Knowing when to fold ’em

The key to continuing to enjoy an activity? Don’t intentionally put yourself in a position to dislike the activity.

I left Cary early this morning for a week of backpacking in the Smokies. In the throes of trying to wrap up a book on backcountry exploring in North Carolina, the trip was both pleasure and work – work under a rapidly approaching deadline. I was doubly motivated to hit the trail.

So I was doubly concerned around Greensboro when the sky began turning gray, and around Hickory when it began to spit. Gray and spit, I could handle, embrace even, as cozy. But when I turned off I-40 and headed south on NC 19, I was less sanguine. The sky turned from gloomy battleship gray to a menacing hue three shades darker that said, “Warning: Deluge Ahead.” The clouds proceeded to deliver.

Hiking in the rain is one thing. You put on a Gore-Tex rainsuit, say, “Bring it on!” then go home and take a hot shower and watch a game on TV. With backpacking, you put on a Gore-Tex rainsuit and about the time your pack is completely drenched you are home. A soggy – and this time of year, cold – home you’ll have to live in for the foreseeable future. No fun, believe me.

My plan had been to backpack a 14-mile loop in the Deep Creek area. Deep Creek is best known for tubing; On a summer’s day you’ll see legions of shorts-wearing , sun-burned thrill-seekers making the pilgrimage upstream, black innertubes over one shoulder. When the weather cools and the tubers depart, it’s ideal backpacking country: no people, no especially harsh climbs, no worries about finding water. I’d only been here during the busy summer; I was especially keyed up for a couple days of Deep Creek backcountry solitude. I wasn’t especially keyed up to do it in a cold rain.

At the trailhead, I wistfully looked up a very wet trail. I really wanted to head up that trail. I really didn’t want to get wet. I got out the iPhone and checked the forecast for Bryson City: Rain continuing into the evening, then clearing. Overnight low 27. Wet, then cold. Tuesday, though, called for mostly sunny skies with a high in the upper 50s. Rain was expected to move back in Wednesday, then clear out Thursday at least through the weekend. I studied my itinerary, which called for four separate trips. My next trip, up the next drainage south, involved hiking 4 miles in, setting up base camp, then doing an 18-mile roundtrip day hike to 6,643-foot Clingman’s Dome. Comparing forecast to game plan I realized if I started early Tuesday, I could day hike the 14-mile Deep Creek loop, then skedaddle south and backpack 4 miles in to basecamp before dark. Wednesday, I could day hike up to Clingman’s Dome and return to the tent. Hiking Clingman’s in the rain isn’t optimal – you miss out on the 360-degree view from the second highest point on the East Coast (6,684-foot Mt. Mitchell is the highest), but it does carry a certain esthetic value. And since the tent would have been set up late Tuesday afternoon under dry conditions, it would be nice, warm and cozy inside upon my return. Wednesday afternoon. I stay dry, my itinerary remains in tact and I walk away with no emotional scars from backpacking.

All that, of course, forecast permitting. Which is a topic for another day.

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