“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
I had quite the exciting couple of days here. Yesterday started with an early morning and a two-hour drive all the way to the other side of the park in North Carolina. I headed to purchase knob, where the park has a research and education facility literally up on the top of a mountain.
During the day, I shot some video of a charter school group that was there for an educational program that focused on ozone pollution and using plants and animals as bio indicators. The kids were only 6
grade, but a lot of them seemed to know more about science than me!
Later that day is when the real exciting stuff happened. I went back to Cataloochee valley and got to experience “the rut,” the time of year when male bull elk compete for dominance and try to impress the cows (female elk, not dairy animals). The NPS reintroduced elk into the park in 2001, after they had been hunted to extinction in the 1800s. It’s simultaneously exciting and disappointing, but they’ve grown so accustomed to humans that they will approach to within an extremely short distance.
Oh hey there!
The entire mating ritual is quite strange. The bulls mating call is called a “bugle,” and it literally sounds like an asthmatic, chubby, twelve-year-old boy scout is failing miserably at playing a bugle. Honestly it’s one of the weirdest sounds I’ve ever heard come out of a living, breathing thing, and it does not sound the least bit impressive. However, they use this sound to attract females and ward off other males. They also like to urinate all over the ground, and then rub their antlers in it…
While I was watching one bull in particular, who had enticed quite a large harem of females, it and one of the cows actually began mating. I was filming, but all the while I was thinking how weird it kind of was. I was apparently alone in this sentiment because a member of the Elk Bugle Corps, the group of park volunteers who maintain visitor safety around the elk, comes up to me absolutely beaming and won’t stop talking about how awesome that was and how I was lucky to get it on camera. I appreciated the enthusiasm, but I don’t think many people would want to watch that on YouTube.
That night I went back to Purchase Knob to spend the night at the facility that is normally reserved for visiting scientists and park officials with business on the North Carolina side of the park. I felt pretty privileged, because the exclusivity of this place is pretty strongly enforced. Strangely enough, though, I was the only one there that night.
So picture me, sitting in what was essentially a modernized log cabin, government facility, on top of a mountain, no one within probably ½ mile to a mile, all alone. It was cool, I have to admit, but at the same time I couldn’t help but feel a little creeped out by the situation. Especially when I heard what sounded like a rather large animal stomping and scraping around just outside the building. I survived, though. It wasn’t the start of some kind of murder mystery, and I was rewarded with a gorgeous sunrise the next morning.
The next morning, after spending a little more time with the elk, I decided to hike a trail called the Boogerman Loop. Yes, that’s the actual name, and it’s named after an actual person who was known as the Boogerman. I’m not sure why, hopefully because he picked his nose all day long.
The trail was a really nice hike through the forest, where I got to see very interesting things. The variety of wildlife and forest types from area to area is fascinating, and the way the forests have regrown after being heavily used as logging territory is really impressive. There are some trees that have grown hundreds of feet tall, and it would take two or three people to wrap your arms around them.
Though, what I appreciated most, was a nice, long walk during which I could spend time focusing on the little things that are usually easy to pas by.
Grass growing out of horse poop.
But most of all, it made me appreciate the size of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s the most visited park in the country, with 9-10 million visitors a year. However, the park is so big and there are so many miles of trails, that there are still places you can go where you won’t see anyone. Some trails are so remote, that they can’t even be regularly maintained. Some might find this as an annoyance, but I think it adds an even greater level of wildness to the experience.
Mike: “Yo, what gives?” Forest: “Hey, sh*t happens.”
The trail guide warned of a “stream crossing.” … Really? That’s it?
Wait, where’s the bridge?
Do I even need to say what I chose to do?
So the hiked ended in me fording across a stream, for which my hot sweaty feet were actually quite thankful.
I’ve got some more filming to do today, and another blog planned for tonight. Hopefully by the end of the weekend, I’ll be able to put together a video or two of some of the footage I’ve collected so far. So stay tuned!