Saturday, September 30, 2006

Smoky Mountain Bears

The picture is a little blury. It may be because the bear was running or maybe it is because the photographer was shaking. I kind of think that many wild bear pictures might be blury.

This is a Black Bear in the Cades Cove section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP). We went to the Smokys with Ted and Sherry Crawford of Johnstown PA. Sherry took this photo. I am sure that Sherry was steady, but the bear was moving. This is one of 6 bears that we saw last Tuesday. There are estimated to be about 1,700 bears in the park.

We first saw one bear in the woods beside the road. There was a "bear jam" which is a traffic jam in the GSMNP due to the spotting of a bear. There were 20 people out of their cars looking at the bear, some as close as 15 yards away. The bear was grazing on acorns in the woods. It obviously knew the people were there but it ignored them. A year or two ago a black bear killed a woman right near one of the streams that we normally fish not far from here. Usually the bears are not a threat to humans, but I wouldn't let my 5 year old kids get within 20 yards like some people did.

A little further down the road we saw the bear in the picture. It was the biggest of 4 bears travelling together. It appeared to be a mother with last years cubs. I believe that black bears only have cubs every other year. This bear actually charged a couple of people taking pictures who only had a barbed wire fence between them and the bear. Sherry got the picture as the bear retreated after the charge. Most charges are just a bluff to let someone know that they are getting too close.

This bear then joined the 3 smaller ones and together they moved to a very large oak tree in the middle of a field. Three deer ran from the field, stopping to look back at the bears every so often. All 4 bears climbed to the smallest outer branches of the tree and stripped acorns from the branches. We watched them for 20 minutes until the light started to fade. It was amazing how agile the bears were in the tree. They climbed straight up the broad trunk just like a cat might. They stood on one leg and reached out to the smallest branches for acorns. Three weeks ago we saw bears in the wild cherry trees in the park doing the same climbing for cherries.

A few minutes later we saw another very large bear grazing for acorns under another oak tree in a field.
This last photo has nothing to do with the bears. It is just a picture of the sun shinning down through the trees as we were leaving the Cades Cove area on Wednesday. It was a great time to visit the Smokys. The weather was crisp and cool and the park wasn't jammed up with leaf lookers. October is the second most busy month in the park after July.
Don't forget you can click on the pictures for a bigger view.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Smoky Mountain Views

We took a 2-day trip to the Smokys this week with my nephew Ted Crawford and his wife Sherry. The mountains are beautiful.

We did the usual stuff like visiting Clingman's dome, the highest point in the park. The views from Clingman's Dome are excellent. That is, they are if the weather and visability cooperate. We had a little bit of fog and some haze, but not bad. At left is a view looking down on some mountains with cloud shadows.

Another great stop is the Sugarlands visitor center. It has very informative displays and a very nice gift shop. There are rangers on hand to answer any questions you may have and to give informal demonstrations and talks.

We hiked a little over 5 miles on a back country trail. There were specific bear warning signs for our trail. A ranger said that a bear had been confronting hikers by standing up on its hind legs and growling, just like on TV. We didn't see that bear. It probably knew not to mess with us.

We also did the loop drive around Cades Cove. We have always had great luck seeing wildlife on the Cades Cove trip. At left is one of the deer that we saw. As you can see, Cades Cove is a large flat bowl. It is only about 1,500 feet elevation and it is surrounded by 4,5,and 6 thousand foot mountains. This is the area that was farmed in the early 1900's. The park still mows and burns it on a regular basis, to keep it like it was in the early part of the century and probably to make it easier to see wildlife. Cades Cove is like a drive through an animal park except that the animals here are wild and are not fenced in.

Oh, did we see any bears? Yes we did! More on that in the next posting. My camera was acting up in the zoom mode so I am waiting for the great shot that Sherry got to show the picture and tell the story.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Black Mountain Chain Gang

Well, not really a chain gang....but we worked like one. This is about 1/4 of the members of the Fairfield Glade Hiking Club that participated in trail maintenance at Black Mountain today.

Black Mountain is only about 10 miles from our house. At 2828 feet, it is one of the taller peaks on the plateau. On a clear day you can see for many miles in all directions. When we were there last spring we could see the Smoky Mountains 75 miles away. At over 6,600 feet, the Smokys towered above our little peaks on the plateau.

Our club is the official guardian of the Black Mountain portion of the Cumberland Trail which traverses Tennessee. Friday is our normal hiking day, but today instead of hiking we worked on the trail.

It sounds a lot more glamorous than it is. Trail building and maintenance always sounded like an exciting outdoorsy type of thing to do. I even considered signing up for a week of this manual labor on the Appalachian Trail. I am sure glad that I didn't! Two hours of using a fire rake, or a McCloud (all-purpose chopper-raker kind of thing) and I was glad it started raining.

The goal is to create or maintain a corridor 4 feet wide by 8 feet high. We did that! In the process we pruned limbs, chopped out roots, and dug out some rocks on the trail. In real trail work you also dig down through any topsoil to the "mineral soil" which is a lighter color. Plants do not grow as easily in the mineral soil so the trail is less likely to grow over as soon. Our mostly retired hiking club didn't have enough muscle power to dig down to the mineral soil. But we all did our jobs of raking, chopping, pruning, etc. and the trail looked like a boulevard. It wasn't much, but every little bit helps. By the way, that is Nancy in the middle of the picture with her round white name badge.

Monday, September 18, 2006

A Toad on the Road

If you drive around here at all at night you will often see lots of toads on the road...all sizes. I think that most of them are the Eastern American Toads. Fowler Toads are also found around here, but every one that I checked out was an American Toad.

We also often have toads on our driveway. The one in this picture hopped into the mulch near the driveway for his portrait. We have a light out by the mailbox and three lights on the garage. These lights attract insects and the insects attract the toads. Once, a few years ago when the June Bugs were especially abundant, several toads would gather under the street light near our house and gorge themselves on the June Bugs. I picked one up and you could feel all the June Bugs in its stomach.

I think the toads like the roads because the roads warm up during the day and probably hold the heat a little after the air cools down. Toads are cold blooded like snakes and they have to get their warmth where they can find it.

And, speaking of snakes, there is a snake around here that is a toad specialist. The Eastern Hog-nosed snake feeds almost entirely on toads. Good for them because toads probably aren't too tasty. If you have ever picked up a toad you will know that the first thing a toad does when picked up is pee all over your hand. They also have a secretion from a gland behind each eye that will irritate your eyes and nose if you let it touch those areas. But, thank goodness, since the toad just got done peeing on you I'll bet you do a pretty good job of keeping you hands away from your mouth and eyes. Contrary to that old tale, toads do not give you warts. But then you knew that.

I haven't seen a Hog-nosed snake around here yet but Nancy and I did see one in the Palo Duro Canyon in Texas a few years ago. As we were hiking a trail we met several people coming the other way and telling us that there was a Rattlesnake up ahead on the trail. Well, when we got there it was a Hog-nosed snake, not a Rattlesnake. Hog-nosed snakes hiss and act aggressively until that act doesn't work and then they play dead. I just eased it off the trail and we hiked on. But, seeing that snake had Nancy on high alert. A few minutes later a bike rider came up behind us and when he said "pardon me, can I pass" Nancy jumped about 3 feet and screamed. She was thinking nothing but "snake" and any sound behind her at that point was more than a snake-a-phobe could handle. That snake wouldn't hurt us. He was just looking for a toad on the road.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Smoky Mountain Fly Fishing

There is nothing more beautiful than fly fishing in the Smoky Mountains. The scenery is great and the fish are all wild - no stocked fish. At left is my fly fishing buddy Ray on the Little River in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Little River is listed in "Trout Unlimited's Guide to America's 100 Best Trout Streams".

We went for a 2-day trip for two purposes: 1) do some fly fishing, and 2) pre-screen some trails for an upcoming Fairfield Glade Hiking Club trip. We never got around to item number 2 - we will have to go back.

The fly shop web site had been saying that the fishing has been excellent lately. But that is not what we found the two days that we were there. Oh yeah, we caught some fish, but we really had to work hard to get them. I think that we caught about 14 between us. We tried 4 different streams and numerous flys, both drys and nymphs. I read the fly shop fishing report when I got home and it said that fishing was very very slow while we were there. Other fishermen were reporting few or no fish caught. So, it wasn't just us.

As you can see from the pictures the Park was beautiful. The mornings were cool and the daytime temperatures perfect. The leaves haven't started to change color yet, so the number of visitors in the Park was manageable. I understand that once the leaves start to change that a fair portion of the 9 million annual visitors shows up. The GSMNP is the most visited National Park in the country.

We talked to two people who ran into 2 bears on one of the trails and backed off the trail to give the bears room. The bears moved on when they saw the people. That is the way is usually works. Another place there was a sign at a trailhead that warned of an aggressive bear on that trail. A ranger told me that probably someone fed the bear and it lost its fear of humans. That always spells more problems for the bear than it does for people. The rule is: If a bear ever becomes aggressive towards humans and it continues, the bear is darted and moved. If a bear ever makes contact with a human the bear is killed. Signs in the Park say "A fed bear is a dead bear" So don't feed the bears.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Mount LeConte...part 2, the Top

The Alum Cave trail leading to Mount LeConte is beautiful, but the view from the top is fabulous. Mount LeConte is at 6,593 feet. It is the 6th highest peak east of the Mississippi and only 91 feet lower than the highest (Mount Mitchell in NC). The LeConte Lodge is the highest resort east of the Mississippi.

The lodge was started in 1925. Back then it was supposedly a destination for Washington D.C. VIPs to see the great views. Today it is not modern by any stretch of the imagination. As you can see from the pictures, it is very rustic. Our room, in a 3 room lodge, had a queen size bed but the room was barely larger than the bed. The only lights are kerosene lanterns. There are propane heaters in the rooms because even in the summer the temperature can get down into the 40s. In the history of the mountain the temperature has never reached 80 degrees. The propane is helicoptered in each spring along with building supplies and whatever else is needed for the year. There is also a spring that supplies running water to a spigot outside between the buildings.

Dinner was family style in the dining lodge. The food was beef, mashed potatoes, green beans, etc. $8 extra got us all the wine we could drink. I've got to admit that I saw a worker carrying the wine into the dining hall. It is the kind that comes in a box, but after 4 hours of hiking and at almost 6600 feet elevation, it tasted great. Breakfast was pancakes, eggs, ham, homemade biscuits, etc. The food and supplies are delivered to the lodge a couple of times each week by llama pack train. The used to use horses but llamas are easier on the trail because their feet are softer.

Even though it rained most of the day on the way up, it cleared in the evening so we had clouds below us and blue sky above. It was like being in an airplane above the clouds. We could see Clingman's Dome (50 feet higher than Mt. LeConte) in the distance and fog was pouring down over some of the mountains just like the fog rolls into San Francisco. The sunset was great as you can see in the picture below. Looking over one side of the mountain was the sunset and the other side had a rainbow at the same time.

The views were worth the trip but unless you are staying overnight you will have to miss the sunset because the trip back down is 4 hours.

Mount Leconte and LeConte Lodge is a great experience. We highly recommend it.

By the way, you can click on any picture to see it bigger. This blog site only allows one large, two medium, or 4 small pictures per posting. So I went with the small ones in order to get more in.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Mount LeConte...part 1, the trail.

This is part one of a two part account of our trip to LeConte Lodge on top of Mount LeConte in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP). Part one is about the hike and part two will be about LeConte Lodge and the scenery at the top.

While reading the daily fly fishing report from the Little River Outfitters web site, I read from time to time about the daily temperature or rain on Mount LeConte. I looked up Mt. LeConte on the internet and found that there was a lodge at 6,593 feet that had overnight accommodations and meals but could only be reached by a minimum of a 5 mile hike. That caught my interest immediately.

Nancy and I have backpacked with the Sierra Club to Colorado, New Mexico, and Big Bend National Park on 3 or 4 day trips. While we enjoy the hiking and the scenery tremendously, we don’t necessarily enjoy the 35-45 pound packs and the sleeping on the ground (even with great Therm-a-Rest pads). A hike, great scenery, a warm bed and wine with dinner…..count me in!

However, it turns out that the LeConte Lodge books a year in advance and it takes some people 5 years to get a reservation. This place is in demand! So, I sent an email to the reservation address on Friday evening August 18 and asked if there were any cancellations. Three days later I received an email stating that there was a cancellation for 2 on August 31. Count us in!

The only way to get to the lodge is via hiking trail. There are five trails to choose from ranging from 5.0 to 8.0 miles. I chose the Alum Cave trail, not because it was the shortest at 5 miles but for a couple of other reasons. First, it is supposed to be the most scenic trail to the top (although also the most strenuous) but second, because I thought that our car might be safer overnight near a main road rather that on a back road where the other trails originated.

Alum Cave Trail is beautiful. Even though it was rainy and foggy most of the trip up, we had all the right rain gear and were dry. It is all uphill, but it starts out gradually, following streams for the first mile. There are some single log bridges over the streams and a rock staircase through a natural tunnel. The view is mostly rhododendron, hemlock (some 200 years old) and yellow birch. At 2 miles there is a view of Inspiration Point and Peregrine Peak. A little further is Alum Cave Bluffs, a large overhang and a frequent day hike destination.

The second half of the trail is steeper, rockier, and sometimes very narrow with some places consisting of a rock wall on your right and a steep drop off on your left. Some sections of the trail had cables attached to the rock wall to hang onto. Nancy slowed down and walked very carefully at these points. Hiking poles help your balance as well as your knees on trails like this.

The vegetation is very thick the whole way up. A black bear could be 6 feet from the trail and you couldn’t see it. In fact one was. On the way back down, a woman about 20 yards behind us let out a yell as a bear crashed onto the trail behind her and then on down into the rhododendron below the trail. Both she and the bear scared each other. But I think only one had wet pants. A day earlier, on the way up, we met a couple coming down that also saw a bear on the trail. Once again, it ran when it saw the people. Someone else told us that at the beginning of the week, the Park Rangers had to dart and relocate a bear nearby that was showing a little too much aggression toward humans.

The last mile or so of the trail before LeConte Lodge looks like a Pacific Northwest rain forest with spruces and firs and logs covered with moss. You expect to see an elk stepping out at any time. There are elk in the GSMNP, but I don’t believe they are near this area of the park.

The hike is 5 miles one way. The web sites and the people we talked to said that it takes about 4 hours. I figured that we would beat that time. Our times up and down were just about the same……4 hours.

Alum Cave Trail is a beautiful hike. It is hard, but not too hard. It is just long enough to appreciate it, but not too long to not enjoy it. By the way, if you think you are a hiker, look up a man named Ed Wright. He has hiked the Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte once in 1982, then twice in 1985. He is currently at roundtrip number 1301. He hiked it 230 times in 1991 alone. He has had a knee replaced a few years ago and doesn’t hike it as often anymore; so, if you start soon you might be able to beat his record.

Part two….The Top… a few days.