Sunday, October 30, 2011
Our plans were suddenly changed yesterday. On the road already and not really wanting to head back to the house, we decided to head for the mountains. The Great Smoky Mountains.
So I punched in some information into our GPS device and in nothing flat we were headed for the Cataloochee section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Because of the way our most popular park was created, one of the things promised about it was that there would never be an admission fee charged. So you never have to think about that if you head over there.
I like Cataloochee for many reasons, but the thing which draws most people there these days are the elk herds. This was the part of the park chosen for the reintroduction of elk to the Appalachian ecosystem. If you travel or hike much around the southern Appalachians you will immediately become aware of the many places with the word "elk" in their names. Once upon a time there was an eastern species of elk which was exterminated due to overhunting and habitat loss. The last of our eastern elk were killed off by Europeans along with the eastern woodland bison, the red wolf, and too many other creatures to list here.
However, it is possible to return some animals to their former niches within the ecosystems. The elk was one of these. It's a rather large creature, but not of a disposition that would alarm most people who live around the park and who visit the park. And so the effort was begun, first with an infusion of elk from The Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky where a reintroduction had already proved to be successful.
True, these aren't actual eastern elk--those are gone forever, into the sucking pit of oblivion. But they're likely so similar that, left to time and Nature, they will revert to that same form that gave its name to so many spots in my native Southern mountains.
The first thing we saw were huge flocks of wild turkey. When I was a kid hiking in the Smokies you NEVER saw them. You knew they were there, but their numbers were such that they just were rarely seen. Finally, because of strict enforcement of hunting laws, their numbers are much greater than the days when they were on the brink of extinction in the South.
This was a weird-looking sycamore tree growing behind one of the historical buildings in Cataloochee.
The Caldwell House in Cataloochee. Cades Cove gets most of the attention in the Park, but Cataloochee was the largest town that had to be evacuated to create the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It had a population of over 1200 people, more than 200 substantial buildings, two post offices, general stores, etc. The hills around the valley were--in the day--covered in apple groves. It was mainly the apple crops that sustained the town and it was known far and wide for its high quality apples. Now all that remain of the town are a few buildings that are preserved by the Park Service.
Because of the way the Park was created, horesback riders are allowed almost unfettered access to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and most of its trails. I have grown to hate the horses and their riders. There's not a ruder, louder, more obnoxious group than horseback riders in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And there's nothing more unpleasant than having to hike on trails that have been utterly destroyed by horses. Unfortunately, I don't think that there's anything that can be legally done to curtail the access to this park by this destructive group of assholes.
Near the Palmer House we encountered this trio of really big bulls. One of the rangers told us that these three hung out together now that the rut was over. They can't get laid again until next September and have chosen to chill out as three good ol' boys. Of course come next September they'll be smashing those racks together trying to get the pick of the babes.
One of the bulls who wandered pretty close to me. You're not allowed to approach the elk, but this one moseyed over my way.
We stopped at Big Creek to look at the water before we left the Park and headed home.