by Nathan Mynatt, Wilderness Ranger
I saw a bear today! Not much of one, only a wide black butt-end crashing into the undergrowth, but I saw one. This isn’t the first bear I have seen either, but it is the first one I’ve seen in the Appalachians. It was about a mile into my hike this morning, and I would have entirely missed it had the bear not made so much noise. Shortly later on I ran into two hikers, both middle-aged women out for a day hike. One told me that she had section hiked the entire AT over the last ten years and today was sharing her passion for the trail with a friend who had never been hiking before. I conversed with them for a while before giving a warning about the bear. When I did, the seasoned veteran nodded her head while the newcomer, more than a little perturbed, simply stared at me.
I sent them on their way and continued down the trail, and about a mile on I came across a father and daughter who were on a multi-day trip. The father (a large guy with the distinctive look and build of a military man) told me the daughter had just graduated from high school and so they were enjoying a trip in the Wilderness before she went off to college. Still somewhat excited about my sighting, I delivered an explanation of the bear situation to the two, during which the father looked at me stoically but with a little concern. The girl, on the other hand, was wide-eyed but not in that frightened way due to the presence of her indestructible father. I reminded them of LNT and bear safety principles and then I continued on, hoping the news wouldn’t cut their trip short due to paternal concern.
Blood Mountain Wilderness, despite (or maybe in line with) its name, has a palpable life-force flowing through its forests. When it was inhabited by the Cherokee people, they believed that supernatural, human-like beings lived in great dwellings on the side of the mountain itself. Although the supernatural beings were peaceful, the tribes who lived there were not and the Cherokee waged a great war against the Creek Tribes, giving way to the name “Blood Mountain” and nearby “Slaughter Creek.” When walking through the forests one can almost understand why it was assigned such supernatural significance and inspired a legendary battle – the natural wealth of the place is nearly unparalleled in my experiences.
This afternoon I walked down a spur to the AT called the Dockery Lake Trail, which was the first that Charlie and I walked on when we arrived to the area. We were immediately astounded by its natural beauty but also by the remnants of inhabitation long left behind – an old roadbed with a stacked stone wall and numerous piles of stone whose significance we cannot discern for they are too close to be chimneys and too irregular to be foundations. There are trees in between the stacks of stone that are more than a hundred years old, dating the stacks to before the First World War. After first seeing those signs of past lives centered in this wild hollow I dreamed for days about what life for these former inhabitants would have involved. They obviously lived off of the land, for there are no signs of agriculture and no other indicator of their former presence than some piled rocks. It is evident from walking the Dockery Lake Trail that the forest does, or did, provide. I’m sure that life was very difficult at times, but the biodiversity is rich, and taking a couple of steps off the trail in the right places reveals an abundance of blueberry bushes. Seeing the bear today, however, reminded me of something important. The people who stacked these stones, and the Cherokee who were brutishly forced to leave before them, sought only to inhabit the forests around Blood Mountain, not rule them, which is a beautiful thing.