Monday, May 11, 2009

Fontana Lake-Great Smokey Mountains National Park Back Country

Rain Rain Rain and Sunshine to Leave With.....

What a wild trip. Nothing boring about this one. This will be about my seventh trip to this wonderful place. It always dishes out something different every time. It once again taught me the importance of preparing for the outdoors and it's dangers. As you read on later you will see.

This trip was a little different in other regards as well. A total of 5 of us were going. Two of the guys, my good friends Thomas and David, went up a day early on Thursday. Rather than take kayaks like we have always done in the past, they paid the marina to shuttle them over to Lost Cove-Back country campsite 90, our destination. The plan was for my good friend Steve, my nephew Eric, and myself to join them Friday morning. Steve was going to be shuttled over by the marina into the back country while Eric and I would take our kayaks with gear loaded in them. The journey is a 4 mile paddle by water and 8-9 miles by land. 

Travel to Fontana Resort Village

We departed Moulton around 2 p.m. on Thursday the 7th.  The drive was uneventful and arrived at Fontana Village Resort around 10:30 p.m. eastern standard time. Fontana Village Resort is a very neat place to go if you want to get away from the commercial side of the Smokies. It is a privately owned hotel and resort complete with cabins, lodge, restaurant, marina, swimming pools and water slides. It is all located what appears to be out in the middle of no where, and it it is for the most part.  There is no cell phone service to be found, so if you go, you will be blessed with no one calling you. They do have Internet service on a computer in the lobby and WiFi is available throughout the lodge.....but that is not the reason to go to this place. It is quietly nestled by the edge of the Nantahala National Forest on the south side of Fontana Lake.  On the north side of Fontana Lake is The Great Smokey Mountains National Park. This area is incredible in the fact it has not been commercialized. There is no room thankfully for it to occur. The only private land around is Fontana Village. This makes it the best in my book to take the family to the outdoors while still enjoying comfort, or you can taste the raw outdoors totally isolated from society. 

Day 1-Start of Trip

Well, back to the trip. Friday morning we woke up at 6 a.m. and found a line of storms moving in while watching television in the lodge room. We watched a line of nasty storms move in on the lake and lodge, so naturally we decided to wait before marching out in to the mess. As we watched skies turn from dark to almost black, we thought about Thomas and David already out there, hoping they were fairing the nasty storms with lighting and rain.  Mr. geek here carried a weather radio around in the lobby as we watched this move in, and yes, the siren on it went off at least 2 times declaring a Severe Thunderstorm Warning. The storms went through about 11:00 a.m. and the weather finally cleared. That was our sign to head out! We departed and made it safely to campsite 90 around noon in the kayaks. Steve took the leisure 10 minute $50.00 boat ride and beat Eric and I there. Steve has a kayak but is having surgery soon on his shoulder, so no kayaking for him for some time. Kayaking over across the lake into the Smokies is a soul stirring experience for me every time I make the trip. When you are one foot above the water paddling in your kayak and you come around the bend from the protected part where the Marina is located, the full extent of the tall massive Smokey Mountains National Park always takes my breath. The Natahala National Forest with it's tall mountains is behind you. You feel so small! It is a reminder that YES, that is why I come here every year. For those of you that love the outdoors and scenery, no feeling comes close to the relaxed calmness that occurs when you see something like this. It sucks away every one of the worries and concerns of life I have in me.

Beauty, Sunshine, and then RAIN

After setting up camp and relaxing for about 4 hours, we felt our first of what was to be a regular routine ever hour or two our entire trip......rain. We came prepared for this though and set up two tarps that gave us a roughly a 14 by 18 foot space to kick back in our chairs, talk, eat, and even cook anytime the rain started. Since 3 of the guys were shuttled over instead of paddling in a kayak like Eric and I did....They brought all the important things that keep men happy.......FOOD!  Steaks, hot dogs, bacon, eggs, and hamburgers were the order of the day with these guys during the trip.  Since Eric and I came over on kayaks, we had the dehydrated backpacking foods, one notch above TV dinner quality. Space is premium in sea kayaks that we use. They just don't have room for grills, coolers, and large lawn chairs. The guys were nice though and shared some great food with us.  I realize everyone is different, but for me, it is hard to beat a nice hot cooked meal, sitting dry in a chair under a tarp, and watching the bottom fall out with rain around you. You stay toasty dry under your tarp, and watch mother nature do it's thing.....while us humans do ours.....EAT.  

Relaxation Reward From A Long Day.....

Late Friday night just before midnight, while sitting around the campfire, we watched an awesome full moon come out over the lake and forest. I asked Eric if he was up for a moonlight paddle on the lake and he said absolutely! This was yet another soul stirring experience in the wild. As we launched our Sea Kayaks out onto the lake, a chorus of bull frogs, ranging from the tuba bass to tenors, sung while we launched without the slightest need for a flashlight.  The lake was mirror smooth, the frogs were singing, the moon was bright, and my mind has been taken a thousand miles away from any cares or worries on this earth. THIS is the reason you kayak over for these trips. This is what puts you in the middle of mother nature. Always at these times you realize that mother nature doesn't worry about tomorrow, it only excepts today for what it is. Eric and I paddled around for about 3o minutes, quietly listening to mother nature sing here song. I cannot think of a better way to close out a day.

Day 2

The original plan was for some of us to hike 3 miles up to Shuckstack, an old Fire tower at 4,020 feet in elevation up above us. When we listened to the weather radio, we decided it was not a good thing to do with severe storms forecast. It was a good call too, because we saw our share of tornado watches, sever thunderstorm watches, and isolated storms with up to penny sized hail forecast. In lieu of all of that, we decided to just hike nearby the camp. Eric and I kayaked up the what normally would be a rocky creek that we we camp by, but because of the massive rains, it had become a lake.  Our 17 foot and 14.5 foot kayaks cannot normally do this kind of thing with a narrow rocky creek that you can almost walk across any other time of year, but with the creek having flooded and turned into a lake, it enabled you to paddle in places you had never been.  As we rounded the curve at one point, an extremely large water snake, probably 5 foot in length, was coiled up on a stump taking in some solar rays. It was brown in color and no wedge shaped head, so I felt a little better knowing it was not a poisonous cottonmouth.  With the current so strong and moving fast, we played in the rough water with our kayaks for some time. Also amazing was the number of trees and driftwood pouring down out of the mountains. There were logs running 20 feet in length that drifted by our camp. Amazing considering the journey they may have taken coming down from the mountains. One of the most amazing things we witnessed while kayaking was mother nature at it's finest. There were "mounds" of what looked like "dirt" floating down the flooded creek in the current. Upon closer inspection, we found it to be a mound of millions of ANTS! They were all clinging to each other, making this small little 6 inch high mountain floating down the stream. As we shot pictures of this and watched with amazement, I noticed one mound just slightly grazed a small blade of grass where the creek had flooded the land. The ants that touched it, hung on to the plant and the whole mound stopped in it's tracks! The mound just stayed in place there. I noticed that all of the ants worked together, clinging on to each other, and ANYTHING they touched. How amazing is that! O.K. I confess. The little boy came out in me and I had to see what would happen. I took the paddle and splashed some water into this mound of ants floating on the water. Guess what, Some of them broke off in nickel and quarter sized chunks away from the mound. Check this out.....After some time.....the little chunks made their way back to the mound and were immediately locked onto by the mound colony. How's that for mother nature! After witnessing this, I honestly believe that ants cannot be killed at home. They just keep coming back. And to think we just take them as ants.....They are amazing to watch.

Unprepared in the wilderness as so many are....

Lately, it seems that no matter where I go, something happens to someone out of bad luck or just not thinking. You may remember from my other post the story at Sipsey of the two guys dumped out of their boats? Well, this time, it was another two gentleman with bad luck, and this time, they were much older hikers.
Around 6:20 in the afternoon, we were all cooking supper under the tarp and having a merry old time. A gentleman in his mid 60's came walking down to camp from a trail going up the mountain. He walked up and asked if the shuttle from the marina had already come and gone? He said he and his partner were supposed to have caught the 5:00 p.m. shuttle back to the marina. He said they had been walking all day. We all told him that we saw a pontoon boat arrive shortly before 5:00 p.m., stay for about 30 minutes and then leave. He said they were running late because his buddy was having trouble keeping up the pace.  His hiking partner soon appeared and looked very tired, but in good spirits. We tried to convince them to stay with us. I had brought an extra 3 man tent to put supplies in out of the rain and was happy to share it with them. They went over and talked among themselves and then thanked us and said their wives would be worried sick. They said "we'll just hike on out".  Severe storms were forecast that night, a severe thunderstorm watch was currently posted for the area, and it would be getting dark soon. We tried to give them food and water but they declined, thanked us and left out going back up the mountain. We shook our heads and went back to eating. For some reason, it really upset me. I was worried about these two gentleman. I am always somewhat paranoid of severe weather, and these guys were "Wal-mart" style hiking out in the middle of no where. They had on short pants, an Outdoor Products very small day pack, and no compass, GPS, or even maps! They looked like the type that just said...."Let's just follow the signs the Park Service has up on the trails.  The back country of the Smokies is no place to play around. Hypothermia, snake bite, storms, and a long list of things that can kill you could be talked about here, but we will move on. Around 7 p.m., the marina pontoon boat showed up again to pick them up. When we explained what they did, the guy on the boat said "WHAT!...They went on!.....That's a 6 mile hike back". He then shook his head and said "There's no way they will get back tonight". We discussed that they both were ill prepared for this, storms were coming in, and they were putting themselves in jeopardy by doing this. He said he would call the Park Service when he got back and he said that if they come back to camp, do not let them leave again. I will be back in the morning to get them.  He stuck around for another 30 minutes after we blew safety whistles and a fog horn (canned air horn I carry in my kayak for emergencies) to hopefully cause them to turn back and come back down off the mountain trail. No luck.  At 7:30 p.m. with rain and darkness setting in, the pontoon boat left. For some reason, this whole situation really shook me up. My buddies at camp assured me they would make it out.  I guess the part that really bothered me, is that in all my years of coming out here, I have learned you take nothing for granted. Nothing is out here, so if you need it for survival, you darn well better have it. I am totally shocked at people that we come up on the trail with, that have nothing, sometimes not even what I would call bare essentials. I guess their thinking is that someone will find them. Me, I never want to assume anything. I guess I am over cautious.  I just cannot walk 10 miles out in the middle of no where with one bottle of water, a raincoat and short pants. Upon our arrival at the marina on Sunday, we learned they made it out around 10:30 at Fontana Dam, some 3 miles from the location of the marina where they left in the boat from earlier that morning. I still shake my head over what people will do, without much thinking of the essentials needed in the back country.

Day 3

Eric and I left around 8:45 in the morning to get a jump on the shuttle guys. The marina shuttle was to arrive at 10:00 to pick them up. Departure yielded us an absolutely beautiful blue sky morning with mixed clouds. The lake was about as smooth as I have seen it, and the trip over was a pleasant and relaxing paddle in mild water.  As I turned back around for one last look before going around the protected cove of the marina, I glanced back for one last breathtaking look of why I come here every year for.....Those powerful, beautiful, and soul stirring Smokey Mountains. Something else to look forward to next year as we go through our journey of life.