Ranger Steve Stewards the Smokies

The morning was a late one but it made sense to sleep late on the nice beds.

Eventually we started packing up and prepping for the smokies. We spent a fair amount of time menu planning and passing food around to whomever needed it. I had plans to pick up a personal package but we decided a few days ago that combining everyone else’s packages would be plenty of supplies. Bringing enough food to get through the smokies without stopping in at Gaitlynburg meant  entering our toughest challenge yet with excessively heavy packs. Like the good looking, stubborn souls we are we committed to it. I can honestly say we aren’t missing a great trail town. I’ve been to Gaitlynburg and it is the worst.

We checked out and printed off a last minute permit for a friend who otherwise would have gone without. I love rules in the woods so I took care of it for him but now I have to chase him down. Wings moves fast and light so I’m up to the task.

DSM AT smokies 1

After last minute provisions and waiting for a shuttle, we didn’t get back on the trail until 1:30 pm. We still had about two miles before we got into the smokies officially and then a five mile climb to the first campsite.

Us Turks are famous for perspiration.

There is a special mindset that permits starting your day hiking at the hottest time. I started sweating early and kept it up. Us Turks are famous for perspiration. 

A few hundred yards before we started walking on the dam we were quickly side tracked by a huge trail magic tent. Sausages, cookies, drinks — these people were professionals! The hiking group out of Knoxville Tennessee sets up and provides magic all the time during hiking season. This wasn’t their first rodeo, and they had meat and desserts for days and were good at pushing it on you. The location was the hiker social spot of the day with a few hikers I hadn’t seen in a while, including the infamous KBar and Baldwin. Chock full of character and smiles we all yelled his name a hundred feet out. It had been over a week since we’d seen him and the last we heard he was sick and nursing hurt feet. Its good to get him back in the mix. Everyone loves a wild card.

DSM AT smokies 3

We waddled away from the feast a little worried about how the hearty bloat in our stomaches would mix with a climb into the smokies. Luckily we had the dam to walk across to digest.

The hiking into the park is very much feared, but isn’t that different from the rest of the trail difficulty-wise. The main difference is the trail hasn’t been re routed much so it meanders along it’s original eroded track as it has done for 77 years. It’s like keeping a cobblestone main street in the present day riddled with issues we’ve learned to solve. A lot of the trails are fairly entrenched because they lack modern drainage infrastructure found on younger trails, like the changes the Chattahoochee and Nantahala National Forests have been making on the AT. Water running unchecked on the trail surface opens up problems to erosion, trail growth and informal trailing, and a slower day walking in the mud. A trail makeover would greatly benefit the park in the short and long term.

Rockman apparently loves heights so much he’s thinking of marrying them and found my terror delightful.

DSM AT smokies shukstack tower

We hit Shuckstack fire tower on the way to the campsite. The side trail was short and led to a surprisingly tall, wooden tower. It looked terrifying, so naturally I hit the stairs for the top. Ryan always tells me its important to be scared so I committed to climbing these awful towers. I was noticeably uncomfortable halfway up and down right panicked by the top. Rockman apparently loves heights so much he’s thinking of marrying them and found my terror delightful. I stayed at the top for just a moment, on my knees for all of it but just a second.

On my way back from Shuckstack I noticed an illegal campsite on the ridge. Feeling ranger blood in my arms and legs I decided to do what the USFS used to pay me the big bucks to do, demolish it. Illegal camping spreads impact to sensitive areas, and there was a large legal site nearby. I tossed the blackened rocks off the ridge to do away with the visual cue of a fire ring and spread leaves on the ring remains. I also put brush over good tent spots and picked up a half smoked soggy blunt and other trash. It felt good erasing our human trace.

Half the group got held up by a bear with cubs while we were at the tower. I really hope Kbar doesn’t try to use the two foot blade from his namesake on any bears. He’s surely ready for the worst.

DSM AT smokies 5

The campsite was the last one we could enjoy for a bit. The smokies require us to use shelters at every other site. The design of the site was genius, with flat tent pads cut into side hill for easy drainage and increased space. I bragged to everyone that my professor Jeff Marion came up with the idea of the campsite design, of which you can find over 300 of in this great country. 

Tonight is my last night in the hammock before nights in shelters full of snoring, smells, and mice. I think I’m going to roll the dice and sleep without my tarp, under the stars. Its a hard life being a hiker.

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