Monday, February 26, 2018

The Rites of Spring

I lifted my small thermometer out of the water. Fifty degrees. So, the water temp was either 48 or 52. I know my thermometer is two degrees off, but I can’t remember in which direction. I hope the fish aren’t so obsessive that a couple of degrees will matter, but trout have been known to be unreasonable at times, especially in early spring.

Fifty degrees is supposedly the magic number, the temperature that gets the trout out of their winter doldrums, which of course means that it gets me out of my winter doldrums, too. That’s why I’m standing waist deep (with waders and several layers of fleece) in the Little River, just inside the Townsend entrance to the Smokies. The third week of February is sliding into the fourth week of February, which is about 2 or 3 weeks earlier than I usually make this little pilgrimage, but forsythias are blooming and the 10-day forecast shows daytime highs hovering around 70 degrees. I know I should hate and fear global warming – and during those lingering 90 degree days of September, I will – but right now I’ll just call this early spring the silver lining of an ominous, dark cloud, and in the spirit of playing the cards you’re dealt, I’ll go fly fishing for a few little trout.

And I really do mean “little.” There are allegedly some large trout scattered in a few random corners of the park, but the largest trout I’ve ever caught in the Smokies was 12 inches. After catching several 5 and 6 and 7 inch trout, a 12 incher looks huge, so for those of us who spend time fishing in the cold, sterile waters of the Smokies, the concept of “context” is an essential ingredient to maintaining our composure. In the larger rivers below the TVA dams in this region, a 12 inch rainbow is modest. Not worth a picture. Not worth actually measuring. But in the Smokies a 12 inch rainbow is a prize worth celebrating. If I tell my fishing buddies that I caught a 12 inch rainbow in the Little River, they’ll understand that I had a good day. (They’ll also suspect that I’m lying and will ask to see the pictures.)

I also said “a few,” which will almost certainly be the case today. It’s a bright, sunny day. The sky is blazing blue. These are the reasons I came today, and these are the reasons the fishing might be slow and sparse. Fish prefer cloudy, wet, falling-barometer weather. Most humans, including me, prefer the opposite. If I were really, deeply serious about catching fish, I’d wait for nasty weather, but today isn’t really about catching fish. It’s about getting outside on a glorious spring day and taking a walk in a river, with a fly rod in my hand.

The fact that the fly rod is a light, delicate rod (a nine foot, slow action, four weight), rather than a big, brutish thunderstick is another essential part of the day.  If I’m going to catch any fish today, I’m going to do it properly, delicately, gentlemanly, as befits a wild rainbow in a mountain stream in early spring. There will be plenty of time later for big water, big rods, and big fish accompanied by ugly weather, mosquito bites, and sleep deprivation.  The wild-eyed frenzy of night fishing on the South Holston or the AuSable is still months away. For now, the act of fishing is just an excuse for getting out. This leisurely trip to the Little River requires only a slow pace and low expectations. It’s my annual, first rite of spring.

So, I fished for three hours without a bump or a tug or a splash, and that’s OK. After a day of getting skunked I often say “It was just good to be out,” but the first trip of early spring is one of those rare occasions when I actually mean what I say. In fact, my male ego can probably handle one or two more skunkings in these cold, mountain rivers. One of the best things about trout fishing is that trout live in beautiful places, and it’s always a delight to visit them in their home territory, even if they are sometimes poor hosts who refuse to come out to welcome me.  

So, spring is here, and I celebrated it by getting skunked on the Little River. A perfect beginning. Another season of trout fishing has begun.

But I do hope someone will tell the fish. 

Monday, January 15, 2018

Cat Stairs and Falcon Cliffs (Part 2 of 2)

On our November trip to the Cat Stairs of Greenbrier Pinnacle, Greg Harrell and I approached the base of the cliffs in a steep, dry, boulder-filled ravine. After about an hour in the ravine, we decided to hop over onto the adjacent, rocky ridge that had plenty of exposed, broken rock walls and spines that would provide some fun rock scrambling, which they did. These were fairly typical rocky ridges which usually are not dangerous, just challenging. Although, on this and other similar ridges, there are usually a few places where, if you fell just right, you could break your neck, but the more likely outcome would probably be just a broken femur or tibia. In that respect, they’re no different than the stairs in your house. Just don’t fall and you’ll be fine.

This small, wooded side ridge led to the base of the cliffs, at which point we went right (south) toward our favorite lunch spot in the park – a nice little nook with a roof and walls and a panoramic view of Mount LeConte across the Greenbrier valley. We bushwhacked along the base of the cliffs, below the Falcon Cliffs, to one of the two massive cuts in the cliff that lead to the top. There’s a challenging little scramble along the edge of this cut in the cliffs that leads to our secret nook, which we’ve named The Best Lunch Spot… because that’s what it is. From here we have a good view across toward Falcon Cliffs.

The name “Falcon Cliffs” is significant. Peregrine Falcons disappeared from the park in the 1940s or 50s as their numbers dwindled due to toxic pesticides in use at the time. In the 1980s the Park Service tried to reintroduce these falcons back into the park, so they closed the Greenbrier Pinnacle trail and set up a falcon “hacking” program (i.e., resettling pairs of falcons near the cliffs, hoping they would re-establish themselves), but the falcons didn’t stay and nest. However, in the 1990s a pair from somewhere found their way to the cliffs near Alum Cave and have been nesting there ever since. Sometime later a pair settled in the Charlies Bunion area, but still not on Greenbrier Pinnacle.

Then in March, 2013, Greg and I made an early spring trip to the Cat Stairs and were stunned when we heard a falcon’s screech. Once we got into the cliffs and had an unobstructed view from our Best Lunch Spot, we were able to see one, then two falcons sweeping and soaring along the cliffs and over the top of the Pinnacle. After they had finished showing off their aerial gyrations, they did something that hadn’t been done in decades – they both landed in a little crack in the cliffs of Greenbrier Pinnacle. And they stayed. And they chased away several ravens and hawks. The little crack was their new home – “Falcon Cliffs” was born.

Greg and I went back several times that spring, and the two falcons were always there, in that same spot – a crack in the cliffs, with a small pine tree clinging tenaciously to a nearby ledge. We never heard or saw babies, but it certainly looks as if the Peregrine Falcons have returned – permanently – to Greenbrier Pinnacle. In each subsequent spring we returned, and yes, the falcons were still there, acting like they owned the place, which is exactly what you want to see because a “territorial” falcon is usually a nesting falcon.

We didn’t expect to see the falcons on this November trip, and we didn’t. I’ve been told the park’s falcons usually don’t migrate, but merely hunker down during the cold months. Can’t say that I blame them because that’s pretty much what I do, too. Every winter I stay here in East Tennessee, but I don’t get out a lot… except in November, when the sun is shining on the ice in the treetops, and the sky is a deep, deep blue, and the temperatures are hovering right around freezing. I know the short, dark, cold days of winter are coming soon, but on a day like today, they seem a thousand years away.

Friday, December 15, 2017

A November Trip to the Cat Stairs (Part 1 of 2)

Finally! After a week or two of January-like weather, November was acting like November again. We’d had a couple of “arctic blasts” so far (or, what the Weather Channel often calls a “polar vortex,” a term that I prefer not to use because it sounds like either a ride at Disney World or a high-caffeine energy drink), and today would be a bit chilly, but it would be sunny with a chance of the thermometer topping out in the low 40’s. So Greg Harrell and I agreed to visit the Cat Stairs, one of our many favorite areas of the park.

The Cat Stairs are those cliffs that you see along the western end of Greenbrier Pinnacle. They are visible from Myrtle Point on Mount LeConte as well as a few places on the eastern side of Gatlinburg. Greenbrier Pinnacle is not exceptionally high (about 4,600’ at the western end, above the cliffs), but I’ve come to realize in the last few years that being on the highest spot is over-rated. I prefer being on rugged, lonely spots with good views, which means I often end up on medium-elevation spots, looking up and around at all the glorious peaks which surround me. If you want to take me to court on this one, the Chimney Tops would be my Exhibit A. The Cat Stairs would be Exhibit B. 

The sky was a deep, crisp blue and the temperature was 26 degrees when we stepped out of the car at the small pullout on the road to Ramsey Cascades trail. The branches of the trees were covered in a thick layer of hoarfrost, and the sun was just beginning to creep over the stateline ridge, which made the ice on the tree tops glow like white-hot fireworks. That same sunshine was also beginning to warm the icy treetops just enough to send a steady shower of ice chips, clumps, and crystals down on us all day long, even though the air temperature would hover just below freezing for much of the day. It was wonderfully typical November weather in the mountains.

The name “Cat Stairs” has a romance to it that couldn’t be ignored, so unlocking its secrets became our main Smoky Mountains project for a few years, searching for routes through or over the cliffs to the top. Yes, there’s an old trail (appropriately named the Greenbrier Pinnacle trail but no longer maintained by the Park Service) that goes to the top, but why use a trail when you can blaze your own path that few if any people have ever set foot on? To make a long story short (and this time, I really mean it – it really is a long story involving about 6 or 7 trips spread out over 12 months), we found two viable, rocky ravines through the cliffs and one route around and above the northwestern end of the cliffs. Then, of course, there are several interesting routes to take you to each of those routes – Cable Route, Chestnut Grove, Harrell’s Folly, plus a few that we haven’t named. Not to mention the fact that as you hike east along the base of the cliffs, those cliffs gradually become less vertical cliffs and more boulder fields, with many winding routes to the top. So there are lots of options, but only two real routes through the heart of the cliffs.

So on this perfect November day, we hiked the old path along Bird Branch to the Barnes graves and homesite and began our ascent up a dry, east-running ravine that eventually turns into a delightful boulder field, with rocks ranging from the size of a microwave oven to car and truck-sized. There are a few young, chestnut saplings scattered along this route, so we call it the Chestnut Grove route, although the term “grove” is a bit of an exaggeration.  [To be continued]

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Thoughts While Hiking Alone: Consistency, Thou Art a (Rare) Jewel (Part 2 of 2)

On a recent solo hike, I had some thoughts on a variety of topics, beginning with a list of yard chores and ending on America’s present state of political debate. Some of my thoughts were directed at liberals, which I shared in my previous column. Now for the rest of the story…

Dear (Southern) Conservatives, if you are feeling smug and vindicated by my words… don’t be. You are doing the same thing the liberals are doing. You are claiming the sole right to decide the meaning of your star & bars, regardless of how other folks feel about it. OK, fine, but when it comes to some NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, you insist on imposing your view of their actions. They claim their kneeling is about protesting racism – it’s not intended as disrespect to our nation, our troops, our school teachers, our nurses, etc. It’s about racism in police shootings. In other words, dear Conservatives, you claim the right to wear your Dixie flag because it doesn’t mean hate to you, but you won’t give the NFL athletes the same right to define what their own actions mean.

So, dear readers, both liberal and conservative, it seems to me that there are two reasonable, logically consistent approaches to this issue and one unreasonable, hypocritical approach. The two reasonable options are: first, don’t criticize either group; simply take them at their word for what their actions mean; or, second, criticize both groups because their personal ideas about what they are doing ignores the obvious fact that their behavior is offensive to much of the American public. The thing that these two approaches have in common is that they judge both the good ol’ boys in South and the NFL’s protesters by the same rule. Consistency, thou art a jewel, a rare jewel.

The inconsistent, hypocritical view is this: criticize just one group (that is, the one you disagree with) but defend the other group (the ones you agree with). This is the most popular approach, and yet it is unfair and inconsistent because it judges these two groups by two different standards. For your favorite group, you let them determine what their actions means; for the other group, you let the opponents and critics decide.

So, for those of you who defend a Southerner’s right to wear the Confederate battle flag, fine, but to be fair, you must also defend the right of someone to kneel during the national anthem. Likewise, for those of you who defend a person’s right to kneel during the national anthem, fine, but you must also defend the person who wear a “Heritage, not Hate” T shirt. (For purposes of full disclosure, I wouldn’t defend either one. I think both are showing disrespect to our flag and to basic civility. I wouldn’t wear a Nazi swastika and then claim “German Heritage, not Hate” because I don’t want to be associated with the evil that most folks associate with that symbol.)

It’s time for both sides to step back, take a deep breath, and think about how their actions are perceived by others. Do you really want to continue to do something that is perceived by many others as racist or unpatriotic? Do you seriously believe that advances your cause? A guy once said, “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “treat others as you want them to treat you.” If those values make sense to you, then your goal should be peace and reconciliation, and you should do your best not to offend your opponents unnecessarily, even though you have the right to.

So, those are the kinds of things I think about when I’m hiking alone. My next project will be North Korea. Since the future of the world is at stake, I’ll get to it soon, as soon as the weather is nice and I don’t have yardwork to do.

Thoughts While Hiking Alone: Two Flags (Part 1 of 2)

One of the dying skills in our modern world is the ability to be alone with one’s own thoughts. Our various hand-held devices (no, not pens and paper and books; the electronic kind) seem to be bringing a slow, sad death to quiet contemplation and meditation. In years gone by, while on some lengthy, lonely hikes, I’ve solved pretty much all the world’s problems, including but not limited to: war, terrorism, racism, poverty, global warming, religious bigotry, and covert actions by the CIA. I’ve also resolved intellectual conundrums such as free will vs. determinism, grace vs. works, creationism vs. evolution, the existence of God and the Illuminati, and whether the glass is half empty or half full. Of course, by the end of the hike, as fatigue and hunger set in, my thoughts turn to cheeseburgers, and I forget my grand schemes and solutions. I should write this stuff down.

So, on a recent solo hike, I had some thoughts on a variety of topics, beginning with a list of yard chores that needed to be done, then transitioning to SEC football, and finally settling in on America’s present debate over racism, police brutality, and two flags. For a change, I did write them down. So here they are…

Dear Liberals, you’ve long been critical of good ol’ Southern boys displaying their Dixie flags and wearing Southern-themed T shirts saying “Heritage, not Hate.” While I’m sure a few of them are outright racists, many of them are good people who are genuinely proud of being from the South. They claim that there is a lot more to the South than slavery and racism, and they are happy and proud to live here. But, dear Liberal, you won’t allow that. To you the stars & bars represent harsh, angry racism, and you are offended by such displays. The flags and T shirts are not allowed to represent anything other than what you believe they represent.

OK, fine, whatever. But now you are defending athletes who kneel during the national anthem. While many Americans see this as a sign of disrespect to America (everything from her imperfect democracy to the troops who have fought and died for our American flag), you and the kneelers claim it is simply a statement about lingering racism in America today, particularly police brutality – nothing more and nothing less. So, you are taking the athletes at their word. Their protest means what they say it means, and the opinions of those who are offended by kneeling during the national anthem don’t matter to you.

And yet, when it comes to those Southerners wearing the stars & bars and claiming “heritage, not hate,” you won’t take them at their word. According to you, their T shirts and bumper stickers don’t mean what they say it means; they mean what you (and those who are offended by it) say it means.

My dear liberal friends, it seems to me that you’ve constructed a nice, neat double standard as you pass judgments on the Southerners but not the NFL players. In my lexicon, that’s called hypocrisy.

Dear (Southern) Conservatives, maybe you are feeling smug and vindicated by my words…. Not so fast, my friends! [To be continued]

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Sugar Fingers (Part 4 of 4)

On our July hike up the largest of the Sugar Fingers on Sugarland Mountain, Greg Harrell stayed ahead of me, as he usually does, but not too far ahead because he knew that I was really struggling, possibly because he may have heard a little whining from me at some point during the day. Sometimes he was close enough that I didn’t even have to think about what route to take up and over the cliffs and outcrops. I’d just follow his route. Other times, he was far enough ahead that I didn’t know what route he had taken, which was fine. Blazing one’s own path is a fun part of these sorts of trips, if you don’t allow yourself to get spooked by the uncertainty of the challenge. This was one of those trips in which you couldn’t possibly get lost, but you could run into a dead-end every now and then by scrambling up a steep rock face maybe ten or fifteen feet high, only to realize that you can’t finish the last ten feet due to lack of handholds and footholds. You also can’t go easily back down because you can’t see the footholds that you used on your way up. In those moments, you aren’t stuck between a rock and a hard place; you are stuck between a rock and open air… which is just as bad, or maybe worse. It should go without saying that we try to avoid such places. It should also go without saying that those places can’t always be avoided.

This trip was also an adventure because this was all new territory. For the last two or three years, most of my off-trail hiking had been on old, favorite routes – Drinkwater Pool, Trout Branch, Styx Branch, Cat Stairs. Some of these routes are ones that we discovered and created from scratch. Others were old routes from previous generations that were passed on to us, like a torch, which we would pass on to others. I love those standard, familiar trips, but it was good to experience the excitement and uncertainty of terra incognita again, helping to create new paths out of thin air, rock, and dirt.

At the end of our nine-hour day we looked like a couple of coal miners at the end of a long day underground, or maybe chimney sweeps emerging from the fireplace… plus an acre of waist-deep stinging nettle at the end of the trip. My day was miserable. I vowed never to hike again. But now that a few days have passed and it appears that I may live, I’m reconsidering my vow. I may be getting too old for this stuff, but I’ll probably revisit a few of the other Sugar Fingers this fall, when temperatures are friendlier, and I have less grass to cut, and the yellow jackets have died the slow, lingering death they deserve.

And if I find that I’m too old or tired or beaten up to hike up from the valley again, my ace in the hole will be that all these ridges are also accessible from the top, from the Sugarland Mountain trail. I’m sure there are no worn paths yet because this is all too new. But a few hardy souls may find the spots where these side ribs meet the spine, and they’ll wander down as far as their sense of adventure will allow. And maybe I’ll be one of them. Or maybe you.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Sugar Fingers (Part 3 of 4)

On a recent July Saturday, Greg Harrell and I hiked up one of the recently-exposed Sugar Fingers of Sugarland Mountain. Within ten minutes I knew that I had made a big mistake. I had just returned from a week-long fishing trip in which we normally got to sleep about 4am and awakened about 10am, or 11am on a good day. So I wasn’t well rested. It was a hot, humid, summer day on an exposed, sunny ridge – and I don’t do well on hot days, probably due to touch of heat stroke in my younger days. I also felt nauseated for some unknown reason, perhaps related to cheeseburgers and copious amounts of white cheddar popcorn. I had spent three hours pushing a lawn mower the day before, so I was lethargic and had a few yellow jacket stings as mementos of my day in the yard. And last but not least, I was only a day away from turning 62, so, well, you know.

To make a long story short, I spent the whole day wishing I’d either get well, or just die and get it over with. Unfortunately, I survived, but just barely, which was the worst of all possible outcomes. I had to stop for a five-minute rest stop every couple of minutes. So I managed to transform our four or five-hour frolic into a nine-hour death march. I had brought enough water for a five-hour hike, so I ran out of water about half way through the day. So let’s add dehydration and leg and arm cramps to my list of woes. It’s possible that I may have done a little whining.

I spent the whole day talking to the mountain, begging it to kill me or revive me. I told it “It’s not you, it’s me,” but neither of us believed it. I hated the mountain and it hated me. I try not to use profanity in my day to day routine, but sometimes it’s necessary to make the point, and today was one of those days. On several occasions I told the mountain what I thought of it in no uncertain terms. It responded like a parent who has run out of patience with his irresponsible son, determined to make me suffer the consequences of my poor choices. A therapist might call this an “asymmetrical relationship” in which one person has all the power and the other has none. As I may have already mentioned, there may have been some whining on my part.  

Even though I didn’t think so at the time, the mountain was also fabulous. This Sugar Finger ridge was open and rocky and scary and dirty and sooty. There were burned trees and rocks and ground everywhere. There were rocky outcrops, some of which were scary, maybe even deadly in a few places. The dominant colors were brown, gray, and black, with only an occasional hint of green.

And, as always, the views up and down the Sugarlands valley were magnificent. Not only did we have an unmatched view of the Chimney Tops, the other Sugar Finger ridges were wild and rough, as were the cliffs and canyons between them. We spent a few minutes watching a peregrine falcon chasing a raven. A sure sign that you are in a wild, rocky place is a territorial falcon who has laid his claim and is willing to defend it. [To be continued]