Three days on the Appalachian Trail

By Andrew Pankratz
Times-News correspondent

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View from Cheoah Bald on the Appalachian Trail. [Andy Pankratz / Times-News correspondent

   My uncle and I recently hiked the Appalachian Trail from Nantahala Outdoor Center to where NC 28 crosses the trail a mile before the Fontana Dam.
We arrived at the Whitewater Center on a Tuesday afternoon and hiked a mile south to the Rufus Bald Shelter. Because most of the through hikers (people who hike the entire 2,100 miles from Georgia to Maine in one stretch) had already gone through, only one through hiker named Mark was staying at the shelter. We cooked chicken and rice and a trail version of apple crisp on a little camp stove. I tried to start a fire, but my birch bark, which lights better than paper, just wasn’t enough to get the freshly soaked logs burning.
In the morning, we hiked a mile north back to the outdoor center and started up the mountain. For the next five miles, it was up, up and up. It was a welcome relief after reaching Swim Bald and starting the downhill mile to Sassafras Gap Shelter. We met a couple of other section hikers (people who hike one portion of the trail at a time) who were going in the other direction. At this shelter, I was able to light a good campfire. Mark caught up with us at Sassafras Gap, and decided that my trail name (something which all through hikers and most section hikers acquire) ought to be “Scout” or “Matchstick,” on account of my ability to start a fire.
On Thursday, the nine miles to the Brown Fork shelter were easier than the previous ones. The trail wound up and down; one up section was so steep that the map called it Jacob’s Ladder. We arrived in time to gather some dry wood and ourselves into the shelter before a thunderstorm hit. I found the best way to get dry wood was to cut or knock down small, dead, standing trees.
   On Friday morning, we decided to hike the remaining 13 miles to the Fontana Dam. There were more ups and downs, but overall the trail was smoother. By lunchtime we had covered the six miles to the Cable Gap Shelter. After that we had just one mile of uphill climbing before we wound down the mountain to the Fontana Dam Shelter. Gray clouds threatened rain, but we pushed on anyway. As a result, we got a good soaking.
We hiked another 6 ½ miles down to NC 28, and stopped at the Fontana Lake Marina. At this point, we decided to end our hike there instead of staying overnight at the Fontana Dam shelter. In hiking country, it is a common practice for hikers to hitch rides. There is very little down at the Fontana Dam, and we thought that it might be pretty hard to hitch a ride back up. At 4 p.m., plenty of traffic was coming up from the dam, and we decided to go while the getting was good.
After that hike, the fast food we got on the way out tasted really good. We were thankful for a great hike and an opportunity to see some of the prettiest scenery God made.
Maybe I’ll see you on the trail sometime. Happy trails till then.

Andrew Pankratz is a home-schooled high school senior and a Teens & 20s writer.

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