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TVA calls for removal of all houseboats

fr houseboats2The Tennessee Valley Authority has proposed doing away with more than 1,800 houseboats that occupy various lakes under its jurisdiction.

Trail improvements coming to Fontana: Work begins on $380K trail project

out frNational forest trails around Fontana Village are in for an overhaul, thanks to a federal grant that’s putting the final piece in a years-long funding puzzle. 

Between 2013 and 2015, the U.S. Forest Service has pulled in a total of $380,000 in grants to work on the area, but it’s just now getting going on the project the money was intended to support — 9 miles of upgraded trails in the Nantahala National Forest that will connect to the roughly 28 miles of trail that Fontana Village Resort, in Graham County, maintains on its own property.

A wet and wonderful weekend

out natcornThanks to the generosity of a friend, my family and I spent a long weekend on Fontana Lake. The small “fishing” cabin near Prince’s Boat Dock is not the Ritz but it has all the comforts of home and a lot more character than the Ritz. 

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.

When the kingfishers return

Belted kingfishers are one of my favorite birds, so much so that I wrote a poem years ago about anticipating their return to our creek each spring titled “Kingfishers Return.” A pair fishes along the small creek on our property during the breeding season. In winter they move downstream to the Tuckasegee River and Lake Fontana, although the male will make infrequent appearances, probably to maintain control of his hunting territory. Each March they return for good, raising a ruckus as they fly over our cove with rattling calls that are a part of their mating ritual.

With most bird species, the male is usually the more conspicuous. The female kingfisher is an exception, however, having a chestnut breast band in addition to the gray one shared by the male. Because she broods her young deep in the ground, the female’s maternal duties don’t make her an easy target for predators. She has no real need for the sort of subdued protective coloration characteristic of female cardinals, towhees, and numerous other bird species. Her decorative breast band makes her one of the few female birds in the world with plumage more colorful than her mate.

If you have kingfishers that are active in your vicinity from March into early summer, look for their nesting dens. Situated in a steep bank, the entrance is about the size of a baseball. If it’s being used, there will be two grooves at the base of the hole where the birds’ feet drag as they plunge headfirst, in full flight, into the opening. The tunnel leading to the nesting cavity may be from three to 15 feet in length. Kingfishers have toes that are fused together, which help them excavate more efficiently. Obviously designed to prevent access by predators, these nesting dens can be located some distance from water, often in roadway cutbanks or where there has been excavation around a building site.

It’s not surprising that such a conspicuous bird would have a place in Cherokee bird lore. They composed stories that accounted for the kingfisher’s fishing tactics and incorporated the bird into their medicinal ceremonies. One can learn about the natural world by direct observation or from scientific studies. Or you can come to another sort of understanding by paying attention to the lore handed down by the Native Americans.

When James Mooney was collecting Cherokee lore here in Western North Carolina during the 1880s, he recorded two accounts of how the kingfisher (“jatla” in Cherokee) got its bill. Some of the old men told him the animals decided to give the bird a better bill because it was so poorly equipped to make its living as a water bird. “So they made him a fish-gig and fastened it on in front of his mouth.”

A second version Mooney recorded was that the bill was a gift from the benevolent Little People, the Cherokee equivalent of Irish leprechauns. They had observed a kingfisher using a spear-shaped fish as a lance to kill a blacksnake that was preying upon a bird’s nest. So they rewarded him his own spear-shaped bill.

This outsized bill accounts for the kingfisher’s success as a fisherman. One of the prettiest sights in the bird world is that of a kingfisher hovering over the riffles in a small stream before plunging headfirst underwater after its prey. Its success rate is phenomenal.

Before going fishing, the Cherokees evoked the kingfisher in magical formulas that would hopefully insure equal success.


Kingfisher’s Return

Belted kingfishers are permanent residents of the southern mountains, wintering along the larger waterways that do not often freeze over. In early spring, they reappear on smaller creeks within individual breeding territories.


Rosy maple hazes tree line.

Catkins pendant over creek.

Hepatica glows in leaf-litter.


For days now you have been

watching & waiting.

But not till you are least prepared is she suddenly there …

sculling upstream with swift strokes

rattling the morning into being

weaving her territory with sound

painting the air blue-gray and rust-brown

as her kind has for so many thousand years.


She is beyond all thinking

instinctively keen to a fuller world

than you or I could ever hope …

but if she should notice she notices

that you scribble the rocky soil ...

if she should expect, she expects failure of you

for she is the intuitive gardener of those more subtle

regions: the magic water &

the clear flowing air.


If she ever remembers she remembers

the camps laid here so long ago and

the darker people who also worried

the dirt & also shouted with joy

into the sunrise at the glory

of those flashing wings!


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..

Renegade houseboat meets its demise

A houseboat on Fontana Lake was dismantled and hauled off this month after the owner repeatedly failed to dispose of waste properly.

For more than a year the houseboat owner dodged rules against straight piping sewage into the lake. The owner also skirted rules that limit how long a houseboat can sit in the same spot on the lake if it isn’t in a harbor.

The houseboat owner was sent warning letters from the Swain County Health Department, which polices sewage disposal by houseboats on the lake. After certified letters went unreturned, a notice was posted on the front door of the owner’s house, said Linda White, director of the Swain County Health Department.

After still no response, the county attorney sent him a final warning telling him to remove his houseboat or face fines and even criminal charges for violating the county’s houseboat waste disposal ordinance.

The houseboat owner finally took notice — but instead of complying he tootled down the lake to the Graham County side, out of Swain’s jurisdiction.

Graham County also has an ordinance that prevents houseboats from dumping their sewage into the lake, but after six months of getting nowhere, Swain authorities were happy to let someone else try. Graham didn’t have much luck either, however.

Meanwhile, the houseboat owner was loitering too long in one spot. Houseboats have to either be tied up in a harbor or on the move —  moving at least one nautical mile every two weeks. Tennessee Valley Authority flags boats that set up camp in one place on the open lake for too long. House boats outside a harbor aren’t supposed to be left unattended longer than 24 hours, either.

There are five private boat docks on the lake that will harbor houseboats in coves that branch off the main stem of the lake. Most of the 500 houseboats on the lake never budge from the boat dock where they lease harbor space. The owners use their houseboats as a home base on the water but use motorboats or pontoons to venture from the shoreline and play on the open lake.

The dock owners also handle houseboat sewage, using a fleet of pump boats to collect sewage from all the houseboats in their harbors and haul it to shore.

But this renegade houseboat owner simply idled around the lake.

“He refused to go to a harbor,” said David Monteith, head of the Fontana Lake Users Association and a Swain County commissioner. “He did not want to get into compliance and get into a harbor and sign a pumping contract.”

Ultimately, however, the lake itself dealt the houseboat a fatal blow. During a storm, it broke lose of its moorings and capsized.

“It was a navigation hazard,” said Darrell Cuthbertson with the Tennessee Valley Authority, which manages the lake. “Only two feet of one corner was sticking up from the water, and we were afraid someone was going to hit it so we drug it over to the bank.”

The closest shoreline happened to be National Park Service property. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park wasn’t exactly fond of a soggy, capsized houseboat on its lakeshore and asked the owner to claim his houseboat.

When he didn’t meet the deadline, Tennessee Valley Authority dismantled it and hauled off the scraps, Cuthbertson said.


Lake sewage rules

A local push to clean up Lake Fontana was set in motion about 10 years ago following a revelation that the bacteria level in the water was unsafe — five times above accepted fecal coliform counts.

All that sewage, not only from toilets but also “gray water” from showers and sinks, was polluting the lake.

Those who used the lake banded together under the Fontana Lake Users Association to address the issue. The group lobbied officials in Swain and Graham counties to pass ordinances regulating houseboat waste and secured more than $700,000 in grants to get a fleet of pump boats up and running.

Houseboats now collect their own sewage in tanks and have it pumped out and hauled ashore periodically by boat dock owners.

Houseboat owners must display a sticker on the outside of their boat showing they are in compliance with the law. To get a sticker, they have to provide a copy of their pumping contract with a boat dock owner.

Interestingly, houseboat owners go through the county property tax office to get their stickers since houseboat owners are supposed to pay property taxes on their boats anyway.

The sewage ordinance actually killed two birds with one stone: it cleaned up the lake and dramatically increased the number of houseboat owners paying taxes on their boats — much like your license plate renewal is tied to automobile inspection.

Monteith hopes this will be a lesson to any houseboat owner thinking of skirting the waste disposal laws on the lake.

“To me, it goes to show this is what could happen if you fail to get in compliance with this ordinance in Swain and Graham County. This is what could happen to anybody’s houseboat, it could be dismantled,” Monteith said.

Nashville's finest to light up Fontana

Shinefest, a two-day showcase held at Fontana Village Resort, will bring together acts from across the country world, veterans to newcomers, for a summer music experience set against the pristine backdrop of the Smoky Mountains.

The premier country music event runs from August 19-21 and will feature music from host Matt Stillwell, Nashville songwriters and full sets from some of the South’s classic live acts.

“My vision for the festival is to showcase some of the greatest songwriters in Nashville, the creative people behind my career, local and upcoming bands as well as all the musical styles that have influenced me,” said Stillwell. “The festival has grown each year and this year is looking to be bigger than ever.”

This year’s edition of Shinefest is a culmination of not only Stillwell’s work, but some of the love and desire for the country community as a whole.

“You are at a beautiful resort, surrounded by national park, with no cell service. You don’t have to leave after the show and you get to interact with the songwriters and artists while having a great time,” said Stillwell. “Sometimes it’s pretty hard to recover from.“

In its fourth year, the 2011 festival has a strong helping of music plus a few perks that the event hasn’t featured in previous years.  

Kicking off the weekend will be a Writers in the Round session. It will feature a storyteller setting as writers for the stars of country take the stage to perform and discuss how these classic songs came to fruition.

Writers include Dean Dillon (“Tennessee Whiskey” by George Jones), Tammy Kidd (“Probably Wouldn’t Be This Way” by LeAnn Rimes), Lynn Hutton, Mickey Jack Jones and David Bourne.

Dillon’s songwriting resume boasts many of Nashville’s best, including George Strait, George Jones, Hank Williams, Jr., Waylon Jennings, Kenny Chesney, Lee Ann Womack, Brooks & Dunn and Alabama.

Recently inducted into the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame, Nashville’s Jim Lauderdale will give an inside look at some of his material, including hits off of his new release, Reason and Rhyme. Lauderdale will also perform a solo set on Saturday.

Making their Shinefest debut on Friday night will be Atlanta’s Blackberry Smoke. This regional band continues to grow, winning new fans with their edgy country rock sound. They will be performing a special acoustic set Friday night and full-on electric set on Saturday.

On Saturday, The Shinefest Pool Party kicks off the day at 12 p.m. The pool party will feature intimate sets of originals and covers from multiple artists.

Robbinsville natives My Highway will keep the party moving at 3 p.m.

Knoxville’s The Black Lillies, led by Cruz Contreras, will bring his team of pickers, players and singers to the stage on Saturday afternoon. The band is currently nominated for Best Americana Album by the Independent Music Awards.

The accommodations and restaurants Fontana Village Resort will be open all weekend.

For information about special VIP packages, weekends passes, camping options and lodging, visit www.stillwellshinefest.com.


How Shinefest got its roots

When country crooner Matt Stillwell was in need of a music video to accompany his latest release ‘Shine’ in 2008, he headed to the mountains, threw a big festival, called it Shinefest and made it the backdrop of the video.

The song went on to enter the Top 5 on Country Music Television’s Pure and Top 10 on Great American Country’s Top 20 Countdown. And since then, Shinefest has taken on a life of its own, becoming a premiere country music event.

Stillwell himself is a homegrown talent, hailing from Sylva and going on to Western Carolina University, then Belmont University. A college baseball star, Stillwell gave up the diamond to chart a course to Nashville.

The festival opens at 10 a.m. on Friday, closing after midnight Sunday evening. All ages are welcome and adult day passes start at $40.

Swain commissioners retool strategy in fight over Fontana dam payments

Swain County commissioners have taken back a request made to the General Assembly in February, in hopes of bolstering their lawsuit against neighboring Graham County over payments on the Fontana Dam.

Both counties get payments from the Tennessee Valley Authority in lieu of property taxes for the bits of the dam and hydropower generators that are in their respective counties. They have been locked in battle recently over how much each is entitled to.

Last fall, the N.C. Department of Revenue said the payments were being calculated wrong, and that Graham was entitled to a larger chunk of the funds. Swain lost more than  $200,000 a year under the new formula for TVA payments.

Graham proceeded to file suit against Swain, looking to recoup 60-plus years in back TVA revenue that was misapplied to Swain under the old formula.

So Swain fired back, filing a countersuit and sending a resolution to Raleigh asking for a change in the way payments are calculated.

The payments were once split equally. The new formula gives a greater share to Graham, since more of the dam and generators lie on Graham’s side of the county line.

Swain proposed yet another new formula based on how much property each county lost when the lake was created in the 1940s.

That would bring a lot more revenue to the Swain side, because, according to County Manager Kevin King, Graham only gave 19,000 acres as opposed Swain’s 55,000 back when the lake and dam were built.

But, said King, the measure never got out of committee in the House of Representatives, stymied at every turn by Rep. Roger West, R-Marble, who represents Graham.

King said the county still stands behind the idea.

“Any time you have a county that’s suffered, that the TVA has taken 55,000 acres away from and the other county only got 19,000 taken, any county would say that’s wrong [to be compensated less],” said King.

But Kim Lay, Swain County’s attorney, apparently told commissioners in a 15-minute closed session to discuss the litigation that rescinding the request for legislation, since it died in committee anyway, would be better for Swain when it comes to the legal suit.

The legal claim is still in the discovery phase, and King said he expects movement on the issue over the next few months.

Graham sues Swain for millions in back taxes for Fontana generators

Swain County has lost more than $17,000 a month from their coffers, and that financial gouge may become a lot bigger following a suit filed by Graham County last month.

Graham and Swain county are at odds over property taxes collected from the Tennessee Valley Authority for the Fontana Dam and its hydropower equipment and generators. For 67 years — since the dam was built — the two counties split the revenue equally.

But Graham argued it deserves more, since more of the dam and generators are on its side of the county line. Graham succeeded in convincing the N.C. Attorney General’s Office of their position last fall, resulting in a new formula for divvying the TVA proceeds. The result: Swain gets $17,700 less a month, which is now going to Graham instead.

The October ruling stated that, according to the original channel of the Little Tennessee River, which has long been the boundary between the two counties, more of the dam and its taxable equipment belongs in Graham. And the Attorney General agreed that, if this was the case, they should get more of the money, as well.

Upon hearing this, Graham County commissioners decided not to rest on their laurels content with their newfound cash flow. They marched right up to the Graham County Superior Court and filed suit against their neighbor for 67 years of back tax revenue that Swain County gained on the erroneous measuring formula.

The suit doesn’t put a number on how much they want back, but Graham officials have pegged it at $15 million, according to an article published in the Graham Star last month. Graham named the Department of Revenue as a co-defendant to ensure they provided a formula and a number for how much Graham would be owed.

Raleigh mayor and tax attorney Charles Meeker is leading the charge as Graham County’s attorney, and he said that discussions about a possible filing started to be bandied about following the Attorney General’s October ruling.

He said the county is simply trying to recoup what was always rightfully theirs, but has long been distributed inequitably.

“Because of incorrect information from the TVA, the Department of Revenue had not distributed those payments correctly for years,” said Meeker. “We don’t know the exact amount, but the lawsuit requests the Department of Revenue to make that calculation.”

Swain County has yet to respond to the suit, but has requested a 30-day extension to file their response.

Swain County Manager Kevin King told the Graham Star last month that his county would be looking into a countersuit, seeking damages for the 51,000 acres of land lost to the Fontana Dam’s impounding in 1943. King maintained that they were never fairly compensated, especially stacked up against the mere 4,000 acres lost by Graham County. He said the county is planning a robust battle against the suit. They are due to respond in mid-February.

Technically, the TVA payments to the two counties are called Payments in Lieu of Taxes, or PILT, since government entities are not required to pay property taxes. But like property taxes, the payments by TVA are based on the value of the hydropower operation determined by the N.C. Department of Revenue and the tax rate set by the county.

Gate goes up, Gorge community blocked out

By Julia Merchant • Staff writer

One day last October, Bud Dills, a longtime Nantahala Gorge resident, headed down to his favorite fishing spot. The area, located where the Nantahala River empties into Fontana Lake just past Wesser Falls, had long been popular with fishermen and paddlers. Dills, 63, had been fishing there since he was six years old.

But when he arrived, he was surprised to see a large, metal gate blocking the dirt road that was the only means of accessing the river shore.

The gate was erected by the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. Railroad representatives said people were camping there, trashing the site with beer cans and shooting off guns, forcing the railroad to restrict access.

“We’re not trying to keep the locals out to access the river or to go fishing or hiking,” said Kim Albritten, general manager of the railroad. “That’s not the purpose of the gate. The gate is to deter overnight camping. My concern is that the railroad owns the property, and if we continue to allow camping and gunfire there, what risk does that pus us at the liability level?”

The railroad’s reasoning hasn’t stopped locals from mourning the loss of a beloved fishing and paddling spot. Dills described the area as “extremely popular,” attracting thousands of visitors each year to fish, boat or simply hike. The dirt road allowed vehicles to tow larger boats down to the water. The spot was also popular with the elderly, handicapped, or families with kids, since they could ride down to the water rather than attempting the nearly one-mile trek.

Ken Kastorff, owner of Endless River Adventures, said he’s irked that most people didn’t know the gate was going up.

“The thing that bothers me the most about this is that after the usage for 60 odd years, they all of a sudden close it off, and not even talk to any of the community,” Kastorff said. “If there was a problem down there, the local community, as well as the rafting companies, would have all been more than happy to work with the train to do whatever is necessary to keep that area open.”

Some people, such as Dills, don’t buy the railroad’s explanation that people were trashing the area and shooting firearms.

“The railroad said people were down there dumping garbage,” Dills said. “That’s not true. It’s a very clean area. They said people were shooting, but anyone could have been down there hunting during October.”

Kastorff said regardless of the reasons the gate was put up, it wasn’t the best way to address the problem.

“The problem is that putting a gate up there isn’t going to solve any of that,” Kastorff said. “There are still people that are down there that are camping.”

Indeed that is the case. Just a couple of weeks ago, the sheriff’s department got a call about three men with a beer keg shooting their guns, Albritten said.

“This is an ongoing problem. There’s a lot of trash being left behind by campers — not just a beer can or two, but kegs of beer are being taken down there.”

Albirtten said people are still welcome to walk past the gate to fish or access the area during the day.


Unforeseen consequence

The railroad’s attempts to prevent access to the area have created another dilemma that has only emerged with the start of rafting season. The popular fishing and camping spot also served as a key location for rafting companies to retrieve boats and paddles that had been swept past the commercial boat takeout.

“If we lose a boat or a paddle, or if a boat flips at the falls and goes over Wesser, we used to be able to drive down there and recover it,” said Steve Augustine, manager of Endless River Adventures. “Now, you can’t do that.”

The loss of that access point could present a potential safety issue, since boats that travel over Class V Wesser Falls need to be reached as soon as possible.

“If our boats go over the falls, especially if there’s people in them, we have to get down there immediately,” said Dills.

The railroad has given Nantahala Outdoor Center a key to the gate to be shared by the rafting companies, said Albritten.

Albritten said she told Brenda Dills, president of the Gorge Outfitters Association, about the key’s location at the NOC retail store. Albritten said Dills wasn’t happy that she and other outfitters will have to rely on NOC to open the gate.

“That wasn’t the ideal situation for them,” said Albritten. “They’d like to go down the road and grab rafts or paddles, but I can’t make 19 keys available to all the rafting companies. There has to be some level of control. However, I’m not against having several keys for some of the larger outfitters who may need more access.”

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