Day 17: Fontana Dam

Day 17. The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. We thought we’d get up at 4am to beat the rain, pack up camp, and hike into Fontana Dam before sunrise. But when the alarm went off at 3:45, it was already raining. So … why fight it, back to sleep.

Around 8am, the rain slowed to a putter and I decided to get up. All in all, it was a great night’s sleep. Warm, quiet, and deep. I think it may be the first time I slept through the night with only one wake. It was fantastic.

We packed up camp, had a quick breakfast, and headed uphill for today’s short hike around 9am. It started raining more heavily almost immediately, but only lasted an hour. After that it was clear blue skies and temps in the 60s the rest of the day! Honestly, may have been one of our best weather days so far, after that short shower. It was gorgeous, and since it was a short mile day, we could take our time and really enjoy it.

After 5 miles, we reached the start of Fontana Dam. The first milestone in this village/resort is a road crossing and small marina to the lake. We dropped our packs and walked down to find a surprise … at the end of the marina was a small convenience store! Candy, chips, beer, sandwiches, and more. A hot dog, sleeve of pringles and can of Budweiser made for an amazing trail lunch. We ate it on the dock in the sun, and it … was … amazing. It’s the small things that really make this hike so enjoyable! When else would that be the highlight of my day?

From there, one could shuttle in to the lodge where we are staying tonight. But most of us opted to hike the final 1.7 miles to the dam and visitors center. As Nubs jokes, “it’s mostly just uphill and downhill anyways.” Which, is a great joke on the 17th day of a thruhike!

I’m very glad we did those extra 1.7 miles bough, because it a) makes tomorrow’s hike easier, and b) is an amazing sight to see. The Dam is an incredible structure and worth visiting on a beautiful day like today. Look at the panoramic pic below!

Fun Fact’s cousin, Lillian, met us at the marina and drove Huevos and Julia to the lodge, then hiked the last stretch with us. She lived close by and wanted to meet up to say hello. When we reached the Dam, she got a ride back up to her car and came back for us. We squeezed 6 people and packs into that tiny thing and had a nice ride up to the lodge. I’m very laid she joined us, as there was no cell service at the Dam and we would have been forced to hike multiple miles uphill to the lodge without her. Plus, she is totally nice and fun!

The Fontana Village Lodge is amazing. It’s a beautiful facility with a main hotel, cabins, pool, laundry, and multiple stores. Unlike the NOC, it’s actually well maintained and beautifully put together. It resembles a great ski or golf resort, and is a great stop for anyone planning to hike in the Smokies. It is a stand-alone oasis in this county (fun fact, where only they can sell beer), and has fun activities for the whole family. I bet this place is extremely popular during the summer, and I would definitely come back with the family some day.

We checked in around 3pm, and were happy to see we have a real hotel room. Shower, 2 beds, television … all the amenities of normal societal living. We split up in to two rooms this time so the girls could have their own place, and Culligan, Nubs, Ground Score and myself took the other. Huevos is currently working out which room he stays in, but his lovable personality is of course welcomed anywhere.

For the next 3 hours we showered, laid out gear (read: air dry the wet and smell), and did laundry. The laundry house was down the hill, but next to the general store with food and beer. So we stocked up on both and hung out with a dozen other hikers all trying to clean clothes in the 2 working machines. Also here are Happy Feet, Tarzan, Jack, and 6-8 other new hikers we’ve newly met. Dynasty, Sherpa, Sunshine, Trench-foot, Buckeye and others. Most of this group zero’d here today, but we are all headed out tomorrow.

There is no camp store here, but it sounds like Lillian will drive a couple of us in to town (or back to the NOC) for the cold weather gear we need. It is supposed to be nice tomorrow, so the start of the Smokies should be decent.

I picked up a resupply box here as well, so I’m good on food for 4-5 days. The whole Smokies section could take 5-10 days, depending on speed. We may stop in Gatlinburg halfway through to resupply and warm up, but it depends on the weather. For now, all looks good for a warm start and wet finish of these majestic blue ridge mountains.

Side note, I can not express how upset I am that the pool/hot tub are closed right now. This place could have been perfect if we arrived a couple weeks later! Note to any future 2019 thruhikers, wait until at least March 15th and you’ll get to fully appreciate these destinations!

  • Start Mile: 158.8
  • Start Time: 09:00
  • End Mile: 165.9
  • End Time: 14:30
  • Miles Hiked: 7.1
  • Miles to Go: 2025.0
  • Lodging: Fontana Dam Lodge

Day 16: Cable Gap

Day 16. Yesterday’s leisurely 7 mile hike was nice, but today doubled the distance and seemed to never stop going up. It should not have been very difficult but we all agreed it was an unexpected rough day.

A good day, though, as we are now stopped just 6 miles from tomorrow’s destination of Fontana Dam. The rain is now expected to hit sometime around 4am and now looks like thunderstorms too. Being so close to tomorrow’s stopping point means (hopefully) minimal hiking in the rain. And if I’m lucky, I can pack up camp before it starts and keep everything dry. Fingers crossed.

The first half of today’s hike was extremely strenuous. A few miles in, we hit an infamous mountain climb called Jacob’s Ladder. My guess for this name is because of two reasons: 1) it was straight up, with steps that looked more like rungs of a ladder. And 2) it was nearly impossible to reach the top, just like the old carnival game of the same name.

The climb was very slow, very steep, and very painful. Our midday stop at Brown Fork shelter was a welcomed break as it meant fresh water, and the start of the downhill stretch.

We all felt the lingering effects of Jacob’s Ladder the rest of the day. It was a significantly easier 8 mile section, walking mostly ridge lines or small hills, but we were beaten so bad by Jacob that even those raiser miles hurt more than normal.

When we finally reached Cable Gap shelter, I quickly strung up the hammock, downed a double dinner, and prepared for bed. Culligan and Ground Score lit up another fire, which was a nice calming end to the day. But I only enjoyed a few minutes before crawling into bed to rest these tired feet. Tomorrow should be an easy Nero Day (all downhill), and then back up up up to the Smokies.

I wasn’t able to get a package sent in time from home, so I’ll need to buy some warm weather gear in Fontana Dam. Fun Facts has a cousin nearby, so we are going to see if we can convince her to take us to the REI in Knoxville. If that doesn’t work, I’ll figure something out.

I feel like this is a good time to give a medical update too. The good news is my knee, arches, and achilles are all doing really well. Arill pretty tight by the end of the day’s hike, but nothing like the first few days. I need to drink more water still though. Not only can I tell the lingering effects of last week’s dehydration, but I can tell I’m very close to waking up with a bad cramp. I used to get charley horses when I was younger, and it feels like a gun shot to the leg when it wakes you up. As I toss and turn at night, I feel like I’m walking a tightrope between stretching my calves and cramping them. For now though, I think I’m in as good of shape as I could hope (knock on wood) going into this next section.

The bad news is that the Smoky Mountains will test this daily, so I need to be well prepared and well healed. A friend just finished it and confirmed all the fears I heard and wrote about yesterday. He suggested micro-spikes should be acquired too, so I’ve added it to the list of needs.

One sad side note. Rumors are starting to spread among hikers of two deaths on the trail already this year. This is never something you want to hear, but is even more scary when in the middle of it. I have not confirmed any of this, but supposedly two older gentlemen may have passed away in the past couple days. One from a heart attack, and another from freezing/hypothermia. The latter was supposedly at Plumorchard Shelter which I stayed at back on Day 8.

I’m hopeful these are just rumors and nothing more, but it is very scary to hear nonetheless. I am thankful for every day I have on this great planet and grateful I get to spend these rare ones among the wild of this trail.

  • Start Mile: 143.6
  • Start Time: 09:00
  • End Mile: 158.8
  • End Time: 18:20
  • Miles Hiked: 15.2
  • Miles to Go: 2032.1
  • Lodging: Cable Gap Shelter