Day 3 of our hike began much as Day 2 had ended — a misty, buggy walk along a creek, and yet another ford — the longest, deepest ford of our entire hike. We were pros at this by now, so we handled it with no problems:
Almost immediately after this ford, we started heading uphill:
Yes, Nora is on the trail. If it looks like she’s walking straight up a small creek, it’s because she is. For the next four miles, we hiked straight up a very rocky, very steep creekbed — about 3,000 vertical feet. Sometimes we could see that the trail makers had made an attempt to keep the creek separate from the trail, but it was no use. We had to hop over large rocks with water trickling between them for the entire ascent. When we finally arrived at the top of our climb, we had only about a half-liter of water. We had been so close to water for three hours of hiking, that we forgot to refill our bottles. Now, at the top of a ridge, there was no water to be found.
No matter, I thought, the trail took us down another creek on the other side. I thought wrong. Actually it was another three miles before we finally reached Bear Creek — thankfully all downhill. I vowed never to let that happen again.
It was at this point that Nora and I realized that we hadn’t seen another person for nearly two full days. And we were in the nation’s most “crowded” national park. Would we see anyone when we arrived at our campground, near the lake at the bottom of the mountain range? We still had several miles to go before we found out, but thankfully the trail followed an old road. It even looked like the road was still passable for motor vehicles. A mile or two down the road, Nora spotted the most curious site we’d seen yet on this hike:
What intelligent beings had traveled this route before us, creating this magnificent structure, the likes of which we’d never seen on this hike? It was constructed entirely of wood, and was sturdy enough to walk across! Why, it appeared that some advanced civilization had engineered a structure capable of conveying a human across a creek without getting her feet wet! Brilliant! We called this miraculous construction a “bridge.”
Other wonders were in store for us: Soon we arrived at the campsite, where we saw other humans, sitting on a device made of wood and metal, with a flat surface suitable for supporting dishes or even cooking implements, oriented at just the right level for optimal usage. We called this contraption a “picnic table.”
We speculated that a civilization advanced enough to create a bridge and a picnic table might also have invented a small private room with a storage chamber for depositing human waste, but alas, this was beyond this civilization’s technological capabilities. We had to get rid of our waste the old fashioned way (by the way, that post is the first result on a Google search for dump woods).
At this point, at the bottom of the Smoky Mountains, we were 4,400 feet below where we started. We were within a half mile of the lake you could see in the photo we took on Day 1, but we were too exhausted to go check it out. We slept well that night.
The next morning we awoke before dark, anxious to get started on our last, most difficult day of hiking. It would 11 miles of straight uphill. Actually, it was first about 3 flat miles, then 8 miles of straight uphill. But it was hard.
About 9 a.m., well into our climb, we started to pass through some sunny patches and decided to stop to put on sunscreen. The trail angled across a steep hillside, so that when we looked straight to the side at the trees downslope from us, we were seeing branches 30 feet above the ground. I took off my glasses to put sunscreen on my face.
“Isn’t that a bear?” Nora asked.
I looked at a tree not more than 30 feet away and saw a brown furry lump clutching to its trunk, even with my eye level. “Yes! That’s a bear.” Even though I can barely see 5 feet in front of me without my glasses, I could clearly recognize what I was looking at.
“It’s a baby!” Nora said.
“Where’s its mother?” we both thought, but didn’t say.
“We better get out of here,” I said. You don’t want to get between a baby bear and its mother. We hastily threw our packs on, without even putting the sunscreen away. I slipped my glasses on in time to see the bear finish its equally hasty climb to the base of the tree, looking back at us as fearfully as we were looking at him. He was a baby–or an adolescent–but he was still bigger than most dogs. He moved quickly away from us, down the hill. We moved just as quickly in the opposite direction. It was an astonishing, beautiful sight, but it was closer than I’d ever wanted to get to a baby bear in the wild.
We trudged on up the hill, and this time I would make sure we got plenty of water before we reached the end of the creek we were following. The afternoon portion of the hike would have no water — we’d be hiking along the top of Forney Ridge. The trail veered off from the creek and I wondered for a while if I’d again waited to long before replenishing our water supply. A quarter mile later, we reached water! But this was the “stream”:
Notwithstanding Nora’s goofy expression, this was really where we were going to have to get the water supply for the rest of our day. By trudging 20 yards or so downstream, we were able to find a place where the water trickled over a large stick. I could just squeeze our frying pan underneath it, and the pan filled with clear water. We pumped 5 liters through our filtration system and hiked on.
By lunchtime, we arrived at the final junction, where the Forney Ridge Trail branched off from the Springhouse Branch trail. We had hiked 6.6 miles, and our maps told us there were just 4.5 miles left. The sign said something different: “Clingman’s Dome, 5.9 miles.” “FIVE POINT NINE?!?” we both shouted in disgust. Why did both of our maps say 4.5? Which figure was correct? At this point, it was academic. We’d have to hike whatever trail there was between here and our car. 11.1 miles, 12.5 miles, what’s the difference? The Forney Ridge Trail, whatever its length, stood between us and modern plumbing, air conditioning, and ice cream.
On this trail, we expected to see day-hikers who walked down from Clingman’s Dome, but we saw no one. We arrived at Andrews Bald around 4 p.m., just a mile and a half from the parking lot, with a spectacular view of the mountains. No one. We were getting just a little tired at this point:
View? What view? I want ice cream.
An hour and a half later, we arrived at the parking lot. We hadn’t seen a soul since we’d started uphill. Now we were treated to a guided tour of obese america, as unfit families waddled up the quarter-mile paved path to the top of Clingman’s Dome, stopping at the conveniently placed park benches every 200 feet. We had carefully left a gallon jug of clean water in the car, to wash our feet with before heading to the restroom to change into clean clothes. It was a hot day, but we hadn’t realized how hot. The water was so hot that it was painful to use even for foot-washing. Fortunately there was a cool water-fountain at the edge of the parking lot, a welcome relief since we’d actually drank all 5 liters of water on our hike.
We changed, then got a tourist to snap our photo. We don’t look half bad, given what we’d just been through:
I believe that’s Forney Ridge to the left in the photo, and if you look carefully, you can see the lake where we’d started our hike in the distance.
All that was left now was to hop into the car, drive down to Cherokee for ice cream, then on to the Fuddrucker’s in Asheville for hamburgers, and finally home.