The Scene of the Crime, Pretty Hollow Campsite, 39


I set my tent up on exactly the same spot as in 1996.  Frank, you guessed it buddy.


It was October in the year of 1996.  I was encamped at this lovely spot in the Cataloochee area after making the drop from Sterling Gap and the Long Bunk.  Much the same loop as my friend Jerky Mike had planned for this beautiful pre Fall weekend in 2012.   With me was my friend, Kim Frazier.  Kim and I had worked together for years and she was an ardent dayhiker.  Many were the days I ribbed my friend into bringing her dayhiking to the next level, coaxing her into throwing on a backpack and making an overnight loop.  Kim was reluctant but I finally wore her down; that particular Autumn weekend she took the bait.

As was often the case with dayhikers, the usual fears of bad weather, scary forest animals and camping alone with Quillenger were minimized by yours truly.  These things, I explained, rarely, if ever, occurred.  They are fears unfounded.  And with that we parked at Sterling Gap and descended the Long Bunk.  Arriving at Sterling Gap, we made the nine miles into Pretty Hollow with the crisp hues of Fall in all it's glory.  Kim was delighted to experienc the warmth of an inviting camp and evening of entertaining company, no doubt.  Dinner and a crackling fire would complete this Smokies scene.  Had she known the full splendor of overnighting in the backcountry, perhaps her dayhiking days would have ended years ago.

And with that we set about establishing camp.  As Kim put the finishing touches on the tent, I began to gather sticks and build a small kitchen area.  We had the campsite to ourselves.  I was happy to have company.  In those days, I spent many nights in the backcountry of the Great Smoky Mountains alone.  It was a pleasure either way.  As I pulled the food bag from my old North Face Jade Dragon backpack, I spied something descending the hill over my right shoulder.  It was a really fat bear on a definite mission.  I was between him and Kim.  And he wasn't stopping.

As he lumbered over towards me and the fire pit, I picked up a rock and hurled it at him.  He paused for a minute and sat down to look at me as if to say, "What are you doing?"   I was hoping to run him off before Kim realized what was happening.  In those days I hiked alone most of the time and as you know, the only way to see bears in the backcountry was to hike alone.  So my comfort level with them was pretty high.  Unusually so.  Well, Mr Black Bear didn't stay seated for long, however and he began circling our area with the resolute air of a creature that owned this territory.  And with that, Kim became aware of our situation.   Then the bear became aware of Kim.  Her resulting scream scared both me and the bear.  We both recoiled in terror.

 Mr. Black bear disappeared for a few minutes, long enough for me to devise a plan should he return.  I instructed Kim to tend the little stick fire I had started while I rigged a bear rope.  In 1996, the backcountry of the Smokies had no modern cable hangers.  Instructions about bear hanging etiquette were found on the back of your permit.  Find two trees, throw a rope between them and put your entire packs to hang a good distance from the trees.  That sounds easier than it is.  Finding the right two trees with the perfect branches often was a comedy of errors.  I was more concerned with getting the right height.   After ten minutes, I had rigged something up that should do the trick, so I thought.

I suggested we wait on any cooking as to not draw him in any closer.  That proved a wise decision because as the daylight faded, his bravery increased.  Kim, utterly terrified, tended the fire while I rattled pots and metal.   This bear wasn't afraid of us and I was becoming afraid of him.  Never in all my escapades, had I encountered such a fearless bruin.  It was definitely going to be a long night.   The fire kept him largely at the periphery of our camp but the eerie sight of his glowing eyes as he grunted around our firelight was terrifying, nonetheless.  He would waddle about with his fat belly grunting, snorting and huffing.  We had no smelly items, just the usual lipton noodle fare.  It was a year of mast failure so they were on the prowl.  This guy looked like he had raided a few campgrounds in his time.

We retired to bed, hungry as he had appeared to retreat back to the hills.  I had secured all our belongings in the two tree system, our packs were hung about 12 feet off the ground secured between two smallish poplars.   Kim's fear kept her from any sleep but I managed to drift off peacefully, unless you count dreams of being eaten by bears.  I remembered a dream wherein I was awakened by Kim to have her tell me that the bear was outside of the tent.  It was a vivid dream.  So vivid it seemed real.  Real because it wasn't a dream.  Kim had shaken me violently.  "He's, He's, He's outside the tent!"  She screamed as I sat bolt upright, still thinking it a dream.  Half asleep and half scared, I unzipped the tent and flew outside screaming at the top of my lungs like a banshee.  It was a primal yell part fear and part anger, mostly fear.

Whatever the reason, it scared him away from our tent.  Needless to say, sleeping was a foregone conclusion.   We lay there taking turns watching and listening.  At times he would get close enough to the tent to nudge it with his muzzle.  I would smack his nose and he would retreat.  For a while it was quiet.  We heard him working on our packs.  The crashing of trees meant he had brought down our food.  Whatever was out there now belonged to him.   That seemed to be the prize.  By dawn, he was satisfied and we would leave the nylon shelter to survey the damage.  The ensuing carnage was impressive.  He had completely shredded both our packs.

This left us with the daunting proposition of climbing Pretty Hollow to the Sterling, Swallow Fork Gap, sans breakfast.  I was burdened with the task, however, of repairing our damaged backpacks.  Mine took the brunt of the bruin.  With what remained of the bear rope and some duct tape, I fashioned a rigging that could contain what remained of our belongings.  The sight was enough to make you think we had been homeless for a while.  That worked to our advantage when we reached the Sterling Gap and some sympathetic hikers who gave us some food.  We completed our loop back to the car, hungry as hostages and headed for the ranger station.  Driving over Sterling Gap, we dropped down into Big Creek.  The ranger station was unmanned so I left a detailed note about the incident.  I never heard back from anyone

Above is a picture of my fuel bottle he totally punctured, thinking it a can of food.  He got a real surprise when white gas poured out.  I still marvel at the strength of his jaws to do that to aircraft grade aluminum.  Take a look at my early edition brown book.  Those scratches belong to him as well.  I hadn't yet mastered the art of lightweight backpacking, huh?  No wonder my neck and back is screwed up! That was 16 years ago!  Those brown stains on the brown book belong to a kool aid pack he ingested.  I left them on the book.  That brown book is a prized possession of mine.  It was in the pack and his nails raked down it.

For some strange reason, Kim Frazier never desired to spend any time with me in the backcountry following this incident.  It must have been the way I smelled or something.

On this outing, however, we had no such similar occurrences.  It was some of the usual suspects, Will, Slapnuts, Jenny, Super Dave and their friend Mike.

Slapnuts had been out for a couple of days already clicking off his miles while they are still free.  Here, Will decides when the timing is right, he is going to present his wife with the hand picked bouquet of flowers.  Jenny is awed by all the attention.

Anyway, since it was such a short in to camp, I set up and decided to click some miles, retracing our steps up to the Sterling Ridge trail.  This time, my second map for that trail, was remarkably more pleasant.  I made good time without a pack up to the gap.  That 3.7 miles went down in one hour and 24 minutes.  For 2000 feet of elevation gain, I was happy with my pace.  Of course, a portion of my descent was completed in the dark.  It is the Quillen way.  I managed to do it in an hour and 18 minutes.

You know you are approaching 5000 feet when the hint of balsams fills the air.

I really wanted to drop on down Swallow Fork.  Had it been earlier in the day, and I not missed my turn getting into Cataloocheee, it probably would've happened.  I was feeling really, really good.

But I hastened to the warmth of a SouthernHighlander fire and the camaraderie that ensued.  The rain came but nothing to run us into our tents.  Sleep was not elusive this evening and I was too tired to give a second thought to the incident in 96.  The only problem with which I had to contend was some rambunctious boy scouts up with the dawn.  You know we didn't hit the rack too early.  Jerky Mike was there.

Mike wears his bear shirt, I camped beneath the crying bear, we just couldn't conjure any up this trip.

Still on a quest for second map mileage, I was able to fulfill my plan of hiking up Palmer Creek.  Joining me in Sunday's dayhike from basecamp at 39 was Julie, who rode over from Sylva with a great picnic lunch.   We said goodbye to everyone and hit the trail around noon. 

Of course you know what these are, right?

Well, you'd better know what this is!  Julie found out the hard way.  It's stinging nettle and it does sting like the dickens.  This time of year is prime for that and yellow jackets.  I didn't see any on this trip but did see a mohunking mountain hornet.

Of course they are still around. Saw two.   We did great and beat the rain out!  I got in near 19 miles for the weekend.

Con Hunley, the backpacker.

You want to hear a funny story?  Last week, after all the teasing we have given Mike, I joined him at Calhouns for the appetizer special on Thursday.  As we were sitting at the bar, munching on food, these two women sit down next to me.  I am between them and Mike.  I was into a hamburger when the lady, grabbed my arm and said,  "Is that...."   And without missing a beat, I replied,  "It is..."    The lady then said,  "Tell me who that is?"   I said,  "Well, he doesn't want anyone to make a fuss because he is at the fair Saturday."  I thought that poor woman was going to pass out.  She then grabs Mikes arm and says,  "I just won your latest album on the radio".  Mike said,  "Well, I was playing downtown the other night, want to see a picture?"  She was literally about to hyperventilate.   With that, Con, er Mike, pulls out his iPhone and produces a picture that I took of him "tickling the ivories" playfully at Suttrees in his Con repose.   This poor woman was star struck and Mike played it perfectly.  It went on for fifteen minutes when the lady turned to her friend and said,  "Do you know who that is sitting right here, I can't believe it."   The woman looks at Mike and says,   "Yeah, that's Railroad Mike.  Everyone knows him."    I felt sorta bad and apologized to the woman.  She was a good sport.

And finally, when we returned to our camp, two guys had set up, having dropped down Pretty Hollow that I had ascended the previous day.  We exchanged pleasantries and I began considering breaking camp.  Eventually the two men came sauntering into our area to ask about the Southern Forest Watch sign.  The guy asked my name and we realized he had joined got smokies last week.  I had approved his membership.  His name is AJ and he is good friends with Adam Beal.  We spent a lot of time talking about the Fee fight.  In case you didn't get the memo, we dropped a bomb on them a week ago and there has been plenty of media to go around about it.  Just check out the SFW site here. (you could help us by placing a comment on the traveler, metro pulse or WATE article, these news outlets cover this important story.  Knox News Sentinel and WBIR refuse to cover it.  National media finds our legal action intersting, local media ignores the situation)

One final picture, though, is worth a thousand words.  I will add only a couple.  What you didn't see here were the rangers right around the corner, sitting on their butts in the shade of the extended cab, 4wd brand new truck.  And to think that this backcountry fee will fund two more of these guys?  All rangers aren't bad, but that resource doesn't seem to be properly utilized at times.  If a horse person can't fit all their gear onto one horse should they take an extra two, one for the guy and his wife?

No 80 backpackers will ever have the impact that these two people and their horses made.

And last, but not least, many of you are familiar with our friend Jim Casada, SFW leader, Smokies Author and Ardent Fee Fighter extroardinaire.  I have come to know his brother, Don this past year and he sent me a link to his most recent jaunt that I found fascinating.  Jim and Don know these mountains but Don has a very unique perspective in that he is a true, "back of beyond" guy.  Just take a look at his most recent trip report from yesterday.  The details and lore in those guys heads could fill libraries.  Don knows his wildflowers and captured some incredible shots.  I really like his identification of varying peaks, though.  Here is his trip report.