Great Smokey Mountains  

TOPIC: Baxter Creek and Great Smokies 

== 1 of 4 ==
Date: Sun, May 18 2008 5:44 pm

One of the trips taken at the recent ENTS rendezvous in Black Mountain, NC, was to Baxter Creek in the GSMNP. Ed Frank asked Monica and me to report on our (Monica's, Ed's, and mine) Baxter Creek walk. Baxter is touted as one of the top tours for spring wild flowers in the Smokies and the trail along the small stream lives up to its billing. We catalogued 42 species on the point at which we turned around - a distance of less than a mile. Both Monica and Ed took photographs, which I'll present in coming emails.

I like to let places that I visit settle in my mind before writing about them on the ENTS list. It is my personal quirk. Beyond collecting my most vivid impressions of a trip and assembling what I hope to be interesting factoids, I like to wait until I feel inspired to write. Then I begin committing my thoughts to paper - or in this case, funneling them into the globally accessible cyberspace stream. But alas, with respect to our Baxter Creek trek, I'm still not there. The spirit has not moved me far enough. That condition will change when it changes, whenever that may be. However, what I am inspired to do at this time is to bring the Smokies up onto the ENTS radar screen, and more specifically, share my personal perspective on the jewel of the Appalachians with my fellow and lady Ents. This is not a minor undertaking. I plan to spread the Smokies input over several emails. I invite others t o sharing their thoughts on the Smokies along with me.

When sites were being considered for a national park in the Appalachians, as to be expected, New Hampshire's imposing, steep-sided White Mountains were well in the running. In North Carolina, the lofty Blacks, Grandfather Mountain, and even Linville Gorge were likewise being considered. In the end, there could be only one choice - the incomparable Great Smokies of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. To the decision makers, the Smokies had everything in spades: large tracts of virgin forest with plenty of big trees, big mountains, at least for the East, with16 named peaks over 6,000 feet in altitude, unexcelled biological diversity for a temperate, deciduous forest, and a local mountain culture that was colorful in the eyes of many, especially when translated to the indigenous blue grass music. But for those of us who are lovers of the Smokies, the charms of those venerable summits do not end even with this impressive lis t. There are many fine mountain ranges in the East and preferences are often based on concetrated exposure and childhood experiences. Some eastern mountain afficianados prefer the colder northern Appalachian look to the warmer, laid back southern style of mountain scenery. But, north or south, there are some mountain benchmarks such as altitude and biological diversity. For the Appalachians, there is another benchmark. Smokies distill the very essence of that dreamy Appalachian characteristic, born of subtle gradations of the color blue applied to layer upon layer of mountains that fade toward an indistinct horizon - the appearance of endless mountains. Then there is the reason for the name Smoky Mountains that broadcast their special appeal. The abundance of transpiration, of morning fog, and afternoon clouds combined with their cloak of shaggy virgin growth impart to the Smokies an almost tropical luxurience. Perhaps the Sm o kies should have been named the Misty Mountains, but Smokies will do.

As contrated to the sharp angles of western summits, the dominant profile of the Smokies is an exhibit of soothing, blending curves. In scanning a Smoky Mountain horizon, one's eyes can following continuously pleasing undulations. The process can me mesmerizing. One reaches a point of an induced transendental state of mind. Only then has one absorbed the essence of what makes the Smokies so special. Yet, underlying the gentleness of the flow of summits is a wildness and vastness. There is the reality and there is the illusion, but for anyone who hikes in those mountains, the Smokies are no illusion. They are real mountains as opposed to high hills - a distinction I have had to make over the years to the less measurement inclined.

But the view of the Smokies from a distance as big mountains forms only a part of the picture. Once in their embracing coves, abundant mountain streams lined with the dark green luster of rhododendron and mountain laurel, the multitude of showy flowering trees and the unexcelled spring wild flower blooms provide one with ample reasons to penetrate the green and return over and over. Giant Tuliptrees, shimmering Silverbells, the irridescent green of the Frasier Magnolias, the purple-pink of the Catawba rhododendron - it is all there waiting. It is also the tribal land of the colorful Cherokee and a history of a people robbed of their land by the invasion of an alien race ill-disposed to honor a land whose treasures they did not understand.

Telescoping back to the longer view, for me, the Great Smokies Mountains epitomize a special kind of mountain scenery - scenery of an almost mystical type. The abundance of rainfall and relatively mild climate produces atmospheric conditions not unlike what I became accustomed to in the mountains of far east Asia, especially in Taiwan and the Phillipines. On moist summer days, the high peaks of the Great Smokies can thrust their summits above seas of forming clouds. One can sit atop a summit and commune with mountain spirits watching peaks appear and just as quickly disappear in swirls of white. Mists can lie in valleys through late morning with blue ridges riding above the mist in a landscape that appears to be receiving a cleanse.

The Smokies are not the only eastern mountains where one can experience a blend of clouds and peaks, but unlike the peaks of other eastern ranges, the Smokies are cloaked with a treasure - a giant old growth forest with trees that have seen over 500 winters and tower to well over 150 feet. The combination of high peaks, clouds, and superlative old growth forests endows the Smokies with an exotic appeal that I associate with tropical mountains. In the Orient, comparable scenes to those in the Smokies have, for centuries, inspired nature artists. Mountains, dense forests, cliffs, and waterfalls spring to life in traditional Japanese and Chinese paintings. Regrettably, there were no comparable artistic traditions developed within the white culture that settled in the southern Appalachians, but in more recent times, sensitive photographers have learned how to capture the scenery of th e southern mountains. That wasn't always true. I recall a failed attempt by a well-known photographer who seemed overwhelmed by the scale of the Smokies forest. He chose to photograph leaves and second-growth forests. Many of his images could have just well been taken in someone's backyard. I realized then that photographic visionaries are not equally adept at capturing the essence of superlative landscapes.

When I grew up in the southern Appalachians, neither I, nor my neighbors, understood the ecological importance or extent of the plant diversity of our southern highlands. Popular guides were about simple hikes. The job of presenting mountains of exceptional quality required exceptional people. There have been a number who have come along. Arthur Stupka, the first naturalist of the GSMNP did a splendid job of educating us, especially considering that he was doing the job largely alone -albeit with scientific help from botanists at the University of Tennessee. Nonetheless, Stupka took on the challenge of revealing the exceptional nature of the Smokies to the public. He raised public awareness about the plant and animal diversity of the Smokies. I think that Stupka's flowering plant total end at around 1,300 species and that number is widely circulated in print. However, new species have been cataloged s ince Stupka retired. I don't know what the current number is, but I think it has grown by at least a couple hundred. Stupka also had totals for mosses, lichens, species of snakes, salamanders, etc. At the time he wrote "Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park", he listed over 100 species of native trees growing in the Park and 131 overall. Stupka deserves all the praise and credit we can heap onto him.

Although the Smokies have long been known for their big trees, courtesy of the D-tape, what was not fully appreciated was the dominance of the Smokies from the standpoint of tree tallness. I've seen generalized statements made about the canopy of the Smokies, but nothing authoritative and there are cited greatly mismeasured trees such as the Northern Red Oak in Cataloochee. The picture portrayed by early writers is as incomplete as one can get. It is safe to conclude that despite all the scientific research, the height maximums for the big trees of the Smokies and how those maximums compare to trees in other eastern sites was not even remotely understood by early documenters of the Smoky Mountain forests, and as a consequence, the climax role of species like that of the Eastern Hemlock in the Smokies was not understood.

To supply the missing piece of the tree dimension puzzle, the expertise of ENTS has been required, and in particular, the missions of Will Blozan, Jess Riddle, and Michael Davie. Largely through the efforts of these three, we can confidently place the GSMNP at the center of height and volume development for a number of eastern species. We are relatively confident that no other federal, state, or private property in the East has such an abundance of individual height champions and concentrations of super tall trees. The Smokies set the height bar for all properties. Three species reach heights in excess of 170 feet and a fourth, the White Ash, will soon likely follow. Among the small, elite set of people who truly know what they are doing when it comes to tree measuring, there is no argument. The Smokies rein supreme.

From the standpoint of absolute altitude, the Smokies rank second to the Blacks in the eastern U.S., but only slightly. Mount Mitchell in the Blacks is 6684 feet above sea level and Clingman's Dome in the Smokies is 6643. Mount Craig in the Blacks is 6647 and Mount Guyot in the Smokies is 6621, and so the comparison goes. However, in terms of base to summit rise, the Smoky Mountains are number one in the East. On their western side, the highest points of the Smokies rise a full 5,000 feet above their bases. Mount Guyot, Leconte, Chapman, Old Black, Kephart, Mount Collins, and Clingman's Dome exhibit elevation gains on the order of 5,000 feet above the western perimeter of the Smokies. Arguably, Mount Leconte rises higher above its base than any other eastern mountain. I've seen an altitude change of 5301 feet given, which requires the base of Leconte, as an individual mountain, to be in downtown Gatlinburg. This is a bit of a stretch. However, the ba se of the Smokies, treated as an entire range is the surrounding lands that lie between 1000 and 2000 feet. The low point in the NP is 800 feet. Many trails to the tops of named mountain start at point part way up. This gives a false impression on mountain size. One must move back to gain perspective. It is from the more distant base that the full heights of the Smoky Mountain peaks can be properly viewed and no other range matches the western-styled rise. The White Mountains of New Hampshire come close as do the Blacks of North Carolina, but that's where the competition ends, and for a small select group of us, the comparisons are important.

As a continuation of the discussion on base to summit rise of eastern mountains, it is significant to note that there are quite a few mountain ranges in the East that have elevation gains of 3,000 feet from basal lowlands to the tops of the highest peaks. In Maine the Baxter group well exceeds the 3,000-foot threshold. There may be other Maine mountains. I haven't done the analysis. In Vermont both the Green Mountains and Taconics have 3,000-foot elevation gains with most being in the Greens. The White Mountains are literally awash in elevation gains of over 3,000 feet. The Adirondacks have a number of summits in the High Peaks region that provide a 3000-foot elevation gain. The eastern escarpment of the Catskills has elevation gains of over 3,000 feet. Farther to the south, I think the Alleghennies of Virginia and West Virginia have peaks that make the grade, although I haven't looked at the topographic maps for that kind of detail. In southern Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, 3000-feet of elevation gain in the Blue Ridge and adjoining ranges occur frequently. In North Carolina and Tennessee, the numbers go off the charts. The Appalachians taper off in South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. However, the southernmost of the 3,000-foot elevation gains may be the Cohuttas of northern Georgia. I'm unsure about that. Regardless, once an elevation gain of 4,000 feet is reached, the competition thins down considerably. Mount Kathadin in Maine, several peaks in the Whites, one peak in the Adirondacks make it in the North. In the South, the Great Smokies, the Unakas, and maybe the Blacks make it. At 4,500 feet of elevation gain, there is Mount Kathadin in Maine, several peaks of the White Mountains, and the Great Smokies. At 5,000, there are only the Smokies as approached from their western side.

If my meager analysis sounds excessive, mountain height comparisons reach their pinnacle of sophistication in the work done by the peak baggers who have invented new concepts and methods of altitude comparison. The concept of prominence and spire foster sophisticated comparisons of individual summits, but for me these comparisons are less important than sizing up a range as a whole. I say this because the named summits do not always stand out prominently from the crest of a range or nearby peaks. From a distance, it is the long high crest of the Smokies that catches the eye. Individual peaks are little more than blimps along the ridge crest. stays continuously above 5,000 feet for that may make the biggest impression. Such is the case with the Smokies. When a significant mountain uplift is combined with an abundance of rainfall and a relatively mild climate, diversity results.
Well, I'll stop with this Smokies introduction.


== 2 of 4 ==
Date: Sun, May 18 2008 6:01 pm
From: "Gary A. Beluzo"


Masterful. Keep it coming my friend.
For images of my last Smokies Trip a few weeks ago: 


== 3 of 4 ==
Date: Sun, May 18 2008 6:09 pm
From: "Will Blozan"

Great read, Bob! BTW, black locust is also over 170'- GRSM has two conifers
and two hardwoods over 170'.


== 4 of 4 ==
Date: Sun, May 18 2008 9:39 pm
From: James Parton


Wonderful post on the Smokies. It truly is a magical place. Only one
who has been there can truly appreciate it's beauty and culture.
Obviously you are one of us.....

Smokey Mountain memories
About my home in Tennessee
Yesterday keeps calling me,
Calling me home
Mountains rising in my soul
Higher than the dreams I've known
Misty eyed, they cling to me, my Smokey Mountain memories

An old gray man with a dog asleep at his feet
Played a worn out fiddle full of melodies,
He smiled with his eyes but the lines on his face
Told me as much as the tunes he played
Talking about my...

Smokey Mountain memories,
Pretty girl from Tennessee
I was such a fool to leave
Leave her all alone
Think about her in my dreams,
Wonder if she thinks of me
I'll always hold her close to me in my Smokey Mountain memories

So mister play your fiddle please, play some mountain melodies,
I been down a lonely road to far away from home
Nothing left to hold on to, made some plans but they fell through
Now there's nothing left for me but my Smokey Mountain memories

Smokey Mountain memories
About my home in Tennessee
Yesterday keeps calling me,
Calling me home
Mountains rising in my soul
Higher than the dreams I've known
Misty eyed, they cling to me, my Smokey Mountain memories.

By Larry Sparks

James Parton


Thanks. I know the Smokies are as dear to you as they are to me. On Wednesday, Monica and I are going to Acadia NP. I'll eventually have a writeup on Acadia and coastal Maine.


== 2 of 3 ==
Date: Mon, May 19 2008 8:06 am
From: James Parton


Yes, these mountains are my home. Both my father and brother moved and
left them, remarkably easy. If I ever move, it will be difficult for
me. These mountains have become part of me.

I am sure your writeup on Arcadia will be a good one. Reading other
members trip reports is the next best thing to going there. That is
why I take so much care with my own.

James P.

== 3 of 3 ==
Date: Mon, May 19 2008 3:28 pm


I had forgotten the Black Locust. Amazing tree. In the Northeast, the Black Locust often makes it to between 100 and 110 feet. Above that, it is touch and go. I measured one in New York several years ago at 126 feet, if I recall. I tentatively place the upper limit of the species in the Northeast at about 130 feet.
On a slightly different matter, I have been thinking about methods to measure average canopy height that would keep the amount of work required manageable. Perhaps we could make the theme of the October ENTS gathering in Massachusetts canopy measure. What do you think?