AT 2017: Day 18, Mt. Collins Shelter to Peck’s Corner Shelter

There are things you can replace and others you cannot

When I awoke this morning I heard a sound no hiker wants to hear.

No, it wasn't a camper next to me snoring loudly. It was rain hitting my tent.

Rain makes you change your routine. You have to be more careful how you pack and prepare to hit the trail.

DateWednesday, April 19, 2017
WeatherRain in the morning, then overcast much of the day. Some sun late, also brief light rain. High in near 70.
Trail ConditionsMuddy in a few spots, but improving
Today's Miles14.6
Trip Miles217.1

Rainfall while trying to pack is enough to put a hiker in a foul mood, but for me, my bad mood was made worse by this being the fifth day in a row of rain.

I knew the rain and resulting mud on the trail would slow me down on a day I intended to go fast.

My plan was, if possible, to get to Tricorner Knob Shelter. I had made this hike of 19.4 miles once before, so I felt I could do it. And if I was successful, I'd have a shorter last day in the Smokies tomorrow.

Admittedly, making it to Tricorner Knob was going to be a stretch for me, even in good weather, as I have not yet gone that far in one day since I left Springer Mountain.

No doubt about it. The rain put me in a funk.

I had to remain in my tent while I packed in order to stay dry, so I did it hurriedly. I then quickly tore down my tent while trying to prevent rain from getting in it.

My haste proved to be costly and it didn't gain me much of the extra time I needed to get to my intended destination.

There was one good thing that happened, though. Just as I left my tentsite at Mt. Collins Shelter, it stopped raining. This brightened my mood a bit, but only for a moment.

Then I started off down the trail, which was covered in mud and flowing water.

Just as yesterday, the trail continued through the spruce-fir forest. In the misty morning it felt primordial, as though I might turn to see at any moment a dinosaur crashing through the trees.

Instead, it was mostly just me splashing down the muddy trail.

One unusual sight that appeared more than once was a large, uprooted tree. The soil is so rocky here that trees are unable to establish deep roots. If they grow tall, it seems, storms can easily topple them.

When a large tree falls over, it pulls up its entire root structure, often while clinging to rocks.

As I headed toward Newfound Gap, the sky began to clear a bit. It never got sunny, but at least it was no longer a blanket of thick clouds.

The trail remained wet because there was not enough sun to dry it out.

The trail follows a path that is roughly parallel to the road from Newfound Gap to Clingman's Dome. Occasionally, I could hear cars on the road, but usually could not see them.

At one point, though, the trail entered a clearing, which was adjacent to a parking area from the road. This was at Indian Gap.

The Road Prong Trail also intersects at this point. Just as the Sugarland Mountain Tail was closed, this trail is also currently closed because of damage from last fall's fires.

The trail was part of an old Cherokee Indian trail, which by 1839 had become the preferred route for traders, farmers, and later for Confederate soldiers, to cross the mountains.

It wasn't until 1872 that Newfound Gap was "found" to be the lower gap. Arnold Guyot proved that with his elevation measurements during his exploration and study of the Smoky Mountains.

Later, during development of the park, U.S. Highway 441 was constructed, passing through Newfound Gap.

As the trail continued to Newfound Gap it crossed a fenced area. This was one of several such spaces created in the park to protect certain plants from feral pigs that run rampant in the area and have become a big ecological nuisance.

Near the intersection with Newfound Gap I noticed a sea of Spring Beauty wildflowers. They were so abundant it looked as if snow covered the ground.

Entering Newfound Gap was a bit of a shock to my senses. After being surrounded by nature all morning long, I was suddenly thrust among cars and people.

A monument there recognizes the important contribution of John D. Rockefeller Jr. to making the park possible.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially dedicated Great Smoky Mountains National Park from this spot on September 2, 1940.

On the Tennessee side of the gap is a popular area called Chimney Tops, and below that is the town of Gatlinburg.

Last year was a devastating time for these areas. After a long drought through most of the summer and fall, the trees, brush and understory had become kindling waiting for a match.

According to local law enforcement investigators, two teens hiking on Chimney Top Trail just before Thanksgiving lit the match. Their senseless action resulted in more than 17,000 acres burned, 14 deaths and uncounted misery for thousands of area residents and business owners.

Although the AT through the Smokies was closed during this time, it was reopened in early December once rain arrived to help firefighters extinguish the remaining wildfires.

Early studies conducted by Park Service scientists in the burned areas indicate the forest has already begun to recover and is expected to be rejuvenated in a few years.

There were a lot of tourists here today. For many, this will be their only time outside their car while in the park. The rest of their visit will be spent in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge, wandering T-shirt and salt water taffy shops instead of in nature.

Many posed for photos at a sign marking the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina.

As I stopped here to eat lunch a couple people realized I was a thru-hiker and asked me questions about my hike.

After finishing my lunch I left Newfound Gap and continued on the trail. From here, the trail made a climb from 5,049 feet back to above 6,000 feet. Much of the climb was over large boulders.

Though the trail through this section was drying out more than before, the obstacles presented by these large rocks slowed down my pace.

After about 1.7 miles the AT passed a junction with the Sweat Heifer Trail. This is a steep trail, as much as a 16 per cent grade in some places, that is part of a route down to the Oconaluftee River valley.

It's said the trail gets its name because farmers used this route to bring cattle up to higher elevations, but I don't think they would have been brought all the way up to where the trail meets the AT. There simply aren't any large areas here where you could graze livestock. The AT mostly follows a narrow ridge line though this section.

Continuing on, I met Don Dunning, who was clearing water bars. Don is a trail maintainer and member of the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club, the volunteer organization that maintains the AT within the park.

SMHC is one of the oldest hiking clubs in the country, having been founded in 1924. There are more that 600 members of the club.

Don told me the weather has been so cold and the ground so frozen, this was the first time he and other maintainers had been able to take care of some of the important tasks like clearing water bars.

Water bars help channel water away from the trail to prevent erosion. Over time they can become blocked by mud, twigs and other debris, so it's up to volunteers like Don to shovel them out.

After chatting with Don I moved on. I stopped for a quick lunch at Icewater Springs Shelter and then filtered water at a spring that was on the trail just beyond the shelter.

From there the trail began to open up with more views. Though it was still cloudy, it was possible to see deep into the valleys below.

Even as the Smokies were being settled and lumber companies began clearing the mountainside, this ridge remained rugged and difficult to penetrate. Few people reached the tops of these mountains because the forest was so dense.

At lower elevations, though, logging operations quickly clearcut the land, beginning in the early part of the 20th century.

As trees were cut down, a lot of branches and brush were left behind, which would clog the streams and ravines.

A forest fire ignited in 1925 on the North Carolina side of the ridge from the pile of dead foliage left from logging. As the fire spread it raced up over the ridge and into Tennessee. The intensity of the fire scorched the ground so deeply the soil became too sterile to support new plant growth.

Four years later, a torrential rain washed away the top soil and caused severe erosion, exposing rocks and boulders underneath.

Soon afterwards, one of the exposed rocks was named for Charlie Conner, a mountain guide. Or rather, the rock was named for Conner's foot problem. It was called Charle's Bunion.

When the AT was blazed through these mountains in 1935, a side trail was cut to Charle's Bunion, and since then it has become a popular day hike destination.

I had been there before and wanted to stop there this time. Daylight was running short now and I still had hopes of reaching Tricorner Knob, though, so I elected to skip it.

At times, the ridge became very narrow, with the trail traversing its top edge.

In other places you could see where the Civilian Conservation Corps workers who built this section of trail in the 1930s had to carve through solid rock to make room for the trail.

Though I was pressed for time, I tried to pause when there was a view from the trail. There were many.

Eventually I came to the realization that I was not going to make it to Tricorner Knob before dark, so I reset my destination to Peck's Corner Shelter.

It was about this time that I came upon a hiker with a large pack. As I approached, she turned around, hunched over by the weight of the pack.

It was Broken Arrow, a 70-year-old woman who is thru-hiking solo. She told me she started her hike on February 28.

Her pack was so large and heavy because she must carry more food than most hikers. She cannot keep up with the pace of younger hikers, so it takes her more days to get between resupply points.

Broken Arrow was also hoping to get to Peck's Corner before dark. I wished her well and moved on.

I reached Peck's Corner at about 6:30 p.m.

David Edwin Lillard says in his book of Appalachian Trail place names that several family members named Peck were granted land in this area. A tree marked the corner of two of those tracts.

I had never been to this shelter before. In fact, I've only been in this section of the park once before, as it's one of the most remote areas in it.

The shelter was not quite full, so I elected to stay in it. I'm not a fan of sleeping in shelters because they can be noisy and are often home to mice, who like to chew into packs and food bags.

It seemed like a good idea to stay here this time, though, because I could make a quicker exit tomorrow morning. I wouldn't have to take down and pack up my tent, so I'd have more time to reach Davenport Gap. That's where my wife, Kim, would be picking me up. I planned to go home for a couple days and then drive to Baltimore to attend a work-related conference.

As I started unpacking my backpack, I chatted with Miss Bobbie, a thru-hiker, and some weekend hikers from Knoxville.

Suddenly, my side of conversation was broken in concentration by a sinking feeling as I dug into my pack.

I could not find my stove.

I looked everywhere among my stuff sacks and other gear, but the stove was no where to be found. Slowly it dawned on me what had happened to it.

Last night as I finished my dinner, the area around Mt. Collins Shelter had become very dark. Not only had the sun set, but there was no moon. I quickly hung my food bag, but then failed to go back to the shelter to pick up my stove before heading to my tent.

When I hastily packed this morning I didn't realize I had not packed my stove. It was still sitting on the table by the shelter.

So tonight with no stove and no spoon, I elected to eat some trail bars for dinner. I still had enough to get me to Davenport Gap tomorrow.

A couple hikers kindly offered to let me borrow their stove or heat water for me, but I was so disgusted with myself that I couldn't bring myself to accepting their offers.

I crawled into my sleeping bag and tried to get as much sleep as possible. There were 20.5 miles now between me and a temporary return home.

Ain't nobody messin' with you but you
Your friends are getting most concerned
Loose with the truth, maybe its your fire
Baby, I hope you don't get burned
When the smoke has cleared, she said
That's what she said to me
You're gonna want a bed to lay your head
And a little sympathy

There are things you can replace
And others you cannot
The time has come to weigh those things
This space is gettin' hot
You know this space is gettin' hot

From "Althea" by Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead)

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