Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Eye of the Needle

In response to my friends' comments, I'll confess I'm woefully ignorant of that vast swath of the Park from Newfound Gap to the Sugarlands. I've never been to LeConte or the Chimneys, though I have walked to Charlie's Bunion a couple of times. It's a surreal place with those razor-edged ridges all around.

Eye of the Needle, Little Duck Hawk Ridge, seen from Alum Cave Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN, 8/11/2009.

After looking at the maps again, here's a full day hike that I would like to take. This itinerary would require a shuttle with a drop at Newfound Gap and pickup at Alum Cave Trailhead.

From Newfound Gap, hike east (north) on AT to Charlies Bunion. From there, backtrack to Boulevard Trail which goes to Mt. LeConte, and then take Alum Cave Trail for the descent.

Total distance is about 16 miles, but a very do-able full day hike. I'm up for it. Any takers?

Charles Lanman is always one of my favorite WNC travel writers. From Charles Lanman's account of his visit to Alum Cave in the 1830s:

On my arrival in this place, which is the home of a large number of Cherokee Indians (of whom I shall have much to say in future letters), I became the guest of Mr. William H. Thomas, who is the " guide, counsellor, and friend," of the Indians, as well as their business agent. While conversing with this gentleman, he excited my curiosity with regard to a certain mountain in his vicinity, and, having settled it in his own mind that I should spend a week or two with him and his Indians, proposed (first excusing himself on account of a business engagement) that I chould visit the mountain in company with a gentleman in his employ as surveyor. The proposed arrangement was carried out, and thus was it that I visited Smoky Mountain.

This mountain is the loftiest of a large brotherhood which lie crowded together upon the dividing line between North Carolina and Tennessee. Its height cannot be less than five thousand feet above the level of the sea, for the road leading from its base to its summit is seven and a half miles long. The general character of the mountain is similar to that already given of other southern mountains, and all that I can say of its panorama is, that I can conceive nothing more grand and imposing. It gives birth to a couple of glorious streams, the Pigeon river of Tennessee, and the Ocono lufty of North Carolina, and derives its name from the circumstance that its summit is always enveloped in a blue or smoky atmosphere.

But the chief attraction of Smoky Mountain is a singular cliff known throughout this region as the Alum Cave. In reaching this spot, which is on the Tennessee side, you have to leave your horses on the top of the mountain, and perform a pedestrian pilgrimage of about six miles up and down, very far up and ever so far down, and over every thing in the way of rocks and ruined vegetation which Nature could possibly devise, until you come to a mountain side, which is only two miles from your starting place at the peak. Roaring along, at the base of the mountain alluded to, is a small stream, from the margin of which you have to climb a precipice, in a zigzag way, which is at least two thousand feet high, when you find yourself on a level spot of pulverized stone, with a rocky roof extending over your head a distance of fifty or sixty feet. The length of this hollow in the mountain, or " cave," as it is called, is near four hundred feet, and from the brow of the butting precipice to the level below, the distance is perhaps one hundred and fifty feet. The top of the cliff is covered with a variety of rare and curious plants, and directly over its centre trickles a little stream of water, which forms a tiny pool, like a fountain in front of a spacious piazza. The principal ingredients of the rock composing this whitish cliff are akim, epsom-salts, saltpetre, magnesia, and copperas, and the water which oozes therefrom is distinguished for its strong medicinal qualities. This strange and almost inaccessible, but unquestionably very valuable cave, belongs to a company of neighbouring Carolinians, who have already made some money out of the alum, but have not yet accomplished much in the way of purifying and exporting the various products in which it abounds.

The scenery commanded from this cave interested me quite as much as the cave itself. From the most comprehensive point of view two mountains descend abruptly into a kind of amphitheatre, where the one on the right terminates in a very narrow and ragged ridge, which is without a particle of vegetation, while far beyond, directly in front of the cave, rises a lofty and pointed mountain, backed by three or four others of inferior magnitude. The ridge which I have mentioned is itself very high, but yet the cave looks down upon it, and it is so fantastic in its appearance that from different points of view you may discover holes leading like windows entirely through it, while from other places you might fancy that you looked upon a ruined castle, a decayed battlement, or the shattered tower of an old cathedral. To gaze upon this prospect at the sunset hour, when the mountains were tinged with a rosy hue, and the immense hollow before me was filled with a purple atmosphere, and I could see the rocky ledge basking in the sunlight like a huge monster on the placid bosom of a lake, was to me one of the most remarkable and impressive scenes that I ever witnessed; and then remember, too, that I looked upon this wonderful prospect from a frame-work of solid rock, composed of the stooping cliff. It was a glorious picture, indeed, aud would have amply repaid one for a pilgrimage from the remotest corner of the earth.

The ordinary time required to visit the Alum Cave is two days; but, owing to bad weather, my friend and myself occupied the greater part of four days in performing the same trip. To give a minute account of all that we met with would occupy too much time, and I will therefore only record in this place the incidents which made the deepest impression on my own mind.

On the following morning we travelled to the foot of Smoky Mountain, and having obtained a guide, who happened to be one of the proprietors of Alum Cave, we resumed our journey. In the immediate vicinity of the cave we came across an Indian camp, where were two Indians who were out bear-hunting. We were admitted under their bark roof, and spent the night with them, sleeping upon the ground. We remained a sufficient length of time to enjoy one supper and one breakfast; the first was composed of corn bread and bear meat, and the second of trout (caught in a neighbouring stream) and a corn cake fried in the fat of a bear.

On questioning our Indian landlords, as we sat around our watch-fire, with regard to the Alum Cave, I could only gather the fact that it was originally discovered by the famous chief Yo-na-gus-ka, who happened in his youth to track a bear to one of its corners, where he had a den. Disappointed on this score, I then turned to our guide to see what he could tell me about the cave that was not connected with its minerals, and the substance of his narrative was as follows:— " I hav'n't much to say about the cave that I knows of, excepting one or two little circumstances about myself and another man. The first time I come here it was with my brother and two Indians. The sight of this strange gash in the mountain and the beautiful scenery all around made me very excited, and I was for climbing on top, and no mistake. The Indians and my brother started with me up the ledge at the north end of the cave, but when we got up about half way, just opposite to an eagle's nest, where the creatures were screaming at a fearful rate, they all three of 'em backed down, and said I must not keep on. I told 'em I was determined to see the top, and I would. I did get on top, and, after looking round awhile and laughing at the fellows below, I began to think of going down again. And then it was that I felt a good deal skeered. I found I couldn't get down the way I got up, so I turned about for a new place. It was now near sundown, and I hadn't yet found a place that suited me, and I was afraid I'd have to sleep out alone and without any fire. And the only way I ever got down was to find a pine tree that stood pretty close to a low part of the ledge, some three hundred yards from the cave, when I got into its top, and so came down among my friends, who said it was a wonder I hadn't been killed. . "

I generally have had to pilot all strangers to the cave since that time, and I remember one circumstance that happened to a Tennessee lawyer, who caused us a good deal of fun; for there a party of young gentlemen there at the time. "We had a camp "right under the cave, where it's always dry, and about midnight the lawyer I mentioned suddenly jumped up as we were all asleep, and began to yell in the most awful manner, as if something dreadful had happened. He jumped about as if in the greatest agony, and called on God to have mercy on him, for he knew he would die. O, he did carry on at a most awful rate, and we thought he must have been bitten by some snake or was crazy, so we -tore off his clothes to see what was the matter; and what do you suppose we found? Nothing but a harmless little lizard, that had run up the poor man's legs, all the way up to his arm-pits, thinking, I suppose, that his clothes was the bark of a dead tree. After the trouble was all over,'the way we laughed at the fellow was curious."

Our second day at the Alum Cave (and third one from home) was a remarkably cheerless one; for a regular snow-storm set in, mingled with hail, and, before we could reach our horses and descend the Smoky Mountain, some three or four inches of snow had fallen. We spent that night under the roof of our good friend and worthy man, the guide, and it was with difficulty that we could induce him to receive a quarter eagle for all his trouble in piloting us and treating us to his best fare. On that night we ate our supper at nine o'clock, and what rendered it somewhat peculiar was the fact that his two eldest daughters, and very pretty girls they were, waited upon us at table, holding above our heads a couple of torches made of the fat pine. That was the first time that I was ever waited upon in so regal a style, and more than once during the feast did I long to retire in a corner of the smoky and dingy cabin to take a sketch of the romantic scene. At sunrise on the following morning my companion and myself remounted our horses, and in three hours were eating our breakfast in Qualla Town.


kanugalihi said...

fantastic. tell me more about this, i had never heard of it.

Anonymous said...

Never been on this trail. This will be remedied.

Many Thanks for this.


Western North Carolina Writer's Underground said...

Nice shots of Duckhawk ridge from Inspiration Point. Graphic account of a hike by the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club on Duckhawk ridge here:

GULAHIYI said...

Nice reference there from SMHC, that's a very interesting account of climbing along the ridge, back when it was allowed. What a place!

Anonymous said...

from Florida

If you have not seen it, look
at the piece in Sept. issue of
Backpacker magazine on the Park.
One part about Alum should be of
interest. You should think about