Monday, November 24, 2008

The Doctor Says You're Gonna Die

You may have heard the joke about the hiker who gets bit on the butt by a rattlesnake, so his partner runs to the doctor in the nearest town. The doctor tells him to suck the poison out of the bite or else the guy will die. So the guy goes back to his wounded friend. The guy with the snake bite asks, “What did the doctor say?” The other guy pauses for a second, then answers, “I’m sorry, man. The doctor says you’re gonna die.” (Just for the record, that was just a joke, not legitimate medical advice. The standard wisdom among doctors is that you should NOT cut the wound or suck the poison out. Figure out whether the snake was a timber rattler or a copperhead – the only two poisonous snakes in our area—and get the victim to a hospital for anti-venom.)

That’s one of those standard jokes among hikers, the other being: When hiking, you don’t have to be able to outrun a bear. You only have to be able to outrun your hiking partner.

Greg Harrell, Charlie Roth, and I were making our way up Thunderhead Prong Trail, near Chimney Rocks. I think. I’m not really sure because we never quite figured out what and where Chimney Rocks were. There was no outstanding feature that was obviously Chimney Rocks, and we couldn’t check the trail guide because Thunderhead Prong Trail doesn’t officially exist. In fact, we just made up the name, but that’s probably what it would be called because it follows a stream named Thunderhead Prong for about four miles then climbs up the side of Defeat Ridge and ends at Thunderhead (Mountain) on the Appalachian Trail.

Several weeks earlier, Greg had found this trail on an old map, so we decided to see if we could find any remnants of it leading to Chimney Rocks and Thunderhead. As it turned out, there was a full-blown, visible trail for most of the way. We hadn’t expected that.

This trail was obviously used by a few people – I’d guess the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club – whose feet had kept it worn and visible. After 3 or 4 miles we began to realize that this trail was probably used as an alternative route to Thunderhead on the AT by the few people who knew about it. So it was a good day: we found an old trail, had some great views from Thunderhead and Rocky Top . . . and saw a rattlesnake.

On the way out we were making good time hiking down the trail when Charlie paused for a half-second to step over a small log, and in that momentary pause he saw a tight bundle of brown and black leaves and twigs and shadows – except that it wasn’t leaves, twigs, and shadows. It was a timber rattler.

Apparently the snake had never heard the experts say that the snake is more frightened than you are, or that rattlesnakes will rattle to warn intruders. This snake remained calm and collected, not the least bit nervous, apparently secure in the fact that he had fangs and we didn’t; which meant that he didn’t move, didn’t rattle, didn’t care. He just sat there, either too comfortable to move or too confident to give up his square foot of personal space; or simply doing what snakes do – lying still and depending on his protective coloration to hide him. Whatever his personal motivations, he didn’t budge until we poked and him with sticks – long sticks. Only as he slithered away did he use his rattle, not as a warning but as a parting expletive.

Skeptical non-hikers sometimes ask me if I worry about snakes on hikes, especially off-trail hikes. My response is that I don’t worry about snakes. After all, if I start worrying about snakebites, I might as well start worrying about lightning strikes, hornets, drunk drivers, heart attacks, and wampus cats – all about equally likely to happen. If I thought about them, I wouldn’t go. So I don’t think about them.

Another reason why I don’t worry too much about snakes is that I’m not usually the fastest hiker. I bring up the rear. And although I’ve heard that the first hiker usually scares the snake on the trail and the second hiker gets bit, I still feel a little more comfortable bringing up the rear. Especially if I’m the third hiker, as I was today.

As we finished our hike, our conversation turned to hiking accidents: snakebites, twisted ankles, hypothermia, and broken legs. I innocently wondered aloud what we’d do if I (the old and clumsy one) ever broke my leg on a lonely trail, miles from the car and medical care. Without any hesitation both Greg and Charlie answered (in unison, as if they had discussed and decided this ahead of time): “The doctor says you’re gonna die.”

More information:

Finding this little-known, alternate route to Thunderhead is easy. Enter the park through Townsend and bear right at the Y in the road (toward Cades Cove). In less than a mile you’ll cross a rock bridge and see a sign pointing left to Tremont. Take this road to the left. It follows the Middle Prong of the Little River for several miles. Stay on it until it ends at a small, dirt parking area. Walk across the bridge and notice that two streams converge at this point to form the Middle Prong. The stream entering from your right (as you look upstream) is Thunderhead Prong. You’ll see the trail running along side it. I’d recommend that you take a map and compass because there are a couple of tricky turns.

This trail is surprisingly well worn and visible. There are, of course, a lot of blown-down trees to crawl over or under, plus some brier patches to push through. You’ll get a few bumps and bruises. The first 5 miles are relatively clear and easy. The final two miles up to the AT are partially overgrown, but manageable. Lots of overhanging rhododendron branches to bump your head on. I ended the day with more bumps and blood on the top of my head than on my legs. Wear a hat to protect your head.

The standard 7.5 minute U. S. Geological Survey topographical map named Thunderhead Mtn. shows the route of this old trail. The Map Store in Knoxville sells these topo maps. A great online source of (free!) digital Adobe pdf files of all the topo maps for the entire US can be found as follows:

Go to (you can also get there via

Once there, find the option for “Download Topo Maps.”

You’ll probably have to snoop around on your own, but you’ll basically download this program, then run the program to install the map downloading software. (I’m writing this from memory, so I may be leaving out a detail or two.)

Next, you should be able to run this map downloading program, which will show you a map of the US. Probably the quickest way to move this map to the Smokies is to Search for Gatlinburg. This will get you in the vicinity that you want. Zoom in closer on the map, and you’ll see that this US map is actually a grid consisting of all the USGS 7.5 minute topo maps.

To actually download a topo map, click on one of the squares of the map. A red pin will appear. (There may be an option to choose to make this red pin appear, I can’t remember for sure.) Once you see the red pin, click on it and a brief list of maps will show up. Click the one you want, and an Adobe pdf file will copy to your hard drive.

I may have left out a detail or two, so you may need to snoop around to get this to work, but a little persistence should be all you’ll need. (If I can muddle my way through, then anybody can.)

A great, great feature that you can add to this is the GeoPDF Tool. Look for this option on the page where the map of the US is. This GeoPDF Toolbar is a pointer that allows you to run your cursor over any of these downloaded topo maps to see the exact coordinates of any site. You can find a spot on a topo map (like a turn in a trail or the trailhead of an old, unmaintained trail, etc.), then you can use a hand-held GPS to find the spot when you are actually out in the woods. Or you can work in the other direction. For instance, if you find a great spot in the Smokies – a panoramic view or a hidden waterfall or a favorite picnic spot – you can mark it with your hand-held GPS, then when you get home you can find this spot precisely on your topo map. This comes in handy on off-trail hikes when you get to a great spot, but you don’t know exactly where you are. Mark the spot on your GPS, then find yourself on a topo map when you get home.

(Personally, I like the old school approach of figuring out where I am with a map and compass and common sense. Unfortunately, my common sense seems to be inversely related to the distance from the trailhead. So I use my map and compass and make my best guess about where I am – but I’ll also mark the spot with my Garmin Etrex GPS so I can double check my map and compass calculations when I get home.)

Stopping By Woods on a Summer Evening

As we walked along the bank of the Au Sable River in Michigan, we heard a bird song in the distance that simply stopped us in our tracks. It was an evening in early June, and Keith Oakes and I were searching for a secluded spot to fish. Thousands of mayflies called Brown Drakes would soon swarm over the river, mate recklessly, and fall onto the surface of the river, spent and dying. If all this happened as planned, big trout would feast on the dead bugs, and we would be there to take advantage of the situation.

But back to the bird song…

After years of apathy bordering on outright stubbornness, Keith had finally become interested in the birds, which was helpful because in years past he’d be too hyper to actually stop for 30 seconds to figure out what was going on in the natural world around us. After all, stopping for half a minute would mean we’d fish for only 2 hours, 59 and a half minutes instead of three full hours. When Keith gets focused on fishing, nothing else matters. No, it’s worse than that – nothing else exists.

At least that’s the way it used to be. But now he’ll actually consent to stop and look and listen, not merely to stop my whining but because he’s genuinely interested. It’s a change I thought I’d never witness. He’s beginning to slow down and notice things, which I consider to be a good thing, one of the few benefits of growing old. For most of us, our pace begins to slow sometime while we are busy raising our kids. We just get worn down by the soccer games, swim meets, and church Christmas pageants. It’s like the trench warfare of World War One – you are gradually defeated by attrition. Or maybe we just realize that raising our kids properly requires that we stop and explain things to them. We don’t want them to grow up ignorant, so on family vacations Dad begins stopping the car at all those historical markers on the side of the road. Stopping to read historical markers. Pausing to listen to a bird. Two signs that a new chapter in life has begun.

So Keith and I stopped when we heard the song of the Veery; although, at the time we didn’t know the name of the bird. In fact, I didn’t get around to figuring out what bird belonged to that other-worldly sound until about six weeks later when I was walking high (about 5,000 feet) on the Hyatt Ridge trail in the Smokies near dusk. Once again I heard that very distinctive song: a repetitive, four-part, downward-spiraling song.

I’ve never actually seen a Veery – a reclusive, brown, nondescript bird – but his song is otherworldly and pretty much indescribable. Peterson’s Guide describes it as “liquid, breezy, ethereal, wheeling downward.” See, the experts have difficulty describing it. To my ear, it sounds like he says, “Wheel, Wheel, Wheel, Wheel.” Each Wheel sounds like he’s groaning into a hollow pipe. No, wait. Not groaning. Humming. Humming into a hollow pipe. No, maybe it sounds like he’s in a bottle, which gives his song a hollow, echoing… okay, I give up. I guess the amateurs can’t describe it either. Nevertheless, I think this is the most fascinating bird song in the Smokies.

It’s also a song Southerners hear only in the mountains because the Veery spends his winter in South America and his summer in the deep forests of Canada (and Michigan). Luckily, our Southern Appalachian mountains are high and cool enough that a few Veerys will spend their summers here. Now that’s my kind of bird – one that flies several thousand miles, arrives in the Smokies, and says, “You guys go ahead. I’m gonna stop now. Why fly all the way to Canada when we could stay here in these mountains?” His avian legacy demands that he keep going, but he just doesn’t see the point. So he shirks responsibility, flaunts instinct, and cuts the road trip short, just to see what a summer in the Southern Appalachians is like. Maybe next year he’ll make it all the way to Canada, but not now.

Maybe we humans aren’t the only ones who learn, as the years pass, to pause and appreciate the beauty of the natural world at our doorstep, or by the roadside, or by a trout stream in Michigan. Humankind could learn a thing or two from a Smoky Mountain Veery.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Bottom Four, Part 2

Previously we started our list of four Smokies trips that few people do, which is exactly why you should: a night walk in Cades Cove and a drive on Heintooga Ridge Road. Today we’ll finish our list with two more excursions – a bike ride and a hike – that will raise your level of intimacy with the park, without the crowds.

3. Bike a Closed Road. The easiest – and, therefore, the most crowded – biking option is the Cades Cove loop on Saturday and Wednesday mornings during the peak season, when cars are excluded for a few morning hours. Maybe you already knew that one. A less crowded option is to ride on one of the roads that is closed to cars during the off-season (behind a locked gate) but not to walkers and bike riders. None of these roads will be as smooth as the Cades Cove road, so be prepared both mentally and physically for some heart-pumping, muscle-burning work. Good choices for paved roads are Clingmans Dome road, Roaring Fork road, or the Blue Ridge Parkway during the late fall or early spring (contact the park for exact closing dates). Good dirt choices are Parson Branch Road or Rich Mountain Road, both accessible via the Cades Cove loop road. The loop road is open year round, providing access to these two dirt roads which are closed from about November to April. (These two dirt roads are one way, but that should have no effect on a bike rider behind a closed gate.)

A nice way to enhance your solitude is to park your bike at a trailhead on the road and walk a short way. You’ll feel like you are the only person in the entire park. Or, better yet, just park at a spot where there’s not a trail and walk into the woods (but be sure to pay attention; it’s easy to get disoriented when you are not on a trail).

4. Hike Greenbrier Pinnacle. Don’t look for this trail in your Hiking Trails guide because it’s not there; although, a few maps still show it, and if you have a guide book from the 1970s you might find a description of it. Today, this is an unmaintained “manway” (not quite a real trail) which begins at the old, circular turnaround about 1.5 miles from the beginning of the Ramsey Cascades Trail in the northeast quadrant of the park. There won’t be a sign, but if you’ll look closely you’ll clearly see the old trail heading north.

This 3.5 mile hike (plus the 1.5 miles on Ramsey) is a good introduction to rough hiking – not full-blooded, off-trail hiking, but it will be cluttered with a few blowdowns and tightly enclosed with rhododendron and mountain laurel – but there’s very little chance of getting lost. Nevertheless, there’s a sense of adventure on this trip simply because you are doing what few others bother to do. You’ll probably be completely alone once you get off the popular Ramsey Cascades Trail. (By the way, at peak visitation times you will need to arrive early to get a parking spot at the Ramsey parking area.)

The full five mile hike (one way) will probably take about 2 to 3 hours, plus some stops during the top mile at several rocky overlooks providing fine views to the south of Laurel Top on the AT and of Mt. LeConte and the Greenbrier area to the west. The top of the Pinnacle (about 4,600’) is mostly overgrown with rhododendron and mountain laurel, so exploring the ridge crest will be difficult, and there aren’t any good views from the top. However, on the top you will find the foundations of the old fire tower and cabin. This is a fine, lonely hike any time of the year, but I especially like it in mid-November when the leaves are off the trees along the upper reaches of this trail, but there is still plenty of color (especially the brilliant, red oaks) in the valley. June is another good choice because of the blooming mountain laurel and rhododendron. And by the way, there are rumors of a family of Peregrine Falcons living in the area, so take your bird guide and binoculars.

The Bottom Four

The four best Smokies trips that no one's doing (which is exactly why you should)...

Everyone, absolutely everyone, who visits the Smokies knows about Cades Cove, Clingmans Dome, The Chimneys, and Newfound Gap. The serious Smokies visitor is aware of Mount LeConte, Fontana Dam, and Ramsey Cascades. The seasoned aficionado is familiar with Mount Cammerer, Big Creek, and Hazel Creek. But only a few have noticed, much less tried, the following four trips which will raise your level of knowledge and intimacy with the park to another level.

Our list consists of a walk, a drive, a ride, and a hike. No matter when you do them, you’ll be virtually guaranteed to see only a handful of people.

1. Night Walk in Cades Cove. This first trip is not risky or grueling, but it is unusual enough to provide a great deal of solitude, even in the middle of the summer. While most suggestions for avoiding the crowds in the Smokies will tell you to “arrive early,” I would suggest that you arrive late – at dusk. Most people are not in touch with their nocturnal side, so use this reality – and the fact that the rangers lock the gate (for cars, not hikers) at dusk – to your advantage.

To experience Cades Cove at night, park at the parking area at the beginning of the Loop Road and walk about a mile to Sparks Lane – the first dirt road cutting across the cove. Go left on this dirt road to get to the middle of the cove. A tributary to Abrams Creek crosses the road about half way across, so you might want to bring a towel and an extra pair of shoes. Before you go, find out what phase the moon will be in while you are there. A waxing moon (the week leading up to a full moon) will light up the first part of the night, while a waning moon (the week after a full moon) will light up the latter part of the night. A full moon will light the entire night.

My personal preference is to time my night walk to experience a mostly moonless night in the fall when the sky is free of the summertime haze. The starry hosts on a cool, moonless night are magnificent. Because the surrounding hills tend to block out the ambient light from nearby towns, Cades Cove is perhaps the best site in the Smokies for star watching. The stars will blaze in the cold night sky, nearly reaching down and grabbing you. If you can time your walk to coincide with a meteor shower, so much the better. (November 17 is a good choice; although, you’ll have to stay up until about 3am to see the show.)

2. Drive Heintooga Ridge Road. Also known as Balsam Mountain Road, this trip starts near mile marker 458 on the Blue Ridge Parkway in the southeast quadrant of the park. This is an easy trip which usually means crowds, but not in this case. It is a fine, high, “Canadian” drive with lots of sugar maples, ferns, rhododendron, spruce, beech, and birch trees. It is very, very green and shady in the summer and colorful in the fall. There are several panoramas on the first few, paved miles but only a couple of open views on the dirt, one-way portion of this road. Instead, you’ll have the feeling of being deeply embedded in the forest. Which you are.

The reason for this sense of wilderness and solitude is that beyond the Balsam Mountain campground and picnic area, the road becomes a narrow, one-way, dirt road, so you can’t turn around, which deters most visitors. This road goes deep, deep into the park and eventually becomes a riverside road. By the time you reach the northernmost point at Pin Oak Gap, you are as far into the backcountry as only a backpacker could hope to reach. You’ll see only an occasional car, which is what you want, right?

This road is narrow, which makes it feel like a wide hiking trail that you are being allowed to drive on. For those of you who drive a manual transmission vehicle, most dirt roads in the park are “third gear” roads on which you can occasionally get up to 20 or 25 mph. This road, however, is definitely “second gear” – about 15 mph maximum speed. Somehow, even the green strip of grass and moss down the center between the two tire tracks makes this road unique and inviting. And, to get even deeper into the woods, park at the trailhead of one of the trails in this section or just stop by the river and take a pleasant, secluded walk before finishing your drive. [To be continued]

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Nature Deficit Disorder

It was the summer of 2008 when I first noticed them. I had seen them a couple of times without really letting the message sink in, and I’m sort of proud of that. Most TV commercials are best ignored, but then most TV programs are best ignored, too. Right there on the TV screen was a commercial – a public service announcement, actually – that showed kids playing kickball, running, and hoola hooping. Then it suggested visiting for more suggestions on how to play outside. Yes, that’s right, how to play outside. “Get out and play an hour a day” and “Be a player” were, I think, their catchy jingles.

Wow. (I thought about putting an exclamation point after “wow,” but I don’t want to give the impression of excitement. We really need a punctuation mark of some sort to express sadness or defeat, indicating that “wow” should be said with a heavy sigh.) A government program to encourage kids to play outside. I never thought it would come to this. Okay, I guess that’s not entirely true. Because I think that video games, TV, movies, and cell phones in the hands of youngsters (and a few adults who haven’t yet developed that lost virtue known as self-control) are undermining the best of Western civilization, I sort of saw this coming. We’ve all noticed, haven’t we, that kids just don’t play outside anymore. They are too busy playing with all their gadgets.

I once heard a conversation in which a woman was telling a guy that he needed a life, that he needed to get out more. His response: “But who would watch my TV?” Okay, he said it to be funny (which it was.), but it’s one of those times when the truth was spoken in jest. Or, when a guy said he was going to get rid of his TV, a friend of his exclaimed, “But what will you point all your furniture toward?” Again, funny and true. (For the sake of full disclosure – and the fact that someone might recognize those two conversations and call me on it – I saw them both on TV – The Office and Friends. So save this article in case you are ever asked to give a speech on hypocrisy. It will make a good illustration to drive your point home.)

In 2005 a journalist by the name of Richard Louv published a book entitled Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. He speaks of three phases in American history. First was the frontier phase in which people were closely connected with nature, but their view was one of utilitarianism – use it, conquer it. The second phase is typified by people like Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Robert Frost, and up through the Baby Boomers. It was a period of romantic attachment to nature in which nature is seen as good and beautiful, something to be preserved and cherished. Thank goodness for that second phase! Without it, we’d have no national parks, including the Smoky Mountains.

Louv described the third phase (today) as electronic detachment from nature. As one child said, “I like to play indoors better because that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” Or, as I’ve heard adults say, “I love to go to the mountains because there are so many stores there.” Yes, some people call shopping in Pigeon Forge “going to the mountains.”

So in the spirit of resisting nature-deficit disorder, I’d like to suggest a few family-friendly outings in the Smokies – the mountains and rivers, not the stores.

First, if you have a child who is suffering from a chronic case of NDD, then start with something exciting. I’d suggest tubing on the Little River near Townsend. This won’t be a quiet, solitary mountain experience, but it will appeal to kids of all ages. It’s not dangerous – just a few bumps and grinds – unless there was a heavy rain the night before. The water is cold, of course, but hundreds of soft, urban people do it every day from May to September, so you and your kids will survive. You’ll improve your chances of success if you’ll first walk around to work up a good, summer sweat. That will make the cold water inviting. There are tube rental shops and shuttle services in Townsend. Just bring a few dollars, snacks, towels, and a change of clothes.

Next week I’ll offer another trip that’s quick and easy but a notch or two higher on the wilderness scale.

Sunset on Mt. Cammerer (Part 7 of 7)

After about 13 hours of hiking, Keith and Greg arrived at the Cammerer lookout tower about 10 minutes before I did. They heaved themselves up the final few feet of rocky ledges and into the rustic, rock-and-wood firetower. (There’s a sign next to it explaining that this is a “lookout” not a “tower.” Okay, whatever.) They were shouting at me to hurry, and I got to the tower just as the sun began to sink behind the distant ridges. Pictures were snapped. Kudos were expressed. Feet were sore. We sat in the lovely, old CCC tower for 15 minutes, trying in vain to recuperate.

As we sat there, Greg muttered, “Boys, I just spent my last nickel.”

Well said. “Spent” was the perfect word. We were spent like mayflies after sex, quivering and dying after a once in a lifetime experience, thinking, “Yeah, it was worth it.”

Our problem was not only that we were completely spent, ready to quiver and die after a mountaintop experience, but that we still had five miles to go. The fact that the sun had just sunk over the horizon didn’t help the situation. This was the downside to being on Mt. Cammerer at sunset. We’d be hiking down to the car in the dark, and the moon would not rise to shed its light for another four or five hours. We didn’t know it at the time, but we would soon discover that the trail would be ankle deep in oak leaves, hiding the rocks and roots in the trail and making for treacherous walking. A sprained ankle just waiting to happen.

We would now descend a final 3,000’ in 5.2 miles, in the dark, in ankle-deep leaves, on sore feet, using sore legs and flashlights. The hike didn’t go well. Or, actually, it went as well as it possibly could, considering the circumstances. Amazingly, we had no mishaps, no twists or breaks. The hike was just slow drudgery, and I was almost lame by the end. The backs of my knees – hamstring tendons connecting calf with thigh – were hurting fiercely. I know it’s common to say “I couldn’t have walked another step” at the end of a tiring hike, but to tell you the truth, if the hike had been another mile, I would have been crawling on hands and knees by the end, or not moving at all.

At 8:15 pm Greg and Keith arrived at the car they had left in Davenport Gap about 24 hours earlier. I came limping in about 15 minutes later. For the first half of the trip, I had stayed motivated and moving from the combination of peer pressure, testosterone, and carbohydrates, but those had all evaporated into thin air several hours ago. Now for this last leg the only thing that kept me going was the lack of alternatives. I kept hiking down that ridge because I had to keep hiking down that ridge. There was no other choice.

At Davenport Gap we snapped a couple of pictures, got in the car, and drove toward Big Creek and I-40. There was not as much talking as you might expect because we were tired, and there was nothing left to say. About all we could manage was, “Can you believe it?” Or, “Yeah, that was amazing.” Pretty primitive conversation, actually. You’d think three educated friends could come up with something more stimulating and thoughtful, but we couldn’t. About all we could do was re-state the obvious in four-word sentences.

When it’s all said and done, our day had been the hiking counterpart of a hurricane. The rush of trees, rocks, wind, sun – it was all a blur. We were battered and bruised and a bit numb, and we felt lucky to have survived. It was one of those experiences that you’d like to tell your friends and co-workers about, but you quickly realize that they just don’t get it. Someone at work asks what you did yesterday, and you tell them that you had a great 33 mile hike in the mountains. Their response is, “Wow, are you serious? That’s a long way!” Then the microwave beeps, and they walk away to get their soup. Thud. End of conversation.

It’s very possible that this was my first and last marathon day hike. It’s as crazy a stunt as a middle aged guy can do without getting in trouble with his wife or the law. That alone is reason enough to do this trip. Although, I may have just slipped in under the wire, before this aging body becomes incapable of doing it. As Keith says, “Your only problem is that you’ve had too many birthdays.” Yeah, I’ve got to stop that.

By the way, you probably noticed that “it” never happened – no broken bones or lost equipment. Of course, there were aching muscles and joints and burning blisters, but that’s normal and expected. The weather was perfect. We had the right equipment. Our feeble bodies (barely) passed the test. Unlike most excursions, nothing – absolutely nothing! – went wrong.

I really dread the day that our dues for this trip get paid. It won’t be a pretty sight.

Racing the Sun (Part 6 of 7)

Greg, Keith, and I reconvened at TriCorner Knob, the halfway point on our 31 mile trip, around noon, seven hours after the start. This was one of those places where Greg and Keith had to wait 15 minutes for me to catch up so we could fill our water bottles. I, the weak link in the chain, was ensuring that we didn’t make good progress. Greg and Keith’s fast pace wasn’t helping us to get finished faster. It simply meant that they got to rest longer on our rest stops. It probably frustrated them, but it’s their own fault for having a hiking partner who’s 10 to 15 years their senior.

At TriCorner Knob we spent some time doing sock adjustments and foot repair. We cut moleskin and stuck it to every red or sore spot possible. Uphill hiking is tough on legs and lungs. Downhill hiking brutalizes legs and feet, especially toes. Since there were plenty of ups and downs, we were getting a nice variety of blisters and bruises. Blisters on our heels. Blisters between our toes. Bruises on the top of our feet. Sore knees, both front and back. Even our toenails ached. It would have been nice to relax at these occasional stops, but they were more like NASCAR pit stops than rest stops. We’d spend the entire time patching, pulling, rearranging, readjusting, and refueling. We also did some math…

As we sat at TriCorner Knob for a few minutes, we did some quick and easy calculations which told us that we were making a little better than 2 mph. We clearly would be hiking after sunset. Once that became clear, we began doing a little more math, and it began to reveal an option that we hadn’t seriously thought about before: where would we be at sunset? Our calculations told us that we had a pretty good chance of being on top of Mt. Cammerer – one of our favorite places on the planet – as the sun set. That would be too good to be true, spending sunrise on Charlies Bunion and sunset on Mt. Cammerer – two of the best grandstand views in the eastern half of the park. Then we began to consider how hard this was going to be – the pace and the timing. We wondered amongst ourselves how many others had ever seen the sunrise from Charlies Bunion and the sunset from Cammerer on the same day. At first we figured the number to be in the hundreds or thousands; then as we thought about hiking in the dark at both the beginning and the end, we talked ourselves down into the dozens. Then we began to wonder if anyone had ever done it. We hadn’t embarked upon this trip to be the first people to do anything, and we couldn’t believe (and still don’t) that we could be the first to do this because anything worth doing has already been done by someone. There have been just too many hikers and too many years for there to be any significant “firsts” left to do. On the other hand, we’ve never heard of anyone doing this particular combination. At the very least, membership in the club must be quite small, and we were hoping to be inducted that evening.

So, today would be like many other days spent outdoors – racing the sun. We had been hoping to finish by sunset, so we had been hiking rather vigorously. At TriCorner Knob we discovered that we were losing that race – we’d be hiking a few hours in the dark. So, the race was off. We could relax… until we decided to aim for sunset on Mt. Cammerer. The race – and the pressure to win – was on again. So we hurried, hiking as fast as the weak link, the old mule, would allow. But somehow, in this section, I didn’t lag too far behind, and we made pretty good time. We covered 10.5 miles in about 4¼ hours. That’s pretty close to 2 ½ mph. Not bad after having already hiked 15 miles.

But it was a tough, tough stretch. The terrain was no better and no worse than the previous 15 miles, but that extra quarter to half a mile per hour really took its toll on us. Going up and down and up again and down again without any significant breaks for over 10 miles (plus the added 0.6 mile side trail to the peak of Cammerer) was grueling. We were definitely in the “gotta get there” mode, which is not normally a good mode for Smokies hiking. It can drain the joy out of a hike pretty quickly. But we had an important goal in mind which made the rush palatable.

And the rush paid off.

[To be continued, one more time.]

Hiking Alone...With Friends (Part 5 of 7)

We covered the first four miles of our 33 mile day hike in two hours, so we now knew that we were averaging about 2 miles per hour. Thus began our debate: how fast should we try to go? Greg lobbied for 3 mph, which is a pace that I could manage on level, paved ground but not in the mountains, and not all day. Keith said we needed to travel at LEAST 2.5 mph. I, being the old mule, suggested 2.5 mph at MOST. What we soon discovered was that the debate didn’t matter. We’d make the best time we could. Calculating our speed wouldn’t help us to get done any faster, but it would give us an idea of when we would get to the end. We didn’t know it yet, but our overall speed for the entire day, including rest and scenery stops, would be a little better than 2 mph. Although, I have to admit that Greg and Keith had to wait several times for me to catch up. And, being good friends whose bark is bigger than their bite, they did have to wait, because Greg had the only water filter. (If I had been hiking with lesser friends, I would have carried the filter.) They would wait patiently for me so that we could all fill our water bottles together. Otherwise, I would have spent the entire day waterless and several miles behind them. This was definitely the “weakest link” principle in action. How long would it take us to finish this 33 mile hike? The answer: As long as it takes the slowest member of the group. That would be me.

If you want a nice, solitary hiking experience, hike with someone who walks at a different pace than you, either faster or slower. Not only did we not see a single other person for the entire trip, but we didn’t see each other much either. I tried for awhile – out of pure peer pressure and male ego – to keep up with Greg and Keith, but I just couldn’t do it. Peer pressure can be a powerful motivator, but it can’t work miracles. I spent the vast majority of the day walking by myself, which was fine. It added to the wilderness feel of the trip. When we got home and a woman asked me what we talked about all day (a typical female misunderstanding about men), I could not only say that we didn’t talk much; I could also say that we hardly even saw each other – a concept incomprehensible to females who can’t even go to the bathroom unaccompanied.

It was now daylight as we made our way along the rocky ledges of the Sawteeth, crossing back and forth from the North Carolina to the Tennessee sides of the ridge crest. On the topo map, the Tennessee side of the ridge consists of crowded contour lines, indicating a steep drop into the Greenbrier portion of the park. It’s ironic that this rugged, mostly-untouched part of the park has farms, fields, roads, and Pigeon Forge as a backdrop. There is a 20 mile portion of ridge stretching from Mt. LeConte to Mt. Guyot which has no side trails connecting the ridge crest with the Greenbrier area below. The terrain is too rough to build and maintain trails here. This Greenbrier area is the watershed of the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River and is one of the best places in the park for off-trail exploration. You can walk on the Porters Creek or Ramsey Cascade trails and simply wander off in any direction into trail-less wilderness. Looking down into it from above is a beautiful, raw scene. In retrospect, that semi-civilized background of towns and farms actually accentuates its wildness.

The forest along the ridge crest is mostly 15’ firs and 30’ to 70’ spruce. There are also occasional beech gaps – low spots in the ridge that are small, flat, and a bit grassy – and filled with beech trees, plus a few birches. These high, windy gaps must be perfectly suited for these trees because virtually every southern Appalachian ridge in the 5,000’ elevation range has them. There are high gaps named Beech Gap all over the southern mountains from Virginia to Georgia.

[You guessed it… to be continued.]

Sunrise on Charlies Bunion (Part 4 of 7)

As we started our pre-dawn hike along the AT east from Newfound Gap, most of our night views were to the south into North Carolina, so we could occasionally see the subtle glow of Bryson City and Cherokee a few miles in the distance. That view to the south is a wild, uncivilized view because beyond the border of the Smokies lies the rugged, sparsely-populated Nantahala National Forest. As the day progressed, we would have many great views of purple ridge after purple ridge stretching to the southern horizon, with no civilization in sight.

Our views to the north into Tennessee were quite different, and that difference became immediately apparent as the AT crossed over to the Tennessee side of the ridge crest. Being night, the gaudy radiance of Pigeon Forge and Sevierville dominated the northern horizon. I suppose it’s in some way beautiful. But we were in the mountains for a wilderness adventure, and those city lights don’t fit in with a wilderness motif. Later in the day, after the sun had risen, the view would improve. The view into Tennessee is semi-civilized, with lakes, roads, farms, fields, hills, and towns. During the daylight hours, the tourist havens of Pigeon Forge and Sevierville don’t stick out like sore thumbs. In fact, they mostly just blend in to the green, hilly landscape. But during our night hike, they made their presence known with a vengeance. As one writer, George Ritzer, put it, Pigeon Forge is the epitome of “the consumption of fun and the fun of consumption.” Go-kart tracks and outlet malls, all under a blinding, halogen glow. At that moment, I had a bumper sticker idea: Nuke Pigeon Forge. It would be the perfect replacement for the Jon Stewart For President sticker that presently adorns my rear bumper.

About 6:15 am we passed the Boulevard, a trail leading north to the top of Mt. LeConte, and then we passed the Icewater Spring shelter, one of the most heavily-used backcountry campsites in the park. Normally, we would have stopped to rest and snack, but it was dark and there might be some backpackers asleep in it. We continued on another mile to Charlies Bunion, one of the most dramatic, unique spots in the Smokies. This barren, rocky outcrop was created by a fire in 1925 followed by a heavy rain in 1927 that completely denuded this spot. The result was a rugged, steep, rocky promontory with 360 degree views. Dawn was breaking as we arrived so we scrambled to the top and witnessed a dramatic sunrise. Schedule-wise we had hoped to be past the Bunion by sunrise, but scenery-wise it was perfect timing. There are numerous places in the park to watch the sun rise or set. None are better than Charlies Bunion. As a bonus, it will usually be an uncrowded event because very few people will hike in the dark. We had Charlies Bunion all to ourselves for those 20 minutes.

This was the point at which we parted company with Mark. The four of us had hiked 4 miles under a clear, moonlit sky in a beautiful place and had witnessed a dramatic sunrise with a few good friends. We should have had cheese and a bottle of champagne. In fact, if we all had gone back to the car, we still could have called the trip a success. I suppose that is the danger in having a great start to such a trip. It would be easy to be satisfied with those first 2 hours. However, a volatile mix of testosterone and peer pressure kept us going. So Mark went west while Keith, Greg, and I continued east.

Soon after we parted company it occurred to us that the point of no return had just shifted from the 16 mile point to wherever we happened to be standing at the moment. Mark’s return to the car would save us the trouble of having to drive back to Newfound Gap to retrieve the car at the end of the day, but we also realized that the three of us were now fully committed to finishing all 31.4 miles. When he drove his car away, we had at that moment burned our bridges behind us. We couldn’t go back now, even if we wanted to – which we didn’t.

[More to come.]

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Old Mule on the AT (Part 3 of 7)

The AT began an almost immediate ascent. We were, after all, starting in Newfound Gap, a gap being a low spot in a ridge. This uphill stretch would take us from 5,000’ to about 6,000’ at a rate of about 500 feet per mile, typical for a Smokies trail. The trees were mostly spruce and firs. Normally, this would create heavy shade even in the daylight. However, over the last couple of decades, most of the mature fir trees have been killed by the balsam wooly adelgid, a tiny insect imported from Europe that gradually poisons these trees. This has been a terribly sad event in the life of the Smokies, losing some of their most beautiful, distinctive trees. However, if there’s an upside to this tragedy, it’s that it has opened up the leafy canopy along the AT. The spruce will continue to grow and fill in the canopy, creating that dark, green forest with a Christmas tree smell that we all associate with a northern, balsam forest. In the meantime, walking through a sparse balsam forest under a bright moon is a magical, other-worldly experience.

Because the temperature was hovering right around freezing, we started out with jackets, but within 10 minutes we were beginning to shed clothing. The secret to cold weather hiking is to stay one step ahead of the sweat. Wear layers of clothing and begin taking them off as soon as you sense that warm, fuzzy feeling that precedes sweat. I actually spent most of the hike in jeans and a T shirt. It was a bit nippy, but it was the good, invigorating kind of cold that wakes you up and keeps you attentive. It may seem like a cliché to say that it “makes you feel alive,” but that really is the best way to say it because that’s exactly what it does.

One thing that had concerned me was the potential for ice on the trail. We all knew from past experience that these first 3 or 4 miles of the AT east of Newfound Gap were a very wet part of the trail. There are numerous springs that seep along the edge of the trail and trickle down the rut of the trail. After an extended cold spell, the trail in several spots becomes a 4 foot wide and 50 foot long patch of ice. With a steep slope to your right and to your left, there’s just no way to avoid these slippery spots. So crampons – small spikes strapped to the bottom of your boots – become necessary. For fast easy hiking, the best scenario is no ice – so you don’t have to bother with crampons. The second best scenario is lots of ice – so you can put your crampons on and keep them on. The worst scenario is occasional patches of ice – so you have to keep putting the crampons on and taking them off. Generally, in these patchy situations, if you keep your crampons on, you’ll break them to pieces in the ice-free, rocky sections. Luckily for us, the weather had been cold but not yet deeply frigid and wet. There were only a few, small, scattered patches of ice, and we were able to side step most of them. I never took my crampons out of my day pack.

The hiking order for the day quickly established itself. Greg in the front with Keith right behind him. I fell in behind them, sometimes just a few yards behind, sometimes a hundred yards or more. Mark was close behind me.

Mark was taking his time because he was only going as far as Charlies Bunion, so he was in no rush. He was the tortoise. Greg and Keith were the hare. I don’t know what I was, some sort of old, slow, plodding mammal, I guess. Actually, that’s a perfect description of a middle aged man, which is what I am, and I proved it all day long. In fact, by noon Greg and Keith were calling me “the old mule,” and I suppose that’s a fair appraisal, the main difference being the number of legs and the size of the ears. Other than that, the resemblance is uncanny. However, in my defense, I’m also the one most likely to stop and look at scenic panoramas, trees, and other small details along the trail. So, I prefer to describe myself not as slow, just easily distracted.

[To be continued.]

Monday, July 21, 2008

Balancing the Karma Wheel (Part 2 of 7)

Very early on a late November morning, four of us – Keith Oakes, Greg Harrell, Mark Harrell, and I – drove a few miles to the #407 exit off I-40 and continued through Sevierville and Pigeon Forge with impunity. A drive like this – 4 am on a weekday in the off season – is the only time I like these tourist towns. We all felt a bit smug at being able to drive quickly down this road which is normally the travelling equivalent of quicksand. You just can’t move quickly though Sevierville and Pigeon Forge unless it’s a time like this. I imagine it’s the same feeling you would get by tiptoeing past a couple of guard dogs who were asleep at their post. You feel like you’ve pulled something over on someone.

During the drive we traded manly stories, mostly about old hiking injuries and camping blunders, including a number of vomiting and diarrhea incidents. As I recall, it was Mark’s fast driving on some winding roads combined with our Hardee’s sausage biscuit breakfast that raised the subject of nausea. I told of my tendency toward car sickness whenever I combined lack of sleep, greasy food, and winding roads. Over the past 30 years I’ve puked in the early morning hours on most of the roads in the Smokies. Mark didn’t get the hint and continued to drive the car like he’d just stolen it.

We arrived at Newfound Gap parking lot about 4:45 am under the light of a bright moon, and we soon headed into the woods just to the right of the stone platform where FDR had dedicated the park in 1940, six years after it was actually established. Relying on the light of the moon assumed that we’d have a cloudless night – a fairly safe bet for this season of year, not to mention the fact that we were at the end of one of the driest summers in Tennessee history. And that’s exactly what happened – a clear, bright night. All the pieces were falling into place for a great day. The clear sky would give us bright moonlight by night and fabulous, panoramic views during the day. Mother Nature was cooperating beyond anything that we deserved.

So, of course, we were worried. We’d all been on enough fishing and hiking trips to have grasped the concept of “paying your dues.” You know the idea. If things are going well, just wait. They’ll get worse. Or, if things are going badly, they are just balancing out some brief, good fortune you had in the past. Because you’ve gotta pay your dues.

Sometimes in the cold of January, Keith will get antsy and need to go fishing in one of the nearby rivers. We both know the chances of catching some trout on a fly are pretty slim, and the chances of being warm and dry are even slimmer. On a typical January day, you’ll be frozen to the core if the day is cold and clear, or you’ll be wet if the weather is rainy and mild. The fish prefer mild and rainy, so that is our preference, too. However, like most folks, it’s hard to get away from work, so we fish when we can, not when we’d prefer. So, cold or mild, dry or wet, Keith will call me the night before and say, “Let’s go out and pay some dues. We might as well do it now so we’ll be all paid up when spring gets here.” Any fisherman knows that the logic is irrefutable. So, we go to the river to balance the karma wheel.

Only people with that kind of world view can step onto the trail on a beautiful, crisp, clear morning in the Smoky Mountains and wonder when “it” is going to happen. You know, IT – the sprained ankle or broken leg, the forgotten jacket or lost water bottle, the 33 degree rain or the iced-over trail. The closest we can get to being optimistic in such circumstances is hoping that whatever “it” is, it will happen on the way home at the end of the trip. So we walked into the forest, thrilled but uneasy at such perfect conditions. And, being the oldest one in the group, I probably had the most to be worried about because it’s usually the old deer in the herd that dies when conditions become harsh.

[To be continued.]

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Bad Idea Worth Trying (Part 1 of 7)

Several months ago in this column I wrote about a pre-dawn hike to Charlies Bunion in which I described the beauty and excitement of a four mile hike under a bright, crisp moon. One thing I didn’t mention about that hike was that after watching the sunrise from the Bunion, we didn’t turn around and hike four miles back to our car. Instead, we kept walking east for about 14 hours and 30 miles. Here’s how that little escapade started…

“Hey, Hoov. Let’s hike the eastern half of the Smokies. Can you get off work two weeks from Friday?”

I had some commitments on that Saturday and Sunday, so I simply responded, “Naw. I can’t.” And that was the end of the conversation.

A couple of days later Keith asked again, “Are sure you can’t get off that last Friday in November?”

“Friday, maybe. But Saturday and Sunday, I can’t.”

Keith’s quick comeback caught me off guard, “Great, then let’s do it!”

I paused for a moment, confused. “I can’t, man. I’m tied up on the weekend.”

Keith persisted, “Not a problem. Let’s do it.”

At this point I was beginning to feel like I was trapped in an Abbot and Costello Who’s on First routine. Neither one of us seemed to know what the other was talking about.

Keith continued, “You’ll only be gone for a day.”

“A day?” A pause as I let the weight of his last statement sink in. “Are you talking about hiking 30 miles of the AT in one day?”

Keith corrected me. “Thirty-one miles, plus the side trail to Cammerer.”

We had now stepped out of the Abbot and Costello routine and into the Twilight Zone. I had once read of a guy who day hiked the entire eastern half of the Smokies back in the 1930s. It took him close to 18 hours. The thought of hiking from Newfound Gap along the main ridge crest to Davenport Gap on the northeastern end of the park was intriguing, if not a bit misguided and unrealistic. So, of course, I agreed immediately. It sounded like a trip perfectly suited for a guy who occasionally feels the need to prove his manhood; although, there was a certain element of risk involved – the risk of failure and, therefore, disproving my manhood.

The most significant risk in this trip would be the length – 31.4 miles. None of us had ever walked that far in a single day, and we didn’t really know how long it would take. Our best guess was about 14 or 15 hours on the assumption that we could average about 2 mph, maybe even 2.5. That would be about typical for a day hike, including rest and scenery stops. Of course, there was also the possibility that we would maintain at least a 2 mph speed for the first half, but we might slow significantly in the last half. We simply didn’t know because this was all uncharted territory for us. Not the trail itself, mind you – we had hiked it before on backpacking trips – but the sheer distance in a single day.

The other problem was daylight. It was late November, and we were less than a month away from the shortest day of the year, so there seemed to be no way that we could complete the hike in the 11 hours between dawn and dark. Even the most optimistic scenario had us walking several hours in the dark. The only question was how many hours. Of course, waiting until the long days of summer wasn’t an option because…well, I suppose it was an option, and a pretty good one, too. However, once we got it into our heads that we were going to do this, we became like kids at Christmas. We got all wiggly and giggly and excited about it and couldn’t wait. So – bad idea or not – we’d do it in late November.

[To be continued.]

Old Trails and No Trails

It all began with a passing reference about a waterfall by Carlos Campbell. There apparently used to be a trail to it, but not now and not in 1967 when he wrote about it in Memories of Old Smoky. Although I am pretty well acquainted with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I’d never heard of this waterfall before. In fact, I’m embarrassed to say that I’d never given much thought to the fact that there might be some decent waterfalls and peaks around the park that didn’t have official trails going to them. I had assumed – without realizing that I was assuming anything at all – that if there was a dramatic or pleasant spot in the Smokies, there was a trail to take you there. But this reference by Campbell was the first crack in that wall.

I next read Out Under the Sky of the Great Smokies by Harvey Broome and found that his hikes were frequently to places that I’d never heard of. I wondered why he kept hiking to places like Woolly Tops or Drinkwater Pool or Mount Winnesoka. Why all those obscure locations?

Then it occurred to me that perhaps these locations weren’t so obscure back in the early days of the park. Broome and Campbell both lived in the Knoxville area and spent a great deal of their outdoor time in the northeast portion of the park. These obscure locations were their backyard, and they played in this backyard frequently and got to know it intimately. If the CCC and the NPS chose not to build trails to these places, that didn’t mean these places were unworthy of being visited. It simply meant that for some reason, men in offices in Gatlinburg and in Washington, DC, had decided that a trail would be built to site Y but not to site X. I began to understand that there were a lot of site X’s, and if we’d read the writings of men and women from the 1930s and 40s, we’d learn where some of these X’s were.

One thing led to another, and before long I found myself looking for that old 1973 Sierra Club Hiker’s Guide that used to be my Smokies Bible, but had been replaced by the more recent Hiking Guide published by the Great Smoky Mountains Association. I wondered if a 35 year old hiking guide might have descriptions of a few trails that had been decommissioned by the NPS. Yes, it did. I also discovered that the 1949 map of the Smokies that hangs on my wall had a few small, dashed lines that didn’t appear on recent trail maps. This was starting to feel like a treasure hunt. I was uncovering clues about a parallel universe or a secret kingdom that our forbearers had known about, but the secret had been somehow misplaced. Nicholas Cage could play me when the movie is finally made. They could call it something like, I don’t know, maybe National Treasure.

As I began to explore a few of the manifestations of this secret kingdom, I got spoiled. These places were beautiful, uncrowded, and quiet. My hiking partner and I were always alone – dirty, scratched, and bruised, but alone. I could get used to this.

Now this is probably the point at which I should start listing all these hidden, off-trail jewels. But I’m not sure I’m going to, at least not right now, for several reasons. First and foremost, I’m selfish. I’m reluctant to blab everything I know (even though it wouldn’t take very long). Second, the NPS discourages off-trail hiking. They don’t prohibit it, but they don’t especially like it, for reasons like soil erosion and potential injuries. I guess it’s their job to worry about things like that. Third, I don’t want to deprive you of the fun of finding old maps and trailbooks in search of old trails and sites. Fourth, I’ve about reached my 700 word limit.

So if you enjoy a good treasure hunt, here are a few clues to chase: Greenbrier Pinnacle, Mill Creek at 3,000’, Porters Creek and Dry Sluice Gap, Drinkwater Pool on Ramsey Prong, and Three Forks Pool in National Geographic, October 1952. And don’t forget the books by Harvey Broome and Carlos Campbell. Happy hunting!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Ramsey Cascade, Parts 1 & 2

Choosing the best waterfall in the Smokies is like trying to choose the best movie of the year, or the best song. Ask 100 people and you probably won’t get 100 different answers, but you might get several dozen. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. If you ask 100 Smoky Mountains enthusiasts to name the best waterfall, a fist-fight might break out. I don’t know why, but some folks get really passionate about their waterfalls.

My favorite waterfall is one that doesn’t even show up on today’s maps. It’s sort of a secret, so I can’t reveal much information. I’ll just say that it’s a beautiful waterfall that’s really hard to get to. There’s no discernable trail, so it involves some interesting off-trail hiking. And that’s what makes it my favorite. I guess it’s that ol’ Protestant Work Ethic – in order for something to be valuable, there’s got to be some suffering involved.

Maybe that’s one reason why Ramsey Cascade is a favorite for a lot of people. Not only is it high (about 90’) and noisy, it’s four miles from the nearest road. So there’s a moderate amount of work involved. And as most of you know, it only takes a little exertion to keep most people away, which is too bad, because it’s the exertion that makes it worthwhile. Nevertheless, Ramsey can be a bit crowded on summer day. Even if only one tenth of one percent of the park’s visitors hike to the cascades, that’s about 10,000 people a year. So, it’s best to visit it during the off-season.

I suppose I could add that the hike to it is beautiful, but you could say that about all the trails in the park. But there are some unique features. The first mile of this trail is littered with car-sized, truck-sized, and house-sized boulders – more than the typical Smokies trail. At 1.5 miles the Ramsey Prong converges with the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River. I’ve fished a quarter mile up the Middle Prong and caught only two small fish. But they were both brook trout. You fishermen will understand the significance of that. The second half of this trail was lightly logged, so it has some big trees, with several particularly impressive tulip poplars called the Roman Columns at 2.6 miles.

Not long ago, Greg Harrell and I decided that we’d like to explore the territory above and beyond Ramsey Cascade. According to Harvey Broome in Out Under the Sky of the Great Smokies, sixty years ago there was a faint trail that went further upstream to another cascade and a camping spot called Drinkwater Pool and then continued up to the main crest near Old Black and Mt. Guyot. Neither the trail nor the campsite appear on any recent maps, but we’ve had some luck finding the remnants of other old, unmaintained trails in the Smokies, so we hoped we might get lucky on this one as well. So we turned onto Hwy 416 off US 411 in Sevierville, drove into the Greenbrier area of the northeast quarter of the park, and parked my truck at the small parking area at the trailhead of the Ramsey Cascade Trail.

This trail is very typical in one important way: its gradient is almost exactly a 500 foot rise per mile. That seems to be the magic formula that the CCC used in constructing the trails in the Smokies. In fact, that’s my personal method of determining how hard a hike will be. This 500’ rise is manageable. Anything steeper is, well… steep. (The bible of Smokies hikers, Hiking Trails of the Smokies, gives a helpful diagram – called a “trail profile” – of the gradient of every trail in the Smokies. Once you know that 500’ per mile is about right, then you can look at a trail’s profile, and you’ll immediately know how difficult it will be.)

Greg is a fast hiker who thrives on those internal, personal challenges that some folks create for themselves. While he appreciates the majesty of the outdoors, he does like to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible, just to see how fast he can do it. I, on the other hand, don’t.

[To be continued]

I’d like to say that the wisdom which I’ve accumulated over these 50+ years has taught me to savor the moment, to appreciate the details of creation that can only be seen by those who will slow their pace, to bask in the colors and sounds of a riverside ramble, to… blah, blah, blah. The truth is, I’m just plain slow. And on this particular day, my hiking partner, Greg Harrell, slowed his pace to match mine, which is about two miles an hour on a modest, uphill hike.

After about two hours, we arrived at Ramsey Cascade. The spring rains had made the river and its cascades full and loud. We rock hopped to the middle of the creek and relaxed, letting the noise of the rushing water – one of life’s few loud noises that I actually enjoy – work its cleansing magic. I know, I know. “Cleansing magic” sounds overly poetic, and I’m not normally a poetic guy. But honestly, I do feel somehow cleansed by the roar of a river. When you walk away from that relentless water-thunder, the silence is overwhelming.

The warning sign near the foot of the falls (there’s always a warning sign at a waterfall) said that four people have died here. It didn’t give the details, but it probably involved hiking to the top of the cascade and standing too near the edge. When we are in the mountains, Greg has a tendency to tempt fate, perhaps the result of some subconscious death wish. After I had pointed the sign out to him, I wondered if the warning made him less likely or more likely to stand too close to the edge when we got to the top.

We soon found a steep, twisting, rocky route in the forest to the left of the river. The scramble itself was dirty and sweaty, but not dangerous because our route wasn’t along the water’s edge, and we emerged from the forest about 10 or 15 yards upstream from the edge of the falls. We stood in the river, several yards back from the edge so that a slip wouldn’t end in tragedy, and enjoyed the wild noise of the river and the open view of the sky and Mt. LeConte in the distance. I made a mental note that one might, with a good pair of binoculars, be able to see Ramsey Cascade from Mt. LeConte.

After soaking in the scenery for a few minutes we turned upstream, scanning the riverbanks for some sign of a gap in the rhododendron, perhaps indicating an old trail. What we actually found were a few, small pieces of pink surveyor’s tape tied to some of the rhody branches hanging over the riverside. At first we thought that this might be where we would leave the river and enter the thickets and forest, but we soon saw more pink tape leading upstream. The river was the trail. We’d have to rock hop (a slippery undertaking) or wade (not only slippery, but also wet) upstream. The going would be interesting, but very, very slow. We desperately wanted to see how far and where this route would lead us – Drinkwater Pool maybe? – but we would run out of time and daylight rather soon.

We ended our excursion sooner than we would have liked, after sloshing about 100 yards upstream, but we were able to console ourselves with the knowledge that we’d seen one of the best waterfalls in the Smokies from the bottom and the top on a fine spring day. We also now knew that someone had blazed (can you use the word “blaze” if you’re talking about little, pink pieces of plastic?) a route upstream – a route that probably went somewhere. So we had another potential adventure to add to our Smokies “to do” list. All in all, I’d call it a successful trip.

We also had the satisfaction of knowing that very, very few people explore up here because it’s hard, dirty, uncharted, and maybe a little bit dangerous. Those things that keep most people away were the things that had brought us here. We weren’t disappointed. If you can spare a day to make this trip, you won’t be disappointed either. Just don’t stand too near the edge.

Addtional Information:

One good thing about this Greenbrier section of the park is that it’s off the main Sevierville-Pigeon Forge-Gatlinburg corridor. The traffic and crowds can be substantial during the summer, but they won’t be nearly as bad as US 441 through Pigeon Forge. This is one of those off-the-beaten-path parts of the park. You can get there via I-40 and Cosby (US 321), or you can drive into Sevierville and turn left on Dolly Parton Parkway (US 411). After 3 or 4 miles, turn right on Hwy 416 which will take you right to the Greenbrier entrance to the park. If you live in Jefferson, Hamblen, or Cocke County, you must become acquainted with this northeast quadrant of the park. It’s right on your doorstep.

Even though this part of the park has fewer visitors, during the peak season it can get crowded – simply because the road in the park is narrow and there’s not much parking. This Ramsey Cascades hike is just popular enough that you should do it during the off-season. If you do it during the peak season, arrive early – 7 or 8am. Even earlier if you try it on a weekend. Personally, I wouldn’t do it during the peak season, no matter how early, because the crowds will arrive soon after you do. You won’t have much quality, quiet time at the Cascade.

During the peak season, I haunt those spots in the park that are way, way, way off the main thoroughfares. Save the popular (i.e. crowded) spots for the off-season. I’d classify this hike as a popular/crowded spot; although, not as crowded as Cades Cove, Sugarlands, Newfound Gap, etc.

Of course, if you want to explore above the cascade, then there will be no crowds. There’s no real trail leading to the top. You just have to slither your way up the slopes and between the boulders. Follow your nose and you’ll find your way. If you don’t mind getting dirty, it’s fun. You’ll probably emerge 10 or 20 yards above the lip of the cascade.

I can’t emphasize this enough: don’t even think about getting close to the edge. That’s just incredibly, incredibly stupid. River rocks are deceptively slippery. If you want a good view over the edge, find a spot a bit away from the river, off to the side, well away from the edge, on dry land.

Once you are upstream of the cascade, slog or rock hop your way upstream. You’ll probably see some pink or orange surveyor’s tape tied to some of the overhanging rhododendron branches. These lead up the stream for a ways. Greg and I haven’t returned to explore more, but we suspect that these tape blazes will eventually lead you out of the river and onto an old, unmaintained trail. It just doesn’t make much sense to blaze a “trail” in the river if the river is the only trail. We think the tape blazes lead to something. We just don’t know what.

Harvey Broome, in Out Under the Sky of the Great Smokies, mentioned an old campsite called Drinkwater Pool. It’s possible that the tape blazes do stay on the river and simply mark the way to this old campsite. If you find out, I’d love to hear from you.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

In Case of Wild Boar Attack...

The southwestern section of the Smoky Mountains can be a bit hard to get to – but well worth the effort. The drive from our area is about 2 to 3 hours, depending on exactly where you begin and end. There are some fine trails in the Bryson City area. Or, you can begin at Clingmans Dome and hike down toward Fontana Lake. Of course, when you are finished you’ll have to hike back UP to your car at Clingmans Dome. Yes, the word “up” should be capitalized, Clingmans Dome being only 42 feet shy of being the highest point in the eastern US. One really unique way to explore this section of the park is to paddle across Fontana Lake in a canoe or kayak, which is exactly what I did with my daughter and son-in-law not long ago.

We paddled to Forney Creek, so we put in at a dirt and gravel boat ramp near Bryson City. I can’t exactly explain where this boat ramp is because you can’t get there from here. In fact, I don’t even know the name of the boat ramp, but I suspect that most people who use this put-in don’t know the actual name of it either.

To get there you take State Road 1313 until it ends at the boat ramp. Simple enough, if you can find SR 1313. To find it, just take SR 1312 until 1313 splits off of it. To get to 1312, just take 1311 until 1312 splits off of it. All these have green street signs with the SR number on them. All of them except, for some unknown reason, SR 1311. You can get to 1311 by taking Old US 19, which splits off of US 19 outside of Bryson City. Of course, there are a couple of places to get on Old US 19, and you have to choose the right one to find 1311 easily. Like I said, you can’t get there from here. So, good luck with that.

Paddling using improper technique

Melissa, John, and I spent two nights at the backcountry campsite near the mouth of Forney Creek. On our full day there, I decided to make the seven mile hike to High Rocks on Welch Ridge. John and Melissa decided to stay at the campsite and attend to some essential camping duties: napping, eating, and reading. I was gone for about seven hours, and when I returned I was pleased to discover that through hard work and sheer determination they had managed to accomplish all three, several times each.

John and Melissa in the backcountry

That evening as we were eating supper, Melissa spotted a dark object moving around at the other end of the campsite. At first we thought it was a bear, but its shape was backwards. The front end was larger than the back end. It didn’t take us long to realize that it was a wild boar. You know, sharp tusks, rippling muscles, fierce demeanor. As far as I know, they eat mainly roots and grubs, not human flesh. However, they look like they’d enjoy killing a human every now and then, just to stay in practice.

Wild boar give me the heebie jeebies, so I looked for a tree with low branches to climb in case of emergency, then we grabbed our cameras and moved closer to get some pictures. We each snapped a picture, but the flashes scared him away. I filed that bit of information in the “what to do in case of wild boar attack” section of my brain. In grizzly country people carry guns and pepper spray. In wild boar country, carry a camera with a flash. I took my camera to bed with me that night for protection – sort of a cross between a night light and pepper spray. If attacked I’d simply take the boar’s picture.

A few days later, as I told my wife about our boar encounter, it occurred to me that there’s another advantage of this camera defense – if the flash didn’t scare the boar, at least she’d end up with a great picture of my killer, evidence that I died a noble death in the wilderness... assuming, of course, that being killed and eaten by a pig is a noble death.

Extra Information:
Camping in the backcountry in the Smokies requires filling out some paperwork when you arrive. Some sites require advance reservations but most spots, including Lower Forney Creek, do not. Just fill out a backcountry permit at any developed campground (e.g., Deep Creek near Bryson City) or ranger station in the park when you arrive. Then go.

You can get to Forney Creek on foot by parking at the end of Lakeview Drive – also known as the Road to Nowhere – which starts near Bryson City and heads west several miles into the park. From the end of the road it’s only a three mile walk to Forney Creek.

To paddle to Forney Creek, you’ll need to find the boat ramp. It takes about 30 minutes to drive the winding roads from Bryson City to the boat ramp. There may be several ways to get there, but here’s the easiest…

If you go to Bryson City via US 74, take exit 64, then US 19 North for 1.7 miles at which point you will bear left onto Old US 19. You will soon see Buckner Branch Road on your left. Buckner is actually SR 1311, so turn left onto Buckner and check your odometer. Go 3.1 miles on 1311 (Buckner) at which point 1312 (Round Hill Rd.) bears off to the right. Take 1312 to the right and check your odometer again. Travel 2.8 miles on 1312 to a fork in the road where 1312 bears left and 1313 bears right. Take 1313 (right) until it ends at the boat ramp.

An alternative if you are already in Bryson City: Take US 19 South through town. At Kerr Drug Store check your odometer. Travel 1.1 miles from Kerr Drugs on US 19 South at which point Old US 19 bears off to the right. Take Old US 19 and you will very quickly see Buckner Branch Rd. (SR 1311) on your right. Check your odometer and turn right onto Buckner. Go 3.1 miles on 1311 (Buckner) at which point 1312 (Round Hill Rd.) bears off to the right. Take 1312 to the right and check your odometer again. Travel 2.8 miles on 1312 to a fork in the road where 1312 bears left and 1313 bears right. Take 1313 (right) until it ends at the boat ramp.

Paddling to Forney will take about an hour from the boat ramp. During summer weekends the lake will be busy – like a typical TVA lake. During the off-season, especially on a weekday, the lake will be wonderfully quiet. The further up Forney’s channel you go, the quieter it will get – a genuine, mountain wilderness experience.

Once you arrive at the mouth of Forney Creek, just beach your canoe or kayak and walk the 10 minutes to the campsite. Some paddlers will bring a chain and a lock to secure their craft to a tree. If you decide to take a chain, give some thought on exactly how you will attach the chain to your craft. You can’t just wrap it around the hull, and most canoes and kayaks don’t have many secure beams to run your chain through. (I actually drilled a one inch hole in the top of my kayak to run the chain through.) Or, just pull your craft well into the woods and hide your paddle really well.

This Forney trip can also make a good day trip, the worst part being the long drive to and from it.

To see a map of the park which includes the trails and campsites go to Choose the Trail Map.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Dealing With The Crowds

The National Park Service tells us that about 10 million people visit the Smoky Mountains every year. Or is it 10 million visits, not visitors? Or is it visitor-days? I don’t know. But it probably doesn’t matter. Just go to Cades Cove on a summer evening, and it will feel like all of them are there with you. Quibbling about precise definitions loses its significance when you spend 20 minutes sitting in your car with your engine running because someone up ahead stopped to take a picture of a possum.

You visit the Smokies, thus adding to the crowds and pollution that make it less enjoyable to visit. You become part of the crowd that you wish would just go away, knowing that the crowds are there for a reason, the same reason that brought you there. It’s a feeling every fisherman has about his favorite water. Or, as Yogi Berra allegedly said about a restaurant in New York City, “Nobody goes there anymore because it’s too crowded.”

So anyone who visits the Smokies has to deal with the crowds. Indeed, every summer and fall at least nine million Smokies visitors “deal with the crowds” by diving in and becoming part of the teeming masses, creating traffic jams of Biblical proportions. Or, you can develop another way of “dealing with the crowds” – avoid them. Yes, it can be done, but it means you have to get off the main roads.

Trafficatastrophe, Pigeon Forge Style

I know what you are thinking: Aren’t all the best attractions on the main roads? First of all, let’s not call them attractions, okay? If you want attractions, go south about 600 miles. There’s a place down there… maybe you’ve heard of it… it’s called Disney World. Second, yes the most popular spots are on the main roads. But popular is not necessarily best. In fact, all “popular” really means is crowded.

Most of these crowded spots are popular not because they are more fabulous and breath-taking than the rest of the park but simply because they are so easy to get to. Let’s take Newfound Gap right in the middle of the park as an example. This is the point at which the road from Gatlinburg to Cherokee reaches the main crest. Sure it has a fine view, but it’s definitely not the best view in the Smokies. Yet it is hugely popular. Why? Because it’s the main parking lot on the main road. If the road crossed the main crest a couple of miles to the east or the west, then that spot would be the hugely popular spot. In fact, in the old pioneer days, the main route across the Smokies did cross at a different spot. But explorers found a new gap in the 1850s, and when preparations were being made to improve and pave the road in the 1920s, the surveyors re-routed the road through this “new” gap. Thus the name.

Or, the Loop – the spot on the main road where the switchbacks are so tight that at one point the road just circles around and crosses over itself. I’ve seen postcards of it, as if it were some great natural wonder. If you’ve never seen it in person, get ready for a disappointment. It’s just not that big a deal. It’s a moderately neat bit of road construction in a pretty place. But that’s all it is. It’s only slightly more dramatic than getting off the interstate and then driving back around on the overpass. I suppose a civil engineer might see some beauty in it, the way my mechanic can get misty-eyed about a well-made transmission. So, if you are an engineer, don’t miss it.

I guess what I’m saying is that the main roads through the park have plenty of nice spots on them: picnic areas, scenic views, noisy rivers, Newfound Gap, Clingmans Dome, Cades Cove, etc. But these are not, by any stretch of the imagination, the only highlights of the park. You can see a lot of great stuff without ever traveling the crowded, main roads. But it might take a little extra effort on your part.

Take Forney Creek for example… [To be continued.]

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Moonshadows in the Mountains

Newfound Gap in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at 4 am is always chilly. It is especially so during those off-season months of November through April when the crowds are gone and most of the park’s visitors are local folks like us. As my friends and I took our first few steps on the Appalachian Trail heading northeast from Newfound Gap, I paused to remember the generosity of the Rockefeller family and the people of Tennessee and North Carolina for providing us with an 800 square mile natural playground that we can visit (for free!) whenever we want. It’s good to be a “local” in East Tennessee.

In spite of the fact that the Smoky Mountains is the most heavily-visited national park in the US, we are alone on the trail. The only other car in the Newfound Gap parking lot probably belongs to a backpacker who is at this moment asleep in the Icewater Spring shelter about 3 miles ahead of us. In about 90 minutes we’ll walk silently past that sleeping backpacker and continue another mile to our destination – Charlies Bunion – a rugged, rocky crag about 5,500 feet high with a 360o view of the surrounding landscape. Once there, we’ll scamper to the top to enjoy crackers, cheese, peanut M&Ms, and the lonely drama of a mountaintop sunrise.

If you’ve done the math, you’ve figured out by now that in order to get to the Bunion at sunrise, we’ll have to hike four miles in the dark. No problem. In fact, that is an essential part of our plan. It virtually guarantees that we’ll be alone. We’ve never tried this trip during the peak, summer season, but I’d be willing to bet my kids’ inheritance that even in July this would be an uncrowded trip. Civilization has completely eradicated our nocturnal side. Folks today simply won’t wander around in the dark. So, we’ll use this to our advantage. We’ll walk alone in the dark.

Actually, that’s only partly true. We’ll be hiking at night but not in total darkness because we’ve timed our hike to coincide with a ¾ waning moon. In other words, for the last few hours before sunrise the moon will be nearly full and high overhead. As long as the clouds cooperate, we’ll be hiking in a magical mixture of spruce trees and bright moonlight. For most of the hike, we won’t even use our flashlights.

The hike is everything we had hoped it would be. The temperature is hovering just above freezing, which makes the first ten minutes cold but the other two hours invigorating. The sky is clear and the moon provides a magical, silvery glow to light our way. If you’ve ever wondered what a moonshadow is, you can find the answer on this hike. The spruce trees that line the trail give the landscape a Canadian… no, a Narnian… feel. Although I didn’t spot Aslan, I did see several fauns and a couple of hobbits lurking in the woods.

The original Charlie on the Bunion

If you are a local who claims to know and love East Tennessee, then you must do this trip. Heck, even if you aren’t the outdoor type, just driving through Pigeon Forge and Sevierville without the traffic (it will be 3 am, after all) will give you an unparalleled sense of smugness bordering on arrogance. Yes, it’s good to be a local who knows those secrets that only locals know.

I think the best time of year for this trip is November. There will still be a few, lingering fall colors, mostly the deep, burgundy oaks that just refuse to admit that winter’s time has come. November weather also means cool, crisp skies tailor-made for a night-time hike under a bright moon. On the other hand, if you love wildflowers and that ambient rattle-and-hum of nature’s annual rebirth, then April and May can’t be beat. Or, better yet, make this hike in both fall and spring.

Oh, and by the way, the sunrise from Charlies Bunion was great. The fact that we were there by ourselves made it even better. Yep, it’s good to be a local.

More details on this trip...
From the north, the most direct way to get to Newfound Gap and Charlies Bunion is Exit #407 off I-40. An alternate route from the Maryville area is Hwy 73 & US 321 through Townsend. Once in the park, you should follow the signs to the Sugarlands Visitors Center which is on the main road through the park (Newfound Gap Road; aka US 441). Maps of the park, roads, and trails are available at (Click on the Trail Map link.)

The hike to Charlies Bunion is one of the most popular hikes in the park. Maybe not as popular and crowded as Laurel Falls or the Chimney Tops but definitely popular enough that you might want to avoid it during the daytime during peak tourist season. In fact, unless you enjoy sitting in traffic, you should avoid the entire stretch of road from I-40’s Exit #407 all the way to Gatlinburg from sunrise to sunset during June, July, August, and October. Avoid this stretch on weekends from April to October.

However, if you do this sunrise hike to Charlies Bunion, you’ll be driving that main road around 3 or 4 am, so you can go any time of the year without fear of crowds. Both the road and the trail will be blissfully desolate. Of course, keep in mind that if you do this hike during the busy season, your drive out of the park after sunrise may be a bit crowded and slow.

Personally, we’d suggest that any activity in the park that requires driving on the main road – Newfound Gap Road, also known as US 441 – from Gatlinburg to Cherokee should be saved for the off-season (November to March). During the busy season, it’s best to visit the park’s less popular locations on the edges and backroads. Or, visit the busy locations very early in the morning, or at night.

To hike on the park’s trails – including the world famous Appalachian Trail – you don’t need to fill out any paperwork (unless you will spend the night). For day hikes, just park and go. This hike to Charlies Bunion starts at the Newfound Gap parking lot – at the point where US 441 (Newfound Gap Road) crosses the TN/NC state line. The Appalachian Trail follows the state line through most of the park. At this large parking lot, you’ll see the rock platform where FDR stood to dedicate the park in 1940. The AT goes into the woods just to the right of that platform. There’s a small, wooden sign there, giving you some mileages.

If you do the sunrise version of this hike, plan your trip with the phases of the moon in mind. You want the moon to be high in the sky at dawn. A full moon is fine, but it will actually be on the horizon at sunrise. A few days after a full moon is perfect. But bring a flashlight, just in case.
The hike to Charlies Bunion is moderate – that is, it has a few significant ups and downs, but nothing too difficult if you are in reasonable shape. It is four miles, so it will probably take you about two hours (one way). Charlies Bunion is one of those rare spots in the Smokies that is exposed rock, looking like it belongs in the Rocky Mountains instead of the Smokies. It was “created” by a forest fire in 1925 which removed all the vegetation, followed by a heavy rain in 1927 that washed the soil away.

The single best book describing all the hiking trails in the Smokies, including this one, is Hiking Trails of The Smokies, published by the Great Smoky Mountains Association. It’s available at any of the visitors centers in and near the park (there’s one about a mile from the I-40 #407 exit; a brick building with a Chamber of Commerce sign, on the right at you head south). Or, you can buy it at or