November 13, 2020
by Julie Dodd
Nancy “Seal Mom” East and Chris “Pacer” Ford completed their Tour de Smokies by walking through an archway of hiking poles that their friends, family and supporters raised above the trail.
They had hiked a total of 947.9 miles, hiking a total elevation gain of 164,137 feet and a total elevation loss of 205,555 feet.
Their celebration included champagne, a mountain-design cake created by Nancy’s daughter, Paige, and hiking boots and mountaintop cookies specially ordered by Chris’ wife, Jamie. They finished their Tour de Smokies on the Big Creek Trail.
The idea for their Tour de Smokies came about when Nancy and Chris were hiking the Baxter Creek Trail with friend Lane DeCost. Nancy and Chris each had been considering taking on the challenge of hiking all 900 miles in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in a continuous day-after-day effort, and on that hike realized that they both shared that aspiration.
Both Nancy and Chris had hiked the 900 miles of trails twice before but not in the intense approach they planned for the Tour de Smokies. They decided to do the Tour as a team, and DeCost agreed to be their “trail boss,” planning their hiking routes to be as efficient as possible.
Nancy and Chris were motivated to make their Tour de Smokies a fundraising hike for Friends of the Smokies due to Nancy’s experience as a member of the Haywood County (North Carolina) Search and Rescue Team.
“The search for Susan Clements was the primary catalyst for the Tour de Smokies,” Nancy said.
“My team took part in this search, and it was a tragic reminder of how things can quickly go awry for a hiker who is not prepared for the ever-changing conditions in the Smokies,” she said. “I was motivated by this tragedy to do more educational outreach in the hiking community, to keep hikers safe and found.”
Nancy discovered that Friends of the Smokies had a specific line item in their budget to raise funds for preventive search and rescue (PSAR) programs in the park.
Nancy and Chris set the goal of raising $60,000 to fund two seasonal rangers who will be dedicated to preventive search and rescue, and you can support their effort to raise the funds for PSAR.
Every year the Great Smoky Mountains National Park conducts almost 100 search and rescues.
Each rescue requires many hours, a team of skilled rescuers, and logistical planning, explained Ranger Liz Hall, who became GSMNP’s first emergency manager in June.
A litter carry out can require a minimum of 10 SAR members or more depending on how steep the trail is and the distance that must be covered. Some trails are too narrow for the litter to be carried by three rescuers on each side, so specialized rescue equipment is required.
Those rescues are even more challenging with COVID-19 and the need for masks and social distancing.
Hall said one of her first projects at GSMNP has been analyzing 10 years of data on GSMNP search and rescue efforts. By looking for common factors of hiking accidents and lost hikers, she can design park efforts to help reduce the number of rescues needed each year.
The most common calls for help, Hall explained, are due to orthopedic injuries caused by foot trips and falls. Anecdotally, day hikers are more likely to need rescuing than backcountry hikers.
Hall explained that accidents are more likely to happen when park visitors do not understand the environment or they overestimate their abilities when choosing a trail.
She added, “Social media has changed hiking safety. Everyone trying to get that selfie gets people into danger.”
But even experienced hikers can become injured and need rescue.
“It can catch all of us off guard – no matter what your skill level is,” Hall said.
Hall said that East and Ford’s Tour de Smokies fundraiser would provide major support for GSMNP preventive search and rescue.
“The funding they are raising goes directly to keep people safe when they come to the park,” Hall said.
Hall explained that the two PSAR rangers will help educate visitors in the park on how to avoid injuries and will oversee a cadre of volunteers who will be part of the education program. The two seasonal rangers will be medical providers trained in search and rescue who can help organize and assist with SAR efforts.
Nancy and Chris began their Tour de Smokies in early September and hiked day after day until completing all 900 miles on October 3.
They are continuing to fundraise toward their $60,000 goal. You can support their hiking accomplishment and help all hikers in GSMNP be safer by making a contribution.
A crucial part of their hiking success was training and carefully planning each day’s hike. During their Tour, FOTS shared blog posts of advice from Nancy and Chris about hike planning, gear, footwear and hiking poles, and food and drink for the trail.
During their Tour de Smokies, Nancy shared their hiking experiences on her Facebook page, Hope and Feather Travel. Sometimes she and Chris recorded videos with her phone as they completed a day’s hike or as they drove after the hike. They shared “roses” and “thorns” from their hiking days – and always had more roses, as they discussed the views, the wildlife and their hiking accomplishments.
Now that Nancy and Chris have successfully completed their Tour de Smokies, they shared some insights from their experience.
FOTS: Between the two of you, you’ve hiked all the trails in the Smokies seven times. You’ve also hiked thousands of miles on other trails in the US and abroad. What is special about hiking in the Smokies?
Nancy East: While there are plenty of spectacularly scenic places in this world, none of them speak to my soul quite like these mountains. For me, hiking in the Smokies is like a warm hug from someone I love. Hiking in the Smokies brings a comfortable familiarity within a sacred space — it’s the same feeling I used to get as a young adult when I’d return to my childhood home to visit my family.
FOTS: In order to complete the 900 miles of trails in the park, how many miles did you actually hike?
Nancy East: We ended up hiking 947.9 miles. When Hazel Creek Trail closed and we had to hike it the day before we finished, it bumped up the miles we had to hike. If we had been able to stay true to our planned routes, we would have hiked closer to 932 miles, I believe.
FOTS: Your Tour de Smokies was dedicated to raising $60,000 for GSMNP’s Preventive Search and Rescue program. How did thinking about hiking safety affect your hiking?
Nancy East: While hiking our routes for our Tour de Smokies, preparedness and safety precautions were paramount. Our backpacks held a revolving set of gear, depending on the weather conditions, elevation and trails we were hiking. We always had to remain flexible during the Tour and think about our routes several days in advance, knowing that things like the weather conditions could alter our plans.
In fact, at one point during our Tour when the remnants of Hurricane Sally were hitting the Smokies, we spent the better part of a day discussing how to reorder our routes to remain safe, since some of the trails involved potentially hazardous creek crossings after heavy rain.
Ultimately, we didn’t need to reorder anything because of the rain. We were thankful, however, that we had a sound plan in place if needed, rather than thinking on the fly and potentially making a poor choice.
FOTS: Throughout your Tour de Smokies, you talked about the importance of your support team. How did they contribute to your hiking success and safety?
Nancy East: One of the greatest gifts our support team provided us with is more rest, which ultimately made us safer hikers. If we had not had the help of friends and supporters helping us to reposition our cars or giving us rides, we would have had to take on the time consuming job of doing it ourselves. Even with our support team, our drives to and from trails were often lengthy, so it was a huge help to us to have their assistance.
We only had one backpacking route during the Tour, but it coincided with the same campsite we reserved (#82) and during the same time frame as the tragic bear incident in the park.
My son, nephew, and a friend all sacrificed their weekend plans to bring our overnight gear to us by taking the boat shuttle across Fontana Lake. But little did any of us know what would unfold during that time frame.
They handled the situation thoughtfully and responsibly. It was a tremendous relief to find them waiting for us when we finally arrived close to midnight at campsite #83, where we had all been rerouted.
Our support team extended well beyond the people who helped us with car shuttles though. Ultimately, it included everyone from the hiking community, along with family and friends, who cheered us on during the hike.
Whether it was meeting us after a route and bringing us sweet treats (or dropping them off at the Buckberry Lodge for us to find upon our return in the evening), to sending us words of encouragement through social media comments, to serendipitously meeting us on trail or showing up at the completion of our Tour, it made our long days feel much more bearable and meaningful!
FOTS: What else would you like to share about Tour de Smokies or Preventive Search and Rescue?
Nancy East: We still have a long way to meet our goal of raising $60,000 for the Smokies Preventative Search and Rescue program.
Many regional SAR teams are experiencing record call outs, and the park is experiencing a substantial increase with visitors this year. PSAR programs are even more relevant and important in our current times.
I always like to plant the seed in people’s minds that PSAR and SAR may not feel like worthy causes to donate to until you think about someone you love who might benefit from it and whose life could even be spared as a result of PSAR and SAR.
Be part of Nancy and Chris’ support team, helping them reach their goal of $60,000 to fund GSMNP’s Preventive Search and Rescue program to help keep park visitors safe.
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