When it comes to winter hiking in the Smoky Mountains, sometimes the phrase “walking in someone’s footsteps” takes on a quite literal meaning. We saw ten inches of snow at Russell Field this past weekend, and we definitely found ourselves post holing from time to time. The trip made for some breathtaking views and unforgettable memories. It’s trips like this that remind me of that deep, intimate relationship I find when I’m in the woods.
The day began Saturday with an early breakfast at Riverstone in Townsend, followed by a caravan out to the Cades Cove Parking Lot. I was joined on this little overnight excursion by some of my favorite people: Bert “WILDCAT” Emerson and his good friend Dwight, three of the four “A.T. for Haiti” hikers who are thruhiking the Appalachian Trail this summer to raise money for a school in Haiti (YouTube video), Phil “Philamanjaro” Ross and his wife “Popsicle,” and Jan Pendleton (“Liar Liar”) with her dog Pearl (“Cat Hunter” or “Cat Snatcher”… or something along those lines.. I can’t quite remember Pearl’s trail name, so she’ll have to forgive me); my fiance Lauren (“Tiger Lilly”), and John (or “Dad” as I like to call him, seeing as he is my father). Together, we set out from the parking lot on a mission to explore and feast our eyes upon the mystical snows of Russell Field.
The sun was shining down on our happy faces as we trudged up the white, frosty trail. The tree branches sparkled in the sunlight, and the squirrels chuckled at us as we slowly waddled through the deep snow. I decided to use my Kahtoola MicroSpikes (staff favorite) on my Salewa Alp Trainer Mid hiking boots for the snowy hike. However, the temperatures were around 40 and the snow was wet and heavy. To my chagrin, the snow began collecting very easily upon my microspikes, and soon each hiking boot weighed about 10 pounds. Dad looked back and said, “I think you’re getting taller!” to which I replied, “No I’ve just compiled about 4 inches of snow onto the bottoms of my shoes.” He laughed. Being the stubborn twentysomething guy that I am though, I didn’t take them off, convinced that I would need them for the steeper sections. About 3 miles in, I began noticing some noticeable pain in my heals. The extra weight was causing my heels to rub just a teansie bit on my boots… and every hiker knows this is no bueno. As you might have guessed though, I didn’t take them off.. although I think at this point it was less from stubbornness and more from my exhaustion (that’s right, I was too lazy to bend over and pull my microspikes off my feet).
I looked ahead on the trail only to see my father trudging along without a huff, puff, or care in the world. In fact, he stood out to me in a way that hadn’t really occurred to me yet. He was wearing all cotton! Cotton blue jeans, cotton shirt, probably cotton socks! Oh and something else.. he was hiking a lot faster than anyone else in the group. I must admit though that he did have a secret weapon on his side: a pair of old military winter zipup boots with thick wool liners inside from his Air Force days. He said he use to wear them in 40 below zero temps in Nebraska back in the 1980’s. Yeah, he’s somethin’ else. All that cotton may have added a little bit of discomfort in that cold, wet snow, but as you can see in the picture above, he was still smiling. After all, as a wise old wildcat once said, “The most important thing you can carry with you on a long hike… is determination.”
We reached Russell Field Shelter around 3pm as the sun began to peek in through the clouds. My first thought was… “I need food.” Incidentally, this thought came out of my mouth in the form of a mumbled sentence. My dad replied, “I’ve got some chicken and potato soup.” My mouth began to instantly salivate. I wasn’t use to having such nice trail food. In fact… I don’t think I had chicken and potato soup a single time while thruhiking the A.T. in 2013 (Jimmy’s gear list is available in the shop). Such meals are not typically considered “trail food” simply because of their weight. My dad didn’t care though. It tastes good, and I was very thankful he had it and was willing to share. We heated the soup up on our MSR Pocket Rockets. My Pocket Rocket has seen a lot of miles at this point, after taking it on the A.T. and virtually every hike since then. I honestly love the stove. It is very quick and easy to set up, packs down very small in my pack, doesn’t make a mess while in use, boils water in less than 5 minutes, has adjustable heating capabilities, weighs only 3 ounces, and has a built in toothbrush that pops out! Ok, that last one was a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point. It’s sweet. If you are in or around Little River Trading Company down on East Lamar Alexander Pkwy in Maryville at any point in time, you should check it out. At only $39.99, it is a very affordable yet reliable backpacking stove!
Needless to say, the soup was delicious.
After our little snack, we began gathering wood. We knew that you can still have a nice raging fire, even with 10 inches of snow on the ground. After cutting up the wood with our Sven Saws and putting it all into little piles inside the shelter, we sat around the fire, got cozy, and told stories. “The Haitians” as I like to call them, had packed cookies and milk, and some amazing ham! They meant it to be for possible A.T. Thruhikers who might happen to be going by. But seeing as we ran into nary a thruhiker, I helped myself to some of the pleasantries. A few more timeless WILDCAT stories and fresh logs on the fire later, and I was in dreamland.
As cold sleeting rain clouds moved in during the wee hours of the morning, we were still snug and cozy in our shelter. We stoked up the fire, ate breakfast, and took some final pictures at the top. It was a great time. As I directed my blistered feet toward the Russell Field Trail for the descent down to Cades Cove, I looked back over my shoulder, and said goodbye to an old friend. I stared into the deep, dark woods where the white blazes drifted off in the trees like the sails of distant ships meandering along a vast sea to the far off horizon. Until we meet again, old friend. I looked down at my father’s footsteps in the snow and made my way down the mountainside.