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]