Mountain Man

Hiking trails, waterfalls and lush greenery in the Great Smoky Mountains give a novice camper a break from civilization and a chance to sleep under the stars

October 15, 2006|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,[Sun reporter]

MAYBE IT'S THE wannabe rugged outdoorsman in me; maybe it's the penny pincher; or maybe I've just spent one too many nights flipping the remote while at one too many Days Inn; but when an opportunity arises to break out the old tent and get back to nature -- in moderation, of course -- I will leap at it, or at least give it some thought.

Take last month. I had an obligation in North Carolina, another a few days later in Alabama. Between the two lay the Great Smoky Mountains, an area whose green and misty beauty -- while I had passed through several times -- I had never truly explored.

Why not rough it for a couple of days, I reasoned, avoiding the hassle of finding a motel that would accept my dog, who was coming along for the trip, and instead camping under the stars, seeing some early fall colors, possibly some waterfalls and maybe even some black bears.

With a little Internet research, I found a not-too-far-from-civilization, not-too-far-off-my-route campsite in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles North Carolina and Tennessee. I printed out some information on horseback riding, hiking, rafting and other activities in the area, and Mapquested my course.

Then, modest checklist in hand, I trekked down to the wet, moldy, cobweb-cluttered wilds of my basement to find my camping gear.

The old tent? Check. Well, actually, it's almost brand new, and has been gathering dust since the only other time I used it -- to camp with my son (and thereby save $200 in hotel costs) in the most remote reaches of my cousin's backyard during a three-day family reunion in Zanesville, Ohio.

Sleeping bag? Check. Bug spray? Check. First aid kit, circa 1988? Check. Bottle of wine, circa 2005? Check. Flashlight? Check. Battery-operated lamp I picked up at a yard sale? Check.

My gear was in order, which is how gear should be. I like gear. I like the very word. "Let me get my gear." "My gear is in the truck." "I'll be right there, but first I have to stow my gear." People who have gear generally know what they're doing, or have a lot of money to waste -- neither of which is true of me, which explains my somewhat minimal gear.

I had no self-inflating air mattress, no hand-held waterproof GPS device, no Starbucks campfire coffee kit. In fact, I had no camping cookware at all, which required that I bring along a couple of my everyday pots and pans from the kitchen, some of which would end up having their handles melted on the campfire.

With everything laid out for the camping trip, and the other two side trips as well, I realized there was no way it, the dog, and my traveling companion were going to fit in the car. Something would have to be stowed on the roof, and it was clear it should be the gear -- it being both the most expendable and the least likely to object.

Packed up, I took off, too preoccupied with checking to see whether the gear was sliding off the roof to realize that I was forgetting several key items. But I had my dog, and some wine, and a corkscrew, and I had a good friend along who brought the coffeepot. What more could a person possibly need?

No. 1 item

Firewood. Lots of firewood. The amount of firewood you think you need, times four. Firewood, I learned, was even more important than gear.

We had arrived at the park's Deep Creek Tube Center and Campground, near Cherokee, N.C., in late afternoon, and were greeted not by a smiling park ranger, but by an automated kiosk with a slot to swipe your credit card through and buttons to push. In this, the first test of my survival skills, I fared well, securing a campsite along the river for two nights (at $17 per night).

We unloaded our gear and gathered fallen twigs and branches to start a fire -- for fire is the single most important ingredient in the camping experience. It, more than anything else, more even than tent and gear, creates the camping ambience. Without fire, you're not camping; you're merely sleeping out.

Next came assembling the tent, which went more quickly than I had imagined. The last time I did it took an hour, even with my son and a good portion of my extended family helping. This time, I pitched it by myself in 15 minutes and, having passed survival test No. 2, went in search of more firewood.

Fortunately, two stores outside the national park, though closed, had stacks of it out, available on the honor system, and I loaded up the back of my car, tossed a $10 bill in the rusty coffee can and returned to the campsite feeling like a regular Paul Bunyan, handling with ease every challenge nature threw at me.

Our fire roaring, we made dinner atop a grated fire pit -- steaks, potatoes and squash we had picked up at a grocery store along the way. Drinking coffee under the stars, we decided to go horseback riding the next morning, and hike in the afternoon to three nearby waterfalls -- all less than a mile from our campsite. Because the national park doesn't allow dogs on the trails, I had lined up doggie day care at a nearby -- or so I thought -- kennel.

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