Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Roaming the Great Smoky Mountain NP

My first visit to the Smokies occurred by accident in the Fall of 1988 when I traveled to the Knoxville area for a bike tour. The tour was cancelled for some reason and the stone tablet, pre-internet world did not learn of it. Not willing to waste a six hour drive, I continued into the national park (GSMNP) in the dark and car camped for the first time in my SUV. Upon waking I looked around, fell in love, and stayed three more days to explore those stimulating and richly colored hills.

I've returned to the GSMNP dozens of times over the years to nurture this love affair. Sometimes with family or friends, other times with student groups, but often alone, I've continued to explore, understand, and appreciate the unique biosphere called the Smokies. During those visits I've walked more than three thousand miles while following all of the 800 miles of trails. I've climbed most of the peaks, stayed in all of the campgrounds, slept in most of the backcountry campsites and shelters, and sat quietly in the balds. And, yes, I've seen bears.

Each visit has been a lesson in both history and ecology because I've taken the time to read about the people, the fauna, and the flora. The trees I know by shape and texture of leaves and by color and texture of bark. Many plants I know by smell. The animals I know by track and by scat. Most of the trails I know by heart - each bend, creek crossing, boulder, and overlook.

This short visit was intended to reacquaint me with the west end of the park. More specifically, I needed a visit with Cades Cove and Gregory Bald. The area has created many fond memories. Here are a few.

There was the 10-day backpack that ended with a night time ascent to the AT on the elliptical Eagle Creek Trail. The trail was, in fact, a swiftly moving knee deep creek due to a foot of rain falling throughout the three hour climb. Two companions and I left the park the next day to find newspapers bearing the bold headline "O.J. Captured!"

During a four day winter hike of the 71-mile section of AT in the park I laughed when Curt, who was roped to me because of blizzard conditions, disappeared headfirst into three feet of snow on the boulders atop Thunderhead Mtn. His feet kicked in the air and his voice was muffled as his heavy pack held his head down. It was funny! Minutes later karma played out as the same thing happened to me.

My sons and I once came across a group of horsemen enjoying an elaborate lunch at Gregory Bald. I eyed them suspiciously because horses are not allowed on the trails entering the bald. The riders eventually introduced themselves as members of the Gregory family. They still visit their land long after relinquishing ownership.

Another time, while picking blueberries to put in our oatmeal, my sons and I were approached by a man in tan military fatigues. A tan rifle fitted with a silencer was slung over his shoulder. He was ex-military and hired to thin the population of wild boar. Just minutes before talking to us he had killed seven of them at the edge of the bald.

The only time I've ever been "lost" in the wild was at the Sheep Pen Gap campsite located near Gregory Bald. Clouds blew through while I was hanging my food in the trees. Even though I had only walked about one hundred feet from my tent and pack, I could not see either of them. It took me more than a dozen attempts to stumble upon the camp while taking counted steps at different angles.

A feisty thieving (i before e except after blah, blah, blah) deer repeatedly attempted to take our pots directly off of our camp stoves under the trees on Gregory Bald as two friends and I made lunch.

The only time I've ever lost a key came during a three day loop hike out of Cades Cove. I ended up running more than 26 miles in my camp shoes (racing flats) in efforts to find the key and to get help. Help turned out to be a costly visit from a locksmith.

With Curt again on the AT, I watched as the sun's rays shot through openings in dark speeding clouds. The effect was as if bright flashlights were swept across the landscape. That landscape was a winter forest covered with a thick layer of ice, so a sparkling light show captured our gazes and silenced us for several minutes. This remains one of the most captivating and brilliant sights I've ever witnessed.

I have, on several occasions in the Cove, seen really stupid people taking pictures of cubs who were hiding in trees while their mothers paced nervously nearby.

I fondly remember the first time my sons, 2 and 3 years old at the time, hiked the five mile roundtrip to Abrams Falls. Their boundless energy stemmed from constant attractions and short attention spans.

The weather, as it often does in the mountains, deteriorated quickly during one solo winter visit. I was camping in the Cove campground. A half dozen scouts were the only other campers in the large campground. The wind increased until it lifted my tent several inches off of the ground a few times - with me in it. I collapsed it while I was still in it, then crawled out and bundled it up. Before I could get the plastic wad into the car a gust of wind managed to fill it up. The scouts watched in amazement as I held onto the tent and flew over the van they had retreated to. After several such takeoff attempts I was able to once again bundle the tent and wrestle my way back to the car. The scouts were high fiving and hooting while I sat there nervously laughing about the incident.

Once, when hiking through the colorful Fall foliage with a guidebook in hand, I identified twelve different oak trees from the leaves on the ground in a two mile stretch of Lumber Ridge trail.

A lone woman entered the Spence Field shelter late one cold evening. Two boys and I watched as she repeatedly and casually picked two mice from her massive heap of red hair as they attempted to nest there.

On a bitterly cold (-14F) backpacking trip I slept at a backcountry site in a bivy sack, which is simply a bag that goes over the sleeping bag. I awoke to find that two inches of snow had fallen overnight. Sitting up while still in my cocoon, I found bobcat and bear tracks in that snow. The cat had come to my feet and moved on. The bear had circled my bag more than once. And I was told that the animals don't get out in the cold!

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. The photographs that follow are of places where the sights, sounds, and smells brought back these old memories and many more as I recently roamed up and down the GSMNP trails for three days. Of course, in doing so I created new memories: hauling another thru-hiker to town, playing guitar beside a mountain stream, seeing wildlife, a rain shower, really bad beer, and many more. I did leave the Cove in order to access the Alum Cave trail for a nighttime summit of Mt. LeConte, the large and famous mountain that overlooks Gatlinburg. I also paid a visit to Clingman's Dome, the highest peak in the park, literally the top of ole Smoky, just before the drive home.

A quick new story first! While running down Finley Cane Trail I noticed how quiet the forest was. No chirping birds. No wind rustled leaves. No spilling streams. Even my own foot strikes were muted by the soft trail. When something popped out of the ferns at my feet I abruptly stopped. It was a bear cub, roughly fifteen inches high. It brushed against my shin as it silently bolted down trail to a large poplar tree not far from me. It shimmied about ten feet up, stopped, and leaned out to study me with its ears perked up. With the hair on my neck at attention I was, well, I was scanning the understory for momma. I knew I had to get out of there fast and down was the way to the car, so I sprinted in that direction for several minutes. No, I do not have a picture of that cub! When I stopped to get a drink and catch my breath a grey fox crossed the trail just in front of me. Soon after I nearly fainted when a grouse burst onto the trail just behind me with its usual thunderous boom. Just another day on the trail in the GSMNP.

Enjoy! ST
Cades Cove at sunrise
Thunderhead Mountain
The freshly paved 11-mile Cove Loop road

Using my likeness without permission!
Misty morning turkey

Funny how a boulder can elicit so many memories

Rutting damage caused by non-native wild boar
Almost! In two weeks the bald will be in full bloom!
Pulley cable system for hanging food at Sheep Pen
Foreboding . . .
Cloud enshrouded Gregory Bald

Springtime greens in the Smokies are SO intense

Stream side strumming and picnicking
Alum Cave trail passing through stone

Mountain Laurel on Mt. LeConte
Sulfurous Alum Cave Bluff
Cables to grab on ledge trail

Cables right, cliff left, running water at foot - cake walk

Not bad considering I didn't allow it to calibrate
Actual altitude 6593 ft

Swiftly moving clouds atop Clingman's
Fir graveyard on flanks of Clingman's
Summit fever setting in . . . 
"Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over civilized people are beginning to find that going to the mountains is going home."
John Muir

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