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.

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