“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 The furniture was outdated, and no one would have stolen the TV; only Hercules Unchained could have lifted it.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…