Muskrat and I had agreed at the beginning of our trek that we would not seek out or pay for "slackpacking," but if the opportunity presented itself, we would take it! Boy was it blissful!!
Before taking off, we hit the restaurant one more time for a big breakfast of eggs, bacon and sweet potato pancakes with real brewed coffee and orange juice! We had to start off fully fueled!
With 137 miles carrying our 30+ pounds under our belts, we felt pretty good hiking up the steep climb. . . We also felt guilty passing our friends along the way.
We had a daypack that we had borrowed from Gutsy, and we had packed some snacks and our water filter. The Miles passed quickly, and I hiked in my sports bra through the hot afternoon. It was a strategy to keep cool as well as a strategy to preserve the clean smell of my shirt for just one more day!
We rolled into Stecoah Gap that evening after passing one of our favorite hiker friends, Lightbulb! Gutsy was there with our packs and our beer!
We made camp on a grassy forest service road with Lightbulb, Moonbow, Lightning Bug and a few others who were all heading for Fontana in the morning! We cooked at a picnic table near the road, and met Cynthia, the proprietor of Paradise on the AT, where we would stay the night after tomorrow! We retired to the campsite out of view from the road to enjoy our beers and commune with our fellow thru-hikers.
Sunrise, breakfast, and the arrival of some dawn hikers marked the morning. We sat and made oatmeal, catching up with some people we hadn't seen since our third day on the trail, before handing over our packs to Gutsy and heading north for Jacobs Ladder, another climb that would have taken twice as long with a full pack!
Again, we packed light, carrying only snacks, the water filter, headlamps, our wallets and first aid kit. Because of that, we learned a lesson that day... Whether or not you have a heavy pack, lunch is not an option, it's a necessity!! We gobbled all of our snacks quickly and found ourselves still starving!
We hiked through forests still mostly bare from winter, landscapes that had defined most of our hike since the beginning. Odd to hike through leafless sleeping trees in heat bordering on late spring.
Late in the afternoon, we passed a cheap heavy tent pitched just off the trail with no one in sight. We had seen several abandoned campsites similar to this one since the start. They were always slightly creepy with their sealed up vents and quiet rustling nylon.
As we descended towards Fontana Lake and the docks where we would retrieve our packs, the whole world suddenly turned lush and green. It was as if we had hiked down the mountain into spring! It was marvelous and beautiful to see plants springing up all around us and covering the floor of the forest!
We seemed to hike forever, a situation exacerbated by our hunger, before coming to the road crossing where Gutsy would be parked. The sign for the docks had us whooping and trotting forward with renewed energy!
We had heard there was a bait shop here, and I had been fantasizing about all the snacks they might have for humans there... Heck, I may have fantasized about eating bait as hungry as I was! When we came running down the steps from the road into the parking lot, we discovered that Gutsy was right where she said she would be, and the only thing available to quench my desire for snacks, was a soda machine. I purchased two cokes, and we sat chatting with Gutsy, who wanted to know if we had seen Winston, but we hadn't.
Lightning Bug came out of the woods, and whistled for Moonbow who was coming behind her. They were going to take the shuttle into Fontana for resupply and a night out of the woods. I was tempted to do the same, but I didn't want to miss the fabled Fontana Hilton shelter and our reservation at Paradise on the AT the next night.
We learned from the guidebook that we would have to hike another 1.4 miles to get to the Hilton, named that because of the hot showers, flush toilets, beautiful lake view and large capacity at the shelter! Ugh!! 1.4 MORE miles with PACKS?! Gutsy offered to drive them to the shelter for us or to drive us to the shelter, but we didn't want her to leave in case Winston arrived, and we REALLY didn't want to skip 1.4 miles of trail.
Hiking with the full weight of the packs after two gloriously carefree days without them was a rude awakening. We switchbacked up from the parking lot and wound around the mountain above the edge of the huge beautiful Fontana Lake.
After many teaser views, we finally made it to the road and the shelter! The shelter itself was huge, and it was set right on the lake with a large patio, fire pit, water fountain, picnic tables, tenting platforms, and showers!!!
We claimed a tenting spot that just happened to be next to Evergreen, a hiker we met on our very first rain soaked night at Springer Mountain Shelter! She had just passed her dog, Karma, off to her family so that she could start the Smokies the next day.
We cooked dinner at a picnic table near the lake, and chatted with other hikers. Then, I went to snag a hot shower!! Muskrat decided to forgo a shower one more night, because we had just showered at NOC two days ago, and we would be at Paradise on the AT the following morning. I wanted to shower because I will never ever embrace the dirty hiker trash role, and because it was novel to be able to shower at a shelter!
The water was FREEZING!! At least I still felt clean and smelled good as I went to sleep.
Morning came, and we immediately checked the weather, as we had heard there were morning storms predicted. There was a big mass of red coming out was on the radar, several severe thunderstorm warnings and lightning just a few miles out. As if on cue, thunder rolled ominously.
We snapped awake and broke camp in record time! We just finished snapping our packs shut when the first drop of rain fell. We ran for the shelter to wait for the storm to start and wait for our 9am pickup to Paradise.
A few drops of rain, some scary looking clouds and an early pickup later, we were settling into our room at the B&B. A hot shower, breakfast and good conversation distracted us from the fact that the storm never actually happened. Mountain weather is so unpredictable!
We shuttled into Robinsville, NC for groceries with no hope for any NC craft beers, because it's a dry county. They must hate tax revenue there, because it's not like people don't buy alcohol elsewhere and bring it home.
A little later, our friends, GI Jane and Mushu, and their dog, Luna, arrived to stay at Paradise as well! Then a father and son who would be section hiking also arrived! Full house!!
Cynthia decided that we should all carpool over to Slickrock Grill at the Tapoco Lodge for beer and burgers and pizzas! Everyone agreed!
It was a great evening dining on delicious food and $5 craft beer (soooooo cheap!!) on a patio next to a rushing river with great company. Back at the lodge we capped off the night standing around the kitchen talking and passing a bottle of Jameson between the 8 of us until after midnight... Real midnight, not hiker midnight!
The next morning, we said our goodbyes to GI Jane and Mushu as Cynthia dropped them off to slackpack to Fontana, before skipping the Smokies. We didn't know if we would see them again.
She dropped us off at the Hilton, and we milled around talking with Mike & Jade, the Gentlemen, Shane and Akela who were all either zeroing or contemplating zeroing at the shelter. After catching up, we finally headed across the Fontana Dam on our way into Greak Smoky Mountain National Park under glorious blue skies!