Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Smoky Mountain Adventure


It has been a long time since I checked in with my loyal blog readers. If you have been anxiously awaiting the next installment I apologize for making you wait. I decided to take some time off to live in the moment. I had a discussion with a friend of mine when I was in Arizona and he pointed out how there is a trade off when you document your experiences. You have to stop and take a photo or jot something down. You almost have to trade the moment for the benefit of others. Anyhow, that's my excuse and I am sticking to it.

Before I go on I need to say thanks to all of the people I have had the privilege of spending time with over the last month.

Thank you Aunt Dianne and Uncle Bob for taking care of the boys and showing us around The Villages. The boys still talk about the fun they had delivering Easter eggs to all of your friends and neighbors. We love you guys!

Thank you Uncle Dean, Aunt Linda, Brian, Danielle, Sara, James, and Jessica for letting us pile into your minivan with you. We had a great weekend!

Thanks Stephanie and Christiaan for making our Savannah trip so special. Special thanks also to Allyson and Andy for giving me permission to add you to my "little story". Extra extra special thanks to Allyson for being such an amazing tour guide.

Finally, thanks John, Bridget, Natalie and Luke for being such awesome housemates. We couldn't have picked better friends to spend Spring Break with and we already miss you guys. See you next year!

So, this week we did some exploring in the Smoky Mountains. We spent some time doing touristy things like eating overpriced meals, playing in arcades and treating ourselves to ice cream but the majority of our time was spent on the trails. We come to this area every year and always log TONS of miles hiking. We have been hiking all over the country and there really isn't a better place, in our opinion, to both challenge yourself and immerse yourself in natural beauty.
The Yum kids and the Magel Kids. They keep each other busy while the parents do crosswords. 
In between hikes we spent time upgrading our trekking gear on Amazon. We also frequented NOC, the outdoor store in Gatlinburg. If you are into hiking and backpacking you probably understand our obsession. You go to the store thinking - This is all I need and I will have everything - only to find out a week later that there are, in fact, some other things that would make you a more complete survivalist. Anyhow, we made some pretty cool upgrades including a new water purification system, some new rain gear and a hydration pack for Noah. We also grabbed some dehydrated food and meal bars. We needed to stock up for our upcoming 3 day, 2 night backpacking trip.

The day before our trip we felt confident that we were prepared so we went out with our friends to have some fun. Our friend, Bridget, was dead set on buying a hand carved bear statue for her porch. It is something she obsessed over all week. So, we spotted a bear dealer (something that is quite common 'round these parts) and we pulled over to help Bridget buy her statue. It was my job to help her negotiate a price. She had stressed that she was NOT going to spend more than $100 on a bear. It was apparently my job, along with her husband, John, to make sure  that was all it cost her. Long story short, we failed and she paid $120. I might also add that she is probably a much stronger negotiator than myself or John. She probably realizes this now.
This is what a $120 bear looks like. 

While we were at this place that turns firewood into folk art, I lost track of Jessica who, in typical Jessica fashion, was picking out which bear I was apparently going to have to buy for her. You know, because we need a large chunk of cedar to put in our RV and drive our gas mileage into the toilet. I insisted that we weren't buying one but as she took me on a tour of her favorite bears, something happened to me. After looking into the plastic, beady eyes of these cutely carved logs, I started to fall for these damned things. It was like suddenly we weren't looking at carvings anymore, we were shopping for a new pet. I shook it off and came to my senses and insisted we weren't buying a damned bear log. I told her that if we encountered a bear on our backpacking trip, I would come back and buy her a bear. They were starting to grow on me but, you just can't have shit like that when you live in a travel trailer.

The next morning was sort of a blur. We popped out of bed at 7:30AM and the house was stirring, like the McCallister household whenever they sleep in on the day they are supposed to take an exotic Christmas vacation. We had packed a lot of essentials into our cars the previous night, including the coffee grinder, so we did all of our packing and cleaning without the aid of coffee. Right when we started to get hangry and irritated, we were ready to shove off. We stopped to have a fancy breakfast and bid farewell to our friends and cabin-mates, the Magels, and we headed to the trailhead.

When we arrived on the trail it was busy. The trail up to our camp has a waterfall (Hen Wallow Falls) at the 2 mile mark so it's a popular day hike. Plus, it was a gorgeous Sunday afternoon so everyone was trying to get their fix of the Smokies. Almost immediately after we started the hike, we crossed paths with some other backpackers who were coming down from the site we were headed to. I was relieved to see other campers because, if I am being totally honest, I am still a little bit messed up from our Yellowstone trip. Whenever we go hiking or backpacking there is this mild and ever-present anxiety in the back of my mind that basically boils down to my fear of encountering a wild animal. We stopped to chat with these hikers for a minute and I played it cool.

"Were there any other campers at the site?" I asked

"Oh yeah, but it was still awesome." He replied

These guys were in their early twenties and in good shape. They probably thought I was hoping for solitude at the campground but, quite the contrary, It would have brought me comfort to see a full campsite.

"Any toilets?" I inquired.

"Nope." He answered. I already knew the answer to this question, I was just adding a filler question before asking the question that was really on my mind.

"Did you guys see any bears up there?" I asked. Trying to sound relaxed.

"Nah, just some deer and a lot of wild flowers." He said.

They went on to tell us how beautiful the campsites were. Turns out they did the same trek we were doing but they went in the opposite direction. They told us to have a good hike and we continued on.
Sammy's Serious Face

When we got near the waterfall, we passed a group of tourist hikers with Jersey accents who were amazed that we were heading off to camp in the mountains. Normally, I wouldn't be amused with these type of people but, I have to admit, I am a sucker for folks with Jersey accents. They asked a lot of questions.

"So, do you bring your own food up there or do they have somewhere where you can buy dat stuff?" One of the fellas asked.

I replied, "No, they have a McDonalds up there." and gave him a smile.

"Nah, You know, I was wondering if maybe the rangers or something had a store for yous."

"No" I said, "We bring freeze dried dinners and protein bars and stuff."

"Oh, okay, what about water?" He asked

"We get it from all of these creeks that you have been crossing." I said

"Oh, good, yeah because I was wonderin' 'cause my son was drinking at the waterfall and stuff and these guys was tellin' him not to but it's mountain fresh water, right?"

"Are you being serious?" I asked.

"Yeah. It's safe to drink right?"

"No, you have to treat it first. Otherwise it may contain Giardia which is a bacteria that will wreak havoc on your intestines." I said. I looked back at Jessica and she was wide eyed with her mouth open at what this fella was telling us.

"Oh, so I didn't drink any, I just took a little bit and swished it around in my mouth and spit it out, that's okay right?" He asked, hoping for me to agree.

"No." I said, "It's possible that you guys will be fine but, in about a week or two if you are experiencing severe diarrhea and you have to go to the doctors to be treated for dehydration, make sure you tell them that you drank this water."

"Oh, Okay. Hey thanks a lot pal." he said, as he turned and walked away.

"See, I told you, you friggen idiot..." his friend said to him as their voices faded behind me.

When we arrived at the falls we were alone but eventually other people started showing up with their bag lunches and I was anxious to get away from them. As much as I wanted to be among other backpackers, sometimes day hikers can really get on my nerves. Not all of them but the ones who have a blatant disregard for the rules. They ignore every sign and warning from the rangers because they have this entitled mindset that nature only exists for humans to go out and act like unleashed animals. The reality is that humans are guests in wilderness and extra care should be taken when visiting our national parks.

Approaching Hen Wallow Falls

Noah busted out the binoculars to observe the Peregrine Falcons circling above us while we ate. Peregrine Falcons were reintroduced into the park a few decades ago and today, they can be seen all over eastern Tennessee. 

We pushed on after lunch and suddenly all of the other hikers disappeared. We started to fall into the groove. The connection between man and nature started to occur. The sound of chirping birds was the only thing that could be heard over the noise of the rushing creek. Butterflies crossed the trail right in front of our feet and landed in patches of beautiful blooming trillium. As we walked, single file, our words started to become more infrequent as we all found our place in the woods in our own different way. Sammy likes to master the rock hops at the creek crossings while Noah prefers to continue his quest for the perfect hiking stick, trading up to a better model every so often, testing out the features in between. Jessica stands at the back of the pack watching her children soak up the benefits of being in the wild and occasionally stops to silently take in a view. I walk in the front and pretend I am there alone and I try to find poetic ways to describe the things I am seeing in my head. Eventually I stop when words can no longer express the things I am seeing.
Sammy was frustrated and tired so Noah stopped to give him a hug and some encouragement. 

We reached a difficult rock hop that Sammy had to reluctantly ask for help with. We held hands and helped one another across and we had arrived. campsite #34, 5 miles into the backcountry via Gabes Mountain Trail.

We got camp setup and made some dinner. After we ate, the boys used their remaining energy to run around and play by the creek. They don't always love the long hikes involved with backpacking but they ALWAYS dig being at the backcountry campsites. When darkness started to fall it was obvious to me that no other campers were going to show up. I wasn't as worried about it as I was when we first hit the trail though. Mother nature had cast her spell on me and I felt relaxed. I was, however, super tired so I went to bed alongside the boys at 8pm. I spent the night tossing and turning and waking up every hour to blow more air into my sleeping pad which, apparently has a slow leak in it. At around 3am I finally gave up adding air to the pad and just let it deflate and slept for a good 3-4 hours laying on my back.
The boys did a performance for us while we prepared dinner

The next morning I was the first to emerge from the tent, which is the exact opposite of how things happen when we aren't sleeping in the woods. I sat on a rock and watched the sun come up over the hills and just enjoyed the time to myself. Eventually I walked over to the bear wire to retrieve our food items and learned that we had been visited by a critter the night before. Something had managed to climb up the tree and across the wire and chew a hole in my food bag. After eating 1/2 of a granola bar it moved on to bigger better things but it amused me that in our effort to bear proof our campsite, we often forget about cunning animals like ravens and squirrels who are just as opportunistic, if not more so, than bears. I made coffee and pancakes for the gang as they started to walk out of the tent, one at a time. Noah was the first to come out. He came and hugged me and pleasantly greeted me good morning. He is a really sweet kid for the first 15 minutes of the day. I try to take advantage of it when I can, knowing he will turn into a devil as the day progresses. Eventually, Jessica and Sam joined us and we sat, in a circle, on stumps and rocks, talking about our plans for the day.
The Sunrise. Photobombed by the garbage bag. 

As chance would have it, we got full cell phone reception at this campsite so we had the luxury of being able to check the weather via smartphone. They were calling for 100% chance of rain and storms overnight and into the next day. Our next campsite was 6 miles away, and at an elevation of almost 5000 feet. So, based on the weather report, our best case scenario was we get rained on a lot. Our worst case scenario was we experience unpredictable Smoky Mountain weather at an elevation with high exposure to lightning. After talking it over, we decided it was time to cut the trip short. We would just take our time and hike back 5 miles to the car.

We got camp packed up and let the kids play around for a little longer before heading back on the trail. We got to the tricky creek crossing and, again, helped each other across. This time Jessica and I both wound up with a submerged foot. We wear waterproof hiking shoes but, when you step in ankle deep water, all bets are off.
They say kids don't spend enough time in nature these days. I like to think these kids are the exception. One day they will join the effort to preserve our parks and forests. 

We came to a wide spot in the trail and Jessica pointed out some animal scat.

"Look boys," She said, "It's pretty fresh too. I wonder what animal it came from."

"Bear." I said

We went back and forth trying to determine who made this pile of poop. It was about the size of turd that a German Shepherd would leave so we narrowed it down to coyote or small bear, since the Smokies don't have wolves or big cats it made it easy to narrow down.

As the sun continued to rise over the valley, Sam was feeling energetic and leading us down the trail. He remained a good 20 paces in front of me and, at times, I was jogging to keep pace with him. Suddenly, we rounded a corner and I stopped dead in my tracks and shouted to Sammy.


He stopped and stared at the bear just in front of him on the trail. I grabbed his shoulders and we began executing the steps for handling a bear encounter. We backed away slowly and spoke softly to it.

"Easy bear." I said. My heart was pounding as all of the worst-case-scenarios of a backcountry animal encounter rushed through my head.

I don't think it mattered at this point because the combination of running child and shouting father had already scared him along. He was a large bear cub, probably a yearling, weighing about 50-100 lbs. He headed up the hill at the end of the trail, stopping every so often to see where we were. The four of us remained still waiting for him to fully retreat. The issue with encountering a bear cub is there is ALWAYS a protective mama bear nearby keeping a close eye on things. So, we didn't kid ourselves, we knew that as we watched this cub head up the hill, there was a much larger bear watching us somewhere.
We almost forgot to take a pic. You see the bear in there? 

When the bear was out of sight we passed by quickly and cautiously in a tight group. After hiking on for a few minutes we were all appreciating how awesome the whole thing was. Seeing a bear while on the trail is EXTREMELY rare. The bears out in the backcountry still have a fear of humans so they are VERY good at staying out of sight. Just as I was explaining this all to the boys Jessica shouted out from the front of the group,

"Well, looks like daddy owes me a bear statue!"

A deal is a deal I suppose. I would make that same offer again if I knew it was going to produce another bear sighting.
Nature is really awesome sometimes

We got to the end of the trail and did our usual routine of high fives, end of trail snack and calculating our mileage. This trip was an even 10 miles, there and back, which matches the boys longest hike ever and is their longest backpacking trip ever. As I was sitting at the end of the trail thinking about how much I needed a shower and some greasy food I also felt a much needed cleansing of my soul. It doesn't matter who you are, when you go into the woods for a night, it is maintenance for the mind. And, as I have stated many times before, it is the foundation of our family.

While sitting at the trailhead after the hike down I noticed this sign that I hadn't seen on the way in. I am kinda glad I missed it. 

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