To the Editor:
Readers may well be approaching exhaustion with this ongoing exchange regarding circumstances surrounding Horace Kephart’s arrival at Hazel Creek, but since his death the Kephart saga has been misrepresented to a degree rivaling the pervasive stereotyping and inaccuracies found in Our Southern Highlanders (OSH). We feel it important to delineate some factual verities.
The second volume of an anthology of nature writing from Western North Carolina and the Great Smokies that I edited will be published in a couple of weeks by The History Press in Charleston, S.C. The first volume (1674-1900) offers selections from 21 authors, including Bartram, Michaux, Elisha Mitchell, William Brewster, Arnold Guyot, and Christian Reid. The second volume (1900-2009) offers selections from another 21 authors, including James Mooney, Horace Kephart, Margaret Morley, Arthur Stupka, Roger Tory Peterson, Edwin Way Teale, D.C. Peattie, Edward Abbey, Harry Middleton, William A. (Bill) Hart, Scott Weidensaul, Bob Zahner, Doug Elliott, John Lane, and Thomas Crowe.
Each selection is prefaced by a biographical note. I necessarily wrote the notes for deceased authors. But I enlisted input in that regard from the living authors. They discovered that writing a self-portrait is rather more difficult than might be supposed. But in several instances, these mini-bios were exceptionally well-crafted and informative.
One such was composed by Jim Casada, the nationally known outdoor writer from Bryson City, as a head note for four excerpts from his Fly Fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: An Insider’s Guide to a Pursuit of Passion (2009). Those who know Casada’s work or encounter it in the future will, I suspect, enjoy this self-portrait as well as one of the excerpts (“Flies”) included in anthology:
I am a son of the Smokies, born and raised in Bryson City, N.C., and the region remains the home of my heart and the primary inspiration for my literary endeavors. From my earliest memories connection to the natural world was an integral part of my being. My father was a keen outdoorsman whose boyhood was spent high up on Juneywhank Branch, now in the national park, and his father was a flowing fount of down-to-earth wisdom concerning nature’s ways. Both were wonderful mentors who oversaw an idyllic boyhood spiced by hunting, fishing, subsistence farming, and constant awareness of the cycle of the seasons.
They lovingly laid the foundations of knowledge and linkage to the land which run as a bright thread through the fabric of my literary endeavors, but it took the inspiration of a mother who instilled a lasting love for reading, along with a trio of teachers, to plant the seed which eventually sprouted into life as a writer. Two of these individuals, Thad DeHart and John Wikle, taught at Swain County High School, while the third, Inez Morton, was an English professor at King College. All offered encouragement and guidance, but my academic pursuits took me along a different path with a B.A. in history at King and the M.A. and Ph. D. degrees in the same field at Virginia Tech and Vanderbilt, followed by 25 years as a history professor at Winthrop University.
Long before I took early retirement to write full time, however, my focus had switched from academic works (I wrote four scholarly books) to the outdoors. Realization gradually dawned that a life devoted to writing on fishing, hunting, natural history and cooking nature’s wild bounty was what held my heart, and the day I became a fulltime writer and “recovering” professor was a glorious one indeed. For the last 15 years writing has been my life. Over that period I have written more than a dozen books and edited or otherwise contributed to many more, served as series editor for the University of Tennessee Press Outdoor Tennessee Series and the Firearms Classics Series from Palladium Press, produced weekly newspaper columns, and averaged upwards of a hundred feature articles a year for regional and national magazines.
Much of my focus has been on the Smokies, and the book from which these selections are taken, Fly Fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: An Insider’s Guide to a Pursuit of Passion, is one I consider my book of a lifetime. It combines my love of fly fishing with detailed looks at natural history, human history and mountain folkways.
Fetching frauds crafted from fur and feather, thread and clue, flies are designed to catch trout, and those who tie them deserve recognition as creative souls of the first rank.
As I have already suggested, mine was an incredibly rich boyhood. I was blessed by growing up in a world well populated with devoted anglers and surrounded by the deep-rooted traditions of mountain fly fishing. Some of the fly-fishing heroes of my marvelously misspent youth served as informal mentors, and tales associated with the sport’s regional history were almost daily fare.
Today ours seems a world obsessed with a fast-paced lifestyle that too often leaves little time for tradition, storytelling and respect for the past. Yet those of us who cherish the feel of the long rod or savor the music of whistling line and singing reel should pay careful heed to the lure and lore of fly-fishing history in the Smokies … The sport is one productive of endearing individuals and enduring traditions…
Bryson City’s Frank Young is a splendid example. Young returned home from service in the Korean War with a deep-rooted determination to sample and savor the streams of his highland homeland as fully as possible. For decades he did just this, fishing an average of 250 days a year. Young became an accomplished fly-tier, with one of his more notable achievements in this regard involving the substitution of the fur from ‘possum bellies for calf’s tail in tying hair-wing patterns such as the Royal Wulff. As Young laughingly said, “It doesn’t cost anything to get ‘possum fur, and anyone who can’t find it just doesn’t understand road kills.”
A religious, contemplative man, Young appreciated the world of the trout with something approaching reverence. Over the years, anytime he caught a trophy trout or enjoyed a meaningful experience, he picked up a stone from the stream and put it in his creel. Upon returning home he placed these stones in a frame. When it was full, the addition of some concrete made it one more building block for walls that would eventually line his home. “It’s mighty comforting,” he reflected, “to be by surrounded memories.”
It is also comforting to know that the legacy of individuals like Young, and countless others, has found contemporary adherents. This linkage across generations is a meaningful one, a poignant reminder of the legacy of pioneering mountain fly fishermen. While the paraphernalia of the sport has changed immensely, the lure of clean waters, wild fish and solitude are timeless. So are the characteristics of hardy highland folks — thrift, independence, practicality, ingenuity and an innovative approach to making do with whatever happens to be available — as they apply to fishing in waters coursing through the deep hollows and steep coves of the Appalachians.
I recently wrote in the Swain County newspaper about a singularly misguided proposal by Great Smoky Mountains National Park leadership to transfer their archives and artifacts to Townsend, Tenn. A Swain County site makes more sense, and full marks to county commissioners for becoming actively involved in this issue.
Beyond that, any resident in Swain County who gives a fig for the future or cares about our rich role in the Park’s past should speak out as well. The comment period remains open, and I’d strongly encourage readers to make their feelings known to the Park (www.nps.gov/grsm) and Swain native Rep. Heath Shuler (www.shuler.house.gov).
Incidentally, although I have asked specific questions and offered comments on the issue to Park officials, the only response I have had came in a testy conversation with a spokesman, Bob Miller. When I pointed out, repeatedly, inconsistencies between the comments period cited in his press release and what appeared on the Park’s web site (the latter was changed multiple times, with one comment period closing almost as soon as it opened), he said: “We’ll change it on the web site.”
What I could not get him to understand was that saying one thing in a printed press release and subsequently changing the rules of the game was confusing, and in my view disingenuous.
As if that situation wasn’t vexatious enough, close on the heels of the archives/artifacts proposal comes another which is, if anything, more convoluted and ill-conceived. A recent press release proposes changes in regulations governing backcountry camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Park leadership tells us that backcountry “site capacities are frequently exceeded.” In addition, according to their statement, “once backpackers obtain their reservations and arrive at their campsite, they often find the area filled by people without permits.” In the same release they also complain of lack of staff to patrol the backcountry.
Staff issues are matters for Park management, but they are missing in action in the backcountry. Personally I haven’t seen a ranger in the backcountry for decades, and I’ve only been checked while fishing once in the last quarter century.
The release raises questions. “How, other than hearsay, do officials know capacities are exceeded?” “If there are significant problems, why aren’t they addressing the situation with patrols?” “Does hard statistical evidence support changes?” “If problems exist to such a significant degree, hasn’t the Park been guilty of neglect?”
No doubt Park answers will plead budgetary constraints and more urgent frontcountry needs. There is validity to both, notwithstanding troubling examples of Park employee “do nothingness” alongside stellar work by others.
Or to view matters another way, if plans involve demands on Park staff, let’s handle matters proportionally. Look at the ceaseless “circlers” in Cades Cove, asphalt-bound flocks of buzzards filling the air with exhaust fumes.
Closer to home, what about the unending tube brigade parading up Deep Creek? They degrade banks between trail and stream; leave a noxious, never-ending legacy of litter in their wake; and channel the creek with habitat harming “engineering” projects.
Yet it seems such folks, like those breaking dog walking regulations, picking flowers, and much more, are studiously ignored while Park officials focus their fiscal laser beam on the tiny minority — probably less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all Park visitors — who camp in the backcountry. If they are serious about making folks pay as they go or want a fair distribution of what a friend has nicely styled “ranger impact,” let’s bring some balance to the user equation.
Perhaps more to the point, it seems logical to believe that active backcountry patrolling, along with meaningful fines for angling violations, ginseng poaching, illegal camping, and the like, would accomplish two things. It would provide money to justify the manhours involved and would dramatically curtail such activities.
Interestingly, another recent Park press release says that there has been a steady decline in Park visitation over the past several years. Logically, if that is the case, backcountry usage should also be down. The most recent statistics I could find, from a detailed 2008 study out of the University of Tennessee, bear that out and make Park statements seem ludicrous. According to the study, with the notable exception of the shelters along the Appalachian Trail, campsite usage is anything but heavy.
Take Deep Creek as one example. None of the seven streamside campsites had heavy usage. Only Poke Patch and Bumgardner Branch, the most easily reached of the lot, averaged more than one camper a night for the year (375 and 526 campers, respectively).
Indeed, if you look at campsites from Cataloochee to Twentymile Creek, only two other than Appalachian Trail shelters — Lost Cove on Eagle Creek and Proctor on Hazel Creek — totaled more than a thousand camper nights. That scarcely sounds like overcrowding, when most campsites are suitable for anywhere from 8 to 20 campers per night. Some accommodate appreciably larger numbers.
Additional evidence suggesting misrepresentation of the backcountry situation comes from conversations with hikers and campers as well as my personal observations. My brother, who has hiked thousands of Park miles in recent years, says he has encountered precisely one ranger more than a mile from a trailhead. He also notes, in sharp contradiction to what Park management would have us believe, that he seldom sees backpackers and that most of the campsites he walks by are empty or sparsely populated.
Even easily accessible sites seldom have more than a couple of tents except on weekends and perhaps during peak months (May and October). Take the storied Bryson Place, for example, where you might think crowded conditions often exist. Not so. The 2008 study showed 158 camper nights for the entire year.
A key part of the proposal is that Park management wants to charge a user fee. Putting aside all the considerations addressed above for a moment, I would simply remind Park officials, from Superintendent Dale Ditmanson down, that charging a backcountry fee would break a solemn pledge made at the Park’s founding. Namely, that there would be no access fees for the Smokies. Also, I suspect this is a “foot in the door” kind of thing that could lead to other user and even entrance fees.
As the poet of the Yukon, Robert Service, once wrote, “A promise made is a debt unpaid.” Sadly, Park officials have often broken promises, and here we seem to have a case of where a promise made bids fair to turn into a situation where the Park must be paid. That’s how I see this proposal – as a money grab.
If I believed that there was overcrowding, if I believed that the current reservation system didn’t work, if I believed the fees collected would be used exclusively for backcountry-related matters such as maintenance and a meaningful ranger presence, and if I believed it would stop here, I would tolerate a modest fee. Alas, I think the likelihood of such monies being used exclusively for their proclaimed purposes about the same as thistle seeds being unaffected by dust devils dancing across fields in August.
Even as I urge readers to be heard, I’ll close by confessing cynicism. Past experience suggests that these comment periods and informational sessions are often mere façades, not serious factors in ultimate decisions. Nonetheless, I think anyone who cares should make their voice heard. Sufficient, strident opposition just might have an impact.
(Jim Casada is a writer, an editor and a retired professor from Bryson City. His most recent book is Fly Fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: An Insiders Guide to a Pursuit of Passion.)
A Swain County native now living in South Carolina has won several writing awards from the South Carolina Outdoor Press Association.
Jim Casada writes frequently about the Smokies and is a regular columnist in The Smoky Mountain Times in Bryson City and also contributes regularly to Smoky Mountain Living (a sister publication of The Smoky Mountain News).
Members of South Carolina Outdoor Press Association (SCOPe), their supporters and guests gathered at The Territories Saluda River Preserve near Lake Greenwood for their annual fall conference in November. The members of SCOPe represent South Carolina’s top outdoor communicators from magazines, newspapers, online media and television.
Casada’s awards include:
• Newspaper Feature, first place, “Living Off the Land: A Vanishing Way of Life.”
• Magazine Feature, third place, “Reflections On A Marvelous Madness”
• Column, first place, “In The Good Ol’ Summertime…”; second place, “Musings On Coons, Possums And Other Destructive Critters.”
• Non-game Outdoor Enjoyment, first place, “A World of Wonder: Wildflowers Along the Parkway;” third place, “The Pleasures of Pickin’ — Strawberries, That Is.”
• Editorial/Opinion, first place, “Only Hunters Are Able To Save Hunting;” second place, “Economic Woes And The Sportsman’s World.”