September was slipping away, and with it, our opportunity to visit the Great Smokey Mountains National Park without having to drive an armored vehicle and wear shoulder pads. October brings out an army of leaf peepers hell bent on seeing the prettiest fall colors ever.
And so it came to be that I tiptoed up to my son’s room and disrupted his slumber at five o’clock. I beckoned him to come downstairs and shower quietly to avoid waking his father.
By 5:35 a.m., Nolan and I hit the road for our latest NABventure.
Way back when his father and I were going through potential baby names, we were mindful of any acronyms the child’s initials might spell. We hit upon his name and noted—to our delight—that his initials spelled out NAB. For the uninitiated, “nabs” are what country Southerners call the little cheese and peanut butter Lance crackers that come in packages of six. Simple working folk in the South don’t take coffee breaks. They break for a coke-a-cola and a pack of nabs.
So when the lad and I head out for parts unknown, we call it a NABventure. Sometimes, little cheese crackers are actually involved.
Our destination in the Great Smokey Mountain National Park was the Cataloochee Valley. The reason for our trip there is that elk have been reintroduced into the park. Before European settlers came, elk were native to most of the country. But the last elk in the Smokies were extirpated in the mid-1800’s. The Eastern elk subspecies is extinct. The initiative to restore elk to the Smokies took flight in 2001 with a handful of animals brought from the Land Between the Lakes herd and was supplemented by Canadian imports the following year.
If you look at a map, Cataloochee is right off I-40 just beyond Waynesville, North Carolina, and quite close to the popular tourist destination of Maggie Valley. It appears that it would be easy to get there.
We made exit 40 at 7:30 a.m., came off the exit ramp and almost immediately found our right turn marked by signs. And we proceeded on a vertical journey that soon left even
pavement behind. I squinted at the screen of my iPhone and read directions aloud, “Stay to the Right (at one point, the road will “Y”) Road becomes gravel, and very narrow…proceed UP mountain with caution. After reaching summit, proceed down same gravel/narrow road. At the base of the mountain, road bears to the left and becomes paved again.”
I am mortally afraid of twisting turning mountain roads and high bridges. I’m not talking a little bit scared. I’m talking lie down in the seats. I’m talking places where I will get out of the car and walk rather than be inside a vehicle negotiating certain tight spots. I’m talking medications are really needed.
This did not go well. That part of the journey is 10 miles long. The dirt road is one lane. There are no guardrails. A sixteen year old male was driving. I was beside myself, digging my nails into the armrest and pressing my right foot through the floorboard.
There is no telling how many times I begged “Slow down!” or beseeched the deity I worship to help me. Near the summit, my prayers were heard and I was helped by scads of chipmunks in the road. I would holler “LORD!” with one breath and “Oh, look at the cute little chipmunk!” with my next breath. Chipmunks, you see, were present in unprecedented numbers and they are some really pretty little squirrels. They were a welcome distraction.
Amazingly, the road is paved in the valley. It’s a mystery as to how they got heavy equipment in there to pave it. I wanted to stop, get out and kiss the pavement, and I vowed to never return. At least not without Xanax.
Just past the ranger house and the small campground, the Cataloochee Valley opens up into a series of broad meadows. Nolan focused on the wild turkeys, which were everywhere, but I immediately spied a bedded bull in the field, a nice 6×6. We passed a man walking a well-behaved golden retriever and I spotted a herd of elk in the field on our left where perhaps a half dozen cars had pulled off the road and parked.
In the chill mountain air, several people were photographing a bull and his harem of cows with cameras that I’m sure cost more than some cars. There were guys with lenses over two feet long and as big around as my thigh. I got out my binoculars and fleece pullover to the music of bulls bugling up and down the valley and Nolan whipped out his iPhone and began taking pictures.
I had neglected to bring my tripod and a charged battery for my camera, so we were stuck with our iPhones. Compared to the serious photographers with their obscenely outfitted cameras, we felt a little like David facing Goliath.
Some of the elk wore radio collars and ear tags, but the herd bull was a splendidly naked 7×7. He guarded his harem and bugled back when a challenging bugle came from up the valley. The animals were very close. Cows and calves feeding to our left brought them ever closer to the line of tripods and cameras.
A cow elk is not a tiny little deer. But a bull is enormous. Much taller than my horse and armed with about a hundred pounds of sharp headgear, he is a testosterone-charged monster all but bellowing smoke. As his harem came closer to the cars and photographers and the dog walker came back up the valley, the bull became somewhat nervous.
He began running at the cows and circling the harem, keeping between the cows and the line of paparazzi. There are park rules against using elk calls and rules about how close you can get to the elk. The elk were oblivious to the 50 yard limit. Through no fault of their own, many of the onlookers and photographers became too close. The bull trotted towards the road. The closest guy folded his tripod and beat a retreat.
Nolan scooted behind the truck.
He is always openly skeptical about each NABventure. In fact, sometimes I don’t let on that we are actually on a NABventure until we are in the truck and halfway there. Earlier this year I sneaked in visits to a Revolutionary War battlefield and the Sumter National Forest. Just tell him that he gets to drive and he will get into the truck.
On this outing, Nolan seized the day and saved the day.
“Mama, give me your binoculars,” he said.
Nolan’s idea worked. He stuck his iPhone’s lens up to the binocular lens and began to photograph the elk through the binoculars. A similar attempt of mine failed a few days before, when I tried my iPhone against my microscope lens at work. But he was able to get some decent shots with his “Redneck Zoom Lens.”
Great Smokey Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States. In spite of the Appalachians being right in the backyard of most people in the Eastern U.S., they are rugged mountains, nearly vertical. I’ve visited and hunted elk, deer and turkeys out West. Many take the Rocky Mountains seriously and take the Smokies for granted. People, these are some serious mountains. Don’t take them for granted because they happen to be in your backyard.
Cataloochee take home points:
- It’s really hard to get there! Take everything you think you will need, including nerve pills for the drive in.
- No fee to get in the park.
- There is no visitor’s center or store of any kind.
- There is a public bathroom which is handicapped-accessible but it does not have running water, electricity, climate-control or a baby changing station. There is a dispenser of hand sanitizer.
- There are old buildings from before the park service bought the land—barns, a school, a house, a church. You can and should go in them! They are our heritage.
- There are hiking trails but you can see the elk quite well from your vehicle or side of the road.
- Elk are most active 2 hours after sunrise and 2 hours before sunset.
- The park is most crowded during the summer and during the month of October.
- The elk rut is in September-October. Bulls are bugling and mating is occurring then. Ideal times to see rutting activity and without having to fight crowds would be mid- to late-September.