Jacqulyn and I headed into Smoky Mountain National Park just before what I knew would be a busy Memorial Day weekend. One of my favorite streams. We weren’t heading very far in, but I still held out hope that we’d find some solitude. The hope was a momentary one as there were already people set up at the backcountry site as we hurried in just before dark. It was a Thursday. We had even more company from then on.
Trips like this can make you wonder why you go. I tell myself that I go for the solitude, the quiet, the adventure, to peer behind the veil we’ve draped across this world and see the true reality hidden there. Some people say backpackers are escapists, that they are trying to escape their problems, etc. Maybe that’s true, but if so, they’re not escaping from the real world; they’re escaping to it. But a backpacker on a popular trail along a popular stream in the nation’s most popular national park on summer’s first holiday weekend isn’t really escaping much. The backpacking trip becomes much like a visit to any other tourist attraction, perhaps prettier than most. One where, if you know where and how to look, you can find the dark corners where they keep the cool stuff, but a tourist attraction nonetheless. Still, this is when we had time off work, so this is when we went.
The next morning we started fishing right there at camp, and we began catching fish right away. Rainbows and browns of the expected size in fairly equal numbers. Not that many of them, but enough to keep us from that all-too-familiar suspicion that you don’t really know what you’re doing. I forgot the impending weekend crowd for awhile. I was using a new fiberglass rod I had built on a 7.5′ Lamiglas Spring Creek blank. It was strung up with a 4wt DT Thebault silk line. My first outing with silk. If it looks like I’ve fallen victim to the standard cliche about fly fishermen that it’s just as important what we catch a fish with as it is what we catch, you’d be at least partly right. I don’t know how it happened, and I can’t even tell you why, but I’m into all sorts of classic fly tackle. Fiberglass rods, bamboo, silk lines, classic reels, even satchel bags and pipes and tobacco (which, as I understand it, used to be standard issue for fly fishers). I do suspect that all this is connected in some way to why I go into the backcountry and even to why I took up fly fishing in the first place, but don’t ask me to explain it. All I know is that fiberglass rod casts sweetly with silk.
Seems to me that backpacking and fly fishing have a lot in common with the every day practice of religion. You’re looking for something. Sometimes desperately. Something that seems important, but mostly you just feel stupid and sappy when you try to explain it. You go out there expecting something akin to enlightenment, but when it comes right down to it, your feet are sore, the bugs are driving you nuts, the sun’s too hot, the water’s too cold, you’re irritated that there are too many people around, and you just blew that cast. Maybe you even lost a fly to the rhododendron. There are no angels singing, the heavens haven’t opened, there is no still small voice. But you keep trying because, during a precious few moments in your life, just those things did happen. Or maybe they just happened in your screwed up memory, or maybe you just imagine that they could happen. Either way, it’s real to you in a way that defies logic. The fact that it defies logic might even be half its appeal. And so you keep going fishing.
We kept on like that for several hundred yards when suddenly the fish just shut off. I spotted the reasons crashing their way back downstream. A couple fishermen had leapfrogged us. Didn’t really upset us. The trail doesn’t follow the stream, so when they saw us, they had little choice if they didn’t want to hike another mile and a half. We sat down, had an apple and a box of raisins and waited for them to get down to us. They hadn’t had much luck and were headed back out. As I suspected, they had seen us fishing and had skipped ahead. They said they had left some nice spots unfished. That’s better than most would do. Despite that, we decided to go back near camp rather than continue upstream through the disturbed water. We’d try to catch a couple for supper and take it easy for the rest of the afternoon. Bad decision. It was a mad house. People were setting up camp wherever they could find level ground. We tried fishing, but folks got upset when we snagged them while they were trying to swim, bathe, skip rocks, etc. Jacqulyn did manage a decent brown, but he flopped off before I could make a supper of him. Back at camp, I decided to dry out my silk line, and in doing so stumbled upon one of fly fishing’s greatest jokes. You know the deal, string your silk line in the bushes until it dries out. Let me tell you, don’t do it carelessly or you’re certain to tie yourself in so many knots that you probably won’t even find it funny in retrospect. I spent the better part of an hour untying all the knots I put in mine. Didn’t hear any angels singing during that episode. Next time this will be done more neatly and with more forethought.
The next morning we determined to escape the crowd a bit. We hiked a mile and a half further upstream, stashed our shoes under a tree root, donned our tabis, and started fishing. Things didn’t go well at first. We were too hot and the limbs too plentiful. Both Jacqulyn and I managed to hang up on various obstacles in the first few minutes, none of them being fish. Finally we found a groove, or at least Jacqulyn did. She was suddenly outfishing me, something which had never happened. The strange thing was, the fish were selective to a royal wulff. At first, something in my psyche rebelled at the notion. I tried parachute Adams, yellow palmers, soft hackled wets, Carolina and Tennessee wulffs, all the standard small stream stuff in my arsenal. Jacqulyn consistently drew more strikes from better fish. I relented, tied on a royal wulff parachute and immediately got into the fish. Explain that one to me. For your reference, we saw a few yellow stoneflies, some small caddis, a few small dark mayflies, and the air seemed constantly full of swarming gnats and midges. If you can see a size 12 royal wulff in that, you’re better than me.
Visiting this creek now feels like a visit with old friends, and this time some of the friends weren’t doing so well. Jacqulyn and I saw hundreds of dead and dying hemlocks, victims of hemlock wooly adelgid. I felt a mixture of sadness, anger, even shame at their state. Some of them huge, ancient creatures, alive seemingly from the base of time. I can’t help thinking of them as creatures. When I’m alone in the mountains, and the breezes blow, I’d swear the trees speak. To me and to each other. They’re dying because of a small insect we brought to them, amounting to biological warfare against these innocent giants. The only thing to say in our defense is, we didn’t do it on purpose. Not that that matters a whole lot.
That evening as the sun lowered and cast heavy, golden shafts of light through the few living hemlocks around our camp, we tried once again to capture the scene’s beauty in a photo. The mountainside on the far side of the stream bathed in the wonderful light, revealing all shades of green highlighted here and there with the deep pink of premature mountain laurel blooms. We failed once again. Sometimes I feel foolish for trying to freeze that kind of scene. Maybe you have to just let it go. The best photos are manipulated versions of the reality, not an exact representation, injecting beauty from the artist’s own mind. Maybe that’s the idea I’m missing.
There’s a lot of talk about how one of the values of wilderness is its unpredictability, even its danger. I’ve expressed such sentiments myself, and I still believe that. I think being out there among animals that could, if they so chose, hunt you down and eat you, has value. It makes us more alert, more alive. On our last night, I had fallen asleep to the not-too-distant sound of a barred owl hooting. It wasn’t the typical call. This one was a slow, melancholy “hoo-waaah.” I woke up later. I don’t know what the hour was. Still very dark and the owl still hooting. Jacqulyn was wide awake. “What is that?” I couldn’t help but pity her. She sounded exhausted.
“Just an owl. Nothing to worry about.”
“I’ve been awake all night. Couldn’t sleep with that noise. I wish I had known that’s what it was.”
Just then the owl went nuts, hooting like crazy. In the same moment something large ran over the tent. Now I was wide awake. Jacqulyn sat bolt upright, really frightened now. We could hear something grunting and snuffing outside. I looked out the window and saw something large just outside. I could clearly make out four legs. I yelled something too indelicate to print here, and the thing ran past the tent, bumping it again. I told Jacqulyn to hand me her knife, that I was going out to see what it was. “You are NOT going out there and leaving me in here.” This was final. So we sat there listening. After what must have been half an hour, I felt the call of nature, so did Jacqulyn. “Well, that does it. I’m going out to check.” Then the thing was back, grunting and snuffing again. I turned on my light and trained it through the mesh window, finally catching a glimpse of the beast. A big walker coon dog. Turns out he was lost and looking for a friend.
Yes, I like the wildness of nature, its unpredictability, its brutality, its danger. But on that night in the Smokies, I was scared witless, and those thoughts didn’t matter.
The last half mile of trail and the picnic area at the trailhead were a madhouse as we passed through on our way out. Families and friends enjoying the holiday weekend. Sort of a culture shock for us. In fact, we both felt noticeably out of place for the next couple days. We like the mountains better.