Monday, September 14, 2015

One Day in November (Part 1 of 2)

For several years I’ve been telling people that my favorite month for hiking in the Smokies is November, but that hasn’t always been the case. For a long time, May was my favorite. In May the weather has warmed up nicely, wildflowers and Mountain Laurel are showing off, the heavy tourist traffic is still a month away, and temperatures are warm but not muggy. The older I get, the more January feels like a near-death experience (with no warm glow and bright light to walk toward), but May is an invigorating breath of warm, fresh air.  I love May.

And the snakes love it, too.

I’ve had a couple of close encounters with rattlesnakes in April and May that were not so close that I have quit hiking in those months, but they were close enough to make me be a bit more cognizant about where I put my hands as I hop over logs or on top of rocks. They were also close enough to move November to the top of my “favorite months” list. By November cold weather has become well-entrenched in the mountains, sending the snakes underground where they belong, but it’s not so bone-chillingly cold that it sends me underground, too. November is usually crisp, clear, and nippy. In other words, ideal hiking weather – if you can manage those first ten minutes of hiking when you can’t decide whether or not to wear a coat. If you don’t start with that extra layer, you’ll be a bit too cold for about ten minutes, but if you wear one, you’ll have to stop and take it off ten minutes into the hike. That’s usually the biggest challenge you’ll have on a November hike.

Unless it snows 12” overnight.

In spite of my best efforts, I spent most of October acting like a responsible adult, so I was determined to head to the mountains every weekend in November, starting with November 1 – the very first Saturday in the month. That was the year that on the night of October 31 the temperature below 1,500’ hovered just above freezing with a steady drizzle, while anything above 1,500’ got snow. A lot of snow. LeConte got almost 2 feet of snow. It was a record for snow on LeConte in a 24 hour period. Not just a record for November 1. A record for… ever.

Now I like snow as much as the next guy, but I don’t own any snowshoes, and wouldn’t have been in the mood to use them even if I did. It was November 1 for cryin’ out loud! Many years we haven’t even had our first frost by November 1.

So I decided to go fishing.

Trout tend to prefer cloudy, nasty days, and this November 1 certainly qualified. I love trout. I love to fish for trout. I think trout are as pretty as a freshwater fish can be. I have paintings of trout in my home. But their greatest character flaw is that on bright, crisp, blue-sky days they hunker down beneath and behind rocks and sulk; on cloudy, rainy days they come out to play. So I drove to Greenbrier to fish the Middle Prong, and against my better judgment, I dared to be optimistic.

At the Greenbrier entrance the snow on the roadside and tree branches was a few inches deep. By the time I reached my upstream (and, therefore, uphill) spot, the snow was about six inches deep. The air temperature was now about 35 degrees so wet globs of snow were falling off trees onto the road and into the river. This was one of those moments when I had to decide what kind of person I am. Am I a manly man who will venture out into unpleasant conditions because that’s what manly men do, or am I the kind of guy who is afraid of a little snow? I think there’s a strong chance that I’m neither, but I really want to be a manly man with more testosterone than is good for him – or, more accurately, I want people to think I’m a manly man. Of course, people who know me know that’s not true, but those people weren’t here. Instead, there were complete strangers driving along the gravel road, watching me get out of my truck, take off my boots, put on several more layers of clothes, and slip into my waders. [To be continued]