"Where the hell's the water?" I ask my friend as we walk circles around each other through the ankle high grass in the middle of backcountry camp #32. This can't be it. Surely there's another section of the campsite that we're missing. I look down towards the "creek" and see nothing but damp rock. He searches the side opposite and still nothing. The map showed the site to be situated on the banks of a creek. I've even got my Tenkara fly rod stuffed into my pack with the previously high but now obliterated hope of assaulting wild Brookies. But nothing. Not even enough to wet a fucking rag. Maybe the unmapped trail just south of the camp leads somewhere...maybe to the good camp...the one by the water. I admit that I was relatively disappointed as we waddled north along the manway(no really, unmapped but well used trails are called "manways") with our heads hung low in semi-defeat. We are in search of water and even a better place to string our hammocks. We were moving slow and deliberate. In fact, I figure at the very moment we were the most cautious bastards in the Appalachian Mountains. Why? Because of the rattlesnake. I forgot to tell you about the rattlesnake.
Before we get into all that, allow me to delight you with a little more information about the place where I found myself exactly seven days ago and where this here story is about to unfold.
I already knew what I wanted to do. I wanted somewhere new or at least new to me. I investigated the maps and had all but settled on a spot in the Cumberland. Then suddenly I realized that as much as I have grown to like the small wildernesses and waterfalls that lovingly blanket that area of the near east portion of Tennessee...the fact was that I needed mountains. Mountains and rivers and the wide open air. I needed altitude and the sweet smell of the rhododendrons. My mountains. As always, when they call I must go.
Still, I wanted a fresh place and a trail that my boots hadn't trod. The Greenbrier portion of the smokies kept catching my eye. It's located in the northern reaches of the GSMNP and looked like a prime spot to haul in some camera gear. It is an old mountain community and the land is still littered with rock piles from long gone homeplaces and chimneys. As I studied and inquired more about the area one very pronounced and shitty pattern began to develop. It seems that Greenbrier, especially the area to the immediate east of my intended camp, is home to the most dense population of Timber rattlesnakes to be found in the entire Park. Of course it is...why should it not be. That information withstanding, I still decide this is the place to expend the weekend. So as the departure date neared I readied myself for the probable certainty that I would be in the good company of a healthy assortment of sidewinders.
Now, if you follow this sometimes incoherent and profanity laced and often whisky soaked rambling which society has gently labeled a blog, you may have noticed a very conspicuous word which landed in that first paragraph and no that was not a typo(see the part about whisky above). One of my best friends decided last minute that he wanted to be, at long last, baptized by backcountry. The bastard is a former and probably future world traveler and has been my friend through more than one bleak situation. So, I was more than happy to disappoint those who always expect me to say that I'm going into the wild alone.
Calm yourself...I'm getting back to the part about the snake. Eventually.
After landing at the trail head we strike out at a respectable pace and soon realize that the trail, Grapeyard Ridge, is most certainly just that...a ridge. A ridge that seemingly climbs to about 100 yards past the far side of Venus. We march. Trudge. Languish. Plod even. We climb and dip down and then top out only to climb even further. We press on across creeks and through more than one tunnel of rhododendron.
Just under the three mile mark we encounter a decent sized stream crossing and decide it is an opportune time to take some rest and cool off before making our final descent to camp. I take off my pack and shirt and enjoy my new-found lightness as I head for the water. We don't linger for more than ten minutes before we strap on the packs and push on down the trail. But we don't get far.
Within sight of the creek where we stopped there is a fairly ominous looking downed tree that blocks the passage. Easy enough to make it over in full packs so that's just what we do with my friend on point. After I make it over the tree we take a few steps and then he stops, turns, and points at the ground about four feet off the trail. Yep. It's a rattlesnake. Big and terrible.
Honestly, he was minding his own business just coiled up in the sun. No doubt still cold and sluggish from the coolness of the morning. We keep our distance and I make a few photographs. Together we come to the decision that the snake is just a little too close to the trail and that a misstep or worse...a fall from a unbalanced hiker crossing the downed tree could lead to disaster. So we take action.
DO NOT MALICIOUSLY PROVOKE OR ATTEMPT TO HARM: SNAKES, BEARS, ME, OR ANY OTHER LIFEFORM YOU MAY ENCOUNTER ON THE TRAIL
I extend my camera's tripod to the full six feet and remain as far back as I possibly can. Very carefully, I persuade the serpent to distance itself from the trail by carefully nudging the ground in front of it's head. There. Now you've heard the snake story. Can we continue?
Now we find ourselves back at the beginning with myself and my friend headed down that unmarked manway in search for water. It's somewhat of biggie because if we don't find any drinking water we will be forced to track back into Snakeland to fill up. Luckily, we come to a nice spot where the water is deep enough to gather. And gather we do. We retrieve or Camelbacks from our packs, plus two water bottles. I also decided to test out just how waterproof one of my stuff sacks truly was. So I empty it out and fill it up as well. All in all, we are quite pleased with ourselves. So we make our way back with our agua to campsite #32 looking like two half-ass Cosmonauts.
The "life sack". My 10 liter waterproof stuff sack. I call it a life sack because: #1. It contains life sustaining water that we desperately needed #2. It sounds funny to say life sack...because I'm twelve.
We make camp, unload and pitch our shelters, gather up some firewood, and then stretch out for a quick siesta. My buddy Spencer enjoying said siesta.
The mobile Moose Lodge. Home for three days.
The other member of our company arrives(yeah, not one but two other people on this trip) and we settle in for some chow and a much needed sleep. The next day will bring another unexpected visitor to our party and new adventures. But for now, I'm back home. Swaying in the hammock and listening to, well, nothing. And that's just what I wanted.