After having to work much later last night than anticipated, Justine and I finally struck out from home on Wednesday around 10am. We’re on our way to the Smokies at the beginning of January during the first cold snap of the year; once we joined I-26 near Saluda NC I start seein snow lurk in the shadows and the further we went into the mountains icicles began to show up on the road sides as thick as dogwood trunks. The temps were supposed to rise from a high of 31 up to the mid 50s and the plans was to camp for at least one to two nights at the Koa campground in Townsend and then spend the rest of the trip in a National Park campground. Unlike the National Parks campgrounds, the Koa had electric hookups so we planned on bringing a heater if it was needed and then staying in the park and toughing it out.
I’m used to getting to the Smokies from the south via Cherokee; Cades Cove however was the focal point of this trip on the north-west corner of the park. So instead, for the first time in my memory, I approached the park from the north and honestly was disgusted. Driving through Pigeon Forge and its rows of attractions, dinner shows, miniature golf courses, and outlet stores, it stood for everything I was trying to get away from on this trip. I wanted to go hike to old farmsteads and cabins, watch deer in Cades Cove, and if possible find the elk hiding somewhere near Cataloochee valley. The dichotomy of someone wanting to go see the same things I did and then go to the Hatfield and McCoys comedy dinner just don’t seem possible. But, in this matter I’ll truthfully admit, I’m very closed-minded and probably not right. This urban sprawl I find so horrible also provides jobs and economic security to thousands of people and not everyone wants to escape into the woods like I do; and for the people like me, all we have to do is drive a little farther and it all falls away.
It’s after 4pm by the time we arrive at Koa and I realize I made the right choice is choosing to stay here the first night so that at least I wouldn’t have to set up the tents in the dark. As I went to go into the campground office to pay up, I realized the door was locked and no one was around. From the top of the hill a golf cart with a gentleman in a Koa jacket ( a good sign that he was who we were looking for) came rumbling down to meet us. He looked slightly bewildered and asked if we needed some help; when I asked if we could pay for a tent site with an electric hookup his eyes bulged from his head. “Wait. You’re going to stay in a tent?”
“That’s the plan. If your tent sites don’t have electric hookups well take an RV site instead if that’s ok.”
He hemmed and hawed a little and said he needed to double-check something with his boss but said that he would give us an RV site for the price of a tent site. A silent “Score!” was said in my head and I thanked him. He went to go find his boss but said he would return shortly to finish the sign up process. Very happily I waited for him and when he returned his boss crackled over the walkie-talkie. “It’s going to go down to 17 tonight. I’m afraid if anyone stays in a tent they’re going to freeze to death; offer them a 1 room cabin for the same price as a Tent site and give them a heater too. We don’t have anybody staying there so if they want to do this for the next few days that’s fine”
So, for $30 a night, we got a cabin with a bed and electricity. We setup quickly and then took pictures of the frozen branches sitting in the water of the ice cold Pigeon River. Ravioli was for dinner and between the two of us and the freezing weather we devoured a family size can. Settling in for the night I was thankful for the cabin; we wouldn’t have died in a tent, but things were so comfortable with the cabin. Wanting to catch up on sleep we turned in around 8:30pm so we could wake up early for the sunrise
Having not gone to bed at 8:30pm since I was small enough to be carried to bed, my body wasn’t quite sure what happened on day 2. I woke up around 6:30am feeling the same as a person who awakes from a 10 year coma must feel; refreshed, but feeling as if my body atrophied and that getting off that soft sleeping pad was nearly impossible. The warm light that started to come through the window though made me realize that, while Cades Cove didn’t open until 8am, I could go and take a few shots of the ice that still clung to branches in the river. After putting on enough wool that I felt like a sheep, I went and took the shots I wanted and then returned to the cabin and began packing up for an entire day in Cades Cove.
With all of our camera gear packed into the car, 15 short minutes later we were driving through the twisting road and coming onto the valley floor. Cades Cove was the 2nd largest settlement in the Park with nearly 900 people living in or near the valley; the scenic loop around the valley stretches out for 11 miles to give you a sense of the scale. Now though, far more people visit than ever before. 6 million visitors a year tour the Smokies, and Cades Cove is one of the heaviest visited sections of the park allowing for all sorts of people to tour the valley. The only issue is though that there are so many people that the animals have become desensitized to the flow in and out through the valley and are little more than trained squirrels. Gone are the wiles of a creature cautious of predators, but whether you mourn the loss of wildness in a park set aside for just that or not, you certainly can’t argue you get some impressive looking photos very easily. As we first drove the loop, deer lined the fences just at the entrance, and on a Thursday in January, caused a veritable traffic jam of visitors leaning out their car windows taking pictures.
On our first circuit of the valley we only got out of our cars once to trek half way across a field to some deer hiding in the grass. Simply parking our car and hiking off the road made all the passers-by think we lost our minds to get so close to the deer…even though our safe distance of about 75 yards was better than the 10′ they were from deer in their cars. The light wasn’t good though, so we scouted the area for later that afternoon and took the rest of the 11 mile scenic loop, stopping to look at the old churches and other buildings that are still in the valley. We finished about 4 hours before the good afternoon light would start so we went back to the cabin for a nap and food (“these are a few of my favorite things…..”).
Around an hour before the good light set in, we were back in the valley and decided instead of following the full loop around the valley floor, to take one of the two lanes which cut across the valley to the other side of the loop. These lanes were far less traveled which would hopefully allow for us to take a picture or two of the landscape without featuring an Audi driving through it. At this point, I would like to say that a good friend of mine, who is the best photographer I’ve ever worked with, went to the valley about a month before I did and captured amazing shots of 8-point bucks leaping over fences just as naturally as if they were eating grass. Jealous, I hunted that shot all day and apparently ran into the couch potato deer who found it an effort to be moving at all. Every buck who neared a fence, with a rack of antlers that defied going through a gap in the wire, would somehow weasel and worm his way through a fence which was only 3 feet tall. The only shot of interest was one of a deer “grooming” itself in the same manner that would cause you to yell at your dog and tell him to stop. That said, the light was good and the scenery was beautiful so a few good landscapes were inevitable. When the sun finally dipped far enough over the horizon to make shooting impossible we drove back to the cabin, put some warm food in our bellies, and went to sleep looking forward to another full day.
Amish in the sense that, at one point, my family helped others raise barns.
Now I build websites to help others build their businesses.