Winter hike in the Appalachians: Benton MacKaye Trail
Tired of rain and snow
I was pretty much exhausted after 8 days on the AT: physically and mentally. The trip had been much harder than expected and I was really looking forward to some rest at Wildcat's. I had suggested to meet at the Fontana Dam Visitor Centre as I had assumed to be there well before our appointed meeting time and the Visitor Centre would be a nice and warm place where to meet. I very well remembered its warm showers from my AT thruhike. But like everything on this winter hike my last half day of hiking took much longer than expected. I was still on schedule but things dragged on and I cursed myself for not having suggested the highway crossing 2 miles before Fontana Dam Visitor Centre. And then as I came hobbling down the mountains to the road - whom do I see? Wildcat! He had apparently read my mind and was waiting for me at the road crossing already assuming that I had lost interest in the next 2 miles... What an incredible surprise that made my day. Wildcat had picked me up from the AT 4 years ago and like last time he brought a little resupply package for hungry hikers that I devoured immediately.
Wildcat dropping me off
Wildcat's house felt like paradise and I was easily convinced to stay 2 days instead of 1. Day 1 was spent problem solving and I had lots of problems! First of all my rain gear had turned out to be inadequate and Wildcat working at Little River Trading, an outfitter was very helpful. I decided to keep my rain jacket but bought a new pair of rain pants on sale. Next problem was my stove. Due to the low temperatures my canister stove did not work very well and warming it in my sleeping bag did not help very much. I had hoped to buy a remote canister stove with inverted feeding but neither Little River Trading nor any other outfitter in the vicinity carried any of those stoves. Wildcat suggested making a pot cosy or switching to an alcohol stove. I have never been happy with alcohol stoves and opted for a canister cosy for which we found some insulation foam at Little River Trading, too. The highlight of the day though was a visit at my beloved Aldi's. Neither Wildcat nor his wife knew much about it and I proudly gave Wildcat the grand store tour - and bought tons of chocolate and Christmas specials. Wildcat even arranged a meeting with Sgt. Rock aka Ernest Engman, the author of the Benton Mackaye Trail guidebook who not only gave me great advice on hiking the BMT but also a little bottle of Tennessee whiskey. Day 2 was spent in front of the computer updating my blog and organising the rest of my trip. Time just flew by and I only discovered on my last evening that Jake, one of Wildcat's two dogs is an expert in licking tired hiker feet! I had such a great time with Wildcat!
On day 3 Wildcat took me back to the trail. I had been much slower on the AT than expected and therefore I had asked Wildcat to get me right to the BMT at Mud Gap skipping the infamous crossing of Slickrock Creek that even Sgt. Rock had warned me of in winter. Last night had been very cold but I had not expected to see so much snow. We were climbing higher and higher and I saw more and more snow. The road did stop to be ploughed and I started wondering whether we would get through in the car. Wildcat dropped me off at 4,200 ft of elevation and about 3 inches of snow. It was a beautiful sunny day but the snow worried me as I trudged off waving good bye to Wildcat and his wife. The hiking was fantastic - ice cold, but very sunny in another winter wonderland. And almost all the time down hill! I hoped to get as low as possible to get out of the snow for camping but I was stopped by a stream crossing. Other than its big brother, the AT, the BMT has tons of unbridged stream crossings and with so much snow melt these stream crossing turned out to be a problem. None of them were particularly dangerous in normal circumstances but winter conditions make things a lot more dangerous. This first creek crossing had a blow down tree across it - but due to the subfreezing temperatures the tree was completely iced over. Rock hopping was not possible either and as the sun was almost down I decided to camp right there and tackle the problem in the morning. The last thing I needed now was a late night incident!
Camping in a narrow valley with a big creek right next to you is not the greatest location in winter and I was very cold settling into my tent. Luckily my canister cosy turned out to be the greatest idea and dinner was ready as quickly as in summer time. A little bit of Sgt. Rock's whiskey helped warming me, too. Still I had a very cold night. First thing in the morning was the creek crossing that turned out to be easy a couple of feet downstream. But this was only the first of several creek crossings that day and it slowed me down tremendously. The creeks were not deep or difficult but in sub freezing temps I did not want to get my shoes wet. And walking around barefoot in snow was not great either. I had therefore brought my neoprene wading socks that I had used on the Mississippi and they did a great job here. Although not completely waterproof they kept my feet from freezing in the cold water and snow - and dried relatively quickly afterwards.
My New Year's Day shelter
This was New Year's Eve and lots of rain was forecast. I therefore had to find a good campsite that of course would not emerge when the sun set. And so I spent New Year's Eve like Christmas Eve night hiking. But whenever I found a good campsite it was located on a ridge or gap and exposed to the strong winds... I hiked on and on until I was so exhausted that I camped right on the trail at 9 pm. No fireworks disturbed my sleep but I woke up to constant rain. New Year's Day would turn out to be one of the worst days of hiking. It rained the whole day long. Not very much, but continuously every single minute until I was thoroughly drenched. I had hoped to make it to the campsite with shelter at the Reliance Fly and Tackle shop but difficult trail slowed me down again. The BMT follows the spectacular Hiawassee River for several miles but in this miserable weather I could not see much in the fog and mist and was afraid of slipping. I started fantasizing about the rest rooms at the picnic areas along the river and just got there at sundown. The restroom did not smell very bad and looked clean - and I decided to settle in for the night. What sort of a person have I become to spend the first night of the new year sleeping in a latrine and being grateful for it? I could have slept in my tent but all I had was so wet that I needed to dry things out which is difficult in a tent. I spent an hour arranging my wet stuff in the little toilet. Luckily it was not very cold that night and I could dry some clothes by wearing them over night. The picnic area was next to a paved road but dead ended after 2 miles and there was no traffic. But to my big surprise at midnight cars pulled into the picnic area and horrified me. I just hoped that none of the drivers needed a pee.... But several times cars would pull in, cut the engine, wait for 10 - 15 minutes and then suddenly disappear with a roar and load yelling. It scared the shit out of me!
Hiawassee in the fog
Next morning I got the explanation for that behaviour. I had finally walked up to the Reliance Fly and Tackle shop that was mysteriously open in the morning despite saying differently in my guidebook. The very friendly guy working there cooked up a breakfast for me, hooked me up to wifi and told me that the people last night had been bear and/or boar hunters. They hunt with collared dogs that they can track down via radio. Therefore they let go of the dogs, wait in places like my picnic area and then track the dogs and communicate with their fellow hunters via radio. It all made sense now and I remembered that I had seen hunters with a huge dead wild pig on their pickup truck just the day before. But the best news was that the weather was improving. No more rain for a week was the forecast and I hiked on happily - only to be struck by bad luck again. I found a good campsite that night and had a good nights sleep only to wake up on a flat sleeping pad. I had feared that problem all along. I had bought a brand new Neoair All Season for that trip but had had a bad gut feeling all the time. The NeoAir felt so delicate and other than the Prolite it offers no insulation when flat. I had thought of buying a new sleeping pad while at Wildcat's but as everyone praised the Neoair I had been talked into keeping it.
Ocoee River near Ducktown
I had to repair the Neoair or I would not survive a single night out here. In order to find the hole I had to submerge the pad into water which is difficult with only half frozen creeks around. After a half hearted attempt in a creek I decided to wuss out. There were too many problems: I could not find deep and still water to detect the hole. My fingers got frozen from playing with the pad under water. And how would I dry the pad after repairing it? Only 6 miles from my campsite was Hwy 64 that lead to Ducktown with a cheap hotel offering shuttles. But when I hit the highway I had no cell phone reception whatsoever. My guidebook recommended walking 1 mile to the next visitor centre and a pay phone. The visitor centre was closed and the pay phone dead. I almost hijacked a tourist and asked him for cell phone reception. He had Verizon and after hearing my sad story let me use his cell phone. Ten minutes later the Ducktown Copper Inn Hotel owner showed up in a warm car and brought me into civilisation. I am now staying in another cheap little dive, but it is warm, I have had a great lunch, found a public library with Internet - and have found my hole in the sleeping pad. I could have found it in the creek as well if I had just tried a bit longer... Now cross your fingers that the repair will last as I have still more than 2 weeks to hike.