Monday, December 19, 2016

The Third Chimney

For several years I’ve been snooping around many under-the-radar nooks and crannies of our beloved Smoky Mountains, and one of the great spots in the park for engaging in this quest is the area surrounding the Chimney Tops. Rather than lament the fact that this area has just been burned, I’m going in the opposite direction. Several formerly-cluttered (with rhododendron, thorns, and blowdowns) ridges and rocky outcrops are now open and visible, and I am looking forward to hiking on them.

For example, most folks have probably never noticed that there’s a long ridge that leads from the Second/Lower/North chimney down to a nice, rocky outcrop just above the Newfound Gap road. It’s not extremely visible or obvious, but if you look for it, it’s there. In fact, enough people have found their way to that spot that a 3’ high rock cairn has been built on this rocky prominence. For several years some of us have been calling it the Third Chimney. We invented that name after we had bushwhacked up to the Second Chimney from this lower, Third Chimney, and as we were looking back down the route we had just followed, one of us said, “You know, if that ridge and outcrop were denuded by fire and rain, that would be known as the Third Chimney.” However, we never expected that the denuding would actually happen. Well, the fire has begun the process.

To see the full effects, you need to get beyond the Chimney Tops trailhead – probably Cliff Tops on LeConte or Big Duck Hawk (off-trail). If you can find a way to get this view, you’ll see the long, now-open ridge leading down to the Third Chimney. There are also a couple of magnificent, rocky ridges leading up to the First and Second Chimneys on the east side. I’ve been up all these ridges before, but it was almost too much work to be fun. They were heavily cluttered with briers, blowdowns, and other junk. Not anymore. The fire has opened them up. If the NPS doesn’t forbid hiking on them, they will be every bit as interesting (or “scary,” whichever synonym you prefer) as the ridge between the First and Second Chimneys.

Chimney Tops, upper left
Third Chimney, far right

Zoomed in on Third Chimney

On a related note, the burning in the park – I’m not including the tragedy in Gatlinburg — is not nearly as bad as I expected. There were a lot of burned patches, but they were scattered and mostly minor. We saw many places where the ground and shrubs had burned, but only the bottom three or four feet of the trees had been scorched. We saw very few places where entire trees had been completely burned. It looks to me like there are two questions: Did the scorching of the trees seriously harm them? And, did the burned ground kill and remove all the shrubs and their roots systems that were holding the soil in place?

If those scorched trees die, then there will be many small, deforested patches in the Sugarlands section of the park for many years. Likewise, if the root systems of the groundcover were destroyed, there will be some modest mudslides which may uncover more bare rock. Both of these effects will be noticeable but neither will be catastrophic. The park will bounce back quickly, but we won’t know how far it needs to bounce until May, as we see whether or not the trees were seriously harmed by the scorching of their trunks, and how well the soil stays in place this winter and early spring.

The real catastrophe was in the hills surrounding downtown Gatlinburg and other outlying areas outside the park, but as we’ve seen in many different times and places, ecosystems and forests aren’t the only things that can bounce back. People bounce back, too. I suppose this is where I am supposed to say that the people around here are special, and they will rise again. Instead, I’ll be a bit more realistic… the folks around here are like folks everywhere. Some people will give up, but most will pick up the pieces and move on. Both the national park and its surrounding communities will rise from the ashes, not because they are better or stronger than every place else and everyone else, but because nature and people are resilient, everywhere. The will to live is powerful. They get knocked down, but they get up again. That’s what forests do. That’s what refugees do. That’s what victims of all sorts do. That’s what the people of Sevier county will do.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

God's Country

It’s been a long, hot, dry summer… and fall. Much of Gatlinburg lies in charred ruins. About 11,000 acres of the Smokies are charred and still smoldering, waiting for more rain. By the time you read this, the rain either will have come, or it will have fizzled to a drizzle or perhaps nothing at all.  

We had become accustomed – maybe to the point of neglect – to the distant haze and slight smell of smoke. We’d note the air quality alerts. Folks with asthma would stay inside. We’d hear occasional reports of small wildfires burning throughout the southeast US, but not massive tragedies. It got so bad, I even spent several hundred dollars watering my grass, something I never do. Then came Monday, November 28.

I was indoors most of that day, but out the window I could see a strange, yellow tint. I wondered if it was the sun reflecting off the many, recently-fallen leaves. Then in the late afternoon I went outside for the first time and saw the blanket of yellow-brown smoke in the air and ashes on my truck. Apparently, there were fires burning vigorously somewhere nearby. Only that night when I got home did I hear that Gatlinburg was burning, along with areas in Wears Valley and Cobbly Knob.

I had been in the Smokies a couple of days earlier and drove right past the Chimneys early on Saturday morning. There was smoke and fog in the air, so I didn’t actually see the Chimneys 2 Fire that had been smoldering for several days. I was on my way to meet several other folks to hike on and below Mount Kephart and the Jumpoff. Everything seemed normal, but behind the fog-smoke curtain, the Chimneys were slowly burning.

Strong winds on Monday changed everything. These winds blew embers down the valley into Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Branches falling on power lines created sparks which ignited new fires. Buildings burned. People and animals died.

Then rains came, several inches in twenty-four hours, which was about as much as we had received in the previous four months combined. That few inches didn’t extinguish all the fires, but it may have saved Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge from complete devastation. What would have happened if the rains had not come? On the other hand, maybe none of this would have happened if the rains had come a few days sooner.

On the natural side of things, fires happen and forests burn, but the ecosystem bounces back as different species take advantage of the new situation. In a few years the landscape will be fully resurrected and clothed in new garments, mostly in greens and browns, with a dash of whites, purples, pinks, and yellows.

On the human side of things, disasters happen, but in spite of the loss, people bounce back. The Red Cross and churches and families and neighbors spring into action. Prayers are uttered. Donations are made. Slowly, but with great resiliency and resolve, faith overcomes tragedy.

As a person who believes in God, faith, and prayer, I have always struggled in moments like this. Yes, the rains came to quench the fires. But why didn’t they come sooner? Yes, a chair that someone had prayed in was spared while the rest of the house burned. But many people prayed, and they lost everything. Many people of faith find comfort in knowing that “God is in control.” They see the hand of God everywhere, in every detail, even tragedy. On the other hand, the forces of evil also have a plan of death, suffering, and tragedy. Yes, in some eternal sense, God is in control, but there may be many sad, tragic details of which He is not the cause. So, some find comfort in the belief that God does not dictate every detail, every disaster, every tragedy.

And yet, even in the midst of sadness and suffering, I’ve learned to live with those unanswered questions. I’ve learned to live with ambiguity. I am at peace with not knowing all the answers. Maybe that’s what faith is.

But one thing I do know. In a time of tragedy, it’s good to live in the Bible Belt. Quite honestly, there are ways in which I don’t fit in here. I’m not a gun lover. I’m not a Trump supporter. I don’t think ObamaCare is a sign of the end times. But I am thankful to live in a place where people will pray for one another openly, without embarrassment. I am thankful to live in a place where people at local businesses will say “Have a blessed day” without being reprimanded by their boss. It’s good to live in a place where there is no rioting and looting after a disaster. Instead, there are prayer meetings.

Yes, there is death and destruction in the natural world and in our towns and countryside, but there is also faith and resurrection and comfort and new life… here in simple, rural East Tennessee.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Spring Ephemerals: River Bugs (Part 3 of 3)

When we speak of “spring ephemerals,” we are usually talking about those forest-dwelling plants that bloom during those few weeks when the temperatures have warmed the ground, but the leaves on the trees have not yet filled out enough to create a heavy shade. It’s a brief window of opportunity.

There’s another kind of ephemerals. In fact, in scientific nomenclature, their Order’s name is Ephemeroptera. These ephemerals are animals, of the six legged variety. Insects.

For most of us, even those of us who are hard-core, deeply-devoted animal lovers, insects are not held in high esteem. For the most part, we see them as disgusting, dirty little creatures who should be waved away and perhaps slaughtered en mass. And I must admit, I feel that way about quite a few of them. I’ve had some unfriendly encounters with mosquitos, roaches, yellow jackets, and ticks, and I tend to show no mercy on any of them. And, of course, the up-and-coming object of our scorn is the ubiquitous stink bug.

In the mountains, woolly adelgids have nearly wiped out all the beautiful hemlock trees. All those slick, shiny, silver, bare trees you see on the slopes are dead hemlocks, killed by an invasive bug.

Yes, there are lots of reasons to hate bugs. But, like snakes, we humans tend to over-react in our vilification of these creatures. After all, honey bees make honey, lady bugs seem cute and harmless (although, granted, there are about a trillion too many of them), and butterflies are actually pretty (although, they lose a little bit of their glamour when you see them huddled together on a pile a horse manure). Nevertheless, they all have a role to play in the grand, ecological circle of life.

Some insects are actually dainty and pretty. Here I’m thinking of a set of bugs that live briefly as adults in the spring, for just a day or two, then they copulate, lay their eggs, and die. These are the mayflies that live in and around rivers, and are eaten by birds and trout.

Stoneflies are easy to describe. They look like colorful roaches. Their wings lie flat on their backs. Likewise, Caddisflies are easy. They look like small moths. Their wings lie on their backs in the shape of a little pup tent. Mayflies, on the other hand, look like… what? They are sort of butterfly-shaped in that they hold their wings up and usually together, but their wings are smaller relative to their body length than butterflies. Mayflies have very delicate bodies, and they often hold their front pair of legs up, as if they were praying. When they float on the surface of a river or lake, or if you catch one in mid-flight and let it sit on your finger, they look like little sailboats. If it doesn’t hold its wings up like a sailboat, then you’ve caught something other than a mayfly.

Mayflies live for a year or two as “nymphs” – small, disgusting-looking creatures who live in sand and under rocks at the bottom of the rivers. After spending their entire lives on the river bottom, they will swim to the water’s surface and burst out of their nymphal body. The delicate, adult form of these mayflies will then float along the surface of the water for a few seconds as their wings unfold and dry out. Once that is accomplished, they fly into the nearby trees and bushes where they’ll rest for a day or two as their new bodies continue to mature. At this point, their only remaining task is to breed, lay their eggs in the water, and die. In this respect, they seem to serve no significant purpose other to provide food for fish and birds. They are merely a small link in the food chain. But they are a pretty, delicate link.

And if you are a fly fisherman, they serve as the backbone of your sport. These mayflies – Blue Wing Olives, Quill Gordons, March Browns, Dark Hendricksons, Sulfurs, Light Cahills – are the prototypical fly fishing insects.  The sport was born and raised on mayflies.

The Smokies are not the best place to observe these mayflies because Smokies streams are rather sterile when it comes to vegetation and insect life. Our mountain streams have a decent variety of mayflies, but not great quantities. Nevertheless, if you hang around Smoky Mountain streams in April and May, you’ll probably see them. They’re the cute ones. They fly slowly and clumsily, so they are easy to catch in the air. They don’t bite or sting. The tragic part is the ephemeral part – that is, they live as winged adults for just a day or two. Then they die on the water after laying their eggs so that next year, another crop will “hatch” to feed the birds and the fish, and to reproduce. It’s a nice, self-contained, intricate system – but it does feel like a tragedy, like a military mission in which accomplishing the mission is all that matters; the individuals are expendable. And in this case, every single individual will die, but the mission – copulating and laying the eggs which will become the next generation – will succeed.  It’s the insects’ version of D-Day at Normandy. Success will come, but not without massive death and carnage. It’s what we call the “circle of life,” but don’t blink or you’ll miss it because it’s ephemeral.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Spring Ephemerals: Porters Creek (Part 2 of 3)

Spring ephemerals are that set of forest-dwelling wildflowers that are sun-loving, and therefore must live their dazzling-but-brief lives in that window of opportunity when the weather is warming but before the leaves on the trees are fully out. In other words, here in the Smoky Mountains these sun-loving forest-dwellers bloom in April.

One of the best (and best-known) trails for viewing this early spring extravaganza is the Porters Creek trail in the Greenbrier section of the park. Ten years ago, Greenbrier’s trails, trees, flowers, and rivers didn’t even exist. Or, rather, they didn’t exist to me.

At that time, I did my Smoky Mountain trout fishing in the Little River around Tremont and Elkmont and my hiking on established trails. Quite honestly, the trails in the Greenbrier section of the park are few in number and not very exciting. Ramsey Cascades trail is good, but the rest of them (Porters, Old Settlers, etc.) are extremely average, just wandering around in the woods, going no place special.

However, in the summer of 2007 I had several epiphanies. First, I realized that there are native brook trout in some of Greenbrier’s rivers. Second, I discovered off-trail hiking. Suddenly, I loved hiking in the Greenbrier section of the park for the same reason that I had previously disliked it – the lack of trails. Greenbrier is a wilderness wonderland. I also discovered that one of its trails – Porters Creek – has a well-deserved reputation as a great April wildflower walk. The park’s Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage (about the third week in April) makes the Porters Creek hike one of its premier events. People from across the US attend the Pilgrimage. The Smokies doesn’t have a lot of impressive wildlife (lots of salamanders, but no buffalo or wolves), but it is a botanical wonderland. And the opening act in this floral performance is the emergence of the early spring wildflowers – the spring ephemerals.

I’ve learned that I can trust the forsythia bushes in my yard to tell me when to go to Porters Creek. When they start to really, truly, fully bloom, I know the wildflowers on the Porters Creek trail are beginning their annual show. Some years I go to Porters every weekend in April, and each week the show is somewhat different. Hepatica and Bloodroot are replaced by Phacelia and Trout Lilies, which are replaced by Dutchmans Breeches and Trilliums, which are replaced by Bishops Caps and Wild Geraniums, which are replaced… well, the list goes on. These various species become old friends who show up every year, on schedule, just to say “hello.” It’s like a family homecoming, except that you are actually happy to see everyone… except maybe the Stinging Nettle, the one plant that is just plain mean-spirited and hard to get along with. Sort of like your old Uncle Bob who is always mad about something, so you say very little and try not to sit next to him at the dinner table. Don’t even think about asking him who he’s going to vote for.

The first mile of the Porters Creek trail is an old road. There is a fine and varied population of spring ephemerals in this portion of the trail, including some nice beds of Dwarf Crested Iris and a well-hidden set of Pink Lady’s Slippers – both are high-status flowers among wildflower fans. And don’t miss the sprinkling of delicate Bluets on the mossy rocks along the riverside, and the occasional Showy Orchis along the edges of the trail.

This first mile of the trail ends with a loop that can be a bit confusing. There’s a side trail that leads to an old barn and cabin, and another trail (Brushy Mountain trail) that leads to Brushy Mountain and Mount LeConte. The Porters Creek trail follows the creek by staying left. At this point, the trail changes from a wide dirt road to a narrow, rocky trail. The next half mile of the trail actually has very few wildflowers, and many people give up here because it appears that the show is over. They’re wrong.

Keep going up this barren half-mile until you reach the somewhat-scary, narrow footbridge at the 1.5 mile point. A few folks with vertigo can’t cross here, which is a shame, because the best part of the show is just beyond this footbridge.

Almost immediately after the footbridge the landscape changes into a park-like openness with a thick carpet of greenery. Early in the season, this carpet will be a breath-taking, snow-white bed of Fringed Phacelia, with a smattering of yellow Trout Lilies. Later, it become Bishops Cap and Trillium and Wild Geranium. I won’t list all the species. Instead, I’ll just repeat – don’t stop after the first mile. Go the second mile, all the way to Fern Branch Falls at the 2.0 mile point. The real show is that last half mile, past the footbridge.

I’ve had some agnostic friends over the years who just couldn’t bring themselves to believe in God. I understand their reluctance. An infinite spirit world inhabited by angels and demons and an omnipotent God who created all this out of nothing is an absurd idea. Preposterous. Utterly ridiculous. Childish.

But places like Porters Creek in April remind me that the only thing more ridiculous than belief in a Spirit-Creator is the belief that such beautiful places (and our ability to appreciate beautiful things) are the result of a long, lucky sequence of random events. I just don’t have that much faith… in Chance.

For me, Porters Creek in April is holy ground.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Spring Ephemerals (Part 1 of 3)

I guess Solomon was having a bad day when he wrote Ecclesiastes: Everything is meaningless. Everything is merely chasing the wind. We live, we die, and life ain’t fair. Life is short and wearisome.

He finally emerged from his funk by the end of his book, but he was right about one thing – life is short. And, it seems to me, the older we get, the shorter life becomes – a sentence that will make no sense to anyone under 30 and perfect sense to anyone over 50.

I recall Neil Diamond’s song from the early 70’s called “Done Too Soon.” He had the same message: We have sweated beneath the same sun, looked up at wonder at the same moon, and wept when it was all done, for being done too soon.

So life is short for us humans, but even shorter for the spring ephemerals growing in the soil of the mountains. Spring ephemerals? Yes, from the Greek word “ephemeros” meaning transitory or short-lived.

There are many transitions and cycles in nature. For instance, in the long run, we can watch an abandoned field fill up with briers and weeds, to be followed by cedar trees (the “pioneer” species in this part of the country), and eventually (decades later) by hardwoods such as oak, hickory, and maple. Or, we can watch beavers dam a creek, creating a pond, which ultimately fills with dirt and becomes a meadow. Shorter, quicker transitions are a bit more visible to us, the most obvious being the greening and budding of spring or the colors of fall ending in the browns and grays of bare trees.

But within these cycles are smaller transitions, such as the rise and fall of spring ephemerals. Every spring in the Smoky Mountains there is a window of opportunity, roughly corresponding to the month of April, in which the sun and warming temperatures heat the ground enough to call forth the sun-loving wildflowers, starting with Spring Beauties, Hepatica, and Bloodroot. Because these are sun-loving plants, they have to move quickly and confidently. No distractions or dilly-dallying. They must bloom and bear seeds in those few weeks in which the temperatures are rising and early spring is in the air, but before the leaves on the trees have fully emerged to block out the sun, creating the deep, dark, shady woods that we associate with late spring and summer. Shade is fine for the shade-loving plants of summer forests, but not for the spring ephemerals of April. They love the sunshine and so must get on with their lives before the deep shade overwhelms their world. It’s a microcosmic version of climate change.

So, April is the month of these spring ephemerals. And there are dozens of them that come and go in rapid succession: Spring Beauties, Hepatica, Bloodroot, Trout Lilies, Phacelia, Bishops Cap, Trilliums, Wild Geraniums, Little Brown Jugs, Lady’s Slippers. Plus a few dozen others. They come and go in wave after wave, ebbing and flowing, as relentless as the ocean swells, as varied as a fireworks show. It’s quite a performance.

Dwarf Crested Iris

A friend of mine once asked me if I really liked “all that wildflower stuff.” I had a momentary case of male insecurity, but then told him that it’s more than the flowers themselves. It’s really the fact that I feel the need to understand what’s going on around me in the natural world. So I pay attention to things like constellations in the night sky; the phases of the moon; the nesting of Peregrine Falcons and the migration of warblers; three species of trout and the insects they eat; the blooming of Mountain Laurel in May and Rhododendron in June and July; the return of Chimney Swifts in May; and wildflowers in April. Plus, the return of the wildflowers is a sign that spring really is at hand, and I’ve survived another winter.

Little Brown Jug
(the "jugs" are the flowers -- not pretty, but very unique)

My two favorite places for spring wildflowers in the Smokies are Fort Harry Falls and Porters Creek. Fort Harry is a south and west facing ravine between the Chimneys picnic area and the Chimneys trailhead. (It’s the paved parking area on the left as you go up Newfound Gap Road, before you get to the tunnel just below the Chimneys trailhead. There’s also a nice waterfall about 100 yards from the road, up the small creek.)  I start looking in mid-March for Spring Beauties and Hepatica because this little valley gets a lot of sun and warms earlier than just about any other easily-accessible spot in the park. When I see these wildflowers, I know that Spring now has the upper hand over its old nemesis Winter. Winter will throw a few more good punches before the fight is over, but those punches will get weaker and weaker as March becomes April. Spring will not be defeated.

But the real show – one of the best in the park – is Porters Creek. [To be continued.]

Monday, May 16, 2016

Simple Gifts on Styx Branch (Part 4 of 4)

Hiking and scrambling up the east fork of Styx Branch, I was struggling more than usual. In fact, this trip was the first time I had the thought: Will this be the last time I make this trip? That’s a dark cloud that casts a gloomy shadow, and while I don’t live under that shadow on a regular basis, I do catch a glimpse of it every now and then… like today, on Styx Branch. At the Climbing Wall I almost told Greg that I had gone as far as I could, and I’d head back to the car while he went on to Myrtle Point, but I was afraid that if I did that, then I’d never come back and do this trip again. This would become my final trip to Styx, and I just couldn’t bear the thought of that. So to paraphrase the gladiators in Gladiator: “Someday I’ll make my last trip to Styx… but not yet. Not yet.”

After the Climbing Wall we were still in the scoured rock of the scar, but the incline was about 45 degrees, so we were able to revert to feet-only as we searched for sharp spots to plant our feet as we zig-zagged our way up the fragile, broken Anakeesta rock face. We stopped often, to let me catch my breath but also to turn around and appreciate the sky and the open view that every landslide scar affords. It’s the kind of moment of magnificence that will – if you have any sense of gratitude for life’s simple gifts – bring tears to your eyes.

A photo moment on Styx
Eventually the scar began to give way to soil, grass, and a young, fir forest which produces that “Christmas tree smell” that anyone who has ever had a real Christmas tree would recognize. There aren’t many things that we encounter in the wilderness that remind us of our other, civilized life – which is exactly as we’d like it to be. After all, we go to the woods to escape the trappings of that other life. Planes flying overhead and loud motorcycles on Newfound Gap Road are the most common artifacts of civilization that we encounter in the mountains. So, the Christmas tree smell is an exception to these occasional interruptions from civilization. It’s a pleasant reminder of a pleasant part of our other life.

After weaving our way through the fragrant, fir forest, we arrived at Myrtle Point about an hour before sunset. It was cold and windy, so we donned our jackets for the first time since the Climbing Wall several hours earlier. I had never really thought of it this way before, but Myrtle Point is the epicenter of our Smokies playground. From it we can see from Greenbrier Pinnacle to the Appalachian Trail to Mount Kephart to the Chimneys, a huge bowl of ridges and valleys, places that have become almost sacred in their meaning to our lives. It’s undoubtedly places like this that gave birth to the phrase “mountain top experience.”

As we sat on the open rocks of Myrtle Point we had the same conversation we always have when we sit here: To live simply is to live well; that man is richest whose pleasures are the simplest; if you’ll put yourself in a position for good things to happen, you’ll be pleasantly surprised how often they do.

As I think about it, the theme of that conversation at Myrtle Point has become a prominent theme in our other, civilized life, too. Most of life’s gifts to us are simple gifts, so one key to happiness is to learn to be satisfied with life’s simple, wholesome pleasures, like the fellowship of friends, the innocence of children, the words of your favorite poet, the purity of an azure sky, the song of crickets in the evening or wrens at sunrise, layers of blue ridges piling up to the horizon, or green ridges turning honey-gold from the light of the setting sun. Thankfully, these are things that require an investment of time and attention, but money can’t buy. They are gifts that are simple and free… and abundant, if we’ll but shift our gaze from the dozens of daily tasks rudely demanding our obedience, and focus instead on the thousands of humble, simple gifts, asking in a barely audible whisper for just a moment of our time.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Climbing Wall on Styx Branch (Part 3 of 4)

The main feature of the upper reaches of the east fork of Styx Branch is the Climbing Wall – a long, steep cliff/cascade. In scrambling up the exposed rock of this “wall,” there are several routes one can take, but just because you can that doesn’t mean you should. So we each scrambled up the steep, rocky slope, each of us using his own judgment of what route would qualify as a should. Sometimes we had the same definitions of should and sometimes we didn’t, but we both survived. And, as we had hoped, all this happened under the bright glare of the sun. Our jackets and long sleeves were in our packs where they belonged. The sky was as deep a blue as I have ever seen. In the shade the temperatures were a little above freezing. In the sun on the exposed rock, we wore T shirts.

One of the significant features of this type of trip up an exposed scar or cliff is that it sometimes is so steep that you need to stay focused on the rock and only the rock. Move hand and grasp. Next, move foot and plant firmly. Next, move the other hand and grasp. Next, move the other foot…. These rocky climbs are not vertical, but they are at least 45 and occasionally 60 degrees, and they are sometimes long. It has never happened to me, but I suspect a long, sliding, tumble can cause just as much damage (and more pain while it is happening) as a vertical fall. You don’t dwell on this fact, but it does form the background noise in your brain as you look for your next solid handhold.

Whenever we find a nice, level spot we turn around and look at the ridges and valleys behind us – in this case, it was Parton Peaks, NoName Ridge, Anakeesta Ridge… the entire wilderness playground of the rugged, southern side of Mount LeConte. And up above us was the main body of Mount LeConte herself, our ultimate destination. We still had over 1,000’ of vertical elevation before we’d reach Myrtle Point, which would be hard but entertaining. “Work” in the best sense of the word

On this day, I really struggled. Probably a combination of fighting a cold all week, eating too many sweets and hamburgers and pizzas the past 6 months, and a few too many birthdays. As Greg sat on the rocky scar about 100’ above me, I said, “I’ll be there in about 45 minutes.” He thought I was joking. I hoped I was joking. Thirty minutes later I dragged myself alongside him and sat for a few minutes. He casually asked, “Did you bring your headlamp?” He was as subtle as possible, but we both knew the underlying message.

On these trips I always bring a headlamp because I seem to struggle more than I used to. My mojo on any given day is the wild card that determines whether our off-trail hike will be an efficient adventure that ends before sunset or a long, tiring slog that ends with our hiking back to the car in the dark. In recent years, a headlamp is as necessary as food, water, and toilet paper.

In fact, this trip was the first time I had the thought: Will this be the last time I make this trip? Or, if it’s not, when will my last trip happen, and will I know it’s my last trip while I’m on it or will I only realize it years later? Those are melancholy questions that never occurred to me until the last couple of years. [To be continued]

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Styx Branch: The Right Choice (Part 2 of 4)

Greg Harrell and I parked at the Alum Cave trailhead and walked quickly along the first 1.5 miles of Alum Cave trail. This first section of the trail is heavily shaded by rhododendron, so the snow from previous snowfalls was still on the trail. I put my pair of micro-spikes on my boots, so I was able to walk on the thin layer of ice and snow with complete confidence, even reckless abandon. Although, the phrase “reckless abandon” doesn’t quite fit my walking style. More than once Greg has told me that if I accumulated any more hikers lined up behind me, I’d have to apply for a parade permit.
About 100 yards past Arch Rock the trail makes a sharp left turn on a small foot bridge over a small stream – Styx Branch. This is the spot where Greg and I left the trail and began picking our way up the creek, stepping carefully on the rocks and gravel beds of this modest stream. Later in the winter these river rocks would be covered in ice and snow, so we would leave our spikes on, but we were still in mid-December and the heavy snows and deep freezes of January and February hadn’t filled in all the wet nooks and crannies with ice. So I removed my spikes and never put them on again until the end of the day when we hiked back to the car from the top of Mount LeConte via Alum Cave trail.
After just a few minutes of hiking and rock-hopping, the Styx Branch valley began to open up and became an open avenue that was steep and rocky, but easy to maneuver. The rhododendron was not squeezing and filling in every unoccupied square inch of ground, which was a nice change of pace. There’s probably some sort of topographical or botanical or historical reason why some valleys and slopes are full of rhody and other are not, but I’ve never been able to figure out why. But I’ll gladly accept the breathing room as a brief respite from the usual onslaught.
Less than an hour after we left the trail, we came to our main decision point of the day at 4,700’ – left or right? Either route leads to its own wonderland, so there’s no wrong choice here. We went right simply because… well, I don’t know. I guess one of us said, “Let’s go right” and the other one said, “Okay.” No debate. No drama. It’s easy to make the right decision when there are no wrong options.
As we worked our way up to 48… 49… 50… 5100’ there were several small tributaries feeding into Styx’s main flow. Most of these small tributaries flow down from the right, so we tend to bear left at these junctions as we hug the east side of the ridge that splits the Right Branch from the Left Branch of Styx. These creek junctions can be frustrating because each one is a “fork in the road” where you have to decide whether to go left or right, and the right choice is not always obvious. On the other hand, these junctions can be liberating for exactly the same reason. After all, if your goal is to explore the wilderness, then there are no wrong choices, and “getting lost” is just another way of saying that you’ve explored new territory.
The main feature of the upper reaches of this east fork of Styx Branch is the Climbing Wall – a long, steep cliff/cascade that is simply a scar where at some time in the past a heavy rain created a quick flush of water which scoured rocks, shrubs, and trees from the cascading creekbed, exposing the bare rock that we now call the Climbing Wall. And, of course, to ascend the Climbing Wall, you climb… using hands and feet and a modest dose of good judgment. As is the case with many of these exposed rock cascades, there are some places you can go and some places that you can’t. But the complicating factor is that just because you can climb up a section of the cliff doesn’t necessarily mean that you should. Knowing the difference between can and should is the key, which makes climbing a wet, rocky cascade in the Smokies exactly like daily life – just because you can doesn’t mean you should  -- one of those times when frolicking in the wilderness is a perfect metaphor for living a happy, meaningful life. [To be continued]

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A Fine November Day (in December) Part 1 of 4

Sometimes November just hangs around for two or three extra weeks, all the way up to Christmas, giving us a few, delicious weeks of sharp, blue skies and mild temps for cutting one more rick of firewood, raking the last of the leaves, or taking a glorious stroll in the mountains. While cutting wood and raking leaves are pleasant enough activities, they are both “work” by any reasonable definition, so I opted for the mountains, which can be work, but only in the very best sense of the word. And besides, I’d been acting like a well-adjusted grown-up for several weeks in a row, and I’d had just about all I could stand.

One benefit of a November hike – especially if it happens in mid-December – is the deep, deep blue sky. I imagine folks who live in the Rockies are used to those blue skies that are so crisp they look like they could shatter because there’s not much humidity to muddy up the atmosphere and the views, but here in the East we have to wait for fall and winter for our sky to change from white to blue.

An added benefit of a cold weather hike is that if you can spend the day on a south-facing slope, you can add 10 or even 20 degrees to the temperature… as long as you stay in the sunshine. For example, much of Alum Cave trail is on the south-facing slope of Mount LeConte, but there’s also a lot of deep shade. So you can stroll pleasantly along in the warmth of the sun on an ice-free trail, only to walk into the shade of a spruce grove and find yourself slipping and sliding on an icy patch 10 or 20 or 100 feet long. If you do this enough, you get used to it and take it for granted. But then the day comes when a friend of yours is looking at the pictures of your December LeConte hike, and they innocently ask why you are wearing spikes on your boots but only a T shirt with no jacket. The incongruity of spikes and a T shirt has never occurred to you, but it really is an odd combination that makes sense only to those who hike on south-facing slopes in the late fall. (Of course, you’ll explain to your friend that the top of LeConte is cold and windy and your jacket is in your day pack. You’ll definitely need it when you get to the top.)

So as our schedules opened up in mid-December, Greg Harrell and I decided to do an off-trail trip up Styx Branch on the south-facing slope of Mount LeConte. We love the name Styx because it gives the impression of a dangerous, deadly, one-way journey filled with dragons, demons, fire, weeping, and gnashing of teeth. To make things even better, the general area where Styx Branch flows is called Huggins Hell. Names like that are like a flashing neon sign begging us to visit.

For purposes of full disclosure, I might as well admit up front that the names Styx and Hell are creative hyperbole generated by an over-active imagination, or something like that. The story goes that a guy named Huggins got lost in the thick rhododendron hell in this Styx Branch watershed. One version of the story says he emerged three days later, exhausted and near-death. The other version says he never emerged and was never found. I just can’t bring myself to believe any of it. The only person who could truly get lost up there is a delicate city-slicker who has no idea what he’s doing. If Huggins was a local resident who got lost, all he needed to do was find a ravine with some trickling water, and follow it down to the main river, which led to the homes and farms of Sugarlands and eventually to Gatlinburg. The whole process of getting from the rhododendron-infested slopes of LeConte to Sugarlands would take 3 or 4 hours. I suppose Huggins could have slipped on a rock and broken his leg or neck, in which case he died not because he was lost but because he was clumsy, or just plain unlucky. [To be continued]