How quickly I forget what humidity feels like.
It is July in the Smokies, and though there are plenty of ridges and peaks that reach above 6,000 feet in this park we are nowhere near them. In fact, we are standing on a small divide not too far from the lowest point in America's most-visited national park. We haven't been hiking long, it wasn't a terrible climb up this section of trail, and my pack isn't that heavy, yet here I am sweating harder than I have in a year. The air has no use for the water my body is producing. It's got enough of it's own already, thank you. I, on the other hand, should be drinking more of it.
Wiping the perspiration from my brow is a familiar motion. Feeling the thick blanket of atmosphere and forest all around is simultaneously uncomfortable and comforting. This is, after all, what I so often refer to as my "outdoor homeland." This is Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For four years of undergrad, a semester of grad school, and a blissful summer internship on the Tennessee side, I explored this park every chance I got. If I had an afternoon free, I'd head to Cades Cove. If the weekend forecast showed good weather and no reason to stay in the dorm, I'd plan a hike somewhere up in the spruce-fir forest. When the leaves were changing in October and November, I made multiple trips a week. When the road between Mt. Sterling and Cataloochee opened after a snow, I skipped class just to drive it into the valley and look for elk. I memorized the park map, etched trail names into my memory, stared at the photos I'd taken while my hard drive quickly filled with images. This is where I began to learn the names of the trees, where I escaped for time alone on trail, where I truly fell in love with national park idea.
And then I left. The Smokies are no longer my backyard mountains. That distinction is conferred upon the Cascades, those strange volcanic peaks that have a tree line, hold snow and ice year-round, and whose high summits stand apart rather than swallowed within a tangled mass of overlapping high ridges. I've become accustomed to the charms of thin, subalpine woods, of dry mountain air and views unimpeded by vegetation, but in my heart there is still a part that pines for the midday darkness of a rhododendron thicket, the hard-won glimpse of mountains beyond through a break in the trees, and the smell of the damp forest teeming with life beyond measure.
It is good to be back.
Sunset is approaching. We've already pitched the tents, explored upstream, and eaten dinner. Now, the water is too inviting to resist. Nathan squelches through the muddy bank til it drops deep enough to immerse a body in the cool flow of Abrams Creek. I follow. The collected rains of the mountains splash over the rocks above before running out into the calm, flat water that we are disturbing with our swimming. Rocks midstream provide a seat or solid footing. Standing waist deep, I feel fish darting and nibbling at my submerged feet. The water isn't quite clear enough for my paltry fish identification skills to be of any use here. While I trust they bear no ill will, there are other creatures I'd rather not disturb in these murky shallows. Snapping turtles be advised: I mean no harm. Go about your business, and I'll go about mine. No confrontation necessary.
There is another local, though, that I have wanted to meet for some time. The chances are always slim, but they are here. Who knows, I could be just a few yards from one now. I'd be surprised to learn that I've never been close to one before. I know they are around, but these natives lead lives that generally elude surveillance.
Hellbenders are the largest salamanders in North America, the sole members of the genus Cryptobranchus. They can grow to be nearly two and a half feet long and have flattened heads, a fine adaptation for a life spent under and among the smoothed and similarly flattened rocks that pave the stream bottoms. These amphibious giants are fully aquatic, hunting for crawdads and small fish in the swift water. If they are indeed in this section of stream, they're likely to be up closer to that little drop of faster flow, something between a riffle and a rapid. I saw a crawdad from the bank earlier this afternoon. I wonder if it saw a hellbender today.
The water feels wonderful. Cool, not cold. Whether or not there's a hellbender nearby, this is sublime. I wish for the grace of an otter, for the ability to swim and dive downstream so smoothly that the onlooker might mistake me for a wave, for part of the flow itself. I have little incentive to return to the bank where there's muck to wade through and the no-see-ums are waiting to bite. They probably aren't waiting, actually. They probably found us a while ago, but the mental balm of the creek is sufficient to distract from any bites that may have already occurred. There's still light in the strip of sky visible between these canyon walls made of wood and leaf. Has a hellbender ever swum up to the surface here and seen the beauty of the world above?
Thunderstorms are far more exciting in a tent. There's very little to insulate me from the peals of thunder that roll over the mountains after each bright flash of lightning. For an instant I can see everything spread out over the floor of the tent, can see that the inside is still marvelously dry, but then I am plunged into darkness again. Deep darkness. There is no moonlight penetrating these clouds. It's been raining for at least two hours now. I think I must be exaggerating the size of the storm in my mind. I know I need to calibrate for the overloud pitter patter of water hitting the rainfly. It's never raining quite as hard as it sounds like it is when you're listening from within a nylon shell. I grab my headlamp and cast light on the forest floor outside, chancing a brief opening of the rainfly in what seems like a lull in the storm. I want to evaluate the situation. There are little puddles everywhere and tiny streams are following the pull of gravity towards the path of least resistance: Abrams Creek. Thankfully, the waters don't appear to be pooling under my tent. I have chosen my spot well.
What was that sound? Loud and nearby. Not thunder, more like something falling. The first thing that jumps to mind is a bear falling out of a tree, but the storm has my imagination working overtime. The likely culprit is a falling branch. It sounded close, but not too close. What's to stop the next branch from falling on the point I'm currently occupying? Experiencing a thunderstorm from a tent in the backcountry, I am bound to be contemplating risk. The water poses a threat, as do the wind and the lightning. The risk is not unique to this place or this storm. Were I in a cabin on the other side of the park boundary, there would still be a fine chance of a tree crashing down through the roof and similarly unfortunate consequences of lightning striking anything in the vicinity. In a house, though, the sound is dampened and the rain is kept at bay by thick walls and a good roof. In this tent, I have what now seems like a laughably thin covering to shield me from the downpour and no defense against wooden or electric attacks from above. With no alternative, I witness the storm in my dark little refuge, seeing little, hearing all.
The sun has returned. Abrams Creek has risen a few inches since we swam in it. It is swollen with the night's rain, perhaps a little muddier today than it was yesterday. In a good summer, water is ubiquitous in these mountains. It's in the creeks and rivers that drain the peaks, in the springs and seeps on high where the streams have their sources. It's in the clouds that build throughout the day, in the roots of the trees too numerous to count, in the folds of leaves and the blossoms of the wildflowers, and, of course, in the very air itself. It's in our packs now, too, folded up in soaked tents. Camp has been broken, and now we sit on the banks of Abrams Creek, watching the water go by.
Hiking back, we continue the so-far-fruitless search for salamanders. We don't require hellbenders. Any salamander will do. Was that a flicker of motion beneath the rock there? It was, but hard to say what species. Then a head sticks out from between the cobbles. That's no salamander. Not even an amphibian. There's a queen snake guarding this stream crossing.
Where are the salamanders? And where are the mammals? We've yet to see a representative of either. This is a hotspot for salamander diversity and the home of 65 species of mammals. None have crossed our path, not even a squirrel or a chipmunk. Strange. They are here, of course. We simply haven't been attentive enough. We've probably been one rock flip away from a salamander and been spied by a bear or bobcat that kept its cool in the understory as we walked by unaware. We had to work hard for the handful of bird species we noted. This forest is thick. Sound only carries so far, and sightlines are quickly blocked by the dense tangle of leaves, branches, and trunks. In our search for solitude, it seems we got more than we expected. Here in the lonely backcountry of the Smokies, we have been granted a brush with wilderness that is hard to come by east of the Mississippi. Sure, the trees are all growing back from logging, the wildlife is less plentiful than it was a few centuries ago, and the work of humans can been seen not only in the trails we've built but also in the stone walls that crumble in the woods, forgotten relics of pre-park inhabitants. But none of this can rob the mountains of their spirit. Not yet.
Get out there. Go deep into the woods, over the ridges, sit in the storm and tell me that this place isn't wild.
Naturalist, Photographer, Cartographer