Day 15 – Birch Spring Campsite to Derrick Knob Shelter

This is a “catch-up” post being made from home while I await my doctor’s appointment this afternoon to get a second opinion on my achilles injury and rehab. The events described in this post took place on March 30 2024.

So I didn’t get a chance to even capture notes or draft something at the end of the day on the 30th. As I hiked out of camp on the morning on the 31st, I was a little worried about loosing too much of what happened the previous day so I recorded a little audio that I’ll include here in case you are interested. I’ll try to cover most of what’s in the recording and a few other things I forgot in the post itself though.

First, a bit about the post from the previous day. As many of you noticed it was quite long and detailed. It took me more than an hour to write, which is unusual since up to that point I had mostly been writing these up as a last thing to do while in my hammock powering down for the day and getting ready to sleep. It all goes back to that 10 min resupply I mentioned. I had my list and one thing on it was electrolytes. I’d started my hike with some liquid IV packets and those had lasted me nearly two weeks with it being rather cool, but the first couple days of the smokies were supposed to be warmer, so I wanted to make sure to get some more. When I got to the small section of the general store at Fontana Village general store of drink packets, I didn’t recognize any of the brands, so I just picked some from the basket that looked the emptiest, figuring that that is what most other hikers prefer.

Fast forward to a few hours later – I’ve made it back to the Fontana Hilton, field stripped all my food into its smallest and lightest weight form and am starting out the road walk across the dam to the trail head heading up nearly 2,000 feet of elevation gain to get to Birch Springs. I fill up my water from one of the taps at the Hilton and add in one of the packets I picked up. Several hours later when I got to Birch Springs, I was feeling great – it was the first time the whole trip, I felt I could actually keep going even though I’d already done more than 13 and it was 7 o’clock. I setup camp but (crucially and mistakenly) still felt pretty full from the late lunch and snacks I had on the way, so instead of eating dinner I just had a bit of dark chocolate and some trail butter.

Strangely, I was still wide awake at 9…then at 10…then at 11. I think I finally drifted off to sleep sometime before midnight. Somewhere in the transition to sleep, it occurred to me that I did know one of those brands…it was one my daughter favors…when she is looking for a pick me up before going out to party…Celsius. So between that, the chocolate and the trail butter (which also had some caffeine in it) I had nearly 300 mg of caffeine after 5 PM. Add to it that although I wasn’t really hungry when I got to camp or after I setup, I magically did get hungry around 2 AM, it wasn’t the best night of sleep – not enough of it and not very high quality.

So, the next morning I woke up a bit after 7 and was out of camp around 8:30. The plan was for a 17.5 mile day with more than 5,000 feet of elevation. I made the plan, but paid the price. The morning started off easily enough with a little climb out of camp and then some pretty cruisey forest paths. The smokies were the first time I noticed any signs of spring. Some grass at the edge of the path. Some small flowers blooming in the thousands.

A little green grass on the edge of the trail in the smokies

The little wild flowers blooming. This is one of those pictures that will never do the real thing justice. It looked like an impressionist painting in real life between the little flowers and how the light was coming through the still bare trees.

But it was a slow morning. I started to notice that while my legs weren’t tired, my mind was. There are different kinds of fatigue. I decided that I needed to eat last nights planned dinner for lunch to give me an energy boost for the afternoon. I stopped at Mollies Ridge shelter around 11:30 and ran into John (who had also camped at Birch Springs the night before) and met YardBird (he used to work in a ship yard) for the first time. I found and filtered some water and prepared the Alpine Aire freeze-dried meal I had planned for the previous evening. Much to my surprise, it was actually a breakfast! Some concoction of eggs, beans, corn, etc. I had a few tortillas left, so spooned it on those and had a feast.

Cooking lunch at Mollie’s Ridge shelter.

Stopping to eat a big lunch was the right call (things would have been worse had I not), but it wasn’t exactly the boost I was looking for. I was still pretty sluggish for the first couple hours after lunch. I think I was digesting rather and producing energy. So I plodded through at a pretty slow pace what would turn out to be the easiest miles of the day.

The thing about the smokies is you have to stay at a shelter area (or more generally a designated campsite, but all of the designated campsites except birch springs are shelters AFAIK at least on the AT). The shelters are spaced pretty far apart. So you end up having to make choices – do I want to do a 12 mile day today and be done at 3-4 (seems too little and too early)…or do I want to so an 18 mile day and maybe not be done until dusk (around 8)? Outside of the smokies, when you have a lot more flexibility in terms of miles per day and can make calls as the day progresses to stop slightly short or go a bit longer without feeling like you are missing a lot of miles OR having to commit to more than you can reasonably do.

I plodded along for another few hours. A couple hours after lunch I did notice my overall energy improve, which was helpful. What wasn’t helpful was it was the first day of the hike where I was really sweating and starting to feel the heat. It was in the low 60s I’d guess, not exactly hot, but with no leaves on the trees it was all direct sunlight and of course I was working pretty hard going up (and down) the hills. Also not helpful was all of the leaves accumulated in the trail. The trail was literally like a ditch in some places with a whole Fall’s worth of leaves accumulated in it. The challenge with the leaves is you can’t tell what’s under them so you have to tread carefully to avoid kicking something, rolling an ankle, stepping short, etc.

Leaves piled in the trail (ditch) made what should have been easy trails a little more challenging.

I rolled up on Spence Field shelter at 3:52 right before the cut off I’d set for myself of 4:00. If I’d stopped here it would have been less than a 12 mile day. I still really wanted to get out of the smokies in 4-5 days and that wasn’t going to happen with less than 12 mile days, so I took a quick break and moved on.

The last 6 miles kicked my butt. The terrain changed completely going to rocky ascents with mostly exposed peaks. Nearly have of the days climbs were in those last 6 miles as well, including the final half mile with nearly a 700 ft per mile grade. Hindsight: I suspect it was somewhere in this section that I might have first injured my achilles since I might have not been drinking enough water and recall feeling something akin to a Charlie horse in the left leg on one of the climbs.

Rocky paths through exposed balds

It was a little warm

As I got down to the last mile I caught up with YardBird again and we climbed the last little bit together. I got to camp just before dark and picked a good enough hammock spot close enough to the shelter to satisfy any late nigh ridge runner than might come through.

First mega fauna sighting…but just a deer.

I went to get water and hang my food bag (yeah…another day I was too tired / not interested in eating dinner so just had a snack…bad pattern emerging here) and ended up hanging at the shelter a little bit since some other THs has made a very small fire. It was good to meet them and hear their stories. I finished my jerky while I talked with them and headed back to my hammock to finish setting up and crashed..hard. No problems falling asleep this night.






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