People under a tight deadline tend to do things that "normal" people might consider, well, a little strange. Like tackling 29 miles of some of the toughest trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in a single day. I don't think it would have been quite so bad except for the fact that both my feet were already blistered from finishing a recent three-day backpack in wet socks. But a deadline is a deadline, and I had to cram in the last remaining trails for my book on hiking the Smokies. Twenty-nine miles of steep terrain later, after negotiating a dozen or so major stream crossings and fighting off an angry swarm of bees, I collapsed in my tent so exhausted, and my feet so mutilated, that I couldn't even sleep.
You might think that such a day would leave a sour impression of the Smokies. After all, personal comfort, or in my case discomfort, greatly affects one's perception. But anyone who has spent much time in these mountains knows that no amount of discomfort can displace the magnitude of the effect this place has on you. When I think back to that tortuous day, what I remember most vividly has nothing to do with pain. I remember the deep green moss on the rocks along Eagle Creek, the huge liverworts on a boulder along the trail, the sweeping sea of grass under the serviceberry trees on Spence Field, the flame azaleas in full bloom on Jenkins Trail Ridge, and the jungle-like call of a pileated woodpecker in the pine forests along Lakeshore Trail. It took months for my feet to recover fully, but the impression of the mountains I gained that day will stay with me forever.
I started coming to the Smokies in the late 1980s when I first became interested in photography. At the time, I didn't know much about the area other than it must be a good place to make pictures because so many photographers went there. I've since made countless trips to the park, driving its roads, hiking its trails, and making thousands of photographs along the way. What I've come to learn is that I will never fully know the Smokies. No one will. But that's okay, as long as we never stop learning.
That's the reason I keep coming back to the Smokies-to learn everything I can, to see the Smokies that most people never see from the confines of their car. Before it became such a popular tourist spot, Cades Cove, on the northwestern corner of the park, was my favorite destination. But unlike most visitors to the cove who rarely ventured beyond their cars, I spent my time traipsing through the fields and along the creeks. I'm responsible for more than one traffic jam, as people would stop in the middle of the road and leave their cars to investigate what I was photographing. I can still remember the blank stares when they learned—more often than not—that my camera was pointed not at a white-tailed deer or black bear, but instead a dewy spider web or salamander.
Today, I try to stay away from the heavily congested areas and hike into the backcountry to make my photos. That's why I took on the hiking guide project. I wanted to hike every foot of every trail in the Smokies and to capture on film its moods and character. The experience and knowledge I gained, and my worn-out boots and calloused feet, are trophies of time well spent.
The history of this place begins long before humans ever walked the land. Millions of years of geologic strain pushed towering mountains up from Earth's crust and millions of years more wore them down with unceasing wind, rain, and freeze/thaw cycles. Plants and animals evolved and flourished. Humans eventually became of a part of the mountains, beginning with the Cherokee Indians (before their forced removal to reservations), and then to European settlers, and finally to the millions of tourists who visit here today.
In 1904, writer Horace Kephart first came to the area to "enjoy the thrills of singlehanded adventure in a wild country." He found what he was looking for in the Smoky Mountains, just outside of Bryson City, North Carolina. He wrote, "When I first came into the Smokies, the whole region was one of superb forest primeval. I lived for several years in the heart of it. My sylvan studio spread over mountain after mountain, seemingly without end, and it was always clean and fragrant."
Two decades later, he returned to find a very different place. "I went to that same place again. It was wrecked, ruined, desecrated, turned into a thousand rubbish heaps, utterly vile and mean."
Loggers had come to the Smokies. The clear, trout-filled streams, rich coves with their magnificent old-growth forests, and the lush vegetation throughout were being destroyed for the world's insatiable appetite for lumber. Kephart was infuriated. His subsequent writings, along with Japanese photographer George Masa's superb images, helped to open people's eyes to what was happening. In 1932, less than seven years after Kephart's unhappy return, 138,843 acres of land were officially dedicated for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, thereby preserving for future generations this remarkable piece of our natural and cultural heritage.
Today, the park encompasses more than a half-million acres of protected land, but there are new challenges, ranging from the decimation caused by non-native pests, to chronic air pollution and acid deposition. The Smoky Mountains got their name from the fact that the forests, filled with lush vegetation, give off such enormous amounts of moisture that from a distance the mountains appear "smoky." Sadly, the smoky haze people see today is more often than not a product of air pollution than one of transpiration. Even the park's popularity has resulted in dire consequences. Increased congestion, pollution, and the wear of so many people visiting one place have taken its toll. I have begun to question my own presence. How are my actions damaging? How can I contribute positively to the land?
A lot of people feel the same way, and with more than 1,300 square miles of habitat, the park provides an ideal natural laboratory for many conservation efforts, including the reintroduction of native species. Traditional inhabitants such as river otters, elk, and peregrine falcons have been successfully reintroduced, and biologists continue to focus on bolstering existing populations such as brook trout, barn owls, and numerous native plants. Educators from around the country use the park as a natural classroom, providing an unequalled outdoor experience for students.
The Smokies' remarkable diversity of plants and animals has inspired more than just students and sightseers. In 1997, scientists chose Great Smoky Mountains National Park for an unprecedented research initiative. The All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI) is a multi-agency effort to document every living organism that inhabits the Park (with the exception of viruses and bacteria). The implications of this venture are staggering. Scientists estimate that some 100,000 different species live here-from tiny mosses to trees and from insects to large mammals-yet more than 90,000 of these species remain unclassified. Even more exciting is that many of these unrecorded species are completely new to science. As of summer 2001, the ATBI had recorded 115 species that were previously unknown. Some of the research efforts seem hard to believe. For instance, on June 10, 2002 lepidopterists identified 860 different species (species, not individuals) of butterflies and moths within the Park. That's 860 different species recorded in a single day!
So we continue learning about the Smokies and in the process we learn more about ourselves. This boundless expanse of high peaks and deep-cut gorges is a habitat, a home, an ecological wonder. It provides unmatched lessons about the natural world. As for me, I have learned to carry plenty of extra socks so that I never have to hike in wet ones again. But the Smokies continues to teach me—all of us—-far greater lessons about this incredible Earth we share.