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Wednesday, 30 January 2008 00:00

Right in the thick of it

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Our southern mountains are old and relatively sedate when compared with the Himalayas, Rockies, and other “young” mountain ranges. But as any backcountry ranger, hunter, or rescue worker will attest, there’s still plenty of rough, steep and potentially dangerous terrain here.

Aside from cliff-faces, caves, and gorges no other terrain in this region is so vexing or potentially dangerous as the tangles of an extensive heath bald, which are also known locally as “wooly heads,” “wooly tops,” “slicks,” “laurel slicks,” “lettuce beds,” and “yaller patches.” The primary shrubs that compose a heath bald are species in the Heath Family: rosebay rhododendron, purple rhododendron, Carolina rhododendron, mountain laurel, doghobble, and a few others.

Back in the mid-1980s, while looking for the rock shelter where the Cherokee martyr Tsali hid out prior to his surrender and execution in 1838, I misdirected myself into a humdinger of a heath bald in the Fork Ridge portion of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park below Clingmans Dome. As with many things in life, it was a lot easier to get into than out of.

Everything looked the same. Only when I found a boulder to climb up on was I able to see over the canopy. The dense maze of springy tough limbs was virtually impenetrable. Surrendering all dignity, I got down on my hands and knees and crawled downhill — sometimes sliding on my belly — until finally locating a creek that led me out of the maze. Before that episode, the term “laurel hell” had seemed to be mere hyperbole.

Under the heading “Thickets” in his Camping & Woodcraft — a classic in its field that has been in print since 1906 — Horace Kephart observed that he considered “rhododendron worse than laurel, because it is more stunted and grows much more densely, so that it is quite impossible to make a way through it without cutting, foot by foot; and the wood is very tough.”

Kephart related the adventures of “two powerful mountaineers” from Tennessee who, in crossing over the main divide of the Smokies near Thunderhead, consumed two days in a “slick,” while covering but “a matter of three or four miles.”

Asking one of them how they managed to crawl through the thicket, Kephart was advised, “’We couldn’t crawl, we swum,’ meaning that they sprawled and floundered over the top.”

There are numerous “hells” throughout the Smokies region. Among the most infamous is Huggins’ Hell up on Hazel Creek near Bone Valley and the Raven’s Den. (There is another “hell” of the same name near the Alum Cave bluff in Tennessee.) In Land of High Horizons (1938), Elizabeth Skaggs Bowman describes 500 acres of tangled laurel and kindred shrubs. The region was named for Irving Huggins, a herdsman, who was lost there for almost a week and narrowly escaped with his life. While herding cattle on Silers Bald, one of the unique mountain-top meadows, Huggins decided to cross to another ridge. To avoid the long distance around, he attempted to go through the laurel thickets covering the slopes between. His view being cut off by the dense shrubs that grow much higher than a man’s head, he lost his sense of direction and became hopelessly confused. He eventually found a stream ... and by following it managed to reach, more dead than alive, a settler’s cabin near the edge of the wilderness.”

Huggins’ Hell is aptly named. The closest view I’ve had of the area was from the old fire tower (now removed) at High Rocks on Welch Ridge east of Hazel Creek, which was plenty close enough. Just looking down upon that green maze from afar was enough to give me — in Kephart’s apt phrase about how it feels to be truly lost — “a case of the willyjigs.”

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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