Trailside Talk: Reports from the Rangers

Trailside Talk: Reports from the Rangers

Mike Hembree

Ranger giving information at Kiosk.
Ranger giving information at kiosk. Photo courtesy of GSMNP archives.

By Mike Hembree

How much has Great Smoky Mountains National Park changed over the past half-century?

A lot. And not much at all.

The trees are bigger. The streams are wider and deeper. River rocks grow a tiny bit smoother with each passing storm. Parts of the forest succumb to disease and disaster. Elk bugle again.

But these are forever: traffic, traffic, and more traffic. Congestion on Alum Cave Trail. Bear jams on the Cades Cove loop road. The wonders of the seasonal changes of autumn and the starkness of the high Smokies in winter. Congestion at the Laurel Falls trailhead. Spring wildflowers return, year after year.

Ranger Larry Hanneman, 1966
Ranger Larry Hanneman, 1966. Photo courtesy of GSMNP archives.

And rangers. Always there are rangers. Their jobs have become more complex, more demanding, and perhaps more dangerous in some ways over the years, but ranger reports filed with headquarters from the mid-1960s show some familiar language.

From the summers of 1965 and 1966: “Travel was moderate to heavy. Campgrounds were filled almost every night after June 6. Weekend traffic on US 441 was often bumper to bumper, complicated by an unusual number of bear jams.”

There was this about a danger few appreciate: “Lightning struck a tree near a 17-horse party on trail near McCarter Stables on the 27th, knocking down four horses with riders. Fortunately, no injuries resulted to either the riders or the horses.”

“Personal injuries” were noted: cut feet while wading or swimming in Little River, a dislocated shoulder, a sprained knee, a badly bruised knee, two falls while climbing rocks, two persons scratched by bears, a broken leg in a bicycle fall, one person bitten by a copperhead on Junglebrook Nature Trail, a Missouri woman bitten on the arm by a bear while feeding it (she was issued a written warning for bear feeding).

Ranger Mark Hannah at Walnut Bottoms, circa 1942
Ranger Mark Hannah at Walnut Bottoms, circa 1942. Photo courtesy of GSMNP archives.

The long arm of the Smokies law reached out in other ways in the middle years of the ’60s: eight speeding cases, two bear feeding cases, one strange case of “passing in tunnel,” 14 cases of fishing violations. Several offending individuals were barred from the park for two or more years. A series of thefts from vehicles resulted in a four-day stakeout by rangers at the Alum Cave parking area. That effort produced “negative results."

“Homecoming” gatherings were reported: 350 people at Smokemont, 400 at Cataloochee, 60 with the Wilson family at Cosby, 80 with the Hilton family at Cades Cove.

Wildlife observations were noted: “Four large bucks” near Goldmine Branch, a large owl and its “small offspring” hunting at night near Cosby, bears along several highways. Always, bears.

And complaints? With millions of visitors in your “house,” there always will be complaints: “A member of the Appalachian Club made a complaint to his Congressman alleging that rangers were failing to keep visitors out of their private swimming hold [sic]. Members of the club have not registered their complaints directly with rangers stationed in the area, who continue to make periodic inspection of the swimming hole. If club members will not inform them at the time a violation is occurring, there is little we can do to solve the problem.”

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Mike Hembree is a veteran journalist and the author of 14 books. He has visited 26 national parks and hopes to add many more to that list.

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