|Claire helped me mix together some trail mix, which she consistently called 'trail snack' while we were out. "do you want some trail snack, mama?", "oh, this is good trail snack!".|
two years ago we took Claire out for her first backpacking trip. it was an overnight trip on a relatively level trail, we only hiked in a couple miles, and she wasn't in charge of carrying anything herself. not even herself, seeing as how a kelty kid carrier was involved and she hitched a ride in it several times.
fast forward two years. we spent this past Sunday and Monday in the Cataloochee area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. this time we were again setting out for just the one night, again on a fairly level trail with our campsite destination not too far in. but, she was on her own two feet and was expected to carry her small daypack with her own water and snack, rain jacket, sandals, and, if she wanted them- her doll and book(s). we packed up and drove out to the park, a bit less than an hour from home. we got ourselves acquainted with the area and checked out some of the older buildings that have been preserved (the majority of the buildings that once stood in the valley before the government essentially forced the residents out and the park was established in the 1930s were burned/destroyed/left to rot and only a handful remain). the trailhead we needed is located at the very end of the road, and so we passed the old structures along the way and stopped to explore.
we played for a bit in the old schoolhouse, then spied some elk hoof prints in the mud. elk were reintroduced to the park in 2001, and they can often can be seen grazing in the meadows in the Cataloochee area. we did not get to see that, but we did see a few elk cows in the woods.
while we were up exploring this old barn some park naturalists came by with a truck bed full of interesting things. we talked with them for a long time and got to see the skulls and hides of elk, deer, and bear, and the skull of a wild boar. they told us all about the collaring and tagging of the elk, about how important it is to leave the shed antlers in the woods here (they shed them in early spring and many forest critters rely on them for nutrients when there isn't much else to nibble on), and told us that the new antlers grow in at an amazing rate of about an inch per day!
I learned also that 100+ year old structures are without a doubt one of my very favorite things to photograph. I'm not sure there are many things more beautiful than an old, worn out barn.
apparently a descendant of the original owners came around a year or so ago and put a bunch of her own money into the home's upkeep. it appears to have a new paint job, and maybe some structural things and roofing needs were tended to. as far as day-to-day upkeep, I don't think there is much of anything happening. the house is left open (it was our impression that that is the case with all of these structures) and the rooms are bare except for little piles of mouse droppings here and there. the walls upstairs were all papered with newspaper. I wish I had more time to just stare at the words and try to make sense of the old stories and headlines. we heard, but could not see, bats in the attic.
after having our fill poking around this wonderful old place, we headed up the road to the trailhead. we got our things out, ate a little picnic lunch looking out over the meadows, and got to business.
|we stayed at backcountry site #40- an easy mile and a half up the rough fork trail|
|there were so many butterflies! in some places we saw dozens 'puddling' together in one place!|
one mile up the trail stood this place, once the Woody farm. now the home and spring house are tucked away in the woods, but not so terribly long ago there were farm fields all around.
a bit further in, without too much whining and such, we reached our campsite. as we poked around looking for just the right spot to set up our tent, I came upon a big fat toad. he didn't really want to be picked up, and so he puffed up and peed all over my hands. I can't really blame the little guy of course, and I carefully put him back where I found him.
we found a sweet little spot and nestled our tent in near a couple of large hemlock logs. so very many of the mammoth old hemlocks here have died from hemlock woolly adelgid infestation- the park treats some of the larger trees (in fact Mike had been in the area before helping to treat some of the trees, and also once to help get a camera crew up into some of the largest trees to do some filming) and releases beetles that eat the adelgids in hopes of helping reduce the stress a bit, but you can see when you look around that it is a battle that is not going so well.
our little site was only a short walk to the nice loud creek and conveniently located (but not too close) to the cable system for stringing up food and packs so the bears can't get to them. Mike quickly found a good place to hang the hammock, we scrounged around for some wood, I got the bedding squared away, and Claire got busy making a fairy house.
|a fairy table and four chairs, each setting complete with a little leaf plate|
we spent the afternoon reading, exploring, walking up and down old logs in the forest.... she made fairies out of twigs and rhododendron flowers. eventually it was time to make dinner and a fire. then there was some more reading and then we were off to bed. I never sleep well the first night camping, and this time was no exception. ah well. the morning came with rain that gave an easy excuse to stay tucked in the sleeping bags. once it cleared we crawled out and made breakfast after getting more water from the creek. we packed up and she insisted on carrying her own sleeping bag out. she was proud, and looked quite the part of the young backpacker.
|one of the incredible old (dead) hemlocks- something about this one stopped me in my tracks and left me staring up at it for quite some time|
once back to the car, we decided to explore some more and went back to play in the old school house and then drove a different way to another old house and barn. after we walked all around the buildings and were settled at a picnic table to eat a quick lunch, some folks from the University of Tennessee pulled up and blocked off the entrance to the house to do some bat research. I suppose it's a good place for bats, the attics of old abandoned houses. Great Smoky Mountains NP is so rich in species diversity of both flora and fauna (it is recognized by the United Nations as an International Biosphere Reserve), and we certainly got a taste of that, even during such a short visit. so many ferns, so many trees, so many wildflowers. we saw the toad, lots of centipedes, several species of butterflies, an enormous beetle, a snail, elk, white-tailed deer, a black snake, brook trout, and even a bear cub (we saw that little fella running up the hill in front of the car while we were driving down an old gravel road). no doubt if we'd looked closer and had more time we'd have seen salamanders and heard owls, and so much more. we'll definitely be going back.
as for backpacking with our five year old, it was (aside from the several little flies that got into her eyes during the hike out, which caused a bit of an upset) largely a big success. I'm thinking it wouldn't be too much to think we could spend the next handful of years working it up by adding an additional night per year (and obviously increasing the mileage- 1.5 miles hardly feels like backpacking!). at that rate, we could do a week long family backpacking trip the summer that she is eleven. hmmm. just maybe.