Great Smokey Mountains National Park Trip 2011
After the three of us had failed to qualify to the National meet in the 2011 cross country season, Tom Wilkin, Dusan Vasic and I decided to take a trip down to Great Smokey Mountains National Park as a method of consolation. So on Friday November 18thafter class, we piled into Dusan’s car with minimal gear and intention of doing some extensive hiking while sleeping at cheap motels. We crossed the Ohio boarder as the sun was dropping below the horizon and we stopped in Berea, Kentucky. Departing from our residence in Berea, Ohio, we would have missed out on a striking coincidence if we did not try to spend the night in a town sharing the same name in a different state. Because Berea was a college town in Kentucky as well, our plan was to crash a party and attempt to fall asleep on a random couch in order to avoid paying for a hotel. Unfortunately, our plan never got off the ground and after exploring the campus; we headed back down the highway and eventually booked a night at the Scottish Inn in Knoxville, Tennessee.
We awoke quite early and hit the road back toward our planned destination. Upon entering the park, we obtained a map and began plotting out the days journey. Our first target was Clingmans Dome, the highest mountain in GSMNP and TN as well as the 3rd highest mountain east of the Mississippi River. In fact on a clear day, one can see 100 miles and seven different states; however, due to the thick fog that engulfed the air we were lucky to see seven feet in front of us.
At any rate it is always enjoyable to be at a highpoint of a region. The only issue with Clingmans Dome is the fact that you can drive your way to the top and there is a large manmade concrete viewing platform at the summit. Any time the adventure and effort of getting to the top is removed then the appeal of the summit is far diminished in my mind. Additionally, anytime humans try to make improvements to nature, it always ends up cluttering an otherwise pristine vista. Case and point is the circus that Yosemite Valley has turned into; perhaps the Hetch Hetchy faired better. At any rate we quickly fled from the platform to find a forested trail and we started heading northeast on the Appalachian Trail. Due to time constraints and several other things on our list we only were able to enjoy about 1.5 miles before hitting the road to our next spot.
Despite the extensive trail network of GSMNP, we decided to do some bushwhacking up a steep mountainside in the Sugarland Range. It was quite a toil, dragging ourselves up the steep grade. After about an hour of ascending we randomly decided to head back and find our next adventure. It was at that point that we decided to do a run up to Ramsey Cascades, the tallest waterfall in the park. We ran the majority of the 4 mile trail which picked up 2000 feet in elevation and arrived at the stunning water feature around the same time that the sun was sinking below the trees. We took a few pictures and showed no particular urgency to get back to our car, despite the fact that we did not have headlamps or flashlights.
At this point we all had very minimal experience with any form of backcountry hiking and lacked even the most rudimentary common sense in terms of safety and respect for potentially dangerous situations. However, we were about to be taught an important lesson in the form of a very uncomfortable night in the Smokey Mountains.
We started back down toward the car and were able to visualize the outline of the trail in the dwindling light.
Soon however, the thick canopy consumed the light and an impenetrable darkness took its place. In other words we were screwed. We had made it about a kilometer in the light and began stumbling our way over the trail to cover the remaining 5.5 kilometers blindly. We traveled in a single file line bravely led by our Serbian guide Dusan. We tripped, twisted ankles, and banged shins on rocks for about an hour before we realized that we had lost the trail. My minimal common sense was telling me that we should stay put and avoid getting anymore lost, spend the night and find the trail in the morning. However, Dusan and Tom were confident that we could find the trail again, so I was overruled. Fortunately they were right we found ourselves back on the correct path, but I once again suggested that we simply stay put to avoid getting lost once again. With a little debating we decided to make camp in a slight ravine with a fallen tree for a windbreak and a bed of leaves for comfort.
Sleeping in the near freezing temperatures in the hauntingly isolated forest of the Blue Ridge Mountains was one of the most miserable nights of my life. Armed with only shorts and a sweatshirt to provide warmth we were forced to rely on each other’s body heat to prevent potential hypothermia. Without elaborating anymore on our survival techniques, our method still made for a sleepless, shivering, restless night.
In addition to our fears of hypothermia, the trail was also known for its extensive bear activity, which did not ease our nervousness. After watching the moon change positions throughout the night, we finally started to see some hints of light and as soon as we could make out shapes we got to our feet and began the short hike back to our car. I was incredibly dizzy when I stood up, which could be due to the constant shaking throughout the night or the low blood sugar or the dehydration, at any rate it made it difficult to keep my balance. After the dizziness finally resolved we started down the path and found that a large boulder in the middle of the trail had thrown us off in the dark and caused us to make a wrong turn and ultimately leading to us spending a late autumn night in the wilderness. We estimated that we were only about 2.3 miles from the car.
After finding our way back to the vehicle, the next step was Dennis’s all you can eat pancakes. After fueling up on some delicious nutritionally barren fried flour with fake maple syrup, we began the unfortunate trek back to Baldwin-Wallace College for class on Monday. On the way we stopped in to Cove Lake State Park in Tennessee, and enjoyed some final views of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the south before we were banished to the unrelentingly flat landscape and eternally gray skies of northeast Ohio. Overall our short-lived adventure to Great Smokey Mountains National Park was a success. It took our minds off of missing the National Cross Country meet, it allowed us to soak in some of the best wilderness the eastern United States has to offer and taught us some valuable lessons. I carried those lessons for at least another couple of months before hitting the trails in Leadville and continuing to poor decisions regarding backcountry hiking/running.