Angel’s Loft Cabin, Townsend, TN

July 31, 2013

I’m sitting here on the deck of Angel’s Loft cabin in Laurel Valley, near Townsend, watching the low clouds move across Rich Mountain, and reminiscing about the 40+ years that I have been traveling to the Smoky Mountains, my Beloved Mountains.  We fist started traveling to the Smokies when I was a young boy, probably in the late 1960’s.   My first memories are of going to Gatlinburg, and I remember staying at the Travelodge hotel there in town, and walking the streets of Gatlinburg at night, watching the candy being made at Ole Smoky Candy Kitchen, and driving into the National Park to see the beautiful mountain scenery and hopefully a black bear.  My Mom really enjoyed the Smokies, and loved to see the mountains in all of their wondrous glory, and Dad loved to take photos!

Those early trips to the Smokies left an indelible impression on all of us kids, in different ways, and I think we all developed fond memories of this special place in our hearts – it was the memory of a beautiful place on God’s earth, and memories of a happy family on vacation.  As the years went by, our family did other vacation trips to other locations, but I always remembered those Smoky Mountain trips as some of my best memories from growing up.

Fast forward about a dozen years, to 1980, when I started my graduate career as a wildlife biologist, and I was back in the Smokies, this time as a student at the University of Tennessee. I arrived in Knoxville in July 1980, having driven cross-country from Lander, Wyoming. As soon as I got to K-town, it was on up to the Smokies, to a research trailer near Tremont, which is just outside of Townsend, TN.  This would become my summer home for the next 2 months, and I would learn how to trap black bears, how to chemically immobilize a bear and how to reverse the effects of the immobilizing drug, and how to “work up a bear”, which was our way of saying collect biological data.

It was during this time that I also came to know the Smokies in a much more personal ut-bear-photos-wathen-10.jpeg
and intimate way, learning the names of the trees and wildflowers, learning more about the ecology of the mountains,  and learning more about the people who lived in the mountains, and the special qualities that they brought to this area that we know as Appalachia. Most importantly, I was able to experience the many moods and temperaments of the mountains. Over the next 2 years, I would hike nearly 3,000 miles all over these mountains, including the Cherokee National Forest, in summer, fall, winter and spring, trapping bears in the summer, tracking the female bears that we placed radiocollars on, and locating the winter dens of the females so that we could learn more about their reproductive biology. It was also during this time while in graduate school that I fell in love with Rose, and we would eventually marry and make a home in East Tennessee, first in Maryville, then in Seymour. 

After completing my Master’s degree in May 1983, I took a job with the National Park Service, to help them with a research project on wild hogs.  This was supposed to be a temporary, 3-month gig, but instead evolved into a 4-year term appointment, working on both wild hogs, and white-tailed deer in Cades Cove. The deer project led me to spend an incredible amount of time in the Cove, which was both good and bad.  The good was just becoming so much more intimately familiar with Cades Cove, and the deer and other wildlife that inhabited it.  The bad was that I grew increasingly impatient with the hordes of tourists that came to the mountains to experience the spectacular scenery and perhaps catch a glimpse of wildlife.

Since my office was in Gatlinburg, at Uplands Research Center, I was also subjected to long daily commutes home, which took me through Pigeon Forge and Sevierville.  These long commutes further turned me off to the Park – I just wasn’t interested in fighting the crowds of tourists, and I had become so intimately familiar with the mountains over the years,that they had lost their magic for me.  I had begun to take them for granted.

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Middle Prong of the Little River, Tremont, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

After Rose and I moved to Nashville in 1987, and then started having kids, we didn’t start returning to the mountains until the mid or late 1990’s. At first, it was just an occasional trip, sometimes to Gatlinburg, sometimes Townsend. But eventually, the magic of the mountains returned, and we have settled into a routine of coming to Townsend, renting a cabin for a few days, cooking all of our meals in the cabin, and spending our days exploring the Smokies, wading in the rivers, driving around Cades Cove, hiking a trail, heading up to the high elevations, or going shopping in Townsend/Gatlinburg. Our trips to the Smokies have become an annual family tradition, similar to the ones I had as a kid, and it’s really wonderful to  experience the magic of these mountains through the eyes of my children, and to call the Smokies my beloved mountains.

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