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Rediscovering Wilderness in the American Southeast

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Bald River Falls, Tennessee
A family from Illinois was posing for photos at Bald River Falls when our small group stopped our cars.  No wonder it’s one of the most photographed backdrops in Tennessee, with visitors from around the country.  Spectacular whitewater cascades then slows as it converges to the north with the Tellico River, near the town of Tellico Plains.
Our guides with the organization Tennessee Wild led us on a drive up Sugar Mountain to discover less frequented falls on the upper section of the Bald River.  We hiked just a couple of miles on foot on what’s called the Brookshire Creek Trail, crossing the Bald River twice, to discover some of the last remaining wilderness in the Southeast.
Tennessee Wilderness Campaign
Director Jeff Hunter
at Bald River Falls
The shallow streams ran clear and cool, while the trails, believed to be old rail beds, were simple paths slicing through a profusion of ferns and wild herbs.  Our guides spotted tracks of wild turkey in the mud, found tiny salamander nymphs in the stream, and noted spots along the river frequented by beaver.  “This part of the Cherokee National Forest, the Upper Bald River drainage, is arguably one of the most biologically rich temperate forests on the planet,” described Jeff Hunter, Director of the Tennessee Wilderness Campaign for Wild South.  “The salamanders, the flora, the mammals, this is an amazing area.  It was logged 80 years ago or so, but it’s come back really nicely, it’s a mature stand of forest, it keeps the water clean, great trails.”  
Blogger Jenni Veal gets a lesson using
trekking poles from Tennessee Wild volunteer
Caara Fritz, while Emily Winsauer looks on.
Driving up Sugar Mountain

Hunter is tasked with convincing the rest of us that this area is worth preserving.  Tennessee Wild aims to get nearly 20,000 acres of Tennessee’s forests designated as wilderness areas.  While areas like this Bald River Gorge portion of Cherokee National Forest in East Tennessee are currently managed in their natural state by the US Forest Service, only a wilderness designation would ensure long-term prevention of activities such as logging, mining or ATV use.  

Our hike was not unlike the numerous hikes my family has taken in nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  The biggest differences here were that we saw no other humans along the way, and that the trails were not developed with bridges over streams or even mulch on the paths.  Being the only one of our group without the proper stream-crossing footwear, I opted to wade barefoot, just like I used to back home in the Ozarks.
Tennessee Wilderness Campaign Director Jeff Hunter
Upper Bald River Basin
Our picnic spot was next to another, unnamed falls on the Bald River that the drive-by tourists miss.  Then we reached the convergence of Brookshire Creek with the Bald River near the historic Benton MacKaye Trail named for the founder of the Appalachian Trail.  Blooming mountain laurel and budding rhododendron were plentiful.
Forked Sassafras Tree
Blooming Mountain Laurel
Hunter can name nearly every one of the wildflowers, medicinal herbs and trees along the trail.  He even pointed out a particularly lovely forked sassafras tree that’s been growing for decades.  It was easy to see that nature’s beauty shows itself as a profusion of biological diversity in the Southeast.  Hunter said, “Not a lot of places in the United States or even in East Tennessee for that matter that are undeveloped and in their primitive state. I’d like to think of this as  a slice of original Americana.”  

Tomorrow at  how protecting wilderness affects us downstream and what you can do about it.

One Response to Rediscovering Wilderness in the American Southeast

  1. Jeff Hunter June 4, 2013 at 12:32 pm #

    Thanks for the great write up! Can’t wait to see tomorrow’s entry.

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