Nancy East Prepares for Smokies 900 FKT to Support Preventative Search and Rescue Efforts
As the blog editor for LightFeet, I get to gather, read, and share stories from truly amazing souls. In particular, Gossamer Gear’s brand ambassadors endlessly inspire me with their adventures, trail wisdom, humor, and compassion. They remind me each day what I love most about our lightweight backpacking community.
I virtually met one of these gems, Nancy East, before the various left and right turns of my life brought me to eastern Tennessee and then western North Carolina, where she resides. And, while we’ve still yet to meet in person thanks to life schedules, global pandemics, and the like, she is, without question, a key component to why, amidst all the thrashing uncertainty this year has brought, I’m at peace in my own skin more than I’ve ever been.
When I was first settling into a new life in the Smoky Mountains, Nancy casually mentioned that I might want to get started on a popular locals’ pastime, the Great Smoky Mountains 900 Miler Club. There are roughly 900 miles worth of hiking trails throughout Great Smoky Mountains National Park, each represented by their own name and dotted line on the park’s official visitors’ map. As of September 2020, there are roughly 660 people who have walked every one of those trails.
I decided to take the challenge on with no real plan or timeline. I felt no urgency in the beginning to finish the trails by any specific date, but I thought it would nevertheless be a fun goal to work towards. Then, the uncertainties of life threw heartbreak and a global pandemic into the mix. Public lands got shut down and, like so many others, I got restless. I floated aimlessly in the sea of all the world’s new unknowns and sorrows, unsure what would happen next.
When the parks reopened, I scurried back to the trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park as fast as I could. Returning to nature, especially a place as biodiverse as the Smokies, quickly filled me with healing, understanding, and direction. It was then that I decided to really dig my boots into the challenge. Each trail I checked off on my map became a grounding force in my life, a tangible, worthwhile goal I could focus on and find meaning in, even while life as I knew it seemed to crumble around me.
Nancy completed her first map of every trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park over the course of 20 years. She completed her second map within just a few months. Now, she’s vying for the 900 Miler Club’s fastest known time (FKT), training, along with her hiking partner Chris, to complete every trail in the park in fewer than 33 days and 9 hours. It’s a logistically, physically, and mentally challenging endeavor, and it has been a true gift to follow her journey towards making it happen.
But Nancy’s not just trying to set a hiking record to say she did it. She’s doing it to raise $60,000 for preventative search and rescue (SAR) efforts in the park.
As a member of a local SAR team herself, Nancy volunteers her time educating hikers on how they can best prepare for the inherent uncertainties that come with time spent in the woods. Some of her resources have helped me feel increasingly more prepared for my often solo trips into the backcountry of the Smokies. This fundraiser will bring education efforts like Nancy’s straight to the trailheads. The money will allow the Smokies, which is the most visited National Park Service site in the country, to hire seasonal rangers who will be stationed at popular trailheads to educate hikers on backcountry safety before they hit the trail and make sure they have what they need for a successful trip.
Because, well, sometimes you slip on a rock and a good-hearted person like Nancy has to gear up with the rest of the SAR team to come help pick you back up. But, what if a trailhead ranger had been there to recommend hiking poles since that particular trail is often slick? In that case, those poles might have saved you from that broken tibia, while also reserving limited SAR resources. Win, win!
The miles I’ve hiked in the Smokies have been tremendously meaningful to me, and the more I’ve learned from people like Nancy, the more confident I’ve become in being able to tackle those miles as safely as I can. I know my daypack has what I need to spend an unexpected night in the woods. I know my footwear is the right fit for the trail I’m navigating that day. I know how quickly the weather can change in the Smokies and plan my clothing accordingly. I love knowing that Nancy’s efforts will help bring this confidence and adventure to others, too.
To me, in a year that has been filled with the unexpected, I find myself increasingly grateful for people like Nancy -- the ones who, even when all our preparations have fallen victim to the great uncertainties of life, head out to find us, to give us a fighting chance.
Somewhere amidst all the chaos of 2020, I’ve found hope along the trails of the Smokies, and I want to support Nancy in helping others prepare for those kinds of healing wilderness connections, as well. I hope you'll join me in donating to Nancy's effort to fund critical preventative SAR programs in a truly wonderful wilderness. Her FKT attempt begins September 4, 2020, so make sure to tune in for updates!
Additional Ways to Give:
You can also learn about other ways to donate and support the effort at the link below -- including a chance to bid on some pretty sweet Gossamer Gear products, if we do say so ourselves!
All photos from Nancy East/Hope and Feather Travels.
Korrin Bishop is the Managing Editor for the Gossamer Gear blog, LightFeet. She's also the co-founder of Wild Wilderness Women, a freelance writer, Oregon Duck, and group hug enthusiast. She grew up amongst redwoods, has a deep love for Everglades adventures, and was once a Washington, D.C. local before fleeing for more open spaces. Korrin has written for the National Park Service, Sierra Magazine, Fodor's Travel, The Dyrt Magazine, and Misadventures Magazine, among others. Learn more about her work on her website: https://www.korrinbishop.com/