Day 41: Come Hell or High Water
May 23rd: Boots Off Hostel to Stealth site after Iron Mountain (18 miles)
The next morning, a steady drizzle is falling when we leave the hostel at 8am. After less than a mile, we arrive at Watauga Lake. I am delighted to see geese with fuzzy little goslings. It’s only after taking several photos of the cute baby geese that I notice the picnic table in the photo… underwater.
Suddenly it seems impossible that I didn’t see the flooding right away. Picnic tables and charcoal grills are partially or fully submerged in the lake. We realize the trail curves along the edge of the lake, and with a sense of trepidation, we follow white blazes to the woods beside the sandy beach. A paper stapled to a post says that the trail is closed due to high waters, but there is no date nor any instructions for a bypass. There are fresh footprints in the mud, so we figure the notice is from earlier in the week if the water has receded enough for other hikers to make it through this morning. We push on.
There is water on the trail, but for a few minutes we’re able to keep our feet dry by rock-hopping and balancing on fallen logs beside the trail. Then the water becomes ankle deep. I sigh, but I keep moving forward. It will be uncomfortable later, but once I accept my waterlogged shoes, it feels fun and adventurous to splash down the trail, and I am in good spirits. Then, after a fifty-yard stretch of dry ground, the trail veers closer to the lake, and the water becomes knee-deep. We persist until a few paces ahead, the trail appears to descend into waist-deep water. A family of ducks swims placidly past a white blaze. The lake is the trail.
We turn back until we notice more footprints bushwhacking back to a road. When we reach the pavement, we spot blue blazes on a telephone pole: there is a high water bypass trail after all. It follows a quiet country road for a half mile until it rejoins the AT. There are still a few flooded stretches after that, but the water never reaches above mid-shin. Once we wade through the remaining floodwaters, the path climbs over a hill, crosses Watauga Dam, and continues up to a ridge line that we will follow all the way to Damascus.
During the day, we cross paths with our friends Jane, Spillson, Cyborg, and Everywhere, all hiking south from Damascus back to Hampton where they shuttled up to Trail Days. It’s nice to chat, but we don’t pause for long, figuring that we’ll meet up again soon in Virginia. Instead, it would turn out that Jane would catch us in southern Maine, and we would not see the others again at all. The trail is funny like that. When you say goodbye to someone, you might see them again in an hour, a month, or never. It’s impossible to know for sure.
That evening, sixteen miles from Boots Off Hostel, we reach Iron Mountain shelter and cook dinner. While we eat, Etienne and I make an ambitious plan to reach Damascus the next day. It’s still 25 miles away, nearly a marathon. I don’t feel ready to attempt a marathon, and we still have about an hour of daylight, so after dinner, we hike two more miles to put us in more realistic striking distance of town. Twenty-three miles will be our biggest day yet. It’s dark by the time the tents are pitched and the bear bags are hung. I set my alarm for 5:30am and go to sleep.