Friday, May 29, 2009

Mountains and Rivers and Bears

Prior to Memorial Day, the three of us spent a week in the Southern Appalachian Mountains and it was one of the best vacations I’ve ever had.

The first two nights were spent in a cabin we rented near Townsend, Tennessee – a small town that has refused to be turned into a tourist trap. The cabin had a yard that was home to lots of cardinals and robins, and from there it was about a 10-mile drive to Cades Cove, a wide valley in Great Smoky Mountains National Park that is one of God’s most beautiful creations.

We visited Cades Cove on Saturday and Sunday, and counted 92 deer and 38 turkeys between those two days. But more impressively, only 10 minutes into our Saturday visit we encountered this threesome of bears:

We saw two more bears on our Sunday visit to the cove, and then we saw three more on our way back to town. I know it's a bad idea to get close to them in the wild, especially when they are mother and cubs like all of these were, but fear never materialized for us. A couple times we were walking as close as 10 to 20 yards from them and they showed absolutely no interest in us. Maybe that was because the national park has lots of camera-toting tourists and does not allow hunting, and that combination causes bears in this neck of the woods to think people are just part of the scenery.

Tuckaleechee Caverns, a large cave beneath one of the summits outside of town, was another highlight of our time in the Townsend area. A lighted path allows you to walk through the cave on guided tours and see its interesting formations. We ducked through its cramped areas, stretched our legs in its spacious ones, and dipped our fingers in the underground river that flows through it.

On Monday we departed Townsend and drove the Foothills Parkway and Tail of the Dragon into North Carolina, where we arrived at my family’s cabin by mid-afternoon. The next day we went for a hike in Pinnacle Park, where a trail up a tall mountain follows the cascading waters of Fisher Creek.

Unfortunately, we didn’t make it all the way to the pinnacle itself because Sarah had a mishap when she attempted to pee in the woods. So we backtracked to the car and drove to Wal-Mart, to get her some new duds to wear on the ride back to the cabin.

We took it easy on Wednesday and my mom, sister and niece arrived that afternoon. After lunch on Thursday, the six of us headed across the top of Fontana Dam for a walk to Paynetown Cemetery. At road’s end is a trailhead from which three paths head off in different directions, with the route to the cemetery beginning as a gravel road just west of the other two paths.

As I slipped on my daypack, we heard the loud, crash-like sound of leaves on the forest floor being crushed and moved about. I walked to the edge of the road with Sarah in my arms, peered down into a wooded gulley, and saw a young bear come to a stop beneath an oak. Erika was next on the scene and she saw him too, but nobody else got a chance because he took off running downhill and was quickly out of view.

Everybody else was disappointed, but they needn’t have been. A few minutes into our walk we heard more crashing sounds, and before long we were staring at a mother and three cubs spread out on a hillside above us. These bruins, unlike the ones in Tennessee, did not trust us. One of the cubs darted up a tree, and then returned to the ground as the rest of his clan moved closer to him. Mama Bear never took her eyes off us.

We continued on our way, and after a half-mile or so spotted the trail to Paynetown Cemetery leading up a slope to the left. That trail is very steep but also very short (about 100 yards) and arrives at the small graveyard after rounding a bend. Sarah asked if Granddaddy is buried there and we told her he is not. Though Paynetown does have tombstones for a few folks who have died during my lifetime, it is, for the most part, an early-twentieth-century place of interment. Many children and newborns were laid to rest there, making it obvious how difficult life was in those days.

We encountered the bears again on our way back. They had moved to the other side of the road and, once again, a cub scrambled noisily up a tree to look around. Mama Bear was on the far side of the cubs and started walking toward them, which meant she was also walking toward us, and we wasted no time vacating the area.

Our first Friday venture (after stopping here to sample some excellent cheese) was a hike along Twentymile Creek and Moore Springs Branch. Our second was to let Sarah put her new Barbie fishing rod to use by casting its rubber butterfly weight into the Little Tennessee River. We casted downstream and the current was so strong that as we reeled the weight back toward us, the rod bent as though we had caught something.

We were happy to see that noticeable improvements have continued to be made at Fontana Village, an outdoorsy resort near the cabin, where you can sit on Wildwood Grill’s outdoor deck while eating homemade potato chips and delectable sandwiches (including a Reuben that Erika described as the best she’s ever had).

Because it’s late enough in the year that Florida no longer cools off much when the sun goes down, we enjoyed the refreshing coolness of mountain nights – even though the first few were downright cold! It was 37 degrees our first morning in Carolina, and warmed up to 82 that same afternoon.

Of the animals we bothered to keep a census of, our final tally was 13 bears, 93 deer, 39 turkeys, 16 Canada geese, 5 woodchucks, 4 rabbits, 3 pileated woodpeckers, and a bat. And Sarah did a fair amount of the hiking herself, even though I carried her on my shoulders for parts of each hike. A wonderful trip indeed!

To close this post, here’s a picture of her holding a blossom, which I picked from one of the tulip poplar trees at Fontana Village:

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