Nancy East was greeted by an entourage of fans and supporters when she emerged from the woods in the Big Creek Saturday, setting a new record for a unique long-distance hiking challenge.
East, who lives at Lake Junaluska, hiked all 900 miles of trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in just 30 days. East said Monday she is still getting used to the idea of being a record holder.
“While I’ve hiked thousands of miles, I’ve never hiked this many miles at once. It was immensely rewarding to achieve what I once thought was an insurmountable goal,” East said. “I dreamt and planned on attempting it for so long, and I’m still processing what it feels like to have achieved that goal. But in short, I’m elated and grateful.”
East undertook the extraordinary journey on Labor Day weekend with hiking buddy Chris Ford from Tennessee.
Their mission wasn’t just to hike all 900 miles of trail in the Smokies — they’d done that five times between them already. Nor was it to set a new record — although it was a nice capstone.
Their goal was to raise $60,000 in donations for Friends of the Smokies to support the park’s newly launched Preventative Search and Rescue program.
The hiking duo knew they had to do something big and bold and attention-grabbing to raise awareness for backcountry safety. East, a member of the Haywood County Search and Rescue Team, has been on the ground for both successful rescue missions and those that didn’t end well.
So for East, the Smokies newly launched initiative to educate visitors about being prepared and staying safe in the backcountry hit home.
Tragically, there were two deaths in the backcountry of the Smokies during their time — both of them on the North Carolina side of the park.
“It was a sobering reminder of how primal and unforgiving the backcountry can be, even without knowing the specific circumstances of either incident,” East said.
In one incident, a visitor fell into Midnight Hole swimming hole on Big Creek in the Haywood County section of the Smokies and drowned. It took rescue teams half a day to locate and recover his body from the deep recesses of the pool below a waterfall.
The other incident was when a lone backpacker along the remote north shore area of Fontana Lake in Swain County was found dead near a campsite. A bear scavenging on his remains was euthanized by park rangers, but it is not yet known pending an autopsy whether the bear killed the man or came upon his body.
In both cases, East and Ford were hiking in the general area where the incidents occurred.
The death involving the bear was particularly harrowing. They had planned to rendezvous with East’s son and a couple of companions at a backcountry campsite near the incident.
Her son, who was helping with trail support, had staged an overnight campsite with tents and provisions for the hiking duo. But as East and Ford were making their way to the meet up, they came upon a trail closure sign warning of aggressive bear activity.
The remote area — the largest roadless area in the Eastern U.S. — has no cell service, so East had no way to contact her son. She didn’t know if he was alright, and vice versa.
East and Ford had to reroute their plans on the fly to get around the trail closure, hiking well into the evening to make it to the rendezvous point.
“We spent many additional hours on the reroute trying to reach the bottom of Hazel Creek where my son, nephew and friend were waiting for us. I had no idea what they knew about the situation, if there was an aggressive bear roaming the area where they were, or if we’d encounter it along the way,” East said. “I’ve never been more thankful to see my son’s face and know he was safe.”
But that wasn’t the end of the complications. Since the park had closed a trail segment due to the potential bear activity, that trail had to be struck from the hiking pair’s carefully mapped out strategy to complete all 900 miles of trails in the Smokies.
That wasn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself. Under the official rules for the 900-miler challenge, hikers are only required to complete trails that are officially open at the time of the attempt, so it wouldn’t count against them.
However, one day from their expected finish date, the park reopened the closed trail. That meant East and Ford had to hike it after all.
They shifted plans yet again — pushing back their finish time by an extra day to hike it.
“Given the circumstances that closed the trail, we had nothing to complain about in comparison,” East said. “However, not knowing when or if the park would reopen the trail made our logistics a bigger challenge going forward. It forced us to hike an extra day versus trying to build that trail into an existing route. In the end it didn’t affect our ability to set the record, thankfully.”
East and Ford had a stalwart support team — including their spouses — who shuttled them between trail heads and had meals and warm sleeping bags waiting for them.
Their total distance to complete the 900-miler challenge was actually 948 miles. It’s not possible to hike every trail mile in the Smokies without some degree of backtracking and doubling up.
East said they never felt like giving up on the journey.
“Every day was a gift. At the end of each one I was thankful to have gotten that far into the attempt,” she said.
East was hard-pressed when asked to name her favorite trail on the month-long expedition.
“It’s so difficult to narrow down the field to one particular favorite, but I really treasure the higher elevations of the park over 5,000 feet. Trails like Balsam Mountain, and Sterling Ridge really speak to my soul since they live in that space,” East said. “My least favorite trails are the trails that tend to be underutilized and largely unmaintained, which accounts for many of them in the deep backcountry. They can become hazardous and slow going.”
While East is now a trail record holder, she ultimately treasures the experience itself over miles she covered.
“We had so many profound and joyful experiences and days,” East said. “Whether we came across bear cubs with a mama bear, people who recognized us on trail and supported our fundraiser, or laughing hysterically through a particularly challenging stretch of trail because we were exhausted and ‘slap happy,’ having a great friend to experience everything with was truly the best part of the journey.”