.......and Reflections

Monday, August 22, 2011

Cades Cove and Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park not only has character but at times seems to produce a magical setting for natural and American cultural history. Cades Cove is a Southern Appalachian valley between Smoky Mountain ridges. This valley sits at elevation among the mountains and is gloriously isolated from what seems to be the whole rest of the world.

I visited the Great Smokey Mountains to attend the 2011 Association of Nature Center Administrators (ANCA) Annual Summit at the Great Smokey Mountains Institute at Tremont. The Institute is one of, if not the finest and most successful, outdoor and nature education residential camp programs in America. The campus is a few miles from, and lower in elevation than, Cades Cove. Because of the rich natural and cultural history of this magnificent park, the adventure begins at the Park entrance sign.

I arrived on Thursday night, and aside from spending time with friends and colleagues, the natural adventure began with the evening program. Our 125 members were being mesmerized by a local school teacher, Elizabeth Rose, who inspires her grade school students and our audience with wonderful story telling. Then something happened that could possibly trump her masterful performance.

As Ms. Rose was story telling there was a stir in the back of the pavilion by a few people in the back of the audience. Quietly some people began to peer into the darkness behind the pavilion. Curious, I moved to the back and after carefully looking into the dark brush I saw what was causing the stir. Ever so faintly in the shadows created by the lighted pavilion I could see a shape. Then I could see the very faint buffy face of a Black Bear just a few feet within the brush. It was surreal. It was a peaceful encounter, and in some strange way, it was as if  a curious Smoky Mountain resident had settled in to see what all the commotion in the pavilion was about, or perhaps just a chance to enjoy the story unfolding from the speaker. The magic of the Smoky Mountains was at work.

Friday morning I got up at 5:00 am to get ready for birding Cades Cove. I walked down to the parking lot that was dimly lit by a half moon. There is no light distraction in the mountains and a bright planet Jupiter shined close to the moon. I got my spotting scope from my truck and used my 60x power to look at Jupiter and its three visible moons. Smoky Mountain star gazing is different too. It is enhanced by the sound of a gently flowing creek and Katydids. After a few minutes a Barred Owl began to call. Soon, at least three Eastern Screech-owls joined the chorus. The magic of the Smoky Mountains was clearly at work.

As it began to get light at the resident camp there was a blanket of fog filling the valley. It seems it just can't be morning. The fog adds another dimension to the sights and sounds of places in the mountains . The fog silenced the Katydids and the owls and it was an invitation to go up the mountain to Cades Cove.

As you make your way up the winding mountain road you travel through a changing climax forest that speaks to changing elevation. In a few places there are vistas, that on this morning, provided views that were true the name of the was "smoky". I stopped at a place that I liked once I got above the fog. It turned out I had found Crib Gap. This is the high point before the road drops down into Cades Cove.

It was quiet. Really quiet. I neither saw nor heard a single bird. So I pished and offered my verbal Screech-owl call. Slowly birds began to appear high in the trees. A Tufted Titmouse got excited and as I looked up the ridge I began to see movement. Warblers. A Black-throated Green Warbler appeared and then a Worm-eating Warbler and an Ovenbird. In the next 15 minutes I saw a Blackburnian Warbler, Pine Warbler, an adult and juvenile Cerulean Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Yellow-throated and Blue-headed Vireos, Scarlet Tanager, Carolina Wren, and Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches. This represented a mixed flock of birds feeding along the ridge line at the "Gap". These were birds from various elevations, not migrating, but foraging at this elevation in a post breeding disbursal.

Cades Cove is an 11 mile auto tour that winds around and through this Mountain Valley. I thought to myself that if there was any place in America where people were so isolated that they could have missed the entire Civil War, it would have been in this valley, cradled by the Smoky Mountains. In the 1850's there were 132 families living in Cades Cove. They farmed, built homes and churches, and were self sustaining farmers. Many buildings are historically preserved and interpreted. But whether you are a history buff or not, one can't escape the culturally-rich feeling of this place.

I found another 25 species of birds along the tour. Most birds were also in flocks, mainly feeding and active along the edges of the forest and in tree lines along fences throughout the valley. I stopped to look at a Pileated Woodpecker in a dead tree and was rewarded when an Olive-sided Flycatcher flew characteristically at the top of the dead tree. The Flycatcher had traveled much farther than I had, to visit this beautiful valley in the Smoky Mountains.

Wild Turkeys are a fixture of today's Cades cove. They are joined by White-tailed Deer who graze the same grasslands. I got a brief glimpse of another Black Bear along a creek where berries and roots are plentiful. It seems that there is something interesting and exciting virtually everywhere you go in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

That the natural and cultural history of the Great Smoky Mountains is preserved in the Park with the same name, is truly a national treasure. But more remarkable is that the National Park Service and The Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont are teaching and interpreting thousands of school children and adults about our natural and cultural heritage. The discoveries here are endless. The possibilities to learn are limitless. The potential for enrichment is enormous.

Every Annual ANCA Summit is held in some special place similar to the Great Smokey Mountains. It isn't a choice really. These places are in the ANCA family DNA. ANCA member nature centers bring out the magic in places that aren't perhaps as isolated like Cades Cove but have their own magic none-the-less.

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