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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Springtime in the Smokies

From Ohio to Tennessee, below the gloomy, slow-moving cumulus expanse lay an assortment of tender, neon-colored new-growth with increasing lushness for every mile south I traveled. Phenological patterns on the hillside canvas revealed ecological secrets along the roadside, only told during autumn and spring - I live for road trips.

Up along the Blue Ridge Mountains, terpenes and isoprenes paint the horizon blue, deeper with distance. These hydrocarbons are volatile to the environment, produced naturally by trees as a defense against rising temperatures and other stresses; though, they sure do make for a pretty scene from Wythville to Knoxville. 

It wasn't long before I reached route 441, where meandering trout-filled montane streams, and an assortment of forest types from all latitudes greeted me. A quilt of subtropic magnolias of the south, sugar maples and yellow birches of New England, and firs and spruces from Canada all welcomed me through the gates of the Great Smoky Mountains, home to an estimated 90,000 species, ~150 acres of old-growth forest, and some of the oldest highlands in America - not-to-mention 21 national champion trees to boot!

With such diversity and charm, it's no wonder why the Smokies is the most visited National Park in America, with over 9-million visitors per year and up to 60,000 visitors per day during summer months. Though, with careful planning, you may be lucky enough to see more wildlife than humans. 

Although much of the surrounding population is Anglo-Saxon Protestant, earning this region the name, "the buckle of the bible belt," the Smokies borders the Eastern Cherokee reservation in North Carolina, which is home to descendants of 800 Cherokees that avoided the Trail of Tears - an enormous exodus that forced 15,000 fellow tribe members west during the 19th century. 

The Cherokee are the people who named the smoky mountain range Shaconage, meaning "place of the blue smoke." They weren't far off with their early designation, as the "smoke" is a product of the aforementioned toxic hydrocarbons mixed with natural fog. This range experiences the wettest conditions in the contiguous US outside of the Pacific NW, caused by a steep elevation gradient as warm, humid air from the Gulf of Mexico collides with the high elevation mountains. Such a sharp environmental contrast creates another layer of spatial heterogeneity that promotes biodiversity in the landscape.

After a quick stop at Newfound Gap to refuel on Genoa and sharp cheese, I laid out a plan to hike Charlie's Bunion trail, Chimney Tops trail, Mt. Leconte trail, and fish the Oconaluftee river for trout. 

In five weekdays, I hiked over forty winding miles past bear traps, mule convoys, and carpets of spring ephemerals - rich bouquets of painted trillium, yellow mandarin, and trout lilies to name a few. Early morning drives kicked up dozens of wild turkey, deer, and even a large, groggy black bear. And I'll never forget the abundance of black-eyed junco nests along the trail, or the cerulean warbler doing a courtship dance on the top of Mt. Leconte within 10-feet of me, or the gang of Elk near smokemont campsite. Black-throated green warblers, scarlet tanagers, and eastern-towhees guided me with their harmonies through the fog, as I moved through labyrinths of rhododendron. 

Perhaps the most memorable experiences for me were made with friends - new and old. I was lucky enough to meet a fellow hiker along Rainbow Trail, who made an excellent partner for the rest of the trip. And an old college peer and her boyfriend invited me into their house in Knoxville for some homemade food and drinks - the southern hospitality was enormous and much appreciated! 

The Great Smoky Mountains, as with any other experience, offers an abundance of awe and passion the deeper you look, and with the more you know. So bring your field guides to these mystic places, fore they will teach you memories. Cheers!