Six Tellico Village residents trekked hundreds of miles and worn out shoes on long days of hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to join the 900 Miler Club.
Christie Bruns, Debbie Gerlach, Sue and Bob Lehmann, Jeannie Neary and Debby Van Dine hiked all 836 miles of trails in the park in Tennessee and North Carolina and logged many additional miles.
“I personally do it because I love the experience,” Van Dine said. “I just love being out there.”
The residents, who are part of Tellico Village Hiking Club, hiked the national park with help from the Margaret Stevenson Hikers. They completed their 900-mile trail maps between May and September, joining a club of about 700 people. How long hikers take to complete the 900-mile trail map varies.
For Neary, the journey took about 14 months because the park shut down March-May 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bruns finished after a year.
The number of hikes required to complete the 900-mile map also varies. Sue Lehmann guessed she went on about 90 hikes total.
Hikes could be long, strenuous and sometimes steep. The longest hike was 26 miles and some trails had elevation changes between 4,000 and 7,000 feet. Neary said her hikes were frequently in the 15- to 22-mile range and one four-day stretch included 68 miles in three days.
“The distances are long,” Neary said. “It’s not easy. ... It’s not for the weak of heart. ... You’ve got to be pretty fit to do it.”
Sue Lehmann said she has hiked most trails in both directions.
“There are some where you are going uphill for five miles,” she said.
A 25-mile trail from Newfound Gap to Cosby has 4,500 feet of elevation change one way and 7,400 feet the other, she said.
Wake-up times on hiking days were as early as 3 a.m., and hiking days stretched as late as 10 p.m. One trail, Eagle Creek, has 22 stream crossings, Van Dine said. Trails can be overgrown during the summer and there are fallen trees hikers must navigate.
There are logistical challenges as well, including boat rides on Fontana Lake to get to some trailheads, shuttle rides, mid-trail car key swaps with other hikers and some overnight hotel stays.
Bruns’ husband shuttled hikers a few times. Hikers usually trek with other people for safety and fun.
“With the logistical challenges, it would be hard to do it on your own,” Van Dine said.
Trekkers wore hiking shoes and carried a mix of essentials that included food, water, extra socks, hiking poles, first aid kits, rain gear and head lamps. Bruns wore out two pairs of hiking shoes. Van Dine used four pairs of trail running shoes.
In the park, hikers saw old logging company settlements, historic cemeteries and churches, bears, grouse, turkeys, a wild boar and a rattlesnake.
“I have seen everything but a bobcat so far,” Van Dine said.
She said she almost put her hiking pole on the rattlesnake before she was warned by its rattling.
Hikers enjoyed the views, flowers and topography.
“Every trail offered a peak into nature and how the environment changes the earth,” Bruns said. “(I) saw new fauna and fungi that you can only see in the Great Smoky Mountains.”
More than 900 miles is actually required to complete the 900-mile map. Hikers sometimes have to walk trails they have already covered to get to new ones. The number of total miles trekked is somewhere in the range of 1,100-1,500.
“You do a lot of backtracking,” Sue Lehmann said. “As people keep hiking, they try to be more and more efficient.”
Bruns said the 900 miles covers Tennessee and North Carolina and includes the Appalachian Trail in both.
Hikes were temporarily interrupted last year by the park’s closure in March due to the pandemic.
“It was a little bit slower because of the COVID slowdown,” Van Dine said, who finished in July.
Van Dine, who has been hiking since she was a child, said her longest trek of 25 miles was along the Appalachian Trail starting at Newfound Gap and ending at Cosby. Lehmann’s longest was 26 miles from Mt. LeConte down to North Carolina.
Those asked about bear spray said they did not carry it, although they did spot bears.
“I don’t worry about them,” Van Dine said. “They run away when they see (people).”
Although there were some falls, no one left injured.
Bruns said a few hikes had to be rescheduled due to rains and high water.
Hikers adjusted to the weather and used layered cold weather gear in the winter. Sue Lehmann said she prefers hiking in the winter, when there are no leaves and the views are better.
In the summer, Van Dine said she tried to make sure she brought enough water and electrolyte drinks or tablets to keep her body in balance and avoid overheating. She tried to hike at higher elevations in the summer since the temperatures were cooler.
During the year-long endeavor, the hikers experienced camaraderie.
“I met amazing people on this journey, some becoming forever friends,” Bruns said.
“Everybody’s very supportive of each other,” Neary added. “Everybody celebrates when you finish.”
Neary finished her 900 miles June 26.
“It’s just really, really good people,” Van Dine said.
Even though they have completed their 900 miles, their journeys are not necessarily over.
Bruns continues to work with others who are working on their map, “providing shuttles and being a hiking companion so they don’t have to hike solo.”
Neary is planning her second 900-miler. She has run a half-marathon, been a competitive runner and pickleball player.
“Of all the athletic endeavors I’ve ever done, this one takes the cake,” Neary said.
Sue Lehmann completed her second 900-miler in May after her first go-around in 2017. She has already started her third endeavor.
“I’m from Michigan, and I have to say I love Tennessee,” she said. “I love the park. You get happy endorphins. You’re out for the day.”
She said she is the type of person who likes to check things off a list.
“It gives me a goal,” she said. “It’s like a puzzle and have to figure out the best logistics, figure out the best way to do it. … It’s good exercise and it’s good friends.”