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We decided to bring in the New Year away from the city, lights and parties. Instead, we had the grand idea to go hiking in Cataloochee Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains, in 25 degree overnight weather, with the dogs. All factors that were sure to add up to an interesting story after the fact.

We drove into the Valley from the Blue Ridge area where we were staying at a local cabin. The drive up to the trail head of Rough Fork Trail was very much as expected up the Smoky Mountains—many changes in elevation, hairpin turns, a mix of pavement and gravel, and breathtaking overlooks. The trail head itself was clearly marked and provided some space to park about five vehicles.

For being such a relatively remote area way up in the mountains, it was surprisingly crowded. Then again, there are various highlights along the way on this easy trail, making it very appealing to many. The summer months seem to be even more popular but although there were quite a few of us there that day, our group was the only one dressed in full hiking and camping gear. The other guests just had jeans, sneakers, sweaters and occasionally gloves and beanies.

The 5.6-mile, round-trip, Rough Fork Trail started off quite easily on a wide, tree-lined path with a beautiful, crisp creek running on the side. Along the way, we ran into the Woody House, a quaint and open house that used to be inhabited by a local family. This sits across the Rough Fork River and provided a nice resting area for us and the dogs. We also ran across various log river crossings. Although the water wasn’t that high or fast, it was running swiftly enough to deter the dogs from entering it on their own. Instead, we got to enjoy all four of our dogs being quite the acrobats as they crossed the log bridges with their six humans also on the short bridge! Later on, they became more comfortable with the not-so-raging water and splashed across quite happily.

By the time we arrived at Backcountry Campsite 40, it was nearing sundown and we had to set up camp quickly. We had been arguing about something petty that I don’t even remember anymore so we were hardly talking but still focused on having shelter for the night. Surprisingly, this terrible attitude turned out to be an efficient addition and the precursor of a swift makeup. We’d used our Marmot Stormlight 3-Person Tent, which is fairly easy to set up on any day, but on this day, without talking and going strictly on “I just want to get this over with” mode, we set up the entire tent, fly and all, in less than five minutes. It was such an amazing feat that it immediately brought a smile to our faces and was the cause of a high five and the dissipation of the bad mood. We haven’t been able to recreate such a quick tent setup since. We’re working on getting angry at each other more often #goals.

As the temperatures dropped, we quickly resolved to get some warm food in our system. It wasn’t cold enough to snow but it was humid enough to cause a high degree of condensation. Since we hadn’t brought firewood with us, we had to go on a hunt for fallen dry wood to make do. Back at camp, a rocket stove was in action to increase the amount of food we could cook. Using our dandy Outdoor Products 5-Piece Mess Kits, which doubled as both plates and pots, we were able to heat up some canned soup, instant rice and instant coffee.

It was fairly dark by 6:00pm and because we’d had an exhausting couple of days before the hike and the weather was getting colder, each couple went into their tents by 6:30pm. With the dogs at our feet keeping us warm, we passed out instantly!

At about midnight, we woke up shivering cold. Someone had hogged all the blankets. I’d been working with fabric gloves earlier and had gone to sleep with them on, hoping they would keep me warm. What I hadn’t noticed was that the tips of the fingers had remained wet and were now dropping in temperature quickly as the ever-present moisture battled its transformation to ice. While our 60-lb Husky/German Shepherd mix, Cookie, was holding out in the 25-degree weather, our 30-lb Australian Shepherd didn’t have enough fur to insulate herself from the elements and quickly shoveled her nose and body into our sleeping bags.

In the morning, we woke up refreshed after having slept so soundly. We made a quick breakfast and took advantage of the crisp creek water to splash our faces. The hike out was the reverse route of the hike in and just as beautiful. On the drive out of the park, a few elk were grazing on the pasture. It was quite a sight in the Smokies and also, the perfect opportunity to take an Elkie!