Marmot Country

“Human attention on wildlife naturally falls on the glamour species. Nowadays everyone wants to save the whales, but how many people are campaigning to save the krill on which the whales depend for their survival?” E. Donnall Thomas Jr., Montana Peaks, Streams and Prairie, A Natural History


Marmot on granite bouldersThe climb from the visitor center to the top of Pompey’s Pillar along the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana is not a long or strenuous one. And although the contrast of this rocky sandstone formation to the plains surrounding it can be of great interest and of a certain beauty, that is not why most people visit here. Pompey’s Pillar is of historic importance as an area where Meriweather Lewis and William Clark spent significant time during their journey as leaders of the Corps of Discovery at the dawn of the 19th century. The excellent museum at the visitor center there documents this history with displays of their travels and artifacts from the period. And high up in the rocks themselves, behind a frame of plexiglass, is the signature of Clark himself, etched into the stone. Depending on your point of view, this can be understood as an historic relic, a latter day pictograph, or early graffiti. However, the ghosts of these famous explorers are not the only things one finds inhabiting this geographic incongruity.

As you take in the sweep of the prairie and the curve of the Yellowstone River below, you are probably being watched as well. And if the chatter of birds coming from the large cottonwoods in the floodplain along the Yellowstone contain some odd whistles, don’t be surprised. You are in prime territory of the yellow-bellied marmot (Marmota flaviventris), and those inquisitive and watchful balls of fur sunning themselves on the rocks probably have just given you a whistle or two. That sound is the reason that the pudgy marmots are sometimes referred to as “whistle pigs”, and their whistling communications are just as appealing to me as coyote howls. The town of Whistler, British Columbia, now a popular resort, conference center and Olympic ski venue, even got it’s name from the call of a member of this vocal mammal family, the hoary marmot (Marmota caligata).

There are fifteen species of this interesting overgrown squirrel worldwide, six of which are found in North America. That would include the most familiar and widespread member of the family, the groundhog, aka woodchuck (Marmota monax), a prime specimen of which lives under my garden shed. But the habitats of the predominantly western marmot species more often consist of rockier terrain and even alpine environments. But not all members of the species are regularly encountered. The Olympic marmot (Marmota olympus), for example, is confined to the Olympic Peninsula there. But it an iconic enough creature to be designated as Washington’s state animal. A few of the marmot species like the Vancouver Island marmot (Marmota vancouverensis) are endangered over all or some of their range, and that is a problem not only for the herbivorous marmots, but the carnivores and omnivores who consider them prey. Marmots are to varying degrees, food for species including hawks, eagles, wolves, cougars, bobcats and bears. So to the point Don Thomas makes in the introductory quote above, helping the marmots also helps many of the more esteemed western wildlife we so admire.

a yellow bellied marmot in the sierra nevada of california

But beyond that, I think marmots are quite frankly, engaging creatures in their own right. They appeal to me on a visceral level like a Jackson Pollock painting. My first encounter with marmots was at the aforementioned Pompey’s Pillar. Attracted at first by the singular whistling sound, I was pleasantly surprised to find a number of the animals in plain view. The number increased as I began to study the terrain more closely, sometimes noticing some slight movement, but most often just staring long enough to spot a stationary marmot sitting still. And often enough, staring right back at me. I found this behavior quite endearing, even over the span of the thirty or so meters between us. Spotting wildlife is sometimes like spotting a fish while looking down into the water. If you try to see the fish, you probably won’t. But if you look past the fish towards the bottom, you will often find that the fish materializes before your eyes. Once I subconsciously applied this technique to the outcroppings and ledges on the rock formation, I noted even more marmots. Although at the time, I was unsure of exactly what species of animal I was sharing my afternoon with. After spending longer than I had realized watching the creatures, I sought out a park ranger to find out what I had seen. Before I had fully spoken the question, the ranger smiled and said “Yellow-bellied marmot, we’ve got quite a few of them.”

I suppose it was somewhat fitting that my first encounter with a marmot occurred at a site commemorating the journey of Lewis and Clark, since they also encountered the species during their expedition. In various entries in their journals they note the animal as a monax, a name their “boss” Thomas Jefferson previously assigned to the related groundhog in his Notes on the State of Virginia. Jefferson based his designation of the groundhog found in his native state, on Carl Linnaeus’ nomenclature, which in turn would have been based on the Eurasian species of monax. Both Lewis and Clark took their lead from Jefferson, and dubbed the animal we now know as the yellow-bellied marmot, simply a monax. Their notes recorded observations of both the marmot in the wild, and it’s fur being utilized by the local Native American tribes such as the Shoshone and Mandan. What their field notes did not mention, was any marmot behavior similar to what I stumbled upon more than two centuries later.

I last encountered the marmot a few short months ago, in the pages of a well imagined book by Dan White entitled Under the Stars: How America Fell in Love With Camping. In a chapter about car-camping, he recounts his experience with marmots in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park in California. At the Cold Spring Campground there, his vehicle and those of other campers were set upon immediately upon arrival by marmots. Folks who have camped in areas with raccoons, might very well be familiar with the aggressive and ingenious assaults upon their foodstuffs that those bandits perpetrate. Hardly endearing, but understandable. However, the marmot behavior White writes about is bizarre to the extreme. The Kings Canyon yellow-bellied marmots have developed a taste for automotive fluids and gnaw through lines and hoses to get at the liquids inside. The website for Kings Canyon corroborates White’s report, and has an extensive marmot warning page, complete with photos and instructions of how to wrap your vehicle in plastic tarps to discourage the wily whistle pigs. Other parks such as Yellowstone scarcely issue more cautionary notices about grizzlies, buffalo or mountain lions.

marmot crossing wildlife caution sign on mountain road.

This remarkable aspect of marmot behavior triggered a bit of research on my part. I followed up with the NPS about why this might have occurred, and their consensus was that it was the combination of people feeding the marmots and “socializing” them with human presence. They think it is likely this allowed them to eventually find that the salts found on vehicle engine areas, were a substitute for salt that they lacked in their diet during drought conditions in the Mineral King area. These conditions continued over a long enough period to inculcate the behavior in this population. The extremely aggressive marmot activity common to Kings Canyon seems to be the outlier, as many locales across the west have no mention of this automotive predation, and some others have noted it to varying degrees. Sue Griffen who conducts marmot research in Olympic National Park in Washington, shared the following when I asked her if she had noted this behavior. “Yes, marmots do chew on car engine parts. I have seen them myself and heard many stories. As we had radio tagged marmots that lived near a parking lot, we were able to determine that an occasional individual would develop the habit. Other animals were never seen under cars. It was enough of a problem that I have seen hikers encase their car in chicken wire.”

On the other hand, when I contacted the Marmot Recovery Foundation on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, neither wildlife veterinarian Malcolm McAdie, who has worked with Vancouver Island marmots for past 20 years, or Executive Director Adam Taylor have ever seen Vancouver Island Marmots show any interest in vehicles. However Adam did add the following. “We’ve had cases where yellow-bellied marmots have stowed away in the underside of vehicles and chew wires, and even accidentally arrive on the Island when the vehicle next gets used. However, we’ve never seen one of our Island marmots do the same.” Interestingly, Dan White also recorded instances in his book of marmots “hitch-hiking” under the hood of vehicles, making it all the way to San Francisco on one occasion. Why were they under the hood? Maybe to warm themselves on a cold night, or more weirdly perhaps, just looking for a midnight snack.

Don Thomas, physician, naturalist, wilderness guide and author of the quote at the beginning of this essay, had a slightly different view. He told me that he has heard of such behavior in both Montana and Alaska where he has resided, but never prevalent enough to require preventative measures. And biologist Rebecca Flynn, who studied marmots on the National Bison Range in Montana asserted she had never observed such behavior there. To be certain, I have by no means conducted a scientific study. But in addition to the people I spoke with or corresponded with, I have utilized some University of Pennsylvania databases in my research. And many of the papers and articles about marmot behavior I reviewed deal with how we effect marmot behavior. This is usually recorded by the researchers and scientists in terms of metrics like population, breeding and distribution. The absence of references to the anomalous behavior I was looking for, suggests to me that in some instances the vehicle feasting marmots are actually influencing our behavior in a most singular fashion. I mean, what would it take for you to wrap your car in a plastic tarp or chicken wire every time you parked it?

Here on the east coast, I have heard reports of groundhogs chewing through underground electrical cables, but as a burrowing animal, that can possibly be dismissed as incidental gnawing. Groundhogs, including the one under my neighbor’s shed, can be destructive of gardens and even crops to some extent. But that is normal foraging, far removed from guzzling transmission fluids. So a creature that I originally found intrinsically engaging, has now become a fascinating mystery. Additionally there are conflicting reports about the effect on the marmots, if any, of the chemical fluids they slurp under the hood. The same goes for their resistance to certain sedatives. Some wildlife biologists have experienced nothing unusual in laboratory settings, while some reported marmots showing immunity to dosages effective on bears. Nature is full of surprises, especially if you look long and often enough. So the next time I see a marmot, I will regard it with new interest, as an animal no less appealing, but far more complex than first impressions indicated.

Hiking the Grand Canyon

“This landscape is animate: it moves, transposes, builds, proceeds, shifts, always going on, never coming back, and one can only retain it in vignettes, impressions caught in a flash, flipped through in succession, leaving a richness of images imprinted on a sunburned retina.” From Downcanyon: A Naturalist Explores the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon by Ann Zwinger

I’ve always liked Jules Verne’s writings, and from my first reading, I was captivated by his novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. The fantastic adventure commences in Iceland, or rather under Iceland, for the most part. The movie versions never could compete with the fantastic images that Verne’s words produced in my mind’s eye. And as a child, I became curious about this place called Iceland, and was captivated by the photos of the landscape I found in the library and National Geographic. And amongst the photos that most evoked the sentiments in me that Verne’s book had, were the ones not of volcanos, but of the canyons. It was at that point that I made an emotional connection between canyons and the Journey, and I can’t separate the two very easily to this day. I have not explored Iceland yet, nor attempted my own visit to the center of the earth, but I have found some caverns and more than a few canyons. And in truth, I have not fully abandoned the whimsical dream that the Lidenbrock’s Path that Verne wrote about might exist somewhere at the bottom of a canyon, probably a grand one, at that.

south rim view of the Grand Canyon.When one refers to the Grand Canyon, it is usually the magnificent 277 mile long gorge cut by the Colorado River through Northern Arizona. Usually, but not exclusively as it turns out. There are canyons and gorges in many states that are referred to as “Grand” in some fashion. Kind of like the way iconic people are referred to as the “Babe Ruth of” whatever it is they do. There is Letchworth State Park’s “Grand Canyon of the East” in New York, not to be confused with Maine’s Gulf Hagas or West Virginia’s New River Gorge, both also dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the East”. Alabama’s Walls of Jericho is called the “Grand Canyon of the South”, as is the gorge in Breaks Interstate Park in the Virginia portion. The “Grand Canyon of the North” is an open pit mine in Hibbing. MN, and the Waimea Canyon in Hawaii is known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”.

Wyoming has the “Grand Canyon of Yellowstone”, while the “Grand Canyon of North Carolina” is Linville Gorge, and “Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon” is Pine Creek Gorge. Features called “Grand Canyon Of ” are found in Michigan, Tennessee, Idaho, Oregon and Texas as well. Interestingly, “Little Grand Canyons” also are found in Vermont, Mississippi, Illinois, Utah, Nebraska, Missouri, Georgia, California and Washington. That’s Washington State, not DC, although I’ve scrambled along some pretty steep banks fishing along Rock Creek in the District, our first National Park incidentally. I am sure I’ve missed a few “Grands”, but you get the picture. The park services, chambers of commerce or tourist bureaus are not trying to deceive you, they are merely paying homage to the ultimate one in Arizona. And for the record, Arizona is not immune to a little hype either, their state moniker being “The Grand Canyon State”.

I guess everyone who has been to the Grand Canyon has a memory of their initial reaction to standing on the rim and beholding what was now in front of them. Most people don’t say behold to describe what they see, but it is the only word that fits, and it is not really enough. We all have seen the pictures and film, or read accounts dating from the Spanish explorers to John Wesley Powell to the aforementioned National Geographic. But as cliche as it sounds, all that doesn’t do it justice. First fully explored by Powell after the Civil War, it was dedicated a National Monument by Theodore Roosevelt roughly forty years later. Roosevelt’s words on the plaque with his likeness at Roosevelt Point on the rim pretty much sums it up. “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, and for all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American … should see.” It is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and the superlatives and awe are all warranted.

Hiker on a Grand Canyon TrailMy first visit to the Grand Canyon was in winter, when we took a break from trout fishing along Oak Creek near Sedona, Arizona. Driving north through Flagstaff, we approached the Grand Canyon traveling along a sagebrush plateau dotted with pinyon pine and juniper, and revealing an occasional pronghorn. My first view of the canyon was then of course from the South Rim. The exact spot was at the Bright Angel trailhead. Because of icy conditions there, we did more viewing than hiking. My clamp on ice creepers or a pair of YakTrax would have changed that, but they were 2,600 miles away in my ice fishing bucket. But the viewing was ample and the landscape was like none I’d ever seen. As I stated, I love canyons, so I’ve seen a few, but nothing remotely like this. Not only in terms of scale, but of vantage point as well. And perhaps the single most compelling thing to me from there and several other vistas, was the narrow green ribbon snaking along the bottom of the the gorge as far as you could see.

Although I knew what is was, I could not reconcile easily the appearance with the physical reality of the flow at first. It was of course the Colorado River, but I’d never seen any water so far below me except while on a plane. The virtual trivialization of this mighty river was stunning. The sight of the Colorado looking more like a varicose vein than a river is one of my most vivid memories of the canyon, right up there with the overall surreal scale of the landscape. We often use the phrase “as far as the eye can see”, and probably use it accurately enough in most cases. But here on the South Rim, glassing the otherworldly aspect that the Canyon evokes, it took on a new dimension. And in that moment when my breath was literally taken away by both the scope and beauty of my surroundings, I was re-filled to bursting with a particular thought, quickly becoming knowledge.I knew beyond a certainty that there were more places lying before me than I could ever explore in a lifetime. And right there, under my moon-eyed gaze, were places no one else had been. Boulders where no one else had warmed themselves in the sun, box canyons as narrow as city alleys that no one had followed to the end, rock faces no one had scaled, tiny gravel beaches no one had stretched their legs on, pools that had never seen a lure, and seepages that had never filled a canteen. It both thrilled and amazed me, and scarcely a day passes that I do not re-visit that feeling, a lasting gift of the Canyon.

But, there were other aspects of our initial exploration of the Grand Canyon that allowed a more measured observation of the landscape. A deserted trailhead access for the Hermit Trail provided a rare solitude that day along the rim. On the way there, we passed many coyotes and mule deer, the larger mammals most frequently encountered in the Grand Canyon National Park. Hiking down into the Canyon pleasantly afforded us a more micro view of the environment, micro of course, only in comparison to the rim views. The Hermit Trail is rough and steep along much of it’s 4600 elevation drop to the river. But the upper third that we trekked along was not unreasonable, and unlike the upper portions of Bright Angel Trail, the Hermit Trail was ice free that February afternoon. Hiking through the rocks, sagebrush and a few Englewood spruce, gave us a chance to bask in the below rim experience. Two golden eagles, several ravens and a peregrine falcon soared overhead on the thermals as we made our way down the trail. At a switchback we chose as the terminus of our hike, we sat and watched the lenticular clouds forming over the rapidly shadowy Canyon.

As the temperature perceptibly began to drop a well, we headed back up the narrow but relatively stable trail, I felt secure in the fact that our packs were weighted not only with an extra fleece and water bottles, but headlamps and flashlights as well. All but the water bottles never left the packs, as despite the fatigue of a long day, our pace was quicker ascending than it had been descending. That was so, partially because there was less to see in the fading light. Reaching the trailhead parking lot just before dusk, the Canyon had one final surprise for us. As we drove around a sharp bend, a small herd of elk crossed the road in front of us. The size of these animals is awe inspiring, especially to one whose home woodlands have only the whitetail deer as ungulate representatives. An enormous bull elk stood in the middle of the road staring at us until the cows and calves had moved well into the trees, before trotting away and disappearing like a ghost into the dusk and brush, but never from our memory.


Photos by the author and Sherry Yates

Valley Forge

The wind bit hard at Valley Forge one Christmas.
Soldiers tied rags on their feet.
Red footprints wrote on the snow.
–Carl Sandburg, ‘Washington Monument by Night’

 the rolling hills of Valley ForgeJune is a beautiful time of the year in southeast Pennsylvania, although I readily acknowledge this region does not hold a patent on that distinction. But by June in these parts, the green flag of spring is fully unfurled, and the May flowers that were brought by the April showers have been here a month, not yet wilted by the heat of the ensuing summer season. The streams are full, life abounds, possibilities seem endless and real. Maybe that is why June is the most popular month for weddings. It was for us, June the first in fact. But most popular choice does not mean the only choice, and as it happens, the month of August is the second most popular for nuptials, obviously not just in Pennsylvania, but nationwide. A mildly interesting factoid at best, but it got me thinking about the seasons. And since I was hiking on a fall morning through Valley Forge National Park, thoughts of the significance of the changing seasons here specifically.

The image of Valley Forge that first comes to mind for most people, is the harsh winter George Washington and the Continental Army suffered through in 1777-78. A defining moment in our history, and an example of the spirit of America we still draw strength from today. The house that Washington used as his headquarters that bitter winter still at stands a lovely spot at the confluence of Valley Creek and the Schuylkill River. The stark beauty of the snow covered rolling hills and open meadows in winter is both evocative and enduring. As you drive along Route 23, a two lane road that runs through the center of the park today, you often encounter whitetail deer, present today here in far greater numbers than in Colonial times. Washington’s troops were not rationed with venison, but their salvation did come from nature.

As John McPhee explains in his book,The Founding Fish, the spring run of shad from the Atlantic Ocean thru Delaware Bay, and up the Delaware River to the Schuylkill at Valley Forge, was the manna for the Continental Army. Washington himself maintained a shad fishing operation on the Potomac at Mount Vernon in Virginia, and was familiar with the species. And that would have included knowledge of the sometimes cyclical nature of the species, the abundance of any given year’s migration being somewhat a matter of chance. But the shad arrived along the Schuylkill in sufficient quantities in 1778 to literally flesh out his emaciated company of soldiers.

currents of the Schuylkill RiverBut in the late spring and early summer, the rolling hills and fields bisected by the currents of the Schuylkill River are a natural treasure as well as an historical one. This was not unappreciated by our first President, who despite the doubtless grim images he retained from that encampment, returned to Valley Forge during a break from the grueling work of the Continental Congress in 1787. In addition to touring the former sites of his army’s winter encampment, he went fishing. Fishing in the Schuylkill River for perch, and nearby streams for trout. Anglers note here, they were most likely white perch (Morone americana), free to roam upstream from the Delaware estuary and river, unencumbered by the numerous yet to be constructed dams, the same circumstance that allowed the shad to run upstream as well. Point being, it is an enchanting place, which even a bitter wartime winter couldn’t totally obscure.

The Revolutionary War Archives, maintained by the Sons of Liberty, records these notes on Washington’s visit, from the pages of his own diary. In Washington’s own words: “Monday, 30th, July. In company with Mr. Govern’ Morris went into the neighborhood of Valley Forge to Widow Moore’s a fishing at who house we lodged.” This structure (Widow Moore’s), still a private residence just outside of nearby Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, is located a short distance from both French Creek and Valley Creek. Even today these are trout streams, although not the original native brook trout Washington would have caught, but more lately introduced browns and rainbows. And although I have not caught the same trout here as Washington, I probably have caught some in the same places. The house that Washington used as his headquarters that bitter winter still at stands a beautiful spot at the confluence of Valley Creek and the Schuylkill, probably

Washington continues in his journal: “Tuesday, 31st, July. Before Breakfast I rode to Valley Forge and over the whole cantonment & works of the American Army in the winter of 1777-­1778 and on my return to the Widow Moore’s found Mr. & Mrs. Rob’ Morris. Spent the day there fishing & lodged at the same place.” As part of the same trip, he traveled east, and fished a bit in the Delaware River near Trenton. I find this trip to be of particular interest personally, both from my point of view as an historian and an angler. Washington, only ten years after the fact, returned on a short pilgrimage to his old camping grounds. Millions have done so since, including me. And I have frequently fished these same waters, from the Delaware to the Schuylkill Valley, These serene and placid waters I fish here were once troubled waters indeed, and standing thigh deep in these waters you can’t help but feel the pull of both the current, and the past.

The beauty of what is Valley Forge National Park today, is due in large part to the strangeness of the this landscape in this part of the country, where open prairie-like fields have long since been converted to farms, then largely to subdivisions. If there isn’t another “Liberty Mews” or “Freedom Fields” development in planning nearby, I’ll eat my three-cornered hat. But in the park, the vistas and field ecosystems remain, and wildlife thrives. Some like the whitetail deer have flourished to a fault. Their burgeoning population has caused management problems and wreaked uniquely ungulate havoc on the local gardens in the communities bordering the park. Smaller mammals like squirrel, raccoon, porcupine, skunk, and opossum and sundry smaller critters are common. An occasional beaver or river otter is sometimes spotted in the river. And rarely, a black bear makes an appearance, and the media takes note.

It is a warm mid-day, but as I make my way from the fields to the tree covered ridge to seek shade with a view, I see several deer browsing unnaturally on the slope to my left. I wonder at what point they will retreat into the wooded glen on the far side of the ridge, and that does not occur until I am far too close to them. Looking lean, but not unhealthy, they slowly move into the woods, stopping to look back in my direction several times. I sit against an old Sycamore, one of the trees native here from before colonial times. Wild flowers are interspersed in patches amongst the tall grass, and blackbirds and swallowtail butterflies materialize as I relax my gaze into the landscape.

A cottontail races across the path I just ascended, disappearing into the tall grass. The grass stirs in the slight breeze, and before long I become drowsy from it’s rhythmic waving, and from straining to discern more deer, or perhaps a fox on the far ridge, but nothing moves in front of me, save the grass, butterflies and blackbirds. A solitary squirrel chirping at something breaks my reverie and and places my impending nap on hold. I stand and begin to walk again, topping the small spine of earth and following its slope in the direction of the river. A chipmunk with a peanut in his mouth darts in front of me, halting my progress until he scoots away. Chipmunks are indigenous to this place, peanuts are not. I guess that he didn’t seem wild enough to someone to fall under the auspices of the “Do Not Feed the Wildlife” signs.

The point on the river where I am heading is where Valley Creek, a trout stream, empties into the Schuylkill, a coolwater/warmwater fishery. It was at this point very early one June morning thirty some years ago, that this groom and half of my wedding party went fishing. Not for white perch or trout, as did the Father of our Country, but feisty smallmouth bass. Given the aforementioned beauty here at this time of year, a late morning ceremony at the church, and my general disdain for “traditional” bachelor parties, it was tuxedos at ten, but waders at five. And if you’ve never lipped a fresh from the river, two pound smallmouth and held it up against the glow of a rising sun on your wedding day, I heartily recommend it. But less dramatically, if you find yourself near Philadelphia at some point, why not plan to be among the one and a quarter million people who will visit here each year, as Carl Sandburg once did? And if you do, bring your camera and fishing gear. You will make good use of both.


Photos by Kenneth Emmerling and Wayne Heinze

Smoky Mountain Resilience, Part 4

Resilient Mountains

young woman standing on cliff with outstretched armsCivilization needs wilderness. We need escape, liberation from the tones, dials, servers and hustle of our official titles. We thrive on the lonely, beautiful danger. We can find solace and comfort as the forest rebounds, as it buds, grows, blooms and showers. Without the anarchic wonder of the great “out there,” without the timeless shadows, our mind essence, the rivers roar, the childlike laughter, the burst of the heavens and even fires crackle we forget the bursting sensation to live freely. That is why we go to the wild — to experience and understand our wildness! The forest is resilient, and so too are we.

My advice to the next generation of preservation enthusiasts: Hike. Place one foot in front of the other. Note the geology. The small, well-rounded pebbles that crunch beneath your feet have an incredible story to tell. A story of deep time. A story of eras and eons perhaps unimaginable by our kind. A place in history we can truly never know or understand. Move onward. Feel the crunch of gravel, soil and Earth beneath your toes. Hike. Climb ever upward. Advance toward the clouds. Breathe deep. Become exhausted. Feel your heart pound in your chest, feel the pulse in your temples. Let your legs burn. No matter what, keep moving. Let the ridge flatten out. Take note of seasonal colors. Note their change. Recognize and wonder at your surroundings. Struggle across knotted limb. Experience how the ecosystem changes from mesic cove forest to spruce-fir temperance. Climb. Breathe deep into your lungs. Be tired and bone weary. Sweat. Come alive. Listen to the world around you. The roar of a bear is freighting, the croak of a dozen frogs at night is eerie. The crickets and cicadas are melodic. Take it all in. Hear the wind as it moves the leaves of trees. Sit in solace. Learn the chorus of wild waters. Bond with your fellow human. Create memories. Love deeply, as deeply as humanly possible. Laugh a little, too much, not enough. Yell. Holler. Weep. Do what the heart commands. Rejuvenate your soul. Escape. Rejoice. Be free.


Click HERE to read more essays by Grant A. Mincy. Support this author on Patreon.

Photo by Photobac

Smoky Mountain Resilience, Part 3

Day Hike

roots on the trail in the forest with two hikersTime to pack. Day hikes are a great escape. When only a few hours permit (we live in a culture that demands we work too much) the day hike is a much-needed mini-vacation. Day hikes are just long enough to shower the human spirit with natural wonder, share some laughs, see the sights, feel relief. The forest is largely a place of freedom. The mountains are a place to understand liberty. So, to absorb all of this, the body must be properly nourished. A good breakfast is needed, but more important is fuel for the mountains.

Food is needed for a day hike. Obviously, the body needs energy. I like food for purely hedonistic reasons in the wild — it just tastes better out there. Interestingly enough, being totally nude feels natural and sex feels better out there in the wild too. Primal! I digress — now back to food. Venison summer sausage, extra sharp cheddar cheese, some fruit and good bread are my preferred sources of sustenance for day escapes. With food and a couple liters of water in tow it is time to meet my fellow travelers and hit the woods.

City slickers. I leave my home in scruffy south Knoxville and head to the quaint town of Maryville, Tennessee to meet up with my best friend, Steve McQueen (true story) and a visiting pair of his medical buddies from George Washington (smart man, my friend). After a quick introduction to Carlos (Mexican) and Lou (Afghan from South Carolina) I learn my fellow travelers are politically incorrect, crass and love to joke. A good day lay ahead. We are off for the forest around 10:00 am.

On the way up we stop for beer. Carlos grabs a tall Modello and Lou a tall Budweiser. Myself, I go for a tall-boy of Busch at 25% more! Plus, Busch has a grand advertising campaign that may toy with my subconscious: “Busch Beer. Head for the mountains.” Well, the mountains are calling and I must go! Thanks, John Muir. Steve McQueen is driving, naturally, and he claims the tallest drink of all: Sobriety. He arms himself with Gatorade — a product of the swampy University of Florida. We live in Big Orange Country. Go Vols! We drink through the quiet side of the Smokies and pitch the cans. As we travel towards Metcalf Bottoms along the Pigeon River the booze kicks in. We biology types relaxed and make fun of each other. Long live a good laugh at oneself.

Feels good to travel mountain country. The landscape is beautiful. Traffic is light. As we pass the Chimneys trailhead we see our first black-bear of the day walking alongside the road. We slow to admire the beast, a cub, but do not stop. Mama may be around, plus it’s bad etiquette. We are human, after all, visitors in the bear’s home. Onward to Clingmans Dome.

Clingmans Dome rests at 6,643 feet making it the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The area offers a good shock to the system. Temperatures are extreme at such an elevation, often 20 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than the mountain lowlands. Plus, Steve and I wanted to bring his visitors for the views and the unique spruce-fir rainforest that decorates the terrain. We are not disappointed, at least I’m not.

The day before our visit an intense rain showered the region. Remnants of the storm were still around. Bring on the clouds and mountain weather! We stand in a sea of clouds. Some are a deep stratus grey in color and seep along the forested mountain ridges occupying hollers and deeper valleys. Others a magnificent puffy cumulus that appear almost golden as they bathe in rays from the star of life. It’s damn cold. I pull on a flannel shirt and don an outback hat. There are four tasks at hand: Relieve ourselves of the beer we drank, eat a snack, climb to the observation tower at the top of the dome, and then follow the Forney Ridge Trail to Andrews Bald.

Once our biological needs were fulfilled we begin our half-mile hike to the lookout tower. Now, a half mile is not a long trek, but it’s a steep half mile. Steve and I outpace Carlos and Lou. We have a good time reminiscing and telling more bad jokes. Brotherhood. Then we ascend into the very clouds we were just admiring. The temperature drops even more. When the weather permits ones view from the tower can stretch for 100 miles. On this day, however, about 20 feet. I laugh. This is the weather I like best — blustery, cold, grey with bursts of light. It’s elemental. Perfection.

Once the lads catch up we scramble down from the tower and hop on the Appalachian Trail to the mouth of Forney Ridge to begin our descent towards the bald. Again, a mesmerizing view. Clouds hugging ancient rock.

This first section of trail trods through a relic of the last ice-age. A unique spruce-fir rainforest typically occupies the higher elevations of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. The temperate zone is a deep green with beads of water clinging to the needles of evergreens. Their color is exacerbated, deepened, darkened, by the grey of the day. The weather is cold and wet, flowers decorate the ground. A natural spring gushes. McQueen stops and cups his hands in the ice-cold water and takes a few big gulps!

“So rugged.”

“Part of my allure as a mountain man.”

“You’ll catch Giardia and shit for days.”

“How do you treat Giardia anyways? An anti-biotic?”

“No. Giardia is a Protozoan. I won’t catch it anyway, no poop in spring water at this elevation.”

Biologists. No need to worry about the hiker’s sickness. This wild mountain spring is clean enough to drink on the east coast. What a miracle. I immediately regret not getting a sip myself. But, city slickers. We didn’t bring any rain gear and walk right into a thick cloud. Mountain mist begins soaking our clothes. Water droplets splash as they chorus across the terrain. We move fast, eyeing the trail and make our way to the bald. The deep green gives way to an open grassy meadow. Tiny spring flowers, strong in numbers, illustrate the gray afternoon. We stand in silence for a good while and breathe deep the cold, Earthy air. We bathe in a thick cloud. We cannot see the rolling valley and ridge ahead of us for the fog is too thick, but we know it is there. We feel connected to the terrain.

Onward. We trek the uphill hike back to Steve’s car and make our descent from the dome. As we pass New Found Gap the skies part and we are awarded the most amazing view. We are mostly silent, studying our surroundings. We make our way towards the lowlands and pass Laurel Falls. Then it happens. A traffic jam in the forest.

Most traffic upsets me. It’s especially irritating when one is visiting wild lands. But, the Smoky Mountains are the most visited national park in Uncle Sam’s territory. This isn’t such a bad thing. It’s actually exciting that more people want to explore the wild. There is one type of tourist that bothers me though: The motor tourist. Driving around in safe metal cages. Windows rolled up for climate control. White sneakers and white socks. Fannie packs and sun visors. Giant cameras. Now, I am pretty libertarian so I should support people getting enjoyment out of the land in any way possible — and I do. But, I am also a mountain hugger. One can only enjoy the land, her flora and fauna, if the land is understood — if “wild” is not an abstract idea but something one seeks to understand.

Just beyond parking for Laurel Falls a young black bear is treed. Hovering about 30 feet over the forest floor, tucked between limbs of a poplar, the bear stares in horror at the most terrifying, arrogant animal in the park: *Homo sapien*. Motor tourists are hopped out of their metal chariots, sun visors and Fanny packs in tow, and stand flashing pictures of the obviously distressed beast. Traffic is thick but the crowd is thicker. A ranger blows her horn as she directs people to leave; “Get back in your vehicles and move on!” Totally ignored she radios for back up.

Ignorance. The ranger is not there to protect the people who have treed the poor animal. She is there to protect the bear. If desperate enough the beast may leap from the tree and pick a fight with some tourists. If this were to happen the bear would be euthanized. A terrible scenario. I care more about that bear than I do any of the people who gawk and cage him. I wish more people would just experience and learn from the forest, it can teach us much.

We travel along and stop at The Sinks for a jaunt along Meigs Creek. We flip over rocks in the cool mountain waters and search for salamanders. We run up and down rocky slopes and through mountain laurel canopied walkways. We feel the sun on our backs and the mud on our skin. We trip over roots and marvel at rhododendron.


Click HERE to read more essays by Grant A. Mincy. Support this author on Patreon.

Photo by Soloway