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Into the Smoky Mountains – October 2009
by -- October 3rd, 2009

Join Brian Cohen and the Ecology of Southern Appalachian Forests class as they trek deep into the Smokies in search of Horace Kephart’s old homestead.

Read about the trip below:

Day One – Saturday, October 3, 2009

A month and a half into my first semester as a Green Devil, I was excited to set off on a field trip with 10 classmates and our fearless professor, Dr. Dan Richter.  All semester in Ecology of Southern Appalachian Forests, we’ve been reading Our Southern Highlanders, a book about the people living in Southern Appalachia a century or so ago.  Its author, Horace Kephart, is a fascinating figure, one who decided to abandon a more “typical” living in the early 1900s and immerse himself in mountain life.  In addition to shedding light on a unique American subculture, he was integral in the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Dan had some insight into where Kephart’s cabin might have been located, and it would be our mission to see if we could find its remains.


A long drive led to our arrival at Fontana Dam, a picturesque location in far-western North Carolina.  I can’t tell you much about the drive (5½ hour ride + semi-comfortable van + 2 hours of sleep the night before = zzzzzzz), but I was excited to get out of the van and, in the words of Jon Krakauer, into the wild.


Packs on, we hiked across the dam—also serving as the Appalachian Trail—and began our journey.  Just 30 yards on the other side, a black blob in one of the trees caught our eyes.  The bear was no more than 40 yards from us, and I stared in awe of an animal I’ve always wanted to see up close in the wild.  My only previous sighting was in Yellowstone National Park through binoculars—not nearly as close.  I kicked myself when I realized my camera was buried in my bag and, with no hope of reaching it easily, moved on along the trail.


The 7-mile hike was scenic and steep, just the way I like it.  I arrived at our campsite full of energy, and was welcomed by a beautiful stream, a variety of vegetation, and plenty of sunshine—something that was missing on the heavily forested trail.  We got a campfire going and settled in for a nice group dinner.


Per park regulations, only 8 campers per group can spend the night at a particular site.  Dan had already arranged for a group of us to hike on to Campsite 89 and spend the night there, and I eagerly volunteered.  I had never done a night hike before and jumped at the opportunity.


So Dan, Chris, Jay, Josh, and I set off on our journey, a two-mile jaunt up Eagle Creek.  The flat, wide trail elicited a comment of “we’ll be there in no time.”  Big mistake.  We knew we might come across a stream crossing or two, but I wasn’t prepared for this so-called “stream.”  The fast-moving water looked deep under the light of our headlamps, and there was no other option than to shed our socks and shoes, roll up our pants (which proved futile), and hope for the best.  After several painful minutes (mountain streams in October are COLD) and a few close calls (wet rocks are SLIPPERY), we were across and putting our shoes back on, knowing that we were now on the correct side of the stream.  What we didn’t know, however, was that the trail crossed the same stream two more times before reaching the campsite.  Fun.


Finally arriving after an hour and a half, we found a good location, pitched our tents, and pumped water from the stream to fill our bottles.  It was a relief to be done with that ordeal, but I’m glad I was forced to go through it.  Pushing myself through the numbing water was a textbook case of mind over matter, and it’s always nice to be reminded that, as humans, we’re capable of much more than we give ourselves credit for.


We climbed into our tents, clicked off our headlamps, and turned in for the night.  I didn’t have any trouble falling asleep.

Day Two – Sunday, October 4, 2009

I slept well.  Really well.

I woke up to a beautiful, crisp morning, which unfortunately became much “crisper” once I climbed out of my sleeping bag and crawled out of my tent.

First thought: I’m freezing.

Second thought (edited for content): Oh no, I have cross three streams again.

Third thought: I have one pair of dry pants left.

Hence the hike back to the main campsite in boxers (photo not available).

After slipping back into my dry pair of jeans and answering some strange looks from my classmates with an explanation or two, I took a minute to reflect.  An hour or so earlier, standing in the middle of one of the streams, I realized, “I’m actually getting credit for this!  That’s awesome!”  I’m loving the experience—hardships and all—and can’t wait for the hike.

We took the Lakeshore Trail about 5 miles or so—no stream crossings this time—to the old abandoned town of Proctor.  What remained of the town really conveyed the type of life led by Southern Highlanders a few generations back.  Seeing it firsthand, the descriptions in Horace Kephart’s book began to come alive.  Living in this region now would not be easy; living here a century ago would have been infinitely more difficult.

Back at camp, I was ready to eat.  Josh put hours of work into the campsite burrito dinner, and it was totally worth the wait.  (Having a culinary school graduate camping with you is not a bad thing.)  After getting to know everyone a little bit better around the campfire as the rain began to fall, it was time for bed.

Day Three –Monday, October 5, 200

The rain last night turned into a downpour, making for a rough night’s sleep in a non-waterproof tent.  But hey, what’s a camping trip without getting soaked?  Our plan for the day was to hike out to the area where Kephart’s cabin is assumed to have been, but a combination of high water and unmaintained trails made that unfeasible.  Enter Plan B: pack up our stuff, hike back out, and drive up the Blue Ridge Parkway to explore the ecosystems of the high elevations.


Approaching the dam at the end of the 7-mile hike, I looked to my left at the tree where the bear had been two days ago.  Still there.  I dropped my bags, grabbed my camera, and started snapping, excited to finally have my camera accessible and thankful for getting a second opportunity.


While we didn’t get a chance to find the cabin, we did make a stop in Bryson City to visit Kephart’s gravesite, one that describes the author as a scholar and outdoorsman who “loved his neighbors” and whose “vision helped to create the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”  Kephart is by no means the most famous of American authors or preservationists, but it was nonetheless a memorable experience to see his final resting place.


With little daylight remaining, we headed back up into the mountains, driving up Clingmans Dome, the third highest peak east of the Rockies.  The characteristic fog of the Smokies didn’t allow for much visibility, but we were still able to witness the changes in vegetation at 6,600+ feet up.  Plus, since the mountain straddles the NC-TN border, I was able to add a new state to my list… 28 down, 22 to go.


The long drive home was broken up by a stop for dinner in Asheville—a cool town that I will have to go back and explore on a free weekend—before returning to campus in the wee hours Tuesday morning.


All in all, a great trip.  This was my first backpacking adventure, and it certainly won’t be my last.  We may not have found the cabin, but I consider the trip to be a total success.  Having the chance to bond with my classmates and professor on such a personal level was an invaluable experience, and I look forward to having similar opportunities throughout my two years here.  I can’t wait for the next one!

Things I learned:


1.  I definitely want to take another class with Dan Richter—great professor and a great person.


2.  Duke’s Outpost is awesome: free rentals on high-quality camping gear.


3.  Josh can freakin’ cook.



4.  For me, bears do not elicit any fear.  Not sure if this is good or not.


5.  Waterproof tents are a sound investment.


6.  So are fast-drying pants.


7.  Headlamps > Flashlights


8.  The town of Cherokee, NC is a somber, eye-opening experience about the lives of Native Americans today.


9.  Wading through mountain streams is probably more pleasant in July than October.


10.  It is possible to hike 30 miles in 48 hours and still gain weight (see #3).


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