Backpacking the back of beyond

It costs a whopping $50 a head to ferry our group—five guys and me—across Fontana Lake to Eagle Creek. The Eagle Creek Trail starts out easy and level for the first two to three hours. According to Hiking Trails of the Smokies, there are at least 15 water crossings, but I’m not counting. After the first hour, we’ve spread out. Frank concentrates on keeping his feet dry. He’s agile and climbs up moss-covered rocks and hangs on branches to avoid the water. The rest of us just plunge in. It’s a warm July day, and my wet boots cool my feet.

Crossing Eagle Creek.

A body in motion usually means a mind in motion. But my body won’t be in motion long if I slip and fall into the rocky stream. So I try to slow down my “monkey mind,” as they say in yoga, in order to concentrate on crossing the creek. Emptying my mind of future plans, past problems and fear of falling, I focus on where to place my left foot and then my right.

The trail climbs more than 3,000 feet to the Spence Field shelter. Newly remodeled, it has a skylight and a table under an overhanging roof. Luxurious, in a word, albeit with one big limitation: George, who got here an hour ago, announces that there’s no water. The piped spring we passed a few minutes ago is desert-dry. Fiddling with the pipe, Frank coaxes out a slow drip. I can rough it as well as the next backpacker, but I like to have plenty of water to drink, clean, cook and wash dishes with, and even—is this too much to ask?—submerge my sweaty feet in.

I drop four water bottles and a Steripen into a small daypack and walk a half-mile down the trail to the first flowing water. Ben had offered to fill my bottles (I think I remind him of his mom), but I want to clean up a little while I’m at it. Ben is in his 30s, the youngster in the group. He keeps exclaiming, “Wow, you’re really fast—you’re Iron Woman!” I note that he didn’t lavish the same praise on the men in our group, all of whom are old enough to be his father. “How old do you think I am, anyway?” I ask him. Apparently he hasn’t learned that one should never answer this sort of question. He does, and guesses too high. “You know what they say, Ben,” I tell him. “When you’re over the hill, you pick up speed.”

Nothing to do

At dinner, Frank pulls out a handful of little plastic bottles and whips up a gourmet meal of couscous, raisins, nuts and cheese. George and Rob pour boiling water into their freeze-dried meal pouches, wait a few minutes, and dig in. Lenny and I eat cold, cooked chicken and some rice. It was heavy in the pack but requires no cleanup. Another bit of wisdom: You can be comfortable on the trail by minimizing weight or comfortable in camp by carrying more stuff.

After we’ve all eaten, washed ourselves as best as we can and told all the stories we know, there’s still plenty of daylight. No one’s brought a book except Ben, who hauled the Good Book along, but he knows better than to read it to us. It’s only 7 p.m.: Nothing to do but take another walk.

We climb for 10 minutes to Spence Field, a grassy clearing that’s fast filling in with trees and shrubs. In time, we’ll have to call it Spence Woods. From the Appalachian Trail, on the crest of the Smokies, we can see Fontana Lake. It seems incredible that we were down there this morning.

Lenny and I first visited Spence Field years ago on a day hike with our son, who was then 8 years old. We reached it at lunchtime, hung three sweaty bandanas on a tree and sat down to our sandwiches. While we ate, a bear emerged from a corner of the field. We were mesmerized—our first Smokey Bear in the Smokies. But when it ambled closer, we got worried. We stashed our lunches in the packs, backed away slowly and headed down the trail, leaving the bear sniffing at our bandanas…

The next morning, we walk for an hour before finding water on the Jenkins Ridge Trail. We stop to boil some, eat breakfast and clean up. The walk down is a dawdle compared to yesterday’s climb. This is Rob’s first strenuous hike since healing from a major knee operation. He wears a knee brace as tall as a small child, but all those days at the gym and physical therapy have paid off.

Where are all the crowds in the most-visited national park in the country? On this perfect July weekend, we’ve met only two people. Jenkins Ridge is an obscure path that only someone trying to cover all the trails in the Smokies could love. I feel like part of an elite class, as if these routes were laid out just for me.

I think about the people buying mountaintop homes. Have they seen the view from Spence Field? If they got a taste of natural habitat rather than the same view from the same porch swing or picture window every day, they wouldn’t need to live on top of a mountain. Maybe, if they knew about these secret spots—written up in every Smokies guidebook and map—they wouldn’t buy a mountain home; they could climb to a different one whenever they needed a fix. Maybe if … I slip on a steep downhill and fall face forward, landing on my hands. I struggle to take my pack off and sit for a moment. No ill effects other than dirty hands and knees.

There’s plenty of water that night at our campsite on Hazel Creek, and we have the whole area to ourselves. We walk farther into Bone Valley, following the trail to where it ends at Hall Cabin. The cemetery, spruced up for Decoration Day, still sports fresh plastic flowers and neatly mounded graves.

Boarding the ferry on Sunday, I’m sad the trip is ending but looking forward to a shower. The best is yet to come, though. Back home, I pull out my Smokies map and mark off another 25 miles of new trail: Just 150 miles to go and I’ll have hiked the entire park.

[Hike leader and outdoors writer Danny Bernstein is the author of Hiking the Carolina Mountains. She can be reached at danny@hikertohiker.com]

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