This past weekend (May 21) 9 of us headed up to Hampton, TN for an overnight hike in the rain. We didn’t purposefully hike in the rain, but when you’ve scheduled a hike for 3 months, you don’t let a little rain hinder your walking.
We met at the US 321 Crossing of the AT at Hampton, TN by Watauga lake, about 10 minutes before our prescribed time, and waited on our shuttles. And waited, and waited, and waited. After several tense phone calls with the outfitter in Damascus, we were told that the shuttle driver had taken the van to Wilbur Damn road, 40 trail miles away but 40 minutes up the road. They sent a new set of cars and took us for free. So by the time we hit the trail is was almost 1 in the afternoon. The only good part of that, was that we went ahead and ate lunch in the car and had to carry a little less food weight. We were dropped at TN91 – Cross Mountain Road (which you may remember from the trip where we got snowed on a few months ago)
According to some thru-hikers we met along the way, it had been raining for days. One said they hadn’t seen the sun in 9 days. The trail showed the strain. Everywhere we stepped was covered in mud. The trail was sloppy, squishy and wet. Most everyone had mud halfway up their calves by the time we got any distance. It was cool, though, which made the walking easier. We soon began splitting into separate groups, intending on making Vandeventer Shelter by 6 or 7pm.
This trip sort of changed my outlook on thru-hikers. Not that I ever had any issues with them, but I’ve usually thought about trying to avoid the thru-hiking bubble. The woods are for peace and solitude, a place to relax and be alone with your thoughts. But meeting the thru-hikers was fun, and going south you get to meet lots of them if only for the few seconds you’re in talking range. Most of the interaction is limited to what’s coming up in your respective directions: Wheres the water? How far to the shelter? Seen any bears? Is the shelter full? There may be a little bit of extended talking at water spots or shelters, but that’s by choice.
We met a father-daughter team that had been on the trail about two months together, at Iron Mountain shelter. I saw a group of guys that had obviously seen each other several times. We all stopped at the only decent spring for a few miles, to filter some water. One of the guys (Eno or Emo – not sure exactly what his trail name was) looked to be about 150 pounds soaking wet, and talked about Trail Days and the fact he had to get off the trail for a little bit because he was so exhausted. Walking 30 miles a day for a couple of weeks, no wonder he was exhausted.
The only good part to come from starting so late, was that while we were sitting in the cars dealing with the shuttles by phone, it rained on and off several times, some times pretty good. Once on the trail it rained a little, only once really good enough to worry about putting on the raincoat. But the wind got up pretty good several times, so I was happier to have the jacket as a wind breaker than as a rain protection.
One problem with wearing a rain jacket while hiking is sometimes you get just as wet from sweating as you do from rain. But at least the raincoat keeps the wind off. One nice feature to have on a raincoat is “pit zips”. I just discovered my jacket unzips at the armpits. Two years. I’ve had the jacket for two years and I just figured this out by watching someone else. It was nice to unzip the jacket and stick my arms out, only keeping my torso covered for wind protection, but letting my arms cool off some.
Our fortunes turned in the afternoon. About 5 we stopped for water at a pretty decent tent site. By now, Three of our group were 4 miles ahead at the shelter. Another three were ahead by a half mile or so, leaving me, Carol and Kim at the back taking it easy. This was supposed to be the last easy water until after the shelter. While we were stopped, Carol texted one of the others to ask about the shelter situation. We were told a group of boy scouts had been in front of us intending on using the shelter and the sites around it. Unfortunately, Vandeventer Shelter is on a ridge line, surrounded by rocky sections and lots of overgrowth and poison ivy. It’s not great for big groups wanted to spread out. The text came back: the shelter was packed full and all the space around it was occupied. The next four miles after it were ridge line too, with no way to tell where a decent site might be. So we made a decision to stop where we were for the night.
The only problem: This was a two day hike of about 21 miles. We had done 7.6. The shelter was around 4 miles ahead, and the end of our hike was a little over 13 miles ahead. So the first three hikers had 4 miles on us, about 2 hours of hiking time. We had a great tent site, but would have to make it up in the morning. Thankfully, the way we drove up in small groups meant we could take one extra hiker in our car. The first three could leave when they got to their car.
Night went very well. Surprisingly, the rain held off until we got camp set up. About 630 the rain started one again in earnest while I was eating supper. I recorded a complete “how to make supper in the woods” video for a coworker who was interested in that. After supper the rain sort of tapered off to a barely defined drizzle. The other three hikers showed up at this point. Up until now it had been just me, Kim and Carol at the campsite. Jim, Dorothy and Steve arrived and began setting up. Steve chose a solitary spot across the trail with a fire ring, because Kim and Carol took up the only flat tent spots right close to the fire rings on our side of the trail. It was my intent to avoid the inevitable depression from not being able to start a fire.
Steve, however, was a scoutmaster or ninja or something and started a campfire with wet wood in the rain. At first I thought he was just sending smoke signals but before long he had a decent little fire going. Unfortunately there was really nowhere to sit around his fire and I retreated to the hammock area, and partook of Carol’s Jamaican Rum with hot spiced cider. Not too long after that, it was bed time. I lay in the hammock only to find that apparently some application had been running the GPS all day and I was down to 15% on the phone.
No music, no games, no movies, no reading. Not if I wanted the alarm to wake me in the morning. So I lay back in my new hammock, only to realize I hung the thing on a slope and my feet were a little too high. I had a hammock made by a company that was going out of business. I sent them some tie-dyed fabric I did, and it turned out awesome. It has dual side zippers so I can sit in it like a chair, get in either side, and even reach out the sides to fix the under quilt or grab something from the backpack. I ignored the feet issue and tried to sleep.
Unfortunately some people didn’t respect the traditional 9pm hiker midnight, and laughed and such until late. It was okay, though, because a Barred Owl started his call over and over. We hooted back at him, some a bit more, umm, alcohol-infused than others. He kept up his conversation for about 20 minutes until it started POURING RAIN. This quieted everyone down and finally we were off to sleep. It rained in fits and starts throughout the night, but overall it was one of the better sleeps that I’ve had. New hammock definitely an improvement over my too-short Hennessy that always cramped me in (I knew I should have bought the tall version). At 4:20 the rain returned with a vengeance, and stayed that way until about 6am. I finally got up, ate and began packing. 8% left on the phone!
We started drifting out of camp around 8am. Carol was first, and I followed a little after. Steve caught up with us at some point, and then we leapfrogged each other for a good while, meeting up at the Wilbur Damn Road access point. I sat for lunch for about 5 minutes before Carol and Steve showed up. We crossed Watauga Dam together, and I played with using my “stickpic”, a little plastic thing that turns a trekking pole into a camera mount. It seems to help smooth out some of the bouncing and jerking that walking while filming seems to plague my videos. My guess is the arm muscles help to form a simple kind of “stedicam” with the camera on the end of a long pole.
After the dam it was a rolling 3 more miles up and down through a section of trail that was known for bears. Simple instructions from the park service: Don’t stop, don’t hang around. Just walk straight through. I got a bit ahead of Carol and Steve, despite telling everyone to stick together. That was my bad… but I kept asking NOBO hikers about bears. No one had seen anything. Turns out I wasn’t far ahead. Carol and Steve walked out into the parking lot about 3 minutes after me. I had time enough to change my shirt and take off my “base layer” (what they call leggings for guys, so guys will buy something to keep their legs warm), and that was it. I was, however, exhausted. Jim, Kim and Dorothy walked out of the woods about 5 minutes later. We split up, and thus began the long drive home.
My video is here:
My video of me cooking supper over my Fancy Feast cat food can stove, as requested by someone at work: