Friday, October 3, 2014

Into the Woods: Smoky Mountain Backpacking, Part 3

Though no headlamps were required to light our way, we arrived at the shelter after the sun had set. If this were a Dracula novel, the coming darkness would be key in a whole different way, but to eight hikers coming off  the trail it meant we had to hurry through a short list of tasks before we could rest.

Our guide had thoughtfully arranged for us to spend the first night of our backpacking trip in a shelter and the second night in our tents, giving us both experiences.

Shelters along hiking trails are typically three-sided, open at the front. They are constructed of wood and stone, without electricity. Inside ours, a two-tiered sleeping platform went wall to wall at the back. A fireplace took up one side in front of the sleeping area, and a skylight defined the middle of the tin roof above us.

When we arrived, a group of male hikers had settled in. They kindly gave us room as we made camp, trying to beat the darkness. The process was new and thus chaotic. I found myself becoming disoriented as we scrambled to stake out sleeping spots and hang our packs. All I wanted was to exchange my boots and heavy socks for camp shoes, and then eat.

I felt like my mother in her later years and feared I was acting confused the way she had when we traveled together. In her eighties her mind had lost its sharpness; eventually she would be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Mom would sit on the side of her hotel bed, overwhelmed and lacking the energy—or clarity--to unpack.

To claim my sleeping space, I had to stand outside on uneven ground and dig my sleeping bag and pad out of my pack so I could place them on the wooden platform. In addition, I gathered any other items I could need during the night. My food would be left in the pack and hung until we needed it for supper. There in the dusk of the woods, I was working a system I hadn’t fully learned yet.

I had come to trust our guide’s decisions and felt safe with her. She was emphatic that no food or other aromatic items be brought into the shelter at any time, thus the hanging of the packs. We used a cable system behind the shelter to haul our backpacks high off the ground, keeping our food beyond the reach of animals.

I changed my shoes and dumped my night items in the shelter. The men took the upper sleeping deck, and our group spread out on the lower level. After a hot meal, I was happy to crawl into my sleeping bag and hope to drift off, but I had bears on the brain. I realized that I had inadvertently brought a breath mint into the shelter. Would one mint attract a black bear? I would have swallowed it, but I wasn’t sure where it was. Once the headlamps were extinguished, we were in total darkness.

The soft snoring above me was a comfort; its rhythm ruled out the possibility of a bear, and I relaxed until a loud crash jolted me off my sleeping pad. It had to be an animal. Could no one else hear the racket? My sleeping companions were still as I inched toward the back wall, hoping to go unnoticed by whatever was invading our space. The men were still snoring. They can sleep through anything.

Two more loud crashes came from close by, and I was sure the killer bear that was banging around outside—if it wasn’t IN the shelter with us--could be reaching for me any minute. That thought was not conducive to sleep. In spite of a dozen other people around me, I felt scared and alone.

How I got through the night is anyone’s guess. If I slept at all, it was moment to moment. 

The next morning I asked our guide if she had heard the noise. Yes, she had heard the three acorns hitting the roof during the night, one at a time.

To be continued…


  1. Maybe they were extra large acorns!!!

  2. Debbie, the others apparently recognized the noise, or slept through it. I don't see how;it was very loud to me, and I had taken both of my hearing aids out!