The boys were boiling water early for instant oatmeal and hot chocolate. I cooked cheddar cheese grits with ham and peas. After breakfast, I filtered water from the spring, which was down a steep path from the shelter. A few minutes after leaving the shelter, two small bears ran across the trail in front of me. Would the mother bear emerge next to protect them? There was no sign of her. She had probably crossed the trail in front of the cubs before I got there. Vandeventer Shelter, with its view of Watauga Lake, draws lots of campers. Bears were known to scrounge littered food here and climb trees at night to steal poorly hung food bags.
Watauga Lake at dam
There was one water source over the first six miles, and I missed it. My
water bottles were empty when I got to Watauga Lake. The trail came out
on a paved road, which led to a boat-launch area. I stood a foot into
the lake on a rock and filtered water six inches below the surface and
six inches above the lake bottom—to avoid drawing in pollen or oil
residue from the surface or sediment from the bottom. When I was done, a
man who had been fishing from shore gave me two ice-cold bottles of
water from his cooler, which I drank on the spot. The fish weren’t
biting, so he offered me a ride back to the trail. He said the town of
Butler, which had been inundated when the Tennessee Valley Authority
(TVA) dammed the Watauga and Elk Rivers after World War II, reappeared
in the winter of 1983, when the lake was drawn down to make dam repairs.
The trail went across the dam—deep water on one side, a dry gorge of
rocks on the other.
I cooked bean-bark stew and wrapped it in a tortilla with slices of cheddar cheese for lunch at Watauga Lake Shelter, a long mile from the dam. After lunch, I filled a bucket with water from a rhododendron-lined stream and took a sponge bath behind the shelter. Bringing the bucket—a one-gallon ice-cream container—had been a last-minute decision. I carried it upside down in my backpack and slid it over the items at the top, so it didn’t take up much space.
It started raining just as I was ready to leave. A long-distance hiker named Seeker arrived. We talked for an hour in the shelter until the rain stopped. She said she was seeking—hence the name—a spiritual connection with nature. What was I seeking? I thought of it more as finding, a two-way proposition: I find something; something finds me. The mystery of what would come around the bend—that intersection, that serendipitous moment—excited me and kept me walking. Of course, serendipity can be one-sided. Just ask the mouse who meets the owl for the first and last time.
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I leaned heavily on my hiking poles for five miles, ascending to the flat top of Pond Mountain. When the trail leveled at the top, I sang an old song: “I like to singa, about the moona, and the Juna, and the springa, I like to singa, about the sky so blue, and a tea for two…” I quit singing and put on my poncho when it started raining. The next three miles dropped steeply to Laurel Fork Creek over rocky terrain. The trail leveled once creek side but tested me again for the last half-mile climb, over slick rocks and mud, with darkness closing in, to Laurel Fork Shelter.
Laurel Fork Shelter in the morning.
A young man named
Lone Wolf and a huge Rottweiler named Max occupied Laurel Fork Shelter.
Max’s loud bark stopped me in my tracks until Lone Wolf calmed him down
so I could approach the shelter. I changed out of damp clothes into long
johns and a fleece jacket before cooking supper with my headlamp
on—ramen noodles with ground turkey and sauerkraut. My food bag was safe
in the shelter—no bears would come around with Max standing guard.
Lone Wolf had been living in the woods, fishing Laurel Creek for trout. He was escaping—at least temporarily—the life that had been fixed for him back on the family farm. The vibe I felt in the shelter was that I had entered his lair: he, the dicey host, and I, the wary guest. After supper, I rolled out my sleeping bag on the opposite side of the shelter from Lone Wolf. I clicked off my headlamp and laid it by my side along with my pocketknife and hiking poles.
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