BMT 2020: Day 14, Nichols Cove Trail to Fontana Village Resort

You're in the wrong place, my friend

Tengo Hambre catches up after getting off the trail

"It was just one of those days."

That's a phrase I bet all of us have uttered from time to time. It's usually said when there's no other explanation for why things go awry.

DateFriday, November 6, 2020
WeatherClear sky with temperatures from low 40s to around 70
Trail ConditionsSteep climbs with overgrown sections with thorny shrubs and several blowdowns
Today's Miles13.3
Trip Miles191.6

That was the case today. It seemed all day long as if my hiking partners and I found ourselves in the wrong place. And as I later discovered, we weren't the only ones.

I began to wonder if there was something about this section that just pulled you in the wrong direction or where you didn't want to be.

Today wasn't entirely a bad day, but it had several in-the-wrong-place moments.

Nichols Cove gravesite

The day started well enough. There was a lot of condensation inside our tents, but that wasn't a surprise. We had camped on a cold night in a low spot and not far from a creek.

As we left camp, we discovered a small gravestone near the BMT's junction with the Nichols Cove and Yellowhammer Gap trails. It was so worn we could barely read it.

"Two Sisters of John & Marget Dotson – Born December 14, 1914 – Died December 20, 1914 – At Rest," it said. A bird was carved at the top of the stone.

The inscription is awkwardly written. The girls were twin sisters, not sisters of John and Marget. I also wondered if the mother's name was spelled wrong because it seemed unusual.

According to this blog post, the Dotson family lived in a small cabin near here in the summer while tending cattle and growing crops. John Dotson also operated a grist mill.

The simple gravesite was a sad reminder of the struggles people had while trying to make a life for themselves in these mountains. The girls were only six days old when they died, just days before Christmas.

A blowdown that had been chopped with an axe

We were still hiking in Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness. In a federally-designated wilderness area such as this, motorized equipment can't be used to maintain trails.

That's why a chainsaw wasn't used to clear the trail of a large tree that had fallen across it. The trail maintainer must have been worn out while chopping a deep notch in the log, which made it easier for hikers to cross.

A steep climb out Nichols Cove

After continuing less than a mile farther, the trail began a short but extremely steep climb. It only went up about 200 feet, so it wasn't difficult.

The first blaze after leaving the wilderness area

After cresting the top, the trail made a long and less-steep descent. There wasn't a sign there, but I guessed we had left the wilderness area at that point because I saw a trail blaze attached to a tree. There had been none in Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock.

In the next 2.4 miles, the trail would drop about 950 feet, the descent interrupted in the middle by a short 100-foot climb. Compared to yesterday, this descent was easy.

Just Awesome and Polecat sped ahead of me. Tengo Hambre wasn't far behind me, or so I thought.

A hunting dog with a radio collar

As the trail neared the bottom of the descent, I was met again by hunting dogs. These wore transmitter collars, and I wondered if they belonged to the hunters we met late yesterday afternoon.

The dogs were bothersome, though never threatening. When I tried to make them leave, they would only do that if they found something more interesting than me to follow.

I later learned from JA that he also ran into these same dogs, but that wasn't all. He was confronted by a wild boar. His description sounded like a scary couple of minutes.

The feral hog he saw was a descendent of eleven sows and three boars imported from Russia. They were brought to a 1,600-acre hunting preserve that was being constructed in 1912 near here on Hooper Bald. Large enclosures were built to contain them and other exotic wild animals.

The hunting preserve was a business failure because of its remote location, but it also failed to keep the animals penned within the property. The wild hogs were able to root their way out of the enclosure.

Although buffaloes and some of the other animals imported to the hunting preserve didn't thrive in this rugged terrain and changeable climate, the hogs did.

Hooper Bald wasn't the only spot in the U.S. where Russian blue boars were introduced, and the problems they created have spread. Their population increased significantly (now in at least 35 states), as has the damage they have done to federal forests and private property. According to a Tennessee estimate in 2015, feral hogs have done $26 million of damage in that state alone.

Just Awesome and Polecat at Tapoco Lodge

After some confusion finding where the trail went, I reached Tapoco Lodge. JA and Polecat were in the parking lot, accessing the lodge's WiFi. They hadn't seen Tengo yet.

We waited more than an hour before he showed up. We weren't surprised when he told us he had walked at least a half-mile on the wrong trail.

Tapoco Lodge

Regretfully, it was too early in the day for us to take advantage of Tapoco Lodge's tavern. When we left, we saw workers outside decorating the main building for the holidays. It was a lovely, restored building with several cabins.

The lodge was constructed in 1930 by ALCOA (Aluminum Company of America) after the company purchased the nearby Cheoah Dam. It was primarily used for company functions, serving as a retreat for executives and their families.

Many of the cabins are older. They were constructed to house workers when the dam was built in 1913.

Our short stop here had been the first time I had been to the lodge. I thought it might make a nice getaway vacation spot for my wife Kim and me in the future.

Starting up the Yellow Creek Mountain Trail

A short road walk took us across the Cheoah River to reach a trailhead. From here, we began a steep climb to a ridge.

This section of the BMT used the Yellow Creek Mountain Trail, which was constructed for the Appalachian Trail in the 1930s. Its use declined when the AT was relocated in the 1940s following the construction of Fontana Dam.

Jim Burchfield was a U.S. Forest Service employee who maintained the Yellow Creek Mountain Trail for many years, often with the help of local Boy Scouts. For the Benton MacKaye Trail's sake that was fortunate.

When the BMT was extended into North Carolina and Tennessee, a hike required a dangerous three-mile road walk before the trail entered Great Smoky Mountains National Park at Twentymile Ranger Station.

As Benton MacKaye Trail Association members looked for a safer route, they discovered Yellow Creek Mountain Trail had never been decommissioned by the U.S. Forest Service. Because of Burchfield's efforts to maintain the trail, the route could be used without a lot of the extra paperwork often required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

With the efforts of more than 80 people working for three months, the trail was improved to make a safer route for the BMT. At a ceremony on July 11, 2014, the trailhead was named in Burchfield's honor.

A view above the Cheoah River

The trail climbed a ridge above the Cheoah River's gorge. The river was never in view, but there were some openings in the trees looking south to see mountains on the other side.

A sign marking the Benton MacKaye Trail

The Forest Service rates this section of trail "strenuous," and I was gradually beginning to see why. The first five miles contained several steep climbs. In all, there was more than 2,200 feet of elevation gain.

It was a good thing we had refilled our water bottles at Tapoco Lodge. There was no water on the top of the ridge. And there was no way to access streams on either side of the top, except for one spring reachable from an overgrown trail about a mile off the BMT.

Tengo Hambre

While on one of the steep ascents, I heard a voice call me from below. It was Tengo. He had somehow wandered off the trail. Although this seemed to be a common practice for him, in this case at least it was understandable. There were several abandoned forest roads and other spots that looked like a trail. And of course, the ground was covered in a thick layer of leaves.

It turns out, Tengo wasn't the only hiker who missed a turn on this trail. When Earl Schaffer, the hiker credited with the first thru-hike of the AT, was walking north in 1948, he missed the then-new reroute of the trail to Fontana Dam.

He describes in his book, Walking With Spring how he continued his mistake by walking up the ridge on the Yellow Creek Mountain Trail. Realizing the wrong turn, he heard cars on a road below and made his way to a store.

He knew he should have been heading to a dam, but when he inquired about it, he was given directions to Cheoah Dam instead of Fontana. He only realized his mistake much later.

Looking back toward Hooper Bald

The last half of the grueling climb offered no more rewards of a view until we reached where the trees had been cut for a power line. This gave us a look back to where we had been walking yesterday. We could also see Hooper Bald, the site of the failed hunting preserve.

An old road

At last, I thought, the trail was getting easier when it began to follow the path of an old road.

Polecat climbs ahead

That didn't last long, however, and we were soon trying to follow the trail through an overgrown thicket. Thorny branches grabbed at our clothing as we made our way up the barely-discernible path.

At this point, Polecat was getting annoyed by the difficult trail. In a burst of energy, which I didn't have, he charged up the next climb. This was just one of several climbs we had to endure for the next two miles.

A microwave reflector

When I looked up near the top of this climb, I saw what appeared from a distance to be an old highway billboard. This didn't make any sense, though, because there was no highway nearby.

Only when I got closer did I realize this was just a large slab designed to reflect a microwave signal. It may have been part of TVA's communication systems for managing the dams before satellite relays and fiber optics made microwave obsolete.

The trail descends steeply to Fontana Lodge

The final 2.3 miles descended steeply to Fontana Village, dropping more than 1,300 feet. The challenging conditions of steep climbs and overgrown vegetation were finally over, but we had lost some time.

Knowing that JA and Polecat were now well ahead of us, Tengo and I tried to pick up our pace.

Fontana Village Lodge

The Fontana Village Lodge parking lot was just a few steps away from the trail. We arrived there at 5 p.m. That was an hour later than we had expected, but at least there was still daylight.

Preparing to leave Fontana Village

We found Polecat's truck just as we left it last Thursday.

He drove us back to my house, where we arrived at 7:30 p.m.

We were tired from a difficult day on the trail, but there wouldn't be much time to rest. We planned to return here tomorrow morning to continue our hike north.

Now Cinderella, she seems so easy
"It takes one to know one," she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets
Bette Davis style
And in walks Romeo, he's moaning
"You belong to me I believe"
And someone says, "You're in the wrong place, my friend
You better leave"
And the only sound that's left
After the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up
On Desolation Row


"Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine."ref.