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.