Fall leaf report 2012: crack smoking in Great Smoky Mountain National Park

I finally decided to take two days and head to the mountains to view the fantastic fall colors and do some hiking with Troy. The news reports gave glowing reviews of radiant leaf colors not seen for a decade. Reports of outstanding fall foliage were greatly overstated and may be the result of either hopeful merchants or crack-smoking leaf hunters.

Let’s review what good fall leaf color looks like.

Roaring Fork in a good fall color year (photo credit to Troy, not me)

Now, let’s see what exists there this year:

OK, but I will not be composing poetry rhapsodizing over the verdant fall colors.

For those of you who want to know, there is good color in a 1-mile stretch heading to Cades Cove (roughly 5 miles in) and there is some decent color in Greenbrier and around Chimney Tops. However, the crowds are unrelenting, the traffic is horrendous, and there is of course the horror known as Gatlinburg to contend with. I’d pass on this year. Unless you enjoy endless streams of Mississippians in Cadillacs cruising at 2 mph in Cades Cove slamming on their brakes every time they see a deer.

An oasis in a sea of fudge shops, Dukes of Hazard memorabilia and Ripley’s Believe it or Not.

Kayaking the Buffalo River in Tennessee: an exercise in humility

I was supposed to spend the weekend of the 8th in the Elkmont Campground in Great Smoky Mountain National Park so I could finally see the synchronized fireflies that are unique to just this one small part of the national park and nowhere else in the world.  So it would of course figure that the early heat we have had meant the damned fireflies were done three days before we were supposed to get there. This meant I had to find something else to do. I decided we would drive to an area just past Hohenwald, Tennessee, to kayak a stretch of the Buffalo River. Hohenwald, Tennessee, is world-famous for an elephant sanctuary that you can’t visit.

Troy left me to plan the trip which meant no matter what I did, it would be inadequate planning. So I said fuck it and called a canoeing company for information. Of course no one answered, so I printed out what little information I could find on line, directions off of Google maps and we hit the road at 8. A few words to our friends at Google, your directions suck balls. Ditto to the Sprint phone GPS. Note to those who don’t know: avoid the Natchez Trace Parkway at all costs unless you are old and like to drive 50 the whole way. ** For those inclined, directions are below. You’re welcome.

Since I didn’t really plan for much, we showed up at Buffalo Canoeing which bills itself as ‘Christian Canoeing’.  Not sure how you canoe ‘Christian’ as opposed to Jewish canoeing, or Buddhist canoeing, but OK. Since it was a Friday, the place was largely deserted and a very nice man walked out on the porch. He had almost zero information on the river, runs, etc., but he told us we should run the Texas Bottoms run, which was about seven miles long. He offered to port our boats and us to the put in and allow us to leave our cars at the campsite, which is an unheard of luxury. (See previous descriptions of ignominious put ins). We took him up on the offer and we quickly found ourselves in the back seat of a Christian Ford Econoline.

This is the first time in recorded history my heathen self has been anywhere near a church van of any denomination. Miraculously, lightning did not strike.

The driver told us he was a school teacher and we made polite chit chat.  He told us he liked to sew but that he “wasn’t gay or nothin’.” Seriously. I assured him his manhood was not in question and that I merely marveled at anyone who could sew as I am prone to doing things like stapling buttons on my pants when they fall off. (Note: this does not work well). I have created a Google map for accurate directions to the put in so you won’t suffer finding it like we did.  Paddlers, you’re welcome.

This is where you put in.

We were told that it would take us three hours to do the run and that we needed to “watch for a fallen down bridge ” and that we needed to get out and portage the boats over it. That was all the instruction we got. In retrospect, a few more words to the wise would have been helpful. About 100 yards in, there’s a series of falls. Sadly, I had no idea they were coming and getting over them sucked. The water level was low and I high-centered it several times which sucked. Advice to the wise: go right in low water – it sucks less. In higher water, this is a Class II run.

The Buffalo River. There are no buffalo. There are buffalo fish. I think they should rename the river Buffalo Fish River. Buffalo River creates unrealistic expectations of buffalo.  There are cows. You will see lots of them on the banks and in some places, in the river.

Once we passed the first set of falls, we came across this gem:

Somewhere, an Indian is crying.

The problem with Tennessee is that apparently everyone feels free to use the rivers as their own personal landfill. It’s a lovely river, but it’s packed with trash. I quit counting tires after ten. Note to Tennesseans: when you don’t need something anymore, don’t throw it in the river. You will see a lot of blue herons, ducks, cows, gar, bass, etc. If you are very, very lucky, this stretch is reported to have it’s very own Sasquatch. My quest to see Bigfoot continues, alas, no ‘Squatch for Jean this trip.

Troy is ahead of me. This is so I can watch him eat it before I attempt rapids. I am good like that.

The river moves fairly fast and most of this stretch is rapids punctuated by flat still water stretches. This is awesome because I enjoy having a current move my carcass without much effort from me. On the down side, this creates the possibility of decapitation from strainers.  The Buffalo River is chock full of deadfall and strainers. Deadfall is paddling shorthand for dead trees and crap in the water that you hit in your boat which is bad. Strainers are things that allow water to pass but not kayakers, in my case, typically tree branches low over the water that I run into.  Since this river moves fairly fast and has lots of turns with strainers at the end, this is not a great river for novices.  Some people would call it foreshadowing with all the talk about strainers and deadfall, but it was inevitable that I was going to take a hit and dunking in the river. My Waterloo on the Buffalo came in the form of a series of drops with a quick hard turn to the left and a big tree sticking out to decapitate me. I saw it coming, and I could not paddle hard enough to avoid it.  As a wise man once said: “Go that way, really fast. If something gets in your way … turn.”  I kind of missed the turn part.

I hit this hard. It sucked. I went over and out into the water. That also sucked. Especially since Troy made it through and I didn’t.

Several large bruises and a tattered ego later, I crawled out of the river with boat in hand and had to pump water out. Troy managed to maintain a straight face for 30 seconds before he began making comments that will likely get him killed in his sleep.

Lovely, isn’t it?

Just after we passed under a large bridge, we came upon the ‘fallen bridge’ mentioned by the porter. He’s right – it’s best to get out of the boat and portage over the bridge. If you try to go over it, it’s not going to go well.

The water was way too low to try to go over this.

The other side of the fallen bridge. This is the halfway point.

The river flattens out a bit and you get to see nice pretty blue water. You will paddle past pastoral scenes of bucolic countryside. Cows may visit you. Rednecks may also suddenly appear unexpectedly around a bend of the river. They like to sit in chairs in the water and drink beer. By July, this river is reportedly packed with hordes of drunken fishermen. Be prepared.

Bluffs and blue water – almost to the end of the run

Troy and I saw two canoes and two middle-aged women arguing in the middle of the river on chairs and that was it, but it was a Friday. Do not expect to get this river to yourself, but it’s not as crowded as other middle Tennessee rivers.  There is no cell signal in this area, so try to avoid having an emergency.  Services are non-existent outside of Hohenwald so plan accordingly. Also, if you are looking for a nice remote place to bury your smart-assed husband’s body, this area has potential.  It’s hilly, heavily wooded and sparsely populated.

The end of the paddle at the Buffalo Canoeing.

**For those who want to know how to get to this place, at Exit 46 on I-65, head west toward Columbia.  Stay on this highway (Hwy 99 – a/k/a Bear Creek Road) until you get to Hampshire Pike and exit left, then stay on that all the way to Hohenwald (28 miles or so), take a left at Park Street (you have to look for the Hwy 99 sign as the street is not marked) take a quick jog left at E. 4th Ave (also unmarked, but follow the signs for Hwy 20) then take a quick right at Buffalo Road, otherwise known as Hwy 99 and stay on this road until you see a sign marked “Buffalo Canoeing” – you will know it when you see it. Ignore any other prompting from your GPS or Mapquest. You have been warned.

For paddlers who want more information, the Buffalo Canoeing owner is the son of the original owner and he works three jobs. This means he does not answer his phone much. Leave a message. Portage is available for $5 a person. Take them up on it.

Okefenokee Swamp: kayaking in the corporate woods

We decided to take off for a week to kayak as spring is here and we always get the itch to go somewhere.  For whatever reason,  Okefenokee Swamp in deep Southern Georgia popped to the forefront of the itinerary. I have a thing for swamps with still, dark water as it appeals to the goth in me. Also, I like to say the word Okefenokee because it makes me giggle. I had no real idea of what we would see which is how every single Harrison adventure starts: pack your stuff, get in the car and drive. There are zero hotels anywhere nearby which meant a tent would be involved. We made reservations in Stephen C. Foster State Park to camp in a campground.

Okefenokee is near nothing and getting to it takes some driving no matter which way you come in. Miles and miles of pine forest surround this national preserve. Logged pine forest. I have a thing for nature and I appreciate the fact that it has a beauty all its own that is arrived at without planning or forethought and which is based on nothing more than random luck and Darwinism. Sadly, the timber companies which logged the land think replanting trees in soldier rows makes a forest. Not so much. There’s nothing but rows of trees for miles on end spaced precisely six feet apart which has the depressing ability to make nature look like corporate America.  I had zero idea that you could log the forest in a national preserve, but a preserve is not a national park and apparently our national forests are totally for sale.  Even a morally-bankrupt lawyer like me finds this disturbing. I could not bring myself to take a picture of the corporate forest so I made this drawing instead.

This is the forest of my childish imagination. Except it would have squirrels. Sadly, I can't draw squirrels so you'll just have to picture it in your head.

The campgrounds of Stephen C. Foster State Park are weirdly inside the actual national preserve. Fortunately, Georgia has good campgrounds and this is a nice one as far as campgrounds go. Each campsite had running water and electricity which for one of Troy’s trips practically makes it a four-star hotel.  Also, there are showers with hot water. Heaven.  Mercifully, the campground was pretty empty but as luck would have it, we were placed in a nearly empty campground next to chatty lesbian kayakers. So much for listening to the wind in the pines.

Chez Harrison at Stephen C. Foster campground in Okefenokee. Note the presence of electricity adjacent to the tent.

We rolled in late Saturday night as the sun was setting. With the setting of the sun came a dropping of temperatures. I loathe freezing and the wind coming in off the ocean 40 miles away smelled of salt and portended a long night of shivering. Thankfully, I had the foresight to bring fuzzy socks and flannel sheets. I did freeze to some extent and staggering out to pee at 3 a.m. is bracing to say the least. (Note to non-natives: be careful in choosing an outdoor location to pee, as saw palmettos have painful points that can do damage to exposed butt cheeks in the dark). This is a great place to see stars as there is no light anywhere around to pollute the night sky and the stars were brilliant.  Of course, my communion with nature is limited in cold weather and as much as I enjoy the vastness of the universe in the middle of the night, I also really enjoy not freezing and 50 degrees with a 20 mile an hour wind is going to get your attention.

The sun always rises early and we lost an hour to daylight savings time on this trip, so it was time to hit the water. Okefenokee is divided into canoe trails labeled by color. Stephen C. Foster State Park is on the west side of the swamp and the main area to put in is just down the road from the campground.  Okefenokee is the headwater of the Suwanee River and you can kayak the canal to the river if you like, but we headed down the main canal and hooked a right to the red trail and then on to the orange trail. The main canal is a manmade structure dredged out eons ago. It is wide and deep and reasonably still, lined by stands of old growth cypress draped in Spanish moss:

Cypress in the early spring always look like dead grey ghosts to me, but this is pretty much what the water and trees look like.

The wind was reasonably stiff and paddling against a headwind is tiring. We decided to explore the red trail up to Minnie’s Lake and Big Water. This is the best kayaking we saw as the canal narrowed down to a beautiful  forest on both sides with lots of water lilies. Sadly, morons are allowed to run in this area in motor boats so you have to avoid the wakes from boats, but it was still very much worth it:

Heading up to Millie's Lake with still water, just before a boat of rednecks attempted to mow us down.

The scenery along the red trail is spectacular:

Cypress and lilies.

Heading back down, we paddled off for Billy’s Island and the Orange Trail. The scenery is much the same, but we saw a lot of wildlife, including river otters and lots of big alligators. We subsequently learned that those adorable otters are actually pretty amazing killers and they prey on young alligators in the four to five foot range. I have new respect for otters.

Say hello to our little friend.

For those who actually want to know about the kayaking in Okefenokee, our experience is that the western part of the preserve is far more scenic than the eastern side with the entrance off of Folkston, although the east entrance has a lot more amenities including a grill. There are no grocery stores within 3o miles of the park, and aside from candy bars and ice, there’s nothing to buy from the concessions in the park. Plan accordingly. The gates close at 10 p.m. and campers need to be in before then. If you arrive after 5 pm, you can get your reservation form from the trading post and pick your own spot in the campground, a decided advantage, and you just check in before 10 the next morning at the trading post.  There is a cell signal in the campground, albeit faint. You can rent canoes and kayaks to tour the waterways, but if you don’t plan to hit the water, this park is a complete waste for you. There is almost nothing to see that you don’t have to paddle to appreciate. There is a loop drive on the east side and some walking trails, but they are boring.  Water levels vary and many trails are closed due to low water at times so it pays to call and ask before you head out.

There are bears in the area and alligators are all over the park and common sense rules apply. Do not slather sardines on your naked body and sleep in the woods and don’t swim in the area unless you have always wanted to know what it’s like to drown in the jaws of a 1000 pound alligator. This is also a mosquito haven so expect to be drained of blood and slather yourself in deet in the vain hopes you won’t be eaten alive.  The bastards are actually less of a problem on the water as the water is too acidic to support the larvae.  At dusk and dawn, the mosquitoes are out in droves so be prepared. You can bring your pets, but why would you want to since they can’t go on the water and there are many creatures that would like to snack on them.

This is the resident campground alligator that lives in the storm culvert. We were not clear on what he ate there as the ditch has zero fish, but there are a lot of people who bring their dogs to the park.

Nine Mile Pond: vultures and cat vomit

Day 1 in Everglades National Park.

We decided to camp in Flamingo which is a campground at the very southern tip of Florida in Everglades National Park. Any further South and you are swimming to get to Key West. As a veteran of many national parks, I can say that Everglades National Park is the red-headed step child of the park system if the visitor’s center is anything to go by. As an actual red-headed step child, I have street cred to make these statements.

Sadly, this crime against architecture survived Hurricane Wilma

On a totally unrelated side note, should you find yourself at Flamingo and in need of something to eat, do NOT dine at the Buttonwood Cafe in the visitor’s center unless you like terrible food served at a glacially-slow pace at astronomical prices. Instead, go to the marina shop and gorge on overpriced frozen candy bars.  Nothing is more delicious or nutritious than a frozen Snickers washed down with a diet Red Bull for breakfast. I do so hope to grace the cover of a cereal box someday, but I think I should lobby Red Bull to make room for my face on their can:

I think this has serious marketing potential if Red Bull is trying to market to 40 somethings who are constantly sleep-deprived in semi-dangerous situations.

We decided to kayak Nine Mile Pond, which is actually not nine miles long or a pond, but more like just shy of six miles of trail through a series of ponds, mangroves and open sawgrass prairies. The parking area is populated by vultures. These vultures want to destroy your car. Seriously. They are addicted to rubber and will strip your car in no time if you don’t take precautions. I tried to take a picture of a Japanese tourist taking a picture of a car being attacked by vultures, but Troy wouldn’t let me. Probably because he had deduced the vultures wanted to eat that car and not ours.  Even so, we diligently wrapped windshield wipers and kayak cradles in towels to keep the damned vultures at bay.

They are waiting for you to leave so they can strip your car. It's nature's version of Camden NJ.

Everyone (not native to Southern Florida) has an idea of what they think the Everglades looks like.  The terrain varies based on elevation, but at the farthest southern portions, you can expect a lot of wet sawgrass for miles and mangrove stands.

The start (and end) to Nine Mile Pond

We got into the water and headed across the first pond to the mangroves.  The trail is marked by numbered PVC pipes which is a good thing because pretty much everything looks exactly the same.  This area has crocs and alligators, although we saw neither this time.

Side by side in Nine Mile Pond

The middle portion of the trail is pretty much mangrove islands and sawgrass areas where the alligators and crocodiles like to lounge.  Alas, no reptiles to speak of.

Sawgrass on the left, mangroves to the right.

The portion of the trail furthest from the starting point is riddled with some type of reed that made the paddling exceedingly tedious. Each stroke would bring up rotted wet cattails to slap you in the face.  The water here is no more than one foot deep.

Rotting cattail things in the water

Close up, they greatly resemble cat vomit. It is noteworthy that I managed to get three of these things down the front of my shirt while paddling. Cat vomit in the cleavage.

Attractive, isn't it?

Troy realized after we made the turn back that we managed to miss poles 60-79. If it was more of this, I can’t say I’m too sorry. Paddling through stagnant cat vomit loses its charm rapidly when you are already expending energy fighting the wind and shallow water.

If you are in Everglades National Park, the Nine Mile Pond trail falls on the must-do list.  Overall, Troy and I managed to do it with a minimum of strife, no capsizing and it was a nice paddle.  Personal pain rating: 5 out of 10, for cat vomit in the cleavage and a blister on the right hand.


Sawgrass and mangroves

Wind sings across the water

Cat vomit in hair




Captain Nemo

I capsized today in the swamp. Mega embarrassing.  I got stuck on deadfall and tried to push out of it and went over. Jesus. I know they say reptiles never attack lawyers out of professional courtesy, but I was very motivated to get out of the water as there were alligators 20 feet back.  When you have only 5 feet of space available and you are standing in 5 feet of cold, smelly water, getting the water out of your kayak and you back into it is a challenge, particularly when your sandals are being sucked off your feet by swamp mud.

Pretty and evil.

I smelled like a wookie all day. My skin is stained brown from all the tannin in the water. Perhaps someone will mistake it for a tan. Tomorrow, no mangroves. All sawgrass and open water. Thank God. Pain rating for the day: 8 out of 10. Definitely time for drugs that end in the letters “-cet”.

Haiku of the day:

Brown, swampy water

Smells like ass and tastes much worse

Mangroves are evil


Goodbye Tennessee, hello Florida

It’s that time of year. The time of year when I ditch my relatives at Christmas and head with Troy to Florida to kayak the warm swamps, bays and rivers of southern Florida. We have new kayaks and will be heading out a week from today for a two-week stint.

Cades Cove in winter: lovely, but cold. Also, you can hear the strains of Deliverance.

Last year, Troy tried to feed me to the alligators in his quest to kill me:

The rare and elusive Jean in a mangrove tunnel in the Everglades

This year, we’ll be doing some open ocean kayaking. Most likely he’ll feed me to the sharks. In case he finally succeeds, it was nice knowing you all.

It's waiting for me. Or maybe just all the old people. It is Florida.


Beauty and the beast: Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Tennessee is an odd state. Until 1994, this place was reliably Democratic and relatively tolerant. It produced Al Gore for Christ’s sake. Now, we elect people who vote to permit guns in bars.  When Stephen Colbert mocks you, you know you’ve got to apologize for your elected representatives. Despite our somewhat questionable politics and our lamentable history of sending legions of people to die in Texas, Tennessee is graced by one of the most spectacular landscapes anywhere.

The sheer prettiness of Roaring Fork in the Smokies in the fall. Suck it Texas - Tennessee is way more attractive.

The combination of water, fog and forest in the fall produces spectacular hiking scenery. Wet leaves on rock are slick and I have planked unintentionally on more than one occasion..

Seriously, it's ridiculously gorgeous.

When socked in by fog, the forests are very quiet and still and you can pretend that Gatlinburg was destroyed in an epic catastrophe** even though you are two miles from it.

Alliteration: fog in the forest in fall.

No trip to the Smokies would be complete without a bear sighting. I love bears. Black bears rock and if you are respectful of them, they will put on a nice show for you.

Acorn snack time for the black bears

** No such luck.

* Note * – I took none of the pics. Troy was the photographer that gets the credit here.