Day 28 -April 4 2017- 13.6 miles – Fontana Marina to Mollie Shelter
We stayed in bed an hour later than we planned. A warm bed can be a hard thing to leave. The weather had changed and we were greeted with blue skies and temps in the 60’s. Perfect for hiking.
Not long into our hike we arrived at the Fontana Hilton. The hilton is a famous shelter on the AT. It’s a large shelter with piped water nearby, real bathrooms, a shower, and a charging station for cell phones.
There we met a german hiker named Mustafa. He was a little bummed that he didnt have an AT thru hiker tag and was wondering where to get one. Stoat had an extra one and offered it to him. Mustafa was very touched by the gesture.
Not long after we left the “Hilton” we went over Fontana Dam. Not only was it cool to look at, it was also the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
We walked around on the dam for a while. Enjoying the warm sunshine and reading the different information placards.
When we got to the other side we saw a sign.
The Smoky Mountains. This was one of the sections we had been looking forward to for a long time. Now, after our bout with influenza, we were finally there.
Not long after we passed that sign we got to another sign. The second sign was the one letting us know where to deposit the $20 per person fee to enter the Smokies. The Smokies are the only part of the AT that thru hikers have to pay to go through.
After paying the fee we started the climb into the Smoky Mountain. The climb gains around 2000ft in 4 miles.
At top of that climb was a short side trail to the shuckstack fire tower. Never ones to pass up a fire tower, we dropped our packs and went up the steep side trail.
( Fontana Lake as viewed from the fire tower )
At the top of the tower we could see for miles. The wind was buffeting the fire tower and caused it to shake. We were in a wild place where safety was not guaranteed. That added to the excitement.
On the way from the tower to the shelter we technically entered Tennessee. The AT is directly on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee for the entire Smoky mountain section. Even though there wouldn’t be an official welcome sign for another 100 miles or so, it was good for morale to see another states name on the guide book.
The last 1.7 mile climb to the shelter seemed like it took forever. By the time we got there we were ready to be done for the day.
The shelter camping area was super crowded. The shelter was full and I counted 22 tents set up. In the smokies hikers are only alowed to camp in designated areas or face stiff fines. The logic behind it makes sense. The powers that be want to keep all the negative impact that a large volume of hikers can cause in one place. For the hiker it kind of stinks.
We would find out what else stank about that rule. My journal entry pretty much sums it up. ” No privy @ this spot. Just a pooping area. Gross. Trying to hold it till tomorrow.” That’s right. Unlike all the shelters we had come across so far, the ones in the Smokies didn’t have a privy. Just a small treeless area to do your business in. Keep in mind there are more than 22 people around and there wasn’t any foliage out yet. Once the sun went down the sounds of hikers making their way to that spot dramatically increased. Quite a few people could be heard saying “Oops, sorry.”
A campfire was started and a big crowd of hikers gathered around it. A woman named Bartender invited us to join them and room was made for us. One hiker wearing blue medical scrubs (Papa Smurf ) had brought jiffy pop. It was cooked on the fire and shared amongst the hikers.
Everyone at the fire shared their reason why they were hiking the AT. The stories were varied but they all started basically the same. ” Well, I always wanted to so….”
At some point everyone silently agreed it was bed time and we headed to our shelters. As I laid in my hammock I could hear the conversation of some over night campers staying in the shelter. They were discussing a Smoky Mountain specific rule with a thru hiker.
The rule is basically this:
1a) In the Smokies, unless you are a thru hiker, you must reserve a spot in the shelter ahead of time. This helps cut down on overpopulation in the park. No one has a problem with that. Its the other part of the rule that can cause friction between thru hikers and regular hikers.
1b) A thru hiker must vacate the shelter if the shelter is full and more hikers with reservations arrive. This really isn’t a big deal if its 3 in the afternoon on a warm day. The problem is when there is inclement weather or its late at night. Getting kicked out of a shelter only to have to set up in the rain and/or dark could make one ornery
Anyway, I was laying in my hammock listening to the conversation when one of the overnight campers said ” I hear that thru hikers prefer their tent to a shelter.” What struck me was that it wasn’t said in a combative way or anything. It was said as if they had just seen a nature documentary on the “Wild Thru Hikers of the AT” and wanted to share some info about them. It was like a thru hiker was a creature one might find whilst out in the woods . I smiled to myself. Stoat and I were well on our way to becoming that creature, and loving every minute of it.