Day 16 – Friday, March 25: Cable Gap Shelter to Fontana Dam, 5.5 miles, 164.7 total AT miles

I woke early and packed quickly, excited at the prospect of heading into town. As I packed, I did a quick inventory of my gear and decided I would send a few things home when I reached Fontana.

The descent into Fontana Dam was rugged and foggy from all the rain during the night. Before leaving camp, I decided to take two ibuprofen and not use my knee brace today. I’m glad I did – I think somehow the knee brace was doing more harm than good. While I still had to take it easy, I was able to move a little quicker without the brace limiting my range of motion.

  
After a series of switchbacks, I emerged onto Fontana Dam road at noon. I quickly caught a shuttle and checked in to the lodge. I hiked down to the “town” to do laundry and resupply. Fontana isn’t a real town, more than a resort with stores. There is no cell phone reception anywhere and the “campus-wide wifi” isn’t strong enough to make outgoing phone calls.

  
As the other guys poured into the Lodge, we found out pretty quick that our next door neighbors were the group Savage had been hiking with the past few days. Pretty cool – our group now included Medicine Man, Moon Boots, Shaggy and Owl.

We all sat down to a nice dinner and mingled with other hikers afterward.

I’m very tired, but ready to go – I received my mail drop that included enough food to get me to Gatlinberg as well as my zoom lens. While I haven’t had luck uploading pics from my camera to the website (I need GOOD wifi), I’ve been taking a lot of nice pictures. I promise.

I can’t wait to start the Smokeys tomorrow. I’m planning on hiking in about 10 miles and tenting (hopefully) at the first shelter. There are rumors of bear sightings.

Breakfast: nothing

Lunch: Ray’s Dill Pickle Potato chips and French’s Creamy French Onion dip

Dinner: No burger. I went for the meatloaf plate with and extra side of fries.

Late nite snack: Chex Mix

Money:

Shuttle: $3.00 plus $2.00 tip

Laundry: $4.00

Fontana Village General Store: $32.20

Lodge restaurant: $15.90 plus $5.00 tip

Post Office: $28.01. Canuck finally received his hammock and was about to donate his very nice Marmot tent to a hiker box. Instead, I paid for his room and shipped the tent to my storage unit in Seattle.

Room: $15.56 (times two)

Day 15 – Thursday, March 24: Sassafras Gap Shelter to Cable Gap Shelter, 15.2 miles, 159.2 total AT miles.

I woke up frequently throughout the night. It wasn’t until I finished typing and tried to settle down for bed that I realized my tent was in an extremely awkward position for sleeping. I ended up sleeping like a macaroni noodle – my body bent at the middle with arms and head falling to one side of the tree and legs to another.

I still got up at 6:00, ready to go. I packed quickly, hoping to catch the sunrise on Cheoah Bald. I raced uphill, pausing only once to shed layers as I was sweating. I reached the top and was greeted with both a beautiful sunrise and a blast of cold wind racing over the bald. I redressed quickly.

  

I paused to take a few photos, eat breakfast and brush my teeth. A few of the hikers I met last night eventually made their way to the top of the bald and headed north.

I was content being towards the end of the pack today as my knee was already starting to hurt. I knew there’d be a couple of tricky descents today – starting right away with a 1400 foot descent into Locust Cove Gap. My knee started hurting but I hiked on.

I had another tricky descent into Stecoah Gap at a road crossing and was met by about 15 thru-hikers taking a morning break. Fontana Dam/Smokey Mtns is similar to Blood Mountain/Neel’s Gap in that they both act as bottlenecks on the trail. Due to limited camping options before major town stops, hikers sort-of bunch up on the outskirts of town, in hopes they’re up early and in their hotel/hostel as soon as possible.

Descent into Stecoah Gap.

As I sat and had a quick snack, I realized everyone had the same plan – to sleep at Cable Gap Shelter about 8.5 miles ahead. Great. This bubble of hikers I had wandered into moved a lot quicker than me.

Just as I was getting ready to leave, Canuck and Kodak popped out of the woods. I set off, trying to get a head start, but was passed within the hour by every single hiker I took a break with.

I don’t know how I missed this last night, but I soon found myself in the middle of Jacob’s Ladder – arguably the steepest ascent I’ve met so far. It’s 600 feet gained in .6 miles in one straight line. I paused halfway up and let people pass. After I made it to the top, I stripped off my boots and put some tape on my left heel – I was starting to get rubbed a little raw.

I stopped at Brown Fork Gap for water – 3 liters, just enough to get me to Cable Gap without stopping.the next 6 miles into camp were great hiking. I was back in shorts and enjoying the gentle grade. I felt like I was making good time.

After Jacob’s Ladder just before Brown Fork Gap.

About two miles away from Cable, the sky started getting dark. I started hiking faster. At a road crossing less than a mile from camp, the sky opened up. I was quickly forced into full rain gear and pack cover for the last mile in.

As I came into Cable Gap at 5:00, I quickly realized my suspicions about being in a hiker bubble were correct. The shelter was full and at least 20 tents had already been set up at various terraced levels around the gap. It was still pouring.

I set my pack down outside of the shelter (standing room only) and grabbed my tent and poles. I figured the sooner I got my tent up, the sooner I could getting dry. I put it up as fast as I can. I tried to save time and focus on the rain fly instead of the tent stakes. Bad move – a gust of wind started to carry it down the mountain.

I finally got it up and secure from the wind and driving rain. I walked back to my pack at the shelter. I grabbed my sleeping pad and two camp towels back up to my tent. I wiped down the inside as best I could, spread out my sleeping pad, and collapsed. I laid there for about 20 minutes, listening to the rain. I eventually brought my other gear up to the tent and got ready to cook dinner down at the shelter.

Shelters are interesting. A half-full shelter with people you know is kinda fun. A shelter full of strangers looks awful. As a row of hikers sat cooking on the edge, the lucky tenants of the shelter sat silently in the shadows, their backs against the wall. I ate quickly and said little.

While the predictability of hiking in a small group is comfortable, I do enjoy these times when a large group of hikers gets stuck somewhere for the same reason. And everyone’s headed into Fontana Dam tomorrow.
There’s little I need to buy in the way of food – I’m getting a mail drop at the perfect time. I do need to get some smaller compression sacks for my tent and clothes. And I’m looking forward to a burger.

I’ve been thinking about a burger ever since I ate that healthy lentil dish at the N.O.C. and everyone else gorged themselves on tasty food. I really want a burger.

I’m also interested in weighing myself. I feel like I’ve been eating enough carbs and protein to maintain this level of activity. If I have lost anything, it assuredly will be very little.

Tomorrow’s hike is only 5.5 miles down to Fontana Dam. I’ll take the rest of the night off and enter the Smokey’s Saturday afternoon. I might take the opportunity to visit Gatlinburg, TN sometime next week for a resupply if necessary. That’s all I know now.

I’m looking forward to warmer weather and more time between stops in town. It seems like it’s harder to stay clean in the cold – I’m bundled up in the same clothes for days on end, changing only socks and underwear infrequently. Sometimes I’ll catch a whiff of myself – it’s terrible. But we all smell like this. Everyone has dirt under their fingernails. It’s fun.

Despite my knee (which felt better as soon as I stopped all the descents) and the wet weather, I’m truly having a great time. I still pause and smile at the top of every mountain I summit. I need to put getting up early back into practice – I really enjoyed hiking towards the sunrise this morning.

Today was a music day – I didn’t really ponder much of anything. I do feel noticeably better, and have a better day on the trail, when I’m up early. We’ll see how that goes.

I know the norovirus outbreak was reported back home in Atlanta – for us hikers, informational leaflets are posted at trail heads and in privies. All I can do is stay as clean as possible AND as far away from everyone as possible. 

It’s getting late for me. The rain has finally stopped but the wind has picked up. Despite the fact I’ve had to rig my tent to keep it up, I’m still surprised that it keeps me dry. I might hold onto it for a little while.

Breakfast: breakfast mix

Snack: beef jerky

Lunch: breakfast mix

Snack: beef jerky x2

Dinner: about three cups of couscous with salmon, bacon and powdered mushroom gravy