Thursday, November 21, 2013

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.

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