Back-Country Trail Etiquette

When I plan my back country hikes, I do so with the hope of solitude. My idea of a hike is to enjoy nature and take in the beauty and majesty the Creator provided for us. Even though an estimated 11 million people visited Great Smoky Mountain National Park last season not everyone hiked.  The majority of hikers stick to the most popular trails. I understand over 134,000 people hiked Laurel Falls between July and October alone. The National Park maintains 803 miles of trails, which means that with a little research you can find a fairly secluded trail where it is possible to not encounter a fellow human being. That being said there is still a “trail etiquette” expected of the backcountry hiker.

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Should you happen to encounter a bear on the trail DO NOT offer him your lunch! OK, that’s a given, but the bear is given right of way at all times. While the park biologist says the trail belongs to the hiker and the forest belongs to the bear, I assure you the biologist isn’t going to magically appear and remind the bear of the park policy. You could turn and run, but that only works if you are hiking with someone slower than you. What works for me is to stop, fumble for my camera, make all the appropriate settings, and then just as I am ready to get a great picture, I realize Mr. Bear has politely returned to the woods (probably laughing hysterically about how quickly the hiker turned white and began shaking uncontrollably).

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Should you happen to encounter a buck trucking up the trail, as you are heading down, the assumption is the trail and the forest belong to the buck. He has horns on his head and isn’t afraid to use them! On this occasion I happened to see the buck several minutes before he saw me. I’m guessing he had his mind on something else, like maybe rutting season? When he finally did see me he actually came a little closer. By the time he was within 25 yards I had already calculated which tree I was going to attempt to scale. Then at the last instant he slowly stepped to the left and walked up the slope about 15 yards giving me the trail. Once I passed he returned to the trail to continue his journey. From that encounter I gathered when meeting a buck on the trail, the person/animal going uphill will vacate to the left to allow the person/buck going downhill the right of way. I haven’t had the opportunity to confirm this theory.

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There are times when you encounter other hikers in a NO PASSING ZONE. The passing/no passing zones aren’t clearly marked, but are easily identified. These situations present an obvious problem. On this particular occasion, everyone was moving in the same direction (up Trillium Gap). Those of us with 2-wheel drive weren’t able to maneuver nearly as well as those equipped with 4-wheel drive.  The ladies seemed to be in a hurry and actually tailgated us from time to time. We stopped several times in hopes that they would just go around us, but alas a no passing zone means no passing. They pushed us up the trail for nearly .10 of a mile until we came to a pull out. Apparently the speed limits are not enforced as strictly, as these ladies flew past us at their first opportunity. By the time we reach LeConte Lodge (our destination) they were already there eating their dinner.

The eyes can play tricks…

On Fridays, Grant and I wander up and down Laurel Falls Trail several times picking up litter, visiting with hikers, handing out information about bears and the park’s prohibition of pets on the trail. We also hand out an occasional band aid or bottle of water and are always available to radio for emergency assistance. Oh, and we always keep an eye out for bears. Two weeks ago we just happened to be in the right place to help a mother bear with three bears to cross the trail to continue on their business of eating. We stopped foot traffic from both directions long enough to allow momma bear to gather her family and cross safely. It was a wonderful experience for Grant as well as all the hikers. One woman approached while the bears were still in sight and asked if we had been tracking the bears? I told her no, that we were just lucky to be here when they decided to cross the trail. She then asked what the park provided me to protect them from the bears? I replied with a simple “nothing”! She gave me that startled; wide-eyed look in disbelief. I then casually explained to here that I wasn’t there to protect the hikers, but I was there to protect the bears. She didn’t seem particularly happy with my answer and moved a much safer distance away from the bears. And that’s how we protect the bears-educating the hikers to keep a safe distance!

This Friday on our second trip down the trail we observed a herd of hikers gawking into the valley between trail markers #5 and #6. We stopped and visited as the group got larger. Several hikers were pointing into the woods on the other side of the ravine indicating that they saw a bear. Many people were excited sharing their description of the bears. When I mentioned that there was a family of bears frequenting the trail a couple hikers shouted that they just spotted a cub. We spent our time answering bear questions and killing time until the crowds broke up and went either up or down the trail. Once everyone was gone, Grant asked me why I hadn’t told anyone that they were looking at a stump? Why ruin someone’s vacation?

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A time for regrowth…

Grant, Brian and I skipped the dance competition in Knoxville Saturday and ventured, using a hike as an excuse. We had planned to hike Forney Ridge Trail out to Andrews Bald. Unfortunately weather and time didn’t cooperate. (It was imperative that we make it to Smoky’s ballpark in time for the light sabre give away.) With a heavy overcast we decided on Old Sugarland’s Trail. We caught the trail head at 441 just down the road from the Visitor’s Center and started up the trail.  We quickly passed the old quarry where granite was quarried for the park bridges and hiked along the noisy West Prong of the Little Pigeon River. Everything along the trail was bright green from the grass to the tree tops. About .8 of a mile up the trail we approached a stream crossing. Grant has a long history of bad luck at stream crossings, so we took a side trail to the right. This trail took us up and back towards Gatlinburg.  As we gained elevation the forest began to change from green to black. It didn’t take long and we were surrounded by charred and blacken trees and shrubs. The duff (top layer of forest floor) in some places resembled ripples of a sand dune. I suspect the fire burned hotter and deeper in some areas, or the ash was blown away by the high winds. We observed places where the roots had been burned away leaving what looked like dinosaur foot prints. There were also patches of green popping out. Spring is the time for new growth. On the way to the ball park we stopped on the Gatlinburg bypass to take a picture of where we had been.

Black and White

I was first introduced to serious photography back in the 70’s when I took Intro to Photography my freshman year in college. This was well before the age of digital cameras. I found myself shooting a whole roll of film, then waiting patiently in the darkroom as the developer and fixer worked their miracle. Then I could get a glimpse of my work in the small 35 mm negative format.  If I really wanted to see what I had,  I needed to spend more time in the darkroom printing the negative on paper.  In those days I shot exclusively in black and white because I couldn’t afford the lab fees for color. As time went on and I developed my skills I fell in love with black and white. It was an art getting the tones and contrast just perfect. Then the digital age hit and all but destroyed the art of black and white. Digital is instant and forgiving. You can take 1,000’s of pictures and never waste a penny on spent film or over exposed paper. Digital is Instant Gratification.

Just when I thought all was lost I started exploring the possibilities of Photoshop. It’s not like the hours spent in the dark under the glow of a red lamp, but there is an art to creating a warm and inviting black and white print under the blue glow of a monitor.  And to get it right, it takes experimentation and an artful touch.

The best part of all is I have a blog to share my art with anyone who happens to stumble upon it.

 

Mountain solitude…

I have taken on a new volunteer experience this summer by adopting a backcountry campsite. This is in addition to patrolling Laurel Falls each Friday. I or should I say we (grandkids and parents) are cleaning and maintaining campsite #27 for the foreseeable future. I thought maybe it would be a good idea if I did a preliminary recon mission before taking the family. I arose early on Saturday morning, arriving at the trailhead to Jake’s Creek Trail at about 8:00. There were a number of cars already in the parking lot, but apparently everyone else was hiking Little River or Cucumber Gap Trails. As I hiked up Jake’s Creek I marveled at all the beauty surrounding me. The trees were turning green and I was surrounded by a multitude of wild flowers. As I walked my mind began to wander back to my first experience hiking alone in the park. It was late fall and most of the leaves were already on the ground. I was walking up a strenuous uphill section Indian Grave Gap Trail. I became a little concerned as I began to see evidence of recent bear activity. Granted I was a greenhorn to these mountains, but being a good Iowa boy with farm roots I could identify bear scat when I stepped in it. The more I walked, the more scat appeared on the trail. I figured that the noise of my feet in the leaves piled on the trail would provide plenty of warning to the bears that I was in the area, or at least that is what I was telling myself. After about a mile, I stopped to catch my breath and grab a gulp or two of water. That’s when I hear it. There was a distinct sound of something above me shuffling in the leaves. Then it stopped. I listened for a while and not hearing anything began moving up the trail. I traveled about 100 yards and stopped. Again above me I heard the shuffle of leaves. Then it stopped. This went on for nearly a mile. Me stopping every 100 or so yards; all the while intermittent shuffling. Finally I reached the top where the ridge above me met with the trail. I quickly ducked behind a tree and waited. It didn’t take long for the shuffling sound to appear. Then it stopped. By this time I was just sure a 400 pound male black bear was stalking me for his dinner. Then the shuffling appeared to come just out of my sight. As I was racking my brain trying to think what Daniel Boone would do the noise came towards me. I braced myself for battle when all of the sudden a skinny turkey stuck its head out from behind a tree. I had to laugh thinking back on how leery I was of being alone in the woods back then. Fast forward 8 years and I relished the solitude Jake’s Creek provided Saturday. I only met 3 other hikers (and 3 turkeys!).

Weekend Hike…

Weekends are always great times to hike, but springtime, holiday weekends just scream for a walk in the park. Even better when you can bring along family. This time my two grandsons and son-in-law accompanied me on this adventure. We found a perfect rugged seldom used waterfall hike. It didn’t take long for me to realize that on this hike, I would be the one having to “catch up.” My idea of mountain hiking is to pace myself and stop often to take pictures or just take in the view. The two youngsters on the other hand had a different method. Theirs was to race up the trail, then stop, wait impatiently for Pop to “catch up”, then race up the trail again daring the old man to keep pace. It was a great hike, the waterfall was spectacular, but alas I didn’t get nearly as many pictures taken as I had intended. The next hike is only a week away.

Wildflowers…

It’s springtime in the mountains. That means the bears are coming out of their winter’s hibernation. Mother bears will be introducing their new cubs any day now. With an estimated 1,600 bears in the National Park you would think that one or two would photo bomb you just about every time you pulled out your camera. Sadly that’s not the case. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other things photo-worthy. Wildflowers are blooming all over the park. Yellow, white, pink, lavender and blue. Big ones and small ones. And the great thing is that they don’t move or ask for food. They may not be car stoppers, but I think we did slow up a few people on the trail as we tried out our macro on this beauty.

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