Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Mount Cammerer: Love at First Sight (Part 7 of 7 on the Appalachian Trail)

My first visit to Mt. Cammerer, on the eastern end of the Smokies, was on the eighth and final day of a week-long backpacking trip on the AT, from Fontana Dam to Davenport Gap. Today the distance is 72 miles. Back then it was about 69 miles. Strange, but true.

The previous day, our seventh, had been quiet and thoughtful. The hike was easy, so we weren’t focused on the pain and sweat. The clouds from 24 hours of rain were trying to break up, and we had some commendable views. We were in no hurry, so we made a lot of rest stops, even though we didn’t need the rest. We were easing into that end of the trip mode of reflection and sadness. Our last night at Cosby Knob was uneventful. It felt like the trip was finished.

But it wasn’t quite.

On our final morning, the reality of schedules reared its ugly head. A couple of our wives were to drive from Atlanta to pick us up on Highway 32 in Davenport Gap at 3 pm, so we couldn’t tarry. We left the shelter by 8:45 and soon began a long, steep ascent. The best part about today was the lack of views. Forests mixed with heavy clouds made the panoramic views few and far between and forced us to make the half-mile side trip to Mt. Cammerer to search for one last vista. None of us had ever been there before, nor did we know much about it.

It turned out to be the highlight of the trip, which seemed appropriate. My partner and I had ascended a total of about 19,000 feet since our start at Fontana. After leaving Cammerer our hike would be all downhill, so Cammerer was a literal highpoint of sorts, even though it wasn’t the actual highest point on our trip.

Mount Cammerer was great, and it’s been great the dozen times I’ve been there since this first encounter. The views are very good – almost 360 degrees. There’s a unique rock and timber lookout tower on top, wedged between large slabs of exposed rock. Even the side trail leading to it is magical. There’s a sense of anticipation as you walk up this hallway of eight foot high laurel and rhododendron, with the sky as your ceiling.  It was love at first sight.

Cammerer from the north

I suppose if we had been immersed in a thick fog, providing no views, then we wouldn’t have been impressed. Or, if Cammerer had been just one of a dozen great spots on that day, we would have taken a quick look and moved on. Instead, Cammerer was the most dramatic spot with the best views in the last two days. The fact that we were all a little bummed out that the trip was just 3 or 4 hours shy of being over probably made us especially vulnerable to the drama of a final panorama. Whatever the topographical and psychological reasons, that first encounter was impressive.
Cammerer Lookout Tower (from the east)

We spent 45 overwhelming minutes there. The clouds had broken and risen. There were clouds above us, patches of fog in the valleys, and streaks of sunshine spotlighting the mountains and valleys. We took out our maps and compasses and identified several peaks and lakes: English Mountain, the Big Creek watershed, Mount Sterling, Interstate 40 winding its way through the hills, Douglas Lake. I didn’t know it at the time, but eight years later I would be living in those hills just beyond Douglas Lake.

Mt. Cammerer was great; we met our wives at Davenport Gap at 3 pm, just as planned; Phyllis and I soon moved to Athens, Georgia, for seven years and added a couple of great kids along the way. Then, in 1987, the four of us moved to Jefferson County, an hour away from Big Creek, Cosby, and trails to Mt. Cammerer.  Sometimes there are happy endings.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Sausage-lust in the Mountains (6 of 7 on the AT)

I’ve had the good fortune, three or four times, of spending an entire week backpacking in the mountains. That’s one of the chief advantages of spending many, many years as a college student – there’s always a break on the horizon. In my pre-children years, I’d often spend those college breaks backpacking.

One thing became very obvious to me on those trips. Spending seven continuous days hiking and camping is a very, very different experience than hiking and camping for seven days spread out over the course of several months. Knowing that you’ll step into the woods on Saturday and step back out of them the following Saturday changes everything – the physical exertion, the packing, the planning. It also gives you a different outlook. There’s a sense of immersion in the wilderness that you just can’t get by being out for just a night or two.

The first time I spent an entire week in the woods, I hiked the 70 miles of the AT in the Smokies. It was on about the fifth day that I had my sugar and meat conniption. I had planned my food so that I ate the same thing every day. Breakfast was granola bars and chocolate (powdered) milk, lunch – the meal you eat all day long between breakfast and supper – consisted of cheese crackers, raisins, and peanuts. For supper I’d have a couple of packets of dried chicken noodle stew – just add boiling water. I had intentionally omitted candy. Same routine every day. That was a mistake.

By the fifth day I was obsessing about… well, the list would be long. Let’s just say I was obsessing about everything except granola bars, powdered milk, cheese crackers, raisins, peanuts, and dried chicken stew. I really wanted some chocolate candy and a Coke. But when we stopped for a break at Pecks Corner shelter, what I really, really wanted was the big sausage log that another hiker was eating. Murder was out of the question. Too many witnesses. Robbery was an option, but I’d never actually robbed anyone before, so I wasn’t real confident that I could pull it off. Sleight of hand might work, but he wouldn’t lay it down. He protected that sausage log like a mama bear protects her cub. I think he could see the sausage-lust in my eyes.

During the conversation in the shelter we discovered that he and his partner had just started at our destination, Davenport Gap, the day before. They were spending a week on the AT, going the opposite direction from us. That meant offering to trade food with him was out of the question. First of all, all I had was junk. Powdered milk, cheap cheese crackers, raisins. If he had traded a couple of slices of his meat stick for some of my food, it would have been a clear case of babysitting on his part. I just couldn’t lower myself to ask. I’d been self-sufficient all week. I didn’t want to give in now and have other people start taking care of me. Second of all, he was just starting on his trip. You just can’t try to get a guy to give up some of his prized food possessions that early on the trip. So, I just sat there and burned with desire for some smoked sausage. I know man doesn’t live by bread alone, but right then a bite of sausage would have been nice.

In my defense, I thought about trading for the meat before I considered murder and robbery. A week in the woods hadn’t destroyed all my scruples, but they were in a weakened state regarding meat products.

Our arrival at Tricorner Knob that evening prompted our usual routine. Claim a bunk, some prefer top, others prefer bottom. Find the spring and get water, usually 50 or 100 yards down one side or the other; a well-worn trail showing the way. Read or take a quick nap before supper. Some guys carry a pair of tennis shoes to put on now. I didn’t because of the extra weight, but I seriously consider it every time I backpack. If this trip had been shorter, I might have included them, but an extra couple of pounds was a lot to carry for a week. Now that we were at the evening’s shelter, I burned with desire for my partners’ tennis shoes. Apparently, this was just a good day for coveting my neighbor’s stuff. Again, in my defense, I’m pretty sure that was the only one of the 10 commandments I broke that day. For me, that’s a pretty good day – which is another reason for wives to encourage their husbands go backpacking – it’s almost impossible to get in trouble with the police or God when you spend all your time walking, eating, and sleeping. You’re just too tired and preoccupied to get into any mischief. [To be continued]

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Unabomber (5 of 7 on the AT)

When you spend a few nights on the Appalachian Trail in the Smokies you’ll meet some interesting people. Sometimes “interesting” is good, sometimes not. (Like that old curse: “May you live in interesting times.”) About half the time, you’ll have one hiker in the shelter who is just plain strange. I don’t know why, but these guys almost always arrive late, after dark like possums or vampires. There are two types: the guys who don’t speak at all to anyone and the guys who are eager to share their vast reservoir of experience with the rest of us, even if our body language is making it absolutely clear that we aren’t interested in hearing it.

The quiet guys make you wonder what they are up to, but at least they aren’t annoying. The talkative guys, however, can really get on your nerves. A talkative one showed up at the Spence Field shelter about an hour after sunset.

 “Is this Russell Field? I lost my maps a week ago.”

 “No, this is Spe…”

 “It doesn’t matter. I’ve been out for 6 months. I’ve been in Colorado and Virginia and started at Big Creek two weeks ago. They let us through-hikers sleep wherever we want.”

 “Actually, this shelter is full. You’re supposed to make reservations.”

 “Not me. Just sleep where I want. I’ll just sleep here on the floor. You guys’ll have to put your packs somewhere else” (A pause to take a breath and change subjects, which he does periodically.) “You know, breathable jackets don’t really breathe. It’s physically impossible for the water vapor to escape.”

 At this point, no one is listening, and everyone has his back to the intruder. We are busy putting on our breathable jackets, which we wouldn’t hike without. We all swear by them.

 “I’m telling you, it’s the biggest sham ever perpetrated by the backpacking apparel industry.”

 “Okay,” I’m thinking, “I’m always willing to concede the point that public opinion is manipulated by Madison Avenue, not to mention the CIA, the Pentagon, and the New York Times, but if this guy mentions aliens…”

 “I think it’s alien technology that has a more sinister purpose. I’m presently doing research for my dissertation. I’m not in a grad program right now. Stinkin’ experts don’t respect the truth, but I’m on the verge of a breakthrough. You’ll read about it when I publish my results.”

 I’m thinking how sorry I am that I let my subscription to Mad Magazine lapse; looks like I’ll miss his exposé on breathable jackets. Everyone else is thinking, “Don’t make eye contact. Don’t speak. It will only encourage him.”

 Everyone, that is, except one of the college guys who’s a bit too daring. “I know what you mean, man. When I was a kid I was abducted by them little, gray b-#@&-s.”

 “Then you know of what I speak. They are up to something. That’s why I spend my time away from everyone and everything. The X-Files are real, man. Not the werewolves and vampires. The alien agenda.”

 I’m thinking, “I don’t know exactly what the ‘alien agenda’ is, but I hope it involves taking this guy with them. Soon.” It was at this point that I began thinking we normal ones should draw straws to determine who will stay awake all night standing guard. We never actually posted a sentry that night, but we all tried to stay awake until we were sure the guy had gone to sleep.

 He was gone when we awoke in the morning. Someone asked, “Where’s the Unabomber?” and we all got the joke.  

 “I saw a bright flash of light from the sky last night, and never saw him again. He’s probably on Neptune by now.”

 One of the college guys made the closing remark as he shouldered his pack and walked out the front gate: “He must be glad to be home.”

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

KIndred Spirits (4 of 7 on the AT)

The Smokies are such a revered location among hikers that you see quite a few people on the 72 miles of the Appalachian Trail that runs along the main crest of the Smoky Mountains. You won’t normally feel crowded, but you definitely are not isolated. This catches novices by surprise because they expect a wild, empty wilderness, but what they get on most of the 2,170 miles of the AT is a variety – some wilderness, some small towns, a few farms, and even an interstate highway or two. You see plenty of people, both hikers and trail-side residents. I don’t know what the longest stretch of AT between paved roads is, but I suspect that the 41 miles from Fontana to Newfound Gap and the 31 miles from Newfound Gap to Davenport Gap are both in the top ten.
Two Kindred Spirits

Most of the people you encounter on the AT are normal, well-adjusted folks, but there are a few screwballs and eccentrics.  

Many years ago I spent a week in the Smokies hiking the 72 miles of the AT. My hiking partner and I spent a couple of nights in shelters with a guy from England, who had quit his job and was taking a couple of years to wander around “the New World,” as he called it. He’d recently traversed South America and the Pacific Crest Trail in California and was now hiking the AT, although probably not the entire AT because this was late August and he was still in the Smokies, heading north. If his goal was Mt. Katahdin at the north end of the trail, he was about 4 months behind schedule and would arrive in Maine in December. Yeah, I’m guessing he got about as far as New Jersey and then went to visit the Statue of Liberty before heading back to London. We envied him.

Then there were the two carpenters from Florida. They’d work about 4 months a year, November through February, building houses. The other 8 months were spent camping and backpacking, sometimes in the eastern US, sometimes out west. Eight months of free housing in shelters and campsites, seeing the prettiest parts of the US. No health insurance, no families, no retirement plan, no permanent address. They were being very irresponsible, and we envied them for it, wishing that we had the guts to be so free.

When you are out on the AT, you’ll frequently run into young couples, maybe married, maybe not. Although you might think there would be some interesting stories that would emerge from this, there usually aren’t. Generally, these young couples keep to themselves and don’t have much to say to the rest of us. Although, occasionally you’d hear some giggles from their corner of the shelter late at night. Young couples always sleep in the corner, away from the riff-raff.
An old man and his wife

The most entertaining are the groups of college-age guys who know each other well and are hiking together. They laugh and joke until late into the night. Occasionally their light-heartedness is enhanced by mind-altering substances, which often jump starts a song or two. Every now and then one of them will pull out an obscure musical instrument, a harmonica being the most common, although occasionally it would be a ukulele or wooden flute. If you’ve never heard Stairway To Heaven accompanied by a ukulele, then … well, actually you haven’t missed much. When it’s happening you feel like you’ve stumbled into Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but usually with stout southern accents.

It’s not exactly a wilderness experience, but even an anti-social type like me can’t help but love the sense of camaraderie that develops among those kindred spirits you meet on the AT. In those moments, there’s a sense of fellowship that most churches would envy.

On the other hand, there’s also the occasional oddball who appears to have graduated from the Ted Kaczynski School of Charm… [To be continued.]

Monday, October 10, 2011

Don't Feed the Bears (Third of 7 on the AT)

In recent years the National Park Service has changed their policy toward the rock and log shelters on the Appalachian Trail in the Smoky Mountains. There are now steel poles and cables outside of every shelter. You hang your food bags on these cables so the bears, raccoons, skunks, and mice can’t get them. These cables don’t seem mouse-proof to me, but apparently the mice haven’t figured out what’s going on because they don’t seem to get into the food bags hung high on these outside cables. Maybe they are afraid of heights. Climbing these poles and cables would be like climbing a tree. These are, after all, field mice, not tree mice, right? I have no idea why squirrels haven’t cracked the code. For whatever reasons, the cables do their job most of the time.

The main problem now is rain on your food, so you must use a waterproof bag for your food – or just cover your bag with your rain jacket. Even so, I always hope it rains at night because one of the greatest sounds in the world is rain on a tin roof, which all these rock shelters have. A rainy night in a tin-roofed shelter on the crest of the Smokies is a simple, delightful experience. Just one more compelling bit of evidence that Thoreau was right when he wrote, “That man is richest whose pleasures are the cheapest.”

The NPS’s rationale for removing the fences across the front of the shelters was to enhance the wilderness experience, and in my opinion, it has. But even more importantly, it is a refreshing step back into the past. If you think about the overall trend of our society toward litigation, disclaimers, and bureaucratic rule-proliferation, this move by the NPS is an astounding, unprecedented step backwards, in the right direction. It’s the only example I can recall of a major government or corporate institution bucking the trend of more stupid rules to protect us from ourselves. You’ve heard all the stories – lawsuits over hot coffee and slippery floors. Don’t swim here. Don’t run there. No trespassing. Let me add one more example. While eating out of a can of almonds recently, I looked on the back of the can, and I noticed an allergy warning. It said, and I quote, “Warning: Contains almonds.” Yeah, thanks for exposing that hidden threat. I guess the corporations and lawyers think we’re a nation of idiots – or greedy pigs who will sue an almond company for putting almonds in a can of almonds without a warning. A few of us probably are, so the rest of us have to put up with being treated like morons. Welcome to modern life.

Take a moment and try to think of any change in the last 30 years that knowingly increases risk. Imagine… opening up a shelter, risking the possibility that a bear might enter! Whoever had this idea should be identified, named publicly, and have her face carved onto Mount Rushmore. She would get my vote for president. I hope she’s still working for the National Park Service, but I’m afraid she probably has trouble keeping a job because she just doesn’t fit in with the prevailing government or corporate culture. Maybe the NPS is the last bastion of sanity in Washington, but that’s not something we can expect to last forever.

So if you are worried about bears, take a couple of rocks or a stout walking stick to bed with you because now there’s no fence to protect you. You can throw the rocks at any bears that show up, or just bop him on the nose with your stick. He’ll get the point. And don’t put any food in your sleeping bag. I’d hate to get to one of these shelters and see signs all over it, stating and restating the obvious: “Warning: Bears are attracted to food.” Of course, anyone who hasn’t figured that out by now will probably be removed from the gene pool by a hungry bear anyway, so the problem will correct itself through natural selection.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Night Moves (2 of 7 on the AT)

Many years ago, I spent a week with three friends hiking the 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail in the Smoky Mountains. The four of us spent our fifth night in our old friend, Icewater Spring shelter. I’ve spent more nights in the Smokies in this shelter than anywhere else in the park. It’s also the park’s most heavily-used shelter because it’s only a three mile hike from Newfound Gap, and it can serve as a gateway to a nice hike up Mt. LeConte or to Charlies Bunion.

We slept well that night. Eventually…

When Allen started screaming, my response was to hunker down deeper in my sleeping bag, hoping that whatever was killing him would not notice me. After a few seconds I heard Joey talking to him, calming him down. At that point, I realized, through the fog of sleep, that we were not being killed and eaten by a bear. It was one of Allen’s nighttime episodes. I had heard that he sometimes would wake up at night screaming, but I hadn’t experienced it until that night at Icewater Spring. Allen had been my most consistent backpacking partner during that period in my life, but it was times like this that I wondered if maybe we should have put each other through an application process. Question 1: Have you ever backpacked before? (Because you don’t want to have to babysit your backpacking partner.) Question 2: How fast can you run? (Because you don’t have to outrun a bear; you only have to outrun your hiking partner.) Question 3: Do you ever wake up screaming in the middle of the night? (Because I don’t like a wet sleeping bag.)

Nevertheless, we made it through the night just fine. Until the mice started their nightly escapades.

These old shelters are rustic, solid, and secure. Well, they were secure several years ago. Today there’s no front on them, but for many years there was a chain link fence and gate across the front to keep out the bears, which was important because we hikers would hang our food in bags from the rafters. The mice loved it.

There were two approaches to dealing with the mice: deterrence and acquiescence. The deterrence approach entailed using a plastic or metal lid with a small hole punched in the middle. You would slide the lid onto the rope holding your food bag from the rafters. Except for the case of unusually acrobatic mice, the critters couldn’t get all the way down the rope to the food bag. This approach usually worked, but when it didn’t, you’d end up with holes chewed in your food bag and in your packets of gorp, milk powder, noodles, and cheese. Acquiescence meant forgoing the lid and just leaving your food bag exposed and open. It was sort of like going through customs in a third world country. You’d leave a little “gift” in your luggage for the inspector, and he’d let you in. The mice in the shelters operated in the same fashion. You cooperate, the mice get their small share, and everyone parts as friends in the morning.

I finally settled on a combination of the two approaches. I’d use the lid on the rope, but I’d keep my food bag open. If the mouse made it past the lid, he’d have easy access to my food bag, and I’d end up with a corner of my gorp bag chewed but no holes in my backpack or food bag. Not a high price to pay, as long as the mouse didn’t get mad about the lid on the rope and exact his revenge while I slept.

Sometime during the night the skunks made their entrance. They’d usually just wander around looking for food scraps, and when they were finished, they’d leave by whatever hole they had entered. Only once did I have to get up out of bed and let a skunk out the front gate. He needed help getting out and seemed genuinely appreciative for the favor. He didn’t spray me.

That night at Icewater Spring, behind the chain link fence, we were visited by mice and skunks, but no bears. But it did rain, which was perfect percussion music for sleeping. Which we finally did, when all the screaming stopped.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Those Dark, Dirty Shelters (1 of 7 on the AT)

Let’s spend a few weeks talking about the Appalachian Trail, one of America’s best ideas. The AT stretches about 2,170 miles from Springer Mountain in north Georgia to Mount Katahdin in central Maine. You can hike on it for free. For almost its entire length you can hike and camp without any special permits or paperwork – a remarkable accomplishment considering it’s officially owned by the mother of all bureaucracies, the US government. You don’t have to report in to anyone in a uniform or a dark suit and tie. It’s the epitome of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Except for the 72 miles of the AT in the Smoky Mountains.

The Smokies are such a revered location among AT hikers that they could easily be loved to death. It’s a Tragedy of the Commons waiting to happen. So, the government has stepped in to stem the tide of mountain lovers.  

Fortunately, the park is administered by what may be the last, sane department of the US government – the National Park Service. I’ve had numerous encounters with park rangers, volunteers, and other staff persons, and 95% of these moments have been pleasant. The good guys haven’t been chased away yet by whatever it is in bureaucracies that squeezes the spark of life out of its employees.  (Now that I’ve said that, I must admit that the folks at our local post office are great, too. One more reason to live in a small town.)

I should also add that there’s a significant group of folks in the Bryson City area who would disagree with my assessment of the NPS – they are mad about Fontana Lake, the Road to Nowhere, restrictions on bear hunting and ginseng digging, and just about anything the NPS does. Some of them are reasonable people and some aren’t. But I digress…

Even the NPS hasn’t been able to avoid that essential part of every bureaucracy – paperwork. To day hike in the park, just find a trail and go. No paperwork, no permission slips. However, if you want to camp overnight in the backcountry, you’ll have to fill out a permit. (No fees yet, but they are talking about it.) When you arrive at the park, you must find a ranger station and spend five minutes filling out an itinerary. That’s it. Five minutes. Stop for a moment and let that sink in. A five minute encounter with the Federal government. To get the full impact of that, stop for a moment and think about what you were doing on April 14.

If you camp on the AT in the park, you’ll be staying in a rock and log shelter with a tin roof. These shelters are heavily used, and they do show some wear and tear, but even the wear and tear is a reminder that you are doing something that people have been doing for several generations. And people will continue to do it long after you are gone. You are a link in a long chain of main crest hikers. It’s enough to tempt you to carve your name on the old log rafters. (Please don’t.)

Several years ago, a guy named Bill Bryson wrote a book called A Walk in the Woods. He and a friend, both novice backpackers, decided to hike the entire AT from south to north. To make a long story short, they limped and whined all the way to the Smoky Mountains. Once there, they didn’t like the “dark and dirty” shelters, so they quit hiking at Newfound Gap, caught a ride to Gatlinburg, ate some cheeseburgers, then drove to Roanoke, VA. They skipped the eastern half of the Smokies, all of Tennessee, and much of Virginia! I was so disgusted that I quit reading. I don’t know and don’t care how the book ends, but I hope at some point they came to grips with the reality that if you hike the AT, you are going to get wet and dirty, and the accommodations are somewhat primitive. That is, after all, the point.

So call these shelters dirty and dingy if you want to. I call them rustic and quaint. Not in an antique shop way. More of an old barn way. They are drafty, uncomfortable, and crude. They have mice and skunks, and an occasional bear. In other words, they are great, perfect – exactly what you’d hope for on a backpacking trip in the mountains.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Incompetence Rears its Ugly Head (Again)

In a previous article I pointed out that someone – such as myself – could be “avid” without being competent. I offered a bit of proof, but in case you still are not convinced, I present further evidence.

Keith Oakes and I were night fishing on a river full of big, brown trout, creatures that are notoriously nocturnal. We heard a couple of splashes in the river in front of us, which might have been mice, muskrats, or beavers, or it might have been a trout feeding on a mayfly, so we immediately began casting toward the sounds. Casting a fly is very different from casting a lure with spinning gear. When you cast with a fly rod you typically keep the fly line and fly in the air for several casts as you let out more line, then after 3 or 4 of these “false casts” you let the line go as the fly whips and then floats down to the water’s surface. It’s during these false casts that you are likely to get your fly and line caught in bushes or branches behind you. That’s not at all unusual on wooded rivers.

AuSable River: Waiting for the sun to set

Midnight on the AuSable River, Grayling, Michigan

On one of my false casts I felt my line get caught on something, and I knew I had managed to get hung up on the willow bushes behind me. Then I decided that it must be the end of a long limb because as I tugged gently on the line it wasn’t just stuck, it was jumping around, pulling back. But even that didn’t seem quite right. There was a random sort of tugging to it, sort of a big, wobbling pull. Just as the awkwardness of it was starting to register in my brain, my line took off in a circle around me. Once, twice. I had caught a bat, and it was flying in one direction, which meant that it was wrapping itself around me, which of course meant that it was getting closer to me, like a game of tether ball where the rope wraps around the pole until there’s no loose rope left to wrap.

Well, that’s exactly what the bat did, until it ended up somewhere on my back, squealing and thrashing. Now, I say it was “somewhere on my back,” meaning that it was actually on my back, tangled up in my fishing net which was hanging from my fishing vest, but I didn’t know that at the time because it was dark, and I couldn’t see a thing. He might have been on my hat, or under my arm, or on my chest, etc. etc. And of course, all I could think about was sharp teeth, rabies, and Dracula. The fact that it was dark merely added another level of anxiety and confusion. So I tried to get my vest off, but I had to reach around to the clips on the side to get it off, and for all I knew that’s where the bat was. The squealing and thrashing continued, while I wiggled out of the vest and unwrapped the line from around me. When I finally got the vest off and threw it on the river bank, the bat was gone.

I heard a small splash nearby, so I shined my flashlight downstream and saw the bat on the surface of the water, still kicking, but floating downstream with the current. The Bat Incident was over, and I had survived. The bat, apparently, would not. But let the record show that I had him in my net for a few seconds. I’m sure a few other fly fishermen have hooked a bat, although probably not a lot, since not a lot of guys fly fish at night. But how many of them can say they got the bat to their net and then safely released him as all genteel fly fishermen do? And if he died somewhere downstream, it’s not my fault bats can’t swim.

Keith finally made his way over to me about the time the bat was disappearing downstream. “What’s going on down here? It sounded like a wrestling match. I thought you caught a huge fish, but then everything went silent.”

“Not a fish. A bat.”

“Really? A bat? So that explains all the squealing and crying.”

“Yeah,” I said, “and I think the bat was scared, too.”

So, confine your fishing to fish if you want to. Not me. I’m expanding my quarry. I’m fishing for mammals. Winged mammals. Catch and release only. It’s a sport only a truly avid outdoorsman could appreciate.

Every now and then I catch a fish instead of a bat

Friday, July 15, 2011

An Avid Outdoorsman

Someone once called me an “avid outdoorsman” in public, and I still haven’t been able to live it down. Several of my friends call me an “avid outdoorsman” every chance they get. Of course, it’s important that you understand that this title is intended by them as a taunt, not a compliment. Some exhibit their verbal skills by finding rhymes for “avid” – words like “pallid” or “putrid” – and sharing them with me via email. Thank goodness for the delete button. Occasionally, they taunt me in the foyer at church. While our families are inside praying or singing, I’m in the foyer withering under their relentless verbal attack. We’ve even had some stern looks from bystanders in the receiving line at a funeral. I guess phrases like “old mule” and “girl scout” followed by giggles aren’t acceptable in some venues.

I must admit, I was a little embarrassed by the description – until I looked up the word “avid.” In the dictionary you see words like “enthusiastic” or “zealous.” Words you don’t see are “competent” or “expert.” So, yes, I suppose you could call me avid. But I’d rather you didn’t. My friends would still jump at the opportunity to put me in my place.

Occasionally I’ll do something that fits that definition of “avid” perfectly – that is, enthusiastic but not necessarily competent. The usual result involves me lying flat on my back on a slippery rock or face down in the dirt or neck deep in a river.

Exhibit A: I was recently fly fishing in a local tailwater (the river below a dam and its lake), casting to a rising trout. After about 15 minutes of fruitless casting, accompanied by several changes of flies and leaders, I decided to wade into a different position further upstream from the fish, so I could get a better drift of my fly over the spot where the fish was feeding. I had been standing in the middle of the river, about waist deep, so I moved toward the river bank into what should have been – should have been, but wasn’t – shallow water. Apparently, for no good reason, there’s a hole between the middle and the riverbank. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now.

Half a second after I discovered the hole, I was up to my neck in COLD water. My waders were full of water, I couldn’t touch the bottom, and I was holding my fly rod in my right hand. So I did the only thing I could do – the dog paddle, a splashing, thrashing, noisy dog paddle. I made my way out of the hole and onto shallow ground with my rod still in my hand and my line and fly dangling and jerking downstream. As I was finally able to stand up again, I noticed that my fly line was hung up on something downstream. It felt heavy. Then I noticed that the heaviness wasn’t the heaviness of a log or rock; it was a living heaviness. Yes, it was a fish. A trout. The trout. The same one I had been carefully pursuing for the past 15 minutes.

So, the end of the story is that the only fish I caught that day was the one I caught while doing the drowning dog paddle. Of course, I told Tim and Keith that it was a special technique that I had been working on and had only recently perfected. After all, the books and manuals all say that technique – the word we use in fly fishing is “presentation” – is more important than fly size and style. So, the dog paddle technique is clearly the secret weapon that all fly fishermen are seeking, and now I’ve made it public for the first time. I’m calling it the drowning dog paddle or DDP, for short. I’m sure you’ll be reading about it in Field & Stream in the near future.

It’s something that only an avid outdoorsman, such as myself, could invent.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

One Big, Nasty, Tangled Mess (Part 5 of 5)

Any landslide in the Smoky Mountains will have two parts. The upper portion – the scar – consists mostly of bare rock where acres and acres of soil, shrubs, rock, and trees once resided. The lower portion – the debris field – consists of all those acres of soil, shrubs, rock, and trees, all thrown together into a tangled mess. Those high elevation scars are frighteningly beautiful and make for dramatic pictures. If you want to impress your friends, point to one of these scars on a mountain slope across the valley and tell them you’ve scrambled or slid down it.

The debris field at the bottom of the scar is a different matter. It’s wild and chaotic and not at all photogenic, definitely not postcard material. If you watch the welcome video at Sugarlands Visitor Center, you’ll see images of creeks, deer, mountain tops, and foggy mornings, but one thing you won’t see is a debris field. If the Smokies were a city, a debris field would be a ghetto or maybe the municipal landfill. It’s just not the sort of thing you advertise to the tourists because it isn’t pretty.

Debris fields are also difficult to maneuver because they consist mostly of tangled, criss-crossed trees and piles of rocky dirt. It’s bumpy going with plenty of opportunities to step into a hole or a soft spot or to slip off the tree trunk that you are walking on or climbing over. Then, of course, there are the snakes.

To be honest, I’ve walked through about a dozen debris fields, and I’ve never seen a snake in any of them, but there’s no question in my mind that these places must be full of them. When I’m hiking in the Smokies, I rarely think about snakes and other creepy, crawly things because dwelling on those possibilities would probably get me too spooked to go. So I put them out of my mind. Except, that is, for when I’m picking my way through a debris field. The rattlesnakes I’ve seen in the Smokies are usually lying in the middle of a tangle of rocks and tree branches -- and that’s exactly what a debris field is, multiplied by about 10 gazillion. For that reason, I try to avoid this tangled habitat in warm weather, preferring those cold days that push those cold-blooded critters into dormancy.

 The particular debris field that Greg Harrell and I picked our way through near the bottom of Anakeesta Ridge was impressive in a big, nasty, tangled sort of way. It’s impressive not because of its beauty but because of the sheer power that was required to create it. You can’t look at this sort of scene the way you look at Cades Cove or a sunset. Those sights are breathtakingly beautiful. No, you have to look at the debris field at the bottom of a landslide the way you look at the wreckage after a tornado or a tsunami. There’s a mixed sense of sadness and awe at the raw power that was momentarily unleashed to do its destructive work.

 It’s funny, then, that the spot where this mass of wreckage meets Newfound Gap Road at the south base of Anakeesta Ridge appears as a modest, little creek full of broken rock and young, birch trees. You’d never know, as you drive past, that the remnants of a massive, natural catastrophe lie just a few yards uphill from the road, hidden from view. When this landslide happened back in 1984, tons of mountainside were funneled down into a narrow valley and sped down the chute and out onto Newfound Gap Road. Bulldozers and dump trucks did such a good job of cleaning up the mess on the road that the typical car tourist hasn’t a clue that several hundred yards of debris begin just a few yards above the road.

 The best indicator that something out of the ordinary happened is the pure stand of yellow birch trees, all about four inches in diameter, filling up that narrow creekbed. There’s a similar stand of yellow birches along the bottom 1.5 miles of Alum Cave Trail where landslides of 1951 and 1993 both came roaring down the river valley, so apparently yellow birch trees are a pioneer species which specializes in the disturbed soil of a landslide. You can recognize these distinctive birches by their golden, papery bark that peels off in horizontal strips. I would have been tempted to call them paper birch, but my tree books tell me that paper birches don’t live in the Smokies. So these papery birches are actually yellow birches.

 As far as I know, there’s no law against exploring Anakeesta Ridge --- as far as I know – because being firm believers that it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission, we didn’t ask. (And if you don’t get caught, then… well… you don’t have to ask for forgiveness.) Luckily, our national parks really are parks for “the people,” and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the lack of restrictions on our right to wander in the Smokies. If we had asked permission, we’d have received a brief lecture about safety and discretion, and then we’d have been told to have fun and be careful – which is exactly what we did.

 [There are easier and safer ways to visit landslides and debris fields, places that snakes avoid and rangers approve of: namely, Alum Cave Trail and Road Prong Trail. Both of these are popular and safe, yet challenging and beautiful, and I’d highly recommend them. For more details, visit the end of this article at

Website Only:

A landslide took place on June 28, 1993 in the area called Huggins Hell, located above Alum Cave Trail. This is the same general area where the 1951 slides occurred, so there are still a few signs from the earlier slides, but most of these have been covered up by the passage of time and the more recent slide of ’93. To see part of this landslide, walk about 1.5 miles up this trail until you reach Arch Rock. At this point the trail turns right, crosses the creek (Styx Branch) on a small footbridge, and goes through Arch Rock. Before you cross the footbridge to enter Arch Rock, take a brief side trip by bearing to the left on the narrow path. You’ll only need to walk about 20 feet up this trail, then stop and look at the thin forest (yellow birch) up the slope, then look at the lumpy ground you are standing on, then turn around and look back down the trail and river valley that you just walked up. You are actually standing in the middle of the old, 1993 landslide debris field, full of yellow birches.

Now backtrack a few feet and follow the trail through Arch Rock and continue for about five minutes. You’ll cross Styx Branch again on a small footbridge, and within a couple of minutes you’ll cross a rocky creekbed that is not really a creekbed. (Although, it may have water running in it after a rainy spell.) It’s the scoured out path of the 1993 landslide that you were standing in five minutes ago. To see a little more you can walk five minutes uphill on this rocky route, then walk back downhill across the main trail. After about 10 minutes of walking down this rocky, messy route you’ll find yourself back at Arch Rock. You’ve been exploring the path of that 1993 landslide, a tangle of rocks and trees. This landslide consisted of a section of land about a quarter mile long and twenty feet deep sliding down into the Styx Branch riverbed, then Alum Cave Creek, and ending at Newfound Gap Road. In other words, your entire hike today has been in the path of a landslide. Before you leave Arch Rock, look downstream. Most of the trees in the creek valley are small birches that have sprung up since 1993. You probably didn’t notice that fact as you walked up the trail at the start of your hike; now, on your return trip, those young birches will be obvious and will accompany you all the way back to your car. Also accompanying you along the way are occasional lumps and gullies. Several places in the last mile down to your car, you’ll notice that the river is to your left and another ravine runs parallel to the trail to your right. This ravine and the rough embankment between you and it were all a part of this debris field.  

For good, up close views of landslide scars you’ll need to continue up Alum Cave Trail all the way to the top of Mt. LeConte. The top mile or so of this great, great trail will take you across several rocky scars, both old and recent, some overgrown with grass, some still bare. (The views from the top of LeConte are icing on the cake that makes this trail doubly worth the effort.)

Another landslide was the result of Hurricane Opal in 1995. This landslide is better known to hikers than drivers because no roads were affected. The Road Prong Trail is squeezed between Mount Mingus and Sugarland Mountain, just south of the Chimney Tops. Near the top of this popular trail, about a mile below the ridgecrest, there are very obvious, visible remnants of this event. There are large tangles of trees and rocks on both sides of the trail – and above the trail. There is one point where a tangle of large trees spreads over the creek and trail like a bridge. If this had been a road, the wreckage would have been cleared away quickly by chainsaws and bulldozers, but because this is a backcountry trail, the remnants of the slide remain.

The only other detail I’ll give about Anakeesta is that the small, inconspicuous creek that is at the bottom of Anakeesta’s 1984 debris field (the one Greg and I scrambled down) is on Newfound Gap Road about 1.9 miles below Newfound Gap. (If you are following the small, brown mile markers from Sugarlands, it would be about 12 ½.) You could park there and hike up into this debris field, the main risk being slippery rocks – although I’d do it in cold weather to avoid any unwanted encounters with snakes. There’s a good story about this 1984 landslide in Smokies Life Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 1. It’s sold in most of the visitor centers in the park.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

An Old Landslide From Top to Bottom (Part 4 of 5)

If you stop near Morton Overlook about a mile below Newfound Gap, across the valley to the north you’ll see Anakeesta Ridge. On the right (east) end you’ll see two peaks. The right peak is Anakeesta Knob at the easternmost end where Anakeesta Ridge converges with the Boulevard near Mount Kephart. The left hump is the place where our morning route along a nameless side ridge reaches the main crest of Anakeesta Ridge. You’ll also see that most of the trees and soil to the left of that peak have been shaved off by a landslide. That scar is one of those dangerous, vertical scars that could be deadly, but a few hundred yards to the left (west) there is a low swag in the ridge. Greg Harrell and I worked our way along the ridgecrest to that swag, had some lunch, and began to wonder…  would it be really, really stupid to scramble down one of these rocky scars?

After letting that thought simmer for a while, the answer became obvious to both of us. One of our reasons for coming to Anakeesta had been to see the landslide scars up close. Finding a route down one of them would probably be interesting, maybe educational, and definitely up close. So that’s what we did, and as you can see, we lived to tell the tale.

At the low swag in the ridge where we were having for lunch, the landslide scar looked less treacherous. I’d guess it was at least a 45 but not quite a 60 degree angle; not easy, but far from vertical. In fact, along the western edge of this scar, a small forest of young trees and bushes was growing up. About 25 years worth of leaves had begun to create a layer of soft dirt that actually made walking pretty easy.

So we left the ridgecrest at the swag and angled our way through this young forest, down the slope, and to the bare rock scar. Once we reached the bare rock below the crest, we gingerly worked our way down the scar. In situations like this, I tend to be a bit more cautious than Greg. He says I’m a sissy. I say he’s too stupid to be scared. We’re probably both right. So I crab-walked down the scar on all fours with my butt dragging the ground as an emergency brake. It’s a slow process, but that’s sort of the point. Thus, we both managed to travel down and across several rocky scars with a few, small bumps and bruises but no near-death experiences.

In most places these scars are barren and still crumbly. In other places there are long cracks in the rock that have filled with dirt and have sprouted various species of shrubs. I would guess that 100 years from now, this will be another Smoky Mountain heath bald – one of those smooth-looking evergreen swaths that punctuate high, rocky ridges. It was a perfect laboratory for what we’ve all learned in school – that given enough time, a rocky surface will turn into a forest or field (or, in this case, maybe a heath thicket). If I were a young biologist, I’d study these scars on Anakeesta Ridge to track their progress. I suppose it would be a rather long, drawn-out project that would outlive several generations of researchers, but it would beat sitting in a laboratory watching petri dishes.

So we zigged and zagged our way down the barren slope to lonely outposts of vegetation that would provide a chance to stand up and walk a few yards. There were also a few small ridges that had their sides scoured by the landslide, but their crests were still covered with small trees and shrubs. All in all, the terrain was scrubbed and sterile, with occasional islands of life scattered about. I guess it’s really just a large version of a driveway or sidewalk – mostly clean and well-swept, with the occasional dandelion or tuft of grass poking up through the cracks.

After an hour or two of scrambling and exploring these rocky acres, we entered phase two of the landslide – the debris field. All the stuff that had once been high on the mountain slope now formed a tangled mess below. [To be continued]

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Place of the Landslides (Part 3 of 5)

Our hike to the top of Anakeesta Ridge would be steep, ascending 1,000 feet vertical in 3/10 of a mile horizontal. It wasn’t dangerous, but it was dirty, tiring, and slow. Greg the Statistician told me the next day that this was the slowest hike we had ever done. We covered one mile in five hours; although, in our defense, there were more than the average number of stops for pictures which is a sure sign of a memorable trip.
There was a lightly worn path running right up this narrow crest, meaning that this route was occasionally used by others. Who these others are and how they discovered this route are mysteries to me; although, I have a hunch that not all of them are human. Sometimes a path is clear from head to foot, but others are only about knee high. Those knee high tunnels through the brush are almost certainly bear paths, which adds another layer of drama to the trip. Walking on a trail is fine. Walking on a manway has a greater sense of discovery to it. Walking on a bearway is wildly enticing, as long as the bear is black, not grizzly.

Whoever they are, human or ursus, they keep their secrets well, and I found myself thanking them for their covert trailblazing. Pushing one’s way through a pathless tangle of rhododendron and mountain laurel is the hardest, most frustrating part of off-trail hiking. Yes, off-trail hiking is a lot easier when there’s a path… and I’ve been surprised at how often there is one.

On the other hand, the presence of rhododendron, mountain laurel, and sand myrtle means that you are in a beautiful, wild place that becomes outrageously beautiful in May, June, and July. In fact, when it’s all said and done, I think these lonely, rocky, narrow ridges covered in heath thickets are my favorite places in the Smokies. There’s always a good view of the surrounding terrain, there’s always work and sweat involved which makes the destination all the more special, and there’s a gradual progression of spring blooms which is so outrageously outrageous, so extravagantly extravagant, that redundancy is necessary but not quite sufficient.

After about two hours of hiking, scrambling, and picture-taking, Greg and I reached Anakeesta’s main crest, and we found the spot where a month earlier we had taken a wrong turn and stumbled upon this side ridge. We followed the faint trail leading west along Anakeesta’s crest, giving magnificent views across the Alum Cave and Styx river valleys. The broad crest of Mount LeConte was visible: Myrtle Point, High Top, Cliff Top, West Point, Balsam Point. Looking down we could clearly pick out Alum Cave Trail leading to Inspiration Point and Peregrine Peak. There are many reasons why people hike, but views like this are high on everyone’s list. It’s good to know early in the day that your hike has paid off handsomely in the form of vast panoramas, and this one had. If we had quit right then, the hike would still have been a success.

But the really unique part of this hike was yet to come: the landslides.

There have been several large landslides since the park was established in 1934, and numerous smaller ones. A storm on September 1, 1951 and another on June 28, 1993 struck the south slopes of Mount LeConte around Peregrine Peak. From our vantage point on Anakeesta Ridge, rocky scars from these downpours and subsequent landslides were clearly visible high on the south slopes of Mt. LeConte.

Another large landslide was actually a pair of landslides that occurred on August 10, 1984. After a heavy, evening thunderstorm two sections of mountainside slid off the southern slope of Anakeesta Ridge and onto Newfound Gap Road, between Alum Cave Trail and Newfound Gap. About 30 cars were trapped on the road between these two slides for several hours. Amazingly, while there were several near-misses, no one was seriously injured. These are the prominent rocky scars that are visible from the Morton Overlook parking pullouts. It was these scars that we were walking above today.

My wife is skeptical when I tell her this, but it’s true: those rocky scars are not quite as dangerous as they appear. Looking at them from a mile away, they look slick and vertical, but as we walked on the ridge above them we could see that some spots were dangerously vertical, but plenty of others were not. Many of these scars had small shrubs beginning to repopulate their cracks and gullies. In fact, small spruce forests were developing along the edges of these scars where there was enough soil to support trees.

As the day wore on, Greg and I began to ask each other what our plans were. We had originally thought that we’d hike along the ridgecrest, enjoy the views, and be flexible. We might follow the entire crest all the way to the Alum Cave Trail parking area. Or, we might hike down some other side ridge or creekbed. But as we looked down the rocky scars we began to consider another possibility: would it be really, really stupid to scramble down these rocky scars? And if so, should that stop us? [To be continued]

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"Place of the Balsams" (Part 2 of 5)

Anakeesta Ridge is easily recognizable from the road near Morton Overlook, just below Newfound Gap. It’s the mountain that’s missing big chunks of soil and vegetation on its high slopes. The geologists call this landslide-prone section of the park the Anakeesta Formation, which is very different from most rock in the Smokies. My Hiking Guide describes the geological underpinnings of this region, but I’m not going to repeat it all because I’d just be repeating words that I don’t fully understand. Instead, here’s a short, and possibly even accurate, summary. This section is composed of a particular type of metamorphic rock closely related to slate that is easily broken and eroded. So, the landslides that plague this section are the result of storms racing up the West Prong valley and raining on land that has thin soil on steep rocks that aren’t particularly sturdy. The soil and rock give way, then when it begins to slide, it not only pushes the landscape below it, but it also pulls down the landscape above it. Those who have witnessed these slides report that the trees seem to be surfing, roots first, on top of the landslide. The trees fall not from being blown down the slope by wind but by having the rug pulled out from under them – thus the “roots first” surfing analogy.

I assume this underlying slate is the reason why most of the steepest cliffs and mountain slopes are in this section of the park: Eagle Rocks, Sawteeth, Charlies Bunion, Jumpoff, Anakeesta Ridge, Alum Cave Bluff, Duck Hawk Ridge, Myrtle Point, Cliff Top, Chimney Tops, and dozens of unnamed rocky scars and ridges. If you like rugged terrain, including frighteningly steep cliffs, this Anakeesta section of the park is the place to be.

By the way, “anakeesta” is a Cherokee word meaning “place of the balsams.” This ridge just south of Mt. LeConte has long been called Anakeesta Ridge. The unique, erodible rock formation in this section of the park was named after that ridge. That was a good call by the geologists because the most dramatically visible scars are on the slopes of Anakeesta Ridge.

So it seemed to me that a guy looking for a good time might want to wander around the steep slopes and exposed rock of this Anakeesta Triangle, to get a sense of the power and drama that Mother Nature exhibits every now and then in the form of heavy rain, landslides, and mud-surfing trees. So Greg Harrell and I spent a few hours on a warm day in March wandering the slopes of Anakeesta Ridge.

About a month earlier we had hiked from the Boulevard and Anakeesta Knob across the ridgecrest of Anakeesta Ridge, hoping to see the landslides from above. Unfortunately, it had been a cold, cloudy day. We could see only a few yards in any direction which probably contributed to our taking a wrong turn down a nameless side ridge. But this blunder opened a new door for us – this side ridge had a lightly-worn path, and it seemed to lead down to Newfound Gap Road. We couldn’t see the road on that day because of the clouds, but we could hear an occasional car, and our map told us that it was less than half a mile away. This nameless side ridge might provide a steep but quick route from the road up to the top of Anakeesta Ridge.

So on this crisp, clear March day, we parked Greg’s car at the parking spot where Walker Camp Prong flows off the slopes of Mount Kephart and under Newfound Gap Road and began walking up the side of that nameless side spur of Anakeesta Ridge. Our hike to the ridgecrest would be steep, which became immediately apparent. Greg’s calculations (he’s the statistician on all our hikes) showed that we would ascend from 4,600 feet to 5,600 feet in 3/10 of a mile. Yes, 1,000 feet vertical in .3 mile horizontal. Compare that to the typical Smokies trail which rises 500 feet in 1 mile.

I never know what to call this type of hike. I tend not to use the word “climb” because the rock climbers with ropes and carabiners are the ones who “climb.” On the other hand, the word “hike” implies walking upright on two feet. The first hour of this hike was somewhere in between. We’d walk steeply but upright for awhile, then we’d switch to hands and feet, using rocks, roots, and limbs to pull ourselves up. I’ve heard people use the word “scramble” to describe this, but somehow that sounds quick and energetic, which definitely doesn’t apply here.

Whatever it was we were doing, it wasn’t dangerous, but it was dirty and slow. [To be continued]

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Anakeesta Triangle (Part 1 of 5)

It’s amazing to me that people will pay $20 or $30 to stand in line for an hour for the opportunity to be jostled and scared by a roller coaster, but they’ll run indoors if it starts to rain for free. They don’t want to get wet; although, I’m sure the threat of lightning also has something to do with it. And they have statistics to back them up – more people are killed by lightning than are killed on roller coasters every year. I’m so certain of that, I didn’t even bother to look it up, so I have no source for my conclusion other than the fact that CNN has not reported any roller coaster accidents lately. (The conflict in Iraq? Nothing to report. Slaughter in Sudan or Congo? Not interested. Shark attacks and roller coaster accidents? Now that’s news!)

I suppose the real reason for the appeal of thrill rides and fear of thunderstorms is lawyers. They can help you sue Six Flags but not Mother Nature. The lawyers know this; the tourists know this; and, most importantly, the folks who run the amusement parks know this. And that’s why so few people are killed on roller coasters. The folks who own them make sure that they aren’t really dangerous. They stay on their tracks. The riders are buckled and strapped in. Thus, the thrill without any real danger. You scream while you ride these things, but you know you are safe. And if you do get hurt, you and your lawyer will sue the pants off Six Flags.

Thunderstorms are, of course, different. There’s no one out there overseeing their construction to ensure safety and quality control. If you find yourself caught outside in a thunderstorm, you can’t squeal and laugh, knowing deep down inside that you are safe. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Most of us, including those guys who boldly ride the amusement park rides, will cower in a ditch or beside a rock during a thunderstorm, knowing deep down inside that this thing could kill us.

Of course, you’ve heard that your car is a safe space during a thunderstorm, and as far as I can tell, that’s not just an urban legend. So, if you are ever caught in a heavy rainstorm in the Smokies, just pull off the road, stay in your car, and enjoy the show. If you’ll do that, it will be like the roller coaster – all thrill, little danger (except to the electrical system of your car). But there’s one important stipulation here: don’t park on Newfound Gap Road between the Chimneys Tops Trail and Newfound Gap. The water and lightning probably won’t get you, but the mud, trees, and boulders might.

There’s an area of the park that has been especially susceptible to flash floods and landslides. They don’t happen often – maybe one major event every decade – but when they do, they are impressively dangerous. This danger zone runs roughly from the Chimney Tops trailhead along the main ridge of Mount LeConte and the Boulevard to Charlies Bunion, then west along the main crest to Sugarland Mountain, and down the spine of Sugarland Mountain to the Chimney Tops. Or, another way of saying it: the upper watershed of the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River, consisting of Walker Camp Prong and Road Prong, plus their numerous tributaries.

The heart of this triangle of danger is Anakeesta Ridge, which is easily recognizable from the road. It’s the one that’s missing big chunks of soil and vegetation on its high slopes. These rocky scars are seen clearly from the top mile or two of the road leading from Gatlinburg to Newfound Gap. Stop at one of the parking pullouts near Morton Overlook and look north across the valley. That beaten and bruised ridge with exposed, rocky scars is Anakeesta Ridge. (Behind it lies Mount LeConte; also bruised and scarred.) It’s weathered but still standing, yet it seems to be evolving in the opposite direction from most mountains. We’ve all heard that the Rocky Mountains are young, but the Smokies are older, having that smoothed, rounded, ancient look. As time passes, mountains are supposed to become softer and gentler. Apparently, Anakeesta Ridge didn’t get that memo. It has shed huge slices of soil and trees, exposing steep, rocky scars that would look at home west of Mississippi.

 [To be continued]

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Albright Grove: No Tree Lives Forever (Part 2 of 2)

As Phyllis and I walked through Albright Grove I wondered why this piece of virgin forest didn’t look established and mature, like a 300 year old cathedral.

After some rumination and a few conversations with a few folks who might know, I think I know at least part of the answer. Albright Grove has been slowly, invisibly “logged.”

Some of the logging has been the result of old age. Some trees species will live longer than others, but no tree can live forever. Throw pollution, lightning, wind, and drought into the mix and the result is an old forest with many dead, dying, and broken trees.

Other loggers were small and secretive. They snuck into our forest before we realized what was happening, and once we discovered their covert activity, it was too late. We were defenseless against their attack. This happened in the 1930s when the Chestnut blight (fungus) swept through the eastern US and wiped out virtually all of what had been one of the dominant trees in the East – the American Chestnut.

It was a biological and economic disaster for the animals and the people, both of whom depended on the chestnuts for their life and livelihood. Of course, the forests suffered, but as any biological community will do, it readjusted, filled in the gaps, and flourished in a different form. Where chestnut once dominated, we now see poplar, maple, oak, and hickory.

This tragedy happened about 75 years ago, which is a long time in human terms but not in forestry terms. The death of the chestnuts opened up the forest canopy. The sunlight shone down on the long-shaded forest floor, and the fight was on! Flowers, shrubs, and trees vied for position, creating a botanical chaos for a few years. Gradually, the trees grew up to take the place of the American Chestnuts, but the process is still unfolding. The deep, deep shade of a mature forest is still missing. The massive trunks of ancient trees are missing – except for the few, scattered giants still hanging on in Albright Grove and other portions of virgin forest in the Smokies.

What’s really going on here is the difference between a climax forest and virgin forest, two things that would often be the same thing but not always. Not in Albright Grove.

A virgin forest is one that has not been logged. It is untouched by man. This creates images in our heads of deep, dark forests of huge, old trees. An eastern, hardwood version of those huge, open redwood and sequoia forests of the Pacific coast. What we are visualizing is actually a climax forest – that ultimate stage of a centuries-long process of plant succession. It’s plant succession that is still unfinished in the disturbed forest of Albright Grove.

Plant succession is an interesting process. You see it every September as your family’s vegetable garden winds down for another year, and the grass and weeds creep in. You see it whenever a farmer stops tilling or cutting his field. Almost immediately weeds and shrubs begin their invasion, followed quickly (here in East Tennessee) by the cedars and pines. These are the “pioneer species” because they are the first to arrive. Interestingly, these pioneers create the conditions for their own demise by creating shade and soil changes that enable other species to grow. If the land is sunny and dry then the pines will dominate. If the location is moist and cool then after a few decades, hardwoods will replace the pines. The only question is which species of hardwood will win the battle – Maple? Hickory? Oak? That, too, depends on elevation, moisture, soil type, plus a little bit of random luck.

It’s an evolution of sorts but not the type that Darwin wrote about. It’s not the evolution of a species; it’s actually an evolution (or “development,” if you prefer that word) of the relationships between species. If this was a human community, it would be studied by sociologists, but since it’s plants and animals, the folks who study it are ecologists. Either way, it’s a community that is developing, a botanical and zoological community.
This process of plant succession continues for hundreds of years until this forest community reaches maturity, the climax, usually a deeply shaded forest with a high canopy and shade-loving plants on the forest floor. It’s the cathedral that Phyllis and I were expecting as we stepped off Maddron Bald Trail and onto Albright Loop Trail.

So now, with your expectations adjusted – not necessarily lowered, just adjusted – you can spend four or five hours enjoying the beauty of this part of the park. Go and enjoy this old, virgin, evolving forest. Just remember that it’s a changing forest community, not a cathedral. At least, not yet.