Today may be our easiest day in the Smokies, but it was not without its challenges.
According to the last weather forecast we saw, there was a chance of rain today, so CareFree and I set an alarm for 6:30, hoping to get started earlier and than we had been to beat any rain. It worked, in that we left camp before 8:30 for a change. It was cooler this morning, though it warmed up considerably throughout the day.
The BMT continued to follow the Noland Creek Trail, and it was a quite pleasant way to start the morning: a gradual incline on a rhododendron and fern lined road bed that followed Noland Creek upstream. On the trail shortly after leaving camp, we found a pair of sunglasses on the ground. At CareFree’s suggestion, I took them, to help keep the gnats from flying into my eyes. In that regard, they worked spectacularly, but they were very dark, with a red tint, and I didn’t like wearing them more than I had to. (Not that I was left with much of a choice. They fell off my head and broke not long after arriving in camp this afternoon.)
We passed Jerry Flats (Campsite 63) to find the first outright dirty campsite we’ve seen on the BMT. A sock and pair of blue jeans on the ground near the trail caught our attention. On closer inspection, there were packages of ramen (open and unopened), metal cans, two forks, more socks, two plastic tarps, a lighter, and other small pieces of trash strewn around near the fire ring. It almost seemed like something spooked people and they left in a hurry, but in any case, it was disappointing.
As we climbed higher and the creek thinned, the bridges across started getting smaller and smaller, dwindling to just a flat log with a handrail on one side. Eventually, the bridges disappeared, and we had to ford the creek twice. The first ford wasn’t bad at all, and since we weren’t in any rush, we switched to our camp shoes so we wouldn’t get our shoes or socks wet. The water was cold, but refreshing (and now we had clean feet!). The second ford, we thought we got lucky and were able to dry cross over rocks, but that turned out to be a side branch to the creek before the ford. After that second ford, we stopped for our first break of the day.
The trail followed Noland Creek for about another mile and a half, before turning away to finish a steep climb of the mountain. after crossing a saddle, we began our descent for the day, down the Pole Road Creek Trail. At a nice nook next to the trail, we stopped for a second break today, with only a few miles to go.
As we descended, CareFree commented that the forest sounded different, but wasn’t sure why. I suggested that it was because we were now far away from running water, and that persistent sound had gone, leaving it eerily quiet, much like the feeling when you had been listening to music, and you first notice the music stopped long ago.
The quiet didn’t last terribly long, though. We soon began to follow the Pole Road Creek. Then, a new sound filled the air. Ahead of me on the trail was a snake stretched out; it must have been at least six feet long and an few inches thick. Before I could get my phone out to get a picture, it fouled up and began rattling — a rattlesnake, and easily by far, the largest one I’ve seen on any trail.
We tried to shoo it off as best we could by rolling small rocks and branches at it, hoping to coax it into moving off the trail. (Perhaps we need to practice bowling more, our aim was terrible.) It was uninterested in moving. We backed off a bit to give it some space, but each time we went back, it was still there, coiled and rattling away.
We considered hiking down the hill off-trail, passing the snake, and hiking back up. There even looked to be footprints or stair steps from someone else who went down (or up) right there. But I felt the slope was way too steep, and the ground too soft to hold my weight without my sliding down and not being able to get back up. (And, we couldn’t really see what was down there very well; it looked as though we might be able to make a path past the snake, following the creek, and then get back up to the trail, or maybe just follow the creek until the trail came to it, but there was too much uncertainty for me.)
I collected some large branches to try and push the snake off the trail. My first attempt didn’t go so well, and the snake relocated in the brush next to the trail, not far away enough to pass it safely. After getting a new branch, my second attempt almost worked: I got between one of the snake’s coils and lifted it up, moving it towards the slope, but its weight broke the branch I was using.
The third attempt, with a ridiculously oversized branch, worked, and I got the snake off the trail and into the brush just below the trail, after which it finally slithered away.
All told, the snake caused us to spend more than half an hour dealing with it. Fortunately, we were almost to our camp, we just needed to cross Pole Road Creek several times first.
With that accomplished, the BMT turned onto the Deep Creek Trail, joining the Mountains-to-Sea Trail on its way from Clingmans Dome (the highest point in the Smokies, and on the Appalachian Trail) to the Atlantic Ocean.
We followed Deep Creek and passed two campsites on the way to ours, including one where someone had hung their entire pack on a bear line. Several short trail spurs went to the creek, I suspect to provide fishing access.
We reached our campsite, Bryson Place, a little before 3:30, one of our earliest finishing times. This gave us ample time to relax, rinse off in the creek, get water, and cook, without any rush. It was hot and humid, though, and the bugs loved buzzing around us. The bees and butterflies especially took a liking to our packs, poles, and the clothing we hung to dry out. There must be enough salt on our stuff to make thousands of insects very, very happy.
Although we were expecting rain, it wound up not raining today, except for a very light sprinkle, accompanied by a rumble of thunder, for a minute or two after we were in camp.
The tick situation improved significantly today; neither of us were bit, though we did have to remove a small number from our socks. We also did not see a bear today, breaking a three day streak.
In a first for me on any long-distance trail, I saw no one else on the trail today (aside from my partner). (CareFree previously experienced seeing no one for multiple days in a row while going south on the Pacific Crest Trail in Southern California.)
Our easiest day in the Smokies today will be followed tomorrow with one of our two hardest days: our longest day, with the most (so far) elevation gain and loss. So we’re setting an alarm for 6 am tomorrow.