Thursday, February 6, 2014

Cades Cove on July Fourth: What Were We Thinking? (Part 2 of 6)

I had only recently found out about Molly Creek Cascade while reading Memories of Old Smoky by Carlos Campbell. In this book he reminisces about his hiking and camping experiences in the Smokies from the pre-park 1920s through the 1960s. It’s not the greatest piece of literature you’ll ever encounter, but it does give a feel for the park’s early years, when hiking equipment was primitive, facilities were scarce, and men (and women) were men. It’s embarrassing to read about the level of discomfort they simply took for granted as part of a life lived outdoors.

It was my reading of Campbell’s book along with Harvey Broome’s Out Under the Sky of the Great Smokies that had re-ignited my interest in off-trail hiking. I had used a map and compass to do some off-trail hiking before, but quite a few years had passed since then. Reading Campbell’s and Broome’s descriptions of their off-trail hikes was interesting. Although, they didn’t call it “off-trail hiking.” They just called it “hiking” because back then there were fewer trails; and most of their hiking was, by default, off-trail. Many of their descriptions of their hikes involved crawling over downed trees, through shrubs and brush, over boulders, and up rock faces. It was a very different experience from our hikes today in which we have maintained trails with names and written descriptions in trail guides that we can carry with us on our hikes. To tell you the truth, reading their simple descriptions (they weren’t bragging of their accomplishments; they were merely telling where they went and how they got there) of their hikes and their simple equipment made me feel like a sissy. I decided it was time to hike like a real man – on my hands and knees, through rhododendron thickets, in creeks, over boulders, without a GPS. There was actually a time when hikers did this on a regular basis, with more primitive equipment. It was simply the way things were.

So we got up early on a Wednesday in July and arrived at Cades Cove at 8:30 am. And it was crowded. More so than I had ever seen it. The picnic area at Cades Cove was full at 8:30 in the morning! The reason was that it was the fourth of July, and it was a Wednesday. We had known that it was the fourth of July, but the significance had not fully sunk deep down into the part of our consciousness that plans hiking trips. I had actually never bothered to visit the Smokies on the fourth of July, and today’s crowds reconfirmed the wisdom of that strategy.

The other planning error we made was really, really stupid. It was Wednesday. We knew that the Cades Cove loop road is closed until 10 am on Wednesdays to give walkers and bicyclists a few traffic-free hours in the cove. Our problem was that neither one of us had known it was Wednesday. I’m a teacher and my buddy is a self-employed engineer. Neither one of us was working that week, and we weren’t in the position of needing to know what day it was – so we didn’t.

We arrived at Cades Cove, but we couldn’t drive to Molly Creek until after 10 am. We’d have to sit and wait for 1½ hours, which wouldn’t have been a major flaw except that we intended to not only find Molly Creek Cascade but also continue up the creek to the Appalachian Trail. From there we would hike west to Gregory Bald. We’d then backtrack and hike back down the Russell Field Trail back to the car. The day could very easily stretch into a 12 hour hike. You can do the math and see that starting at 8:30 and hiking for 12 hours would get us back at the car before dark. Starting around 10:30 wouldn’t. So we changed our plans.

We decided to begin our hike outside the loop road. We’d start on the Anthony Creek Trail from the picnic area. It would take us to Bote Mountain Trail, which would take us to the AT near Spence Field. From there we could hike about a mile east to some of our favorite spots in the Smokies – Thunderhead and Rocky Top – rocky, open peaks with panoramic views of Gregory Bald, Cades Cove, the Eagle Creek watershed, and even a small sliver of Fontana Lake. These are great, great spots, so neither of us was disappointed by our change of plans. [To be continued.]