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MY WORST HIKE

by Pat Bolz
Photo credit: Pat Bolz

My worst hike in the Smokies was one of my first hikes in the Smokies. Every time I think back on the experience. I wonder why I ever continued hiking.

BOAT & BACKPACK: HAZEL CREEK TO NOLAND CREEK

October 29th and 30th, 1994

"The 26 mile Lakeshore Trail follows old roads and trails, in an area that was heavily settled in pre-park days, but is now isolated by Fontana Lake. Come along this fall weekend and hike a trail that is an easy bike but difficult to get to."

As quoted in the October 1994 SMHC newsletter, this sounded like just the ticket for my first backpack trip. It figured to be about 13 miles each day, at 2 mph, 6-6 1/2 hours total trail time. How hard could it be? After all, I had already proven to myself that I could hike the 10.2 of Little River Trail, plus the 2 miles or so of road. All day to do 13 miles along a lakeshore should be a piece of cake.

I called my friend Dana Mears and invited her to join me. Both of us wanted to try backpacking and here was a chance to give it a try without venturing alone into the woods. We were elated! First order of business was to beg, borrow, or buy some camping gear. Luckily our friend Dee Pricket, a long-time Sierra Club hiker, came to our rescue with everything except boots and packs. I was lucky to find both on sale at almost 50% off. Vasque boots!

"Great buy," Dee said "They are usually almost $200!"

I paid only $115. The Lowe pack I purchased turned out to be one of my best investments. The boots turned out to be one of the worst. We loaded our packs with about 25 lbs. of the right stuff and another 20 lbs. of the wrong stuff. My husband thought it was too heavy and suggested I remove some of the gear. I looked over the contents. What could I possibly part with? I NEEDED all of this stuff. I put it on again and walked around the yard for awhile. Bob was right. It did seem to be a bit heavy, so I removed a few items and it did feel much better. It now weighed it in at a mere 42 lbs.

We were to meet Dennis Fulcher and Rich Briggs, our fearless leaders, at 8 am at Fontana Dam. They would have shuttled the cars by then and our boat would be fueled and ready to drop us at Hazel Creek #86... right? Well, maybe not today! The car-shuttle, delayed by a combination of unavoidable circumstances, wasn't begun until 8 a.m. Dana and I sat and drank gallons of coffee at the cafe, while Rich and Dennis drove the end car to Bryson City. Immediately upon their return, we all hoisted our packs onto our backs and went down to the boat dock shed. It was closed. The sign on the door read, "BE BACK AFTER LUNCH". Our eventual departure time from the marina was 11:30 a.m.

Arriving at Hazel Creek # 86, the lake was at low level and we stepped off into a sea of mud that continued for about a mile or so until we reached the "real" trail. My new boots (which turned out to be a size too small) immediately began rubbing large blisters on my heels. As a novice hiker, I was foolish enough to try to tough it out. By the time I cried "uncle" and stopped to attend to my sore feet, I had what Dennis labeled "hamburger heels." Dana and I had pre-warned the fellows that we were not fast hikers.
"Not much more than 2 mph..."I remember telling Dennis on the phone.

He assured me this was not a race and that we would get there when we got there.

Well, we got there at 6 p.m. Good thing too, because it was almost dark. Actually, we got "somewhere" at 6 p.m., but it wasn't really there. The original plans had us making a few more miles, but due to our two hour coffee break and my painful heels, our 2 m.p.h turned out to be only a little over 1 m.p.h. But we were at a lovely campsite, and there was enough room (actually no one else was there) and the night was perfect. Dana and I were able to set up the borrowed tent and miraculously it stayed upright. Even though Dana insisted she was too tired to eat, I insisted on cooking the elaborate meal I had so carefully planned. After lugging the fixin's all this way, by George, I was going to enjoy it! I didn't. Fortunately, Dennis was able to unearth a large rock and we buried my Fettuccini Alfredo where we hoped the bears wouldn't smell it. I suggested a campfire, but Rich and Dennis shook their heads,

"Great idea but everything is just too wet," Rich said.

Now even though this was my first backpack, I was not a novice in the woods. I had been a Girl Scout many long years ago and surely I thought, I could start a fire. Eventually, I did. Although we didn't break out into song, the evening was picture perfect. After we extinguished the fire and hung our food in the tree, Rich started gathering up rocks and instructed us to do likewise. Puzzled, I asked him why.

"To throw at the bears," he said.

I laughed and said, "No, really, why?"

He explained that if any bears did come wandering into the campsite, throwing the rocks should discourage them from further activity. I didn't sleep too well that night.

When Dennis woke us at 4 a.m., it was dark. I opened the tent flap and started to crawl out. I stopped short of standing upright and Dana was alarmed.

"What's wrong?" she whispered. "Is it a bear?"

"No", I groaned. "I can't stand up!"

I will never forgive her for laughing so loudly that folks in the next county became aware of my predicament. We quickly packed up all our gear and as we chewed on our bagels, started out again. The time was 5 a.m. It was still dark and almost nineteen long miles lay ahead. I now know how worried Rich and Dennis must have been about the outcome of the day. They were responsible for the safety of two sixty-something, under-experienced and overpacked hikers.

I must admit that from here on, my memory is a bit selective. I was carrying an emergency supply of pain pills, (just in case I fell and broke something) and I started meting them out generously during the course of the day. I actually don't remember being in any pain at all. The pills were working quite nicely, but I did feel increasingly queasy as the day wore on. (Later, driving home on Rt 129, dubbed "Throw Up Road" by my friend, Jane Venable's grandson, I sorely regretted the liberal use of the pills.)

I know I saw a few old cars, because there is a picture of me standing by one. The main memory I have of the rest of Lakeshore trail is... up a hill... down a hill... over a creek... over and over and over again! We may have stopped for lunch, but nowhere I can remember clearly. I do recall Rich showing me how to filter water at one of the numerous, nameless creeks. Everyone else saw a Mama bear and 3 little ones. I only saw one small cub; just heard about the other three. At the time, I thought that was just fine but as I look back on it now I really do wish I could have seen the whole family.

Sometime about 5 p.m., with evening fast approaching again, we rounded a corner and saw a sign. I almost cried out with joy. At that first sign, Rich jogged on ahead, dropped his pack and returned to help carry whatever was needed. Dana handed over her load with a silent prayer of thanks. I took another pill! Dennis assured us we were very close. I distinctly remember a very large rock looming ahead, and just around the corner...another lovely sign. I thought to myself that this was how Columbus's crew must have felt when land was finally sighted. On the spot I proclaimed this rock to be "Halleluiah Rock". Just a short walk through the tunnel and there was Rich's car, waiting for us. As we were stowing our gear and changing our shoes, the men admitted they had their doubts we would be able to finish the hike.

One of the fellows said, "Well, all I know is you are two-tough-old-birds!

That was indeed, the nicest compliment anyone could have paid me upon completing one of my first and worst hikes in the Smokies!