WC’s Epic Fails: Photographing Turkeys on the Appalachian Trail

WC Along the Appalachian Trail, 1975

WC at Camel Gap Along the Appalachian Trail, 1975

WC went to law school at Northwestern University, in downtown Chicago. And loathed living in the megalopolis. So in Spring 1975, when WC’s buddy Doles offered to drop him off and pick him up in Great Smokies National Park when Doles drove home to North Carolina for spring break, WC jumped at the chance.

Doles and his buddies left WC at the confluence of the Pigeon River and Big Creek, with a promise to pick WC up at Fontana on the Calderwood River. WC picked a route that mixed chunks of the Appalachian Trail and other, less used trails. It was a lazy walk, 12-15 miles a day. And went pretty well, with two unexpected complications.

The first came along the Big Creek Trail, when WC encountered a flock of turkeys. The flock included a couple of rare pale or “smoke morph” colored birds. Obviously, a photo op. WC parked his pack, dug out the camera, and chased the birds through the leafless brush alongside the trail. The turkeys, of course, vanished like ghosts. WC never saw them again. The leafless brush, though, turned out to be poison oak or poison ivy. You might not know that the bare, leafless twigs of either will give you the same rash as the leaves. Three hours later, WC’s legs and arms looked like they’d been whipped with hot wires. And itched like absolute fury.

WC’s route from about that point ran along the Appalachian Trail, up on a ridge. WC took two days off from hiking to have access to the cool, soothing water of Big Creek. Worse, the weather turned cold, rainy and windy, but WC couldn’t tolerate long pants or long sleeves, so hiked in shorts and a t-shirt the rest of the trip. As a result of the extended break, the rest of the walk was a little rough, with 20 miles or so most days.

Another complication: WC’s reservation schedule for the trail shelters was trashed. Some nights there was space at the trail shelters; other nights, WC had to bivouac in the woods. There were a couple of close calls with black bears, but they were less fearsome than the rats at the shelters. Hiker tip: don’t leave your pack on the ground in a trail shelter.

The second was even more unfortunate. WC arrived at the tiny little town of Fontana on schedule after hiking 31 miles on that last day. The final two days were spent fantasizing about how good that first cold beer was going to taste on arrival.

Fontana, at least in 1975, was in a dry county. And the only store was closed on Sundays anyway.