Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Have I ever told you the one about me getting electrocuted in a thunderstorm on a fire tower? It started out bad, persistently stayed bad, and only relented when my day ended at a Newport KFC buffet wearing what most would describe as boxers and a sweatshirt. Everything between is described in this harrowing account of one of the most miserable days in the Smokies...ever.
The start of our day, Rain and more rain, Big Creek was already pretty rowdy.
Baxter Creek Trail.
Rock formations early on the hike.

With the hike to 1000 miles in full swing and my legs feeling tough and rested from a peaceful week at work, I zeroed in on my Sunday hike in search for a challenge and some big miles. The problem was the weather forecast. 100% rain. Basically a complete guarantee but I have no faith in weather forecasters and my thoughts about what I would miss out on always outweighed my concern with the weather. Besides, I had rain gear and a hot mug of coffee, what else could I possibly need?
She marched on even though she hates being wet.
Trillium along the stream.
Yellow Trillium.

I found a list of toughest hikes in the Smokies and realized I had knocked out several and after conquering the famed off trail summits of Guyot and Old Black, my confidence was at an all time high. On the list however was one notable piece missing from my resume, the Baxter Creek Trail to Mt. Sterling. In six miles the trail rises over 4200ft to the fire tower at the summit of Mt. Sterling where wide sweeping views await those brave enough to climb the rickety old tower. I grabbed my map and looked over the trails around the summit and saw that I could complete a loop hike using Baxter Creek, Swallow Fork, and Big Creek returning to the truck after a 17 mile day of Smokies glory.
Everything was green!
Looking back into Big Creek.

I sent Amy a message about the hike fully expecting not just a no but a hell no. All those years of living on the mountain alone with cats she has developed a lot of their traits, particularly a hatred for water. She's rejected several hikes on the premise of having to get her feet wet so with a forecast like we faced that day her response of, "as long as we can get coffee" was shocking to say the least. I can't remember where we met that day other than it was raining. It wasn't that hard rain that makes you stare out the window and be thankful to be indoors but a rain that just does enough to screw things up. We hit the road with thoughts of the hot cup of coffee that awaited us at the Dandridge Dunkin Donuts. The trip down was uneventful with the exception of an incredible waded up trash throw from my drivers seat, out the passenger door, over Amy's shoulder, and landing perfectly in the bottom of the trash can on the sidewalk. You just kinda had to be there for it.
Another perfect trillium.
squirrel corn.

At the trail head in Big Creek, we pulled in next to a van where a boy and girl stood outside in the drizzle making out like they were never going to see each other again. He only paused long enough to see my shirt with the Autobots logo from Transformers and said, "Dude! Awesome shirt! That's gonna get you to the summit for sure!" He really believed in me. Along with my awesome shirt, I had on quick dry shorts, wool socks, and my trusty Yuengling hat. I put on my pack cover and rain jacket and adjusted all straps before setting my sights on the bridge over Big Creek. There on the bridge was our friends from the parking lot once again checking each other's tonsils. Big Creek was already raging and the sound of the creek led us through what would be the only easy part of the hike. The rain alternated between a drizzle and a light steady pour and it was only about a mile or so into the hike before both our rain jackets had been thoroughly breached by the onslaught. The hike however was beautiful with the forest coming alive and vibrant with everything being a bright green with a single track hiking path meandering through what was once a large logging camp.
Stone crop.
Dog hobble in bloom.

Shortly thereafter, the trail stopped meandering and started punishing. The rain made sections of it a small stream and the climbing began in earnest. Amy was in remarkably good spirits and led us up the hill on a good pace and we found plenty of plant life to photograph to sneak in an extra break here and there. In classic Smokies fashion, the trail switchbacked and dipped in and out of valleys. At one of the first views back down into Big Creek fog lifted from the valley floor while storm clouds loomed on the horizon, it was beautiful really. The elevation gain was significant already and temperatures went from comfortable to slightly chilly with the breeze and rain but as long as we were moving we stayed warm. Several miles into our day we ran into the only people we would see the rest of the day. It was two backpackers that eyeballed us up and down curious of our intent. I suppose it's not often a giant approaches wearing shorts in a downpour. We told them we were loop hiking using several trails but they told us Swallow Fork was impassable with flooding and they had to use the trail we were coming up to get back to their vehicle. I was bummed out losing four miles and new Smokies trail but 13 miles of up and back in a downpour on Mt. Sterling is still respectable.
Some downfall.
More downfall.

Amy found a tree that was hollowed out and took refuge for a few minutes of rest and we decided to break into her stash of homemade cookies for a quick break. We had already climbed over some big downfall but up ahead there was even more on the trail. We both seemed at peace as we crunched on cookies and the rain would ease every so often to give us hope of maybe seeing the sun. I even held out through slightest of hopes we would climb above the rain and see a sea of clouds from Mt. Sterling, it was going to be incredible! When we set back to hiking Amy must have been supercharged by the cookies because she tackled the biggest downfall and did some sort of gymnastic manuever resembling flipping from one log to the next and somehow sticking the landing. She claimed she meant to do it but her facial expression was one that suggested otherwise. Again, you just had to be there for it. The upper stretches of Mt. Sterling we entered an old growth forest and with it snarled giants of wind beaten trees and thick moss coated every limb and boulder, the section of trail was one or the most photogenic I had ever hiked through. I glanced at my GPS noticing we were over the 4100ft mark in elevation gain so I was fully expecting a level ridge walk at any moment and soon a break from rain inside the tower...I would be sorely disappointed.
Please stop raining!
the downfall was pretty bad on the upper stretches of  Baxter Creek.
You can do it!

The rain transitioned once again from drizzle to downpour and with it came a howling wind. I was cold but I knew we had to be close. I kept my head down and Amy had not said a word in quite some time so I knew the fuse was short. When we crossed over another false summit to see the trail continuing uphill she turned on a dime and said, "if that damn tower isn't up at that next point, I'm turning around and going down and I don't care what you do." When we topped the point of no return we were greeted with more climbing but I saw a couple of tents off the trail to the left and a wooden trail sign up ahead. Amy just shook her head and trudged on, she's a lot of things but she's not a quitter. My dreams of a sea of clouds was granted as we exited the woods in the clearing at the Mt. Sterling fire tower, the only problem was that we were inside of them! Wind gusts blasted through the clearing and the rain actually hurt as I pulled my hood tighter approaching the tower. There's a tangle of wires that ran from a small substation adjacent to the main tower and the wind shook them violently as I took hold of the first rail to climb. Amy was just ahead of me and made it to the second set of steps before looking puzzled saying the tower was shocking her. I was shaking from cold and exhaustion but hadn't noticed it, I clenched the railing harder and felt small jolts of electricity in my forearm shaking the muscle. We decided to climb down and I'm sure we looked hilarious with our arms in the air as if held at gunpoint by an unseen assailant. We determined there had to be some sort of short in one of the wires and the rain was causing it to juice the tower and any unsuspecting hiker that came along.
Starting to look interesting entering the old growth forest.
Amy up above me on a switch back.
Moss was everywhere!

*author's note: I mentioned this incident to both an online forum of 22,000 Smokies addicts as well as the park service. One idiot in particular questioned my story saying it didn't happen to him a few weeks earlier. He's lucky he did this from the comfort of a keyboard in Ohio and not to my face.
More trail from near the top.
When you reach here, it isn't much further..
At last! Mt. Sterling!

After retreating down the trail we stopped for lunch under some rocks trying our best to stay out of the rain and shield ourselves from wind. At some point, Amy had gotten in pretty rough shape. She was now so cold she couldn't get her jacket zipped or gloves on from shivering. I helped her get situated and we opened up some hot hands and our stash of coffee in hopes of warming up. We ate quickly because she was in pain from the cold and I was frozen from the waist down. Amy meanwhile had bundled up with two coats, gloves, and even a toboggan. She set off on a blistering pace down the mountain trying to warm up. Once I started moving again I was cold but it was manageable. I lingered in the moss covered old growth forest for more photos before jogging to catch up with Amy.
Just to prove I was on this hike.
At the tower. Look at that elevation gain!
Finally some warmth!

As fate would have it the sun popped out as we were about three miles down the mountain. It was short lived but we embraced the beams while they lasted. It was the only time we would see it that day. Coming down the mountain made me think how impressive the climb up had been. The trail was so steep it hurt my knees. Soon we were back within earshot of Big Creek and my attention shifted to finding the side trail to the remains of the logging camp lodge including a massive stone chimney. We found the path we missed earlier and made one final stop for pictures with Amy taking a hilarious tumble from trying to jump off the chimney ledge. Crossing the bridge over Big Creek we could see a significant increase in water level and I knew we had made the right choice by back tracking.
Amy ready to escape.
I still couldn't get over the beauty up here!

I practically ran to my truck excited to grab my dry clothes and change but there was one small problem, they were still at home in Gray. I had forgot them! I rummaged through the mess behind the seat and found some old basketball shorts and a sweatshirt, it wasn't stylish but I was going to be dry. I really regretted not having dry shoes so I drove us barefoot back to Newport where instead of the steak I had promised Amy earlier in the hike turned into chicken livers at KFC and we dined as we listened to a local couple fight loudly in the booth behind us. At first, it was entertaining but as it went on I missed being on that silent mountain in the pouring rain.
The remains of a monster tree. Perhaps an American Chestnut?
On the old Logging Lodge Chimney.

Amy was floored by the chimney.

Looking back on the day it was miserable but there's a certain satisfaction of knowing we persevered when most people wouldn't walk out the door. In perfect conditions, Mt. Sterling is a difficult hike, on the day we did it, it was downright electrifying and despite it all, I will return one day for that view I was denied.  Until next time, happy trails!
Big Creek as we crossed the bridge.

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