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Leaders of the Pack

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border along a rugged stretch of mountains. From one peak to the next, elevation changes drastically, and the area is notorious for extreme weather changes, too. But when Charles Anchors, Jr. and a buddy set out on a backcountry trip there a couple of years ago, it was May. Winter freezes had given way to spring thaw.

The backpackers planned to cover some 70 miles in six days. "And we were planning on shorts and T-shirts," recalls Anchors, age 30. That's what they were wearing when they left their car at the trailhead at 1800 feet. They covered 11 miles or so the first day to stay on pace; they also gained 3400 feet of elevation. "We woke up the second morning to four inches of snow," says Anchors, whose friends call him J.R. "When you wake up in the morning and see some snow on the ground, you get a little freaked out."

Even though it was sunny and warm when they'd started, the hikers had long underwear and rain gear in their packs. "Because we were prepared, we were able to make our trip as enjoyable as possible," says Anchors, who will be one of the instructors at the Practical Backpack Workshop put on by the Broward County Chapter of the Sierra Club February 20 and 21. And while cold weather may not be a threat here in the subtropics, the "be prepared" credo still applies.

"I learned what I know out on the trail," offers Anchors. "I started as a kid, with my uncle taking me [backpacking]." The Lauderhill resident estimates he's spent 100 nights in the backwoods of Pennsylvania, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Montana, Washington, California, and Florida.

Pulling from their experiences, he and other backpackers will cover a range of subjects, including how to pack a backpack properly, set up a tent, use a backpacking stove, and purify water. Participants, who get to camp out in Markham Park Saturday night, will also check out the latest gear as demonstrated by local sporting-goods shops.

For an activity often referred to as "roughing it," backpacking is easier than ever. Thanks to new technology, the freeze-dried foods taste better, the clothing weighs less, the stoves are more compact, and the backpacks distribute loads more comfortably.

But even with all of the newfangled stuff available, Anchors offers these words of caution: "Always expect the worst. And when the best happens, it's even better."

-- John Ferri

The Practical Backpack Workshop takes place Saturday and Sunday, February 20 and 21, at Markham Park, 16001 W. State Rd. 84, Sunrise. Cost is $30 to $35. Call 954-733-7772 or 954-572-6835.

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John Ferri

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