Author: Steve Kemp

  1. The Strange Case of Cades Lake

    Cades Map

    Depending on who you were and what you stood for, the idea of turning most of Cades Cove into a 50-foot-deep lake—three miles long and two miles wide—was either brilliant or terrible.

    Pro-lake constituents included National Park Service Director Arno B. Cammerer (immortalized by the naming of Mt. Cammerer), Tennessee Governor Gordon Browning, the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association, park booster Col. David Chapman, and Knoxville City Manager George Dempster.

    Those opposed included acting and former NPS Directors Stephen Mather and Horace Albright, Robert Sterling Yard of the National Parks Association, and stalwart conservationists Harvey Broome Benton MacKaye.

  2. Studies Offer Insights into Behaviors of Park Bears

    Bear searching trash for food

    By Steve Kemp

    Four research projects focused on bears in the Great Smoky Mountains are currently underway or have recently been completed. Of the four, the results of two are troubling, one is encouraging, and on the last, it’s too early to tell.

  3. Linnaea borealis, found—then lost

    Linnaea borealis

    The year 1934 – when Great Smoky Mountains National Park was officially established – was a dark year for Tennessee botanists. The gloom was due not to the creation of the park, which provided a permanent home for thousands of species of wild plants, but to the fire at the University of Tennessee that destroyed one of the state’s best herbariums. The UT collection, housed at Morrill Hall, contained more than 30,000 specimens, including many unusual plants collected in the Great Smoky Mountains.

    Yet this dark cloud had one silver lining. Dr. A.J. Sharp, a world-renowned botanist and UT professor (as well as former GSMA Board Member Emeritus), rallied his botanist troops and called for the creation of a new, improved UT herbarium. Botanists all across the country responded by collecting new specimens and donating plants from existing collections. One of the latter specimens was a plant collected by Albert Ruth on August 13, 1892, and labelled, somewhat vaguely, Mitchellarepens[partridgeberry] collected in “Sevier County—in mountain woods.”

    When Dr. Sharp looked at this particular specimen, his jaw dropped. Not because partridgeberry is uncommon (it is extremely common along sunny trail sides), but because the plant had obviously been mislabeled. Sharp was looking at Linnaeaborealis(twinflower), one of the most delicate and beautiful flowers of the far north woods.

  4. Just How Big will the Big Day Be?

    Total Eclipse USA 2017

    Nothing quite like it has ever happened, at least not in these modern times of mass and social media. Other than China’s annual Lunar New Year celebration, there is almost nothing to compare it to. Sociologists, planners, and astrophysicists alike are scratching their heads and speculating on just how many people will jump in their vehicles and head down the road to witness the “Great American” total solar eclipse on the afternoon of August 21, 2017.

    Some are even predicting the largest mass human migration in history.

    Many are pointing out that 200 million people live within a day’s drive of the eclipse’s 68-mile-wide “path of totality,” while only 12 million Americans live within the path. Not to mention all of those who will travel from other countries for this very special event. Eclipse blogger and GIS guru Michael Zeiler says, “Imagine 20 Woodstock festivals occurring simultaneously across our nation.”

    A little better than half of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is within the eclipse path, and August is already a busy month here with some 40,000 visitors per day. What if that number doubles, or quadruples?

    Of course, the onslaught of humanity won’t be confined to the park’s roads and trails. The greatest impact will be on major roadways leading from the north and south (Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburg, Lexington, Knoxville, Atlanta, Birmingham) to the eclipse path. Conservative estimates predict some 1 million people will head to Tennessee for the big day.

  5. The Mysteries of Gregory Bald

    Gregory Bald azaleas

    “In this Park, we shall conserve these trees, the pine, the red-bud, the dogwood, the azalea…for the happiness of the American people.” - President Franklin D. Roosevelt, from his speech dedicating Great Smoky Mountains National Park

    Anyone who has ever accomplished the arduous feat of hiking to the top of Gregory Bald in early summer knows that the myriad azalea shrubs there, when in bloom, present an “Eighth Wonder of the World” type of experience. The abundance of gorgeous flowers, their crazy variations in colour, and the mountain top setting all combine to create a sense of wild awe.

  6. What Causes a Solar Eclipse, Coincidence or Amphibian?

    Solar Eclipse USA 2017

    As we all know, there is a very special celestial event coming to our area on August 21—a total eclipse of the sun. While this date is a certainty, what causes a solar eclipse has been debated for thousands of years.

    Current science says that the eclipse can only happen because of an extraordinary coincidence; the size of the sun and moon are almost exactly the same from our earthly perspective. Of course the sun, in reality, is much larger than the moon—400 times to be precise. Coincidentally, the moon is 400 times closer to the earth than the sun, so the sphere of the moon, when aligned, perfectly blocks the sphere of the sun, allowing us to view* the beautiful corona (or aura) of the sun. What are the odds?

  7. Presidents' Day is Monday, February 20

    Main Street of Sylva, North Carolina

    It was a warm day in early September, just two years after GSMNP was officially established (not officially dedicated), and Newfound Gap Road was closed.

    Oh, you could get as far as Conner’s Store, across the road from the soon-to-be Smokemont Campground, before the N.C. Highway Patrol and park fireguards diverted you, but that was about it. Unless you were a governor, congressman, federal judge, high sheriff of Swain or Sevier counties, accredited member of the press, an official of either the North Carolina or Tennessee conservation association, a park official, or president of the United States, you were flat out of luck.

  8. How "Turkey George" Palmer got his nickname

    Anyone who has spent time in Cataloochee Valley knows that the Palmer family was very influential there. Palmer Creek, Palmer Branch, Palmer Chapel, and the Palmer house all bear the name of the family that migrated to this fertile and beautiful place in the 1830s. Robert “Boogerman” Palmer was another noteworthy descendant who helped preserve the area’s old-growth forest and whose nickname lives on in the valley’s lore.

    “Turkey George” Palmer actually had many claims to fame; first and foremost he was an accomplished bear hunter. A compact and muscular man, he always wore overalls when at work and a double-breasted suit jacket when he went to town. “Turkey George” generally hunted without dogs but still managed to kill 105 bears in his lifetime.

    As “Turkey George” grew older, his prowess as a hunter apparently caused him some anxieties. He became terrorized by the thought that, once in the grave, vengeful bears and some of the other animals he had pursued in life, would dig up his remains and desecrate them. Consequently, as his death approached at age 87, “Turkey George” insisted he be buried in a steel coffin. According to George’s daughter Flora, such a coffin was procured for her father in Waynesville.

    “Turkey George’s” homesite is located along Pretty Hollow Gap Trail, a little over a mile from the Beech Grove School in Cataloochee Valley. It was near this spot that, as a boy, George set up an elaborate and effective wild turkey trap. It consisted of a wooden pen with a hole dug beneath one wall for access. George sprinkled a trail of corn as bait from the field into the pen.

  9. The Masque of the White Death

    White Death - Milk Sickness

    Imagine you are living in the Great Smoky Mountains in the 1830s and people in your family and in the community that surrounds you are getting sick and dying. It is the early fall of a dry year. Children and adults are complaining of loss of appetite, weakness, vomiting. Your uncle is in a coma. The haggard doctor in the next community cannot identify a cause. And there are no cures. Some farms are quarantined. A black flag or other sign on the fence out front warns neighbours and travellers that the sickness has reached the unfortunate family within.

    Your neighbour’s horse, which suffered from “the trembles,” slowly dies. Families talk of moving back east where they were never afflicted by such a plague. You have relatives in Kentucky who send word that half the people in their town have succumbed.

    But then, in November, people quit getting ill. You learn that many families have lost most of their calves and are worried about possible starvation in the winter ahead. But the terrible affliction has apparently run its course.

    Because of its cryptic nature, milk sickness remained a mystery in the eastern United States for many years. It is caused by a late-summer wildflower that is common in the Great Smokies, white snakeroot. People and livestock tend to avoid the plant, but during drought years, when forage is thin, cattle, horses, sheep, and other livestock will graze it. Many of the livestock get sick and die, but some show no symptoms. Tremetol, the toxin that is passed from the plant to livestock to humans, was not scientifically identified until the early 20th century. Nancy Hanks Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s mother, is said to have died from milk sickness.

  10. Why are the American Mountain-ash Berries So Spectacular this year?

    American Mountain-ash Berries

    Anyone who has been in the vicinity of Clingmans Dome recently can tell you that the bright red American mountain-ash berries are out of this world right now. There are so many clumps of berries that the trees’ branches can barely support them.

    Such an abundance of berries is a great opportunity for photographers, as well as an important food source for bear, ruffed grouse, squirrels, deer, cedar waxwing, and other types of native wildlife.


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