Fontana Dam Visitor Center to Spence Field Shelter – 17.4 miles
A bit cold and chilly, but overall not a bad hiking day. First day in the Smokies! Said goodbye to Grant and Graham this morning and got the 8:30am shuttle with Digs. Once we got to the climb at the beginning of the Smokies, Digs pulled out ahead and I have not seen him since. A ranger took a picture and a video of me playing my p-bone and said he will give it to the ATC. It would be cool if it got featured somewhere. Debating whether or not to pull a 20+ mile day tomorrow to get over Clingman’s Dome before the bad weather. We’ll see how my feet feel in the morning.
Normally I’m up and moving quickly in the morning, but this morning I was dragging. Not too much though because Digs and I needed to be out front to get on the shuttle by 8:30. Grant and Graham were staying for a few more hours to get their resupply boxes from the post office and planned on stopping at the only campsite without a shelter in the Smokies so I was likely not going to see them again after that morning. We said our goodbyes and then Digs and I headed out. On the shuttle, we passed by Pappy! We drove right by him so I missed my chance to meet him unfortunately. If you don’t know who he is, look him up! He is 87 years old and was attempting to set the record for the oldest person to thru hike the AT. That title is currently held by an 82 year old man who thru hiked in 2017. Pappy has also already Triple Crowned which means he has hiked the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Pacific Crest Trail. I hope I can still hike like him by the time I’m 87.
Before getting to the Smokies, the trail goes right over the Fontana Dam. It was a really cool to walk the full length of it and hard not to stop every step to take pictures. On the other side, we followed a gravel road that eventually brought us to a box that said, “A.T. THRU HIKERS DEPOSIT PERMITS HERE.” Officially made it to the Smokies! Digs and I take out our permits that we bought and printed out in Franklin, NC, put them in the box, and continued hiking. The trail went immediately uphill so I lost sight of Digs quickly. He said earlier that he wasn’t sure where he would stop for the night, just that he wanted to get as close to Newfound Gap as he could. That was the last time I saw him. He wasn’t at the shelter 17 miles in that I stopped at so he had pushed forward and probable made it to town the next day.
I took a lunch break at the first shelter that I came to at the end of the first long climb of the Smokies. There were a few other hikers there and a ranger. The ranger warns us that there is a lot of bear activity at this shelter so it is closed, meaning that no one can camp there for the night. Eventually he noticed my pBone strapped to the back of my pack so I take it out to play some for him and the other hikers there. He even took a picture and video to show his coworkers and to send to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. It was very cold and windy that day so I didn’t stop for food for very long. I originally planned to stop at Russell Field Shelter for the night, but I felt good enough to push another 3 miles to the Spence Field Shelter making it a 17 miles day. I was wiped when I got there and my feet were not happy with me. I didn’t have any blisters though so I was happy.
The Smokies have some very specific rules for anyone who is backpacking there. Section hikers are not allowed to set up a tent or hammock anywhere in the park and instead have to reserve a spot in a shelter for each night they plan on being there. Thru hikers are also told not to set up their tents and to sleep in the shelter provided at each campsite only if it isn’t full. With their rules, section hikers have first claim to any spots in the shelter so if it is full of section and thru hikers and more section hikers come in at night, the thru hikers would have to give up their spots in the shelter and only then would be able to set up their own tents. I almost had to do that this night. The shelter had 1 or 2 spots left for other hikers, but a group of at least 10 section hikers walk up and upon seeing that the shelter was basically full, they hike away. They end up coming back and set up their tents because they did not want to ask any thru hikers to give up their spot in the shelter and I was very grateful for that.
Rangers and ridge runners would stop hikers in the park to check for their permits. Thankfully, that night none showed up so the section hikers made it through the night in their tents and the rest of us in the shelter.