Sarah E. Kucharski photo
Today the fisherman who so desires can harken back to the mountain past by creeling a mess of mountain trout for a streamside feast.
A half million acres of sheer loveliness featuring breathtaking scenic vistas, the greatest ecological diversity of the Northern Hemisphere, waterfalls galore, vast tracts where humans seldom venture, sparkling streams teeming with trout, hundreds of miles of quiet trails, and only a single avenue of asphalt bisecting its fastnesses, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) is a treasure beyond measure. Yet it is a place of paradox, for all the features that make it so appealing pose huge problems for its future. Quite simply, there is potential for the Park to be loved to death.
In the course of the half century that marks my adult years, from a boyhood spent growing up in Bryson City within walking distance of the Park until now, the Park has changed dramatically. Seen through the distorted lens of someone who is never happier than when savoring remote solitude and viewed from the perspective of a passionate love affair with the Smokies, these developments are troubling indeed.
Admittedly part of my perspective comes from being spoiled. After all, much of my marvelously misspent childhood involved using the Park as my playground. Opening day of trout season, at a time when there was fishing in the GSMNP only a few months out of each year, was an eagerly anticipated ritual celebrated with the sheer sense of enjoyment that is the special preserve of youth. In spring, Park streams ran high and strong and cried out for a tumultuous inner tube ride with just enough overtones of danger to excite an adolescent. Then there were pilgrimages to the old home place where my father spent his boyhood, then as now far removed from any trail; long days of fly fishing when seeing another angler was a rarity; camping in designated backcountry sites (and sometimes in places which weren’t designated) for as long as a week; and the occasional truly memorable trip when Dad and some of his friends would take me camping with them.
A common theme characterizes all these things I remember from those years, and rest assured my cup of recollection is full to overflowing. The thread that shines brightest in that fabric of youth is the dearth of people and people-related pressure.
Sure, the GSMNP was popular, immensely so, in those halcyon days of the 1950s, and the soft sweetness of mountain summers, along with the fleeting beauty of fall leaf color, brought visitors aplenty. They were, however, seemingly a mere trickle compared to today’s hordes. Noisy tailpipes from souped-up crotch rockets didn’t ruin your reverie as you wandered, full of wonder, four or five miles from the nearest avenue of asphalt. Pre-elk restoration, Cataloochee was peaceful to the point of being idyllic. On a weekday a ramble up lower Deep Creek you might meet the occasional fisherman or hiker, but certainly you did not confront a ceaseless parade of tubers, undulating like some garishly colored insect in an ever-changing but never-ending wave of humanity stretching for a half mile. Best of all, the backcountry saw such sparse usage that often the backpacker or fisherman would have a campsite, even if it happened to be one favored by locals, to himself. The occasional “bear jam” along 441 seemed little more than a passing nuisance.
Looking back with longing is the special province of the aging, and I readily admit to ever more of this type indulgence with each passing year. Nowhere in memory’s fond vaults do my mental flights of fancy take wing with greater frequency than when they involve some aspect of the Park from yesteryear. It is still possible to hike up to Clingmans Dome in the gloaming and watch the sun sink slowly downhill into darkness on a clear Indian Summer day, but don’t expect to savor this grandeur in solitude. Nor can you always anticipate day after day of fishing in places only reached by shank’s mare without any concern about competition from other anglers. Sharing backcountry campsites with others has made a dramatic transition from a relatively rare experience, especially after the fishing and wildflowers of spring have come and gone, to something one must expect as the norm.
These dramatic changes have brought with them both rewards and reason for concern. For those who worship at the altar of the false god of economic progress, and to one degree or another most all of us do, the ongoing surge in the popularity of the Park has been a boon. So much is this the case that for many towns on the Park’s periphery—Townsend, Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Cherokee, Waynesville, and Bryson City—tourism is the driving force for the local economy. Sadly, and this is one man’s perspective with which many will stridently disagree, that godsend in the form of tourist dollars has proved a mixed blessing that has come with quite a price. With the notable exception of Townsend, and perhaps to a lesser degree Waynesville, these communities stand as visual testaments to what might have been as opposed to what is. Steep slope development, shortsighted or non-existent zoning laws, unsightliness in forms without number, and all too many of the hallmarks which bespeak “tourist trap” make for a garish, intensely troubling transition from the pristine beauty of the Park and its treasure to the spectacle of trinkets and tawdriness beyond measure once the traveler exists the GSMNP.
Even within the confines of the GSMNP, for all its overarching loveliness, the knowing eye detects all too abundant signs of trouble. They come in many forms. Trails, especially at higher elevations with steep slopes, where relentless horse traffic has gouged ditches a foot or two feet deep, form open wounds on the earth’s surface which ooze the sickness of runoff with every heavy rain. Visible browse lines, initially from white-tailed deer but increasingly from elk, are indicative of overgrazing. Poorly maintained backcountry trails where the summertime wayfarer can, in places, take for granted an ongoing battle with stinging nettles, blackberry briers, and unforgiving smilax are commonplace. Often those same trails are burdened and blocked with fallen hemlocks, mighty warriors that have succumbed to the remorseless ravages of lowly adelgids. Designated campsites where thoughtless litter mars the landscape and produces ever-increasing problems of man-and-bear interaction is a blight on the earth.
Of course no more than two or three out of a hundred Park visitors see this face of the Smokies, never mind that the best way to enjoy the region is unquestionably found through venturing back of beyond. If anything, though, evidence of a crumbling, stressed infrastructure in the frontcountry is even more obvious.
The bumper-to-bumper traffic in Cades Cove is a trial and tribulation to all who venture there. Park roads, despite some recent and much-needed repair work, remain in many cases problematic. Cemetery maintenance and promises of reasonable access to descendants of those buried in the Park, especially along Fontana’s north shore, is an ongoing sore spot with locals. The wonderful stonework done by the Civilian Conservation Corps the better part of a century ago at the dawn of the Park has begun to break up and cry out for repair.
Park staff is overwhelmed, so much so that in the last quarter of a century, despite spending untold days in the backcountry, I have seen exactly two rangers in such settings. Park offices are crowded and understaffing is an ongoing problem. On a summer day, the visitor centers at Sugarlands or Oconaluftee are so packed that lines form for restrooms and one could be forgiven for thinking they were in a busy airport. Even with the admirable work of Friends of the Smokies and the Great Smoky Mountains Association, things seem to be bursting at the seams.
A decent dose of reality tells me, as it should any objective observer of the GSMNP over the decades, that what I recently heard a longtime Swain County resident describe as “the Park’s salad days” are in some senses gone forever. Yet amidst concerns for the Park’s future there are reasons for optimism. Time and nature’s healing hand have erased the scars associated with logging practices such as clear cutting, ball hooting, and splash dams. Speckled trout swim in more miles of stream than was the case a generation or two ago, and today the fisherman who so desires can harken back to the mountain past by creeling a mess of mountain trout for a streamside feast. Wild turkeys, once all but extirpated, are a common sight along roadways and in open fields. Wildflowers still herald the greening-up time of spring with a showy display that never fails to grab a corner of the soul.
Best of all, at least for someone of a misanthropic bent such as yours truly, there are places in the Park without number where it is still possible to escape any and all trappings of the mad pace and hurly burly of the modern world. In the upper reaches of Raven Fork, untouched by any trail and possibly the most remote region east of the Rockies, probably fewer than two-dozen souls a year view the unsurpassed beauty of the deep pool at Three Forks. One year gives way to the next without Tsali Rock, high above Keg Drive Branch on the Left Fork of Deep Creek, seeing more a handful of visitors. Small streams by the dozen, far from the nearest trail, go for weeks or months without being trod a fisherman.
Nor do retreats to remoteness always require arduous bushwhacks of mile after hellish mile through rhododendron thickets. Two or three times annually, I venture up to the headwaters of Juneywhank Branch, not more than a mile and a quarter from the Deep Creek trailhead, to the place which was my father’s boyhood home. Other than my brother, family members, and a few friends, I doubt if that area has been visited by anyone else in the last forty years.
Knowing that it is still possible to find such places of refuge and retreat, of solitude amidst splendor, goes to the essence of what makes the GSMNP so enchanting. In the Park one can still listen to the hawk’s scream and the raucous fussiness of ravens; cast a dry fly to wild trout or pause fascinated by the striking fragility of a lady slipper; admire massive poplars along the Boogerman Trail or look back in wonder to the past as represented by Palmer Chapel or the church on Little Cataloochee. For all its problems the Park remains, at least for now, a paradise. Yet reality demands recognition of a myriad of threats hanging like dark thunderheads over the Smokies. Failure to do so could mean irrevocable loss of the enduring, endearing charm offered by this world of wonder.
Therein lies a challenge for those who cherish the Park and all it represents. Each of us should consider it a bounden duty to do our part, and sharing that responsibility can take any of many forms. Membership in Friends of the Smokies or the Great Smoky Mountains Association provides benefits to the member and the Park. Donating a few bucks at one of the many boxes scattered around the Smokies at trailheads and parking areas is another possibility, and keep in mind the GSMNP is one of few national parks that does not charge an admission fee—a gift to visitors written into deed restrictions made when the Park was established. Consider putting in some sweat equity by joining a trail maintenance crew, helping Park biologists with grunt work on research projects, volunteering at a visitor center, or the like. On the most basic of levels, you can make a point of picking up trash or cleaning up messy campsites any time you see the need for such action while in the backcountry.
Also, and to me this is important, do not tolerate littering, violation of Park regulations, or misbehavior of any kind. To turn a blind eye to such actions is, in effect, to condone them. Report problems, especially serious ones, to Park authorities, and don’t hesitate to write down license numbers and other relevant information. You may not want to intercede on your own, but certainly it is both reasonable and right to insist that rangers address violations.
On a personal basis, I have every intention of doing my part for the Park, confident that if I do so in company with untold thousands of others, the GSMNP will always remain, as local poet Leroy Sossamon so aptly put it, “The Backside of Heaven.”