Fontana Hilton, Fontana Dam Shelter

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May 26, Thursday

Why I do this I do not know, but we were up at 5:50 am this morning just so we could go to the dam, or somewhere in order to view the sunrise. Sure enough it came up, but by the time it came up over the mountains it was too high in the sky, yet the yellowish glow that it produced over the mountains before reveiling itself and reflecting in Fontana Lake was a beautiful sight. Returning for breakfast, I had a nice hardy meal of 20 ounces of pineapple rings straight from the can! One has to do what they can out here to prevent becoming a pirate and developing scurvy.

After breakfast we went back to the dam to meet the ranger who gives out the permits for travel in the park. Tom Hansen, the ranger, did not arrive until 9 am. Waiting was frustrating, but necessary as hiking through the Smoky Mountains National Park requires a backcountry permit.

(Click image to see larger view of park permit)

For thru-hikers this is especially needed for reserving a space in the shelters. Even though these shelters are somewhat larger than the average shelter, they have a limited number of bunks, usually eight or ten, that are a little different than the usual. The bunk space is made in two levels. The ground level is just a foot or so off the dirt floor. There is a log frame structure that divides the bunks, and the area where the hiker sleeps is made of a 1.5 x 3 inch opening wire mesh stretched between the logs of the frame. After years of use the wire breaks in places and a new mesh is applied over the old. Watch out for the ends of the old wires! They don't bother to remove the old wire. Occasionally they catch on your clothes or sleeping gear and can ruin a sleeping bag in a matter of seconds. The most dangerous areas are right at the front edge of the upper platform which is about four feet above the ground and requires a leap up to get into bed. Along that edge is where many shorts and shirts are torn during the attempt to reach a restful state. There are several other qualities about the shelters in the smokies that make them different than other shelters. These shelters are made out of rock, and usually have their own fireplaces built into one wall. These are a welcome source of warmth during the cool, usually rainy early spring months. This area is technically considered a temperate rainforest considering all the rainfall that is received. Park shelters also sport a wire hurricane fence across the front with a wire gate for access. The shelters are equipped with these attributes due to the fact that there is a population of wild black bears in the park, many of which have discovered that there is a source of food inside.

I believe that thru-hikers are allowed six days and five nights to get from one end of the park to the other. That includes over 100 miles of hiking. We secured our permit from the ranger at the dam and began our long climb up to the ridge of the Smoky Mountains. We began slowly at first, getting used to the weight of our full packs, but were soon cruising at full speed up toward the firetower on Shuckstack Mountain. We met some "weekenders" from Rock Park, Illinois on their way down from the mountain during our ascent. They were heading for the big round dance festival at the Fontana Village this coming weekend. Sprinkles began to fall from the sky as we rounded the bend and began topping out at the junction to the firetower so we decided to push on rather than check out the view - if there even was one. On our first day into the park we wanted to make as many miles as possible. The first five and a half flew by, but then the miles ticked off much more slowly.

Being one of the nations more popular parks, we saw many other hikers today, all going the opposite direction. I saw two ruffed grouse today. One flushed in a flurry right beside us, the other dared stay around a little bit before darting away. Farther on down the trail we came across two men standing still in the middle of the trail holding a carrot out in an attempt to coax a young deer with antlers covered in velvet to eat out of their hands. No wonder the animals are so unafraid around here. There is always someone feeding them. They had succeeded in getting the deer to within four feet of them when we came by and spoiled their fun. We kept on going after a short stop to view the deer. We opted for the second of the shelters in the park at Spence Field. A total of 14 .4 miles for the day. A good distance in this terrain with a full supply of groceries in our packs. We surveyed the bunks available, selected the ones deemed most comfortable and with fewest indications of having a leak in the roof above, and claimed our space by spreading out our pad and sleeping bags. The temperature was 55 degrees at six o'clock in the evening.

After finishing our evening meal, I went outside to do the dishes when the fun began. Due to the rainforest climate, it is typical to have a drying line outside the shelter with wet articles of clothing placed in a vain attempt to dry, or at least remove some moisture before getting wet the next day. While I swirled the cup of water around in my pan and used my finger to dislodge the solid bits of my meal from the side of my aluminum quart cooking pot, I caught a glimps of some activity nearby out of the corner of my eye. I turned my head toward the activity and saw a mama bear dart into the clearing, grab something blue, and begin to run off with someone's poncho. I soon notice two bear cubs nearby. I calmly walked back to the shelter and said " there is a bear out there stealing someone's poncho." Soon the apparent owner was running after the bear, which dropped the poncho and ran into the woods. Apparently the smell of someone cooking with canned shrimp had drawn the bear in. Soon the bear came back for an assault from the side of the shelter. We made a bunch of noise and the bear ran down toward the spring where I knew someone had gone to get water earlier. Oblivious to this fact, the person later said they had not seen any bears. After that excitement, the numerous deer we saw in the meadow that evening were somehow not as exciting.

Gonzo! Appalachian Trail Journals ©1983

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