Bear encounters: Bears on the prowl for food lead to increased sightings

A bad year for acorns in the higher elevations, coupled with a poor berry crop region wide, has resulted in an influx of black bears into areas where the majority of mountain residents live: the cities, towns and mountainside developments of Western North Carolina.

Hungry bears are looking for acorns, moving into lower elevations in their hunt for food before hibernating for the winter. This has bear and human encounters in WNC tracking on a record pace this year.

“This year is an anomaly because of the acorn crop. There almost none (high) in the mountains,” said biologist Mike Carraway of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. “The bears are looking for food.”

SEE ALSO: Forget the birdfeeders and dog bowls, this bear went straight for the kitchen cupboard

As hungry bears descend from the highlands, motorists are hitting and killing bears on the highway more than ever, particularly in such traditional bear habitat as the Pigeon River Gorge where Interstate 40 cuts through national forest lands.

The Wildlife Resources Commission reports cars have hit and killed more than a dozen black bears in WNC in the last couple of weeks alone. In all 12 months of last year, 10 bears were killed after being struck by motorists.

Additionally, phone calls about “nuisance” bears to North Carolina’s wildlife offices are numbering in the hundreds, well above what’s usually received, Carraway said. The state has received 300 calls so far this year, with the previous high for an entire year standing at about 400, he said.

SEE ALSO: Close encounters of the bear kind

The state does not capture and remove bears anymore: there’s simply nowhere to put them. Additionally, “we can’t catch hundreds of bears,” Carraway said.

The bottom-line on the issue, at least according to the state biologist and the region’s other bear experts? We’ve got to learn how to live with black bears. And to not feed them, to put up bird food and dog food as needed, to slow down and watch out for bears on the highway, and do those other easy, sensible things that will allow bears and humans to peacefully coexist.

 

Why so many?

The sheer numbers of bears now in the mountains are compounding the problem. Conservation efforts to help black bears in WNC thrive have proven successful, which is terrific, except that right now all of them are converging into the lower elevations in a desperate hunt for food.

“There’s a lot of mobility in and out of the park,” said Bob Miller of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “It’s the fall shuffle. But, normally this time of year, there would have been a good acorn crop (in the Smokies) they could have camped out on. They are headed to apple orchards, and so on.”

There have been the same issues, an increase in human and bear encounters, in east Tennessee, Miller said. Camper and bear encounters are down in the Smokies, because the bears have moved on — two backcountry campsites were closed because of bear activity, but park officials probably will reopen those soon, Miller said.

Plus, mother bears responded to a great acorn crop last year by having more cubs than normal this spring. Which is likely why so many local newspapers in recent days are running reader-donated photographs of a mother bears and their young — the mothers are trying to find food to save the cubs from starvation.

Despite outcry, Swain not in the running to house Smokies’ artifacts

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park might finally get a place to store its sizeable cache of historical artifacts, but it almost certainly won’t be in Swain County.

Earlier this year, when the park broke the news about what it’s calling a curatorial collections facility to be built in Townsend, Tenn., Swain County residents were unimpressed.

They packed a Swain County commissioners meeting to vent their spleen, asking why such a trove of historical treasures weren’t going to be located in the county that claims the lion’s share of the parkland.

“Was any consideration given to the fact that Swain County gave more land and our people were given more broken promises than any other county in the park?” Linda Hogue wondered rhetorically. She and others asked commissioners to pitch Swain County as a better location for the place. They pointed out that Swain residents, when displaced by the park’s creation, donated many of the artifacts that would be housed in such a facility and wanted them to be housed locally rather than in Tennessee.

“I’m weary and I’m sure you are, too, of singing a same song, different verse. I’m asking you to go to bat for us. We have land right here close to Bryson City for such a facility,” said Hogue.

Park brass, however, have said that a venue change is unlikely, especially since Swain County already has the park’s only cultural museum at the newly christened Oconaluftee Visitors’ Center at the Smokies’ main North Carolina entrance outside Cherokee.

That, said Swain County Manager Kevin King, is a misconception that has been circling around the project since its announcement. And indeed, many who voiced opposition to a Tennessee location cited the economic benefits of having an added visitor attraction in the county.

But even if the center were located in Swain County, the artifacts in question wouldn’t be set up for public viewing anyway, said Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson in a letter to commissioners.

“What is proposed is a storage facility not a museum,” said Ditmanson, in the letter.

Currently, the Native American spear points, logging equipment, farm implements, period clothes, weaving looms, moonshine stills and various other relics from the area’s pre-park days are scattered around. Most live in a hard-to-reach facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The new facility would bring them together and provide a safer home that would keep them in better shape for longer, and avoid paying rent on a place to house them in off-site.

The real reason the storage house is staying in Tennessee, however, is financial. The park is partnering with four other national parks in that state to split the costs and the space, and a donation of 1.6 acres has already been made for the facility’s footprint. Plus, money was allocated in 2009 and 2010 to build a facility in Tennessee.

“This would be really convenient for us to be able to operate and manage and work with the other parks,” said Nancy Gray, a spokesperson from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s public affairs arm. “It would benefit everybody to get all of the artifacts into a central location.”

King agreed, saying that if and when Swain County gets a museum up and running in the historic courthouse — as is on the long-term to-do list for the county — getting some items on loan from the park would be a lot easier, were they in one locale.

Still, said Hogue, having the county’s historical assets in Tennessee is a travesty in the first place.

“A facility of this type would mean so much more to our people than just a building with old things cataloged in it,” said Hogue. “I have talked with many elderly Swain County citizens and they relayed to me that they had donated items to the park with the assurance that they would remain in Swain County.”

The park is still awaiting federal funds for construction, and it was missed out in this year’s allocation. So central storage is still a good few years away. But when it comes, Swain County probably won’t be its final destination.

Park proposals add insult to injury

I recently wrote in the Swain County newspaper about a singularly misguided proposal by Great Smoky Mountains National Park leadership to transfer their archives and artifacts to Townsend, Tenn. A Swain County site makes more sense, and full marks to county commissioners for becoming actively involved in this issue.  

Beyond that, any resident in Swain County who gives a fig for the future or cares about our rich role in the Park’s past should speak out as well. The comment period remains open, and I’d strongly encourage readers to make their feelings known to the Park (www.nps.gov/grsm) and Swain native Rep. Heath Shuler (www.shuler.house.gov).

Incidentally, although I have asked specific questions and offered comments on the issue to Park officials, the only response I have had came in a testy conversation with a spokesman, Bob Miller. When I pointed out, repeatedly, inconsistencies between the comments period cited in his press release and what appeared on the Park’s web site (the latter was changed multiple times, with one comment period closing almost as soon as it opened), he said:  “We’ll change it on the web site.”

What I could not get him to understand was that saying one thing in a printed press release and subsequently changing the rules of the game was confusing, and in my view disingenuous.

As if that situation wasn’t vexatious enough, close on the heels of the archives/artifacts proposal comes another which is, if anything, more convoluted and ill-conceived. A recent press release proposes changes in regulations governing backcountry camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Park leadership tells us that backcountry “site capacities are frequently exceeded.” In addition, according to their statement, “once backpackers obtain their reservations and arrive at their campsite, they often find the area filled by people without permits.” In the same release they also complain of lack of staff to patrol the backcountry.  

Staff issues are matters for Park management, but they are missing in action in the backcountry. Personally I haven’t seen a ranger in the backcountry for decades, and I’ve only been checked while fishing once in the last quarter century.

The release raises questions.  “How, other than hearsay, do officials know capacities are exceeded?” “If there are significant problems, why aren’t they addressing the situation with patrols?” “Does hard statistical evidence support changes?” “If problems exist to such a significant degree, hasn’t the Park been guilty of neglect?”  

No doubt Park answers will plead budgetary constraints and more urgent frontcountry needs. There is validity to both, notwithstanding troubling examples of Park employee “do nothingness” alongside stellar work by others.  

Or to view matters another way, if plans involve demands on Park staff, let’s handle matters proportionally.  Look at the ceaseless “circlers” in Cades Cove, asphalt-bound flocks of buzzards filling the air with exhaust fumes.  

Closer to home, what about the unending tube brigade parading up Deep Creek? They degrade banks between trail and stream; leave a noxious, never-ending legacy of litter in their wake; and channel the creek with habitat harming “engineering” projects.  

Yet it seems such folks, like those breaking dog walking regulations, picking flowers, and much more, are studiously ignored while Park officials focus their fiscal laser beam on the tiny minority — probably less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all Park visitors — who camp in the backcountry. If they are serious about making folks pay as they go or want a fair distribution of what a friend has nicely styled “ranger impact,” let’s bring some balance to the user equation.   

Perhaps more to the point, it seems logical to believe that active backcountry patrolling, along with meaningful fines for angling violations, ginseng poaching, illegal camping, and the like, would accomplish two things. It would provide money to justify the manhours involved and would dramatically curtail such activities.

Interestingly, another recent Park press release says that there has been a steady decline in Park visitation over the past several years. Logically, if that is the case, backcountry usage should also be down. The most recent statistics I could find, from a detailed 2008 study out of the University of Tennessee, bear that out and make Park statements seem ludicrous. According to the study, with the notable exception of the shelters along the Appalachian Trail, campsite usage is anything but heavy.    

Take Deep Creek as one example. None of the seven streamside campsites had heavy usage. Only Poke Patch and Bumgardner Branch, the most easily reached of the lot, averaged more than one camper a night for the year (375 and 526 campers, respectively).

Indeed, if you look at campsites from Cataloochee to Twentymile Creek, only two other than Appalachian Trail shelters — Lost Cove on Eagle Creek and Proctor on Hazel Creek — totaled more than a thousand camper nights. That scarcely sounds like overcrowding, when most campsites are suitable for anywhere from 8 to 20 campers per night. Some accommodate appreciably larger numbers.

Additional evidence suggesting misrepresentation of the backcountry situation comes from conversations with hikers and campers as well as my personal observations.   My brother, who has hiked thousands of Park miles in recent years, says he has encountered precisely one ranger more than a mile from a trailhead. He also notes, in sharp contradiction to what Park management would have us believe, that he seldom sees backpackers and that most of the campsites he walks by are empty or sparsely populated.

Even easily accessible sites seldom have more than a couple of tents except on weekends and perhaps during peak months (May and October). Take the storied Bryson Place, for example, where you might think crowded conditions often exist. Not so. The 2008 study showed 158 camper nights for the entire year.

A key part of the proposal is that Park management wants to charge a user fee. Putting aside all the considerations addressed above for a moment, I would simply remind Park officials, from Superintendent Dale Ditmanson down, that charging a backcountry fee would break a solemn pledge made at the Park’s founding. Namely, that there would be no access fees for the Smokies. Also, I suspect this is a “foot in the door” kind of thing that could lead to other user and even entrance fees.

As the poet of the Yukon, Robert Service, once wrote, “A promise made is a debt unpaid.” Sadly, Park officials have often broken promises, and here we seem to have a case of where a promise made bids fair to turn into a situation where the Park must be paid. That’s how I see this proposal – as a money grab.

If I believed that there was overcrowding, if I believed that the current reservation system didn’t work, if I believed the fees collected would be used exclusively for backcountry-related matters such as maintenance and a meaningful ranger presence, and if I believed it would stop here, I would tolerate a modest fee. Alas, I think the likelihood of such monies being used exclusively for their proclaimed purposes about the same as thistle seeds being unaffected by dust devils dancing across fields in August.

Even as I urge readers to be heard, I’ll close by confessing cynicism. Past experience suggests that these comment periods and informational sessions are often mere façades, not serious factors in ultimate decisions.  Nonetheless, I think anyone who cares should make their voice heard. Sufficient, strident opposition just might have an impact.

(Jim Casada is a writer, an editor and a retired professor from Bryson City. His most recent book is Fly Fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: An Insiders Guide to a Pursuit of Passion.)

 

Comment on Proposals

Send comments to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or mail the Superintendent, GSMNP, 107 Park Headquarters Road, Gatlinburg, Tenn., 37738.

Backpackers in the Smokies may soon pay for permits

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park boasts the largest backcountry in the Eastern United States, yet for backpackers hoping to take in a slice of that wilderness with an overnight trip, finding a park ranger to help with logistics can be elusive.

Even seasoned backpackers tackling new terrain in the Smokies are bound to have questions. Where’s the closest water source? What’s the elevation gain? How likely is snow in April?

Yet the so-called Backcountry Information Desk is staffed for only three to four hours a day, and by volunteers at that.

“That phone is constantly busy,” said Melissa Cobern, backcountry manangement specialist with the Smokies. “That’s where we get a lot of complaints, where people have to call and call and call to try to get through.”

Cobern said the Smokies needs to beef up the backcountry desk with fulltime rangers, whose sole job is to help backpackers plan their routes.

It’s not that the volunteers don’t know their stuff. Most are members of the 900 Miler Club, an elite group who have hiked all 900 miles of the park’s trails.

“You are going to get good information when you get on the phone with them,” Cobern said.

But there just aren’t enough of them to keep the desk staffed all day long or handle the volume of calls, not when you consider each call takes 10 to 30 minutes.

The park hopes to hire rangers to staff at the backcountry information desk, as well as hire more rangers to patrol the backcountry. But to do so will take more money, and that has prompted the park to consider charging backpackers for overnight camping.

A meeting to hear from the public on the plan will be held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, August 16, at the Old Oconaluftee Visitor Center at the park’s main entrance outside Cherokee.

Unlike front country campgrounds with picnic tables, bathrooms and running water, backcountry sites are usually miles from nowhere, scattered across the park’s vast half a million acres and some embedded so deeply in the wilderness it takes three days to reach them from the closest trailhead.

Backpackers in the park have to camp at one of 100 designated backcountry sites, intended to limit impacts on the wilderness.

“The rest of the park is so dense and so steep, you can’t just throw down anywhere. The park would be a mess if people did that,” said Bob Miller, a spokesperson for the Smokies.

The backcountry sites have no amenities other than a fire ring and cables to hang food out of reach of bears.

The Smokies is hardly plowing new ground. All the big parks out West — Glacier, Yellowstone, Zion, Yosemite, Denali and so on — charge a fee for backcountry camping.

But the plan to charge for backpacking here could hurt “the common man,” said Tom Massie, a fisherman who frequents the Smokies.

“In these tough economic times there are families that can’t afford to go to Myrtle Beach or a big vacation somewhere else, so they take their vacations fishing or camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” Massie said. “The park systems have already been bought and paid for by the citizens of this country, particularly this park. What we are doing is making people pay to use their own national park.”

Whether to charge, and, if so, how much, is one thing the Smokies rangers want to hear from the public.

The park has floated a few options to jumpstart discussion. At the high end: $5 per person per night plus a $10 reservation fee covering the entire group no matter how large or how many nights. At the low end: just $4 per person per night with no reservation fee.

Unless the fee plan goes through, the park isn’t willing to reallocate existing rangers to backcountry assignments.

“Front country has always gotten more attention than the backcountry,” Miller said of the Smokies.

While the Smokies is the most visited national park in the county with around 9 million visitors, only a small fraction come to backpack.

In 2010, there were 33,000 backpackers and a total of 79,480 backcountry nights — meaning each of the 33,000 backpackers averaged 2.5 nights in the woods.

Overnight backpacking is down from 20 years ago, but has started to climb back up in the past five. There were 92,000 backcountry nights in 1994. It dropped to a low of 70,00 backcountry nights in 2006, and is now back up to 79,480.

All the park’s backcountry sites have limits on how many people are supposed to camp at them a given night, ensuring the wilderness experience backpackers are expecting and limiting human impact.

About one-third of the park’s more popular backcountry sites already require reservations to prevent overcrowding. Those are currently taken over the phone, and can be equally frustrating for backpackers trying to get through.

The rest of the park’s backcountry sites require simple self-registration. Backpackers pause at a registration box found at each trailhead, fill out a slip and drop it in the slot before being on their way.

There’s no way for park rangers or other backpackers to know how many people ahead of them or behind them might also have plans to camp at that site.

“A lot of those self registration sites aren’t that popular, but you could certainly end up in the situation where there are a lot of people at that site and there would be more people than you find comfortable,” Miller said.

A more formal reservation system would solve that problem. But it could also complicate matters for the last-minute backpackers, those who live in nearby communities and want to make an overnight jaunt to their favorite trout stream.

Under the new system, they would either have to go online before leaving the house and print out their permit, or get in the habit of planning trips in advance so the permit can be mailed to them.

Their only other option is make a trip to a staffed visitor center that can issue backcountry permits, which would be out of the way for backpackers heading into outlying areas like Cataloochee or Fontana.

Along with beefing up the backcountry information desk, Cobern said the park equally needs more backcountry presence and ranger enforcement.

While backpackers are supposed to get reservations for the more popular sites, some don’t with little threat of being caught.

This frustrates those who have actual reservations, who arrive at the site to find there isn’t enough room, Cobern said.

The most serious problem, however, is there aren’t enough bear cables for everyone to hoist their food off the ground, and that leads to bear problems, Miller said.

Charlie’s Bunion and early history of the park

(Editor’s note: This column first appeared in The Smoky Mountain News in July 2005.)

Are you by chance looking for a high-elevation day-hike that embodies quite a bit of the region’s human history? If so, try the moderate to steep portion of the Appalachian Trail that leads from the Newfound Gap parking area in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Charlies Bunion.

Murlless and Stallings in Hiker’s Guide to the Smokies (1973) designated Charlies Bunion to be “probably the most spectacular view in the park. Almost sheer cliffs drop more than 1,000 ft. into Greenbriar section.” Located on the Tennessee-North Carolina border 4.0 miles north of Newfound Gap, this bare rock outcrop is situated at 5,375 feet. The narrow, cliff-hugging trail affords breathtaking views not only down into the abyss but far westward out beyond Mt. Le Conte into Tennessee. It’s not the Grand Canyon by any means, but the site can give you a touch of vertigo in a heartbeat.

The rocky outcrops of Charlie’s Bunion (formerly called Fodderstack) were created in the mid-1920s when a fire swept over the crest. The exposed humus was washed completely away shortly thereafter in a deluge. The curious place name dates to 1929 when Swain County native Charlie Conner was hiking with outdoorsman Horace Kephart, photographer George Masa, and others along the high divide. When they paused for a rest on the rocks, Conner took his boots and socks off, exposing a bunion or two that rivaled the surrounding stones. Eying Conner’s feet, Kephart remarked, “Charlie, I’m going to get this place put on a government map for you.” And he did.

As exciting as the views from Charlie’s Bunion are, the walk from Newfound Gap up over Mt. Kephart and down around Masa Knob is equally interesting. It’s a stroll through the early history of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Newfound Gap (5,040 feet)is situated 16 miles from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center on the North Carolina side of the GSMNP. The site came by its name when it was discovered (perhaps as early as the 1850s) by surveyors to be a lower pass through the high Smokies than Indian Gap two miles to the west. In 1928, when funds to acquire national park lands were proving hard to come by, John D. Rockefeller donated over $5 million as a memorial to his mother.  In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) dedicated the GSMNP — which had been officially founded in 1934 — in ceremonies at the gap.

At 1.7 miles, the AT leads to a gap and an intersection with Sweat Heifer Creek Trail. According to Allen R. Coggins in Place Names of the Smokies (1999), this name “goes back to a time when cattle (including young, virgin female cows called heifers) were driven up the strenuous pathway along this stream to summer pasture.”  One supposes that this sort of rugged terrain made the virgin heifers sweat.

At 2.7 miles, the AT reaches the intersection with the Boulevard Trail, which leads 5.3 miles to Mt. Le Conte, named for John Le Conte, a scientist, not for his older brother, Joseph Le Conte, as is often supposed.  

About 100 yards from the AT, a spur trail off the Boulevard Trail leads 0.8 miles to Mt. Kephart (6,217 feet) and the Jump-Off (6,100 feet), which also has truly spectacular views. The mountain is named for Bryson City writer Horace Kephart (1862-1931), author of the classics Camping and Woodcraft (1906) and Our Southern Highlanders (1913). Kephart was a force in the movement that helped establish the GSMNP and was nominated to have a mountain named after him in the late 1920s while still living.  

This story is told in full for the first time in a Web site titled “Horace Kephart: Revealing an Enigma” www.library.wcu.edu/digitalcoll/kephart/), which was completed about six years ago by the Special Collections division of Hunter Library at Western Carolina University. Using a variety of media, the library has built an in-depth archive around the life and times of Kephart that presents photos, artifacts, documents, writing, maps, and links to other sources of information.

In the section of this Web site devoted to the naming of Mt. Kephart, it’s noted that, “The life of Horace Kephart ended unexpectedly in a 1931 automobile accident. While the National Park he campaigned to create was not yet a reality, it was already clear that despite the obstacles to its founding, the park would come to the mountains he had grown to love. Of the many individuals involved in creating the park, Kephart was already recognized as a leader in the movement during his later years …The North Carolina Literary and Historical Commission urged that a mountain in the coming park be named after Kephart. In 1928 [a peak] in the proposed park was officially named [for him], an honor rarely given to living individuals.

At 2.9 miles along the AT you will reach Icewater Spring and shelter (5,900 feet) after swinging around the North Carolina side of Mt. Kephart. From Icewater Springs, the trail drops down through slate outcrops and across Masa Knob.

George Masa (1881-1933) was the well-known Japanese photographer whose Japanese name was Masahara Iisuka. Masa had a commercial studio in Asheville, but he spent as much time in the Smokies with his dearest friend (who he called “Kep”) as he could. His magnificent photographs of the Smokies often illustrated the articles Kephart wrote in support of the park movement. Masa was so distraught when Kephart was killed in the automobile accident that he petitioned the government with a barrage of letters requesting that he be buried with “Kep” at a site in the Smokies. This was not to be. Masa is buried in Asheville.

But it is absolutely appropriate that their names be linked in this way via natural monuments in the high Smokies along that portion of the AT leading from Newfound Gap to Charlies Bunion.

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..

Name that… Creative fundraising supports effort to count every living thing in the Smokies

Some of the scientists helping to identify every living species in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are giving up rights to name their discoveries for an even bigger prize: raising money to ensure the continued survival of the Discover Life in America project.

The All Taxa Biological Inventory started 12 years ago as an attempt to document each of the estimated 60,000 species in the Smokies, a place long considered — and now proven to be — a biological hotspot. To date, 7,100 species not previously known to dwell in the park have been identified. Of those, 910 are completely new species, never before identified.

The cost to name one of Discover Life in America’s newly identified creatures cost buyers $2,500 to $10,000. In return, donors get a print photograph of their named organism, plus a copy of the scientific publication in which the species is first described.

For those donors not wanting to shell out the big bucks, something small — such as a newly discovered mite — often proves the winning ticket. Mites simply don’t have the cachet larger species have — a certain je ne sais quoi, as it were, that the public attaches to butterflies, salamanders and similar lovelies.

The selling-the-naming-rights effort has been under way for three or four years. Discover Life in America has successfully sold just about that many — three or four to date, said Todd Witcher, executive director of the group.

Because of the secrecy surrounding the scientific process, and the length of time it takes for the scientific community to approve a discovery, no information about who has bought what has ever been made public.

There’s another reason for that, too: a bit of potential stigma exists for the scientists involved — not everyone in the scientific community approves of this fairly new, but increasingly utilized, fundraising method. Critics worry that with commercial value being attached to finds, people will “discover” new species solely for financial gains.

When it comes to the naming game, the Discover Life in America’s fundraising effort is frankly small potatoes. An auction to name 10 species of fish netted Conservation International $2 million in 2007. And, in 2005, the Wildlife Conservation Society raised $650,000 in an Internet auction of a Bolivian monkey.

“It is certainly a sign of the times,” said Witcher, adding the Discover Life in America, with an annual budget of $250,000, struggles to stay afloat financially.

The nonprofit doesn’t just cover administrative costs, staff salaries and such. The group actually extends grants to scientists to encourage study of certain taxa in the Smokies. Witcher said the competition is fierce to acquire the services, say, of one of just two scientists in the world with the ability to identify a particularly obscure species.

How many folks have you ever met have expertise in slime molds, for instance? A small grant sometimes helps persuade a scientist with sought-after taxonomy skills to work in the Smokies.

Why does it matter if we know about slime molds? There’s the sexy answer, that the cure for cancer might well lie in an undiscovered species, perhaps here in the Smokies. Less alluring, but also important, is the need for baseline data: you can’t know what’s being lost if you don’t first know what’s there.

One of the many difficulties, as Witcher alluded to, is the relatively small number of scientists with the credentials and the ability to take on the work — that is, of identifying species in the field. This also worries New Discover Life in America board member Laura Mahan, who with her husband, Hal, operates The Compleat Naturalist, a natural history store in Asheville.    

A trained biologist, Laura Mahan has an intense interest in science education. She said that’s one of the most fantastic parts of Discover Life in America — the pairing of nonscientists with scientists to actually conduct real science together.

And, hopefully, this will help lead to more interest among people in learning how to identify various species.

 

Make it yours

Want to name a new-to-science discovery in the Smokies? Call Discover Life in America at 865.430.4757 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

New GSMNP visitor center is worth a trip

This past Friday (April 15) I attended the dedication ceremony for the new Oconaluftee Visitor Center on the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Cherokee. I wouldn’t normally enjoy a program made up of eight or so speeches, but as this one proceeded I found myself smiling.

I was pleased that the North Carolina side of GSMNP finally has a real visitor center. I was pleased that the directors, board members, and general membership of the Great Smoky Mountains Association and Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park received due recognition in regard to raising private funding that totaled $3 million. And I was pleased that it was such a nice friendly-looking building — the sort of public facility you’d enjoy visiting with your mother or your children or by yourself.

I tried after the dedication to tour the exhibit area. But I couldn’t get into it ... too many people I knew … too many distractions. So I left and came back Sunday afternoon. I don’t know anything about the nitty-gritty of designing buildings or planning exhibits. I do love museums of almost any sort, ranging from the grand old Smithsonian in the nation’s capital to the delightful county museum housed in a basement in Murphy. I’ve probably been through the nearby Museum of the Cherokee Indian at least 20 times, with groups or on my own. Here then are some random impressions of the new OVC.

Many traditional museum exhibits are driven by printed sources; that is, the designers read the significant books about a given event or place and use that information to present (in enclosed wall or glass-topped table displays) a chronological account based on — and quoting extensively from — those sources.

The new OVC exhibits are refreshingly free of that semi-academic approach. The only authors allowed even a sentence or two are Francis Asbury, Horace Kephart, Paul Fink and John Parris. (James Mooney, author of the monumental Myths of the Cherokees published in 1900, probably did deserve a word.) Instead, the new OVC exhibit is thematic — depicting via “Mountain Voices” how lands within and related to the park have been used through time by various peoples in various ways — as they sought to establish homelands suitable to their needs. As such, it necessarily tells the story of the ongoing relationship between the Cherokees, the white settlers, and their respective descendents.

Displays are devoted to Cherokee lore, Trail of Tears, Civil War, logging, moonshine, household and farm implements, family relationships, trails and roads, mills, CCC camps, natural history and more. The sounds of voices and music are literally in the air, not as white noise but as an integral part of the presentation. It is, in fact, more of an active “presentation” than static “display.”  

The planners clearly strived for diversity in regard to presentation. Layers of often-interactive information are presented via video, print, artwork, maps, photos and voice recordings. Some exhibits, for instance, are designed as hands-on oversized notebooks, while others roll or spin with illustrated sequences. There are free-standing information boards and several video screens along with traditional enclosed wall displays. I can’t pretend to have absorbed a very high percentage of the overall content. After about an hour of looking my brain was saturated.   

The primary exhibit area consists of a round kiosk inside a large room. Foot traffic flows clockwise and counterclockwise around the outside and within the kiosk. There is a chronological component, but the individual visitor isn’t locked into a predetermined route. I liked that aspect. I like to ramble around, and I noticed that not a few of my fellow visitors had chosen to wander with me backwards in time from 2011 AD to circa 1000 AD.

Many reading this will remember the oversized (perhaps 4-by-10 feet) raised relief map of the GSMNP that resided on a table in the old OVC. It looked like it had been constructed with mud overlaid with dull green enamel paint. That monstrosity has been replaced in the new OVC by a terrific raised relief map that depicts the topography of the park and adjacent areas in considerable detail.

Aside from perhaps adding a quote from Mooney, I have one other suggestion. Whenever I conduct natural history workshops for the Smoky Mountain Field School, participants are always curious about where the GSMNP is situated in regard to the Appalachians as a whole. It might be useful if a free-standing information exhibit placed near the new map delineated the geographic location of GSMNP as one of the numerous mountain ranges on the western front of the Southern Blue Ridge Province in the Southern Appalachians.  

The only notes I made consist of a list of distinctive first names belonging to various individuals quoted or cited in the exhibit: Pettybone, Runaway, Fonzie, Milas, Dulcie, Aden and others. Runaway’s last name was Swimmer. Did he runaway from home or from being transported to Oklahoma?

As I was leaving the exhibit area, I spotted a quote by someone named Winifred. Bending over for a closer look, I saw that it had been spoken by my now deceased friend Winifred Cagle, who grew up on Toms Branch, a tributary of Deep Creek north of Bryson City within what became GSMNP. When I knew him, Winifred lived just outside the park on East Deep Creek. He was very proud of his old home place in the Smokies. And he was a great supporter, in his quiet manner, of the park.

The quote, which I didn’t have to write down, concerns a special salve his mother made that was so good it would cure leprosy, if need be. “It would, in fact,” Winifred advised me on several occasions when we were visiting his old homesite, “cure most anything but a broken heart.”

Winifred spoke in a high-pitched lyrical voice, almost  a stammer, that was memorable. Mark Cathey, the renowned fly fisherman who also grew up on Deep Creek, reportedly spoke the same way. I can hear Winifred now. He would be tickled pink to know his mother’s salve has been memorialized in the new visitor center.

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..

Visitor center state-of-the-art earth friendly

Tom Robbins came out of retirement for two months to help the National Park Center open up the new Oconaluftee Visitor Center.

“I never thought I’d get a chance to work in the new building,” he said. “This is nice.”

Robbins, a career park employee, spent some 24 years manning the desk at the old visitor center, which was intended as “temporary,” but was in use for decades.

Among the attributes Robbins’ seemed pleased to see in the new building? The visitor center is about as environmentally friendly as it gets. The building is being nationally certified under the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system.

Autumn Rathbun of Trotter and Associates, an architectural firm in Gatlinburg, Tenn., that helped with the design, described some of the eco-friendly features.

“It uses quite a bit of recycled materials and regional materials,” Rathbun said. “There are also waterless urinals and dual-flush toilets.”

The toilets use a rain water-harvesting tank, set into the ground, for flushing, Rathbun explained.

And, that’s not all.

There is geothermal heat and cooling, in that the heat-pump system takes advantage of the constant 55 degrees temperature of the earth. It pumps water into the ground though tubing where it gains or gives off heat, increasing the efficiency of the system.

The building heavily relies on natural daylight, including “really cool solar tubes,” as Rathbun notes. The orientation of the building and the select placement of windows allow plenty of indirect lighting into the building.

Outside, the landscaping uses native plants, which need little watering to thrive.

“In my mind, it is a leap ahead,” said Lynda Doucette, supervisory park ranger for the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. “We wanted something that would complement the landscape.”

Doucette pointed out that part of the new building resembles the barn in the nearby Mountain Farm Museum (a collection of historic log buildings); part resembles the old house in Mountain Farm Museum.

“It does mimic the buildings on the farm,” the ranger said.

A long time coming: Smokies national park unveils new visitor center

To describe the new visitor center on the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as a long time coming is something of an understatement.

Try some 76 years since plans were first hatched for a museum of this type, where visitors could learn about the cultural history of these mountains and the people who helped shape them. There never seemed to be enough money, and perhaps at times, enough interest, for such a visitor center to be built.

Until now, that is. The new Oconaluftee Visitor Center opened this month at the main entrance to the park just outside Cherokee, one that seems to do justice to the most-visited national park in the country.

“This is much more educational than the old one,” said Brenda Hornbuckle, who lives near Atlanta and was at the visitor center one day last week with her sister, Becky Strickland.

“I love it,” Strickland said, adding the two now plan to make another trip, and soon, so that the sisters’ grandchildren can tour the visitor center.

“This is a lot more updated and a lot bigger,” Strickland said.

And that is true: the old building, pressed into service as a “temporary” visitor center in 1948, will return to its original purpose as an administrative building for park personnel. The new 6,000-square-foot visitor center highlights Cherokee history, early settlers and mountain culture. The visitor center on the Tennessee side focuses on the mountain environment, wildlife and nature.

“There was always the intention of having a visitor center on this side of the park,” said Lynda Doucette, supervisory park ranger in Oconaluftee. “I’m just really tickled we finally have a building.”

And what a building: Built entirely from private funding for $3 million, Oconaluftee Visitor Center is, in a word, “powerful,” as Lisa Bach of Seymour, Tenn., described it. The exterior is wood and stone, very visible from nearby U.S. 441. So much so, some 1,300-1,600 people each day are stopping by — double the 600 to 800 daily visitors in the former, make-do center.

Bach said she was stunned by the building’s beauty and the quality of the presentation.

“I love it,” she said simply.

That’s exactly what people such as Holly Demuth, North Carolina director of the Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, were hoping. Demuth used words such as “topnotch” and “top quality” in describing the visitor center.

The Friends group chipped in $550,000 toward the exhibits and visitor orientation. The Great Smoky Mountains Association paid for the building and adjacent 1,700-square-foot “comfort station,” the euphemistically designated public restrooms.

“I think this signifies the role private funding can play,” Demuth said. “This has been part of the park’s plan for all those years, but the funding just wasn’t there.”

Demuth added that she believes the visitor center goes a long ways toward underscoring the increasingly important role the national park plays in North Carolina.

Relations between N.C. residents and the park haven’t always been smooth sailing. There’s lingering bitterness over the forced evacuation of farms and rural communities to make way for the park’s creation, and long-festering rancor over a road through the park that was promised to Swain County but never built.

The North Carolina entrance to the park saw three million visitors last year, less than half the number on the Tennessee-side of the park. Having a real visitor center might help attract people to this side of the park.

“We are proud to be a part of this process, of bringing a visitor center that is appropriate for bringing people into the park here in North Carolina,” Demuth said.

Shawn Byrd, a visitor from Michigan who was on his first visit to the Smokies, was suitably impressed, describing his impressions of the exhibits as “informative” and helpful to him in understanding Southern Appalachian culture and development.

Kent Cave, the park’s interpretive branch chief, would have been delighted to hear Byrd.

In a brainstorming meeting held in October 2008, Cave remembers discussing possible “themes” for the future visitor center. The folks gathered that day talked quite a bit, he said, about the need to dispel myths about mountain culture.

“We seized on an idea to show how land was used over time,” Cave said. “And we were very careful to integrate the Cherokee story throughout.”

In other words, the park story is the Cherokees’ story, too, the ranger said in explanation. Careful and meticulous attention was devoted to working with Cherokee experts on how they should tell this intertwined story, and that of the white Southern Appalachians who came to these mountains.

“I think we hit it pretty well,” Cave said.

Matthew Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce, believes so, too.

“Anytime there is an opportunity for visitors to receive information about an area they discover something that they most likely never knew,” Pegg said. “If the visitors stop at the new visitor center and discover a new attraction or hike or fishing opportunity they are likely to extend their stay and in turn put more money into our economy — and that is a very good thing.”

“Pooh” Cooper Lancaster, owner of Madison’s on Main in Bryson City, and in Cherokee, Great Smoky Fine Arts and The Native American Craft Shop, said the visitor center was “desperately needed.”

“And it’s about time they’ve put a little money and building on this side of the park,” the Swain County native said. “I’m tired of Tennessee getting everything. North Carolina, as a state, has not done a good job of promoting the park.”

But with the coming of the new visitor center, Lancaster said she believes that now is truly changing.

 

Ribbon cutting

A ribbon cutting and celebration for the new visitor center at the North Carolina entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park will be held at 11 a.m. on Friday.

The great white quiet

Doug McFalls spent last winter as caretaker at LeConte Lodge in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The lodge is near the 6,593-foot summit of Mt. LeConte, the third highest peak in the Smokies.

“I came away with a better understanding of myself,” McFalls said. “I spent the vast majority of my time with me.”

Allyson Virden, who along with her husband Chris manages the lodge during the season, noted on the “High on Leconte” blog www.highonleconte.com: “I like to call those of us who love working up top a ‘special breed.’ I can say that because I am one. Many of the crew come to the mountain to enjoy a simpler life and have time to enjoy nature.”

McFalls, an avid reader and budding photographer, fit that bill.

“I’ve worked in the hospitality industry most of my life, but I’m OK alone,” McFalls said. “One can really step away up there and enjoy the peace and serenity.”

 

A day in the life

There is certainly solitude and time for relaxing pastimes like reading, but sleeping in isn’t one of them.

“We’re asked to check the weather station every morning at 7 a.m. and report the conditions to dispatch at the National Park Service,” said McFalls. The National Weather Service station at LeConte records minimum and maximum temperatures plus precipitation totals.

McFalls said wind conditions weren’t recorded at LeConte because conditions are too harsh and too remote for an anemometer to work properly (they can ice up) and be maintained and calibrated regularly.

McFalls said breakfast was usually in order after a trip to the weather station and then, if power was good, he would update his website and perhaps post some new photos. Next he would walk the grounds and check on all the cabins and buildings. One day after a wind event he discovered a cabin with a missing door and a broken window.

McFalls said he also kept an eye on the backcountry shelter that’s just under a mile from the lodge.

“There are more winter hiking enthusiasts in the park than most people would think,” he said. “Most of them are experienced hikers, knowledgeable and well prepared, but occasionally you run across someone who isn’t prepared.”

LeConte caretakers and all seasonal staff are trained in Wilderness First-Aid and all are CPR certified. The Park Service depends on LeConte’s caretakers to assist in any emergencies and/or rescues around the lodge.

McFalls said he always greeted hikers he met on the trails near the lodge and invited them in to warm up and re-hydrate. According to McFalls, dehydration can slip up on winter hikers.

“It’s so cold, you don’t realize you’re thirsty,” he said.

McFalls said that most of the hikers he encountered during his stay as caretaker were in good shape and just happy to have a warm dry place to sit and relax for a while. But one hiker from Indiana wasn’t so lucky.

“When he left Gatlinburg it was in the low 30s and misty,” McFalls said, “but by the time he had made it up here it was between 8 and 10 degrees and snowing. He was dehydrated and suffering from mild hypothermia.”

McFalls cared for the hiker at the lodge until a park ranger and medic made it up the mountain.

“The weather was so bad it took the ranger and medic a day to make it up here,” McFalls said.

The hiker required about a day and a half of care before he was strong enough to hike back down with the ranger and medic.

Often the day-to-day living on LeConte during winther months harkens back to earlier times. Solar panels provide the only electricity and the cloudy, short days of winter with their accompanying snowfall can make electricity a scarce commodity. McFalls said there was running water until it gets really cold, then the caretaker is left to haul water up from the spring. The caretaker uses propane to heat with and it has to be flown in by helicopter. And there’s that tromp through the snow to get to the outhouse.

 

Weather is frightful

Winter on LeConte is either spectacular, scary, or maybe some of both, depending on your point of view. The record low temperature recorded on Mt. LeConte was minus 32 degrees fahrenheit on Jan. 13, 1986. The record high was 80 degrees fahrenheit on Aug. 9, 1995. The coldest temperature McFalls recorded during his stay was minus 9 degrees fahrenheit.

“But it hovered around zero for nearly a week at one stretch,” McFalls said.

Because there is no anemometer on LeConte, McFalls was left to estimate wind speeds.

“There were days when I estimated sustained winds to be between 30 and 40 miles per hour and estimated gusts to be between 70 and 80 miles per hour,” he said. “The wind can be quite an event. You can be snug as a bug in a rug, deep asleep in your warm bed and the wind will shake the whole cabin. It’ll definitely wake you up!”

The annual snowfall for the peak at Mt. Leconte averages just a little over 71 inches. McFalls recorded 51 inches of snow at one point last winter.

And winter isn’t necessarily through with LeConte when the lodge opens back up in March.

“We had to shovel paths to all the cabins through two-and-a-half feet of snow when we opened the third week of March [2010],” McFalls said.

 

One with wildlife

McFalls caught occasional glimpses of other visitors besides winter hikers. He said there was a red fox den near the lodge and that resident raccoons were constantly trying to investigate the buildings. He saw signs of bobcats and coyotes, and even in the dead of winter one of the resident bears would sometimes make an appearance.

“He minded his business and I minded mine,” said McFalls.

He also said that ravens, which are fairly common during the season, would come and go during the winter.

 

Keeping provisioned

McFalls said the caretaker begins stocking provisions late in the season while the lodge is still open and the llama train is running.

“A llama pack train brings supplies and packs out laundry three days a week during season, and near the end of the season the pack will begin bringing up can goods, rice and beans and dry goods. Right at the end of the season, they’ll bring up things like potatoes and carrots.”

The caretaker does get a little R&R during the winter when they can arrange for a substitute caretaker.

“On those trips to town you can pick up things like milk and eggs,” said McFalls.

 

One caretaker’s perspective

McFalls grew up in Gatlinburg, Tenn. His Dad was born in the Park and his Mom went to Sevierville High School with Dolly Parton.

“I’ve spent a lot of time hiking these mountains, and when I stayed at the lodge for the first time back in the 90s I knew I wanted to work here,” McFalls said.

He was hired for the season in 2008.

“I took that first winter off, but when I came back in 2009 I took the winter caretaker job plus worked this season. I was at the lodge through the winter and up until Thanksgiving this year.

“I love the peace and serenity of it. It’s so remote and so beautiful. The winter I stayed at the lodge, it was a shock when I would go down the mountain. Town was distracting — there was constant input. I was happy to get back up top where there was time to think and reflect,” McFalls said.

“I wouldn’t close the door on it,” said McFall of aother winter on LeConte. “But I’ve experienced most of LeConte. More than I ever thought I would when I signed up for my first season. And it has instilled a desire for other adventures.”

McFalls has applied for a position as a ridgerunner with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Ridgerunners spend most of their day out on the trail talking with hikers and keeping and eye on trail conditions. “Can you imagine getting paid to hike the AT through the Smokies?” McFalls said, almost wistfully.

You can get an idea of what McFalls experienced at LeConte Lodge by visiting www.ReflectionsOfTheSmokies.com.

This winter’s caretaker is Alexander Hughes. You can keep up on this winter’s happenings at LeConte at www.highonleconte.com/daily-posts.html

 

 

Leconte Lodge

LeConte Lodge is the only private lodging facility in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park open to paying guests.

The rustic cluster of log cabins has a capacity of 60 guests per night housed in one of the 7 rough-hewn cabins or 3 multi-room lodges. There is no electricity but hot meals are served twice daily. The only way to get to LeConte is by hiking.

Although LeConte Lodge is now under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, it predates the establishment of the park in 1934. Jack Huff, a Gatlinburg mountaineer and founder of the rustic lodge, began building the retreat in 1926.

Eight years later, Jack and Pauline Huff were married at a sunrise service at LeConte’s now-famous Myrtle Point, the traditional place to watch spectacular performances of daybreak. Jack, Pauline and their family continued to operate the lodge until 1960. It is presently operated under the auspices of Stokely Hospitality Enterprises.

LeConte Lodge is open from mid-March through late November. For information visit www.leconte-lodge.com.

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