After an hour of drifting, I decided it was time to go back to the mouth of Forney Creek, so I turned around and began paddling into the wind. The night sounds changed from insects, frogs, and owls to the hum of wind in my ear. All I could now hear was the blowing of the breeze, the “kurrl” of my paddles dipping alternately into the water, and the “plink, plink” of the ripples against the hull of the kayak. I pulled my hat down tighter on my head so it wouldn’t blow off. My favorite headlamp is clipped to it, and I’d hate to lose them both in the water. If my hat blew off, I could probably paddle back and pick it up as it lingered on the surface, but it’s an experiment that I’d rather not try, especially at night.
As I paddled back over 65+ years of mud and sediment that have been accumulating below me, I began to hear the sound of the moving water again. I think about the many, many years that this erosion from mountains to seas has been going on. I ponder how our civilization has changed this process. Fontana Dam has created a lake where none previously existed. How many years will it take for the muddy entrances to all these feeder rivers to expand to fill in these channels? This mud should be in the Gulf of Mexico by now, but instead it’s under and around me.
But I can’t be too critical of modern civilization. In small doses, it can be comfortable, even beneficial. It’s modern civilization that has given me not only this lake, but a plastic kayak to explore it with. It’s given me the roads and the truck to turn a week-long trip from Knoxville to Bryson City into a two hour drive. It’s the glitz and glitter of modern life that attracts people to malls, movies, and TVs, keeping them off Fontana Lake so I can be alone tonight. Civilization has created many of the environmental problems that we face today, but it has also given us the equipment and opportunities to enjoy those parts of our world that we haven’t yet despoiled. It’s even allowed us to get beyond the day to day battle to feed ourselves and to elevate our thoughts to pursue things like education, health, and love of the outdoors – the very outdoors that we almost eradicated. I hate irony. How ironic that life should have so much of it.
After my night paddle, I walked back across the mud flats and toward the opening in the woods where the trail to the campsite begins. When the lake is full in July, that opening would be at the water’s edge, and this mud flat would be under water, but on this October night I have to walk about a hundred yards to get there. Stepping out of the moonlight and onto the trail in the trees is like stepping into a dark tunnel. I turn on the headlamp on the brim of my hat and walk about ten minutes back to the campsite.
The only sounds I hear are the crunching of leaves under my feet and the relentless roar of the river a few yards to my right. They are the same sounds that a mountaineer would have heard 100 years ago, or the Cherokee 300 years ago. I feel the weight of nature and history surround me.
It’s good to be alone in the mountains and to sleep by a river that flows into dark water.
|Getting There, Up Forney Creek's Channel|
|Taking a Break|
|Muddy and Barren Landscape When the Water is Low|
To tell you the truth, on our winter trips to Mt. LeConte I rarely walked to Myrtle Point or Cliff Top to see a LeConte winter sunrise or sunset, partly because I was cold and tired, partly because I had explored LeConte’s ridgetop during other seasons, but mainly because winter hiking in the Smokies provides so many great views, I just didn’t feel the need to walk to one of LeConte’s extremities to see another. I’d have been doing it just to say I’d done it, and that’s something I quit doing several years ago when I realized that I wasn’t going to do anything in life so rare and fabulous that I’d be able to impress folks with the tale of my achievement. Now I just hike or fish or whatever if it’s something that I’ll enjoy or learn from. Besides, all the really good stuff has already been done – first man on the moon, first person to climb Everest, first person to hike the entire AT. Just thumb through any Book of World Records to see all the stupid, pointless activities that people are pursuing, just to say they’ve done it – balancing spinning plates on poles, eating hot dogs, burping the alphabet. I just paused and visited a world records website. Did you know that a guy ate 36 cockroaches in less than one minute to break the old record? How do you practice for something like that?
Just as these thoughts had finished crossing the synapses of my brain, I stuck the end of my walking stick under a small, rock ledge, and I saw a flash of green. I pushed the thin layer of snow away and saw the very distinctive, three lobes of a Hepatica – one of my favorite wildflowers. I have a warm spot in my heart for Hepatica because my mother used to speak of them as one of her favorite flowers when she was a young girl growing up in Depression-era, northern Ohio. (That was only a couple of generations ago, but it seems like dozens because it was a time when kids actually noticed wildflowers and even knew their names.) She loved them because they are one of the earliest-blooming wildflowers. They make their white-pink appearance in early spring, while the weather is mostly cold but gives an occasional glimpse of the warm weather that is yet to come. In God’s list of virtues, I’d identify Hepatica with Hope. They are reminders that resurrections happen and that earth’s annual resurrection is just days away.
The poet Robert Frost once wrote of a wasted, dying man who had “nothing to look backward to with pride and nothing to look forward to with hope.” Hepatica is just the opposite. It’s a promise of hope that the green warmth of spring will soon arrive, it’s a reminder of the sensuous pleasures of past springs, and it’s a sign of pride in making it through yet another winter. So because of my mother and because of the hope of spring, I love Hepatica. It also happens to be one of the few wildflowers that I can identify just by its leaves. They are so distinctive that even a guy like me who suffers from wildflower amnesia every spring – in April I have to start almost from scratch with my wildflower book in hand – knows a Hepatica when he sees one, even without its bloom.
|The distinctive leaf of Hepatica|
In a typical year, I don’t see many Hepaticas in bloom. They aren’t rare, but they bloom in March or early April, so early that most of us aren’t yet thinking about wildflowers. The real wildflower show peaks a few weeks later, in mid-April. That’s when Phyllis and I will spend a few extra days in the Smokies walking through some of our favorite spots, looking for Trilliums, Trout Lilies, or Bluets. By then, the Hepaticas are fading, and spring is bustin’ out all over. When I do see Hepaticas in bloom, it’s usually accidental. That is, we get some warm days as early March slides into late March, and that gets my blood flowing again. That seems to be when the Hepaticas’ blood gets flowing, too. We both make our appearance in the mountain valleys at about the same time. We aren’t looking for each other, but we find each other nonetheless.
|Where There's Hepatica, There's Hope|
So now I have another special, secret spot – a patch of soil under a rock by an unnamed creek accessible via an unassuming parking lot on the main road through the Smokies. I’ll be back in a few weeks, when March begins acting less like February and more like April, looking not only for water falling over a cliff but also for a small, white-pink sign of hope that earth’s annual resurrection is just around the corner, and the Hepaticas and I will find each other once again.