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Gregory Bald, Day 1
Backpacking and photographing Gregory Bald in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Welcome to Field Notes issue XXIII! In this edition we will-
Relay the story of the first day of my overnight trip to Gregory Bald in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
View photos from the trip and at the peak
Take a look at new gear I’m using to provide new footage of the adventure
I am warned that this issue may be too long for email. I believe it will still reach you, but may not be shown in its entirety. If so, I hope you will continue reading on the web or in the app. There’s a nice short video clip towards the end that I think will be worth it!
I hear something in the woods to my left, a sharp crack. I stop and listen. More snaps and a muffled thud to my right. Is it animals? Great Smoky Mountains National Park is known for its black bear population and the numerous bear warnings on the website have made me hyper focused.
Wind rustles the oak canopy high above. Pow! Dust explodes on the trail 2 feet in front of me. In the microseconds that I seriously consider the possibility of a sasquatch hurling rocks at me I notice the many large, more than thumb sized, acorns strewn across the trail. It is late September and the acorns are dropping all around.
More thuds in the forest, pretty close. If one of these free falling nuts were to strike my head from 5 stories above I may wake up 2 days later with a bear licking my face.
There is nothing to be done about it but walk on. But, just as my thoughts turn to other things- Bam! The acorn strikes squarely on the top of my pack, inches from my skull. Is this how it ends for me? Taken out of the game by a random nut dropped from a tree? At this point in my life I would be surprised by nothing.
I have visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park a couple of times in the past, but have never backpacked there. The park is a treasure of scenery and biodiversity. However, as one of America’s most popular National Parks, I have always had the impression that it is tangled in regulations that are too intimidating to navigate. For this trip, I give it a try.
The National Park Service website is archaic and not functioning on my first attempt. On the next try, once I locate the easily overlooked yet necessary links, I am able to secure the backcountry campsite registration and parking passes for 2 days without much trouble.
On September 26 I leave at 06:30 and it is still dark outside. The drive is long and uneventful, with the exception of heavy fog that settles in as I drive through the mountains. The valleys are somber as I race past rows of dry corn stalks receding into obscurity in the mist.
Arriving at Twenty Mile Ranger Station, the fog has lifted, revealing a warm and clear autumn day. I begin hiking without delay along trails wide enough to be dirt roads. Unlike nearby Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness, there is no overgrowth of vegetation. The few downed trees have been cleared from the trails. The paths, though un-blazed, are clearly marked with signs at every intersection.
The trail initially follows a spectacular stream. I am tempted to stop for photos before the trek has even begun. The destination is far, and I must move on.
The hours of walking grow long. The temperature rises, but the air is dry. The trail turns to climb Wolf Ridge. My legs burn with exertion. A breeze looses large acorns, tumbling down from the canopy high above. Several strike near me, very close. There is no way to predict or avoid them. I walk on.
I have experienced many disasters in my lifetime. Some are injuries, others circumstances. The scars bind together the fabric of my self. Misfortune is never pleasant, but the surviving of it builds one’s character. Many things in life are out of my control, including acorns. All I can do is continue to move forward, trying to be the best man that I can be. Amor fati.
The day ages into afternoon and I arrive at Parson’s Bald. It is tree covered and no longer a bald at all. This is the top of the ridge and most of the climb is over. Viburnum is blooming all around and something moves in it to my left. I pause and focus. Turkeys. At least 2, maybe more. I see their heads peaking through the shrubbery. They ease away from me and I slowly continue.
Campsite #13 is at Sheep Pen Gap. It is wide and spacious, with many options for setting up camp. I am the only one here. I pitch my tent and hoist my food bag high up on the cable system to keep it safe from bears, as unnerving as that task is.
Gregory Bald is still another half mile climb from the gap, so I bring my pack with camera gear. It is too far from camp to go back and forth.
The grass covered mountaintop is glorious in the September afternoon glow. Asters, thistle, and other wildflowers grow close to the ground, before the backdrop of the Smoky Mountains. To the north are the golden fields of Cade’s Cove, sprawling between the ridges.
Voluminous clouds drift across the sky. I move back and forth across the mountain, photographing the changing light. Color builds in the west, turning to a rich warm glow as the skies darken. I linger, my heart over filled with the rapture of existence. It is well after dark when I stumble back to my tent for rest.
Hey! If you’ve been following along to Field Notes you know that I’ve been trying to provide a better video experience of my adventures and photography.
I recently acquired a GoPro Hero 10 Black! The smaller photos and time lapse in this post were recorded with it. There is a huge learning curve, but I’m excited to offer you more storytelling photos and video with this equipment. I hope you enjoy it and stay tuned for day 2 and the full short film in the next issue of Field Notes!
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