Note: This essay was originally written for The Smoky Mountain News. It was subsequently revised and collected in Mountain Passages, which was published by the History Press (Charleston, S.C.) in 2005. This time around it has been re-revised and a weather sharp’s winter poem titled “Praise the Cold” has been appended.

Will it rain or shine? Will it be a hot? When will the first killing frost glitter on the ground? Will it be another cold winter? How many heavy snowfalls?

These days the answers are the province of trained meteorologists on the local, regional, and national level. But not so very long ago the local weather sharp was relied upon to forecast the weather — good or bad.

Here in the mountains weather sharps could be either a male or a female, but most were elderly men. They tended to be lean and spry. Hardly ever did one encounter a fat weather sharp. He or she had to be keen and alert to discern signs. Weather sharps, even those that were women, often smoked pipes. Smoking a pipe was meditative and helped one contemplate the future.

Weather sharps were usually loners. They often lived in remote cabins. They sometimes worked in fire towers. They lived close to nature. They paid attention to the plants and animals. Being a local weather sharp was just about a full time job. Here are the sorts of things that he or she knew as well as a poem one of them wrote.

 

Short-term forecasts

Weather sharps always watched their cats. If the cat sat with its back to a heat source, they anticipated cold weather. A cat that sat with its back to the wind also signified cold weather. If the cat frisked about the cabin, a bad storm was brewing.

Weather sharps knew for certain that it would soon rain when cows lay down in the pasture; smoke went to the ground; birds flew low; or ants covered the holes of their hills.  

 

Killing frost

Weather sharps listened closely to katydids. They knew that the first killing frost came exactly 90 days after the first katydids begin to sing. They carefully circled that day on calendars suspended on closet doors in their cabins.

 

Warm winters

Weather sharps also watched barnyard ducks whenever a pond or creek froze over in early winter. If the ice would bear the duck, the rest of the winter would be slush and muck.

 

Winter Snow

In the fall of the year, weather sharps were always being consulted as to how many winter snowstorms were coming. There were a number of indicators that could be relied upon. They always checked the date of the first snowfall deep enough for rabbit tracks. This clearly indicated the number of winter snowstorms of three inches or more ahead; for example, if the first snowfall came on Nov. 6, six winter storms of three inches or more would come.

Weather sharps had to be good at counting. They counted the number of foggy mornings in August. This number always equaled the number of snowfalls for the following winter. They also counted the number of days from the first snowfall until Christmas. This number always equaled the number of snowfalls to expect afterwards.

There were things about snowfalls in general that every weather sharp knew: whenever snow lies in drifts in the shade and refuses to melt, the drifts become “snow breeders” that attract more snow; whenever the sun shines while snow is falling, expect more snow very soon; and, whenever a dog howled at the moon, it always signified an early snow.

 

Cold Winters

Predicting whether a coming winter would be cold or not was a local weather sharp’s primary duty. His or her neighbors had to know how much wood to get up and how much food to put away. Accordingly, there were a number of signs having to do with the plants and animals that had to be consulted.  

In regard to plants, they knew that the coming winter might be especially cold when moss grew on the south side of trees; fruit trees bloomed twice; blackberry blooms, holly berries, and acorns were prolific; hickory nuts had a thick shell; or onions grew more layers than usual.

In regard to the four-legged animals and birds they knew that the coming winter might be especially cold when the hair on bears, horses, mules, cows, and dogs was thick early in season; hoot owls called late in fall; juncos (snowbirds) fed up in the trees instead of on the ground; the breastbone of a fresh-cooked wild turkey was dark purple; and squirrels grew bushier tails, built their nests low in trees, accumulated huge stores of nuts, and buried the nuts deeply in the ground.

Insects were particularly significant for weather sharps when it came to forecasting winter weather. They knew that the coming winter might be especially cold when ants built their hills high; hornets built their nests low; and the fabled wooly worms were abundant, had heavy coats, and displayed wide black bands on their backs. A really accomplished weather sharp could discern by the thickness of the black and tan bands of a wooly worm which weeks during the winter would be mild or harsh.

 

Weather Poetry

Weather sharps were contemplative reclusive folks. They often suffered from insomnia. Little wonder, then, that they sometimes scribbled poems like this one titled “Praise the Cold” on the back of an envelope.

 

Frost flowers etched silvery gray

on flat dark window panes.

Beyond the door screech owls clatter.

Mist swirls in patterns unseen.

Hoof-struck stones ring in the pasture.

Twigs slowly crosshatched in first light.

Sun gaps emerge along the high ridge.

A shadow line on the far slope

descends slowly into the cove.

Glittering fragments congeal and the

bright world arises yet again.

 

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

When one thinks about navigation in regard to the rivers here in the Smokies region, it’s old-time ferries and modern-day canoes, kayaks, rafts, tubes, and motorboats that come to mind. But there have been other sorts of navigation involving flatboats, keelboats, mule boats, whaling boats, and even steamboats. Some incredible stories have been recorded in this regard.

The 19th century was the flatboat, keelboat, and mule boat era on the lower Little Tennessee River. It is best described by Alberta and Carson Brewer in Valley So Wild: A Folk History (Knoxville: East Tennessee Historical Society, 1975):

“The big wooden ‘arks’ plied the river carrying ladies, servants, cattle, horses, dogs, poultry and produce, while oarsmen used long ‘sweeps’ to steer clear of rocks, snags and submerged trees. Flatboats had sturdy wood bottoms designed for heavy loads, and whatever superstructure best suited the needs of passengers and cargo. Usually the owner broke them up at the end of the trip and sold the lumber. An average flatboat cost about $20 to build. It required several months to build the boat, float it to New Orleans, and sell the cargo and return.

“The Little Tennessee River was deep enough for flatboats as far as the mouth of Abrams Creek (located in the present-day Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee just southwest of Fontana Dam). Rafts could be used as far up as Tallassee, four miles farther.

Upriver traffic (beyond that point) required a different craft and technique.  Brawny boatmen walked planks along gunwales and pushed with long poles to propel the big keelboats against the current. Sometimes men walked towpaths along the bank pulling the vessel by rope, or used a method called ‘warping’ (fastening the tow rope to a tree upstream and pulling the boat toward the tree). If they were able to move the boat against the current by holding on to trees or bushes on the bank, it was called ‘bushwacking.’

“Old-timers even recalled ‘mule boats’ powered by a mule walking on top of a broad slatted wheel turned by the mule’s weight as its legs made steps that went nowhere.”    

The whaling boat story was related by John Preston Arthur in a delightful account that appeared in his Western North Carolina: A History  — 1730-1913 (Asheville, 1914) under the heading “A Thrilling Boat Ride.”

“A large whale boat had been built at Robbinsville and hauled to a place on Snowbird creek just below Ab. Moody’s, where it was put into the creek, and it was floated down that creek to Cheoah River and thence to Johnson’s post-office, where Pat Jenkins then lived. It was hauled from there by wagon to Rocky Point, where, in April, 1893, Calvin Lord, Mike Crise and Sam MeFalls, lumbermen working for the Belding Lumber Company, got into it and started down the Little Tennessee on a ‘tide’ or freshet.

“No one ever expected to see them alive again. But they survived. By catching the overhanging branches when swept toward the northern bank at the mouth of the Cheoah River, the crew managed to effect a landing, where they spent the night. They started the next morning at daylight and got to Rabbit Branch, where the men who had been sent to hunt them. They spent three days there till the tide subsided, then they went on to the Harden farm, which they reached just one week after leaving Rocky Point. No one has ever attempted this feat since, even when the water was not high. The boat was afterwards taken on to Lenoir City, Tenn.”

The story about the fabulous steamboat named “Vivian” is related in by the Brewers and by Lance Holland in Fontana: A Pocket History of Appalachia (Robbinsville: Appalachian History Series, 2001).

John, James and Charles Kitchen arrived in WNC during the early part of the 20th century and established a lumber company on the North Carolina side of the Smokies. They had acquired 20,000 or so acres of land in the Twenty Mile Creek watershed and cleared Little Tennessee River area below what is now Fontana Dam so as to establish Cheoah Lake.  After the lake was flooded in 1919, the only access to their timber holdings along Twenty Mile Creek was by foot or small boat.  

But how in the world do you get the logs out to the sawmill? No problem You simply build a steamboat; after all, the brothers did have prior maritime experience.

The “Vivian” (named after Charlie’s wife) was homemade ... a 50-foot long stern-paddlewheeler —  crafted from white oak with four four-foot sidings and powered by an upright boiler steam engine — it was the pride of  the Kitchen Lumber Company ... a sight to behold as it towed a string of large barges loaded to the gunwales with logs across the lake to the awaiting locomotive, Big Junaluska ... and  furthermore “its whistle could not  be ignored,” note the Brewers, “as it let out ear-splitting whistles to seal the transaction and set the mountains trembling for miles.”   

Stories about the Vivian proliferated in Graham County, of course; after all, a steamboat built and navigated along a man-made lake in the Great Smoky Mountains  was something worth talking about and remembering. The one I like best is told by Holland: “Joseph P. Sluder, whose mother Julie ran a logging camp boardinghouse on Twenty Mile Creek, recounted ... that Luther Anthony, Captain of the Vivian, learned to play its steam whistle to imitate the call of the whippoorwill, that was a beautiful sound — more beautiful every time we heard it.”

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in a December 2001 edition of The Smoky Mountain News.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Winter Light

So much light in what we call the dark

of the year, a flashing and glittering

of light …

Should it surprise us, having known the holes

of darkness in the longest days?

— William Bronk, “A Bright Day in December” from The World, The Wordless (1964).

 

On Lower Lands Creek it has been decreed that winter starts with the first snowy or sleety day in November (often the 12) and extends, with interludes, until the first truly spring-like series of days in late March.

Day by day winter narrows life down, dulling senses with dark cold or sharpening with mere light. Elsewhere barrenness and the promise of death are not neglected … but herein our subject is illumination and awareness. Except at sunrise and sunset or before an electric storm, winter light here in the southern mountains is plain — never pea green as in spring and early summer and never tan-yellow or faded rose as in late summer and fall.    

In this plain light we see edges, shapes and basic colors: twigs and branches, stakes and posts, rusty wire and rotting string, thin blue shadows on snow, brown paths curving beside lichen encrusted stone walls, and the slow fire of moss. Winter provides time enough (before we no longer have the light) to pay closer attention to the daily textures and occasional singularities of this often dark but sometimes bright world we call home.

After the summer haze and the soft tones of autumn, we’re not always confronted by gloom. Instead, we are awakened to windowpanes and lakes that hold steady images of mountains without end transfixed by plain winter light. Pines on the far ridge stand cleanly outlined. Some part of the effect, of course, is that there is less moisture this time of the year. We do see more clearly in cold dry air — so much so that distant objects seem near. You will have noticed how close summer ridges are when blanketed with lingering snow? But once it has melted, they will recede.

That’s the semi-scientific version. Not a few reliable observers — backcountry rangers, ginseng enthusiasts, coon hunters who keep computer records for any movement greater than three feet and whether the moon was shining, and others who get out and about — have reported mountains moving around on their own when light turns silver blue and crisp air is electrically charged. Thunderhead is said to have wanderlust. High Rocks went missing for a week and then reappeared one Tuesday morning. Sharp Top disappeared Thanksgiving morning and hasn’t been heard from since.

After a lifetime as a watercolorist, my wife has an uncanny sense of the interrelationships of colors observed in a landscape. For her there is almost no pure white light … not even in winter.   

“Look,” she said pointing southward from a high ridge, “at the lavender shadows crossing that far mountainside. See how the fluffy clouds way up there are reflecting some portion of light from the sun that’s about to set out there in the west. Winter sunshine is tricky business.”

“Winter sunshine is tricky business?” I repeated.

“Tricky business,” she replied.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Most of us at one time or another hanker for a place where we can get away from it all for awhile … recharge our batteries as it were. But some yearn for a place where they can hide away …begin all over again. Like Huck tells Jim at the end of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he’s ready to “light out for the territory” … it’s time to seek a “Never Never Land” like the one Horace Kephart memorably described in the second chapter of Our Southern Highlander:

“When I went south into the mountains I was seeking a Back of Beyond. This for more reasons than one. With an inborn taste for the wild and romantic, I yearned for a strange land and a people that had the charm of originality. Again, I had a passion for early American history; and, in Far Appalachia, it seemed that I might realize the past in the present, seeing with my own eyes what life must have been to my pioneer ancestors of a century or two ago. Besides, I wanted to enjoy a free life in the open air, the thrill of exploring new ground, the joys of the chase, and the man’s game of matching my woodcraft against the forces of nature, with no help from servants or hired guides.

So, casting about for a biding place that would fill such needs, I picked out the upper settlement of Hazel Creek, far up under the lee of those Smoky Mountains that I had learned so little about. On the edge of this settlement, scant two miles from the post-office of Medlin, there was a copper mine, long disused on account of litigation, and I got permission to occupy one of its abandoned cabins.”

The phrase “Back of Beyond” is undeniably evocative. Through the years, since first encountering it, I’ve wondered about its origins and equivalents. Kephart partially divulged his sources:

“Of certain remote parts of Erin, Jane Barlow says: ‘In Bogland, if you inquire the address of such or such person, you will hear not very infrequently that he or she lives ‘off away at the Back of Beyond’ ... A traveler to the Back of Beyond may consider himself rather exceptionally fortunate, should he find that he is able to arrive at his destination by any mode of conveyance other than  ‘the two standin’ feet of him.’ Often enough the last stage of his journey proceeds down some boggy boreen, or up some craggy hill-track, inaccessible to any wheel or hoof that ever was shod.’”

Barlow, I discovered was the daughter of Rev. James William Barlow, vice provost of Trinity College, Dublin. Born in Clontarf, County Dublin, she spent most of her life living in a thatched cottage in Raheny, in the townland of Ballyhoy. She died in Bray, County Wicklow. Barlow was a poet, novelist, and writer of short stories who also wrote one play. Her work had its admirers in Britain and Irish America, rather than in nationalist Ireland.

Irish Idylls, which went into eight editions, is her most famous collection. But it’s likely that Kephart lifted the “Back of Beyond” phrase from her At the Back of Beyond, which was published in 1902.  

While tracking down Miss Barlow and her use of “Back of Beyond,” I encountered some words and phrases often used as equivalents. “Back o’ Bourke” is Australian, in reference to the remote town of Bourke in north-western New South Wales. “Timbuktu” is a town in the West African nation of situated 10 miles north of the River Niger on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. And, my favorite, “Beyond the Black Stump” is also Australian.

Online sources indicate that the most prosaic explanation for the origin of ‘black stump’ derives from the general use of fire-blackened tree-stumps as markers when giving directions to travellers unfamiliar with the terrain. An early use of the phrase from the a Sydney journal of 31 March 1900 seems to lend support to this explanation: ‘A rigmarole of details concerning the turns and hollows, the big tree, the dog-leg fence, and the black stump.” A quote from John Wynnum’s I’m a Jack, all Right conveys this meaning: “It’s way Back o’ Bourke. Beyond the Black Stump. Not shown on the petrol station maps, even.”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Sometimes I find myself walking without having made a conscious decision to do so. My body seems to feel the need for a stroll without having consulted my brain. My feet find their way, as if they had eyes of their own. I like such moments … when I don’t have specific objectives … when I’m not certain what I might encounter … when I’m just taking a look at things.     

Several days ago, I was out the door and several hundred yards down the trail beside the creek before I fully realized that I had ventured forth. My dogs led the way, looking back now and then to make sure I was following. The only sound was the wind in the rhododendron-laurel tangles alongside the creek. Mosses on the creek bank glowed emerald green.  

After ten minutes or so of poking along, I began to spot first one, then two, then many little evergreen plants on the forest floor. Had I been preoccupied with personal thoughts or with encountering something momentous like a wild boar or bear, I’d have no doubt overlooked these dainty plants.

Their ragged-edged waxy leaves displayed zigzagged whitish stripes. Accordingly, it’s known as striped wintergreen by some observers. But I prefer the more peculiar common name “pipsissewa,” a designation said to be of Iroquois origin (“pipsiskeweu,” which means “it breaks into small pieces” because the plant was used to treat kidney stones).

This semi-woody evergreen perennial bears the scientific name “Chimaphila maculata” (“cheima” for “winter” and “philo” for “to love”). Common throughout Western North Carolina in dry acidic woods with sandy soils, it has a reputation in both Indian and folk medicinal literature. Recent scientific investigation indicates that closely related species like prince’s pine are “loaded with biologically active compounds.”

It was formerly used as an ingredient in root beer that added a bittersweet taste. (Above all other popular commercial beverages, I dislike root beer the most). The Cherokees, among other applications, stewed pipsissewa in lard to cure ringworm, while the early white settlers utilized it as a blood purifier. Some enterprising moonshiners made “bitters” (an herbal tonic) by combining pipsissewa with white lightning, thereby creating a medicinal concoction of undoubted potency that was in considerable demand.

I didn’t have any white lightning with me (and don’t care for it either), but there was plenty of pipsissewa; so, while Uly and Woodrow looked on with puzzled interest, I tried my first dose ever of “pipsiskewe” by nibbling some of the leaves. After due deliberation, I can report that pipsissewa leaves don’t taste good and they don’t taste bad.

Whistling up the dogs, I started back home. The wind had died down. I could hear water moving over and among the silent stones. Whether it was the walk or the pipsissewa or listening to the creek or some combination thereof, I felt a bit sprightlier. It was good to be out and about.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

I have perused Kephart’s Camping and Woodcraft many times, but somehow or other had consistently overlooked his entry on lungwort bread (vol. 1, pp. 324-325):

On the bark of maples, and sometimes of beeches and birches, in the northern woods, there grows a green, broad-leaved lichen variously known as lungwort, liverwort, lung-lichen, and lung-moss, which is an excellent substitute for yeast. This is an altogether different growth from the plants commonly called lungwort and liverwort — I believe its scientific name is ‘Sticta pulmonacea.’ This lichen as partly made up of fungus, which does the business of raising dough. Gather a little of it and steep it over night in lukewarm water, set near the embers, but not near enough to get overheated. In the morning, pour off the infusion and mix it with enough flour to make a batter, beating it up with a spoon. Place this “sponge” in a warm can or pail, cover with a cloth, and set it near the fire to work. By evening it will have risen. Leaven your dough with this (saving some of the sponge for a future baking). Let the bread rise before the fire that night, and by morning it will be ready to bake. It takes but little of the original sponge to leaven a large mass of dough (but see that it never freezes), and it can be kept good for months.”

Last week, my wife harvested a patch of lungwort from the trunk of a white oak tree on the ridge above our place. The resulting bread had a pleasant tea-like aroma and flavor that I liked a lot. So, I requested more for the holiday.

Lungwort, presently classified as ‘Lobaria pulmonaria,’ is actually more prevalent on oak. It resembles liverwort but grows in drier conditions. It is bright green under moist conditions but becomes brownish and papery when dry. The leaf-like growth is leathery and lobed. There are patterned ridges and depressions (pits) on the upper surface. The lower surface often displays a fine layers of hairs. The pits and ribs of the upper surface become the lumps and ribs of the under surface.

Various online sources indicate that lungwort was used in beer manufacture as a substitute for hops by monasteries in Europe and Siberia. It was reputed to be both darkly bitter and highly intoxicating. The plant yielded a permanent black dye when mixed with indigo. Because the pitted and sectioned leaf patterns resembled the surface of human lungs, the plant was used in the treatment of pulmonary diseases, wheezings and shortness of breath.  

Now that Kephart’s recipe has whetted my culinary interest in lungwort, it has also refocused my attention on the plant itself. Look for it the next time you’re walking a  woodland trail. The leafy green outreaching lobes form rosettes that glow emerald-like in the gray light of early winter.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The second volume of an anthology of nature writing from Western North Carolina and the Great Smokies that I edited will be published in a couple of weeks by The History Press in Charleston, S.C. The first volume (1674-1900) offers selections from 21 authors, including Bartram, Michaux, Elisha Mitchell, William Brewster, Arnold Guyot, and Christian Reid. The second volume (1900-2009) offers selections from another 21 authors, including James Mooney, Horace Kephart, Margaret Morley, Arthur Stupka, Roger Tory Peterson, Edwin Way Teale, D.C. Peattie, Edward Abbey, Harry Middleton, William A. (Bill) Hart, Scott Weidensaul, Bob Zahner, Doug Elliott, John Lane, and Thomas Crowe.

Each selection is prefaced by a biographical note. I necessarily wrote the notes for deceased authors. But I enlisted input in that regard from the living authors. They discovered that writing a self-portrait is rather more difficult than might be supposed. But in several instances, these mini-bios were exceptionally well-crafted and informative.   

One such was composed by Jim Casada, the nationally known outdoor writer from Bryson City, as a head note for four excerpts from his Fly Fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: An Insider’s Guide to a Pursuit of Passion (2009). Those who know Casada’s work or encounter it in the future will, I suspect, enjoy this self-portrait as well as one of the excerpts (“Flies”) included in anthology:

I am a son of the Smokies, born and raised in Bryson City, N.C., and the region remains the home of my heart and the primary inspiration for my literary endeavors. From my earliest memories connection to the natural world was an integral part of my being. My father was a keen outdoorsman whose boyhood was spent high up on Juneywhank Branch, now in the national park, and his father was a flowing fount of down-to-earth wisdom concerning nature’s ways. Both were wonderful mentors who oversaw an idyllic boyhood spiced by hunting, fishing, subsistence farming, and constant awareness of the cycle of the seasons.

They lovingly laid the foundations of knowledge and linkage to the land which run as a bright thread through the fabric of my literary endeavors, but it took the inspiration of a mother who instilled a lasting love for reading, along with a trio of teachers, to plant the seed which eventually sprouted into life as a writer. Two of these individuals, Thad DeHart and John Wikle, taught at Swain County High School, while the third, Inez Morton, was an English professor at King College. All offered encouragement and guidance, but my academic pursuits took me along a different path with a B.A. in history at King and the M.A. and Ph. D. degrees in the same field at Virginia Tech and Vanderbilt, followed by 25 years as a history professor at Winthrop University.

Long before I took early retirement to write full time, however, my focus had switched from academic works (I wrote four scholarly books) to the outdoors. Realization gradually dawned that a life devoted to writing on fishing, hunting, natural history and cooking nature’s wild bounty was what held my heart, and the day I became a fulltime writer and “recovering” professor was a glorious one indeed. For the last 15 years writing has been my life. Over that period I have written more than a dozen books and edited or otherwise contributed to many more, served as series editor for the University of Tennessee Press Outdoor Tennessee Series and the Firearms Classics Series from Palladium Press, produced weekly newspaper columns, and averaged upwards of a hundred feature articles a year for regional and national magazines.   

Much of my focus has been on the Smokies, and the book from which these selections are taken, Fly Fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park:  An Insider’s Guide to a Pursuit of Passion, is one I consider my book of a lifetime. It combines my love of fly fishing with detailed looks at natural history, human history and mountain folkways.

 

Flies

Fetching frauds crafted from fur and feather, thread and clue, flies are designed to catch trout, and those who tie them deserve recognition as creative souls of the first rank.

As I have already suggested, mine was an incredibly rich boyhood. I was blessed by growing up in a world well populated with devoted anglers and surrounded by the deep-rooted traditions of mountain fly fishing. Some of the fly-fishing heroes of my marvelously misspent youth served as informal mentors, and tales associated with the sport’s regional history were almost daily fare.

Today ours seems a world obsessed with a fast-paced lifestyle that too often leaves little time for tradition, storytelling and respect for the past. Yet those of us who cherish the feel of the long rod or savor the music of whistling line and singing reel should pay careful heed to the lure and lore of fly-fishing history in the Smokies … The sport is one productive of endearing individuals and enduring traditions…

Bryson City’s Frank Young is a splendid example. Young returned home from service in the Korean War with a deep-rooted determination to sample and savor the streams of his highland homeland as fully as possible. For decades he did just this, fishing an average of 250 days a year. Young became an accomplished fly-tier, with one of his more notable achievements in this regard involving the substitution of the fur from ‘possum bellies for calf’s tail in tying hair-wing patterns such as the Royal Wulff. As Young laughingly said, “It doesn’t cost anything to get ‘possum fur, and anyone who can’t find it just doesn’t understand road kills.”

A religious, contemplative man, Young appreciated the world of the trout with something approaching reverence. Over the years, anytime he caught a trophy trout or enjoyed a meaningful experience, he picked up a stone from the stream and put it in his creel. Upon returning home he placed these stones in a frame. When it was full, the addition of some concrete made it one more building block for walls that would eventually line his home. “It’s mighty comforting,” he reflected, “to be by surrounded memories.”

It is also comforting to know that the legacy of individuals like Young, and countless others, has found contemporary adherents. This linkage across generations is a meaningful one, a poignant reminder of the legacy of pioneering mountain fly fishermen.  While the paraphernalia of the sport has changed immensely, the lure of clean waters, wild fish and solitude are timeless. So are the characteristics of hardy highland folks — thrift, independence, practicality, ingenuity and an innovative approach to making do with whatever happens to be available — as they apply to fishing in waters coursing through the deep hollows and steep coves of the Appalachians.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

“Sang” redux.

Several weeks ago I wrote about ginseng. I have, in fact, been writing about ginseng for years. There seems to be a never-ending general interest in the plant. Its only rival would be ramps. Come spring, I will no doubt be writing about ramps.

Unsurprisingly, there was a good response to the latest “sang” column, which touched on the estimated payment for a dried pound ($500) this year; the concept known as the Doctrine of Signatures; Cherokee lore; and two “mystery plants” called “sang master” and “sang granny,” which some plant hunters use as “indicator species” to locate ginseng.

I hazarded a guess that “yellow mandarin” (Disporum lingunosa) might be “sang master.” I didn’t have an inkling as to what “sang granny” might be. But I’ve been doing some research (i.e., lying in bed reading) and now have an opinion.  

My horizontal research consisted of reading Doug Elliott’s Swarm Tree: Of Honeybees, Honeymoons, and the Tree of Life (History Press, 2009). Elliott is a naturalist, herbalist, lecturer, writer, adventure trip leader, folklorist and prize-winning harmonica player who resides in Rutherford County. He is a world authority on “possumology,” with a long-standing interest in ginseng. In Swarm Tree, he relates the following sang-possum related tale.   

“If you want to go ‘seng hunting, you come up this fall, and we’ll run yo’ little legs off!”

That sounded like both a challenge and an invitation to go on a ginseng hunt. The offer came from Ted and Leonard Hicks when I was visiting their family homestead high on Beech Mountain in Western North Carolina. I had come there, like so many others, to listen to their dad tell stories. Their father, [the late] Ray Hicks, was a national treasure, known for his incredible repertoire of old-time Appalachian stories … So one morning in early October, when I knew most of the ginseng berries would be ripe and the leaves would be turning that distinctive shade of yellow, I showed up at the Hicks homestead. There I met Leonard at the top of the driveway, where he informed me that both he and Ted had gotten jobs and they had to go to work that morning.

Since I was there already, I went down to the house to say hello to Ray and Rosa. I knocked on the door and heard Ray say, “Come in.”

I could tell that he sort of recognized me from previous visits, but it seemed like he was having trouble placing me. His wife, Rosa, hollering in from the kitchen, reminded him I was the “possum man” and that I had been there a few times over the years.

I don’t know how it is where you live, but among these folks mentioning ‘possums is a great icebreaker. And indeed Ray warmed quickly to the subject. He started talking … and he pretty much kept on talking till later that afternoon when I stood up and said I had to leave ... As for his account of the mating habits and sexual practices, there has been little scientific documentation confirming what he described, but what a tale! I just listened and took it all in.

We talked about ginseng and about how ginseng hunting gets in your blood. He was saying that when you’re walking through the woods, you can tell the places where ginseng is likely to grow — in the richer coves often near chestnut stumps, grapevines or black walnut trees.

“Thar’s a little fearn …” Ray was saying, speaking in his rich Appalachian dialect, full of archaic expressions and word twists. At first I didn’t understand what he was trying to tell me about. Then I realized he was talking about a fern, pronouncing the word like “fee’-ern.”

“Thar’s a little fearn I look for,” he went on to say. “If’n you find that fearn, you’ll find ‘seng (if somebody ain’t got there first and dug it). See, this here fearn, ‘hit’s all hooked up with ginseng. Thar’s a fungus hooked up thar ‘tween their roots.”

I realized he was talking about rattlesnake or grape fern (Botrychium sp.). This little fern grows in the same rich hollows as ginseng, and many mountain folks call it “‘seng sign” or “‘seng pointer” because it’s commonly known to grow in association with ginseng.

When I got home, I looked up the word “fern” in my dictionary, and it said that our word “fern” comes from the Anglo-Saxon “fearn.” So here was this backwoods mountaineer, a vestige of another era, living without a phone or indoor plumbing, speaking an ancient, archaic dialect. Yet he was discussing subterranean microscopic mycorrhizal associations between plants — something that is only just beginning to be understood by modern scientists …

I stopped one more time as I passed through the national forest, remembering that I had started the day with the intention to hunt ginseng. There were still a few hours of daylight left. I headed off into the woods. I worked my way up a creek, traveling across a rich, north-facing slope. I started to see grape ferns, those “fearns” that Ray had told me about, and before long, the distinctive yellowing leaves of ginseng caught my eye. There were about forty plants in this area. Because ginseng has a high price on its head and is being over-harvested in many areas, I was particularly judicious about my gathering from this patch.

So, I am now guessing  that “sang granny” — the second “mystery plant” used locally as an indicator species for ginseng — is “rattlesnake grape fern.”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

You don’t have to live in a cabin to get cabin fever. You can come down with a bad case of cabin fever — which I think of as  “the doldrums” — even if you live in a snazzy mansion. Indeed, I often come down with them right here in my office, on the town square in Bryson City.

The term ”the doldrums” is perfectly descriptive of that listless state of mind and body into which one can seemingly falls at any moment for no specific reason; indeed, if you’ve got a specific cause for your spiritual malaise, you’re “depressed,” which isn’t the same thing.

My dictionary defines the doldrums (a term that is correctly plural in form and usually preceded by “the”) as a period of inactivity with the following symptoms: listlessness, low spirits, gloomy feelings, and being generally “down in the dumps.”

The Oxford English Dictionary quotes a 19th century gentleman named C. Keene as having observed that “The great thing is to avoid ‘the Doldrums.’” Well, that’s seemingly sound advice, but the difficult thing about them is that — like a bothersome guest — they’re usually upon you before you know they’re coming.  I’d amend Mr. Keene’s observation to “The great thing is to know how to rid yourself of the doldrums.”

The OED quotes yet another 19th century gentleman as having found that “A glass of brandy and water is a panacea for the doldrums.” That’s a time-honored prescription, but if you reach for the juice too often when you get the blahs you’re going to have real problems.

The only surefire remedy for the doldrums is a good stroll ... not “a hike” — a bothersome term that implies planning and the toting of heavy loads for some distance. No agenda. No destination. Don’t hurry. Don’t carry anything. Go alone. A stroll can be executed at any distance more than 440-yards and less than a mile. Break a sweat and you’re disqualified. When in doubt, slow down. Pretty soon the doldrums will get bored and go find someone who’s sitting down at a desk.

The view from my office window is limited to the front of the fire department across the street, the tree line of a ridge back of town, and a thin slice of sky to the south. This morning, I’ve already checked the email, voice mail and snail mail. But I can’t seem to settle down to the task at hand, which is writing this column. Deadline looming. I feel fidgety and a little irritated. I’ve got the doldrums. What I need is a little stroll before settling down.

When we go out with a set objective — to observe birds or flowers or fall colors or deer sign, whatever — that objective limits our range of comprehension. While looking at the purple-crested “zoombee” up in a hemlock, we fail to spot the polka-dotted elephant in the underbrush.

Sometimes it’s worthwhile just to get out and see what pops up. Now, at times, no matter how adroitly you stroll along, nothing happens. That’s life; indeed, there are strolling purists who maintain that the ultimate strolls are those in which absolutely “nothing” happens. But generally, something pops up. Let’s see.

October skies. The morning sun catches the gold enamel on the old courthouse clock tower just so. Generally, it’s best to stroll on flat ground, but my feet carry me up the hill behind town to a patch of scrub pine that has overgrown a barren site where some excavation work took place years ago. Under these pines in fall, amanita mushrooms flourish. Their varied hues — ranging from lemon to pink to orange to lime — are gaudy, probably a warning of sorts of the deadly toxins contained therein. Exotic and menacing, they are beautiful in the same way that a thick-bodied black-and-yellow timber rattler is truly beautiful. Amanita’s and rattlers both favor dry, barren, exposed habitats ... and both give warnings to intruders: one with color, the other with sound.

Back down by the Tuckaseigee River, the town’s main bridge attracts a variety of strollers and walkers. The walkers hustle on across, headed for the shops or the railroad depot. The strollers are moving at a pace that allows them to peer over the rail into the river below.

The Tuckasegee is emerald green. A multi-colored tapestry of fall leaves floats on the surface.  Some have become slightly waterlogged and swirl downstream just below the surface.  Others gather in piles on the bottom. A school of brightly-hued bream floats in the quiet pool just upstream from the bridge, making rings where they break the surface to feed.

Joint-weed, virgin’s-bower, Virginia creeper, poison ivy, and other plants cover the hog-wire fence beside the building supply store along the north side of the river. There are morning glories in four shades — blue, purple, red, white — are color forms of the same species. We call them “common” morning glory, but there’s nothing common about them.

My favorite grass is foxtail grass. The curve of their bristly fruiting cluster (the fox’s tail) is accentuated in fall as the weight of the forming seeds causes them to arc. When backlit by sunlight, they shimmer like ornaments. I suppose some gardeners consider foxtail grass to be a weed, but that — as with most things — is all in the eye of the beholder.

The 150-foot swinging bridge leading from the north bank of the river over to Bryson City Island Park — located several hundred yards upstream from the town square — is just about impossible to avoid when you’re out strolling around. You don’t have to think about the bridge to wind up on it ... your feet just naturally take you there.

A footpath winds around the western tip of the island that ought to be marked: “Stroller’s Only — No Walking, No Jogging, No Biking.” On the inland side of the island, the river is a narrow channel that once served as the “boom” area for a timber operation that floated logs down Deep Creek out of the high Smokies. Overhung with giant oaks and tulip poplars, it’s now a peaceful spot.

On the river side of the island, the water crashes through a cascade called “Devil’s Dip.” Kayakers like to fool around here, but today none are present. Instead, a group of 25 or so cedar waxwings are putting on an aerial show as they hawk insects in the bright sunlight out over the water. I’ve read about waxwings feeding in this fashion but have never actually observed them doing so.

The loose family group of young and mature birds has chosen a sycamore as their perch tree. I can see their heads moving as they follow the flight of whatever insect is hatching out. From time to time, one or more of the birds leaves the tree to feed.

They don’t just fly out and grab an insect. That’d be too easy. Waxwings do everything with style.They climb steeply and descend in leisurely, sweeping arcs upstream as if riding a roller coaster, catching a chosen morsel at the peak of each arc.  

Back in the office again ... strolling concluded for the day ... doldrums at bay ... time to crank it up. Out over the fire station, beyond the far ridge, my thin slice of sky is October blue.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared in The Smoky Mountain News in October 2002.

 

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The war in the Smokies proved to be … a curious conjunction of terrain, history, politics, and culture ... a tragic division of loyalties … a brutal partisan conflict

where men left homes and wives and children and trekked north in cold and rain … where still others served in nearly forgotten units to protect border and home.

— Noel C. Fisher, The Civil War in the Smokies

 

One of the remarkable “nearly forgotten” events that took place in the Smokies region during the Civil War occurred at Indian Gap, situated at 5,317 feet between Clingmans Dome and Newfound Gap along the high divide between North Carolina and Tennessee. On Jan. 12, 1865, a Confederate battery of artillery and about 650 men under the command of General Robert B. Vance crossed the Great Smoky Mountains at Indian Gap in an attempt to secure provisions, screen the main approaches to North Carolina, and guard the left flank of Longstreet’s main Confederate force at Greeneville, Tenn.

The primary military objectives failed for the most part, but the crossing itself — accomplished under the most severe conditions — deserves to be remembered for a number of reasons. Described as one of the more “heroic episodes” to take place during the Civil War in the southern mountains, the crossing has been likened to “Hannibal crossing the Alps in miniature.” It involved the Thomas Legion, one of the most colorful forces in the Confederacy, which consisted of a unit put together by Will Thomas made up of both mountaineers and Cherokees. The Indian component of the Legion was initially comprised of 130 Cherokees. Used primarily as scouts, their role in the war involved alleged “atrocities” of scalping made by the northern press. And the crossing took place over the old Oconaluftee Turnpike, sections of which can still be located.

The road was commissioned by the N.C. General Assembly more than three decades prior to the war. Tom Robbins (a now-retired park historian stationed at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center for years) has a long-standing interest in the history of the road. In “Summit Magazine” (Summer 1986), Robbins provided an account of the road’s early history:

“The valley was Cherokee land for hundreds of years before it was given up in a treaty in the 1790’s. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the first permanent white settlers were occupying land along the banks of the Oconaluftee River. Like many areas throughout the mountains, as the population of the valley grew, so did the need for roads to provide a better means of trade and communication.

“In 1831, the N.C. General Assembly authorized the formation of the Oconaluftee Turnpike Co. to build a road through the valley to the top of the Smoky Mountains. Road commissioners were selected from the local community and authorized to sell stock and collect tolls.

“Construction of the road was difficult and time-consuming. Cliffs and the river had to be avoided, thus lengthening the route. Blasting involved hand-drilling holes in rocks and packing the holes with black powder. Large rocks were sometimes split by burning logs on them, then pouring cold water on the hot rocks.

“The road, completed in 1839, followed an older Indian trail along much of its route. It crossed the Smokies at a point called Indian Gap. Initially, the principal traffic on the turnpike was livestock being driven to market. But not long after the road’s completion several men living in the valley formed the Epson Salts Manufacturing Co. in an attempt to tap the mineral resources [at Alum Cave] on the southwestern side of Mount LeConte in Tennessee.”

Robins believes the turnpike gate was probably situated beside the Oconaluftee River about where the present boundary is situated between the national park and Cherokee lands. He has walked the old road up the north bank of the river from the visitor center to the Smokemont Campground area and on to the Kephart Prong trailhead, where it “sort of gets lost” in the old roadways cut there during the CCC days of the 1930s.

Two of the most visible and accessible sections of the Oconaluftee Turnpike are to be found alongside U.S. 441: (1) at the Kephart Prong trailhead cross the footbridge, proceed 100 yards along the main trail, then follow a side trail (to the right) where the old trace is obvious as it is worn up to five feet deep; and (2) at the Oconaluftee Overlook (just below Newfound Gap), where a clearly defined section winds up from the overlook area toward the Clingmans Dome road along the main ridge.

Accounts differ as to just when Thomas started improving the road. The version published in 1914 by John Preston Arthur in Western North Carolina: A History from 1730-1913 is perhaps the most accurate. Arthur states that Thomas obtained “an order from General Kirby Smith in the spring of 1862 to raise a battalion of sappers and miners ... and put them to making roads, notably a road from Sevier County, Tennessee, to Jackson County, N.C. This road followed the old Indian trail over the Collins Gap [another name for Indian Gap], down the Ocona Lufty river to near what is now Whittier, N.C. [ten miles east of Bryson City].”

In January 1864, the 58-year-old Will Thomas and 125 of the Cherokees joined about 100 infantry, 375 cavalry, and one section of artillery Vance had marched from Asheville to acquire provisions and take up positions in Tennessee. By all accounts the winter of 1864 was unusually cold with considerable snow in the higher elevations. According to William R. Trotter’s Bushwackers! The Civil War in North Carolina (vol. 2, 1988):

“The Indian Gap road that … had been hacked through the mountains toward Sevierville was passable as far as the crest of the Smokies, but beyond that the route was little more than a mule-path: steep, rocky, and too narrow even for an ox cart. But what oxen could not do, men could. At the crest, Vance’s men dismantled their artillery. Teams of men carried the wheels, axles, rigging, and ammunition. The gun barrels themselves were harnessed to ropes and rolled, pushed, or dragged down the far side, gun metal screeching on naked rock. The march was characterized not only by Homeric physical exertion, but also by vile weather; Vance and his men did all this into the teeth of savagely cold winds that scoured the mountain tops like a sand-blaster ....”

After reassembling their equipment at the base of the Smokies, Vance’s men had initial success on Jan. 13 with the capture of a Union caravan of about 30 wagons. But shortly thereafter, flushed and cocky by his “little victory,” Vance was smashed at Schultz’s Mill on Cosby Creek by Col. William Palmer’s 15th Pennsylvania Calvary.”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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