The peculiar weather of the Smokies
Weather continues to be the enduring topic for conversation here in the Smokies region. Long after the Eric Rudolph furor has died down, folks will still be thinking, wondering and talking about the weather. The best weather discussions are about strange weather … the stranger the better.
150 and counting: WCU grad student research helps get a handle on impacts of mounting numbers of elk
By Jill Ingram • Guest writer, WCU public affairs office
Covering long distances in and around Cataloochee Valley, a Western Carolina University student is researching the growing, and sometimes problematic, elk population in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The goal is to provide park rangers with data to help manage the herd.
Elizabeth Hillard, a 30-year old graduate student in biology, has gone to great lengths to find out whatever she could about the creatures.
Metal shop takes on artistic rendering of Smokies arch
The blueprint for a sign is punched into a computer, and the machine starts up. Sparks emit from the metal-cutting apparatus as it carves out the words “Gateway to the Smokies” and “Waynesville, North Carolina.”
Here, at this part-machine shop, part-artist studio, all the pieces of Waynesville’s latest public art piece are being sculpted, carved and shaped. Once complete, they’ll be welded together to make a replica of the historic arch that once spanned Waynesville’ Main Street — proclaiming the town as the “Eastern Entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”
The replica won’t span the whole street, but instead will crown the entrance to a downtown mini-park at the corner of Main and Depot streets.
The town’s Public Art Commission contracted Ted Dake, owner of Moto-Fab Metalworks in the Iron Duff community, to build the arch.
“We are really excited about Ted doing it,” said Jan Griffin, head of the art commission. “He is very interested in the history of Waynesville.”
The history is precisely why Dake said he was eager to take on the project.
“This one (project) is special because I am a bit of a history buff,” Dake said.
The original arch spanned Main Street itself for several decades, proclaiming the town as the “Eastern Entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.” When the first arch went up, national parks were all the rage, and towns like Waynesville were quick to declare their close proximity to the Smokies in the hopes of luring at least a portion of the revenue from the new tourism craze.
And for many longtime residents, the arch was a well-known and well-liked Waynesville landmark.
Now, those who fondly remember the original arch won’t have to wait much longer to see the replica donning Main Street. This one will say “Gateway to the Smokies,” rather than the longer original language. It should be complete in about a month, but when exactly it will be installed, “That’s hard to say,” Dake said.
At the latest, the arch will be up by July 18 — the first day of Folkmoot USA, a two-week cultural festival that brings international dance troupes into Waynesville and the greater region. However, the town could erect the arch sooner if completed early.
“It’s all coming together very well,” Griffin said. “I know that he has been working very diligently on it.”
Dake began working with metal as a young man 32 years ago.
“It’s all I’ve ever done,” Dake said.
He made various industrial, blueprint-specific items until about two years ago when his work became more art-focused. The Moto-Fab Metalworks owner started making custom yard art and signs.
Listed among his past works are a historical marker for the town of Bethel and the sign hanging over Frog’s Leap Public House in Waynesville, as well as other metallic touches featured inside the restaurant.
Although there is still some repetition in his work, pieces such as address markers or nameplates are customized for individual clients. His most popular seller is a cowboy kneeling in front of a cross, marking a grave, with his horse standing behind him.
“That is very, very popular. I can’t make enough of those,” Dake said.
The art commission has created and installed three permanent public art pieces around town during the past few years. The latest addition will be the archway, the second art piece referencing the Smokies in the mini-park on the corner across from the historic courthouse. Already in place is a metal railing with mountain peaks and salamanders.
The total cost of the arch project is about $6,000. The art commission sent out its second round of fund-raising letters about a month ago. And, although she declined to say how much the commission had raised so for the project, Griffin said they continue to receive positive response from residents about the endeavor.
“We are doing very well,” Griffin said. “We are very pleased.”
People who wish to donate to help pay for the arch can write a check to the Town of Waynesville and drop it at the municipal building on Main Street. Donors should note that the money is for the art project in the memo line.
Voices of the Smokies to go live in oral project
Recordings made some seven decades ago of nearly 60 men and women who lived in what became the Great Smoky Mountains National Park soon will be made publicly available online.
In 1939, a young graduate student by the name of Joseph Sargent Hall traveled through the region’s coves and hollows with an audio recorder powered off his pick-up truck battery, capturing tales of bear hunts, lessons on herbal remedies and authentic mountain tunes. He spent eight months recording the experiences of older residents and the music of young aspiring musicians. Of the 60 interviews, 17 were from Swain County and 16 were from Haywood County.
One of the mountaineers recorded by Hall was the famous Steve Woody of Cataloochee Valley, who was 86 at the time.
“That’s not me; that’s my grandfather,” Steve Woody the younger said with a laugh. “I can remember him.”
Woody owns a tape rendition of the 1939 recording Hall made of his grandfather. It is a story about a bear hunt, Woody said, and there’s also a photograph in the family album of the actual interview taking place, too.
Woody thinks it’s terrific that the old recordings soon will be made easily available.
“It’s a good thing,” he said. “I think people need to know the history of these mountains.”
When the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was created, hundreds of people living in remote Appalachian settlements were forced to move. Hall’s recordings were made just as this was happening, capturing a moment in time and way of life that was coming to an end. Woody’s grandfather was the last person to move out of Cataloochee Valley after the park was created.
The City University of New York will host the non-commercial website where the recordings will be made publicly accessible. A release date hasn’t been set — the project’s members are trying to ensure that living descendants of those recorded are given notice first that the recordings are being made public.
Michael Montgomery, a professor of English and linguistics at the University of South Carolina and a member of the project team, said that the digitized recordings are being made from tape recordings that were, in turn, made in the 1980s from the original recordings.
“They are actually quite clear for recordings made more than 70 years ago,” Montgomery said, adding that the original discs are held in safekeeping in the Library of Congress.
Copies of the recordings are currently available for people to listen to if, that is, they are willing to drive several hours into Tennessee to the Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee State University.
A chronicler of the people
Using Civilian Conservation Corps camps for home base, Hall ventured throughout the area to record. For this work, Hall used two recorders, one that produced aluminum discs and was operated by cables hooked to a pick-up truck battery and another that made acetate discs and ran on a portable battery pack.
Montgomery said that Hall became close friends with many of the men working in the CCC camps and returned to visit them for many years after the first recordings were made. Hall died in 1992.
Luke Hyde of Bryson City, who had family members who once lived where the park was subsequently created, said he believes it will be helpful to families such as his and for park history buffs in general to have the recordings easily available via a website. In addition to the recordings, searchable texts also will be online.
“I like the general concept,” Hyde said, adding that he is well familiar with the important work done by Hall to record the people of the Smokies.
“He was fascinated by a lot of things, and he listened to people,” Hyde said. “He was one of the chroniclers of the mountain people.”
Montgomery said Hall’s interest in making this set of recordings was to record dialect. That meant he didn’t care so much what people said as long as they said something — so what’s on the recordings are such things as “women talking about herbal remedies and fellows talking about bear hunting,” Montgomery said.
Hall himself wrote about his work that, “the topics of the recordings were anything the informant wished to talk about. Men talked about their farm, their crops, their cattle, and hunting. Women liked to tell recipes or talk about their interest in weaving and quilting and the like.”
Hall also recorded the music of the day. Young musicians played country and swing and other tunes they were hearing on the radio.
“Joseph Hall recorded anything people wanted to play,” Montgomery said.
In 2010, the Great Smoky Mountains Association released “Old Time Smoky Mountain Music,” a CD with 34 of the musical selections recorded by Hall.
Montgomery said that one of Hall’s most admirable traits was his determination to stay in the background and not overshadow the men and women that he was recording.
“He thought that was the best way to counter stereotypes. He wanted mountain people to use their own voices,” Montgomery said. “His approach really was to avoid general statements and to let mountain people speak for themselves.”
Not everyone is certain the release of the recordings is a good idea.
Harley Caldwell, 75, was the last person born in Cataloochee Valley before the park was formed. He’s concerned about the privacy rights of the people who were recorded, about whether they realized that one day their stories and tales would be released publicly.
Caldwell, in fact, is involved in a similar project to Montgomery’s. The Cataloochee Oral History Project teamed with Western Carolina University to record and videotape 33 living descendents from Cataloochee. A DVD is set for release in early 2013.
“It’s a bigger project than I wanted to tackle, but I tackled it anyway,” Caldwell said.
WCU provided the equipment and is editing the interviews and preparing the DVD. Caldwell facilitated the project by rounding up the Cataloochee descendents. Caldwell said, perhaps echoing what Hall also found, that he was most surprised by “the willingness of people to talk about their past.”
One of those men interviewed was age 99, Caldwell said, adding that the man remembered historic events as if they’d occurred yesterday.
“It was the most interesting thing I’ve ever done in my life, and I’ve done a lot of exciting things,” Caldwell said of the oral history project.
One thing Caldwell and his team were careful to do was obtain signed releases from those interviewed — and he worries that, in contrast, Hall’s subjects were never cautioned that one day their voices would be heard again.
Speakers recorded by Joseph S. Hall in 1939:
• Mack Caldwell, 53, Mount Sterling.
• Mack Hannah, 81, Little Cataloochee.
• Mrs. Mack (Fannie) Hannah, 73, Little Cataloochee.
• Millard Hill, 27, Saunook.
• Mark Mehaffey, Maggie.
• Bill Moore, 21, Saunook.
• Howard Moore, Saunook.
• Manuel Moore, Saunook.
• Mrs. George Palmer, 65, Cataloochee.
• Will Palmer, Cataloochee.
• Mrs. Will Palmer, 69, Cataloochee.
• Herbert Stephenson, 25, Saunook.
• Eugene Sutton, 43, Cataloochee Creek.
• Jake Sutton, 63, Cataloochee.
• Jim Sutton, 70, Cataloochee.
• Steve Woody, 86, Cataloochee.
• Mrs. Bill Brown, Towstring Creek.
• Dan Cable, 73, Cable Branch, Proctor.
• Aden Carver, 91, Bradley Fork, Smokemont.
• Mark Cathey, 54, Deep Creek.
• D. F. Conner, 84, Oconaluftee.
• Bert Crisp, 47, Towstring Creek.
• Zeb Crisp, 64, Hazel Creek.
• Grover Gilley, Bryson City.
• Gladys Hoyle.
• Frank Lambert, 40, Towstring Creek, Smokemont.
• Grady Mathis, 50, Smokemont.
• Al Morris, 67, Kirklands Creek.
• Rebecca Queen, 70, Cherokee.
• Docia Styles, 66, Indian Creek.
• Zilphie Sutton, 70, Chestnut Branch.
• Jake Welch, 79, Ryan Branch, Hazel Creek.
• Fate Wiggins, 79, Deep Creek.
• Mary Wiggins, Deep Creek.
WCU’s Hunter Library releases online oral history collection
A series of oral interviews with the people of Western North Carolina are now available online through Western Carolina University’s Hunter Library.
“Stories of Mountain Folk” is the first all-sound collection released by Hunter Library. The collection’s interviews cover traditions, events and life stories of regional individuals including gardeners, herbalists, farmers, musicians, artists and writers. The archive is searchable by name, place and topic.
The interviews were produced by Catch the Spirit of Appalachia, a nonprofit organization founded in 1989 by the sisters Amy Ammons Garza, an Appalachian storyteller, and Doreyl Ammons Cain, a visual artist, with the mission of preserving local memory. In September 2008, Catch the Spirit of Appalachia began “Stories of Mountain Folk” as a half-hour radio show.
Catch the Spirit of Appalachia teamed up with Hunter Library to preserve the recorded material. The online archive holds approximately half of the roughly 200 existing radio programs, with Hunter Library staff continuing to upload the backlog.
“The university has provided expertise to preserve the content, which is very different from academic creation of new intellectual content. This content was created in the community, and the library is providing a service in preserving the material,” said Anna Fariello, an associate professor in Hunter Library’s Digital Programs.
For her part, Garza is thrilled with the arrangement.
“I cannot tell you how my heart leapt when this agreement was signed,” she said. “Saving the voices of the mountain folk has been a longtime goal of Catch the Spirit of Appalachia, for listening to the mountain folk as they tell their own personal stories evokes evidence of an unmistakable wisdom and sense of place.”
The collection can be found at www.wcu.edu/library/digitalcollections/storiesofmountainfolk.
Podcast spreads the word about threat to Smokies’ bats
A podcast released by Great Smoky Mountains National Park outlines efforts to save bats from White-nose syndrome, a potentially fatal disease sweeping through the Smokies’ bat population.
The park is home to at least 11 species of bats, a primary group of flying mammals that play a critical role in the health of ecosystems by consuming forest and agricultural crop insects — such as moths, beetles and mosquitoes.
In the winter of 2010, two bats in a park cave tested positive for a newly described fungus, Geomyces destructans, which is thought to be the cause of White-nose syndrome.
To help prevent the unintentional spread of the fungus, the park closed all of its 16 caves and two mine complexes to people in 2009.
In addition to the podcast, a new bat exhibit has been installed at the park’s Sugarlands Visitor Center.
“The educational materials provide a wealth of information on bat biology, their roosting and foraging behavior, the potential implications of white-nose syndrome and what researchers and biologists are doing to manage this threat, as well as how the public can help protect bats,” said Bill Stiver, park wildlife biologist.
Produced by Great Smoky Mountains Association, the podcast is posted on the park’s website, www.nps.gov/grsm/photosmultimedia/wns-bat-video.htm.
The allure of falling water
Although most people are drawn to waterfalls, many pause before they can articulate why. For some, it’s the sound of the water tumbling over the rocks. For others, it’s the sheer beauty or tranquility.
“Everybody loves them, but nobody can tell you why,” said Kevin Adams, author of North Carolina Waterfalls, A Hiking and Photography Guide. “We’re just mesmerized by them.”
• View the interactive map of 50 selected waterfalls in WNC
• See also: A few wrong turns on the way to paradise
Part of Adams’ love for waterfalls stems from his passion for photography.
Sometimes he’ll take ladders and ropes or swim with his camera to get the shot he wants. But he’s careful and has never hurt himself at a waterfall.
“I respect them. I know how dangerous they are,” Adams said. “I have a wife I love very much that I want to come home to.”
For a quarter of a century, Adams had been trying to shoot a picture of a moonbow, a rainbow caused by the light of the moon instead of the sun. And last winter, he got the shot after standing for 45 minutes in the freezing spray of Rainbow Falls on the Horsepasture River.
With eight inches of snow on the ground and temperatures dipping to 15 degrees, Adams’ camera, clothes and tripod were covered with a thin layer of ice. But he didn’t notice — not until he started heading back to his car.
Whatever the power of attraction may be, the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority knows the ability waterfalls have to draw visitors to the area.
“We understand that waterfalls are one of our greatest resources and attractions,” said Julie Spiro, tourism director in Jackson County.
Spiro has capitalized on being at the heart of waterfall country by creating a map of 19 waterfalls in or near Jackson County. They go through 50,000 of the brochures every year.
“We hand them out all the time,” Spiro said. “It is the most popular product we put out. It’s a wonderful relaxing thing to do that’s still free.”
Spiro has been to all the waterfalls on the map so she can give accurate instructions to visitors. If a tourist can only see one waterfall, she recommends Whitewater Falls, which at 411 feet is the highest waterfall on the East Coast.
“This is the one that will make the biggest impact on their memory,” she said.
Adams also has had great success with his guidebook and photography, so much so that he was able to quit his carpentry job about five years ago and follow his passion fulltime.
His parents always talked about writing a guidebook on North Carolina waterfalls after seeing Lineville, Whitewater and Looking Glass falls on vacation. But it wasn’t until the early 1990s that Adams took on the task.
In 1992, Adams made a cold call to the John F. Blair publishing house in Winston-Salem to see if the guidebook was a feasible idea. He got an answer he wasn’t expecting.
The publisher just happened to be looking for someone to write a book on waterfalls and invited Adams in for an interview. He landed the job. It took Adams a year to do the research and six months to write before the book went to press in 1994.
The waterfall gurus
Adams has seen more than 800 waterfalls — likely more than anyone else alive. But he remains humble about his expertise and willing to share his knowledge. When someone calls him a “guru” or refers to his book as a “waterfall Bible,” he chuckles.
“I realize I know more about North Carolina waterfalls than anyone else on the planet, but I don’t think of it that way,” he said. “Nobody will ever come close to seeing all of them.”
Like Adams, visiting waterfalls is a part of both Jordan Mitchell’s family heritage and publishing success. But Mitchell has gone the online route, posting his information about waterfalls online at northcarolinawaterfalls.info.
The website draws 150,000 unique visitors every month during the summer.
“I have this dueling interest between the outdoors and computers,” he said. “This allows them to come together.”
Between his fulltime job as a software developer and as a new father, Mitchell only makes it to waterfalls a few times a month — still more than most people do in a year, but not enough by Mitchell’s standards.
His daughter, Harper, was only 5 months old when he took her to her first waterfall — also one of the first waterfalls he had ever been to, Douglas Falls in Buncombe County. At the base of the falls, the chronically fussy baby simply stared at the water in silence.
“She was more thrilled than I could imagine she’d be,” he said. “She was mesmerized.”
Why the rush?
Bryson City writer and naturalist George Ellison said he thinks part of the reason people are fascinated with waterfalls is that they activate all five senses, likening the experience of standing at the base of a waterfall to walking into a bakery.
But there may be an even stronger scientific reason behind people’s fascination with waterfalls and for the euphoric feeling many have at the base of a waterfall.
Rushing water in waterfalls releases negatively charged ions. Once they’re breathed in and begin to circulate in the blood, negative ions trigger biochemical reactions that increase the production of a neurotransmitter called serotonin, which can reduce stress, lift the mood and increase energy, according to “Negative Ions Create Positive Vibes” written by WebMD reporter Denise Mann and reviewed by Dr. Brunilda Nazario. They also increase the amount of oxygen that gets to the brain.
“The air circulating in the mountains and the beach is said to contain tens of thousands of negative ions — much more than the average home or office building, which contains dozens or hundreds, and many register a flat zero,” Mann wrote.
But some scientists remain skeptical of the claim. And many waterfall goers feel the escape the scenery offers is enough to lift their spirits.
“I enjoy taking the day off from work and getting away from it all,” said Tom Mendenhall after hiking with his brother and friend to reach Wardens Falls in Panthertown earlier this month.
Wayne Joyce, Mendenhall’s friend with a vacation home in Cashiers, said he plans most of his hikes around waterfalls, often eating lunch at the base. Wardens Falls is one of his favorites.
“We hiked five miles to get here so we must like it,” he said.
That same day, Dawn Lavers came to Wardens Falls with her friends and family, who recently moved to Lake Toxaway from Florida.
“We only come when we really don’t have to be anywhere,” she said. “You don’t ever want to be rushed to leave.”
Lavers said that there’s beauty in every waterfall, but that each one is beautiful for a different reason. Some are powerful and dangerous; whereas, others are tranquil and secluded or make for great swimming holes.
The beauty of the region’s waterfalls was enough to lure Rich Stevenson, founder and developer of ncwaterfalls.com, to move to the mountains from Raleigh.
While he was working at Federal Express, Stevenson visited friends in the mountains who took him on a tour of the chain of falls on the Horsepasture River, including Turtleback and Rainbow Falls.
“I used to be a big beach person, but after that I kept coming back to the mountains,” he said.
Stevenson quit the two jobs he had in the Triangle and moved to Western North Carolina. Since then, he estimates he’s seen 400 to 500 falls. Some of the falls he heard about from locals he worked with at his manufacturing job in Candler — locals who’ve spent their entire lives exploring and fly-fishing in the backcountry.
“Once they realize I wasn’t a city wacko, they’ve turned me on to some places,” he said.
In 1999, Stevenson began posting his waterfall finds online. And in 2001, he launched ncwaterfalls.com, one of the most comprehensive online indexes of North Carolina waterfalls.
“At first I thought I was the only fool out there looking for waterfalls,” Stevenson said.
But Stevenson was wrong. The site has grown to include about 280 waterfalls and receives between 1,000 and 2,000 unique visitors a day.
Stevenson soon learned there was a circle of waterfall hunters like himself, those who will strike out along a creek coursing over steep terrain, sometimes bushwhacking and sometimes wading their way down the mountain hoping to discover a previously unknown waterfall.
Stevenson’s swing shift job keeps him from exploring new falls as often as he’d like. Usually, his friend Bernie Boyer, a retired man in his seventies, will study topographic maps, discover a new falls and take Stevenson to it on his next trip.
But sometimes Stevenson finds time to hop in a creek bed and head upstream in hopes of discovering something himself.
“Usually the first thing is that you hear the sound,” he said. “You feel your heart pounding a little bit. There’s a real excitement knowing there’s something around the corner.”
But when it comes to the relatively undiscovered falls, Stevenson and Adams use discretion before making directions available to the public.
Although some of sights they discover are spectacular, the environment at the base of the falls is fragile, covered in rare plant and animal species. A plethora of hikers would destroy the falls’ unique inhabitants.
“You go there and you see that it looks like nobody’s been there for 100 years,” Stevenson said.
Some of the most unique species located at waterfalls are rare ferns, typically found only in the tropics. Because these species of ferns in North Carolina don’t grow to their adult form, they don’t look like a typical fern. They are usually only a small leaf.
The species grow in low light and moist, cool environments, the conditions found behind a waterfall.
“You have a small area with a lot of diversity in a microclimate,” said Anya E. Hinkle, Highlands Biological Station associate director. “Even if it’s hot, a waterfall really cools things off quickly.”
Figuring out how the species took root at North Carolina waterfalls can solve mysteries related to plant migration or provide geographical clues about how the areas were once located closer together before the continents shifted to their present positions.
Naturalist George Ellison often leads flora tours to waterfalls to view the unique plants. He’s seen many of the area’s falls, but some of his fondest memories come from Little Creek Falls, a small-flow, nearly vertical cascade in a lesser known area of the Great Smoky National Park outside Bryson City.
He would take his children to the falls decades ago before the public property in front park entrance came under the ownership of a trout farm.
“People are naturally attracted to the larger ones like Whitewater Falls,” Ellison said. “But those aren’t the ones that mean the most to people around here.”
It’s one of those smaller waterfalls that Kevin Adams holds a particular fondness for. Although he doesn’t usually name the falls he discovers, he named one in the Nantahala National Forest Loretta Falls after his mom.
“She instilled the love of waterfalls in me,” he said. “I knew she would absolutely love it.”
The falls is the tall freefall of a small creek. At the base of the falls, there’s no pool, only thick moss and ferns and some tall hemlock trees.
“It’s a really nice feeling to walk up to a waterfall that you’ve never seen before,” Adams said. “I got to tell you that’s one hell of a feeling, standing there in front of it.”