Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Spring Break 2009 Smokemont

Spring Break for 2009 was a bit different from 2008. Instead of Huntington Beach I visited Smokemont Campground, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, near Cherokee, N.C.

Spring is about to burst on the southern slopes of the Smokies. I’m not good at identifying all the little green plants pushing up so I hope you’ll pardon me if I don’t even try. Usually, in mid-March the best we can hope for is the wild onion doesn’t over run the yard. The Bradford pear trees are just blooming, the redbud is, well, budding, the dogwoods are still quiet. The forest is noisy--a few birds, lots of water-- and my yard is noiser in the mornings.

Still, the Smokies are a beautiful place even if the trees haven’t bloomed. There is a green tint to the ground that if you look straight ahead, the tint goes away, and appears then in your peripheral vision. The forest floor--in the cliched phrase-- is a carpet of green. Nothing is tall. The plant life if all vying for square inches of sunlighted space.

You think this is all there is, an endless sticks of bare trees.

Anytime, though, anywhere, you have to stop, get out of the car, and walk 10 yards in to the darkness.

It all begins with water, of course. And the Smokies are well known for its streams and rivers. It is a wet place for not having swamps! While I was standing on the bridge on the trail to Chimneys, I imagined a cubic block of water rushing by me followed immediately by another and then another and then another and on and on. And, that a long ways up the stream, a hundred yards, a mile, two miles, was another width of water rushing down and this would go on for hours and days and weeks until the supply is gone.

The park service used to have a video that opened with “It all begins with water....” and it‘s true. In life and in the Smokies, it all begins with water. It rained this Spring break, every day, at Smokemont campground. There’s hardly anyone there during this time of year. I’ve been there, now, four times, got rained out twice. Smokemont has a stream running next to it and at times, during the rain, the patter of the rain on the tent drowned out the roar of the stream. Otherwise, there is a continual drone of rushing water that never goes away. Bill Riviere (of Maine guide
fame) once wrote that one place you don’t want to camp is near the babbling brook. Not because it may flood, that’s bad enough, but that the brook babbles all night!

I like hiking in the Smokies. So do, also, about --literally--one million other people. You almost are forced to go there in the off season to have some ground to yourself. (Let alone the mind-bending drive down Tenn. 66 through Sevierville and Gatlinburg.)

The trail up to Chimneys was wet. It’s a steady uphill trudge at times very steep; even steeper coming down with more wear on your knees. Chimeys was just below the ceiling that day but I’m not one to hike to the very tippy top anyway. But the view through the cloud haze was tremendous and it’s easy to imagine all that land out there as some many water troughs.

There’s land out there you would swear no one has ever visited. There are crevices and pastures and rocks and streams and waterfalls and little dead-ends unvisited by humans. Maybe. It’s nice to believe but the Smokies were almost completely ravaged by the lust for money where no square foot was spared.

The other hike was to the Kephart Shelter. The trailhead is just uphill from Smokemont and is two miles or so one way but I got pooped by the 1.9 mile mark (I’m sure) and came back. Horace Kephart actually lived near Bryson City so this wasn’t “his” place.

The trail follows an old timber road that was maybe a forest service road at one time. It’s been cleared and there are reminants of a railroad bed and structures and parts of this and that along the trail. And the stream, always there, always noisy. My friend Audrey Wilde got me hooked on looking for salamanders under the rocks in the quiet eddies of the streams. It’s much too cold right now so I’ll save that expedition for up on Buffalo Mountain in a month or so.

Like all the good places to explore, you have to get away from the road. Away from the parking lot. Back into the forest that Frost wants us to fear. Appreciate this place for the place it is. Don’t make it something it isn’t.

Let your senses take over.

Let your mind wonder and roam.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Nearly Spring.

Spring break is upon us and so far Mother Nature has been kind. We've had breaks where the University "closed" just as students were heading towards the doors (and the airport.) In the past 25 years I've lived here more breaks have been snowed out than have been warm and sunny.

You tell the difference in the weather in the few feet I have to walk from the house to the car. The sun is up. My cospe of trees is alive with morning calls. The air is sweet. No wonder we romanticize spring.

On campus, my building is near the Mini-dome which is a quonset hut big enough to hold the football field. Patroling in front this noon was a Buteo and another was perched on top of the dome probably 7 or 8 storeys up. They have no chance at finding something to eat in front of the dome but I bet the view is great.

The bird sightings are beginning to roll in. Check the link in the title at the top of this page for more what the members have been seeing in the area. Google maps "watauga lake" for a good starting point.