Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Patriarch

There are few things as splendid as following a lonely mountain road that twists and curves as it follows a meandering stream across the valley floor.  That is, until you reach a trail head and begin a journey into a place where the loudest voice is the whispering wind chasing secrets through the seasoned bare branches of the trees.  

A quick 1.3 mile jaunt brings me to a waterfall... the stubbornly relentless thrum of white cascades carving the timeless stone face of the falls.  I lose myself in the sounds, focusing on nothing.  Then a patch of too-green moss clinging to a dampened alcove in the rock draws my attention.  To the side, an off-cast trickle seeps, dwarfed by the boisterous falls.  Regardless of the differences, all of this works in a symphony to forge a basin that beckons to tired feet and sweaty brows.  This is where most travelers stop, take their rest, and then return to their cars.  But there is always more beauty bestowed on the less-traveled trail.  

Where the asphalt ends and the trail continues, the anticipatory element of surprise calls like a long lost friend, drawing me onward.  I am lost... not literally, but figuratively in the surroundings that bring me the most peace.  

The forest.  

The crisp smells of winter air.  

The constant breeze that cools my skin and calms my heart.

I gaze around and the moss covered bones of once towering beacons of timber cause my pause.  One more corner... just see what's there, around one more corner.  

The bend in the trail is the one I was looking for, the one that enticed me to continue; I gaze in wonder at the stoic last virgin strand standing elegantly defiant against the odds.  And there he was: The Patriarch among the elders.  He was no longer a tree, he was a symbol of antiquity.  His roots no longer staking a claim on the ridge but defining a mountainside.  His bark a corrugated, fathomless shell giving testament of his age.  

This wasn't a tree... this was a stark yet delicate poem that draws you in and moves you.  

Stephanne Dennis is an outdoor enthusiast extraordinaire. A highly skilled backpacker and apex predator specialist, she shares her love of the outdoors with her unrivaled writing skills and her faithful companion, Bandit McKaye, her Anatolian Shepherd. She is currently studying Wildlife Biology at Oregon State University and dedicates her time and skills to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Foundation.

Savage Gulf - A Look Back at a Spring Trek

The South Cumberland and Savage Gulf offer a lot of options for the day trekker or for the serious hiker.  With over 90 miles of trails and perfectly nestled between Nashville and Chattanooga, it's impossible to not consider Savage Gulf when looking for somewhere to go hike.  The trails range from easy to very rugged and the lengths vary from 0.8 miles to 12.5 (one way).

Today we did a minor trek to Laurel Falls and Stone door.  Laura Falls is so close to the ranger station that it's near impossible to not take the tiny .4 jaunt to see the falls.  While they may be impressive during or after a rain, I was more impressed by the apparent sinkhole/mini-gorge that formed the falls than the falls themselves.  Laurel Falls is a mildly challenging hike at worst, primarily because of the uphill slope on the way back to the ranger's station.  However, the very short duration of the hike easily make's up for the small uphill.

From the ranger station the hike to Stone Door Bluff is about 0.8 miles one way.  The trail is paved for the first quarter mile (to Laurel Overlook) and the remaining trail to the top of the bluff is quite maintained and very easily traversed.  The bluff atop Stone Door offers a stunning view of the surrounding mountains.  Keep in mind that there is no railing around the bluff, so one should keep a very close eye on kids, clumsy people like myself, etc.  Also be sure that no one kicks/throws stones or anything from the top of the bluff as there are often climbers or hikers directly below.  By my opinion, the hike to the Stone Door overlook is considered "easy".

The Stone Door is a really nifty structure with an absolute gem of a past (actually - there's amazing geological history to the region).  The "Door" itself is a 10-foot wide crack in the sandstone rim that surrounds the entire valley and is, pretty much, the only easy way to get to the bottom.  Tennessee State tells us that the 'door' was used by Native Americans as a means to get to hunting grounds. Walking through the seemingly tight expanse of rocks, one can feel the cool breeze and imagine the sounds of eons past.  There are (wild guess) 75 stone steps that lead to the bottom of the door.  The stones felt well placed and poles were not needed. At the bottom of the door, one can traverse down slightly further and then branch out to where the climbers would go.  This section was rugged but very short (I believe there are steps created to go to this area, but a fallen tree made that a non-option).  From the bottom of the bluff, one can feel a new appreciation for the 'do not throw/kick stones' sign above.  The cool air blowing from the pitted areas of the bluff were a welcome feeling mid-day (the day we chose to go - May 30th - was unseasonably warm and hovering around 93-degrees).

As always, what goes downhill eventually has to go back uphill.  We made the trek back up the steps and took another brief glimpse of the expanse of forests. It's worthy to note that while the area has never been logged, the trees don't grow to the grandeur that one may find in, say, Joyce Kilmer park in NC.

Overall the entire trek, including the unplanned trek around the base of the Stone Door Bluff, took no more than 2 hours (and, had we not stopped to bask in the sunlight on the bluff, likely 1-1.5 hours total).  I would rate the Stone Door trail - including the steps to the base - to be 90% easy and 10% moderate.  If you can't handle steps, then skip the aforementioned 10% and just enjoy the beauty of the bluff from atop.

Wildlife:  We saw a very small black snake, typical squirrel, and a very gorgeous copperhead.  We first came across the copperhead after a man coming out of the trail warned us of an "eastern diamondback that was across the trail up ahead".  I snagged my cell phone (camera) and we trekked on.  Not far ahead we discovered the "eastern diamondback" but rather than across the trail, he was nestled just at the corner of a wooden overlook 'pier'.  The other embellishment was that he wasn't an eastern diamondback but, rather, a southern copperhead.  Copperheads have a reputation as an 'aggressive' snake, but most of the time they are really quite docile.  This little guy was maybe 1.5 feet long, so he was a young snake and hadn't found out the hard way that snakes laying on human structures don't usually have happy endings.  So, I gently encouraged him to at least move to the grass next to the structure (he did with zero issue).  On the journey back, I felt an urge to see if he had moved much and found the little guy peacefully wrapped up in a shaft of sunlight that was breaking through the trees.  He was off the path (by a foot, maybe) so hopefully he remained safe.  As for the hiker who said he was a diamondback?...  I hope he learns to ID venomous snakes of regions he's hiking more throughly in the future.  Never bodes well when, if it happened, someone tells the doctors you were bitten by the wrong poisonous snake.  (And how someone mistakes a copperhead for an EASTERN DIAMONDBACK is beyond me... they [copperheads] get more often mistaken for corn snakes and vice versa, but at least those two resemble!)

My point of going to Savage Gulf today was actually to peruse the terrain casually as my next planned hike is the 25 mile (round trip), rugged Fiery Gizzard.  I can't wait to review THAT one!

...Bring On the Fiery Gizzard!  (wow... for some reason that makes me hungry)

Stephanne Dennis is an outdoor enthusiast extraordinaire. A highly skilled backpacker and apex predator specialist, she shares her love of the outdoors with her unrivaled writing skills and her faithful companion, Bandit McKaye, her Anatolian Shepherd. She is currently studying Wildlife Biology at Oregon State University and dedicates her time and skills to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Foundation.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Yup, I'm a reformed idgit. - by Stephanne (with facts by Chief)

Habituation. Big word, even bigger consequences.  Is this a word you know? Maybe. I guarantee you know what it means.  Let's try another: Anthropomorphism.  Holy crap, she's on a roll today with those stupid big words, right?  Give me just a moment and I'll tell you a little about what those words are.  My hopes are that I will strike a nerve - one that I know is highly sensitive - with my friend Chief and he'll regale some tales of what he has seen - the damage that we cause - because of these two words.  Let's start with the longer one, shall we?

Anthropomorphism.  Hmm.  Anthro - po - morph - ism.  Does that help?  Picture in your mind Yogi the Bear.  He walked on his 2 back legs.  He wore a hat and a tie.  He spoke to his lil' buddy, Booboo.  He plotted and hatched half-baked schemes to outsmart the Ranger and the guests.  He has been anthropomorphized. We gave human traits to a non-human entity.  The only thing that Yogi did in a relatively bear-like fashion was steal picnic baskets.  Ironically, in all of my childhood, I can't remember even once when Yogi grabbed one of the visitors to his park and chewed on their leg... or charged them and scared them so bad a stream of warmth flowed down the interior leg of their pants.  Heck, I don't even remember a bluff charge.  The one thing Yogi did that we wish was always the case in real life: he ran away from humans, terrified to get caught.

Now, that other word: habituation. Ha-bit-u-a-shun.  Habituation is when we provide a means for wild animals to learn that humans aren't really scary.  People think it's cute.  I mean heck, isn't it brag-worthy to say that you have grizzlies that eat on your porch?  Oh, how about that you go into the wild and live for half a year among and with the grizzlies? I mean, talk about bragging rights! Right?  Or how about those misguided humans that think wildlife are so stinkin' cute that they need to be cuddled and turned into pets?  Sadly, to attain this goal, the easy way to lure said wildlife is with food.  "Bless it, it's just hungry... let's leave it some dog chow."  These misguided humans are so dead wrong... and when I say dead, I'm generally referring to the animal they are "taking care of".  It's a wild animal.  WILD.  You want to do it favors?  Try leaving it alone and letting it retain its fear of people and staying wild.  You like freedom, right?  Why would you steal their freedom out of a sense of "helping"?  What so many don't realize is that it's not just freedom they are taking from the animal... too often, it's the animals life itself. Why: SHEER SELFISHNESS.

I can go on rabid tirades about both of these words. I can cuss up a storm, stomp my feet and raise my voice... and you know what I hear from the recipient of my tirade? "But it's just so cute!"  Yeah?  Well, duh... it's a giant, fuzzy, animated version of the fluffy thing you slept with as a kid.  But for the love of all that is good and green, stop being so selfish!  Before I go off the deep end (where I am constantly threatening to dive anyhow) I'm going to hand this blog over to Chief.  You know why?  Because he knows.  He knows what it's like to say "we have to put that bear down... it's been too habituated and we can't release it back into the wild."  Yes, he's made those tough calls... ones that we - the bunny-loving, fern-cuddling people would freak out if we had to make.  A long time ago, I was a habituator... maybe not a serial habituator, but I still had that dolt-like mindset that I was doing good.  Over time and with education on the reality of things, I have been reformed... but instead of me ranting on endlessly... let him tell you.  Chief, care to enlighten?  

At least I don't have to worry about you sugar coating anything now, Stephanne, do I? 

Okay here goes...

There are not many aspects of my job I dislike but there is one aspect I absolutely despise. It is when our guys have to clean up the often unnecessary and always innocent "casualties" of ignorance. In this case, that ignorance is the habituation of our wildlife.

First off, I must stress that ignorance is usually (although not always) caused by a lack of information. And its up to us, as wildlife professionals, to do our part to make sure YOU GUYS have the information you need to make good decisions when it comes to wildlife.

Secondly, notice how "wildlife" is spelled. It's spelled...W-I-L-D-l-i-f-e (hint, hint.). Believe it or not, a wild animal's life is best spent in the wild. Makes sense doesn't it? But why? It's really quite simple. In almost all cases, the further away a wild animal is from man, the longer it lives. This is because we introduce all sorts of man-made threats that the animal doesn't normally encounter. From the obvious, such as vehicle strikes and poaching, to the not-so-obvious, such as disease introduction and behavior modification, animals in general do not fair well in our midst.
Knowing this, one realizes that "Killing them with Kindness" is a concept that is surely grounded around the habituation of animals.Though folk may believe they are helping animals by feeding them, in truth, they may be doing them more harm than good.

When we say...


This not only means directly feeding wildlife but also indirectly feeding them by allowing food or garbage to be accessible to them. Trust me, it's not because we like being party poopers, rather, it's because we love our wildlife. By feeding wild animals we often create situations that put their lives in jeopardy.

Though there are thousands of instances and scenarios I can describe, there is one that stands out since it is so pertinent to this story...and it just so happened to involve a bear.And easiest part of this blog is that I don't even have to write. I shall simply let the pictures tell the story...

Before anyone gets too upset...this story has a happy ending. This bear lived!

Officer Hammonds did an absolutely incredible job and was able to save this bear's life. Unfortunately though not all stories have a happy ending. Oftentimes we are called when it's too late. Either the animal has already succumbed, or even worse, we have to make the gut-wrenching decision when an animal can not be released.

And in those dreadful situations, we absolutely hate our job.

Be mindful of our wildlife and enjoy the outdoors!
(And it's not Chief...just Daryl)

Stephanne Dennis is an outdoor enthusiast extraordinaire. A highly skilled backpacker and apex predator specialist, she shares her love of the outdoors with her unrivaled writing skills and her faithful companion, Bandit McKaye, her Anatolian Shepherd. She is currently studying Wildlife Biology at Oregon State University and dedicates her time and skills to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Foundation.

Daryl Ratajczak is the Chief of Wildlife and Forestry for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. He is an avid outdoorsman enjoying all forms of outdoor recreation from hiking and kayaking to hunting and fishing. He is dedicated to protecting and managing all of Tennessee's wildlife resources and bringing the outdoors to all citizens of Tennessee.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Old Man Appalachian

Have you ever heard someone say the Appalachian Mountains aren't real mountains because they aren't really that big?  

There's a radiant and rugged yet peaceful, old, and tired charm to the Appalachian Mountains.  I've often been quoted as telling people it is my favorite little old man... Once a towering series of peaks that defined a supercontinent, standing proud and so resilient that nothing – not weather, not an eternity of time – could ever diminish these most formidable peaks. Yet now… epochs later… now those majestic peaks are relegated to a mere shadow of what they were.  How small am I? How inconsequential do I feel when I walk with that little old man and see his life so clearly brandished around me? Let your mind wander and take a walk with me down one of my favorite trails… let me tell you about the old man I see contrasted by the colossal and invincible man that I know he was.

Walking down the trail, I come to a brook that dances with boulders as it rushes to meet the river in the gorge below.  The boulders, some seem small compared to the neighboring house-sized ones, draw my gaze. They are remnants of something larger than my comprehension… goliaths that have fallen, coming to rest in the gulch hollowed out by the same brook they now cavort with. How high were they before?  I can’t even fathom the size this ridge must have been.

I walk further, trekking to a section where the river – and now the trail – have exposed a wall of rock that likely contributed to some of the boulders in the river nearby.  I stop and gaze to the top, marveling first at the trees and vines that grow ostensibly from the rock itself.  I marvel at how life takes hold and grows so stubbornly from the very smallest embrace with a crevice.  As the aura of wonder fades surrounding the flora growing so precariously above, I see the bluff as more… once connecting the two sides of the valley where the river runs through.  It is here… here where I am compelled to close my eyes and see what the mind can even if the eyes don’t. 

It was almost 500 million years ago… in a time we now call the Paleozoic Era.  There was nothing but a hint of what would become North America… and that hint was the tip of my Aps.   The Aps were bound to be epic… they were the very first Paleozoic mountain building event and, when plates collided and the North American plate won… the subduction of the oceanic plate helped heave the Aps upward. The Aps continued to strive upward over the next 250 million years. Continent after oceanic continent collided and joined with the North American plate as a behemoth continent called Pangea took shape.  The collision pushed the Aps further (and also formed the Ozarks and other westward-lying ranges).  Over the next few hundred million years, the Aps were worn down by the untold power of water… eroding the once World Heavy-Weight Champion down to a 90-pound, fragile, broken old man.  The story is ancient – more ancient than we can feasibly grasp… yet his story is all around us. 

The next time you’re walking – on any trail in the Aps – listen to the weathered, aged, and beaten old man’s story, look at his past… it’s an amazing past, indeed.  Then, the next time you marvel at Everest or gaze in wonder at the Alps... remember what the little old man taught you: There is nothing that time cannot age and we - the specs of humanity - will never understand the true passage of time of our planet. 

Stephanne Dennis is an outdoor enthusiast extraordinaire. A highly skilled backpacker and apex predator specialist, she shares her love of the outdoors with her unrivaled writing skills and her faithful companion, Bandit McKaye, her Anatolian Shepherd. She is currently studying Wildlife Biology at Oregon State University and dedicates her time and skills to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Foundation.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Inspiration in Desperation

Seventy four minutes.

Yep. It took me 74 minutes to write the words seventy four minutes. 

That's how long I have sat here fumbling....trying to get this initial blog outta my head. 

Writing usually comes easy for me when I'm inspired. And though I'm inspired to write a really kick-butt initial blog for what I hope to be a long series of ramblings about all things good and wild, I can't help but feel uninspired by my surroundings.

Yes, here I sit, in the warm cozy comforts of my living room, well after midnight, draped in a fleece blanket, gas-fireplace masquerading as a long lost friend, and a trusty old Dell, ablaze on my lap bathing me in lukewarm artificial light. Don't get me wrong...'tis quite comfortable. Is it inspiring though? Not in the very least.

So what do I need for inspiration?


I need my work.

I absolutely love my job. Hence, my job inspires me. 

You see...I'm one of those lucky few that wake up in the morning actually wanting to go to work. Not only that, I'm that sick individual that prefers to think about work even when its well past quittin' time. I despise days off (Ha!...okay I'm lying) but I really do look forward to Mondays.

Call me blessed... Call me lucky... Call me spoiled... Call me crazy...

Yes... I am all of those.
Photo courtesy of

Here's the scoop. Every since I was a wee little boy I loved the outdoors. I had an overly extreme fascination with animals. Drawing them came first. Next came the realization that you can learn really cool stuff about them. I think it was the first time I saw a litter of 'possums posing for a picture in the convex depression of a spoon, I was hooked. Though when I think about it now...I really don't think those poor little guys had much of a choice in getting their picture taken.

Deciding what to do with my life was never in question. When my Dad, bless his stubborn and sometimes crotchety soul, fought for me to get an offer at a pretty darn good paying factory was a simple response I made... "I love you Dad, but I'm NOT following in your footsteps."

You see, you busted your butt your whole life to earn those few weeks vacation every year. You took me and the rest of your kids camping...and hunting...and hiking...and fishing. And you instilled my passions, my inspiration. 

You knew everything there was to know about those wonderful animals I so loved. And believe it or not, it wasn't until I got to college that I finally realized your animal "facts" were.... well, not really full of many facts.

But I didn't care. I loved being in the outdoors and I promised myself, if I could live your vacation...that's exactly what I was going to do. And here I am...

Chief of Wildlife for the state of Tennessee...the greatest job in the world.

I live breathe, eat and sleep all things wild. I marvel at the fact that some days I walk in the door and I'm challenged with trying to find out how many bears are now calling the Cumberland Plateau home. A few days ago, after lunch, we discussed making groundbreaking discoveries of Indiana bat summer maternity roosts for the first time ever in middle Tennessee. Just today I debated on whether quail restoration and hog eradication are actually feasible. One of those is still up for debate. And tomorrow, I have to meet with the foresters to determine appropriate conservation measures that need to be taken in the Catoosa Savannah area to keep the area productive for grassland birds.  

How cool is that?

Anyhow...I'm beginning to ramble...

Do I love my job?

Yes...Yes I do.

It inspires me.

Am I crazy?

Considering it is now 2:34 a.m.

...I'll leave that one alone.

Daryl Ratajczak is the Chief of Wildlife and Forestry for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. He is an avid outdoorsman enjoying all forms of outdoor recreation from hiking and kayaking to hunting and fishing. He is dedicated to protecting and managing all of Tennessee's wildlife resources and bringing the outdoors to all citizens of Tennessee.

Being the Conundrum: Animal lover hunter?! - by Stephanne

There are a lot of people who may tell you that an "animal loving hunter" is an oxymoron.   I'm not one of those people.  There is a way for the two "extremes" to live harmoniously because, quite simply, its only in the extreme cases that it becomes an oxymoron - the norm is quite a different story. Before you get your eyebrows in a furrow at me, let me explain.

There's a sentiment often expressed by a lot of very vocal people that hunters are simply blood-thirsty.  I won't say that hunting - like any facet of person or activity - doesn't have its own share of extremism.  But, for the most part, it's actually quite different.  I don't know a hunter that hunts simply to shoot things.  I've heard of one once... but of the hundreds of hunters I know... I don't personally know one that is blood-thirsty.  If you can give me the tiniest moment of your time, let me tell you about why *I* hunt, ok?  I'll be brief:

I woke up at 4 a.m. and drove to the woods.  The moon was a slim sliver of pewter arced in the night sky, providing only the idea of illumination.  Its ok, I don't need the light.  I know where I'm headed.  I walk down a path my feet now know well, the soft crunching of damp fallen leaves under my feet and the mist hovering like an unearthly, glowing blanket.  It never fails to amaze me how the mist swirls and dances when I exhale.  I wish I could see the "wake" of it after I pass through it.  I get to my destination, a wooden ladder climbing up a tree with a semi-comfortable seat at the top.  I climb up, rope in, and settle into place, waiting for the horizon to erupt in an array of hues.  Slowly the sky melts from the blackest blue to the shimmer of blue gray and, finally, the explosion of  purples and pinks and oranges and reds that proclaims daylight has found me.  It's during this time, when the sky is waking and the woods are still sleeping that is a magical time - the silhouettes of the trees standing stoically in the mist never ever fails to make me think of eras gone by... people who have shed sweat or tears or blood on these lands, natives creeping through the cover of that mist to provide for their tribe, even ancient predators using the cover of the mist to find prey.  This scene is brilliantly new every time I see it yet older than I can fathom.  Yes, it is magic indeed.  
After the sky is alive and the fogs begin to burn away, I have already been sitting here - motionless - for an hour.  I'm 20-feet above the ground and still I am the statue.  The air is alive with sound: A cacophony of birds enliven the air, the scuttle of squirrels digging for the last of the acorns to store. Then I hear it. The determined trudge of 4 feet.  They're distant.  How many can I hear?  I close my eyes... focus my hearing... three.  I open my eyes, searching for the source of the sound.  Then, slowly, I see them making their way through the woods.  Its three... what... doe?  I use a call to lure them closer.  It works and they alter their course to head my way.  As they near, I see it's a doe and two yearlings.  Technically all 3 are legal and, right now, all 3 are entering into the one thing that makes bow hunting harder than any other type (in my opinion) - entering into the range where I feel comfortable taking a shot.  But I don't raise my bow.  I know that soon her yearlings will leave her side and start a life on their own, but right now I get more enjoyment from watching them nibble on leaves, completely oblivious that I'm even there.  Later I do the same thing with a 4-point buck.  That evening, as the light is waning, I see a large doe.  She doesn't have any yearlings or fawns with her and she's only 35 yards away.  I raise my bow, I aim...
I don't want to shoot because I am blood-thirsty or barely a step above a Neanderthal. I want to shoot because I have been outside all day (all day on numerous occasions, really), not looking for a trophy, but looking for food for my family that is organic, lean, and that I worked for myself.  Could I have driven to the store and bought some steaks?  Sure.  But it's far less green (to use a term we all know).  That deer is very green... no fossil fuel use to transport it, no agriculture to sustain its growth, no electricity to process it... Yes... this is as green as it gets.  
People promote eating organic foods - growing their own gardens, composting, organic beef, etc... where is the difference in harvesting my own meat rather than that organic beef or pork or whatever?  Only... mine is even more natural.  And it bothers me when self-proclaimed animal lovers condemn me for being a "Bambi killer" yet they have leather seats and leather boots and a leather coat and eat things like veal.  It makes my blood boil.  I'm not saying this is all animal activists by any means... but sometimes people get a little too emotional about things on both sides of the fence.

The only thing that I'd ask everyone to do is maybe calm down a little and stop being so emotionally invested in name-calling and side-taking.  There's lot of fights out there to engage in... there's many things worth while to involve in.... but animal activists (of which I am a member of many groups) and hunters (of which I am one) can be one-in-the-same.  

So... when you have some free time, whether you're a hunter or an animal activist (or both)... do me a favor take a walk in the woods with just you and your trail supplies and consider how powerful of allies we could be if we wouldn't chastise or taunt each other with names... because a lot of us really are on the same side.  

Stephanne Dennis is an outdoor enthusiast extraordinaire. A highly skilled backpacker and apex predator specialist, she shares her love of the outdoors with her unrivaled writing skills and her faithful companion, Bandit McKaye, her Anatolian Shepherd. She is currently studying Wildlife Biology at Oregon State University and dedicates her time and skills to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Foundation.

Why Hiking? - by Stephanne

Photo on the Apps near Tellico Plains, TN by Stephanne
For anyone who loves the outdoors and physical activity, hiking is a sure thing to win your heart. Hiking is one of the great activities that is done in the wonders of the ‘wild’ that can be done solo, with a partner, or with a group. Hiking is a very easy way to get some serious steps, increase your energy, better your physical health, and really impact your life all together. A deep respect for nature develops quickly. Moreover, hiking really can improve your mental well-being as much as your physical well being.

Regardless if you’re new to hiking or a hiking aficionado, Tennessee (and the southeast) is a great place to be. If you’re new at hiking you can start on nature walks. (See “where to go” below.) Build experience on various trails and work your way to the big hikes that our region is known for. Hiking is a very easy hobby to start, the only bare-bones basics that you need are right shoes and a means to carry hydration – as simple as a bottle of water. As your experience and endurance levels increase, you can add gear slowly to grow with you. When you get to the multi-day, heavy terrain levels you’ll need a full pack. Here’s the average contents of my hiking pack:

  1. The pack itself – my multiday pack is about 70L and my day pack is about 30L. The “L” stands for liters, which just tells you the overall capacity of your pack. Only my big pack is an internal-frame pack; however, both have full straps (don’t stress your shoulders – carrying a pack that has a waist strap is a MUST. Your hips are the best weight-bearing part of your body and you’ll feel a LOT better hiking with even distribution of weight.) 
  2. Med Pack – I keep my med pack in a thing called a “stuff stack” (various sized sack that you get to literally “stuff stuff” in). The contents of my med pack vary slightly based on the length and terrain I’m going to. It always has OTC pain killer, benedryl, ace bandage, band-aids, etc. 
  3. Water Bladder- 3L 
  4. Water filtration system – never drink stream/natural water unless it’s “that or nothing”. Natural water often has microscopic bacteria that can cause severe abdominal upset. 
  5. Trail food – light weight and packed with proteins and carbs. Hiking with a pack on heavy terrain burns a TON of calories, make sure your body has fuel! 
  6. Water flavor packs. This is one of my treats. I carry these to mix with water if I have to filter it from a stream. While filtered stream water often tastes just fine, the flavor packs help to mask any mineral flavor that may be present. 
  7. Rain gear – functional and lightweight. This includes a rain cover for my pack. 
  8. GPS, compass AND maps. I never take just one. I use the GPS because it offers a lot of really nifty features but I never trust battery-powered things 100%. Better safe than lost. 
  9. Flashlight and headlamp. I carry both all the time because, again, I don’t trust battery-powered things 100%. 
  10. If I’m staying overnight, I always have my hammock. It’s more lightweight than a tent and far more comfortable. But, a small tent is just fine for my daughter! 
  11.  If I’m hiking in bear country I carry bear spray. Also, if I’m staying overnight in bear country I’ll take my bear canister (it’s a bear-proof canister for foods and anything that has an aroma of any kind) 
  12. Trekking poles – not a necessity but when you’re clumsy like me, it’s better to be safe. 
  13. Always take a very strong respect for nature and remember that what you pack in you also pack out. I also always try to pack-out any trash that I see while I’m on a hike. 

PHOTO: Near Cherokee National Forest by Stephanne
If you’re wondering where to go, around this part of the country you have so many options it’s hard to settle on one. If you’re brand new to hiking try a nature walk like the 4.5 mile loop at Harrison Bay State Park. It has very easy terrain that is only occasionally broken by roots or rocks and the elevation variance is virtually nil. If you’re looking for a bit more of a challenge, try The Walls of Jericho (around 8 miles, I think) near Winchester, TN/Stephenson, AL. This hike offers good scenery and a relatively challenging elevation variance. If you live north of the city, try Laurel Snow Pocket Wilderness in Dayton, TN. It offers 2 different hikes, both found from the same trailhead (one is 9 miles r/t and the other about 5 r/t with different terrain for each). Want more wilderness in your hike? There are so many WMAs (Wildlife Management Areas)! (Check out regulations for WMAs before going!) Or try anything near the Cohutta/Cherokee parks that cross the GA/TN/NC lines (easy access near Springer Mtn, GA or Ocoee/Reliance, TN; heavy concentrations of bear). There are hundreds of trails in that area with varied lengths and terrains. The Benton MacCaye (pronounced mack-eye) goes through here; it’s a 300-mile trail). Are you ready to summit a
mountain? I recommend Rainbow Trail in the GSM Park, take the Rainbow Falls trailhead all the way to the summit of Mount Leconte from Gatlinburg stoplight #8 (apx 13 miles r/t, very difficult and I do NOT recommend this as a 1-day trip; there is a free group camp area/shelter at the top that you can use with reservations through GSM). Like I said, around here it’s not a matter of where to go, it’s a matter of picking one trail out of the variety available. (Of note, you can't take your 4-legged bud with you on Federal Park trails.)

What to expect out of hike really varies depending on where you go and the length of time you’re out. Always research where you’re going and what wildlife you may encounter (and how to react to said wildlife!). I’ve encountered rattlesnakes and bears (even been charged by a bear!) and knowing what to do when you encounter wildlife is a MUST. If you’re looking to start hiking and are new to it, join me someday for one of my group-led hikes at Harrison Bay. It’s an easy walk and four-legged, well-behaved leashed friends are welcome. If you’re looking for more, check out some local hiking clubs. I’m out at least twice a month hiking and always willing to share my passion for hiking with anyone!

NOW: go outside and play (responsibly!)

Stephanne Dennis is an outdoor enthusiast extraordinaire. A highly skilled backpacker and apex predator specialist, she shares her love of the outdoors with her unrivaled writing skills and her faithful companion, Bandit McKaye, her Anatolian Shepherd. She is currently studying Wildlife Biology at Oregon State University and dedicates her time and skills to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Foundation.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

They Call it a "Tripod" because... - by Stephanne

Picture a tripod in your head.  I don’t care what you want your tripod to support… just make sure that you have a clear picture of what it looks like – the structure – in your mind. 
Got it?
Great, hold that. 
SO… looking at your tripod, what makes it work? Most likely, it’s a connector or connection of the three legs near the top of the tripod.  Doesn’t matter if your connection is made by a platform, from rope tying the three legs together, or superglue… it’s generally going to be a functional tripod because it has a connection where the connection is most needed – the top.  If you think about why a tripod works, it’s that all three of the legs are equal (or close) in length and all provide the same amount of support where the connection exists at the top.  If one leg is drastically shorter, or if one leg is weaker, or if you lack a means of connection for the 3 legs… will the tripod function correctly?  I doubt it.
Curious on why I bring this up? Well, probably not, but lend a girl your ears (eyes) and I’ll try to make it worth your time. 
I see a vast disconnect between the three legs that hold up the platform of “Wildlife Conservation and Management.”  So, what do we look at first… the platform, or the legs?  OK, we’ll go for platform because it’s quick and dirty. 
In the tripod I’m currently thinking of, the realm of Wildlife Conservation is the platform.  We need to define that there is a very distinct difference between the words “conservation” and ”preservation”.  Conservation equates to wise and sustainable use. Preservation means “hands off – let it be.”  I’d love to be a hardcore preservationist, but I’d be a very hypocritical hardcore preservationist as I’d be all “everyone get the hell out… except me.”  <grin>  So, seeing my own shortcoming here… I shall stick with Conservation. 
Now, let’s look at the three legs that, if they were working together like they should, should provide ample support for my wildlife platform:

Resource Management

The Resource Management aspect encompasses those who are responsible for setting limits (many kinds of limits) and they use science to help them define those limits. 
One of the issues that this leg faces is that they are pretty much responsible to a demographic that pays their bills.  We like to call this the “hook and bullet” demographic.  First, you may need to know:
A lot of people are under the misconception that public lands (wildlife management areas, refuges, etc) and the agency that manages all of the aspects of those are paid for and by the taxpayers.  The only thing that makes that statement true is that the people who fund the agency pay and endeavors also happen to be taxpayers.  Outside of that, the general public needs to understand that taxpayer dollars from a “general fund” don’t go for these people, land, or animals.  The money they receive are additional taxes on hunting gear (i.e. ammo, etc) and from licensing fees (in addition to other small contributing factors). 
So now that we have that definition in place, the hurdle here is that when you’re performing a lot of your science and marketing your product, you’re marketing to the people who are tried-and-true buyers of your product.  You market to keep your current clientele and – maybe – work a bit to expand that client base.  So, the agencies are seen as ‘catering to’ “nothing but hook-and-bullet people” because that is who their usual audience (and their primary customer) is. 
Another thing is the lack of standards when it comes to their governing body.  The agency doesn’t usually have free reign to do whatever they feel is best for the resource.  They have a ‘board’ of sorts that they answer to and who has the power to overrule them.  That board, in many cases, is comprised of people who are not required to have degrees or any advanced education in wildlife biology, ecology, or conservation.  So the agency may opt to recommend – for example – not hunting a resource due to whatever factors and they can simply be overruled by the governing body. 

Academia, Philanthropic

The academic and philanthropic arena is slightly harder to quantify.  These are, generally, people that really do mean well.  They help to get the word out about things that may need some attention to further their cause.  The problem here is a few things.
First, the information they provide to the general public is often one-sided.  I remember awhile back sending a letter to my state representative surrounding the export of horses for medical research and/or slaughter.  American’s have an affinity toward horses and I feel that same affinity.  So, I read what the organization put out, was enraged and emboldened by their comments, and fired off a letter to someone who had a voice.  The legislation was passed and I felt vindicated… until I found out that, as a consequence, tons of horses were starving because the people who were ‘farming’ them no longer had an avenue to sell their product.  SO, I helped to save many horses from a humane and expedient death only to have them slowly starving on farms.  Why? Because I trusted someone else’s information instead of doing some research on my own… I let them make up my mind instead of making it up for myself based on a fuller picture of reality. 
Further, the academic and philanthropic organizations will usually work with the local agencies; the agency staff promote the communications and everyone is happy and singing Kum By Ya… until the agency doesn’t do exactly what the organization wants.  Then the organization is in the media crying foul. 
Lastly, the organizations often have an unrealistic ideal of what should and should not be.  I’m a prime example of this… I have an affinity toward apex predators and I have a very staunch belief that they shouldn’t be hunted.  Period.  Ever.  Others will disagree and say that they are entitled to hunt a “surplus” or that they aren’t responsible for the emigration of a species to other areas.  Get me fired up on that topic and I promise you that the only “reason” I see is the one that I feel.  In this case, I’m likely considered an extremist,… which is where many of the people in this category fall in.

Media and the General Public

The media and the General Public (“GP” from here on) are the scariest group.  They both feed on the information above but there seems to be a focus on the extremists.  The media likes the extremist because they are far more dramatic and sensational and provide a ‘better, more exciting story’ and the agency science is downplayed as an “excuse”.  This mindset means that the GP hears that extremist point of view.  So we hear that the evil agency is going to shoot the little birdies or critters because they are a bunch of gun-toting wackos who live only to “shoot sh*t”.  Is that true?  The vast majority of the time, no.  But it’s what the GP hears and, we all know, if it’s on the news it must be true. 
Now, remember, this is the same GP that gets to click a button to autopopulate a letter with verbiage and then flood the email boxes of legislators and agency staff… all while only knowing a portion of the truth that we were fed.  How scary is that?  Think about all the things you complain about in a day that you heard on the news… all the possibilities for the partial information that we use to make a decision on where we stand.  It’s really pretty scary how much we rely on a rating-driven company who is out to make a profit to give us a full and unbiased story. 
Worse, how much of our decision-making on what we believe is based on what I call “Ignorance-fueled hysteria”?  Here’s examples I see of that hysteria in my world:
·         “Cougars, bear, and wolves are dangerous predators who will sneak into a subdivision at night and steal a sleeping child from their room.” 

I realize this is insane, but this is the attitude that I hear about.  It’s a ignorance-fueled hysteria from people who have better odds of winning back-to-back mega lottery drawings than ever even seeing one of these creatures in the wild.  Why? Because they don’t go into the wild.  Their version of “outdoors” equates to their manicured lawn or that stretch of “outside” between their car and the store.  So the question I ask myself often is, “Do these people have as much right to have input on wildlife issues as I – a backpacker – do?”  You tell me. 
·         “We shouldn’t hunt animals because that’s why we have grocery stores.”

That’s fine to know that I can go to a grocery and pick up a slab of ribs that may or may not have antibiotics and hormones and whatever else lingering in them.  It is my right to go to that store and choose what meat to buy and when to buy it.  But we have other options.  Deer, as a good example, have no natural predators (except us) in my region and they are in abundance.  I say it is my right to hunt and consume a deer just as it’s my right to “hunt” for a package of meat at the store.   Honestly, it’s not really a right… it’s a privilege. Just like it’s a privilege that there are stores and meat I could purchase.   I realize the deer is pretty.  I realize the deer need a ‘voice’.  And that is why I rely on my agency to provide me – a voice for the deer (and, sometimes, a voice for me). 
·         “We shouldn’t hunt those because we almost drove them to extinction already!”

Well… I’m sorry to say that humans driving something to the brink of extinction is poor management.  But – when we can and are lucky and successful – the agency and the academics and the philanthropic organizations and the general public work together to restore a population to sustainable numbers.  Letting those numbers then simply continue to increase is great in a preservationist world (which I am fond of in some regard) but it is almost just as irresponsible in the terms of management.  Why?  Because we are a fickle species who loves to vocalize how wretched we are when we negatively impact a species…. And also equally vocal when a species rebounds to population numbers that we then consider the species a nuisance.  Need examples?  I’m glad you asked because I have tons!  Deer.  Geese.  Turkey.  Black Bear.  Cougar (west of me, sadly!).  Should I keep going?  In the eyes of the GP the wildlife is great as long as it’s not so high in concentration that it’s in their back yard.  Hello, hypocrites, welcome to the world
So what’s the lesson that we have learned? Pffft, as if I could begin to pull a lesson out of this? I guess if I had to, the lesson I have learned in the past year is:
 My local wildlife agency isn’t evil… they do what they hear and see as what the public wants usually… so the onus is on the public to be logically vocal about things. If you’re “tired” of them ‘catering’ to the usual suspects, then give them a valid and rational reason to listen to you, too.  I don’t mean to start blasting them with “don’t hunt EVER EVER again you bad, bad humans!”… I mean “hey… I realize you manage public lands and I’d like to visit them if you gave me a reason to go without a rifle or rod.”  Or “tell me who all you talked to, what the science says, and why you’d want to implement a season for blahblah animal?”
It’s simply amazing what we can do with educated dialogue. 
And that’s the lesson.  Educated, clear, and honest dialogue rather than finger-pointing, whining in the media, blatant assumptions, and more.   We need all of the categories of our tripod above to be on a level playing field and being open, clear, honest, and unbiased in what they are telling people. 
If you can’t be all of those things, then (in the great words of teenaged texters everywhere): Shut It. 

Stephanne Dennis is an outdoor enthusiast extraordinaire. A highly skilled backpacker and apex predator specialist, she shares her love of the outdoors with her unrivaled writing skills and her faithful companion, Bandit McKaye, her Anatolian Shepherd. She is currently studying Wildlife Biology at Oregon State University and dedicates her time and skills to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Foundation.

Lost in a World of Hidden Enchantment - by Stephanne

Most girls would consider a weekend "good" if they got to do their nails, or their hair, or went shopping and found a perfect outfit, or maybe hung out with friends.

Me?... well, I don't know that I fall into the realm of 'normal girl'.  

Most girls probably wouldn't enjoy the smell of week old, very ripe sardines or multiple chigger bites on each ankle or the tendency to say, "Uck, another tick" as they pull the parasitic little buggers off and char them with a flame.

Again... I don't know if I remotely qualify for the realm of 'normal girl'.  

Most girls wouldn't considering hiking up relatively steep hills with a backpack, hiking back on the same steep hills after dark, or the constant humming of mosquitos and flies as fun.  I'd venture that the vast majority wouldn't want to be out in the middle of nowhere-ville potential bear country toting a can of bear spray and a .22 on a good day; much less on a dreary, rain-prone weekend where the cloud-shrouded mountains hide even the most conspicuous landmarks.  Yes,... most girls don't want to be in the woods... much less baiting bears to check for density and distribution.

Thank god I don't fall anywhere near, much less into, the realm of normal.  

For the last two weekends I have been working with my bud(s) at the TWRA learning how to hang and distribute bear bait stations to see if we can't get a gauge on the bear density and distribution in the mid- to northern Cumberland Plateau region.  The first weekend that we were out I was learning how to hang stations and it was educational.  I admit that the biologists for TWRA are some amazing people and I learn so much every time I'm exposed to them (especially Daryl - THANK YOU!).  The second weekend was primarily checking the bait stations and removing all traces that we had hung them.  Let me tell you... this was the smelly part of the job.  I pride myself on being someone who can handle quite an array of organic smells (generally it's the non-organics, like heavy perfume, that bother me) but I will admit that the smells we were hauling could singe the nose hair off a far more jaded person than I!

The one thing that was amazing about this past weekend was a discovery of an area that I can't say I had ever paid any attention to when I saw it on the maps.  Usually parks 'annoy' me.  They are too highly accessible and too perfectly manicured.  But sometimes you're thrown a gem and this weekend was the most beautiful emerald I had seen in our state.  We had only one bait station to hang this weekend and we crossed a 'river' in the big truck (quad on back) and, at first, I didn't see anything remotely special about the place.  Trees going up a ridge, us parked in a chigger-filled field at the bottom.  No biggie.  We unloaded the ATV and packed up the gear and started through the field and up the trail.  It wasn't even 30 seconds before the world transformed in front of me.  I was transported from Tennessee to the wet, decaying, and uber-luscious greenery that defines the Pacific Northwest.  Everything was alive from the amazingly high canopy to the moss-coated, decaying fallen trees.  The most picturesque stream gurgled lazily through the middle of the enchanted area and it felt almost surreal.  Perfect waterfalls cascaded down a 12-inch drop only to meander for a dozen feet to cascade again.  The forest floor didn't crunch as you traversed it... it squished every so audibly as the water oozed from between the leaves underfoot.  Ferns and mosses coated everything and, just when you thought it couldn't get any more enchanted, the sunlight would break through a cloud and burst through the canopy to highlight the stream or turn a fern from envy-inducing green to a blazing emerald.  It was heart-breakingly beautiful and my recurrent quote was "Just leave me here".  "For the week?" my guide would ask.  "No... forever would be fine," was my reply.  The serenity of that quiet mountain stream... until you experience something like that, you really don't know the splendor that nature hides from the mere mortal world.

Sadly, I couldn't be left there to fend for myself for the remainder of my years because there were GPS coordinates to mark and bait stations to hang.  Near the top of our journey up the mountain I discovered something else that was new to me:  a Legacy tree.  I asked my TWRA bud what a Legacy tree is and he gave a round-about idea but we agreed it needed to be looked into more.  Essentially, I wiki'd that a legacy tree is one very stout veteran tree that may be several hundreds of years old.  Usually their size defines them, like a girth of over 9 ft 10 in (sometimes varies based on species) and have a very high conservation value.  Sometimes the conservation value is dead limbs, hollows, rot holes, splits, etc.  These are things that the normal human may see as bad or undesirable, but the value of those features to the immediate ecological area is astounding (because they turn into habitats for so many things).  You can liken it to the tree of life in Fern Gully or Home Tree from Avatar, if you choose.  If you had asked me to tell you where trees like this exist, I would have pointed you towards Joyce Kilmer - home of the Eastern epics - but it was so refreshing to find one in Tennessee.  I leaned against it, staring up at the  never-ending trunk as it reached regally towards the sky.  In the Apps it is so easy to visualize the low, dense fog as it gently brushed the leaves at the top.

This was the top of the journey, the last of the stations to hang (albeit there were more to collect).  Next weekend I am so pleased to know that I get to revisit my surreal forest and the Legacy tree (a chestnut oak, in case you were wondering!) and - although I have mixed feelings about the journey because it will be on foot - I will apparently be retrieving the data myself and get to daydream of being forever "lost" in enchantment...

...maybe I'll haul my camera next time and snap some shots for you?  Hard to say... when I find places like this, it's VERY hard to get me to share!

Just in case I haven't mentioned it, I love that I'm not a normal girl!

Stephanne Dennis is an outdoor enthusiast extraordinaire. A highly skilled backpacker and apex predator specialist, she shares her love of the outdoors with her unrivaled writing skills and her faithful companion, Bandit McKaye, her Anatolian Shepherd. She is currently studying Wildlife Biology at Oregon State University and dedicates her time and skills to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Foundation.

Melancholy and the Art of Distraction - by Stephanne

Today was supposed to be fun.  Sort of... fulfilling.  I woke at 6 a.m. with the intent of having a good day, one full of hiking in a splendid area and being all "official intern" collecting and analyzing bear bait stations by myself.  I was ok at first; my daughter and my pup were going with me so it was a casual, fun day.  I had my maps, I had the GPS, I had the ziplock baggies to seal in the "stanky" that I was off to collect.  It was supposed to be fun.  We were on the road by 7 and the weather was perfect (with a threat of uck that held off).  However, about an hour up the road, in a little city called Rockwood... it dawned me:  

This was the last day of the bear study for me and I was going it "alone"... and that would be the end of it for me... the last official tie... complete.  

I tried to shake off the feeling of melancholy that was looming but... maybe because it has just been a really rough week, it wasn't budging.  It actually got worse as I went.  We hit the trail around 9 and huffed it up the mountain, agreeing that I'd gather the last bait station first to try and fend off the odors.  On the way up, just before getting to the top bait station, there were hog tracks - fresh - all in the trail.  I pointed out an older deer track to Jess and explained to her how to tell the difference.  An hour later the station gathered, we were already headed back down.

When we were about halfway back Jess and Bandit took off, opting to follow the creekline which was far more scenic.  I don't know why, but I didn't have the urge to follow.  I stayed on the trail, ensuring I didn't get too far ahead of them every now and again (keen ears sure help) and collected station 3.  I waited there... looking around at the lush and moss-covered surroundings with more sadness than awe... for Jess and Bandit to catch up.  We again parted ways, me going back to the trail while they stuck to the creekline.
At station 2 they were waiting on me, the creek was the more direct route this time and I *may* have been distracted by three butterflies that created their kaleidoscope around me as I walked.  I analyzed the
area and removed the bait and Jess asked if we could stop there to eat.  Sure.  Why not. Why was I in such a hurry to get off the mountain?  We ate in virtual silence as Bandit played in the water. I cleaned up our mess and told Jess to head back to the trail with me since we were only a half-mile from the trailhead.  We continued down the hill in silence. 

Before I knew it I was at the end... or the beginning I suppose?... I collected the last bait station and we crossed the creek in our shoes. We all piled into the car and headed back.  They slept on the way home and that was ok with me because I felt the urge to hide within myself... marvel at the joy that I recently felt as I gallivanted from mountain to mountain for days on end.
...the end of things... things, even while appreciative, you still find tht you didn't appreciate as much as you should have.   

After we got home the skies finally caught my mood and the clouds let slip their hold on the rain.  It was ok... rain masks so much.   

Stephanne Dennis is an outdoor enthusiast extraordinaire. A highly skilled backpacker and apex predator specialist, she shares her love of the outdoors with her unrivaled writing skills and her faithful companion, Bandit McKaye, her Anatolian Shepherd. She is currently studying Wildlife Biology at Oregon State University and dedicates her time and skills to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Foundation.