Day 17: Chickens can be adrenaline junkies
April 29th: Fontana Dam to Mollies Ridge Shelter
Descending through the forest from the shuttle stop to the blue lake of Fontana Dam, I think about how much I want to remember this hike. After days of rain, the weather has improved to perfection. Yesterday was a relaxing 9-mile "nero" day into Fontana, with an afternoon of rest and laundry and good company, as we squeezed two Americans, two Germans, and a Frenchman into one hotel room. This morning we hike out in dry clothes for the first time in... a week? Maybe longer.
We cross Fontana Dam. The trees are green down by the lake, where spring is already in full bloom, and the water is deep blue. Then we drop our permits into a metal box at a kiosk and enter the Smoky Mountains.
We climb and climb and climb, and then at the top of Shuckstack Mountain we climb a rickety fire tower. The narrow metal staircase is exposed, windy, and very very high. I'm a bit of a pansy about heights, in general. Panic washes over me, then recedes, then approaches again, like waves on the beach. At the top, I struggle to pry my hands loose from the railing long enough to take pictures of the incredible views. I am deeply grateful to be there. But, after a minute or two, I long to have the earth under my feet again, and I creep slowly down again. On the ground, my heartbeat finally slows and I feel buoyant. I give a shaky laugh at how afraid I was minutes earlier, and how much I enjoyed it. "You see," I joke with Etienne, "when you're an adrenaline junkie but also a chicken like me, you don't have to do crazy things like skydiving or swimming with sharks. You can just do something mundane like climbing a ladder and think, ''what a rush!'"
We hike on. My pack feels heavy -- this is our longest food carry yet -- but my legs feel strong, and the Smokies are magical. The trees up here are still bare, but the buds are ready to burst at the tips of the branches. Bright green grass and white wildflowers blanket the ground alongside the trail. The mountains are layer upon layer of green and blue and gray. Here, in a place so notorious for rain and mist obscuring the views that it's named for it, the sky is finally crystal clear.
At Mollies Ridge Shelter, a black bear approaches camp four times, each time driven off by the swarm of people who meet him with cameras. There are at least 25 people staying the night, so seeing the bear feels like a lucky thing, not a dangerous one. An old ridgerunner paces back and forth, a can of bear spray in his hand, hoping to convince this bear to stop associating humans with easy food. Not that bears in the Smokies look at humans as food, but with all the visitors who feed the animals either deliberately or accidentally through poor food storage practices, sometimes black bears can get dangerous when they lose their fear of people.
This bear is clearly not afraid of individual humans, and he knows he can find food scraps around the shelter. But he's wary of the crowd, and after his fourth approach, none of us see him again, and no one reports hearing him sniffing around their tent at night. I sleep well, and look forward to continuing deeper into the park.