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ALWAYS GO PREPARED
by Jim Quick
Photo Credit: Jim Quick

My son-in-law, Bryan, and I had been planning a hike to Wilson Falls for some time and finally the day arrived, November 4, 1994. It was a short off-trail hike according to the map but neither of us had traversed the area before our excursion. We planned to hike about 3/4 mile westward down Mt. Collins from the intersection of the Sugarland Mountain Trail and the A.T. and hoped to be out by 3:00 p.m. (WRONG!)

We started our hike approximately 9:00 a.m. near the Mt. Collins Shelter and with a quad map and compass, began our journey down the mountainside. It was an unusually warm day for November and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Encountering a heavy density of blowdowns and briars, we kept our protective albeit warm clothing on. Because of the extended obstacle course, we changed directions frequently to the falls in a pattern that resembled a child's drawing on an Etch-a-Sketch. We exhausted a fair amount of time doing that, so we calculated a safe turn back time in case we didn't reach the falls -- 2:00 p.m.

We continued to fight the stumbling blocks Mother Nature laid before us through more and more bushes and blowdowns. It approached 2:00 p.m. rapidly and we assumed that we had bypassed the falls on the southern side. Disappointed, we stuck to our plan and headed back up the mountain determined to try again another day. Writhing back up the mountain by a different route in an attempt to circumvent the enormous number of blowdowns and briars that we unearthed on the way down, we hoped to come out an easier route and possibly even closer to the intersection. (WRONG AGAIN!)

For the next four hours, we crawled through some of the worst rhodo-hells we had ever seen. Hampered by the slow pace of the hike, we went through our water supply faster than anticipated and chose to cut back on our intake. With the sunny warm weather and reduced water intake, I started to experience some of the worst feelings a hiker can have; undoubtedly, the symptoms of heat exhaustion.

My legs cramped as I hobbled against charlie horse pains. Nausea set in along with a pounding headache. My stamina dwindled and I felt weak. I actually resorted to crawling part of the time, trying desperately to reach the A.T. At 5:00 p.m. I realized there wasn't enough time left to make it out before dark in my broken state. I tried to talk Bryan into going on ahead without me and returning in the morning but he would have no part of that plan. If I needed to spend the night, Bryan fully intended to stay by my side.

Fully comprehending that we did not have the necessities to endure a cold November night in the Smokies at this elevation, a funny feeling came over me. I was scared. The thought of never seeing my friends or family again prompted me to reach down deep inside to say a few heartfelt prayers. I asked God to help me find that little extra strength -- that second wind – just enough to help me get out of this potentially dangerous situation. Within minutes, I started to feel better and stronger. I not only began walking again, but actually hopped across the blowdowns. Unbelievably, the intersection was less than 50 feet ahead. We made the last few steps in record time, no more than ten minutes before dark. At the intersection, we were able to use my cell phone to call our families so no one would worry about our lateness. We finished the last mileage to the truck in the dark.

The next day, I returned to work bruised and cut-up with hundreds of scratches on my arms and legs, but alive and well, and very grateful.

IT DOESN'T GET ANY BETTER THAN THAT!

These are the items we should have had with us that day but didn't. Now, no matter how short a hike we plan, we always have them with us.

*Flashlight

*Emergency Blankets

*Matches

*GPS

*Extra water

*Purification tablets or water filter

*Extra clothes

There were three things I learned from that hike:

1. Always be prepared for the worst. Be prepared on every hike for illness, injury, or an unintentional overnight stay in the Smokies.

2. Never hike alone unless it is on a highly popular trail with many passers-by.

3. Trail angels are very, very real.