I was incredibly excited about this particular trail because every step of it marked new trail for me. I'd never done any of the trails in the Smokemont section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. So imagine my dismay when I (quite by coincidence) mentioned to a ranger at the Sugarlands Visitor Center (restroom stop!!) that this was our intended destination. She immediately asked if we were aware the bridge was out. And she had the pictures to prove it! Fortunately, her definition of "out" and ours were two different interpretations. But my hiking bud that day and I are, above everything else, safety conscious and armed with a Plan B, we soldiered on in the hopes that water levels were down enough and the broken (as opposed to "out") bridge was stable enough to cross. Normally this hike is done counter-clock wise starting up Bradley Fork Trail crossing the bridge and coming back down Smokemont Loop Trail. There is a reason for this. Smokemont Loop Trail (much more about the trail along with an elevation profile can be found here) has a sharp climb made worse if the trail is hiked clock-wise. Our Plan B was to do just that and if we got to the junction and found the bridge impassible, we would simply turn around and retrace our steps. Total mileage would've been a tad more, but difficulty would've been considerably more. And at our first break a couple of miles into the hike, we both looked at each other and no words needed to be spoken. I could tell neither wanted to backtrack. We WOULD find a way to cross that bridge UNLESS there truly was a stupidity factor involved. As you can see, I'm here to write about it, so there was no loss of life and I can promise that neither were there any dramatic rescues. And in retrospect, here are some things of which I was reminded.
1) Don't focus on something in the future and miss the experience of the present. Smokemont Loop Trail is a beautiful trail that I could've enjoyed more if I hadn't been so concerned about whether or not we'd be able to cross the bridge at the end. This is a trail with no other connections so it isn't likely I'll be doing it again. I wish I had savored the quiet forested beauty of it more.
2) Rather than immediately giving up on an anticipated action, try finding a plan B as a backup. My sometimes impulsive nature was to simply hike another trail, but my very levelheaded hiking partner that day came up with the plan B I mentioned earlier. Plan B could've been a whole different destination, but I'm so glad it wasn't. That was Plan C!!!
3) Work as a team and depend on each other. There are basically three people I hike with most of the time. On this day, I was with a male hiking friend from our church and I'm glad. With the blessings of both our spouses, we are compatible and enjoy hiking together. He is the more experienced hiker, but yet the total professional in bending to my weaknesses. Plan B was his suggestion, but the thing that sold me was his remark that, "when we get to the bridge, the decision whether or not to cross will be 100% yours. If you are uncomfortable in any way, we will retrace our steps, no questions asked." But I also knew that he would never put himself or me at risk and if HE said we could cross, I'd trust him. He is strong and would help me.
Here's how the story ends. Our first sight of the bridge was encouraging. Water appeared to be down only covering the bridge at the "V" where the break had occurred. We knew temps were well above freezing, so ice was not an issue. Truthfully, the first section looked easier to me than if the bridge had been in place. I think I've written before that I DON'T like these footlogs. They mess with my equilibrium and this one is known to be "long and bouncy." My hiking bud suggested he cross then come back for my backpack and offer any help I might need. He crossed easily, took his pack off, walked back down and met me halfway. The picture doesn't reflect the steep pitch of the second half, nor does it show that the stability posts were totally useless. That last 20 feet was no picnic, but I did it.