Thursday, June 26, 2014

Close Encounter of the Black Bear Kind

The Cataloochee area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park contains many trails I have yet to hike, so one recent Friday, my husband and I got up really early and drove the two hours to the Cataloochee Campground where our chosen hike of the day would begin.  I was glad to be in his Toyota FJ as opposed to my Mustang because the road to the campground is a bit of a challenge.  This road closes frequently in the winter, and for good reason!  He never put the FJ in 4WD, but it was nice to know it was there if we needed it.

My hiking partners and I had tried to do this hike back in the winter, but had arrived at the trailhead to find the footlog which crosses the river washed away.  Later, we read that there were no plans to rebuild, so we decided at the time to attempt this hike in the summer when the fairly long crossing wouldn't leave us cold and wet at the very beginning of the hike.  However, as we pulled up to the trailhead on this day, there was a brand-spanking new footlog stretched across the river.  This is reportedly the longest footlog bridge in the Park.  Thrilled that the only marked crossing on this trail had been spanned for us by this awesome bridge, we chose to leave our water shoes in the car--a mistake, for sure!
The brand new bridge replaced only a couple days before we got here
Our itinerary on this day was to go about .8 miles up Caldwell Fork Trail to the intersection with Boogerman Trail, take it up and over the ridge and return a few miles later to a more distant intersection with Caldwell Fork.  From there, we would do the .4 miles on Caldwell Fork to the next trail intersection, then turn around and walk back to the car on Caldwell Fork Trail.  That would make for about 8.4 miles, a nice length hike for my husband, who hikes only occasionally with me because of his work schedule.  The only other major crossings noted on Caldwell Fork were on a much more distant part of the trail which we would not cover on this hike, hence the justification for not carrying the added weight of water sandals with us.

Within the first mile, though, we came to a deep water crossing with no bridge.  We were close enough to the car I could have gone back for shoes, but didn't want to add almost two miles to our hike because I really want my husband, Bunk, to keep hiking with me.  I choose my trails with him carefully to keep it fun and enjoyable for him. That's very important to me.  So our only choices were to take the boots off and enter the water, unable to see what lay on the riverbed, or just push on through with our boots on.  We chose the later knowing that would mean wet feet for the rest of the day.  
One of many unbridged crossing on this hike

Almost immediately, we came to the first intersection with Boogerman Trail and turned left to begin the fairly gentle ascent up to the ridge.  Caldwell Fork Trail, being a horse trail, was fairly well travelled it seemed, but not so with Boogerman Trail.  There was some slight overgrowth along the way, but it's still pretty early summer. I'd say by the end of July there'll be some significant overgrowth.  But it was an enjoyable trail nonetheless.  It did not contain the muck and mire typical of horse trails like Caldwell Fork, and the pine needles and deciduous leaves that had fallen on the trail made it fairly soft underfoot. Only minimal rocks and roots were present, so tripping wasn't such a distinct possibility.  I spent my time watching for snakes, but thankfully, none made an appearance! 

What we did see along the way were a few rhododendron still in bloom, some fairly interesting mushrooms, lots of snails, and a couple of toads. It's these little things that you simply don't have time to see if you're pushing at a frantic pace like some people seem to like to hike.  That's one thing I like about hiking with my husband. We are not in a hurry, so we take the time necessary to enjoy the scenery that we see around us.

There are some interesting sites along Boogerman Trail too.  At one point we passed what looked to be a very old tulip poplar (I could be wrong on the identification though.  Tree ID is not my thing.) Not long after that we came to a VERY long rock wall built by early settlers of this region.  There was no mortar used in this wall, but I bet it had been here since the 1920s or 30s, if not before, and still stood tall and proud.  It's hard to imagine the amount of work it took to build that structure, and I tried not to think of what it must have been like to be forced to leave an area that had been your home as these settlers had been. As I hike these trails, I am often reminded of their sacrifice so that I can enjoy the park that was set aside for the use of all Americans on land that had once been their own homeplace. I experience a dichotomy of feelings, that's for sure.  

One of the most interesting sites along this trail was a huge tree that is hollowed out at the base, presumably by lightning.  This tree still lives, but with a hollowed-out crevice in it large enough for people to stand in.  I didn't go in (I don't like spiders or snakes), but you could tell others had. This, to me, is just another example of the tenacity of nature, the doing whatever it takes to survive.  Adapting to unforeseen and unfortunate circumstances seems to be the norm in nature, something that comes in handy for us as humans too, it seems.                                                                                                                                       Shortly after seeing the tree and the rock wall, we came to the end of Boogerman Trail and the intersection with Caldewell Fork.  Here, we took a few minutes respite to eat a snack and rest our feet. I was in the middle of changing into dry socks when we heard a huge crash in the woods.  I called out, hoping it was someone coming down the trail from the other direction, but got no response.  I thought it was probably a bear, but we tried to convince ourselves it was a limb falling from a tree. We packed up pretty quickly at that point and headed up the short piece of Caldwell Fork to the next trail intersection.  I needed to do that little piece to make the next jaunt in that area a little easier.  After doing that short piece up and back, we returned to the intersection where we'd had our lunch.  Walking now back toward our vehicle on Caldwell Fork, we again encountered the muddy stretches commonly found on horse trails. However, now there were large prints freshly made in that mud.  My first comment to Bunk was I hoped that was just someone's large dog. Although dogs are not allowed on trails in the Smokies, it is not unusual to run into people who ignore that rule and hike with their dogs anyway.  I was hoping that's what it was, but deep inside, I figured it might not be.  Soon we came upon two sets of tracks, one the large ones we'd previously seen and one much smaller. This time, the claw marks on the toes were clearly visible, leaving us with no doubt that this was a large female black bear and her this year's cub alongside her.

 Immediately I began blowing the whistle I keep attached to the chest strap of my pack, alerting momma bear to our presence and exact location.  The last thing I wanted to do was to surprise her or get between her and her cub by accident. We also took a moment to arm ourselves--hubby pulled out his 38 Special and I pulled out my bear mace and removed the safety latch.  But most importantly, I kept blowing that whistle. I didn't want to use the mace and certainly didn't want to have to be in a desperate enough, last ditch situation for Bunk to have to use the .38, but we also didn't want to become a statistic. Since momma bear and cub were going in the same direction we were (back toward our vehicle), we gave her some time to move away from us and then began to make our way slowly up the trail constantly watching for new tracks.  Finally, after about 1/4 mile, we saw her tracks make a left turn, escorting baby up into a thicket of dog hobble.  Those were the last of her tracks we saw in the mud of the trail, thankfully.  I fully believe that blowing the whistle repeatedly and letting her know where we were at all times kept what could have been too close of an encounter from escalating into a bad situation.

It does seem that the bear population in the Smokies is particularly unpredictable this year, especially in the last few weeks.  There are multiple closures of trails and shelters in the Park because of aggressive bear activity. You can find that list HERE. If you're heading into the park anytime this summer, be sure to check that site.  It begins with road closures, but scroll down a bit to find facilities closed or on alert due to aggressive bear activity.  I read an article in a Sevier County online magazine the other day that said now is the time for mating of the black bears, so males will stand their ground to protect their territory even from people.  Usually, they will run away at the sight or sound of hikers, but not during this time.  Also, right now is the time when momma bears are weaning their yearling cubs, so it's not unusual to see those half-grown cubs in the woods alone, looking somewhat confused.  They, too, can be somewhat unpredictable according to those reports.  I highly suggest that if you're headed to the Smokies, you take a few minutes to watch the video on bear safety located on the Park website.  You can find it and other information you need to know about being in bear country HERE. There's also a good video HERE put out by Orvis on how to use bear mace correctly. It's worth watching too. What you learn there could save you from an unfortunate encounter, and also might save the life of a bear. Bears who are caught up in encounters with humans, even if those situations are caused by poor behavior of people, often have to be put down.  So, please, know the rules and safety regulations that can prevent such unhappy situations from occurring.  A photograph just isn't worth it.
Young bull elk on Cataloochee Campground Road

The rest of our hike was uneventful, but as we were driving back up the road out of the campground, we were pleasantly surprised by the presence of a young bull elk grazing just on the side of the road. He was adorned with huge antlers which were "in velvet." When antlers are being regrown each year (elk and deer lose their antlers after the "rut" or breeding season), they are covered with a soft, velvety covering that is accompanied by rich blood flow to the growing cells.  Once the antlers are fully developed, that velvety covering will be rubbed off and the antlers become hard. Anyway, he was beautiful! We did not get out of the car because we were too close, but snapped a few pictures as we moved on up the road.   

What a day this had been! I absolutely love sharing days in the woods like this with my husband. It seems the cares of our normal daily lives just vanish in the splendor of what has become my favorite place on the planet.  I am so blessed to live close to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and to have a husband who will hike in it with me!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Gregory's Bald--Go NOW!

Lace up those hiking boots and head up to Gregory's Bald in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park RIGHT NOW for a spectacle you will never forget. Gregory's Bald is home to one of the most extravagant showings of flame azaleas anywhere in the world. Many varieties thrive up there and have actually morphed into cultivars that exist no where else on Earth.  I have not been since June 2012, but some "Twitter friends" of mine went up yesterday and posted phenomenal pictures.  These pictures are from the trip I did a couple years ago, and you can find the blog post on that trip HERE, but I did not hit it at exactly "peak" that year.  It was still extraordinarily beautiful and indeed breathtaking even then.  From what I saw on Twitter yesterday, this week will be prime time to go take a look for yourself.  Due to some responsibilities at work, I'm not sure I'll get up there this week, but if at all possible, especially if you've never been up there before, you should certainly try to go.  

There are two trails that go to the top: Gregory Ridge Trail and Gregory Bald Trail. With a well-planned shuttle you can go up one and come down the other, but going up and back either one works just as well.  My favorite of the two trails is definitely Gregory Bald Trail which rises steadily through an old growth forest to the summit where you step out of deep woods onto the clear area for which this mountain gets its name.  It's an 8.8 mile round trip hike to the bald which lies at almost 5000 ft. in elevation and provides 360 degree views of Cades Cove and the surrounding Smoky Mountains. Even without the azaleas in bloom these views would be worth the trip.  While they're blooming, this is a life-changing hike!

Just so you'll know though, Gregory Bald Trail passes right by Backcountry Campsite #13 which is currently closed due to bear activity.  If only people would follow the bear regulations and pack out their trash, this would probably be unnecessary. If I do get to go, I'll have bear mace handy, but hopefully closing the site has sent the bear to other areas in search of food.  With as many hikers as there will certainly be this week, I cannot imagine there will be a problem.  But hikers should be cognizant  of their surroundings and aware of what they should do if a bear is encountered.  It's also important to know that the road that accesses this trail almost requires that you have a four-wheel drive vehicle.  If you're taking a 2WD vehicle, I'd suggest you go up and back on the Gregory Ridge Trail which is approximately an 11 mile round trip.

If I am able to hit the trail myself this week, I'll certainly take and post pictures, but just in case, if you do get to go, I'd love to hear all about it!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Comeback Hike: Meigs Creek Trail

Sunday morning dawned clear and warm, so hubby and I made our way up to "The Sinks" parking lot in the Great Smoky Mountains to begin a short hike to test out the progress my previously injured knee was making.  This was the first time I'd been on the trails in several weeks, and I was anxious to strap on the trail shoes.  We arrived at the trailhead about 9:40 and started the walk up the path behind the viewing area of one of the most popular spots in the Park. The rushing cascades that make up "The Sinks" had much less water in them than usual which was a good sign for us since there are 18+ crossings one way on this trail that we were going to do up and back.  That meant at least 36 times we'd cross Meigs Creek on this 7 mile round trip hike.

The first 1.4 miles of this trail are dry, passing through lush vegetation within earshot of the creek at times and of the highway at other times. The path rises fairly gently for the first bit up a dry southward facing bank which is known to be home to timber rattlers who like to warm up in the sun. Luckily, we never saw one this time although we were surprised with how quickly black snakes can come out of a tree and slither into the depths of the forest. We also surprised a black bear who leapt out of a tree so hard and fast that the tree swayed back and forth for quite some time without its prior inhabitant.

Once the path descends to the creek after that first 1.4 miles, you stay with it for the majority of the rest of the trek.  At this point, the scenery takes on the mystery and magic of the deep woods and the serenity of a lovely mountain stream.  From here, the creek and the trail cross paths too many times to really count.  It's not even worth trying! On a day like the day we were there, most of the crossings can be managed with rock hops.  Eventually though, I decided to simply put on my Keen sandals and just walk right through the majority of the crossings.  Bunk, my husband, kept his hiking boots on and maneuvered the rock hops quite well with no incidents--no water in over the tops of his boots at all. 

 After you make first contact with the creek, even if you don't want to or have time to do the whole trail, keep going another quarter to half a mile and you'll come across a maybe 20 foot cascade that is definitely worth the walk.  In fact, we ran across a family who had done just this.  They weren't carrying packs or even water, but had just made their way up the path in search of the falls they'd heard of.  It's certainly a pretty little falls and on days when more water was in the stream, it would be even better.  This is NOT, however, the Meigs Falls that can be seen from Little River Road.  That is one of my favorite falls in the park, but I've been told no trail goes to it.  I bet someone knows how to get there off trail, but that someone isn't me! 
 This was one of the most enjoyable hikes I've done in a while that lacked high vistas.  I believe during the winter there would have been some nice views along some of the ridges, but all that water would certainly be cold in the winter too, so it was a worthwhile trade-off for us.  Those rocks would have been slick as glass if they'd been icy.  

After all those crossings, the trail rises above the creek and finally passes through some rhododendron forests and some fern banks that shimmer in that new growth green that you really don't find anywhere else.  Another switchback or two and you find yourself at the trail intersection with Meigs Mountain and Lumber Ridge trails. There are a couple nice logs downed here for you to sit on while you snack and catch your breath and either turn around and go back down the way you came or turn right or left to go to Tremont or Elmont along either of the other trails. Really it's only one crossing trail, but the name changes at this intersection for some reason.  Since we were only in the one vehicle, we returned the way we had come, back to the Sinks.  It felt great to be on the trail again, and I was quite pleased with the way my knee behaved.  This one was short, but was new miles nonetheless--never a bad thing!