Thursday, September 22, 2011

Night Moves (2 of 7 on the AT)

Many years ago, I spent a week with three friends hiking the 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail in the Smoky Mountains. The four of us spent our fifth night in our old friend, Icewater Spring shelter. I’ve spent more nights in the Smokies in this shelter than anywhere else in the park. It’s also the park’s most heavily-used shelter because it’s only a three mile hike from Newfound Gap, and it can serve as a gateway to a nice hike up Mt. LeConte or to Charlies Bunion.

We slept well that night. Eventually…

When Allen started screaming, my response was to hunker down deeper in my sleeping bag, hoping that whatever was killing him would not notice me. After a few seconds I heard Joey talking to him, calming him down. At that point, I realized, through the fog of sleep, that we were not being killed and eaten by a bear. It was one of Allen’s nighttime episodes. I had heard that he sometimes would wake up at night screaming, but I hadn’t experienced it until that night at Icewater Spring. Allen had been my most consistent backpacking partner during that period in my life, but it was times like this that I wondered if maybe we should have put each other through an application process. Question 1: Have you ever backpacked before? (Because you don’t want to have to babysit your backpacking partner.) Question 2: How fast can you run? (Because you don’t have to outrun a bear; you only have to outrun your hiking partner.) Question 3: Do you ever wake up screaming in the middle of the night? (Because I don’t like a wet sleeping bag.)

Nevertheless, we made it through the night just fine. Until the mice started their nightly escapades.

These old shelters are rustic, solid, and secure. Well, they were secure several years ago. Today there’s no front on them, but for many years there was a chain link fence and gate across the front to keep out the bears, which was important because we hikers would hang our food in bags from the rafters. The mice loved it.

There were two approaches to dealing with the mice: deterrence and acquiescence. The deterrence approach entailed using a plastic or metal lid with a small hole punched in the middle. You would slide the lid onto the rope holding your food bag from the rafters. Except for the case of unusually acrobatic mice, the critters couldn’t get all the way down the rope to the food bag. This approach usually worked, but when it didn’t, you’d end up with holes chewed in your food bag and in your packets of gorp, milk powder, noodles, and cheese. Acquiescence meant forgoing the lid and just leaving your food bag exposed and open. It was sort of like going through customs in a third world country. You’d leave a little “gift” in your luggage for the inspector, and he’d let you in. The mice in the shelters operated in the same fashion. You cooperate, the mice get their small share, and everyone parts as friends in the morning.

I finally settled on a combination of the two approaches. I’d use the lid on the rope, but I’d keep my food bag open. If the mouse made it past the lid, he’d have easy access to my food bag, and I’d end up with a corner of my gorp bag chewed but no holes in my backpack or food bag. Not a high price to pay, as long as the mouse didn’t get mad about the lid on the rope and exact his revenge while I slept.

Sometime during the night the skunks made their entrance. They’d usually just wander around looking for food scraps, and when they were finished, they’d leave by whatever hole they had entered. Only once did I have to get up out of bed and let a skunk out the front gate. He needed help getting out and seemed genuinely appreciative for the favor. He didn’t spray me.

That night at Icewater Spring, behind the chain link fence, we were visited by mice and skunks, but no bears. But it did rain, which was perfect percussion music for sleeping. Which we finally did, when all the screaming stopped.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Those Dark, Dirty Shelters (1 of 7 on the AT)

Let’s spend a few weeks talking about the Appalachian Trail, one of America’s best ideas. The AT stretches about 2,170 miles from Springer Mountain in north Georgia to Mount Katahdin in central Maine. You can hike on it for free. For almost its entire length you can hike and camp without any special permits or paperwork – a remarkable accomplishment considering it’s officially owned by the mother of all bureaucracies, the US government. You don’t have to report in to anyone in a uniform or a dark suit and tie. It’s the epitome of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Except for the 72 miles of the AT in the Smoky Mountains.

The Smokies are such a revered location among AT hikers that they could easily be loved to death. It’s a Tragedy of the Commons waiting to happen. So, the government has stepped in to stem the tide of mountain lovers.  

Fortunately, the park is administered by what may be the last, sane department of the US government – the National Park Service. I’ve had numerous encounters with park rangers, volunteers, and other staff persons, and 95% of these moments have been pleasant. The good guys haven’t been chased away yet by whatever it is in bureaucracies that squeezes the spark of life out of its employees.  (Now that I’ve said that, I must admit that the folks at our local post office are great, too. One more reason to live in a small town.)

I should also add that there’s a significant group of folks in the Bryson City area who would disagree with my assessment of the NPS – they are mad about Fontana Lake, the Road to Nowhere, restrictions on bear hunting and ginseng digging, and just about anything the NPS does. Some of them are reasonable people and some aren’t. But I digress…

Even the NPS hasn’t been able to avoid that essential part of every bureaucracy – paperwork. To day hike in the park, just find a trail and go. No paperwork, no permission slips. However, if you want to camp overnight in the backcountry, you’ll have to fill out a permit. (No fees yet, but they are talking about it.) When you arrive at the park, you must find a ranger station and spend five minutes filling out an itinerary. That’s it. Five minutes. Stop for a moment and let that sink in. A five minute encounter with the Federal government. To get the full impact of that, stop for a moment and think about what you were doing on April 14.

If you camp on the AT in the park, you’ll be staying in a rock and log shelter with a tin roof. These shelters are heavily used, and they do show some wear and tear, but even the wear and tear is a reminder that you are doing something that people have been doing for several generations. And people will continue to do it long after you are gone. You are a link in a long chain of main crest hikers. It’s enough to tempt you to carve your name on the old log rafters. (Please don’t.)

Several years ago, a guy named Bill Bryson wrote a book called A Walk in the Woods. He and a friend, both novice backpackers, decided to hike the entire AT from south to north. To make a long story short, they limped and whined all the way to the Smoky Mountains. Once there, they didn’t like the “dark and dirty” shelters, so they quit hiking at Newfound Gap, caught a ride to Gatlinburg, ate some cheeseburgers, then drove to Roanoke, VA. They skipped the eastern half of the Smokies, all of Tennessee, and much of Virginia! I was so disgusted that I quit reading. I don’t know and don’t care how the book ends, but I hope at some point they came to grips with the reality that if you hike the AT, you are going to get wet and dirty, and the accommodations are somewhat primitive. That is, after all, the point.

So call these shelters dirty and dingy if you want to. I call them rustic and quaint. Not in an antique shop way. More of an old barn way. They are drafty, uncomfortable, and crude. They have mice and skunks, and an occasional bear. In other words, they are great, perfect – exactly what you’d hope for on a backpacking trip in the mountains.