I've written two books on the Smokies. The first was Hallowed Hills, Holy Waters, consisting of stories about hiking and fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains. The second book is Paths Less Traveled, a book of stories about off-trail hiking in the Smokies. Both are available on www.CreateSpace.com. (At the Search bar, be sure to search Store, not Site.) Some of the stories in these books appear in this blog, but much of the material in the books is new and non-blogged.
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
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