Monday, December 23, 2013


I have favorite trails, favorite fishing holes, favorite songs, favorite roads, favorite movies, favorite books… the list is long. But it wasn’t until recently that I decided on a favorite word: wanderlust. Or, wanderlust! with an exclamation point. It’s a word that, if enunciated properly, should have sort of a growling drawl to it – it’s of German origin, after all – with a bit of lingering emphasis on the “s” in “lust.” It should also be accompanied by some sort of vigorous hand gesture, like a fist pump. Of course, the fact that the word “lust” is a prominent part of it adds the sort of sauciness to it that makes it almost inappropriate around children or gentlewomen. I can picture a guy with a cigar clenched between his teeth. I can’t picture my preacher’s wife saying it. (Okay, actually I can picture Molly saying it, but she’d at least look over her shoulder first to make sure no one else was listening.)
Settling on a favorite word has not been a life-long quest. I haven’t lain awake at night wondering and wrestling over my options. In fact, I’m not sure having a “favorite word” is something to be proud of or to bother writing about. After all, only a nerd would have a favorite word, and although nerds are actually the ones who will run the world, no one wants to be called a “nerd.” So writing about a favorite word is an exercise in treading on thin ice.
Nevertheless, a strong desire to travel is something I somehow picked up from my mother, either through nature or nurture or both. When I was just a kid, she’d entrust the road maps to me as we’d drive from Florida to California or New York. I was the navigator, and I still am. I enjoy surrounding myself with maps and planning a trip almost as much as I enjoy actually travelling.
But I lust after the travelling, too. The actual getting in the car and driving for days, noticing the odd names of the towns and roads, hearing the change in accent of the waitresses in the restaurants, watching the landscape change, asking for tea and getting a cup of hot tea (instead of iced tea as God intended). I’ve never been very interested in flying, mainly because it’s like being in a time – or in this case, a space – machine. You step into the chamber in Tennessee, sit in a seat for a few hours, and step out in Colorado. It’s magic.
People who prefer to travel by air don’t really have a serious case of wanderlust. They have destinationlust, I guess. They like to visit new places, without truly travelling. They like to be there, but they don’t like to actually go there. I know that sometimes flying just makes more sense – both time-wise and money-wise – but I still prefer a long, hard road trip that starts at dawn and ends well after sunset, and maybe even dawn tomorrow. I’ll blame it on my Dutch and English ancestors who apparently had strong Puritanical tendencies which require a dose of pain and suffering in every meaningful life experience.
I’ve been on a few hikes with folks who seem totally unconcerned about where we started, where we’ll end, and how we’ll get there. They just enjoy being outdoors. While the rest of us huddle around the map to check the names of creeks and ridges and the topo lines that define them, they sit quietly, eating an apple and staring at the trees or listening to the river sing. Now that I’ve written that, I see that just walking and then sitting is a perfectly reasonable approach to a day outdoors, but I can’t do it. I’ve gotta know where I am and where things are.

Which reminds me… a rather significant event in my life happened at 35° 33’ 44” North and 83° 48’ 2” West. It was the Fourth of July… [To be continued.]

Monday, November 18, 2013

Dark Water, Part 3 of 3

Making a night paddle (or hike) work depends on the cooperation of the moon, which in turn depends on your knowledge of its phases. A new moon is low and setting in the west when night comes. So, you’ll only see a new moon in the sky for the first hour of the night. As the week progresses and the moon approaches its first half-moon phase, it gets higher and higher in the sky each night at sunset. When the moon is at exactly its first half-moon point (one week before a full moon), it will be directly overhead when the sun sets and night comes. So this “first half-moon” will light the night sky from sunset to midnight, sinking over the western horizon around midnight. My paddle tonight is under this first half-moon, so when I stepped into my kayak soon after sunset, the moon was already high in the sky.

 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.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Dark Water (Part 2 of 3)

On the water tonight, things are calm. I feel the breeze on the back of my neck. It’s strong enough to push me along in my kayak, but not strong enough to blow my hat off my head. The scene gets quieter as I glide 50 then 100 yards away from the mouth of Forney Creek. The sounds of moving water are disappearing in the distance, and the quiet of the still water is taking over.

The channel is about 50 yards across, and there are small ridges on both sides of me – I’m in a river valley, after all – so there’s not a sense of vast expansiveness. That’s a feeling that you get only on high mountain perches with those vast, panoramic views. Nevertheless, tonight my personal space is huge, having expanded from the few square feet of civilized life to a few square miles, thanks to being on a mountain lake at night.

The feeling in these flooded creek channels is one of length, height, and depth, but not breadth. I am actually sitting where the treetops should be. I imagine the rocks and logs and fallen timbers below me. Snuggled down in my kayak seat on the surface of the lake, I am actually up high, and my view is that of someone who has climbed to the top of a tree in a river valley to survey the landscape.

Of course, the night sky provides a sense of expansiveness above. The moon is bold and dominant, enhancing the wildness of the scene, but at the same time it gives me a sense of security, like a little boy with a night light in his room. Sure, it helps you to see in the dark, but it also provides a sense of safety far beyond its tiny glow. It keeps the monsters in the closet where they belong.

Drifting on the lake at night is like a dream. The breeze creates a slight ripple on the surface of the water, and the glow of the moon on the ripples gives the effect of thousands of tiny flashbulbs – an array of random flashes, not quite simultaneous, a glistening that lasts and lasts and lasts as long as the breeze blows and the moon shines. Staring at it creates a psychedelic effect, so I stare for awhile and time stands still.

Over the years since this Forney Creek trip, I’ve experimented with moonlit and moonless nights on Fontana, and I’ve come to prefer a bright moon. The reason is not entirely for the security of the night light to keep the monsters at bay. When I go out on the lake without a moon, I am hoping to experience a starry, starry night on the lake. I want to see the constellations and maybe a few meteors. I want to be overwhelmed by the Milky Way and the Big Dipper and all the other nighttime sights.

But moonless nights on the lake aren’t quite as overwhelming as you’d expect. Sure, they are great, but the view of the stars is actually better once you get back on land and away from the lake. The reason is that the lake surface is like a mirror; yes, a dim mirror, but definitely a mirror. It creates a glow, not a bright distracting glow like city lights, more of a background ambiance that just sort of gets in the way. The stars can’t quite blaze and dazzle because of the interference from the lake’s surface. It’s like trying to watch a movie while some guy in the audience is whispering to his buddies. You can see and hear the movie, but you also hear the low pitched drone of his voice, and you can’t tell where it’s coming from. It’s somewhere between subliminal and peripheral.

So, to get the full effect of the stars, stay on dry land. To get the full effect of the brightness of the moon, go to the lake. [To be continued]

Friday, September 27, 2013

Dark Water (Part 1 of 3)

On most backcountry camping trips I’m ready to crawl in the tent and sleeping bag soon after darkness settles in, maybe reading for awhile, but tonight will be different. The moon is high and bright, and the sky is clear, so I’m going to take advantage of it by walking back out to my kayak and paddling around Fontana Lake for an hour or two. This will be the first time I’ve done a night paddle, so I’m a bit apprehensive, even though there’s no rational reason why it should be risky. Nevertheless, darkness adds a sense of uncertainty to just about any activity, even more when that activity is paddling in a kayak on a cold, deep lake, alone.

As I walked out of the woods and into the muddy expanse, the silver glow of the moon gave the landscape a lunar look – silver, bare, alien. But the moon was so bright that it gave me an unexpected sense of security. My apprehension disappeared as soon as I stepped into the moon light and realized that visibility would not be a problem. My shadow dropped solidly behind me as I searched for solid spots in the soft, black dirt.

After about 10 minutes I reached the kayak I had wedged between some exposed rocks a few feet above the shoreline. As I picked up my kayak, it banged against the rocks, scaring an animal in the woods about 100 feet away. It sounded loud enough to have been a bear, but I’ve been fooled before by the sound of a squirrel bounding through dry leaves. I’d guess that if the sound of thrashing leaves lasts only a few seconds, then it’s a squirrel who quickly found safe haven in a tree. If the thrashing goes on and on, it’s probably a bear or deer running for its life. It’s almost always a squirrel, which a little disappointing.

I perched like a clumsy heron on a small, shore-side rock and set the kayak in the water, parallel to the shore, never perpendicular with one end on land and the other in the water. That’s a lesson that’s quickly learned by every novice paddler, hopefully at a time and place with no witnesses. This is the only tenuous moment because I’m trying to stay on this small rock to avoid the knee deep mud at the water’s edge. Stepping into the kayak, it wobbled a little, but it’s a very stable craft so there were no Wile E. Coyote moments.

I pushed out into the still water and noticed for the first time that a slight breeze has been blowing from north to south. I didn’t even have to paddle. I let the breeze push me slowly, almost imperceptibly, down Forney Creek’s flooded channel and toward the main channel of Fontana.

The main sound of the night was the rush of the creek flowing into the lake behind me. There were also the usual sounds of various insects and tree frogs. We’d had a few cold nights so far, but not enough to shut down their chorus for the season. There was also the sound of the breeze in the trees, rattling the drying leaves, but it was still too early in the season for there to be a heavy shower of leaves falling to the ground.

In the distance I hear an owl. It’s a Great Horned Owl asking, “Who, who’s awake? Me too.” It’s the classic owl hoot, and I consider hooting back, but before I can begin I hear another Great Horned answer from the other side of the channel. I listen to them ask and answer for several minutes. I’d like to think that they are reassuring each other that they are not alone in this big, cold world: “Be of good cheer; there are other kindred spirits haunting the dark woods.” But I doubt that owls are that poetic, and knowing what I know about animals (including humans), it’s more likely that they are taunting each other, establishing the boundaries of their territory – like gang graffiti sprayed on walls in rough, urban neighborhoods or bellicose politicians threatening one another. Fortunately, no fights break out tonight. Peace reigns on the lake. Although behind the scenes in the depths of the forest, mice and moles are dying at the hands of owls and foxes. We live in a fallen world where death and domination are the rule, not the exception. It’s a jungle out there, but the water ahead of me is dark and still. [To be continued]

Getting There, Up Forney Creek's Channel

Taking a Break

Muddy and Barren Landscape When the Water is Low

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Barnes Kids

Back in January, 2010, I wrote a story about the three Barnes girls who are buried in a remote corner of the Smokies. However, I recently discovered that one of the “Barnes girls” was actually a boy! The middle child, Julies, was a boy, probably an alternate of Jules or Julius. Here’s part of what I originally wrote.
There is one place in the Smokies, one obscure set of grave stones, that strikes me with a deep sadness, the sadness that comes with the death of children…  
After about an hour on the trail that begins on the road to Ramsey Cascades, you will arrive at the saddest place in the Smokies: the Barnes graves. Some folks call this the Barnes Cemetery, and I suppose that’s technically true, but I can’t bring myself to call three small graves a cemetery. The entire gravesite consists of a small plot about 6’ x 6’, so it’s a tiny monument to human frailty in a vast ocean of ancient forests and mountains, not unlike the tiny speck called Earth floating in the midst of that vast expanse we call the Universe.
This sense of isolation is enhanced by the fact that it takes some effort to reach this spot – about an hour-long walk on an old trail. Just as a waterfall or vista is better if it requires some effort to reach, the impact of a lonely cemetery is magnified by sweat and distance. And, like most sites in the park, the more sweat and distance, the lonelier the destination will be. Death and loneliness are a powerful combination, and nowhere in the park is that more apparent than at the Barnes cemetery.
But the real impact of the Barnes cemetery is the names and dates on those three, small graves: Delia Lenora Barnes, Oct 25, 1897 – Dec 25, 1898; Julies Barnes, Dec 25, 1899 – Feb 7, 1901; Rosey Barnes, Aug 18, 1915 – Sept 17, 1922. Two fourteen month old girls, one seven year old girl. Being a guy with a precious, young granddaughter, that hits me pretty hard.
This is one of those moments where an historically-informed, vivid imagination can help us to experience the sadness of the tragedy that hit the John and Isabelle Barnes family, perhaps the entire Greenbrier community, in the winters of 1898/9 and 1900/1. Maybe those two winters were no worse than any other, but for the Barnes they were devastating. The days and sleepless nights in December, 1898, nursing a sick child. The tears. The prayers. The loss. Then on Christmas Day one year later having the chance to start over with little Julies. It must have felt like a gift from God to give birth to a second child exactly one year after the death of their first. Merry Christmas! And then, the following winter, their family history was repeated, with a vengeance. Their second little girl, gone after fourteen months, just like the first. Imagine the fear and apprehension that must have accompanied their third pregnancy.
Local oral history says there were several more children and several death-free years after Julies. Perhaps John and Isabelle thought they had finally moved past their personal tragedy, or knowing the vagaries of life in the mountains, perhaps they knew better than to assume that their tragedies had come to an end. Then came 1922 and the death of seven year old Rosey. I’ve been told that she somehow became lost and died of exposure, perhaps in an early snow. If you read much Smoky Mountain history, that’s a scenario that has happened many times in the past 100+ years – farmers, herders, hunters, hikers, and children lost outdoors and dying of hypothermia in these dangerously beautiful mountains.
It’s the kind of thing that gets you to thinking about the brevity and meaning of life…
Okay, that was the original story, which I thought sounded pretty good. Everyone I had ever talked to about those graves had referred to them as “the Barnes girls.” We all simply assumed that Julies was a girl.
A few months ago I was hiking the path toward the Barnes place when I met an older gentleman who was a direct descendant of John Barnes, the father of Rosey, Julies, and Delia. We talked for a few minutes, and he clarified a few details. First and foremost, Julies was spelled Jules in the old family Bible, and Jules was a boy. Second, Isabelle (Carver) was John’s second wife. His marriage to his first wife, Nancy (Whaley), had recently ended in divorce, but Nancy still lived nearby. Third, Rosey had died of appendicitis, not exposure.
The most enlightening detail he shared with me was that Rosey and Delia were born to John’s second wife, Isabelle. Jules was born to John’s first wife, Nancy. The significance of that detail didn’t hit home until about 20 minutes after our conversation. As I stood at the three graves and reconsidered these new facts, I noticed that Jules was the middle child of those three. Somehow John managed to father a child by Nancy in between his two children with Isabelle.
So all that heart-warming stuff I had written about little Jules being born exactly one year after the death of Delia and seeming like a gift from God, well, it’s now a bit tarnished. Yes, Jules was born exactly one year after Delia’s death… but to the wrong woman! I was now a member of a fairly large club – people who had a good story ruined by the facts.
I won’t engage in any more speculation about John, Isabelle, and Nancy and the births and deaths of those three kids, but I must say, this is one of those times when truth is stranger than fiction… but I like my fictional version better.
[You can find the entire, original story on this blog --  January, 2010.]

Friday, June 28, 2013

The LeConte Trip, Day 3 of 3

 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?

After our night on LeConte, we always hiked back down to the main road via Alum Cave Trail. This is a very popular trail, and for good reason. It’s one of the best, most varied, most dramatic trails in the park. A lot of people who hike up this trail get only as far as Alum Cave, an impressively large, rock theatre about half way up this five mile trail. It’s a nice spot, but those who stop here miss the best part of this trail.  If you do this hike, don’t turn around at Alum Cave. Make the commitment to go all the way to the top. While you are on the top, visit Cliff Top and Myrtle Point. Trust me on this one.

My favorite part of Alum Cave Trail on our winter trips was that it’s all downhill. My second favorite part is the section of trail that’s cut into a vertical cliff. There’s a hand cable bolted into the rock. The trail is about two or three feet wide and the drop-off to your right is steep and long. It’s awesome, if you don’t slip on the ice that inevitably covers it in January. No, actually the risk is precisely what makes it awesome. Just don’t let go of the cable.

Also awesome are the views from LeConte, from Charlies Bunion, and from Alum Cave Trail. It was on one of these LeConte Trips that we began experimenting with various, colorful adjectives to describe these views. I won’t go into the lurid details. Let’s just say “Boys will be boys” and leave it at that.  

Just so you won’t get the wrong impression, we also discussed a lot of politics and theology, too. We were still trying to figure out why the world was so screwed up and where we stood in it. Over thirty years later, I’m still wrestling with many of the same questions. I’d like to get all mystical here and say that a few days in the Smokies will clear your head and help you to understand reality and your place in the universe. Unfortunately, that never quite happened to me. My time in the Smokies has been a mixture of fatigue, relaxation, meditation, and education. It’s been fine fellowship with some good friends. In some sense, it is always a spiritual time, and I have had some epiphanies, but nature hasn’t given me the answers to life’s great questions.

Maybe that’s all you can expect from the Smokies, but for me that’s enough.


Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The LeConte Trip, Day 2 of 3


One year on our annual, winter “LeConte Trip,” I went to bed at dusk and just couldn’t get warm. I tossed and turned and struggled all night, dozing fitfully, keenly aware of my chilled body parts. Finally, after a long, restless night I awoke to the sound of voices. Two of my partners were standing at the head of the bunks, discussing the impending uphill hike to Mt. LeConte. My spirits soared. I had survived the long, cold night! I began to crawl out of my bag to eat breakfast. It seemed a bit dark, but I was ready to get going. That’s when I noticed that these guys were taking their boots off. I watched as they unzipped their sleeping bags and crawled in. They were going to bed! It was 8:30 pm, and I had been in my sleeping bag about 2 hours. Morning hadn’t come, and as best I can remember, it never did.

That all happened at the Icewater Spring shelter. The next day we hiked on the Boulevard trail to the Mt LeConte shelter, where we spent the second night. There’s a cozy lodge on top of Mt. LeConte with a central dining hall and sitting area. There are several small cabins with beds, mattresses, pillows, and linens. Supplies are carried in via helicopters and lamas. It’s not luxurious, but it’s rustic and comfortable. And, most importantly, it’s not where you stay on a backpacking trip to LeConte.

Backpackers stay in a three-sided rock and mortar shelter with hard wooden bunk beds. Did you catch the part about three sides? The front is open to the elements, and in January in the Smokies there are a lot of unfriendly elements, cold wind being at the top of the list, right above black bears and skunks. Of course, that’s why you are backpacking in the Smokies in January. You are doing it to prove something to yourself, to your backpacking partners, and to your frail acquaintances back home. They don’t have what it takes. You do. At least, that’s what you keep telling yourself. Otherwise, sleeping in the cold and snow on top of a mountain in January begins to seem like a stupid idea.

Mount LeConte is a big, dominant mountain covered mostly by virgin forest. It’s either the tallest mountain in the park, or the third tallest, depending on how you want to measure it. If you start at sea-level, it’s the third tallest at 6,593 – that’s 50 feet shorter than Clingmans Dome. If you start at the base of the mountain, it’s the tallest, rising 5,300 feet from its base. In fact, measured this way, it’s the tallest mountain in the eastern US. Whenever I’m on the top of LeConte, it doesn’t bother me that two other mountains in the park are higher than I am. If you are the obsessive-compulsive type then such details might keep you awake at night, so you’d be better off driving to Clingmans Dome and making the half mile hike on the paved trail (along with the hundreds of other people) to the top, just to say you’ve been on the highest mountain in the park. I know I shouldn’t do this… but you O-C folks need to remember that there are two other peaks in the eastern US outside the park that are taller than Clingmans Dome. There, let that fact keep you awake.

LeConte is about 30 miles south of Jefferson City, as the crow flies. I can’t see it from my house, but there are several locations nearby from which it is clearly visible. Or, I should say, it’s clearly visible on a cool, crisp, clear day. From May through September the air is usually too warm and hazy to see it, but during cool weather it stands in the distance as a pleasant reminder that life is still good because there are mountains nearby.

To get a good look at it, go to picnic area at Cherokee Dam on a cool day and look to the south, directly over Jefferson City (in line with the double water towers). LeConte has a distinctive shape to it – a broad, ridgetop about 1½ miles long with three or four or five humps (depending on how you define “hump”). The main humps are West Point, Cliff Top, High Top, and Myrtle Point, some of which are popular spots to watch sunrises or sunsets. [To be continued.]


Friday, May 24, 2013

The LeConte Trip, Day 1 of 3

The coldest I’ve ever been in my life was on the Boulevard Trail leading five miles from the Appalachian Trail to the top of Mount LeConte. I was a novice backpacker in my early 20s, and while I wasn’t completely ignorant, I still didn’t know the nuances of winter backpacking – such as, moisture from sweat is just as dangerous and uncomfortable as moisture from rain and snow. I don’t think GoreTex had been invented yet, but even if it had, I probably wouldn’t have understood what all the excitement was about, but even if I did, I couldn’t have afforded it. In fact, I still can’t afford it, but there’s one big difference – now, I buy it anyway. My kids can pay for their own college education.

My feet had been numb since the previous evening at Icewater Spring shelter, and they were still numb as my three hiking partners and I waded through calf-deep snow toward the top of Mt. LeConte. I was wearing blue jeans and leather boots and had plastic bread bags on my feet, over my socks thinking they would keep my socks and feet dry. This was the trip on which the realities of moisture, condensation, sweat, and cold temperatures all became clear to me. I was the mule, and the wet socks and feet were the two by four that finally got my attention.

We were all unprepared and miserable, but of course that simply reminded us of how masculine we all were, so it was well worth it. In fact, we were all so thoroughly miserable that we made this an annual event. From this moment on, this route would come to be called The LeConte Trip, fully deserving of the capital letters. Every fall, as we’d begin thinking ahead to winter, one of us would suggest The LeConte Trip as our winter excursion, and we’d all pause, remember the cold and fatigue, and nod our heads in agreement. We repeated this adventure several more times until life’s obligations separated our little backpacking fraternity.

For the next several Januarys we’d park at Newfound Gap and hike 3 miles to Icewater Spring shelter for the first night. Before going to bed for the night, we would hike the one mile to Charlies Bunion and scramble around on the rocks, enjoying the view and basking in the knowledge that we were all manly outdoor types who were just a little superior to all those sissies in hotels in Gatlinburg.

Now one problem with winter backpacking is not just the cold. It’s the early bedtime. That might sound like a good thing, but it’s not. It gets dark around 5 or 6 pm, and it’s generally too cold to sit around and talk or play cards. (There’s virtually no firewood around these backcountry shelters. Plenty of trees, but no dead and down, and therefore legal, wood.) By 6 pm you are in your sleeping bag, eating gorp (good ol’ raisins & peanuts) to stoke your metabolism, and praying that morning will come soon.

It never does.

The bunks are hard. Your face sticking out of your sleeping bag is cold. And then you realize you didn’t drink enough during the day. You reach down around your feet to dig out your water bottle. You keep it in your sleeping bag so it won’t freeze. You drink and eat gorp and then drink some more.

Then you have to pee.

Most folks just get up and go. A few others somehow wait until morning. There’s even a theory out there that your body uses more calories keeping your bladder at 98.6 degrees than it does to get up, walk out of the shelter, stand in the snow, get chilled in the process, and crawl back into your bag and try to get warm by doing isometrics. As the theory goes, calorie-wise and warmth-wise, you should get up and go. Personally, I believe that debate fills a much needed gap in the literature of backpacking. I just haven’t reached that level of insight and sophistication. I follow the same rule that I follow in my non-backpacking life: when you need to go, just go.

Anyway, morning never comes... and I have proof.  [To be continued.]

Monday, March 4, 2013

Hepatica and Hope (Part 5 of 5)

After watching the ice melt at Fort Harry Falls, I walked back to my truck, thinking about my visit here last summer and how different this valley looks in the winter and how it might look in the thaw of spring. This small valley should be prime wildflower habitat, although I could be wrong. In April when the initial explosion of wildflowers hits the lower and mid elevations of the park, the distribution of wildflowers seems, to me, to be almost random. For example, you can drive up the Greenbrier road and see a few violets or foam flowers scattered along the roadside, then suddenly you’ll encounter a patch of bloodroot that will take your breath away. Why these bloodroots don’t appear all along the roadside is a mystery to me. The shade, slope, and soil all look like prime habitat, yet the bloodroots show up in just that one spot. Or, a trail that looks to me like ideal wildflower habitat may be remarkably unremarkable during peak wildflower season, for reasons known only to God and botanists.

 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. 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Spring Begins Early at Fort Harry Falls (Part 4 of 5)

The little valley leading to Fort Harry Falls is short and easy – rocky, mossy, and open. There is some rhododendron on the upper, side slopes of this valley but the lower parts near the creekbed are blessedly open and tangle-free. The incline is a bit steep in a few places, so there’s always the possibility of a slip and tumble, but these steep spots are never more than a few yards in duration. It’s the kind of walk you can do in tennis shoes (during warm weather) but probably not sandals. There will be a few moments of heavy breathing, but you’ll sweat only if you are visiting during summer or you are wearing a bit too much clothing on a cold, winter day.

I suppose there could be a rattlesnake or two in among the rocks during the green months – it has that sort of jumbled, snakey look to it – so if it weren’t winter, I’d be poking carefully with my walking stick and looking to see if anything slithers or rattles. In other words, the best time to visit this spot is probably November to March, when those cold-blooded critters will be cloistered away, doing whatever it is they do during the cold months, trying not to freeze to death.

I trudged and slid up the valley through the snow and arrived at the base of the cliffs in just 15 minutes. These cliffs are perhaps 60 or 80 feet high and are mostly vertical and even past vertical so the water really does fall rather than cascade. During warmer, less-slippery months it’s possible to crawl and slide to the thin veils of water at the base of the falls, but today there was too much ice both above and below. But not enough ice to form a solid column of merged stalactites and stalagmites of frozen water. The ice column I had hoped for was not to be.

Instead, there were hundreds of five or six foot, dangling icicles scattered across the upper reaches of the cliffs and a ragged, car-sized block of ice at the bottom. Even without an ice column, it’s an impressive scene – the kind of place you vow to come back to during other seasons to become better acquainted. After all, every outdoor lover needs a secret spot with which he or she is comfortable and well acquainted; the kind of spot you could show to a friend or keep all to yourself. And either way, you’d feel no guilt.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the day was caused by the fact that this is a south-facing valley. Today’s temperatures were gradually rising into the 40s, and the mid-day sun was shining directly on the cliffs. So the melt was on. Icicles were dripping, then cracking and falling onto the ice slab and rocks below. Most of the falling ice was thin icicles that would clatter and tinkle like delicate wind chimes as they cracked and shattered. Occasionally a thin sheet of ice, maybe the size of a piece of notebook paper, would float and flutter down – something I had never seen before. I didn’t see any of the large icicles break and crash, but during my walk back to my truck I heard a couple of shotgun blasts that were made not by guns but by large icicles crashing and exploding on impact on the rocks below.

I’ve seen the same thing happen on sunny, winter days at Alum Cave Bluff just a few miles up the road. It’s an intimidating moment – even more so if you’ve just walked through the line of fire without thinking about it. You noticed all the shattered pieces of ice on the ground as you followed the trail into or out of the huge, rock alcove, but you didn’t think about what all that broken ice meant. A few moments later, when you see or hear a huge icicle fall and shatter, you realize that you’ve barely avoided being crushed by a hundred pound spike of ice. Timing is everything: in comedy and, apparently, in cheating death.   [To be continued.]

Monday, January 14, 2013

A Winter Day at Fort Harry Falls (Part 3 of 5)

After a week of on-again, off-again snow and constant sub-freezing temperatures, I hopped in my truck and drove to the Smokies. The plan was to visit an easily accessible wet cliff. Some folks call it Fort Harry Falls, but the word “falls” seems to me a bit of an exaggeration, although technically true. There is water, and it does fall, but the really impressive thing is the cliff that it falls over. After a week of frigid temps, I wondered if maybe the two or three spots where water slides over the edge might have formed a solid, ice column from top to bottom, much like Rainbow Falls on the other side of Mount LeConte during the depths of winter.

The road past the Sugarlands Visitors Center was icy, but the gate was open, so I popped my truck into four-wheel drive and headed up the road – past the Campbell Overlook, past the Chimneys Picnic Area, and past the Chimneys viewing pullouts. Midway between these Chimneys overlook pullouts and the first tunnel, there’s a small parking lot on the left side of the road. There are no special signs or markers, which gives visitors the sense that there’s nothing here – just a spot for slow drivers to pull over to let the hurried pass, or maybe a spot for an elderly couple to park their small camper and take a lunch break because all the good spots have been taken.

But there is something here – a small, nameless creek in a short, narrow valley. As far as I can tell, there’s no official hierarchy of terms in naming flowing water, but there does seem to be an informal rule of thumb: A river is bigger than a stream, a stream is bigger than a creek, and a creek is bigger than a branch. But what’s next? What do you call something that is smaller than a branch, something that barely stays wet during the dry months of late summer, and is so small that it’s hardly noticeable during the wet seasons? A rivulet? A trickle? A ravine?

I’ll call it a creekbed, even though Microsoft’s spellcheck on my computer insists that there’s no such word as “creekbed” yet the word “spellcheck” is perfectly fine. I’ll take that as one more shot in modern society’s war against the wilderness. Although, I may be overreacting just a bit.

So on this Saturday in early March, I parked at this obscure parking lot – the park service had been so kind as to clear this spot as it plowed the road after the recent snow. The sky was a crisp, deep blue. The trees were bare. I could almost see the Fort Harry Falls as I stepped off the pavement and into the snow, but not quite. These cliffs are about 200 yards from the road, making them easily accessible but not visible. They are so close, I didn’t even put on my day pack. All I carried was my walking stick to help me maneuver the snow-covered rocks and a knit hat that I’d sometimes wear and sometimes carry if I got too warm.

The snow in this tiny valley was pristine – a smooth, white, unblemished blanket about six inches deep. The only signs of activity were a few, small animal tracks. I have no skills at identifying these tracks, but the fact they were small, symmetrical, and tended to begin and end at trees would suggest red squirrels as the perpetrators.

During the green months, there’s a light path that leads up this valley. During the white months there’s no obvious path, but there is an obvious route: just follow the path of least resistance up the creekbed, which means you simply stay a few yards to the right or the left of the creekbed, going wherever the rocks and trees push you as you follow the water toward its source. 

This little valley has the same look that many creek valleys have in this part of the park – rocky, mossy, and open… as well as short and easy.  [To be continued.]