Bridging the gap between young, old

out frWith each passing day, the first-person accounts of what life was like in the Smokies before Google, iTunes or even black-and-white television slip away. So, Beth Bramhall, a seasonal education ranger with Great Smoky Mountains National Park, decided to recruit the next generation to stem the tide of such loss.

The result was “Passing It On: A Digital Storytelling Project,” a year’s worth of old-timers’ stories collected and compiled digitally by area middle- and high-school students who were helped along by their teachers, park staff, local experts and folks from the Great Smoky Mountains Association.

U.S. 441 work nears completion

Repairs to U.S. 441 are nearing completion.

A football-field-sized portion of U.S. 441, which runs through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, was completely washed away in January after days of heavy rain resulted in a landslide.

Dark skies — and the stars that go with them — slowly disappearing

coverAlthough the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a protected expanse of land, all types of contamination — from air pollution to mercury contamination — manage to creep in. One of the more unusual suspects, but probably the most apparent, is light.

Saving Shuckstack: Age, weather and vandalism take their toll on Smokies’ firetower

out frIts bolts are rusting, floor planks are rotting, and its windowpanes shattered. The roof is pocked with holes that let in the rain and snow. Even the some of the guardrails have gone missing from the 60-foot-tall lookout tower — an unnerving thought for any person daring enough to climb it.

Uncovering the past before it’s too late: Old Smokies’ homesites slowly succumbing to time and elements

coverAs Don Casada veered off-trail and began bushwhacking his way over fallen logs and through overgrown shrubs along the shore of Lake Fontana, he barely glanced at the trusty GPS unit in his hand.

He’d been this way before, many times, and knew just where he was going. Casada finally stopped at a clearing marked by a looming stone chimney, all that is left of a cabin that early Appalachian settlers had once called home.

Building a bridge of ideas and insight from the Smokies to Iceland

out frBy George Ivey • Contributing writer

What in the world would bring together the Great Smoky Mountains and the country of Iceland way up there in the cold waters of the North Atlantic?

Anatomy of a Smokies search

Things weren’t looking good. After five days of searching and zero clues, a massive search for a missing man in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park was at a critical juncture.

“Let’s try to make another hard push for this guy today,” Joe Ponds, a supervisory park ranger, told a group of about 60 search-and-rescuers gathered near a makeshift command center last Thursday morning, March 22.

Searchers were upbeat that today would be the day — the day they would get a break in the search, that they would find their guy or at the very least, a sign that he was still out there.

Marching orders were clear. Check all natural or manmade shelters. Talk to anyone and everyone they saw. Keep their eyes peeled for any leads — such as a reported sighting or a Camel Crush cigarette butt, the brand Derek Lueking smoked.

Following the daily pep talk, nearly three dozen searchers split into 14 teams to begin the sixth day of combing through the densely forested national park where Lueking, 24, of Louisville, Tenn., disappeared that previous Saturday morning.

Hope was still alive that Lueking would be found. The unseasonably warm weather has given him a better chance at survival than typically afforded lost hikers this time of year.

SEE ALSO: Motives of missing man remain a mystery

But, one cannot ignore the fact that by day six, most lost hikers would have already been found. Searchers believed Lueking was ill prepared for an extended trip into the woods, taking nothing more than a daypack with him.

At this point, about 90 percent of missing hiker cases have resolved themselves — either the search team finds the person or they emerge from the woods on their own, said Bob Miller, a spokesman for the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

There is no set number of days, however, when search crews decide it’s time to pull the plug. As long as there are leads, the park rangers would keep at it.

The search employed both human and dog trackers. The human trackers look for broken branches, footprints or any other signs that indicate that someone had recently traveled through the area.

The rangers gave the dog trackers a whiff of Lueking’s clothing at the start of every day to ingrain them with his scent, which the canines attempted to ferret out in the woods.

But ultimately, the search would be called off the next day, with Lueking still missing.

“It is very disheartening for the searchers to work so hard for so long to find a missing individual without success,” said Dale Ditmanson, superintendent at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

As of Friday afternoon, March 23, searchers had not found a single clue, beyond Lueking’s vehicle, that it could conclusively tie to the missing man.

“Without clues, you are just kind of searching in the woods,” said Molly Schroer, a spokeswoman for the park.

 

Going off-trail

Contrary to searches dramatized on television, rangers don’t walk side-by-side in a chain calling the missing person’s name. They have a deliberate road map for how and where they will look.

In most cases, people lost in the woods stay on the trail. It is only a matter of time before park rangers catch up to them, or they find their way to a trailhead.

During the Lueking search, teams hiked about 55 miles of trails that radiate from Newfound Gap, including parts of the Appalachian Trail. Once they checked all the obvious places, the search moved off-trail — making it trickier and more difficult.

Finding a person in a wilderness of half a million acres, steep slopes, thick ravines and rugged rock outcrops is like trying to find a needle in haystack.

The searchers look for “places where it would be appealing to get off-trail,” Miller said. When they see one of those alluring spots, the hikers walk “until it becomes really unpleasant” or rather, reach an area where no human could safely traverse.

As they travel each unmarked route, the rangers denote it on a GIS-based map so the other teams don’t waste time surveying the same area. The maps of where they have been and where they still need to go allow the teams to systematically search the dense forest and ensure that they are doing their best to locate a missing person.

And, rain or shine, the manhunt continues until all the clues dry up. But, even after an official search concludes, rangers will still keep an eye out.

“You never really give up,” Miller said. “People are pretty resourceful.”

SEE ALSO: Macon familiar with missing hiker searches

When a search is in full swing, the search teams convene every morning at 8 a.m. sharp to review a game plan for the day. Operations are coordinated from makeshift command post set-up at the trailhead where the person was last seen — in this case, the Newfound Gap parking lot on U.S. 441.

In addition to personnel from the national park, searchers from the Blue Ridge Parkway, Cherokee Tribal EMS and the North Carolina and South Carolina search and rescue dog associations, among others, joined the hunt for Lueking. The North Carolina and Tennessee highway patrols offered helicopter services for several days at no cost to the national park service.

Every day, rangers survey maps to see what areas they have covered and which they haven’t. Tasks are numbered in order of importance and slowly whittled down during the day and in some cases, added to as searchers uncover possible clues.

“Each day, you look at the intelligence and the personal information that the family and others might provide on his behavior,” Miller said.

What land is traversed is just as important to the search as what areas are not. Some parts of the national park are too unpleasant for anyone to hike and get eliminated as a possible route of the missing person.

“You are not searching 90 percent of the land in this situation,” Miller said.

Still, the remaining thousands of acres of wilderness are daunting enough. Given the terrain, a voice hollering for help carries a quarter-mile at best. If the missing person is unconscious, hurt or unable to call for help, it takes a lot of instinct and some luck to stagger upon someone in the vast Smokies.

Each new day gives park rangers an opportunity to follow up on leads that they did not get to the previous day because they had other duties to fulfill. On occasion, rangers will report back a fresh lead or dog hit, when a canine latches on to a scent.

Leaders at the command center will decide if a lead is strong enough to be investigated immediately. In those cases, a group of unassigned rangers will “hot foot” it out to the site of the clue and follow it until it leads to another clue or goes cold, Miller said.

During the Lueking search, a helicopter spotted a tarp near Deep Creek, and a team was quickly dispatched to check it out. But, the equipment looked as if it had been in place for a long time, and there were no signs linking it to Lueking.

If a clue is found, searchers must then put themselves into the lost individual’s boots.

“Where would I go?” Miller said. “A lot of it goes down to looking at the terrain.”

An elderly man is most likely going to travel downhill, taking the path of least resistance, rather battle his way through brush and thicket uphill, the route a younger hiker would likely choose.

“A 14-year-old boy is more likely to bushwhack straight up hill rather than a 60-year-old man,” Miller said.

During the Thursday morning briefing, each speaker emphasized two things — their gratitude to all the searchers and safety first.

“The very first priority in this search is the safety of your searchers,” Miller said.

Everyone was encouraged to partner with someone whom he or she would be responsible for keeping tabs on during the day.

After a full day of hiking without results, the teams return to home base, in this case Newfound Gap, between 5:30 and 6 p.m. The search parties, tired and ragged, are debriefed while the day’s events are still fresh in their minds.

“The result of one day’s activities is the foundation of the next day’s search plans,” Miller said.

 

One of many searches

The national park conducts anywhere from 80 to 100 searches each year — most of which end happily.

It is unknown how much money was spent searching for Lueking, but $25,000 to $50,000 is not uncommon, Miller said. A three-day, 300-person search for a South Florida boy nearly a decade ago cost $300,000.

Each national park has money set aside for such operations. However, once the cost exceeds $500 per searcher, the park kicks its future costs up the chain to its regional office in Atlanta. For particularly expensive and extensive searches, the Atlanta office will pass costs to a contingency fund dedicated especially for search and rescue operations that can be tapped by any of the U.S. national parks.

The search for Lueking is larger than the average search conducted by the park. A search of this scale only comes around once every three years or so, Miller said.

About 45 national park employees played a part in the Lueking search, along with roughly 15 volunteers. Most of the volunteers spent their time passing out flyers and talking to hikers emerging from or entering trailheads. Volunteers do not usually have the experience required to hike off-trail, which is unmarked, heavily thicketed and sometimes treacherous.

Nearly a decade ago, a 6-year-old boy from South Florida was walking to Clingmans Dome with his family. When he walked off, his family initially assumed that the child was answering the call of nature. But, when he did not return soon after, the park rangers issued an alert and quickly began looking high and low for him.

During the three-day search, some sheriff deputies from South Florida came up to North Carolina to help. Although all the men were strong and fit, they did not last more than an hour on the trails before returning to the command center. Hiking takes a different kind of strength that the deputies did not have had.

“You can’t just take anybody who comes in off the street,” Miller said.

Turns out the young boy had hiked more than 10 miles on the nearby Appalachian Trail before wandering off trail. He was found three days later eating blueberries and drinking water from a stream.

Friends save tract bordering the park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park got an early Holiday gift on Dec. 14 when the Friends of the Smokies officially transferred 20 acres of new land to the national park.

The land lies along Soak Ash Creek in the Pittman Center, Tenn., community just east of Gatlinburg.

The Friends purchased the tract at auction in the summer of 2010 at a cost of $775,500, sparing the park from encroaching private development.

“We had been interested in acquiring that property for many years if it ever came on the market because it is surrounded by park land on three sides and is ripe for development,” Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson said. “We are very happy to be able to prevent potentially intensive development right on the park’s boundary, and it also protects an intact wetland.”

The park, as part of the gift, also inherited a five-bedroom house that it intends to make available to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. The house includes a large conference space which might host some park field trips when foul weather forces participants indoors.

The annual “Picnics in Pittman for the Park” at the Emerts Cove home raised more than $500,000, which became the core of the Friends’ purchase price. Other significant support included a $25,000 grant from the Foothills Land Conservancy.

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.

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