BMT 2020: Day 15, Fontana Village Resort to Lost Cove

You go back, Jack, do it again

An Appalachian Trail white blaze

Although my plan to return home twice during this thru-hike attempt was working well, it had a drawback.

The intent was to minimize risks of COVID-19 exposure by not hitching into towns to resupply. My hiking friends and I could maintain a small bubble of safety while still being able to resupply, take showers, recharge electronics, and sleep in real beds.

This required us to make a two-hour drive back to my house and return the next day, and that was the drawback. It was a short turn-around before we had to get back to the trail.

Our unplanned zero day last week gave us an extra night at home, but we didn't take a zero this time.

DateFriday, November 6, 2020
WeatherPartly sunny, then gradually becoming sunny, with a high in the low 70s
Trail ConditionsMostly easy, with gentle ups and downs; some road walking and sections of old roads
Today's Miles11.5
Trip Miles203.1

The schedule for the rest of our hike will be dictated by the location of campsites in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Unlike the national forests we walked through, we can't camp anywhere we wish in the park, and reservations are required for each site.

I purposefully reserved for tonight a campsite that was just 11.5 miles from our starting point, the trailhead at Fontana Village Resort. The short distance and an easy trail allowed us to take a little extra time this morning before departing. Still, we didn't have unlimited time if we were going to reach our campsite before dark.

Gravity, Tengo Hambre, and Just Awesome

We left my house at 8:15 a.m. and two hours later we were back where we had gotten off the trail yesterday.

Polecat was not with us this time. When we started planning this hike, he said he only wanted to hike the middle section. We will see him again, though. My wife has a schedule conflict and will be unable to pick us up when we finish, so Polecat has agreed to do that.

Just Awesome and Tengo Hambre

We were hiking again by 10:30 a.m. After a short climb up a few steps, we followed the easy, well-maintained trail from the lodge.

Just Awesome and Tengo Hambre inspect a cable across the trail

The trail wasn't the only thing that was maintained. It appeared that some work was being done on a power or communication line. Soon after we left the parking lot, we found a large cable draped across the trail.

Although it seemed unlikely this was a live power line, we carefully stepped clear of it.

The trail descends

The trail leading down from the lodge was wide, and most likely was a former logging road. It was one of several around the resort property.

Fontana Village Resort began as a town for workers needed to construct Fontana Dam, which is about two miles away. The first trucks arrived on site in January 1942, just three weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Within a year, more than 5,000 workers were hired for the project. Their living quarters included trailers, bungalows, and a men's dormitory. Segregated facilities were provided for Black workers and their families. A shopping center, commissary, a school with 19 classrooms, a beauty parlor and a barbershop, recreation facilities, and a 50-bed hospital were also part of the village. There was even a small jail.

The area was extremely remote. A one-lane road was widened to two lanes, and a railroad spur was extended to haul heavy equipment and supplies.

By 1945, the dam was completed and the village was partly dismantled. About 50 families remained to run the dam and power plant.

That situation soon changed, when in 1946, the village was turned over to private ownership to be operated as a vacation resort. By TVA's estimate, two million tourists visit the dam each year.

The BMT reconnects with the AT

We walked for about an hour before I saw an old friend I expected to see again on the trail, a white blaze painted on a tree to mark the Appalachian Trail. From where they intersected just before State Route 28, the BMT and the AT would share the same footpath for the next 3.3 miles.

I knew the BMT rejoined the AT here, but just like on Day 1 when we left Springer Mountain, I was happy to see the blazes again. Seeing them always brings back fond memories of my first long-distance hike without conjuring reminders of the pain and suffering of those days.

The marina at Fontana Lake

On the other side of the highway, the trail passed a large marina at Fontana Lake, the reservoir impounded by Fontana Dam.

JA selects a pebble from BamaHiker's boots

A sign and a pair of boots filled with pebbles were sitting at a trailhead near the marina. The sign shared the story of BamaHiker, a man who intended to retire in 2016 and thru-hike the AT. Sadly, he was never able to do that. He received a diagnosis of stage IV pancreatic cancer in late 2014 and died 10 months later.

BamaHiker's widow asked that we take a pebble from his boots and carry it with us in a symbolic honor of his dream.

Fontana Hilton

We continued along the easy trail that followed the shoreline of the reservoir. Less than 1.4 miles past the marina, we arrived at one of the most popular shelters on the AT.

It's nicknamed the Fontana Hilton because it has some amenities that are unusual and highly prized by AT hikers. For one thing, it is nearly enclosed, making it less open to bad weather. A charging station for electronics is located nearby, and just up the trail is a heated bathhouse with hot water showers.

We stopped at the shelter to eat lunch and talk to two hikers. They were hiking southbound.

One was named Mayo. He started a long section hike at Hot Springs 10 days ago. He intended to go all the way to Springer to complete a thru-hike he started several years ago.

The other hiker was Casper, who was trying to complete a thru-hike he started from Mt. Katahdin in June.

At the start of the pandemic through July 1, Baxter State Park was closed for everything but day-hiking. No one was allowed to go above the treeline. I'm not sure how Casper was able to start his hike from Katahdin when the trail leading to the top was closed. I didn't ask.

Meeting a thru-hiker today was a surprise. There weren't many who were able to complete an AT thru-hike this year. As I've written before, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has said 2020 thru-hikes will not be recognized.

Fresh Ground and the Leapfrog Café

After we left the shelter, we discovered a bigger surprise. Trail magic was being offered in a parking lot near the dam. A large spread of food and drinks was provided by Fresh Ground.

Regretfully, we had just eaten our lunch, so we weren't hungry for much more than a small snack. It was nice to finally meet Fresh Ground, though. He is one of the most famous of the AT's trail angels. With his van, which he calls the Leapfrog Café, he has been generously providing trail magic up and down the trail since 2013. I had heard of him before but somehow missed running into him on my 2017 thru-hike.

Tengo and JA cross Fontana Dam

While talking with Fresh Ground, I propped my trekking poles against his folding table. Then when we began hiking again, I absentmindedly left them behind.

Poles are always with me on hikes, so it was unusual for me to not think about them. If we had been walking on a rough trail, I'm sure I would have remembered, but we were on a concrete sidewalk.

I didn't get far before a car drove up next to me. A woman in the passenger seat stuck my poles out the window and asked, "Are these yours?"

Who knows how far I would have gotten before I realized I didn't have my trekking poles, but having them delivered to me was an extra-nice bit of trail magic.

Approaching the dam, we met another southbound hiker. He was surprised and pleased to know about Fresh Ground's trail magic.

Fontana Dam

As we walked across the dam, I thought about what a massive undertaking it was to complete construction in just three years. In all, 14 men were killed, 11 were permanently injured. An additional 447 suffered serious injuries.

Most of the power generated here was used by ALCOA in the production of aluminum airplane parts for the war effort.

The Little Tennessee River viewed from Fontana Dam

Looking down from a railing at the top of the dam, we saw the Little Tennessee River. The drop was about 480 feet to the water.

Besides Fontana and Cheoah dams, three other large dams impound water in its 135-mile run from Georgia to the Tennessee River.

Tengo and JA enter Great Smoky Mountains National Park

When we reached the other side of the dam, we entered Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The BMT will remain in the park's boundary for the rest of the way.

We began to see a few more hikers, though nearly all were day hikers.

The junction of the AT and BMT

A familiar kiosk stood at the junction where the AT and BMT split again. This is where AT hikers must deposit a copy of their camping permit.

AT thru-hikers use a different permit system than what we used for making our campsite reservations. AT hikers are given a little more scheduling latitude because it's difficult for them to predict when they will arrive here. Their permit gives them seven days to hike through the park, and they don't have to specify dates or locations for each stop.

Although we had to reserve specific campsites for specific nights, the process was easy. I was able to do that online. Later, when we took the zero day because of bad weather, I only needed to make a phone call to the park's backcountry office to change them.

Feral hog trap in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The first section of the BMT in the park was on the Lakeshore Trail, which is 35 miles long.

Not far down the trail, we passed a trap used to capture wild hogs. This was a reminder of the problems park rangers have in controlling the destructive feral animals that first spread from the hunting preserve on Hooper Bald more than 100 years ago.

The trail was formerly North Carolina Highway 288

The trail for most of this section was wide and flat. This wasn't just any old former logging road, though. Before the national park was established and the dam was constructed, this was North Carolina Highway 288, a road connecting logging and mining communities in the area.

A rusted old car

It didn't take long before we saw more evidence of the highway and the people who once lived in these mountains. We passed two rusted, stripped automobiles. They've sat here since they were abandoned for unknown reasons decades ago.

It might seem odd to find abandoned cars in a national park, but they are artifacts that are protected by law.

An inlet of Fontana Lake

This area was stripped of most of its timber in the early 1900s. The logging company then moved out and sold the land to a speculator. After it was sold to TVA and Fontana Dam was completed, the land on this side of the lake was donated to the national park. This enlarged the park and brought the boundary to the lake shoreline.

We passed a few weekend backpackers. Some were heading in our direction but not as quickly. They carried heavy packs, with bear spray and water bottles attached and bouncing on the sides. The hikers who were going in the other direction had the trailing scent of fresh laundry.

Walking near Lost Cove

Despite our late start this morning, we arrived at our campsite by 5 p.m. There was still plenty of daylight left to set up camp.

Hanging our food bags was no problem because cables were provided for that. The campsite was large, and though a couple of other hikers arrived soon after us, they didn't need to pitch their tents nearby.

Later, when another hiker arrived, he spent several minutes searching the entire campsite. He apparently wanted to find a perfect place for his tent. Then he disappeared, and we never saw him again.

“He couldn’t find a spot he was happy with, so he went home,” I told the others.

In the morning you go gunnin'
For the man who stole your water
And you fire 'til he is done in
But they catch you at the border

And the mourners are all singin'
As they drag you by your feet
But the hangman isn't hangin'
And they put you on the street

Yeah, you go back, Jack, do it again
Wheel turnin' 'round and 'round
You go back, Jack, do it again


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