APPALACHIAN TRAIL MEMOIR

In 1970 I hiked the Appalachian Trail through Great Smoky Mountains National Park with a college friend. The trail was filled with adventures that I look back on with nostalgia.

The Appalachian Trail winds through the lush forest of the Great Smoky Mountains

Memories of our formative years can remain incredibly vivid into old age. This account tells the story about my hiking trip along a section of the Appalachian Trail with Dowell Jennings Howard III after our spring semester concluded in 1970. Back in the University of Michigan dorm that winter, I had talked with my friend for a long time about how America’s young people needed to incorporate more adventure into their lives, so I pumped him up for the possibility of a May hiking trip along the Appalachian Trail where it passed through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We agreed to do it, and set the plan in motion.

I was a forestry student, while Dowell was studying mechanical engineering. He came from a family in the Cincinnati area that had deep roots in America, and his father worked for Procter and Gamble. His personality was a contrast to my shy and introspective traits; he was friendly and outgoing and was the kind of person who would run for office in student government. These traits were good for making connections while traveling.

We planned the trip, divvying up food purchases and making sure we had appropriate gear for a spring trip in the mountains. We purchased dried eggs and dried sausage that had to be rehydrated before cooking. There were dried noodles and beef and chicken, some packaged in cans instead of plastic. We packed socks and long underwear and warm hats and hiking boots and rain ponchos and matches and all the rest of the gear we thought we would need. I’m sure we hiked in jeans, which few would dare to do today because cotton is slow to dry and doesn’t keep a person warm when wet, but we didn’t know better.

After the semester ended, I flew from Detroit to Cincinnati on an old propellor-driven commercial plane, met my friend for a ride to his parents’ house, then we headed out on a Greyhound bus trip to Knoxville, Tennessee. The overnight bus ride was an experience in itself. The bus curved around constant mountains in the dark, stopping for a break in the middle of the night at a diner in Corbin, Kentucky. I still remember the clank of china and the harsh overhead lights and green walls that looked like they could have been the setting for an Edward Hopper painting.

After a transfer at the Greyhound Bus Station in Knoxville, we next rode a bus to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where we stayed at a motel overnight and were interviewed on the street by a local television station about what we were doing in Gatlinburg; Dowell was a natural for television interviews with his politician’s aura, while I stayed in the background. The next morning we hitchhiked to a Great Smoky Mountains National Park campground. There we set up a tube tent that I had made, since I didn’t have money to buy a real backpacking tent. My tube tent was made from a sheet of clear plastic sheeting. I took a piece of plastic maybe 18 feet long and 8 feet wide and taped together the ends. When we set it up, we ran a parachute cord through it which was strung between two trees. It gave us shelter from the rain overhead, as well as a floor, but the ends were open to mosquitoes and no-see-ums.

At the campground we set up our tent, had dinner and told stories, then strung up our food to keep it away from bears and raccoons. Alas, we were virgins in the ways of clever bears, and the next morning we awoke to find that a Black Bear had raided our backpacking food before we could even start our hike. The cans of dried meat were opened as if with a can opener by the bear’s teeth and claws and there were tooth puncture marks and bear saliva slime on plastic food pouches. Now we had a dilemma: not enough food for our backpack. A kind man offered us a ride back to Gatlinburg to get a new food supply, but he decided halfway there that a convenience store was good enough. So we shopped there and ended up with a big jar of combined peanut butter and jelly, some canned meats, probably Vienna sausages, and crackers. The meals were going to be a bit more haphazard than we had planned, but we were young and adaptable.

After that we repacked our backpacks and started up a steep and rocky trail to where it intersected with the Appalachian Trail. The pack was heavy and the hiking was really hard after a year of studying at college with not much physical activity. It was a relief when we finally reached our first trail shelter, which was a three-sided structure made of ancient logs that smelled of years of accumulated smoke from wet campfires. One feature of the shelter that we both liked was that the front was closed off by ground-to-ceiling chain-link fence–designed to keep out marauding bears. We cooked over a smoky fire from downed wood gathered in the surrounding forest; most hikers at that time cooked this way because few had lightweight backpacking stoves. The Appalachian trail shelter had two platforms inside that spanned the width of the shelter, one upper and one lower, where quite a few people could sleep side-by-sde. We settled into our flannel-lined sleeping bags early and slept pretty well, considering all the mice scurrying around the shelter in the night.

After another smoky meal the next morning, we started hiking the Appalachian Trail, which would take us some 70 miles through the park, doing about ten miles a day. Painted Trilliums and other wildflowers bloomed along the trail on our May hike, and we had frequent glimpses through the trees of hazy mountains in all directions. We had learned that the blue haze was not smoke or pollution, but instead consisted of vapors given off by the incredible concentration of trees: the Indians called it the “Land of Blue Smoke.”

Memories of the vast forest

One guy we met at a trail shelter said that he had organized the first national Earth Day that spring. I told him that I had worked with the Environmental Teach-In at the University of Michigan earlier that same spring, so we had something in common. He was out for a dose of nature after finishing all that planning and coordination.

Along the trail I found out that my borrowed backpack was too lightweight for the heavy load I carried, and the aluminum support structure bent and broke when I repeatedly set the pack down on the ground when we took a break. To salvage it for the long trail ahead, I borrowed two dead spruce branches from the forest and lashed the broken aluminum to them. A bit crude-looking, but it worked. When in the wilderness, invention and adaptability are crucial. 

On we hiked through a forest of deciduous trees just leafing out. We came to Charlies Bunion, a bare block of rock with steep drop-offs that terrified me, a flatlander. That night we stayed at the Mount LeConte Shelter, with the intent of having dinner at the legendary and rustic LeConte Lodge just a short distance up the trail. We dropped our packs in the shelter. Dowell wondered if we should hang the packs but I was tired and said no; we were just going a short distance to make dinner reservations. We walked up to the lodge and got our reservations, then hiked back to the shelter–just in time to see a mama bear and her two cubs biting into our packs to try to get at the food inside. We chased them away by throwing rocks, but Dowell’s pack was pretty bitten up. I apologized to him for not hanging our packs, but it does give me something to write about 50 years later!

The high ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains seem to go on forever

We had our meal at LeConte Lodge, which was hearty and filling but nothing fancy, then watched a sunset from the mountain, where the legendary blue ridges of the mountains go on and on. It was the best view along the trail, and the light was magical. 

The next day we crossed the only road through the mountains at Newfound Gap, where a woman made up like Dolly Parton, and her husband, offered us beer and took our pictures. By that time on the trail we were a pair of grubby young mountain men on an adventure that seemed exotic to the tourists.

On to another trail shelter, this one occupied by two grad student bear researchers from the University of Tennessee and a troop of Girl Scouts from Knoxville. The scout leader, Mary, was a wonderful young woman who was taking the girls on an adventure of their lives. None of them knew how ugly it would get. 

A few minutes after we arrived, half-a-dozen men in their 20s walked up to the shelter. They had been drinking heavily on the trail, with at least one of them carrying a gallon jug of Gallo red wine with his finger curled through the loop on the jug’s neck. Almost immediately, this guy and others started making sexual comments to the young girls, which was among the most inappropriate scenes I’ve ever experienced. It looked like these guys were going to spend the night at the shelter, but the shelter was already full. Were they going to physically kick us out?

These guys, one of them explained to us, had just returned from Vietnam where they had been involved in combat in the jungle. They were tough, and big, and dangerous, and they didn’t like college students, who they would have thought of as protestors with deferments (which we were!). Combined with the alcohol, the discussion among them got ugly. Fortunately, one cooler head among them convinced them to hike on to the next trail shelter, so they left. Crisis averted. 

We made friends with Mary, and agreed to look her up when we passed through Knoxville on the return (which we did, and stopped at her apartment for a nice candlelight spaghetti dinner on her kitchen table–which was one of those wooden cable spools popular among college students at the time). We were impressed by her leadership of the Girl Scout group and how she believed in mentoring girls in outdoor experiences.

On we hiked along ridges with stunning views of the great Appalachian forest, lush with growth. We stayed at the Silers Bald shelter, high along the trail, which gave us a view of dark and ominous clouds. At this shelter we talked for a long time with an old and grizzled mountain man from nearby Bryson City who had hiked up with three young men. Actually we had seen the young men earlier, and one was pulling a two-wheel golf bag cart up the trail–filled with bottles of beer! That explained all the hootin’ and hollerin’ from their campsite during the night. They had a big and blazing campfire that I’m sure was set in the traditional Appalachian manner: dousing the wet wood with gasoline, standing back, and tossing a match at it to watch it explode!

The next morning, a wet fog had settled over Silers Bald and we couldn’t see a thing through the thick sky soup. Another hiker came up to us while we were on the rock; he was thin and maybe 40 years old. He asked us how much we hiked in a day and we responded that we hiked about eight to ten miles a day. He wasn’t impressed. He said that he averaged over thirty miles a day and that his best day was 43 miles. I’ve never had the ability or the body type to do that kind of hiking, and it wouldn’t work with all the times I stop to take photographs, so in retrospect I’m not impressed, though at the time I thought he was superhuman.

By that time on the trail my feet were sore. Even though we washed our socks and dried them by the nightly fires, the trail had done its job on my tender feet. I had a blood-filled blister the size of a half-dollar on one heel, so I limped my way along the trail to the trailhead. We hitched a ride to a campground, where Dowell made friends with an older woman (she was probably 25) who was a teacher, and she took us the next day to go for a hike to a waterfall. That was fun, and this was a more trusting time in America, when people weren’t as afraid of each other. She drove us to the Gatlinburg bus station the next day, where we caught the bus to Knoxville. I distinctly remember the fat bus driver telling us and a couple of other hikers that he didn’t think backpacking was very sporting, so he wasn’t very impressed by us. Oh well.

In Knoxville we had just enough time to walk to Mary’s apartment for a meal, then walk back to the bus station where we boarded the overnight bus to Cincinnati. The atmosphere on the bus was electric, because many of the rural Kentucky and Tennessee passengers had just come off an experience attending a Billy Graham crusade that took place on May 28, 1970, in Knoxville. They felt inspired and chatty, talking about their churches and children and chickens.

We arrived in Cincinnati the next morning, where Dowell’s mother fussed over and treated my blood-filled blister, then we drove out to the family cabin in rural Ohio, which was a rustic place done in the Appalachian style with a long covered front and back porch. Dowell took me fossil-hunting in the nearby creek. In his high school years, he had been an avid fossil-hunter and actually had at least one scientific paper to his credit. The next day I flew home and began preparing for a summer semester in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Epilogue: I just finished writing this a bit over 50 years after the experience, surprised at how much of it still felt fresh in my mind. Early experiences can be like that, imprinting themselves on a still-impressionable young person. I lost track of Dowell a year or two later; I only know that he graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. I went on to get my degree in Natural Resources, and later worked in that field and in photography for the rest of my adult life.

To see the photography of Lee Rentz, go to leerentz.com and follow his work at Lee Rentz Photography on Facebook.

A FAVORITE SEATTLE-AREA HIKE: Melakwa Lake

Melakwa Lake is a subalpine, wilderness lake that is among the closest such lakes to Seattle, and is a great mountain hike during summer or early fall.

Denny Creek cascades over a series of waterfalls near the trail

A hike starting between the eastbound and westbound lanes of Interstate 90 might seem less than promising. But we didn’t give up, even after the trailhead parking lot was full by 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday and the freeway noise was constant.

The trail to Melakwa Lake is like that; since it is so close to Seattle, being on the near side of Snoqualmie Pass, it gets heavy use. The trail leads directly under the tall, elevated viaduct that is the westbound route of I-90. I find the viaduct strangely beautiful; it was built so that avalanches could pass directly underneath, without affecting traffic. The contrast of the massive and elegantly simple concrete structure with the wild and visually complex forest below is astounding.

The Snoqualmie Pass Viaduct lets avalanches slip underneath

Farther up the trail, families gather on the smooth stone along one stretch of Denny Creek for cooling off on hot summer days. Still, farther, there is dramatic Keekwulee Falls. After that, only the young and/or hardy make the hike to Melakwa Lake, which has a 2,300′ elevation gain in just a few miles.

We camped near the smaller lake, and enjoyed a quiet night with a bit of rain and low clouds that swirled and danced among the rugged peaks and pointed firs. I didn’t realize it until later, but “Melakwa” is a native word for “mosquito,” and the lake lived up to its name (what’s a wilderness experience without a struggle?). Worse than mosquitoes were the black flies, tiny creatures that love to fly behind your glasses and bite you right at the hatline. I came back with four nasty bites that still itch and are swollen as I write this, a week and a half later. There were also biting flies of normal size that pestered us on the way up the trail, but their bite isn’t as bad as their buzz.

I’ll let the photographs tell most of the story, but there was one additional event that we found interesting. When I looked into Melakwa Lake on Sunday, the sun’s reflection appeared coppery in color. I thought maybe it was something about the lake’s blue color that changed the reflection; but on the hike down, the late afternoon sun turned tree trunks a bright burnt orange color. Then, on the drive home, the setting sun was a ball of dark (not bright) orange in the sky–something I had never observed in Seattle before, though it was common in central New York where I once lived. We heard later that the unusual color of the sun was due to smoke from forest fires burning in British Columbia.

For more information about the Melakwa Lake hike, including trip reports by numerous hikers, go to: http://www.wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/melakwa-lake

American Pikas, relatives of rabbits, live among talus slope rocks in the basin containing Melakwa Lake; they make their living by gathering wildflowers and sedges and storing the dried “hay” for the long winter. They live under the snow and do not hibernate.

GROSS ALERT: Pika scats, which Pikas eat, thus ingesting nutrients they didn’t absorb the first time around

Pink Mountain Heather at its peak of bloom

Meet “Misty Melakwa,” our snowlady for the trip

The smooth rocks in one stretch of Denny Creek are great for sliding

A Dark-eyed Junco (aka “Snowbird”) sang in the mist above our tent

There were about six tents in the basin the night we visited

An American Dipper peering into the stream near our tent

Evening and early morning were misty, with low clouds shrouding the mountains

Colorful stones in the crystal clear waters of Denny Creek

Green False Hellebore, a favorite of mountain photographers, is deadly; so don’t eat it!

Misty mountain morning

The blue glow of a misty deep twilight

I believe this rock, tortured and twisted with chunks and flows, is termed a skarn

Pacific Silver Fir shredded and gnawed by a black bear

Keekwulee Falls along Denny Creek

Morning fog above Melakwa Lake

Waves give a painterly look to Melakwa Lake

A coppery sun, tinted by forest fires, reflects off the waves of Melakwa Lake

SKINNED ALIVE: A Black Bear Story

Bears use their razor-sharp claws and teeth to terrorize our dreams, but they also use these formidable weapons in real life to terrorize trees.

Pacific Silver Fir bark stripped by a hungry Black Bear

When we panted our way up to Hemlock Pass on the trail to Melakwa Lake, Karen noticed a big tree, perhaps 20′ from the trail, that had its lower bark removed. Examining it, we discovered that the tree had been skinned alive by an American Black Bear, and that two other trees in the vicinity had experienced the same fate.

This was actually the fourth time we have seen this phenonmenon; in all cases in the Cascade and Olympic Mountains. When bears emerge from hibernation in the spring, they are REALLY hungry, and where there are no people or pic-a-nic baskets to consume, they turn to trees. Specifically, to the Pacific Silver Fir, though they are known to have less than selective taste in trees and will consume others as necessary. But the Pacific Silver Fir is apparently the caviar of trees, and is targeted.

Vertical tooth marks and diagonal claw marks

Can you imagine a bear coming up to a tree, delicately sniffing the bark and nibbling it to see if the taste is something exquisite? No? Neither can I. Instead, the bear roughly uses its claws to rip and shred the outer bark from a tree, then uses its front teeth (not its canines) to scrape the nutrient-rich phloem layer, which we call the “inner bark,” and consume the sugary treat. Mmmmmm …

You might think that foresters would dislike this bear habit, because it often girdles the trees and kills them. Right again! Foresters have long wrestled with strategies for discouraging bears from eating trees, even going so far as to put “vending machines” out in the woods where bears can get a treat that has similar nutritional properties as the trees, and is a lot easier for a lazy bear to exploit. Though I’m not sure where the bears are supposed to get the quarters for the vending machines … perhaps from campers’ pockets while they are “safely” asleep in their thin nylon tents?

Front tooth marks where the bear has scraped off the inner bark

Bear damage either kills or slows the growth of a tree

NEW JERSEY: The Jersey Bears

After I finished my dogwood photography, I was putting away my gear and preparing to drive away when I looked into the forest again and saw an American Black Bear foraging in a forest opening about 100 yards away.

Everyone has seen Jersey barriers along the highway, but today I actually saw Jersey bears (and no, it’s not a minor league baseball team)!

While visiting the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, which straddles the New Jersey/Pennsylvania border, I stopped at the Kaiser Trailhead in New Jersey’s Worthington State Forest.  The Flowering Dogwood trees were at their peak of bloom, so the woods were filled with that wonderful white frost of blossoms, which contrasted with the spring green haze of emerging maple and oak leaves.  After I finished my dogwood photography, I was putting away my gear and preparing to drive away when I looked into the forest again and saw an American Black Bear foraging in a forest opening about 100 yards away.  Excited, I stopped stashing my equipment and instead pulled out the 500mm lens and 1.4x extender [this is a photographer’s blog, so I have to mention my equipment!].  Then I set about observing and taking a few photographs when the bear was most visible in the forest.

Then, much to my surprise, two young cubs appeared in the brush—they were accompanying their mother.  The mother was well aware of my presence, and I dared not get too close to her.  The cubs were more skittish, and I was unable to get any photographs of them.  The mother was keeping them on a long leash, so to speak, so they were not cuddling up to her but instead were foraging on their own.  I found the mother bear’s feeding behavior fascinating; she would walk up to a rock on the forest floor, and use her front feet and claws to lift the edge of it–looking underneath for any grubs or ants or anything else edible that might be hiding there.  There were plenty of rocks, as this trailhead was at the base of Kittatinny Mountain, which has a backbone of crumbly rock.  I observed one of the young bears working the rocks the same way–mother had already taught these young cubs well.  Eventually the bears ambled up the mountain and out of sight, but I was left with a thrilling and completely unexpected experience.

Earlier, a young man who I suspect is a recent immigrant from Russia, stopped to ask directions.  Accompanied by his mother, he had left the interstate looking for a gas station and instead ended up on this remote forest road.  He was from Ottawa, Canada, and was returning to Canada from a New York City road trip.  As we were talking, I pointed over his shoulder at the mother bear, which had gotten unexpectedly close.  He was startled and amazed, and said it was the first wild bear he had ever seen.  I think his mother, who remained in the car, was scared to death!

After I left that area, I stopped at Dunnfield Creek Natural Area and walked the Appalachian Trail–or at least 50 yards of it!  This is one of the access points along the great trail that stretches from Maine to Georgia.  Dunnfield Creek is noted for its crystal clear waters that support the fussy native Brook Trout, who are known for demanding clean water and refuse to inhabit anything else.  Some fish, and some people, demand only the best!

When I was visiting the campground at Worthington State Forest, I saw a petition to save the campground from the budget axe.  It seems that the governor of New Jersey plans to close nine of these state forest campgrounds around the state to save money.  The implication was that the state intends to privatize some of these campgrounds, and that would be a shame.

For several federal administrations I have seen the U.S. Forest Service steadily privatizing the operation of its campgrounds, and I’m not happy with the results.  The price immediately goes up (to cover the profit of the operator) and the service goes down.  At one such campground in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan I found the bathrooms filthy and the water not turned on and the garbage cans removed, yet the price had gone up.  Why should we accept this?

When I visited Grand Teton National Park two years ago, I learned that they had privatized the national park campground where I normally stay.  I always enjoyed registering for camping and having informative conversations with the park rangers who staffed the office.  But with privatization the price had gone up and the people staffing the front desk could not answer my questions about the park.  Then one of their cell phones rang with one of those ugly musical ringtones and destroyed whatever good mood I had left.  Hey people, this is a national park, not a mall!  Learn about it so you can answer my questions and treat it with respect!

I guess the real problem is that America is failing to adequately fund the national parks and forests, and we are gradually seeing the fallout from that.  It is a shame to see Theodore Roosevelt’s great national forests and our heritage of great national parks fall into mediocrity.

This is part of a weblog documenting my travels and photography. I am primarily a nature photographer, and you can see more of my work at http://www.leerentz.com

Click on the photographs below to see a larger version with captions.