The weather outlook was too good to pass up another opportunity to paddle into the backcountry and camp so, I took off early Friday afternoon and made the 3-1/2 hour drive from Charlotte to Fontana.
Lake Fontana, located in western NC, is bordered on the north by The Great Smokey Mountain National Park and on the south by Nantahala National Forest. It's a DEEP mountain lake (over 500 feet deep in some locations) with bluffs and steep rocky banks. At the west end of the lake is the tallest dam east of the Mississippi and is actually part of the Appalachian Trail. That is, the AT crosses the dam.
A post in rec.boats.paddle suggested paddling into Eagle Creek. Without any real knowledge of the lake, I figured this was as good as any destination and worth checking out. I spent a little time with my North Carolina Atlas and Gazetteer, located Eagle Creek and a nearby National Forest campground with a boat ramp (Cable Cove), and hopped over to the terra server (http://terraserver.microsoft.com/default.asp) to check out the satellite photos of the area. It looked good until I realized the photos were taken in Feb. The pictures revealed a lot of shoreline that looked like good camping. I know enough about Fontana to know they drop the level of the lake during the winter, considerably...as much as 80 feet or more. This meant the shoreline in the satellite photos might not be there if the water was up. I've been on enough mountain lakes to know there isn't a lot of horizontal real estate along the shore.
I called the National Forest ranger station at Cheoah and inquired about camping in Eagle Creek. The kind, female voice on the other end informed me it was illegal to camp on the National Park side of the lake but any spot (and I swear she suppressed a giggle) I could find on the National Forest side was OK. Well, what the hell, I'll go up and check it out. If all else fails, I'll paddle during the day and camp at Cable Cove.
As planned, I camped at Cable Cove (privies and running water, only) for $8 Friday night. I awoke at 5:30 a.m. to organize my gear and make a cup of hot tea and choke down a pop-tart topped with grits. Okay, I was anxious to get on the water. The morning air was rather cool, in the 30's, so I layered accordingly. I was serenaded by the drumming of an amorous ruffed grouse under a gray, dismal sky as I picked through my gear, filled my canteen, water bottle and dromedary bag before stuffing everything in dry bags. I planned to take everything I would need if I found a campsite on the water.
The boat ramp is a short (1/2 mile) drive down the same road. I pulled up to the top of the ramp as I stuffed the last of the cold pop-tart into my mouth. The ramps are built for just about any water level and it was obvious the water was still down by 40 feet or so. That makes for a long, steep ramp (100 yds. from the top to the water). I backed my little Ranger pickup down the steep incline and unloaded my boat and gear.
It was still pretty dismal looking when I slid into the cockpit of my Cape Charles 17 and pushed off into the canyon like lake. I set a waypoint on my GPS for the boat ramp and checked to make sure I could easily get to my rain jacket and spraydeck in case it started to rain. A local radio station reported a chance of scattered showers in the a.m. but nice later. That meant it was going to rain on me.
Just before I made the main body of the lake I came across a couple of fishermen. Having brought fishing gear with me, I was wanting to know how the fishing was lately. They were friendly enough, but no help. I asked about Eagle Creek, and although both of them admitted to being locals, they said they didn't really spend any time back in that part of the lake. How can you be a local and not check out the whole lake?
As I paddled into the middle of the lake on my way to the other side, I saw a line of rain marching toward me. I had just enough time to put on the rain jacket and spray deck before it devoured me. As I watched it approach, I became concerned it might not be only rain. The water seemed to be exploding like someone was throwing quarter-sized rocks from high above. Hail!? Oh man, this is going to leave a mark!
Luckily, it wasn't hail. It was rain drops the size of your fist (okay, maybe a little bit of an exaggeration) that "thwack" when they hit you. I pointed my bow at a distant point, took the heading off the compass mounted to my bow hatch cover, kept my head down and stroked. The rain made a tremendous amount of noise. Between it beating me about the head and shoulders and drumming the deck of my kayak, I don't think I could have heard anything else. It passed over me within 5 loooong minutes.
After paddling leisurely for a couple of miles, I ran up on another group of fishermen at the entrance to Eagle Creek. These three characters were already on their third beer apiece and it wasn't 9 o'clock yet. I asked them about camping in Eagle Creek.
"Oh yeah, there's a fine spot all the way at the back. Do you trout fish?"
"You'll love it. It's a great spot. Do you want a beer?"
"Uh, not yet. It's a little early and I gotta paddle."
"Well, take this one with ya. You might need it."
Need it? What the hell, I'll save it and drink it tonight. "Thanks."
It turns out these fellas were from Kentucky and have been fishing the lake for the last 30 years. "Know every inch of the shore", according to them. As I pushed away from their boat and paddled off, one of them asked, "Do you have a permit?"
"I have a state fishing license."
"No, a camping permit."
"What camping permit?"
He proceeded to let me know of something the feminine voice from the ranger station at Cheoah wasn't aware. You ARE allowed to camp on the NP side of the lake but you need a permit. The permits are free but getting caught without one will cost you "a hunnerd bucks." He told me I could fill one out across the lake at the private boat ramp near the dam. I dutifully turned my long, sleek, mahogany boat in the opposite direction I was heading and paddled across the lake to the Fontana Village Marina. The folks there confirmed the story I told by the Kentucky boys (60 something year old boys) and kindly pointed me in the direction of the kiosk with the permits. Within 15 minutes I was back on the water, permit in tow, and headed toward the mouth of Eagle Creek.
The wind was up a little (5-10 mph) by this time of the day and the water expectantly choppy. It felt good to paddle the loaded boat in those conditions. With the decks clear except for a water bottle and my paddle float, it made for good practice to paddle in a quartering wind. The boat handled like a dream with 60 lbs. or more of gear. My stroke was settled into a comfortable touring cadence.
Back at the entrance to the Eagle Creek branch of the lake, I recognized the island I saw on the satellite photos and decided to paddle around the backside of it. However, when the water is as low as it was when I was there, the island doesn't exist. It's a peninsula with a low saddle that is submerged during higher water levels. Sigh.
By this time it was past noon and the sun was burning the last of the grayness away. I was warming up quickly and needed to shed some layers. The wind was graciously blowing the right direction, for once. So, I paddled into the middle of the cove to let the wind work for me. As it gently nudged me further back into the twisting, snake-like creek, I peeled off my capeline, munched on some trail snacks, and guzzled water from my deck bottle.
Within another hour or so, I was at the back of the cove. Water was cascading down from higher ground and right into the lake. It was like someone just plugged a trout stream into the lake the way you would run an extension cord to an outlet. As I moved back to the furthest point I could reach in my touring kayak, I saw many, many fish in the clear water. They were white bass on their spawning run. The fishing was going to be incredible!
I managed to find a great campsite within a hundred yards of the water and on the inside of a tight bend in the stream. The only drawback being the campsite was a good 35 feet up the rocky bank. It made for a strenuous leg workout carrying the gear from the boat up the steep, rocky bank to the fire ring. As I stood at the site looking down to the water, I could see a beautiful trout stream to my left and the clear cold waters of Fontana to my right. White bass and trout only a short cast away. Big sigh! As I stood there smiling, I think a tear pooled in the corner of my eye.
The rest of the day was spent fishing (with much success I might add), reading a cheesey novel, and setting up camp. With the water down, there was plenty of driftwood for a roaring fire after dark. I chilled the lone beer in the trout stream to an acceptable 48 degrees during the day and capped off a carbohydrate packed MRE with the cooled brewsky later that night. Those Kentucky fellas are alright!
Again, it fell into the 30's Saturday nite. Thanks to the beer with my mega-carbs supper, a decent cigar, and an "airplane" bottle of Frangelica I'd been saving for a campfire, I was satiated, cozy and snoozing soundly in my backpacking tent. While outside, the persistent winds tried unsuccessfully to blow me off the point.
I was up and landing my first trout of the day by 6:30 a.m. Can it get any better? I took a break, made some hot tea, grits with tobasco, munched a granola bar, ate some beef jerky and read more of my novel until the fishing withdrawals set in. My fly casting technique has been closely compared to an old lady swatting at a bee with a broom handle so I grabbed the fly-rod and worked on my technique. The bees were nervous.
The moon's last quarter was still visible near the western horizon in the clear morning sky as I scrambled down the rocky bank to the trout stream. The sun did not peek over the eastern ridge towering over my campsite until mid-morning making it necessary to wear fingerless gloves and polarfleece. Two more trout were mesmerized by my casting antics and promptly released before the warmth of the sun found me in the streambed. With the sun came winds that destroyed any semblance of being able to cast regardless of my thrashing efforts and curses.
I repacked my gear and doused the fire with slow, heavy movements. It was time to return to the real world. I couldn't remember how I had packed the kayak for the trip in and after stuffing the hull full, I found myself standing there holding a 25 liter drybag and no place to stow it. Instead of emptying the holds and re-packing I decided to strap the leftover to the rear deck. No problem.
I left the trout stream behind with a couple of strokes and headed back into the lake. By this time of the day the winds were really kicking up and I was going to regret having not repacked the kayak to stow the piggybacked drybag in the hull. Because the cove twisted and writhed through the mountainous shoreline, there were points jutting into the water providing shelter from the wind. I sprinted across the open water and slid into the lee of each point where I rested, ate a handful of trail snacks and guzzled water. For the most part, I battled a head wind that only seemed to slow me a little but did not make for many correction strokes. As I left the protection of the Eagle Creek and its convenient leeward points, I changed my heading toward Cable Cove. The wind was now quartering off the bow. Where the day before I was invigorated by the challenge of paddling into a quartering wind with a clear deck, today I was toting, what seemed like, a sail on the aft deck causing the boat to weathercock.
Motorboat traffic was heavier than I expected. The combination of waves from the high winds and boat wakes made paddling near the steep rocky banks way too much work. The reflected waves coming off the bluffs met the incoming waves and made for a wild ride in a touring kayak. Occasionally the waves combined to wash over the deck of my boat. But even without the spraydeck, I stayed dry. I have to admit it was mildly exciting. I paddled toward the middle of the lake correcting for the wind every fourth stroke or so. Paddling into the quartering wind with no place to rest without losing progress meant the last 2-1/2 miles was done without missing a stroke. I took advantage of every boat wake going my way and surfed as much as I could. It was a little more of a workout than I was wanting on the last day. I estimate the total distance paddled was close to 5 miles and all of it in the wind. I arrived at the Cable Cove boat ramp just 2 hours after starting my return trip; not bad for the conditions. I wasn't going to have any problems sleeping after a shower to remove some of the backcountry grunge.
On a one to ten scale (ten being the best), I'd give this trip an 8.5. I will definitely be going back before summer and will want to spend at least one more day camping on the water.
Primative campground facility ($8/nite) with privy and water at Cable Cove Campground in the Nantahala National Forest. Backcountry camping in the National Park.
Camping permit required if camping in the Great Smokey Mountain National park - no fee.