The Fifth Annual Weenie Man Expedition
The gorge where Fontana Lake should have been!
The gorge where Fontana Lake should have been!

While I may not have been able to remember much about the Fourth Annual Weenie Man Expedition, I have no problem whatsoever recalling the Fifth Annual Weenie Man Expedition. Why? Because, I almost got killed. But, more about that later.

The year was 1995, and in celebration of the Weenie Men surviving five years together, we had decided to return to the site of our first gathering, Eagle Creek. We had no idea what a foolish decision this was to be.

Gary (the Bartender) and Mark (the Load Master) were to hike in on Saturday, September 30. Rob (the Rig Master) and I (the Light Master) were, as was our tradition, to hike in the following Sunday. Michael, in an attempt to portray himself as a company man for the big corporation that had recently gobbled up the small engineering firm where most of the Weenie Men still worked, chose to skip this anniversary trip. He was, instead, sleeping in a comfortable bed in Geneva, Switzerland.

Rob and I watched the weather forecast on that Saturday, wondering if our comrades would again be rained upon for leaving a day early. To our disappointment, the forecast looked pretty good. There was mention of a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, but the forecasters assured us that it was to turn to the west, and proceed safely away from the Smokies.

Liars, liars! Weather-predicting pants on fire!

Rob and I headed up Saturday. Along the road, we noticed that the level of Fontana Lake was incredibly low. So low, that I cracked a joke when we arrived at Fontana Dock to book passage across the lake:

"How you guys doing?", I asked the boat guys. "We'd like to get a ride over to Eagle Creek, unless the water's so low we can just walk over."

I thought I was being funny.

The boat guys shot a pretty serious glare at me and Rob.

"It's gonna' be more of a problem than you boys might think", the boat driver drawled. "They've pulled the lake down more than 180 feet to do some work on the dam. We'd have to drop you boys off more than a mile from the trail. You gonna' haf' to do some pretty serious climbing on some steep cliffs to make it to the trail. It's dangerous. I wouldn't recommend it."

Rob and I stared at each other in amazement.

"Did you carry a couple of guys over yesterday?" Rob asked. "They'd be scheduled to come out on Wednesday."

"Yeah", the boat guy answered. "Couldn't talk 'em out of goin'."

I looked at Rob. After a few seconds, I said, "Well, if those guys made it, I'm sure we can make it, too."

"Awright", said the boat guy. "But don't say I didn't warn ya'. Git your stuff down to the boat and I'll take you over."

It was a long ride over to Eagle Creek. I was pretty nervous. But, I kept reminding myself that surely if the trail was all that bad, Gary and Mark would have turned back. It couldn't be all that tough. Surely. However, I was amazed at how low Fontana Lake actually was. Occasionally, you could spot the mud-covered, ghostly remains of old sawmills or country stores, uncovered and feeling the sunlight for the first time in decades. It was eerie.

Eventually, the boat driver pulled up on the bank. I recognized nothing. We were indeed a long way from the trail.

"Try 'n stay about half-way up them cliffs", our driver told us. "If you get too low, the mud will suck the boots right off yer feet. If you go too high, it'll get steep on you and you're liable to fall into the gorge. And, don't even think about cuttin' through the woods. They're so choked up with mountain laurel you'd never make it."

With that, he cranked up the boat and eased it back out into the water. "Good luck!"

That was the first time one of our boat drivers had ever wished us luck. I really didn't want to hear it.

The first few hundred yard of walking weren't too bad. As they had lowered the lake a few feet each day, the lapping waters had formed little shelves along the shore. These shelves were, for the most part, wide enough to walk on. And, they provided a much more comfortable walking surface than the steep banks where these shelves had fallen away. But, that was one of the problems. These shelves would, without warning, break away, sending you and your 50-pound pack sliding down the steep embankment toward the river below. Catching ourselves on the next shelf down the bank was starting to take a toll on both leg muscles and lungs.

After about thirty minutes of this strenuous slipping and sliding, we rounded a bend in the gorge and came upon a huge rock outcropping. This wall of rock extended from the woods, high above us, almost completely down to the river, about 75 yards below us. We stopped, and, drenched with sweat, attempted to catch our breath.

"Look!" I said to Rob. "Weenie Man tracks!"