I was eager to impress wildlife biologist Dave Unger, a new colleague at Maryville College, with the singular beauty of the Little Tennessee reservoirs, so I took him to Santeetlah Lake, near Robbinsville, N.C., to kayak to one of the lake's dozens of primitive campsites. I'd never been there, but on the map it looked like a good place to explore, a sprawling octopus-like shape with many creeks that reached deep into the Nantahala National Forest.
I told Dave I'd lend him one of my hammocks, and we wouldn't bother with tents. I highly recommended the hammocks as a cool way to camp. This spare one that someone had given me I'd never taken out of its nylon sack. "You're gonna love this," I kept saying. Dave, who had done extensive backcountry research on bears in Kentucky, wolves in Minnesota and mountain lions and lynx in Colorado, had no problem with traveling light.
After a drive over Highway 129 of about 60 miles, we stopped at the town on the lake—known as Lake Santeetlah—to buy fishing licenses at the marina, the only one on the lake. The place seemed deserted. After a short search, we found this guy working on a boat, who led us to the marina where he would sell us a 10-day North Carolina fishing license for $10. Even though fishing was not essential to our mission, we wanted to respect the laws and customs of the land.
"Those are some funny looking shoes," the boat repair guy said, walking behind me to the marina. I hadn't really paid attention to what shoes I was wearing and looked down to see the battered, red Crocs-like shoes my sister had given me for Christmas about eight years ago.
"Think so?" I said, willing to accept a little wardrobe criticism.
"I know so," he said. "If you had a red ball on your nose, you could be a clown."
"Maybe I'll consider wearing other shoes next time," I said, unprepared for the Joan Rivers-like commentary at an isolated hamlet far from Paris and New York.
"At least don't wear them in public," the Shoe Bully added, walking on ahead of us in his jogging shoes that had never been jogged in.
Dave heard all of this and didn't say anything. I had nothing either, though I thought of about 10,000 retorts after leaving. We felt we had to have our fishing licenses, and getting into an outdoor fashion debate with this guy might lead to our expulsion from Lake Santeetlah, the town. We left the marina/town and its $5 ramp fee and drove to the free forest service ramp on the other side of the lake on Massey Branch Road.
The campsites on the water, marked with orange signs on the banks, varied in desirability. One was on a steep slope, another was overgrown, and yet another was difficult to access, its takeout a sloping muddy bank. Onward we paddled: on our map was a site way out on a point that we hoped to find.
For a Monday, the lake seemed crowded, mainly pontoons and ski boats pulling kids on innertubes. The water was clear and clean for the most part, some inlets collecting the usual array of recreational trash, though the light bulb was one item I'd never seen on a lake or river bank. Perhaps it represented the light bulb that should have gone off in my head when I packed what I thought was two hammocks and no tent on a day that called for 20 percent chance of rain.
We found the site on the point, which was by far the best we'd seen, a large flat clearing under tall pines, the stone fire ring built up, log seats next to it. The landing was a steep six-foot bank that required some exertion in unloading our gear, but the expansive view of the water and Funnel Top (3,095 feet) in front of us made it the best panorama I'd seen from a campsite on the Little Tennessee reservoirs.
I hung my hammock at a spot near the fire ring and tossed the black bag containing the other hammock to Dave. Just as I was about to get into mine to brag about how comfortable it was, Dave held up the contents of the black bag: not a hammock but a thin plastic rain fly roughly in the shape of a star, with thin nylon cord at the corners.
"We'll make this work," I said and tied off the four corners of the fly to pine trees. It looked sort of like a hammock. Dave did not jump into it.
"I'll use this one," I said and eased into it to demonstrate. As I carefully lowered myself into the rain fly, it stretched and stretched until my backside rested on the ground. One cord snapped like a rubber band (twang!) and my shoulder hit the ground. The others held, for the moment. I insisted to Dave that I would be perfectly comfortable here, and he should take the hammock.
That night he slept so well that he didn't even know when the rain started at about 3 a.m. I was well aware of the first drops as well as the mist and the peppering shower that advanced across the water and settled in. I rolled out of my rain fly, put on a poncho, and fed the fire.
"I guess we should have brought the tents," I said, thinking Dave was awake.
He roused up and said, "Or gone on a different day."
The light shower stopped after about an hour, and I slept until dawn when I witnessed wispy, boat-like clouds gliding past volcano-shaped Funnel Top. While Dave slept, I paddled on the smooth lake and cast a lure, hoping to get my money's worth from the license. No bites. As the Shoe Bully had remarked, August was not the best time to fish on Santeetlah Lake.
I kept casting on the chance I could return to the marina with a trophy walleye, but it was not to be. I had to be content with the peace that comes from a silent float on clear waters, tiny bass and minnows flitting past near the bottom.
On the paddle back to the ramp—about three miles—I told Dave that Calderwood Lake was more dramatic than this, its ridges steep and undeveloped, its waters untroubled by pontoon wakes. He called Santeetlah's lure a "gentle beauty," and he said that this was just the trip that he had needed.
It wasn't the optimal adventure, the perfect landscape or weather, but who needs perfection? Perfection is boring. Still, using a rain fly as a hammock is so far from perfect, I would not recommend it. And if you wear loud Crocs to Lake Santeetlah, be ready for the Shoe Bully's attack. You can tell him I sent you.
Kim Trevathan is the author of Liminal Zones: Where Lakes End and Rivers Begin, published by UT Press and available online or at Union Ave Books.