Smoky Mountain Mysteries

  1. Linnaea borealis, found—then lost

    Linnaea borealis, found—then lost

    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 labeled, 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.

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  2. The Strange Case of Cades Lake

    The Strange Case of Cades Lake

    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.

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  3. Grave Words

    What will your last immortal words to the world be, those ‘carved in stone’ on the monument that marks your grave? For inspiration, here are some famous examples:

    Merv Griffith: “I will not be right back after this message.”

    Robert Frost: “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”

    Winston Churchill: “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”

    Irish comedian Spike Milligan: “I told you I was ill.”

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  4. “When the Gales of November Came Slashin’*”

    The hurricane-force mountain wave winds that annually torment residents living in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains and which contributed greatly to the deadly wildfires in late November 2016 are probably as old as the mountains themselves. Yet much about these winds remains a mystery.

    One reason for the mystery is the scarcity of professional-grade wind measuring equipment (anemometers) in the isolated areas where the wave winds occur. Many official weather-monitoring stations are located at airports because the terrain is flat and unobstructed by trees or man-made structures. The foothills of the Smokies are the opposite of that. The equipment and its power source also must be capable of enduring extremely high winds.

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  5. The Smokies' Most Dangerous Places?

    The Smokies' Most Dangerous Places?

    One of the revelations found in the new book by Great Smoky Mountains Association and David Brill, Into the Mist: Tales of Death and Disaster, Mishaps and Misdeeds, Misfortune and Mayhem in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is that some places in the Smokies are much more dangerous than others.

    Not surprisingly, roads are the most dangerous places in the national park. But other sites, such as Abrams Creek and Abrams Falls, renowned for their peaceful, sublime scenery, have also tallied a shockingly high body count.

    Drowning is the leading cause of death at Abrams and is the #3 killer park-wide. In 1997 alone, Abrams Creek claimed three lives—two swimmers and one fisherman. The years 2004, 2006, 2009, 2016, and 2017 were also deadly along this seemingly benign mountain stream.

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  6. Just How Big will the Big Day Be?

    Just How Big will the Big Day Be?

    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.

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  7. The Mysteries of Gregory Bald

    The Mysteries of Gregory Bald

    “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 color, and the mountain top setting all combine to create a sense of wild awe.

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  8. How Does the Park Service Forecast When the Fireflies Will Flash?

    Ever since Elkmont's synchronous fireflies became an internationally celebrated event with many tens of thousands of would-be attendees vying for some 4,000 available slots, the question of when the fireflies will flash has become a critical one.

    Several years ago -- before the current firefly prediction system was initiated -- an unusually warm spring provoked the famed fireflies into an exceptionally early performance, meaning that by the time the lucky winners of the event’s www.recreation.gov lottery arrived for the show, the bioluminescent beetles had courted and bred and put away their flashers for the year.

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

    What Causes a Solar Eclipse, Coincidence or Amphibian?

    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?

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  10. Presidents' Day is Monday, February 20

    Presidents' Day is Monday, February 20

    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.

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