Mount Cammerer: It’s Time to Climb

Ascending Mount Cammerer is one of my very favorite hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s also one of the hardest.

2010: With Jack and Bill

My first ascent was in 2010 with Bill and my brother, Jack, along. I’ve gone back at least four more times prior to this year.

In 2012, Bill, Jack and I were part of a group outing that included Carrie, who has since become Jack’s wife; Candace White, a former UT professor of mine; Nick Simson, a former UT co-worker of mine; and Hank Dye, the man who first hired me at UT.

I wouldn’t really have known about Mount Cammerer if it weren’t for Hank, who shares my love of the mountains and enjoyment of hiking. The 2012 hike came about three months after he retired from UT and as my boss.

 

2012: Before Jack and Carrie decided to marry
With Pat, Hank, Sarah and Dave

In 2013, Hank and I were back, along with another recent UT retiree, Sarah Weeks; longtime friend of Hank’s–and fellow UT retiree–Dave Roberts; and Hank’s brother-in-law, Pat Morrison.

2014: Hank and Steve

In 2014, it was Hank, me and Hank’s neighbor and hiking enthusiast, Steve Cook. The next year, Steve’s wife, Vicky, came along with Steve, Hank and me for the 2015 assault.

2015: Steve and Vicky

Every one of those involved a challenging climb, spectacular scenery, fun, fellowship and 12-plus miles roundtrip on foot. In 2016 and 2017, Bill and I went out west to visit some breathtaking, bucket-list, Rocky Mountain hiking destinations over four U.S. national parks and one in Canada. Our wow meters were well-worn, then came busy fall calendars that kept us from returning to Mount Cammerer in either of those years.

Why does the fall calendar matter?

Because that’s been our traditional Mount Cammerer hiking season, drawing us for the possibility of the patchwork of red, yellow and orange painted as far as our eyes can see from that high perch. Not to mention, the hike is tough enough without the heat and humidity of summer; nor the treachery of winter cold and icy conditions. Spring might be the lone good alternative to fall, but I haven’t tried it.

In the fall of 2018, we were just a few months into our move to Chattanooga–another super-busy time, not to mention the extra travel distance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But I missed making a fall hike up Mount Cammerer, and I resolved to get back there in 2019.

And, by golly, Bill and I just did that a week or so ago.

What is the draw to Mount Cammerer and its brutal climb, you may ask?

Some background: Mount Cammerer is a massive rock outcropping at 4,928 feet elevation near the Tennessee-North Carolina border that runs through the national park. You know you’ve reached its peak when you reach its fire tower, both named for Arno Cammerer, director of the U.S. National Park Service from 1933 to 1940.

The fire tower is one of those great products of the Civilian Conservation Corps between 1937 and 1939. It is one of 10 built by the CCC throughout the park in the 1930s. For the 30 years or so they were in use, a watchman lived in the tower for about three weeks at a time, until he was relieved by another watchman.

The towers had no electricity and no running water. A battery-powered, two-way radio was the only means of communication. Mirrors were used for signaling in the daytime and flashlights at night when the radio battery was dead. Fire towers on Mount Cammerer and Mount Sterling–about four miles away in North Carolina–are among the four that remain today of the original 10.

In addition to being a signature climb in the Smokies, Mount Cammerer has been called by multiple hiking experts “one of the best hikes in the Southern Appalachian mountains.”

Far be it from me to differ with the experts.

Same as every other time I’ve gone, Bill and I took the popular Low Gap Trail from the Cosby Campground in the park, near Cosby, Tennessee. The trail is a little more than 11 miles roundtrip and includes a 3,000-foot elevation gain over prolonged stretches of rocky surface. It’s strenuous and not for beginners. This year made almost 10 since Bill’s last–and only–climb up Mount Cammerer. He told me he might have to sit out part of it, or not go all the way to the top.

Spoiler alert: he made it.

The fire tower has a lookout deck about one story higher than the trail surface, and you can clamber onto it via a rock scramble. It wraps around the structure, offering the possibility of a 360-degree view of the mountains and ridges spreading out below.

I made our October hiking plans back in February of this year. When the possibility of fall color during the traditional third week of October peak in East Tennessee seemed a safe bet. Then came triple-digit high temps in the summer that were still hanging around into the first week of October. Leaf color is set in motion by clear days and cool nights. Not enough of those had happened to bring fall foliage into technicolor focus by the time of our trip to the mountains, but what were we going to do? Not go was not an option.

Our Happy Hovel

We did do one thing we had never, ever done before: We left for the trail at 10:30 a.m.

After I had sat down to and eaten a full breakfast–something else I’ve never done before hiking Cammerer, or most any other hike. That’s because: 1) I was on much-needed time off with an alarm clock ban, and 2) our cabin was only 30 minutes from the trail head. Much closer than the 90-minute drive we used to make from our house in West Knoxville, to say nothing of the idea of driving there from Chattanooga.

The forecast called for spotty showers–not the weather I would have chosen, but not a reason not to go. We took rain gear but didn’t really need it until we were almost off the trail after 12 miles and change. Temps were pleasant and hints of color were beginning to appear. There was the one constant: 3,000 feet of elevation gain during five and a half miles of climb.

For all his self-doubt, Bill did remarkably well. We both plugged away for the first three miles or so–unrelenting up–until the Low Gap Trail ran into a section of the Appalachian Trail that continues on toward the Mount Cammerer Fire Tower. Reaching the Appalachian Trail there means you have reached the end of the most difficult part of the hike. Woo-hoo! We planted ourselves on some sitting rocks and had a snack.

The rest of the way is shorter than the way you’ve already come, but you’d swear otherwise as you hit yet another little rise, another little meander through some woods, another step up some built-up steps. It must seem shorter in my mind than it is because it’s so much less steep than the three-mile ascent it follows.

When we finally reached the fire tower, we clambered up the rock pile to reach the observation deck, and I was surprised to find the door locked to the interior room surrounded by the deck.

I jiggled the handle a little, and a young man inside opened the door. He said he is a UT Knoxville student (the campus was on fall break at the time) and forestry major who enjoys visiting the fire tower.

He had a straw broom in his hands and he said he was just sweeping up the mess he’d made. FYI, neither the fire tower nor that publicly accessible room are for “camping.” I can’t tell you the student was camping or contemplating doing so, but I can tell you I’ve never encountered a person dancing with a straw broom up there before. Nor have I ever seen a broom anywhere at the fire tower before.

Oh, well. He was a bright, charming kid, clearly and he asked lots of good questions about hiking in the Smokies and about UT Knoxville. It would be good for forests if he ends up in forestry.

After about an hour to eat the sandwiches and snacks we’d brought for lunch, and hearing the start of a shower, Bill and I bid our future forester friend adieu and hit the trail.

We made great time and almost the entire descent without a mishap. But it did get a little dark toward the end–we were back to our car about 7:30 p.m.–and the increasingly heavy rain created some slippery spots. One of those caused Bill to take a spill. Mostly just a loss of balance, no severe crash. We were both ready to be off our feet, though.

It did us both a lot of good to get back up there. Bill surprised himself at being able to do more than he expected he could. And I love going up Mount Cammerer because it is part of one of my favorite good news stories, ever.

The fire tower was restored in 1995 with funds donated by the non-profit Friends of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The group organized in 1993, and the fire tower restoration is the first project it funded.

Sadly, vandals—who I don’t even understand being among hikers—have in more recent years damaged the structure again. The North Carolina chapter of the national “Forest Fire Lookout Association” has come through with a $500 grant to Friends of the Smokies to repair the damage.

Because Mount Cammerer has a lot of friends throughout the Smokies. Including us.

First fall color beginning to show from top of Mount Cammerer
Early fall glory from another direction

 

Actual view from coffee on the back porch of our cabin

Fair Enough

If you grew up in Tennessee and, certainly if you grew up with Tennessee 4H, you more than likely have been to a county fair more than once.

I don’t know exactly how many times I have been to a county fair, but the number would have been at least 12 or so by the time I moved out of my parents’ house for college. In the small town of Sparta, where I grew up, everybody went to the White County Fair, at least once every year. The younger you were, the more times you went.

The White County Fair always began on Labor Day and ended on the following Saturday. I would help my mother and grandmother complete entry forms for canned or baked goods or needlework they would enter into competition. Entry was free, and winning entries earned $2 or $3 each. My mother usually brought home $20 or $30 in winnings, making it worth the effort to her and my grandmother.

My older brother and a high school boyfriend of mine competed in the cattle show. You’d be surprised at the extent of cosmetic measures involved—shampooing, coat oil, black spray paint for the hooves and buttons left from de-horning—in making solid, healthy cows look their show-worthy best.

I usually had a supporting role in various 4H activities going on throughout the week. Except for a couple of years when I ventured into new territory for the first time.

At the age of 11, I entered a new talent contest in its debut year. I had to try out before the fair committee to qualify, and my a cappella singing of an Olivia Newton-John hit ended up winning first place and $50. That was the first money I ever made. Six years later, I was slightly less successful in competition.

Second-in-line to the County Fair crown.

My then-boyfriend urged me to enter the beauty contest—the Fairest of the Fair.

I’d never been interested in such a thing, based on my thinking that a girl had to think of herself as a prize-winning beauty to enter a beauty contest. My boyfriend insisted, despite it being little more than 24 hours until the contest, which always kicked off the Labor Day first night of the fair. After Sunday church, I went to the home of a couple who organized the contest, filled out the application and got word of a contestants’ luncheon the next day.

I didn’t own a pageant-type dress. Immediately after the Monday luncheon, my mother took me to a local store to look for a dress to wear on stage in a few hours. We found something acceptable and—bonus—it was on clearance and cost $5. I ended up being named second runner-up. That was it for my competitive beauty career.

Saturday night—the last night—at the fair always drew the biggest crowd.

People seldom seen in public otherwise would be seen wandering the midway, playing the shooting, throwing or sledgehammer-banging games; having a burger and fries at the Lions Club food concession.

I once heard a charismatic gospel preacher decry it as “a place of sin and beggars.”

As a teenager, it was a place to observe all the new couplings and uncouplings of high school romance that may have occurred over the summer just ended.

Since moving away from my hometown, I’ve never lived in a place where fair-going was so widely practiced. I went to the “Mid-South Fair” once while living in Memphis and the “Tennessee Valley Fair” a couple of times while living in Knoxville. That’s it—until venturing to the Hamilton County Fair this weekend.

It was the first time the county fair in Chattanooga – annually on the last weekend of September – happened since we moved here in June 2018. Unlike the near-drought conditions we find ourselves in today, torrential rains in 2018 began on Labor Day weekend and seldom stopped until March. Last year’s Hamilton County Fair was rained out for the first time in history.

Only you…

When I saw that this year’s is described as the 30thanniversary fair, I was puzzled. How could Chattanooga not have had a county fair prior to 1989? Turns out, the anniversary is of when the fair began being staged in Hamilton County’s Chester Frost Park after a history of being relocated several times since the first one in 1915.

One is real…

Chester Frost Park is a popular boating, camping and fishing spot only about four miles from our house, so we were both curious and convenient to check it out.

Fair-bound shuttle

Shuttle buses manage traffic and the limited parking, since the park is still home to dozens of campers and the same number of fishing and recreational boats buzzing across Chickamauga Lake.

Other than the unusual location—shared with a lake, fishermen and campers at a public park—and no midway, this fair offered all the usual agricultural, livestock and home-centered competitions.

It had a fairly diverse collection of farm animals, and I surprised myself approaching animals I grew up around as if I were at a petting zoo.

Guess I’ve been gone from the farm longer than I thought.

It’s only a two-day event, and I’m glad for the live animals that this is so, since the weather is ungodly hot and the animals are confined in pretty tight spaces to allow the 50,000 of us who’ll visit the fair this weekend to get an up-close look.

Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Bill and I didn’t get there until about 4 p.m. on Saturday.

Though it was actually Bill’s idea to go, he said arriving at 4 p.m. was plenty early since he didn’t plan on spending more than a couple of hours there.

Unfortunately, our timing was too late for the two editions of Mayfield’s Ice Cream Eating contest, and we missed the racing, swimming pig shows.

Oh, well. Next time.

 

The Party With Purpose

Hand-held high heels for party hiking

Over the 15 months since we moved to Chattanooga, Bill and I have steadily discovered more and more of what makes this area so highly acclaimed for its outdoor offerings.

Mountains, valleys, lakes, rivers—calm and wild, it’s all here if you want to do it. And there are a whole lot of do-ers, like us. There also are a lot of people who are less do-ers than they are advocates for preserving the beautiful places that attract do-ers. Those places are called national treasures by still another group around here and, when we joined them for a recent benefit party, we knew we’d found our people.

Point Park entry: Replica of Army Corps of Engineers insignia

The 11thAnnual National Treasures Party at Point Park supported National Park Partners, a local group of movers and shakers behind conservation of the natural, historic and cultural resources of Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park, which includes the Moccasin Bend National Archeological District.

Point Park is a 10-acre treasure on top of Lookout Mountain. In that park, all people are created equal—hikers, rock climbers, wheelchair-bound, the elderly, whomever—when it comes to taking in spectacularly beautiful scenery. You can easily drive up the mountain right to the gates of the park and walk on in. When hikers talk about whether a view can be had on a “windshield tour,” this place is a windshield tour bonanza.

It’s part of the National Park Service’s Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park, and an entry fee of a few dollars is charged. The views are a bargain at any price.

Point Park’s name is derived from its northern tip—the point overlook on Lookout Mountain—on which Civil War Confederate soldiers perched confidently as the Union Army was caught below, for a time, in the city of Chattanooga. The federal soldiers’ ability to ascend and defeat Confederates on the slopes of Lookout Mountain is a stunning thing to contemplate.

No battles were fought at the Party at Point Park, but permanent placards and replica cannons positioned throughout document the place’s history.

National Public Radio affiliate WUTC-FM is a part of the UT Chattanooga Division of Communications and Marketing where I work, and I’m pleased to say that I learned about the Point Park shindig from underwriting (like advertising on commercial radio) by National Park Partners on our station. As soon as I heard about the place and the purpose, I was in.

The weather could not have been more perfect—dry and breezy as the sun was setting. Party planners clearly had thought of every detail.

A park ranger was stationed at a social media selfie site overlooking the valley. Four long tables were laden with silent auction items.

Dozens of round tables were draped with cheerful red-and-white checked tablecloths and nestled in a grove of tall, mature trees. Pulled pork, chicken and some vegetarian/tofu—this is Chattanooga, after all, where vegetarians are plentiful—versions of barbecue were served. Along with all the traditional sides and then some, and all of it buffet-style. Fruit salad, hand-dipped ice cream cones and banana pudding were the dessert options. I can vouch for the authenticity and deliciosity of the banana pudding.

Seating was unassigned, and we joined a local, Lookout Mountain-dwelling couple, seated with another local resident and the couple’s dog, which was napping inside a doggie stroller. They were warm and friendly. So was the other couple—also Lookout Mountaineers—who then joined us. For context, it’s necessary to point out that Chattanoogans who own property and live on Lookout Mountain are understood to be wealthy. Extremely so. Lots, alone, can sell for multiple millions, thanks to the million-dollar views. All five of our new friends—plus the stroller-napping Jack Russell Terrier—were engaging and delightful.

Umbrella Rock

After taking in the meal, Bill and I took in more of the sights. We made a bee-line for the once-a-year opportunity to approach and be photographed on iconic Umbrella Rock. It appears to me the result of a massive rock serving as a pillar on which an almost-bigger, horizontal slab of a rock must have landed and now rests.

The park keeps it locked behind a gate 364 days a year—to protect either from personal injury or from vandalism, I guess. The party is the one day a year when the gate is unlocked, and—happy surprise!—we got our rare chance to check out Umbrella Rock and get pictures in the most perfect conditions.

It’s next to the Ochs Observatory and Museum.

That observatory—essentially a vast stone deck—offers the single-most spectacular scenic view in all of Chattanooga, in my opinion.

From that lofty perch, you can look down at Moccasin Bend, the Tennessee River Valley, Chattanooga, earth. If you can’t see at least seven states from there, I’d be surprised.

And can you guess who’s behind the Ochs name of the overlook? Yes, that would be the legendary Adolph S. Ochs. I see his name on a lot of things in Chattanooga, usually acknowledging that he founded the Chattanooga Times newspaper. Which is important and true, but it’s only a piece of his story in Tennessee.

I used to see his name on a Tennessee Historical Commission placard in Knoxville almost every day for about eight years. That’s how long I worked for the newspaper there, and a placard just outside the building noted the site of what used to be Staub’s Theater and that Arthur S. Ochs—later the publisher of the New York Times—was its first chief usher.

Staub’s Theatre Marker notes Adolph Ochs’ presence in Knoxville.

Ochs was born in Cincinnati before his family moved to Knoxville, where he was raised as his parents operated a struggling business in the years just after the Civil War. In 1869 and at the age of 11, Ochs began delivering papers before he learned to set lead type. Of course, he did go on to establish the Chattanooga Times, with a merger since then resulting in the Times Free Press, today’s best newspaper in Tennessee, and later he became publisher of the New York Times, one of the best newspapers in the world. I was already a fan of Ochs. The fact he made enough money in the newspaper business that he could pay to make one of Chattanooga’s most spectacular views accessible to the public—what’s not to love?

According to the National Park Partners organization, more than 945,000 people from around the world visited the six units of Lookout Mountain’s National Park – Chickamauga Battlefield, Lookout Mountain Battlefield, Missionary Ridge, Moccasin Bend, Orchard Knob and Signal Point in Point Park in 2018..

I know of two more who’ve already been multiple times in 2019 and will keep going back in 2020 and beyond.

Last of a Long Goodbye

Mary Arthur Anderson would have turned 91 years old on August 31, had she not passed away this year on Easter Sunday.

She was the first of five siblings that include Bill, of which he is second-to-last born. His younger sister, Hazel, and he are the two surviving siblings.

Mary was a faithful wife of 50 years to her husband, Cecil, on whom she waited and cared for when his health declined toward the end of his life. After his death, her strong bond with her children and grandchildren grew stronger as they drew even closer to her, making sure she never had a need nor a moment of loneliness.

Mary came to know a gentleman friend who kept her company, under the ever-watchful eye of her family. She was, hands-down, Bill’s favorite cook, whose versions of fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, rhubarb pie and banana pudding were his favorites. Look up the word “pistol,” as used to describe a human and not a firearm, and you’ll see Mary.

I wish I had a dollar for every time she told me how glad she was Bill and I had found each other.

Bill with his father, brother and sisters at our wedding.

She and Bill adored each other, her from a maternal orientation. Her father died when Mary was a small child, and several years passed before her mother married Bill’s father. After their parents had a baby boy, then a boy who died as a toddler, Bill finally came along. He was a toddler still sleeping in a crib when Mary married Cecil. On her wedding night, she made her new husband take her to her parents’ house so that she could kiss baby Bill goodnight and tuck him in.

Celebrating Mary’s birthday with her grandson, three sons, brother and man friend.
Birthday kiss

Her birthday was celebrated almost every year up to the last three or four, when her memory began to fade.

When memory loss progressed to the point she could no longer recall how to cook her family-favorite classics, or much else, her three sons arranged for a home health aide to stay with her over the work week. Her sons shared rotating duty for sitting with her on weekends.

Along with memory, time stole some of her pistol quality, but her eyes never lost their twinkle.

They looked out on Douglas Lake from her house with that spectacular view.

Her three sons and their Uncle Bill and I spent a Saturday there a couple of weeks ago, at the estate sale of her belongings and home furnishings–minus everybody’s sentimental favorites and heirlooms.

As much as such family business is routine and happening every day, somewhere, it still felt really personal and a little strange.

Strangers pulling up, walking through a grandmother’s home, turning over rugs and sliding clothes hangers over rods, picking up knick knacks and stacking up dishes.

I don’t have to tell you how odd it feels to answer a buyer’s question about an object at the same time it conjures a memory you’re keeping to yourself.

Or to stand by as people walk through parts of Mary’s house few but she and her husband ever occupied.

The day was hot, the sun relentless and the stream of buyers steady. We were scheduled to shut down at 4 p.m., but people were still buying until at least 5 p.m. Lots of buyers also were interested in the house. Which isn’t for sale, yet, but I expect to sell quickly, based on the number of inquiries. Not to mention the incredible, lakeside location.

Family birthday party, 2014.

We made the 2.5-hour drive up from Chattanooga that morning, and we were returning that night. On our way home, first, a Taste of Dandridge. That’s the actual name of the restaurant picked out by Mary’s son, Mike, where we had dinner before heading off on our separate ways. With Mike and his wife, Velina, that would be home in Strawberry Plains. Mary’s eldest, Cecil Jr., and his wife, Pam, live in Farragut. Her son, Mark, and his wife, Linda, live in Dandridge, only a few miles from Mary’s house.

The restaurant was good, so was the food, and the company was even better. It was a perfect ending to the day. We shared stories about Mary that still make us laugh.

If she’d been there, she would have laughed loudest.

 

 

Call It Work

“That’s why they call it work.”

You’ve probably heard that expression, often used as a verbal shrug after summarizing something done not by choice but by job requirement. I have to plenty to do by job that’s not by choice, but every once in a while, my job offers a really choice assignment. A recent Wednesday brought one of those.

Because a UTC biologist and a grad student are involved, I went along—for purposes of documenting their work—as a whole passel of academics and state and federal biologists visited the secret location where hundreds of rare white fringeless orchids have been transplanted.

Yes, secret.

Platanthera Integrilabia

That’s because the wild flowers, platanthera integrilabia, also known as “monkeyface” orchids, are so rare they’re on the federal Endangered Species List. The transplanting is part of a long-term study to determine what may be preferable conditions for their viability–basically, research in progress. In an undisclosed location. Unless your work makes it necessary for you to visit.

Truth be told, I’m not sure I could find the site again on my own, but I can tell you it’s in the vast Bridgestone – Firestone Wildlife Management Area that lies where White and Cumberland counties meet at the edge of the Cumberland Plateau. That’s an area I know better than you might expect because it’s basically where I grew up, and it’s just down the road from where I went to 4-H camp every year from age 10 to 16. Having a work-related reason to visit—even if only for a day—made it fun and special to get to go back there.

The origin of the research is TVA’s compliance with the Endangered Species Act when work by the federal utility involves construction or similar work that could disturb wildlife or plant life. The orchids planted at Bridgestone—in an area I grew up calling Scott’s Gulf—were discovered in 2015 on a TVA power line right-of-way now “retired” near Spencer, Tennessee. TVA biologists had to find a suitable habitat for the orchids, which would be killed off by competition from other plants that would grow in as the right-of-way reverts to its natural state.

As you might expect, TVA had to assemble a conservation team for the project. A large team, including experts with the Atlanta Botanical Garden, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, Tennessee Department of Conservation and Environment, US Fish and Wildlife Service and researchers at UTC.

Those researchers include distinguished biologist and environmental scientist Dr. Jennifer Boyd and Savanna Wooten, a graduate student pursuing a master’s in biology. Savanna has spent the last two years visiting the site once a month to record data on how the orchids are faring and, as of August 2019, she has completed the 24 months of observation she will document and analyze in her master’s thesis this fall before graduating in December.

Except, ironically, on the August visit by the cadre of experts from TVA, TDEC, TWRA and USFW, Savanna wasn’t able to make the trip from Chattanooga and Dr. Boyd was in Italy. UTC was represented that day by me and my colleague, Will Davis, who recorded interviews and environmental sound for a piece he put together for the National Public Radio station on campus and operated by UTC, WUTC-FM.

Will is an Ohio native who’s lived in Chattanooga a little more than two years. The towns of Dunlap, Spencer and Sparta that I drove us through on the way to the wilderness area all were new to him, but old hat to me. I grew up in Sparta.

Our TVA contact had given us essentially GPS coordinates to find the spot. At one point that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, but the Scott’s Gulf side of nowhere, I stopped at a TWRA equipment shed when I saw a man in uniform there. I told him our business, and he said we were the second party to approach for assistance finding the orchid expedition. The road I wasn’t sure was the right turn a little ways back was, in fact, the turn I should have made.

Then, since we were in the county where I grew up, I had to ask the young man about his people. He’s one of the Underwoods scattered about the area, he told me, and he’d just moved back there from Cassville about six months ago. Cassville? What the, hey, that’s the remote corner of the county where I grew up about 15 miles away! I could have talked a little longer, but we had somewhere to be, so Will and I headed off to meet the experts.

We found them in about 10 minutes. Will’s not an outdoorsy type, and he was dressed in jeans and sneakers—similar to what he wears to work most days. I was in hiking clothes and really glad not to be wearing what I wear to work most days. And I soon realized I was the one and only person in shorts, because everybody else knew the propensity for ticks—big ones, medium ones, and little-bitty sesame seed-sized ones. Oh, well. Nothing to do but put on my hiking boots and keep a sharp eye.

In about 10 minutes of walking through very dense foliage, we came upon what looked from some distance like PVC pipe-versions of traps I’ve seen set for wild hogs in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Our leader, TVA biologist Adam Dattilo, explained those are “exostructures” built to both mark and protect the rare orchids.

And then, yes, there they were! Tiny little bunches of blooms spilling from a delicate green stalk about a foot tall.

The exostructures varied from solely a PVC frame, to frames with their top halves covered in chicken wire, to those covered entirely in chicken wire. The variations were to determine how the plants fared with no protection from herbivores—such as rabbits and deer—to partial to complete protection. Some were planted amid dense foliage, some not. Some were set within shady areas thick with tall trees, some in more open, sunlit areas. Some were in lower-lying, more-saturated plots, some were higher and drier.

The researchers plan to visit the area next year to collect more data. Then they’ll determine a schedule to visit the site every few years.

Will and I were the only non-scientists in the group, save one: TWRA technician Paul Stockton. I was delighted to meet him and learn he’s a Sparta boy. He lost his job when a local factory shut down and was exceptionally fortunate to have been hired by TWRA.

Paul and me

Our “who’s your people” conversation led to the discovery that he is the grandson of a farmer next door to the farm where I grew up, he knows my younger brother, Jack, and that Paul would be attending a party the coming Saturday night at my cousins’ Lee and Lori Broyles’ house. It’s nice to be back on the home stomping grounds and meet someone you feel like you already know and learn good things have happened for him.

All together, we walked about three miles through the woods, meandering among various plots of the 400 or so orchids. After a couple of hours, Will and I had what we needed, and young Paul was designated to walk us back to the car. I was sure I could find it and told Paul we’d be good, but he insisted.

As it turned out, without marked trails and any bearings, I was completely wrong about which way to go. And thankful for Paul as our guide. He saw us off by asking if we knew about the Welch Point Overlook. Nope.

Then he told us how to find it—drive a bit further into the wilderness preserve, look for the sign at a small parking area, then walk about 500 yards.

I would have had no idea, and it was a stunning end to a great morning. The walk from the car was maybe the shortest hike I’ve ever made and probably Will’s first. The clouds had begun clearing, and the view was spectacular. We agreed it would have been a tragedy to have missed it.

I’d say that was true of the entire day.

With my colleague, Will, at Welch Point Overlook

 

Stump Jumpin’: A Lesson in Limits

Some hikers have no trouble deciding, from the trail, that it’s not the day or the time or the right conditions to finish. I’m not one of those hikers.

I tend to press ahead under almost any circumstances. I’m there, I can do it. I’ll push myself, if that’s what it takes.

Last Saturday, I made the rare-for-me decision to find a shortcut, take it and bail on the original planned route. I also found myself thinking I needed to get out with the Chattanooga Hiking Club at first opportunity because I’d had about enough of trial-and-error trails.

I really miss the benefit of hikes organized by people who know routes, distance and conditions well. I often had that within a hiking squad I was part of before moving to Chattanooga. Still relatively new to the hiking options in the area, I’ve done a fair number of hikes for the first time that all my information about came from online research or conversations with other hikers. That’s worked out well many times, but it’s also left me underwhelmed a few times and just a tad overwhelmed last Saturday.

Which brings us to the “Rock Creek Stump Jumper” hike.

The “Rock Creek Stump Jump” actually is the name of what has become one of the premier trail running races in the Southeast. Organized by Chattanooga’s own Rock Creek Company, the race is presented in September or October every year as either a 50K or a 10-mile trail run.

I’ve seen it referred to as “the Beast of the Southeast.” A 50K, by the way, is 30 miles. And 30 miles is four more than a marathon. On mountain trails. Those people are tougher than I will ever be.

I’m grateful to them, though. The event raises tens of thousands of dollars every year for work on hiking trails around Chattanooga.

While looking for a place to hike without necessarily having to drive far to find it, I happened upon the roughly 10-mile route the Stump Jump event uses. I found it on the All Trails app by searching for hikes in the Signal Mountain area. “The Rock Creek Stump Jumper” is rated as moderate for hiking–for trail running, it would be a moderate beast.

It began where the trail running event does every fall, right next to Signal Mountain High School.

The top of Signal Mountain has more than its share of hiking trails. The Town of Signal Mountain owns the small “Rainbow Lake Wilderness Area” developed for outdoor recreation and popular for its own hiking trails. Passing through it is Tennessee’s Cumberland Trail.

The Cumberland Trail is a 300-mile network of hiking trails that stretch from the northeastern corner of the state south to end on Signal Mountain at Signal Point Park, part of the federal Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park areas.

Then there’s Prentice Cooper State Forest, 6,000 acres of protected land with 35 miles of hiking trails. Prentice Cooper is almost entirely in Marion County, but it reaches east into Hamilton County where it crosses Suck Creek and goes up to the popular and picturesque overlook Edwards Point. That’s why so many Prentice Cooper trails are accessible from Signal Mountain.

The 10-mile Stump Jumper route overlaps trails within two of the three trail systems on Signal Mountain. It’s a designated loop that begins and ends at a well-marked access point just below Signal Mountain High School.  

Both the 50K trail-running route and the 10 mile route I chose begin on gravel trails in another local park on Signal Mountain. Within a mile or so, I was heading south, clockwise on the loop, and into an arboretum.

And I was solo. Bill wasn’t up for double-digit mileage, so he began with me but soon took a detour for a 3-mile route. He would plan to kill some time otherwise exploring and wait for me back at the trailhead since I was making a loop to return there.

Saturday was plenty hot–a forecast high of about 95. I wanted to hike on Signal Mountain in hopes its slightly higher elevation might offer slightly lower temperatures. The rule of thumb that you see a drop of about five degrees for about every 1,000 feet of elevation gained meant that I might expect a fresh 88-90 degrees on Signal Mountain, at best.

Regardless, it was hot. And humid–I’m talking soupy air. Have I mentioned I really dislike hot weather?

Within another mile or so, I was out of the arboretum and into the woods. Just regular woods. Just me on a pretty, peaceful and textbook woodland hike over gently rolling terrain for about three miles or so.

Other than Bill until we split up, the only other hikers I’d seen so far were a couple finishing as we started. They warned us that the insects were aggressive and out in force. Oh, yay. I wouldn’t hike in the woods without bug spray any more than I would hike without shoes.

The hiking couple may have understated the presence of the insects, though. I fumigated myself top to bottom–especially on the visor and top of my cap–with a can of bug spray at the car. I put the can in my pack. About 90 minutes into the hike, I had to re-fumigate. Never mind how much my cap already reeked of bug spray, within 30 minutes or so, I had mosquitoes darting at my face and whining in my ears.

About that time, I got my first indication that this was a multipurpose trail, indeed. Temporarily blinded by a bug spray fog, I heard what I thought might be a chainsaw. The fog cleared just in time for me to see that the engine sound was coming from a dirt bike, coming right past me. Ah, the sounds of nature.

Mountain biker navigates sandy soil.

Not to be outdone, mountain bikers also showed themselves on the trail.

In making the loop clockwise, I was going against the trail reviews. The reviewers’ consensus was that counter-clockwise is preferable so that you’d begin with a descent and finish out with gently rolling terrain.

My reasoning for clockwise was based on more than one hiker also reporting the route was easy to lose in parts of the last half of a counter-clockwise direction. To me, getting lost is a much bigger deal than having to climb, so I intentionally began my loop with the trickier half of the route where some of the trail markings aren’t as prominent.

Little shed in the woods.

The All Trails app on my phone makes it possible to basically check my location in real time, and that came in handy several times in the tricky half of the route when it was, in fact, difficult on more than one occasion to clearly identify the path.

Doesn’t that assume you’re hiking with your cell phone on you and have wifi, you ask?

Why, yes, it does. And wifi on a hike is more the exception than the rule, in my experience. In this experience, it was what kept me from going down the wrong trail several times.

Oh, and the availability of wifi also made it possible to check the weather conditions, which I did because conditions I was experiencing were so unpleasant. The combination of heat and humidity made for a heat index of 99 degrees. Until the sky darkened and a good breeze began blowing–and making the trees deep in the woods groan against each other.

I welcomed the fresher air and remembered I had not brought a rain jacket or poncho. Back at home, it was so ungodly hot and humid–and sunny–I couldn’t imagine needing rain gear or being able to tolerate putting it on.

Turned out, that breeze and darkened skies were short-lived, along with the respite from swarming mosquitoes. And the heavy dependence on the cell phone to track my location was heavily draining the phone’s battery. Fortunately, praise be, I was soon in some familiar territory I’ve hiked in the past to some scenic vistas. I shut off the phone and began looking for a good place to eat lunch. Then the sky darkened again. Less breeze, that time. The weather cut straight to thunderstorm before I had the chance to find either a place to eat or shelter from the rain.

Bill also was experiencing the thunderstorm from where he sat snug and dry inside our car. Concerned about me, he called my cell phone to ask if I was being rained on and had a jacket. Walking with my head down to try keeping the phone dry, I assured him I was being rained on and seeking a spot to get out of the rain since I didn’t have a jacket for that purpose.

I found a small thicket of rhododendron and rock outcropping and took a seat. The rainfall had lightened up and the foliage was doing a fair job of blocking some of the rain. As I ate a sandwich and watched two different couples of hikers walk by and do a double take–both times–when they spotted me, I thought about how this outing hadn’t been my favorite, so far.

The rain ended about the time my food did, so I started back up again and realized, oh yeah, there it is, the up. I was into the latter half of the loop now and the climb I’d opted for over the risk of getting lost when tired and near the end of a 10-mile hike.

The sun popped out, turning all the recent rain into steam. I reached one beautiful overlook, Signal Point; then another, Edwards Point. My bandanna was soaked from mopping my brow.

Between the rain and my sweat, in fact, I was damp-to-wet all over. My weather app said it was 99F in Chattanooga. It was about 3:30 p.m. and I was a bit more than halfway around my 10-mile loop. I had only just in the last mile or two emerged from the jungle to some scenic views and would be now heading back into the jungle–and up.

Smiling through the sweat at Signal Point

I decided I’d had about all the fun I could stand.

I consulted my map and decided to take a detour, definitely uncharacteristic of me, but I decided this time was warranted by the circumstances. Plus, I still had cell signal and about 25 percent battery, so I could reach Bill and give him an update on where to pick me up. Without that, I wouldn’t have had the option to change plans.

A Prentice Cooper trail on my map would make an almost diagonal retreat to almost the start of my loop, but it would not climb, not involve stepping up large rocks and would keep me from going back into the jungle. All without losing more than a couple of miles from the total–which mattered only from the standpoint of the day’s hike turning into pretty much just a good exercise opportunity.

All in all, I still got in about 10 miles and I’m confident I made a prudent decision about where those miles were.

The Cable Trail: A Humbling Tale

I grew up about 45 minutes away from the most-visited of Tennessee’s 56 state parks, but I never got to experience it until a couple of days ago. We didn’t go to state parks except for the occasional family reunion when I was growing up.

On Saturday, I went to Fall Creek Falls State Park–only about an hour and 15 minutes from where I live now–and saw for myself why it’s so popular.

The park is well-maintained and has exceptional facilities. The Betty Dunn Nature Center, named for the incomparably sweet wife of former Gov. Winfield Dunn, is top-notch, with well-done exhibits on native plants and animals. There are picnic sites, campgrounds, hiking trails, a lake, a golf course, and an on-site inn and restaurant–though the latter two are currently closed for renovation.

Then there is the spectacular topography: massive gorges, streams, cascades, waterfalls and large swaths of hardwood forest.

After a happenstance mention by a colleague on Friday of the “Cable Trail” being her family’s favorite hike in their favorite park–Fall Creek Falls, I knew that was something Bill and I needed to try. Well, to be more specific, the colleague said the Cable Trail is “a bit treacherous,” which was like a neon sign blinking “Must try this, Gina.

The drive from Chattanooga came with the standard, jaw-dropping view as we traversed the Sequatchie Valley and ascended the Cumberland Plateau. The park is in Bledsoe and Van Buren counties, which between them both, have about 20,000 residents. As of this year, the park has been bringing money and tourists to this very rural area for 75 years.

Things were hopping when we arrived about 10 a.m. Saturday in a parking area central to multiple picnic pavilions, gorge overlooks and the Nature Center. Parking spaces were scarce and a large group making use of one of the picnic pavilions was organizing into three smaller groups. Adults tied string to themselves and the wrists of multiple children to form single-file lines for walking and not getting separated on the journey.

After a couple of false starts, Bill and I finally found our way to the Cable Trail. It’s barely more than a quarter of a mile–or just over a half-mile, roundtrip–so we didn’t bring backpacks. Foolishly, we did bring hiking poles. It’s the cable, not hiking poles, that you have to use to navigate that dramatic little drop of 90 feet in elevation within 3/10 of a mile.

For those of you who may not know, Bill is actually pretty fearless and agile when it comes to tricky terrain. The one-inch thick cable that hung about shoulder height banished hesitance about his balance, so he started first and fast.

Truth be told, I was in usual, picture-taking mode when a petite, dimunitive woman asked me–in somewhat broken English–what I thought was something about whether I was taking pictures. When I said, “yes,” she suddenly handed me her cell phone, grabbed the cable and began a quick descent. I decided I must have misunderstood and that her question was if I would take a picture of her.

I kept waiting for her to turn and look back for a photo, but as she got nearly out of sight, confused, I began my descent. With her phone and mine in my pocket and my hiking poles dangling from an elbow and clackety-clacking the whole way down.

Heavy cable about an inch diameter is securely attached to a steel-and-concrete anchor at the high point. You hold on as you need it down the angular rock trench. In one or two places, some exposed, well-worn tree roots serve perfectly as grab handles. At the bottom, the cable encircles and is attached to a boulder the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. Go around the boulder, and you’re staring 256 feet up at Fall Creek Falls from the surface of the water it spills onto.

It’s a real stunner of a sight.

I was jolted from my reverie by the small woman–in her skirt and flats–calling to me from the rocky shoreline to come and take her photo. I picked my way over the rocks and took out her phone as she began to pose and make sure I knew she wanted the waterfall in the background. I kinda figured that was the point.

Then I figured out she also wanted me to record video of her, also with the waterfall in the background. Well, of course. Why not, I thought.

I gave her the signal, and she began a soliloquy in Spanish. I tapped an ear and raised my hand in the air, and she immediately understood I wanted her to talk louder–to overcome the roar of the waterfall. Her speech ended, I ended the video recording, and that seemed to end my service to her. She approached, smiling and head nodding, reaching for her phone and thanking me over and over.

With Miguela, also of Chattanooga
Different choices in hiking footwear

I handed my phone to Bill and asked her name–it’s Miguela, and she had also come from Chattanooga that morning–to pose with me. I asked her to put her foot next to mine so that I could photograph the two kinds of footwear that had gotten both of us safely and securely down the rock scramble.

So much for REI gear, I thought.

She took her phone and her leave, telling us she had to get back to her family. She was gone before I thought to ask if she would carry our hiking poles back up with her.

Bill and I took some selfies, then he took off. I got a couple of video clips, and then started back–90 feet up in about 3/10 of a mile. You use the cable to help hoist yourself until a section in the middle, where the roots-as-grab-handles are critical.

Then there’s a rock wall section much easier slid down than it is climbed up. It’s nothing like actual rock climbing but probably as close as I’ll ever come. Just in that section, one of my hiking poles–attached to a belt loop by a bandanna–got trapped in something and pulled back as I was doing kind of a pull-up. No, I am not kidding. So I wiggled and jiggled and tried not to fall backward as I also tried to dislodge the hiking pole without taking my hands from the rock hold I clenched. Finally–success!

I climbed on up to the top and got a high-five from Bill, who was already there and waiting. Before we finished congratulating each other and headed off, I reached behind myself to untie the hiking poles from my waist. Except there was just the one hiking pole. No, I am not kidding.

Apparently, I freed myself from the snag by freeing one of my poles from the bandanna. Oh well, hiking poles aren’t cheap, so nothing to do but go back and get it. At least, I thought, it couldn’t be too far back down the descent. No, it wasn’t. Not if you consider two-thirds of the way back down and on the other side of that miniature climbing wall not too far. I left a pole with Bill and scrambled back for the other. I put my elbow through the handle of the wayward pole–gonna have my eyes on you this time–climbed the roots ladder, scaled the miniature climbing wall, grabbed onto the cable and hoisted myself the rest of the way up.

Last Cable Trail AscentAnother high-five from Bill, two hiking poles firmly in hand, off we go.

As we emerge from the wooded thicket, the bright sunshine and trailhead sign I can’t read makes me reach for my sunglasses. My prescription sunglasses. Which weren’t on my head. No, I am not kidding.

They had been on my head. The last time I could remember was when I had pushed them onto my cap while Bill and I took selfies, at the base of the waterfall. So guess what. Go ahead, guess.

Yep, I got to do the Cable Trail–down and back up again–yet one more time. My third descent in about a half hour, I turned backward and practically rappelled down to the miniature climbing wall. I slid off of it, down the grab handle roots and was back at the VW Beetle-sized boulder anchoring the cable at the bottom in no time. But not so fast that I wasn’t looking carefully for a pair of prescription Ray-Bans among the rocks and roots along the way.

No luck. I picked my way back over to the rocky shoreline, went back and forth over it, retraced my steps as best I could remember and I spent a good few minutes staring down where we had taken the selfies. I was scouring the rocks, disgusted that I had been careless enough not to realize my glasses had fallen from my head, when I heard a voice say to me, “Do you see it over there?”

I looked up and a man in swim trunks walking out of the water said, “That snake–did you see it?”

“What snake?” I asked. Then the man pointed toward a couple of rocks inches from his feet, which are in ankle-deep water, and said, “Oh, there it is. If I’d seen that before I went in the water, I might not have gone swimming.”

I looked where he pointed just in time to see a dark and fast-moving couple of S-curves, a tiny splash of water, then–gone.

OK, I thought, here’s where I accept defeat and leave before I add snake bite to the misfortune of lost prescription sunglasses.

You know the drill by now–climb, up, steep. For the record, I did keep my eyes out for the sunglasses the entire way back. But, you know, these are eyes that require vision correction, so perhaps not the best odds of spotting a small dark object in the woods while trying not to fall backward.

Once again, a hiking trail claimed a pair of prescription sunglasses. Cable Trail is in good company with the Alum Cave Trail in the Smokies. That’s the last spot to claim a pair. Heck, these were even four or five years old–pretty good life span for me.

They were getting a little hard to read with–maybe it’s time for an updated prescription, anyway.

And Fall Creek Falls, I’ll be back for you.

Maybe for a kayaking tour of the lake. Or an autumn color hike on your lower or upper loop trails. But definitely not while wearing sunglasses.

 

 

 

 

 

Face to Face with the Fiery Gizzard

The name is colorful, the reputation is intimidating, and the location is way off the beaten path.

And, as of Saturday, I can say I hiked the Fiery Gizzard Trail–and lived to tell the tale.

All Trails app topo trail map.

The Fiery Gizzard is a 12.6-mile gash down the middle of the South Cumberland State Park. The park is made up of 40,000 acres that lie within four different Tennessee counties: Grundy, Franklin, Marion and Sequatchie. At its southernmost tip, the point-to-point trail ends at the Foster Falls area owned by TVA.

The hike I did is a 9.6-mile loop that begins in Grundy County, at the Grundy Forest State Natural Area picnic shelter. Raise your hand if you’ve ever been to Tracy City. Driving from Chattanooga, it took only about an hour to get there.

As for that name, there are a few stories, but one that comes up a lot involves Davy Crockett. He’s like the George Washington of Tennessee, you know. “Davy Crockett slept here, Davy Crockett fought here, Davy Crockett ate here.”

No surprise that one of the most popular stories about the trail name says Davy Crockett had made camp along the creek and was eating turkey being roasted on an open flame. He bit into a gizzard that was so hot it burned his tongue. The story goes that he spit it out and into the gorge saying, “Curse you, fiery gizzard!”

Kind of a “Davy Crockett spit here” claim to fame.

In the hiking community–and I mean nationally–the trail has achieved its own fame, beyond the memorable moniker.

Raven’s Point

The Fiery Gizzard Trail is ranked by Backpacker magazine, Outside magazine and the outdoor-centric Roots Rated website as one of the top 25 hiking trails in the United States. Right there in Grundy County.

Why? It offers a diverse combination of scenery, waterfalls, massive rock formations, bluff overlooks and steep, technical climbing or descents.

People have told me about the Fiery Gizzard for years, usually in the context of: Be sure to leave word of your planned route so that search-and-rescue can find you. No kidding.

I’m not sure it could have been as hard as I’d been told it was. Anybody I know who’s been always insisted the Fiery Gizzard was the hardest, ever. It chewed hikers up and spit them out. Kinda like Davy and his turkey gizzard.

I went in there prepared to run into the Loch Ness Monster, a Yeti or the Kaiser Sose.

All the dire warnings led me to think about and prepare for worst-case scenarios.

For my solo hike, I had three liters of water, two apples, a banana, a sandwich, a tube of Clif block energy chews, five trail bars and some Chex mix. I packed a headlamp, a handheld LED light, bug spray, a first aid kit, gaiters, a printed map, a compass, a whistle, a rain poncho, two extra pairs of hiking socks and a pair of water shoes. The last hike I did carrying that much stuff was about 18 miles.

My pack weighed about 15 or 20 pounds. I wore my sturdiest high-topped hiking boots, laced up tight.

If you’re one of the three hikers left who still hasn’t downloaded the All Trails hiking app, you’re missing out. The app has topo maps for hiking trails around the world. It rates trails based on “average” hiker ability, and it rates the Fiery Gizzard loop I did as “hard.” I must be average, because I found it, in fact, hard. Not impossible, but definitely a challenge.

Because, who needs a footpath?

Way more than half of the almost 10-mile loop I did is very rocky and has a lot of roots and similar stuff to trip over. And when I say rocky, I mean picking your way over fields of small boulders, from  bowling ball to small car-size. Fortunately, the trail is exceptionally well-marked by blazes on trees. Which is critical for those long stretches with no obvious footpath and you’re depending on looking from one blaze to the next to know where to proceed.

 

The trail descends into the gorge, which has a “Land That Time Forgot” quality. You’re routed along the Fiery Gizzard Creek, past a big swimming hole, giant cantilevered rock formations, a collection of Hemlock trees more than 200 years old and an extra side trip to the pretty Sycamore Falls.

Sycamore Falls

I got my view of that waterfall from above, on the descent.

Then it ascends on the other side of the creek.

That’s where things get really extreme. Total elevation gain on the loop trail is 1,243 feet, but that climb out of the gorge to its rim is the steepest part, gaining 400 feet within four-tenths of a mile. The grade ranges from 25 percent to almost 50 percent. That’s a lot.

My foot and me…taking a break at Raven’s Point.

Up on the rim, I was grateful to be walking on relatively smooth ground–not wobbly boulders or a dry creek bed. I did opt for the half-mile side leg out to an overlook called Raven’s Point. The view is like looking out on a green Grand Canyon. I took a long break there, then I got back on the trail and completed the rest of the loop without any trouble.

Yes, after starting at 9 a.m., I emerged uninjured, still daylight out, about 4 p.m. After recent–let’s call them “setbacks”–unsuccessful attempts to complete a hike up Cold Mountain in North Carolina and my survivalist expedition in the North Chickamauga Creek Gorge, I was on a mission in the Gizzard. I enjoyed the scenery, I shot photos, and I took food and water breaks, but I was single-minded about making good time. I may have muttered to myself more than once, “You are not going to beat me. I am going to finish this trail.”

So, after hiking it once, would I go back? Yep. I’d like to try the full, 12.5-mile, one-way trail coming out at Foster Falls. That’s a 60-foot high waterfall spilling into a one-acre swimming hole that’s 27 feet deep.

I’d like to go back this fall. The leaf color will make it a totally different experience. Don’t tell our friends up the road at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but Backpacker also rates South Cumberland State Park as 6th-best in the country for fall color—behind leaders such as Acadia National Park in Maine, Yosemite in California and Glacier in Montana, and three spots ahead of the Smokies.

I’ve gotta go check that for myself this year.

Kicked by the North Chick

North Chickamauga Creek State Natural Area is a wild patch of public land surrounding a deep gorge that dives down and across the boundary between Sequatchie and Hamilton counties.

It features a rugged hike over about a 10-mile section of the Cumberland Trail, so named becuse it runs along the eastern escarpment of the Cumberland Plateau. The trail–a public park being developed by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation–currently spans more than 200 miles of its planned 300-mile length.

On the first Saturday in July, I was looking for a bit of a challenge in preparation for a big challenge upcoming in a hike I’ve planned to do on the second Saturday in July. The 10-mile North Chickamauga Creek Gorge hike promised a challenge. It delivered, and then some.

The Hamilton County end of the trail segment is in Soddy-Daisy, just about 15 minutes from my house. The other end is in Dunlap, in the central time zone and four-wheel drive zone.

Another reason I chose the location was that I had heard about “blue holes,” or natural swimming pools along that part of Chickamauga Creek. I was curious to see them, and the whole area would be new territory.

Last time I’d be clean on this hike.

It was hot the day I went. I don’t just mean summer hot, I mean 90-degree heat and humidity that seemed just as high. I broke a sweat putting on my hiking boots in the trailhead parking lot. I had completely filled the three-liter water reservoir in my backpack, brought along bottled drinks for afterward in a cooler, and I had plenty of food, trail bars and Clif shots. The great majority of people I saw at the trailhead were there to find the blue holes. I think I was the only person heading onto the trail in something other than flip flops and swimming attire.

Bill was there to drop me off, venture up the trail a ways himself, and then pick me up at the other end in Dunlap.

Within the first half-mile of the trail, I saw a couple of concrete picnic tables and multiple paths worn down to the water at big rocks already decorated with beach towels and lawn chairs.

The trail is rated “difficult.” That may be an understatement.

Some combination of steepness of climb, roughness of trail, elevation change and water crossings is typically involved assessing degree of difficulty. In this case, all those elements were present at challenging levels.

The trail gains and loses 500 feet of elevation, twice. You climb up to the peak elevation, then descend into the gorge and the water. Then you climb back out again. There are steep slopes, and a lot of rugged rock scrambles. In a couple of places that would be virtually impassable otherwise, there are wooden stairs and a wooden ladder—built by hardworking trail volunteers. I went at a time when rain hadn’t been overly plentiful, and the creek crossing still was a handful.

More to come about that in a minute.

Red-faced and sweaty at the first climb.

The trail passes remnants of former coal mines. It goes through the foundations of an old coal tipple, where mined coal once was hauled to that point, separated by size in the tipple, and then hauled away. I saw old concrete pillars, and they stood in what almost looked like black sand with the appearance of very small chips of coal.

Shortly after that, I found myself at the entrance to an abandoned mine in the face of an escarpment. It looks like a deep cave, but it’s an almost perfectly square opening maybe 30 feet high by 30 feet wide, right at ground level. Reportedly, it’s only about 35 feet deep, but I can’t tell you from experience. I stood there and looked at my reflection in the black, standing water, and that was plenty close enough. Not to mention entry is prohibited both for human safety concerns and for concerns about white-nose syndrome, a disease decimating native bat populations.

As I climbed, I got amazing aerial views of the gorge. Since it’s summer, the area also is heavily forested. By my guess, it’s also not heavily traveled. Where it plateaued, it’s covered in knee- to waist-high growth and grasses. I used my hiking poles to prod ahead of my feet to identify critters before stepping on them. Fortunately, I’m not aware of any that I disturbed.

The trail is marked with white blazes, but there was a fair amount of blow-down and, in a couple or so places where I had to look hard to find the blazes, I discovered them on fallen trees.

As if that wasn’t enough, there was also some really rocky terrain. The very rocky water crossing, I’m guessing, could be treacherous, if not impossible, in rainy weather.

Which brings me to that awful moment when I said to myself, “Oh, no. Not again.”

As in, “Oh no, not again have I climbed and descended a killer trail only to arrive at a water crossing where I cannot find where to pick up the trail on the other side of the water!”

Yeah, I got to have that experience on a rainy hike almost five years to the day in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Yeah, I was hiking solo then, too, and I went five miles down a gash in the mountains to a roiling creek that I managed to cross and then couldn’t find the trail. Yeah, I finally resigned myself to my only option being to back track up the steep slope to where I’d started. Yeah, my husband was waiting for me where I was supposed to emerge, a few miles away, and yeah, there was no cell signal so I had no way to let him know I’d had to change plan.

So. Much. Sweating.

And yeah, as 6 p.m. was approaching and sunlight was beginning to depart, there I was at the bottom of the North Chick with no other option but to retrace my steps. All five miles of them. Oh well, the elevation gain was going to be no more than I would have had if I’d been able to finish the trail on the Dunlap end. Where Bill was waiting. At least–at the very least–I had discovered, cell signal was still present up to about two miles from the trail head. I should be able to call Bill when I was about 40-50 minutes from finishing, so he might have enough time to drive BACK FROM DUNLAP to be at the place where I’d started about noon.

Yes, I had a trail map on my phone. Yes, I had a written description of the turns and landmarks. Yes, I had a compass that I used to try to orient myself at the creek bed to figure out which way was south to the junction with another creek, and which way was east, to proceed past that junction and then go upstream where the trail continued, where I was supposed to see a waterfall adjacent to an “exceptional campsite.” But no, after almost an hour of walking and compassing and looking, I could not find where to pick up the trail across the water.

If you’re ever there, you might find it surprisingly free of insects. That might be from the contribution of my almost-full bottle of Deep Woods Off with Ebola Protector to the River Gods. It fell from my pack as I bent down to survey the width of a gap between boulders and wondered if I could jump across them without breaking my hiking poles or my legs. I went a different way, after saying aloud, “Well, I guess I’ve held the vampires off as long as I can. Gonna be a fun five miles straight up outta here in the woods as dark comes and I have nothing on my skin but sweat.”

Was I lost? No, I was not lost.

Lost is when you don’t know where you are. I just couldn’t figure out how to get where I’d planned to go.

Between the heat and the elevation gain I’d already climbed, it was sheer will, an apple and a packet of Clif gel that got me back out of there. Just as I reached the plateau–seeing spots from either low blood sugar or mosquito-induced blood loss–my phone rang. It rang before I could finish texting Bill that I’d had to turn back and he needed to pick me up where he’d dropped me off. It was Bill calling and the first words out of his mouth where, “Where are you?!” Because, you know, by then it was about 8 p.m.

That’s probably not the kindest, most tender conversation we’ve ever had, but Bill was on his way from Dunlap after we finished. I fumbled in my pack for another energy snack, and I noticed the water I drank from the tube to wash it down was getting toward the end of my supply. But I couldn’t stand still long and ponder that, lest the twin-engine bloodsuckers pick me up and haul me away.

I pushed myself to move as fast as I could, but dark was coming just as fast. So were all those chunky rocks and roots I’d crossed earlier in the day when I was fresh. If not for high-top hiking boots, I’d have rolled my ankles at least seven times.

Yes, I had a light. Yes, I was using it.

Then, I noticed more light. The kind made by cars driving on the twisting road uphill from me–which told me I was within reach of the paved road that led to the trailhead where Bill would have been parked. I called him and told him–at 9 pm and near-complete darkness–I was bailing on the ankle-buster and scrambling up the embankment leading to the road to the trail. He was going to get in the car and start driving my way. I planned to be walking on asphalt and waiting for him.

Ditching the trail to climb through brush and bramble to reach the road shoulder, I was very glad to have my handy-dandy little super-duper light. It worked great–I know, because of how perfectly it illuminated the poison ivy I was splitting wide open. Oh, well, I’ve never been allergic before, and I was willing to take my chances.

Bill, of course, had intended on being helpful and had actually walked a good bit up the trail hoping to meet me and help me if I needed carrying or shooting by the time he found me. Which meant that I actually reached the car before he did, but not by much. Maybe only 100 yards.

I was bleeding from a shin (briers), sooty-bottomed (old coal mine country, remember) and limping a little from getting a foot trapped in rocks at the water crossing. Bill was bleeding from both knees and a forearm–his short jaunt up the trail intending to meet me, without a light to carry, had already cost him a tumble at a root/stump/rock. Seems we’d both gotten kicked by the North Chick.

I had worn 100 percent synthetic, tech fabric clothing, and it was still 100 percent drenched in sweat.

FitBit said I logged 13 miles and burned 3,500 calories.

After our 15-minute drive home and a shower at least that long, I emerged dressed and Bill commented on the “sunburn” I must have gotten on my face. I went back to look in the mirror.

Nope, I told him, my rosy jaws were just evidence of red-faced exertion. I still hadn’t cooled off. But I caught a lucky break on the poison ivy.

Still not allergic. So you didn’t completely beat me, North Chick.

 

Fire(works) on the Water

Last week, we put our hiking boots aside and climbed into kayaks.

Since I recently began offering short, 10-minute or so pieces on getting outside in Chattanooga via the local NPR station, WUTC-FM, I’ve had reason to look even more than I naturally would for fun, accessible outdoor activities here. In Chattanooga, there are almost too many great choices. But when I saw an item in the Chattanooga Times Free Press‘ weekly “Fresh Air Calendar” about an REI-led, July 3 guided kayak outing five miles down the Tennessee River to where the city’s “Pops On The River” fireworks show would happen at dark, I knew that was for us.

Did I mention we would be watching the fireworks from the water, sitting in our kayaks? Yeah, baby!

The 12 available spots sold out–but not before Bill and I got ours.

REI shuttled our group, kayaks and gear from a downtown parking lot across the street from Ross’s Landing. That’s where we would eventually end our paddling adventure, after putting in few miles away, on the downstream side of Chickamauga Dam.

We got several minutes of instruction on how to fit our life jackets, adjust our seats and foot placement in the kayaks, how to paddle properly, and about how the guides would signal for us to stop, to gather up or to pull over to shore.

Then we began carrying the kayaks to the water to push off.

Since it was it was about 6 pm on July 3 and big doin’s were happening downtown at dark, a lot of ski boats and recreational boaters already were on the river. Several fishing and ski boats were launching and coming out of the river, in fact, at the ramp we were using. I’ll admit I was a little tentative as we got started. All the commotion had a good bit of waves rolling around and my kayak bobbing along with me in it. I just wanted to ease out without incident. And maybe even more, I was hoping that for Bill, since the adventure he’d agreed to go on was my idea.

Nary a stray splash. We both relaxed and realized these “touring kayaks” we were in–see, we’d already learned about the differences between ours, whitewater and sea kayaks–were made for stability.

Everybody who’s ever seen anything about kayaking has seen how they can be rolled over, how expert whitewater kayakers can even raise themselves and their kayaks upright after overturning. I want no part of that. My adrenaline meter doesn’t go high enough to navigate whitewater. Flatwater kayakers, that’s what we are.

Our five-mile distance was very do-able. We went at a leisurely pace and, from Chickamauga Dam to downtown, you’re riding downstream, which makes it even easier.

We pulled onto shore a couple of times and took short breaks. Once we got downtown, we circled Maclellan Island—a wooded strip of land that rises up to one of the landmark bridges—and we pulled up beside the island just floating a bit and taking in the scene.

We could look up and see people were standing shoulder to shoulder on the large Walnut Street pedestrian bridge overhead. People appeared to be tailgating in a few places on the shore. Other people were out on their balconies and decks—everybody was queing up for the fireworks, and it was a magical scene.

The show ended about 10 p.m., and we began paddling the rest of the way to Ross’s Landing. In about five more minutes, we were there. The fantastic REI guides took care of everything–hauling the kayaks and gear back to their trailer. All we had to do was mosey back to our car a few hundred yards away.

We were so fortunate. A perfect maiden voyage, good exercise, great weather and watching fireworks from the most unique and very best seats on the water.

I can’t believe it took me so long to give kayaking a try. I’ll be trying it again soon, and often.

 

Looking Back at 25

Bill and I met in 1993, when we both worked at the Knoxville News-Sentinel. He in circulation, me in the newsroom. About 18 months later, we were married. I don’t know if–in the swirl of finding and buying a house, planning a wedding and a honeymoon–lots of marrying people imagine a future when that marriage will be decades old, but I didn’t.

In our case, it seems 25 years later came a lot sooner than I could have imagined.

Just like all married couples, we got busy working our jobs, handling family matters and living our lives. The “busy” part–I think that’s the key to the years slipping up on you. On our anniversary this year, May 22, 2019, we counted 25 years gone by.

Bill taught me to appreciate baseball. I taught him to appreciate hiking. We both really love to travel, and we have thoroughly enjoyed doing a lot of that, often in pursuit of another of Major League Baseball’s 30 parks or another of the National Park Service’s 59 national parks.

While he plugged away at one employer throughout his life–the News Sentinel–until retiring in 2008, I pursued another opportunity in healthcare public relations, then another in higher ed communication, and the latest, where I am now at UT Chattanooga. Meantime, I also entered grad school and finished a master’s degree while working full time.

Karie (left), Kasie and I graduated in 2007. They from high school, me from UT.

That was one of the most-demanding goals I ever set, but I made it in 2007.

There have been births, weddings and funerals. Both of Bill’s parents, his brother and two of his three sisters have passed away since we’ve been married, and I have lost both of my beloved grandmothers.

Hiking with members of our beloved Knoxville church family.

We were part of an absolutely beloved church family for more than 20 years. Denominational policy changes led a majority of that group to form a new church that we were part of until we moved from Knoxville to Chattanooga in 2018.

Looky who made the Jumbotron for my UT System going-away party!

Oh yeah, and after living in the same house for the “first 24” years of our marriage, we sold it and bought one in the Chattanooga suburb of Hixson.

Bill’s had three major surgeries and I’ve had two. Otherwise, we’ve been fortunate to have enjoyed good health. To help people survive leukemia–after we came to know friends who lost a baby girl to leukemia at 18 months old–we both got heavily involved for several years as bicyclists and fundraisers for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Training, fundraising and long-distance bicycling in honor of leukemia patients still stand in my mind as the best and most important things I’ll ever do.

All in all, we’ve been fortunate to walk through life and the milestones it brings together, happily and within a cherished circle of family and friends.

Forty-four states, 22 MLB ballparks, 21 national parks, 18 foreign countries, thousands of miles on bicycles and hundreds of miles in hiking boots–we packed a lot into our first 25 years. They haven’t all been perfect, but mostly, they’ve been really good.

Tennessee: The State of UT

My relationship with the University of Tennessee began when I was 9 years old.

UT’s White County Extension agent, Linda Koger, walked into my 4th grade classroom for the first time and enrolled me in the 4-H club, along with the 20 or so other kids in my class. I can’t speak for the rest of them, but I remember being wide-eyed at the whole new world of possibility Ms. Koger promised through 4-H. I’d heard a little about it through my older brother’s involvement, and at last I was getting my turn.

Ms. Koger came back once a month, for an hour each time, and we in the Cassville Elementary 4th Grade 4-H Club got to dabble in everything from photography to public speaking to poster making.

4-H-Clover-RGB_digitalI learned what 4-H’s four Hs are, as referenced in the 4-H pledge, which we recited to start every club meeting: “I pledge my head to clearer thinking, My heart to greater loyalty, My hands to larger service, and my health to better living, for my club, my community, my country, and my world.”

What better philosophy for a young person? For any of us?

The first chance I had, in the summer between 4th and 5th grade, I went to 4-H summer camp at the Clyde M. York Training Center near Crossville. I went back every year until I was a high school sophomore. For all of those years and on into high school, 4-H involvement took me to places all over the state, especially ones operated by UT.

My dad was a farmer, and UT Extension agents shared ideas with him for growing yields or shrinking pests. My older brother competed in crop judging, cattle judging, and building and wiring electrical systems.

When time came for college, Tennessee Tech was closer and less expensive than UT Knoxville, and I got an excellent education there that enabled me to go to Knoxville and start my professional life as the first reporter hired straight from college by the News Sentinel. When time came for graduate school, I enrolled at UT. Doing so felt like completing some kind of life circle. From being introduced to the idea of UT at 9, to being engaged in UT-backed activities up to adulthood, to finally becoming a UT alum.

But there was more to the circle, since just before I completed my master’s degree at UT, I had the exceptional good fortune to take a job as the first director of communications for the UT system.

2018 SOUT Event Speech
UT President Joe DiPietro

Obviously, not everybody who grows up in Tennessee ends up graduating from UT and being employed by UT, but there is almost nobody in Tennessee whose life is not impacted, made better or, in some cases, even enabled by the presence of the University of Tennessee.

Which is the vast and important story I get to be involved in trying to tell every year since our current UT president, Joe DiPietro, began presenting a State of the University address in 2016.

On Feb. 28, the president made his third annual address, one of those events involving a cast of thousands, but if everybody works hard enough and does everything just right, it looks easy. It isn’t easy, but it’s one of the most gratifying work experiences I’ve ever had.

2018 SOUT Event Setup
UT messaging in the speech venue.

Because I don’t just work at UT, and I’m not just a proud alum–I’m a believer. In higher education and in what the statewide UT system brings to higher ed and people from all walks of life across Tennessee. I know from personal experience.

I’m part of an enthusiastic, talented team that works on every phase of planning and execution of the presentation event that’s held in Nashville.

crowd.jpgAbout 150 UT leaders and key stakeholders attend in person, and the speech is available live on a webcast and–this year for the first time–via Facebook Live on the president’s Facebook page.

2018 SOUT Event setup
UT messaging in the event venue.

The president recapped system-wide UT highlights of the past year and plans for the year ahead. His remarks were built around a series of video stories that brought to life the University’s impact in each of its three mission pillars: education, research and outreach.

And in the final video story–one about the ways the University is bringing its full spectrum of capabilities in all three mission pillars to bear–the message was what the University is doing about the opioid crisis in Tennessee. You can watch that 2-minute video here:

UT On The Opioid Crisis.

As the president said, the opioid crisis “is exactly the kind of problem land-grant universities are meant to take on.”

Every word mattered. And all the words together painted a picture of how the statewide University of Tennessee isn’t just in Tennessee, it is Tennessee, woven into the fabric of life all across the state. That’s also the message of the video the event opened with:

Everywhere You Look, UT

The same message is the theme of the new UT System marketing campaign that launched a couple of days after the 2018 State of the University event.

As someone who dreamed of going to college from childhood and who today knows, personally, how the University of Tennessee changes lives, it’s an honor to be part of telling that story.