Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Into the Woods: Smoky Mountain Backpacking, Part 1

“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.” Robert Frost may not have been referring to the Smoky Mountains when he wrote that line, but it was all I could think about as our group of eight entered the Appalachian Trail at Newfound Gap in Great Smoky Mountains National Park on a clear September afternoon.

“Women in the Wilderness” was the name of our adventure, a two-night backpacking trip for seven paying guests and our guide from the award-winning nature guide service, A Walk in the Woods. The company’s mission is to raise environmental awareness through “direct, fun, positive experiences with nature.” As a person considering a thru-hike of the AT and sometimes wondering why, I needed a dose of that.

I had found “Women in the Wilderness” on Facebook within a day of arriving home from a week of day-hiking the AT. Someone had cancelled after this Smoky Mountain trip was full, and the opening seemed meant for me. I signed up to gain more practice, but also to soak up some positive vibes about the wilderness. Anyone who doesn’t feel that way will have a hard time in the woods, because Mother Nature isn’t one to hold back on the challenges.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park covers 816 square miles. Its more than 500,000 acres are almost equally divided between Tennessee and North Carolina. Much of the park is back country, full of creeks and trees, wildlife, and trails both primitive and maintained. It is an amazing ecosystem, bursting with unique plant life and loads of animals. Scientists estimate the park is home to 100,000 different organisms.

I drove to Gatlinburg, Tennessee on a Thursday, arriving at a hotel I’d chosen on the Internet. In real life it was a disappointment, years beyond its heyday. One of the two lamps didn’t have a switch. The furniture was outdated, and no one would have stolen the TV; only Hercules Unchained could have lifted it. I was suspicious of the bedding, preferring to curl up in my sleeping bag on top of the covers. But at least I wasn’t bothered and my room had a lovely balcony overlooking a creek. The next morning after a freebie breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, I made the short drive to A Walk in the Woods.

We met each other and our guide on a sun-washed deck outside Gatlinburg. Most of the women taking this trip were renting their gear, so the preliminaries included our guide fitting each one with a pack and handing out tents, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads. I’d brought my own backpack filled with gear. One item was still in the trunk of my car: the $46 can of bear deterrent spray with its special holster I’d bought to quell my panic regarding the scariest of wild animals. I’d read it somewhere: "We pack what we fear."

“I have bear spray,” I said to our guide. Will I need it?”



About 1,500 black bears reside in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They are known to avoid humans, and visitors who hope to see them are often disappointed. I was a different kind of visitor, hoping to be spared the tiniest glimpse of fur during our three-day adventure. With that in mind, I addressed one of my challenges--focusing on the positive--as our orientation continued.

To be continued…

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Nerve Center

When I committed to hiking the 2,000-plus miles of the Appalachian Trail in 2015, my mind flew apart like a scattering of birds. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with things to do. Never mind that I had spent a year collecting and reading books about the AT, buying gear, and signing up for “practice experiences” in the woods. I felt the weight of the preparation that was still to come.

Planning the hike would be logistically complicated until I hit the trail and began to live simply, because I also had to manage what I was leaving behind. The first order of business was to organize my growing collection of backpacking gear, books, and clothing. The items were stashed in different locations around the house, making me nuts when the time came to go hiking. I would forget something every time. Once it was my water supply—not a good thing to leave at home.

I needed a nerve center!

As opposed to a place to work up my nerve, this nerve center would be a location in my home for all of my hiking paraphernalia, where I could see what I had in order to fill my packs intelligently as I prepared for every practice hike and then the Big Hike. (I know, don’t capitalize for emphasis.)

I chose my linen closet, a double-wide with sliding doors. Several years earlier I’d had it customized to hold not just my sheets, towels, and table linens, but also a variety of suitcases. It has one narrow section for hanging clothes and the rest is divided by shelves. The space would be perfect for my two packs, their contents, my hiking clothes, and my books.

I wanted to see all of my gear and my full range of clean outfits at once. The goal was efficiency. I could dress quickly and learn to load my backpack consistently so that my movements would become automatic on the trail. A pack is a complex piece of equipment when you consider its inner cavities, pockets, loops, and network of straps. It has to hold everything you need for a hike, yet be light enough to carry mile after mile. Loading one is both science and art.

So, out came my bedding, towels, place mats, and luggage, to find another home; into the closet went my hiking gear, books, and outdoor clothing. I have a shelf for my tent, one for my sleep system, another for footwear. There are spaces for stuff sacks, trekking poles, laundry, and smaller items--socks, whistle, bug net, emergency blanket, matches, and so on. My hiking books are in one place.

I’d recommend this system to anyone. There is one little hitch. I haven’t yet found a new home for my extra curtains, comforters, scatter rugs, shower curtain rings…