Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Blue Smoke

Have I mentioned that mountain weather changes rapidly? If not, you should know that mountain weather changes rapidly. In addition to doing things like closing Skyline Drive in 13 minutes, today I saw firsthand some more results of the strange confluences of moisture and strong winds that occur in places like this. And once again, nature did its best to foil my plans. But today I was not about to be defeated.
I began the day driving out to Cades Cove, an isolated valley in the middle of the park, surrounded on all sides by mountains. The cove is a good place to find wildlife, so I knew I’d have to get there as early as possible to catch them. Ideally, I wanted to be there within an hour of sunrise so my pictures would come out better, but while driving out there, I quickly realized that was going to be impossible. Despite being only 15 or so miles from the main entrance, the road to Cades Cove follows the Little River, and rivers are not known for running in nice straight paths which would enable high speed limits. Instead, I wound for 15 miles, catching a few seconds at a time of Morning Joe on the XM before the signal would cut out. on account of the towering cliffs around me. Eventually, though, I did make it and began the 11-mile one-way auto tour of Cades Cove.

Almost immediately, the wildlife made their presence known, as a herd of whitetail deer were grazing in one of the many meadows in the area. I always like seeing whitetail deer because I can identify them. There were no whitetail deer west of the Rockies this summer, so the best description of those deer that I could offer was “there goes another not-whitetail deer.”
As I continued on, more deer appeared, some even having antlers. This is a step in the right direction towards proving the existence of moose, since now I’ve proven the existence of moose-like headgear, but still no moose sightings. In fact, if I had seen a moose this far south I would have believed it was planted there on purpose just to mess with me.
Anyway, aside from deer there were a few groups of wild turkeys, which looked nothing like the wild turkeys we have up north. These were full-on Thanksgiving table 18-pound gobblers, not the overgrown pheasants I’m used to. If one of these had stepped in front of me, I would have gotten out of its way and apologized for inconveniencing it. Perhaps the only inhabitant of Cades Cove that might have been more intimidating would have been a black bear, but I didn’t see any of them today.

Halfway through my loop around the cove, some very strange clouds began to roll in. They had this wavy lenticular thing going on, probably because of the mountains’ influence, but they were also definitely rain clouds. Their presence gave the valley a whole different kind of mood lighting, causing me to redo about half of the loop road, to see how the conditions had changed in the interim. The only real change, though, was that it was pouring rain by the time I finished.

Thankfully, that didn’t last, and I was on to see some waterfalls. The first 2 on my list required a combined hike of about 5 feet – from the driver’s seat to the passenger side of the car, and this was only because the waterfalls were on the right side of the road, instead of the left. Both were pleasant enough and certainly broke up the monotony of making that 45-minute drive back down Little River Road.

Another effect (I think that’s the right word. I always mix up effect and affect) of the montane conditions around here is that GPS units like Copina Jr. get royally confused. She informed me that I, on several occasions, was driving through a river, or had suddenly jumped several miles out of the park, only to just as quickly jump back in. But the weirdest thing she’s ever done came this morning while I was driving through the Little River, and I apparently broke the all time land speed record:
Wouldn’t you think that at 271 mph there should be something in the software that senses that perhaps something has gone awry? There was another time this morning when I broke 161 and yet another when I was doing 96.5 in a 35 mph zone. But I knew a ranger wouldn’t stop me, because as Copina Jr. told me, I was driving right through a forest, thus making me very difficult to chase.

Then it was on to the real aqueous star of the day – Laurel Falls. I didn’t remember why this one stood out among all the park’s waterfalls, but it probably had something to do with the fact that it was on a road that was open year-round and it was a manageable hike to get there (only 2.4 miles round trip).
Well, those manageable hikes have had a way of coming unhinged this week. When I started this one, I couldn’t see the sky because of the thick forest canopy, so I couldn’t tell if there was a storm a-brewin’, but I knew the rain from Cades Cove earlier had to have passed by now. So I wasn’t worried. For the first half of the trail, my biggest concern was how steep the darn thing was. I’m starting to think that the elevation gained figures at all these trailheads are intentionally underreported so people are more willing to try these things. This one said it only gained 300 feet, but it definitely felt like more than that.

By the time I reached the falls, it was, once again, pouring. I was glad I’d opted to wear my waterproof adventure hat, which also served as a great head-umbrella. Unfortunately, it wasn’t wide enough to keep the rest of me and my stuff dry. I only stayed at the falls for long enough to get what looked at first glance like a few decent pictures, then I headed back down to get out of the rain (isn’t that a nursery school song?). By the time I got back,  the only things I had been able to keep dry were my phone, camera, and feet (these waterproof hiking boots work much better when desert sand isn’t working its way through every pore in the fabric).

After cranking the hear in the car and hanging up my jacket and hat to dry (maybe by the time I get home they’ll be ready), I had to decide what to do next. I certainly wasn’t going to try out a 5-mile hike to another waterfall, as interesting as it looked in the pictures I’d seen. I figured that this storm would pass soon (after all, mountain weather changes rapidly), and then if I was able to get to a high enough elevation, I might be able to see one of those classic views of low-hanging clouds or mist rising from between distant mountain ridges. So it was back to Newfound Gap, the highest place around. Unfortunately, these clouds were too high so it really just looked overcast.

Now I was really out of ideas and it was only 2:00. After driving to a few of the overlooks on the North Carolina side of the park with no more luck than at the gap, I was looking at the park newsletter and noticed a suggestion that Look Rock had some good views. I knew Look Rock from my days last month checking its webcam to see if there was any snow in the range (there wasn’t). Besides, how could a place called “Look Rock” not have a great view of something? So I decided to drive the 50 miles northwest to the Foothills Parkway (little brother of the Blue Ridge Parkway perhaps?) to see what I could see.
As soon as I got onto the Parkway I knew this had been a good idea. Following a ridgeline of hills on the outskirts of the Smokies, you can look south and see the highest mountains east of the Mississippi or you can look north and see the Tennessee Valley, Knoxville, and the Cumberland mountains, which I assume must be far away. Plus, it’s landscaped and laid out much like the Blue Ridge Parkway, and is designed to be a pleasant drive.

After taking in all of the overlooks along the road, I headed up the half-mile trail to the Look Rock observation tower. Of course, the moment I stepped off the road and onto the trail, it began raining again. But this time I was wearing a raincoat and was just flat-out pissed that the weather would try to screw with me again. Since I was the only one on the trail (and the only one driving the Parkway, as far as I could tell), I didn’t hold back in terms of language or volume when expressing my displeasure with this ironic turn of events.

This time, though, the rain subsided quickly and I scaled the ramps to the observation tower. But the weather was not done with me yet. Standing at the peak of the highest hill on this ridge, the tower is completely exposed to the wind, and the gusts here were some of the strongest I’d ever experienced. More than once I was worried that my camera would get ripped out of my hand. I had to basically tie my hat onto my head or keep a hand on it constantly, lest it end up like my Florida Marlins hat, lost forever at the log flume at Great Adventure.

The observation tower offers a full 360-degree view, and I had half-intentionally ended up there as the sun was setting (there might have been a strategic turkey sandwich beforehand to kill some time and get me there for sunset). With the clouds from the piss-Greg-off storm rolling away to the east and a fresh batch of thunderstorms driving in from the west, things were shaping up for a pretty epic sunset. The sun dipped behind a cloud, casting rays of light in all directions. Just before it could emerge below, the thunderclouds caught up to it and blocked it from lighting up the clouds a la Bryce Canyon last summer. I knew the show was over, but at least I could go back down the trail before it was completely dark. Nevertheless, I have a feeling I got at least a couple of pictures that I can turn into something good:

So here I sit, back in Dollywoodland, with the contents of my backpack laid out to dry like a crime scene on one of the beds. Tomorrow is the Blue Ridge Parkway’s chance at redemption, as I head back to the Land of the Virgin Queen, where Shenandoah gets its shot at redemption on Friday. The park’s already tweeted (there’s something I bet you never thought you’d hear) that Skyline Drive is completely open, throwing in a “WOO HOO!!” for good measure, so my chance of success there seems pretty high. In the meantime, it’s time to bid adios to the land of the blue smoke and begin the return journey.

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