’t SEE it. There wasn’t any kind of worn down path, and that seemed odd, since this is a major stopping (or starting) point in the Smokies. Sometimes the mere act of getting to the water is a pain in the ass, and rarely is it a simple walk. After getting irritated, I figured I’d go back up to the shelter and ask Night Owl where the spring was. Imagine my reaction when he pointed to the piped spring, 15 feet away on the left hand side of the shelter. I’d walked right past it TWICE today. Stupid.
Once the sun started going down we chatted about our hikes, bears, gear, and typical stuff. He mentioned he lived in Knoxville and was doing a section hike for a week. We also talked about mice, and I mentioned my fear of one running across my face while I’m sleeping, which is why I hated staying in shelters. Imagine my dismay when he said, “I thought it would be too cold for them to be out, but there’s one up there in the rafters”. Great. Just GREAT. I shined my headlamp up in the corner and sure enough, the little bastard was looking right at me. “You just stay your a** up there tonight, little dude” I thought to myself.
The Davenport Gap Shelter has a fireplace, so when I asked if he was any good at starting a fire, he said “hell yeah, let’s get one burning”. It was pretty much dark out, but we soon got enough kindling and wood to last a couple of hours. Let me tell you that when the sun went down, it started getting cold as hell in that stone structure. I showed him the Solkoa fire cube that I always brought along in my fire kit. It’s a cubed igniter made of some high-speed chemical compound that catches a flame immediately, and even burns as it floats on water.
After we collected just a little more wood, Night Owl noticed that a rather large tree branch (obviously downed from the storm) had fallen right on top of the chimney, and the embers from the fire were flying right up into it. I’m glad he noticed that because 1- I didn’t see it until he pointed it out, and 2- I wouldn’t have been able to get up on the roof, much less move it myself. With disaster and a great Smoky Mountains wildfire averted, I settled in on the top platform, listening to the mouse scurrying on the roof and along the rafters, wondering if he was going to try to warm himself up in my sleeping bag tonight.