Story and image by Don McGowan
Although you may not be familiar with it, the wet weather creek in this image is associated with the founding history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As far as I know, the stream at this point in its journey has no name, though it will eventually merge its waters into Walker Camp Prong—half of West Prong Little Pigeon River. Here it goes nameless, but here, also, is where anonymity ceases.
If you trace the water up the mountain to where it separates into its various seeps and springs, you will find that you are near the top of Mount Ambler. This mountain’s name honors the contributions of noted Asheville physician Dr. Chase Ambler toward the park’s establishment. At 6,120 feet in elevation, Mount Ambler’s peak sits just off the Appalachian Trail, northeast of Newfound Gap. Here, it can look nearly eye-to-eye with the peak of its nearest neighbor to the northeast, the 6,217-foot presence of Mount Kephart. This mountain is named, of course, in honor of all the considerable work that Horace Kephart did in furtherance of his beloved “Back of Beyond,” achieving the status of the second national park east of the Mississippi.
Now, let’s go a step further. Just northeast of Mount Kephart, sitting at 5,680 feet and close to Charlies Bunion, is the prominence of Masa Knob, honoring Kephart’s dear friend, the photographer referred to as the Ansel Adams of the East, Masahara Izuka, but known to most as George Masa. If Kephart was the literary champion of the Smokies creation movement, then Masa was clearly its artistic champion, certainly on the North Carolina side of the mountains.
So far, we have three mountains whose names honor three illuminati of the formation of the Smokies as a national park. But in addition to being located near each other on the map, there’s something more that brings the trio together. Chase Ambler’s daughter, Barbara Ambler (Thorn), herself an avid supporter of establishing the park, was a dear friend to and frequent hiking companion of George Masa. Her tireless advocacy against the building of roads in the park and in favor of hiking through it closely paralleled Masa’s tireless, almost superhuman visual efforts with his camera.
And the small, nameless stream, flowing west into Tennessee off Chase Ambler’s namesake, knows the whole story and will happily share it with anyone who will listen.
Don McGowan owns and operates EarthSong Photography. For five years he was the staff photographer for Friends of the Smokies. He offers workshops and photography instruction in beautiful locations around the country, including the Smokies.