Living in the mountains of Western North Carolina, it is hard to imagine never seeing snow — but Elizabeth Comberg and Amber Damato of Jacksonville, Fla., got their first taste of the fluffy white stuff last Friday at Cataloochee Ski Area.
“The snow is a blast,” 15-year-old Comberg said.
Last week was Comberg and her family’s first trip to Haywood County and first time snow skiing. She didn’t know much beyond the basics of stopping and going, but Comberg was starting to pick it up thanks to a handy mnemonic device well-known among beginners.
“The first thing I knew was pizza and French fries,” she said. French fries, or parallel skis, if she wanted to shoot rapidly down the hill, and a pizza slice, or turned-in skis, if she wanted to stop.
The family spent several hours on a small, crowded bunny slope to the right of the ski lodge and lifts, taking their cues from other skiers while trying to pick up the fundamentals of keeping their balance on the snow.
The beginner slope is neither long nor steep, giving first-timers like the Combergs a safe place to practice before taking on the steeper, more crowded trails.
“This slope is a godsend,” said Laurie Comberg, 45, who last remembered seeing snow in 1989 during a rare snowfall in Jacksonville.
Elizabeth’s younger brother had fallen a number of times and quickly became weary of the slope. After seeing a fellow skier holding onto a child’s ski poles and guiding the child down the hill, Laurie was able to help her son regain enough confidence to ski again.
Elizabeth’s friend, Amber Damato, was not having an easy time either.
“Skiing is hard,” exclaimed Damato, who had fallen several times including a tumble over the blue netting that is supposed to keep skiers from skidding off into a tree.
Damato said the experience of skiing was worth all the spills, however.
The Combergs and Damato planned to stay at Cataloochee until their lift tickets expired at 4:30 p.m. In the end, their goal was to ride the ski lift at least once and then slip and slide as best they could down a trail.
“By the end of the day, we will do it at least once,” Laurie said.
People packed the slopes of Cataloochee Ski Area during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The gangbuster week is the most profitable of the year. Not only is the sheer volume of skiers monumental, but the vast majority are buying lift tickets and renting gear and hitting the lunch counter — as opposed to locals with season lift passes and their own gear who populate the slopes during a more typical week.
But during this holiday week, skiers from across the South were hitting Cataloochee in force — with plenty of newbies among them. The landing at the foot of Cataloochee’s main hill was overflowing with skiers, snowboards and spectators alike Friday. To the side of the slopes, five ski and snowboarding instructors led teams of 10 or more pupils through the basics.
Just on the other side of the blue nets on a barely sloping, super-intro-level straight away, Trey Ford, 30, was helping teach his 3-year-old daughter Lexi how to ski as his wife, Kelly Cooper Ford, watched anxiously to the side.
Kelly has never skied before and was a little nervous to let her daughter try, but Lexi’s grandfather, a former ski instructor, was also on hand to help teach her. Sitting on her heels with her knees bent, Lexi glided down the slight decline more than a dozen times, smiling each time she slide into her grandfather’s arms.
“I am so proud of her,” said Kelly, adding that Lexi has been begging to ski since the idea was first brought up this summer.
Trey and his wife both work at Cooper Construction Company in Hendersonville.
Trey’s father was a ski instructor for many years. However, it was not until the last three years that Trey himself became interested in skiing. He said he wanted to teach Lexi how before she was conscious enough to fear the slopes.
Trey said he hopes to take a family vacation to Colorado or another popular ski destination in the future, but first he will need to get Kelly as excited about skiing as his daughter.
“If I can get my daughter excited about it, then I can get my wife excited about it,” Ford said.
It’s now all systems go at Cataloochee Ski Area. The more advanced trails opened last week thanks to plenty of cold weather (finally) and the resort’s state-of-the-art snow-making technology.
Where: 1080 Ski Lodge Road in Maggie Valley
When: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, non-holiday. 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and Holidays. Night and Twilight skiing run until 10 p.m. are also available Tuesdays through Saturdays as well as on Sundays Jan. 15 and Feb. 19.
Cost: The price of a lift ticket ranges from $18 to $71 depending on the day, how long you plan to ski or snowboard, and whether it’s a day, half-day, twilight or night session. Adult equipment rentals run $23 for ski or $30 for snowboard. Group lessons are $20, and private lesson are between $25 and $200 depending on the length of the tutorial.
Mark Rozof sat behind a beat-up white desk surrounded by skis, walkie-talkies, snow jackets and other sundry gear strewn about the office, chuckling as he recalled his experiences as a ski instructor.
During his 23 years of teaching, Rozof, the new ski and snowboard school director at Cataloochee Ski Area, has collected a volume of tales, from those who fall flat on their face to kids who go on to be medal winners.
The most prominent memory, however, is about his youngest student — a three-year-old boy. The boy’s parents had planned to just let their son experience the snow and watch the other skiers, but they couldn’t keep him away.
“He saw the snow, and he got really excited about it,” Rozof said.
So the little boy’s parents bought him an hour-long lesson and stood by nervously watching him learn. Despite his age and lack of muscle development, the boy lasted the whole hour, Rozof said.
People nearby and on the ski lift clapped for the small child as he glided down a beginner, or bunny, slope on his tiny skis, surprised at his adeptness.
“I bet I started a bad problem with him,” Rozof said. “He loved it.”
Rozof talks about skiing and teaching newbies like some people talk about addiction. A life on the slopes is something he can’t seem to get away from, not that he’d want to.
Growing up in southeast Michigan, skiing and snowboarding were a part of the culture. Rozof began skiing with his dad when he was 13.
“I saw the Olympics, and I liked it,” he said.
His first forray as a ski instructor was admittedly self-serving. Like other Michigan-area kids, Rozof just wanted a free season pass to the Pine Knob Ski and Snowboard Resort so he became an instructor.
“That’s where I learned to teach and pretty much learned to ski,” he said.
He went to college in West Virginia, where he continued to teach skiing, and then moved on to Seven Springs in Pennsylvania. He moved back to Michigan and started working in the automotive business, but like many became a causality of the declining industry — and so returned to his passion of skiing.
Utah, specifically Deer Valley, was Rozof’s most recent home, where he once again donned his skis to help the uncoordinated master the slopes.
About a year ago, Rozof started teaching at Cataloochee Ski Area, and he quickly moved up in the ranks to director of the ski school.
The job “kind of fell in my lap here,” he said.
Teaching at Cataloochee is “fun and a little more challenging,” Rozof said, because some first-time visitors don’t realize how chilly the slopes can get in North Carolina.
Vacationers from Southern states such as Alabama and Georgia are not used to the cold of higher elevations, and some do not dress appropriately for the weather, he said.
Cataloochee is the southern most ski slope in the East, and as a result, captures Southern skiers whose quest for snow leads them to Cataloochee as the closest resort.
“I’ve never heard so many y’alls on a ski slope in my life,” he said.
That close proximity to droves of Southerners seeking a taste of the slopes also means Cataloochee instructors get more than their fair share of novices.
When teaching, the instructors focus on getting their students acclimated to skis, which can feel cumbersome and gangling at first. After mastering the basics of moving and stopping, the new skiers take to the bunny slopes for straight runs, in which they simply ride down the hill with their skis facing forward.
Although the ski school tries to keep the instruction groups small, the holidays can be a busy time. Rozof suggests people pay the extra $30 to $180 for a private lesson, especially if they are already athletic, because the instructors can only move through the lesson as fast as the slowest learner. People who are apt to pick up skiing more quickly may get bored waiting for others to catch up.
Beyond private lessons, the ski school is hoping to remedy the problem by changing its teaching methods. Rather than each group having one instructor, beginners would move from station to station, where they would learn different skills at their own pace, Rozof said.
Rozof has a level three certification, the highest level, through the Professional Ski Instructors of America, meaning he can teach pretty much anywhere.
Eventually, Rozof, who has coached high school and middle school ski teams, said he also wants to bring NASTAR, or National Standard Racing, to Cataloochee. NASTAR is a grassroots ski race program, open to people of all skill levels. Participating ski resorts hold races throughout the winter, and the top racers from across the country are asked to compete in Nature Valley NASTAR National Championships.
Unlike many sports, such as football or basketball, skiing can be a solo activity.
“You can just do it yourself,” Rozof said. People of “any size, any weight, any height” can become great skiers, he said.
Currently, skiers and snowboarders can traverse Cataloochee’s lower trails, but the resort plans to open the upper trails as soon as possible, Rozof said.
The snow that covers the mountains of Cataloochee Ski resort is not visible from U.S. 19 in the valley below, which can be a hindrance when 50-degree weather keeps people’s minds from thoughts of a winter wonderland.
However, Cataloochee is open and ready for business — despite the day’s conditions, assured Rozof.
Cataloochee Ski Area opened its slopes this past weekend and plans to remain open the rest of the season.
Where: 1080 Ski Lodge Road in Maggie Valley
When: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, non-holiday. 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and Holidays. Open til 10 p.m. starting December 13.
Cost: The price of a lift ticket ranges from $18 to $71 depending on what day, how long you want to ski or snowboard, and day or night session. Adult equipment rentals run $23 for ski or $30 for snowboard. Group lessons are $20, and private lesson are between $25 and $200 depending on the length of the tutorial.
An old friend from Mer Rouge, La., George Bowe, was passing through a couple of weeks ago so we decided to take a ride down to Cataloochee and see if the elk were out. We got down to the valley around 3 p.m. and before we got to the Palmer Chapel we spotted elk, grazing and generally lounging around in the fields. It was apparent that the large bulls had already dropped their massive antlers but the young bulls with spikes and small 4-point racks still had antlers.
The elk were brought to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in two groups in early 2001. The first batch of 25 elk from Land Between the Lakes on the Tennessee-Kentucky border was released in 2001. In 2002, another 27 elk from Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada were released into the valley. Original reintroduction plans called for a third release, but North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission decided that was too risky (they feared chronic wasting and/or other diseases might be transferred to local deer and/or cattle populations) and the Park Service nixed the last release.
Biologists in neighboring states don’t appear gripped by the same fears. Kentucky estimates its elk population at nearly 10,000 now. About 1,500 elk were released in Kentucky between 1997 and 2002. Tennessee has seen its 200 reintroduced elk (between 2000 and 2008) double in population and Virginia has plans to release hundreds of elk into the southwestern corner of the state this year.
The original reintroduction in the Smokies was billed as a 5-year experimental release during which time the impacts “on” the elk and “of” the elk would be studied and a determination would be made regarding the herd’s status. Because of the inability to release more elk, the study period was extended for three years. The Park Service changed the status of the elk in Cataloochee, early in 2010, from experimental to an official reintroduction. The herd has grown to between 130 and 140 animals at this point.
I was fortunate enough to get to go to Land Between the Lakes back in 2000 when the original elk were rounded up for the trip to the Park. Kim Delozier and his crew were quite professional and the capture went smoothly. However, it was apparent that these elk that lived in a 700-acre fenced-in enclosure were not the wild and wily beasts of the forests and prairies of the West, alert to every movement and/or scent that came their way; prepared to bolt for safety at a moment’s notice.
And the elk George and I found the other day at Cataloochee appeared to have a healthy dose of those genes. After we passed the Palmer Chapel we saw elk again in the front yard of the old Caldwell house. We drove on down to the end of the road and upon seeing no more elk in the fields, we returned to the Caldwell house.
There were a couple of elk (looked like a cow and calf) still grazing in the yard. We got out to get some photos and more elk came from behind the house.
I wanted to show George the old house so we started across the footbridge figuring the elk would mosey on. Well, they moseyed — only toward us, not away, so we returned to the road. Then about four young bulls came out of the woods and into the yard. A couple decided to practice their sparring moves.
Next, the whole group waded into the stream for a drink. And a really curious cow and calf started towards us. We didn’t want to run afoul of any of the Park’s elk protocol, so we retreated to the truck. The cow and calf came right up and started nosing the back hatch of my white Montero. Made me wonder if the Park Service had done any supplemental feeding during the snow and nasty weather this winter from white, Park Service vehicles or if maybe unthinking visitors have actually been feeding them.
Whatever the reason, it’s certainly not good to have 1,000-pound animals that acclimated to humans — they could present a danger to unsuspecting visitors. But more sadly, fed elk can be just as dead as fed bears.
The rest of the economy might have suffered, but a couple of snowy winters are adding up to big bucks and good times for North Carolina’s ski industry.
Last year, the total economic impact of this segment of the state’s economic pie amounted to $146 million. That number is courtesy of the N.C. Ski Areas Association, which crunched and computed the figures for the 2009-2010 season and recently released its findings.
That good news doesn’t come as a surprise for ski industry workers such as Brittany Heatherly of Skis and Tees in Maggie Valley, who said the store was running out of rental equipment by 10 a.m. each day during the Christmas break.
“It’s been awesome,” Heatherly said. “Everybody is making a lot of money, and having fun. There have been a lot of people because it has been such good weather.”
(Clarification to readers: “Good weather” to the skiing industry would be the snow and cold many people have a difficult time dealing with.)
Heatherly, an avid snowboarder, said skiers and other winter-weather lovers didn’t let road conditions prevent them from getting to the slopes at resorts such as Cataloochee in Haywood County. Folks used four-wheel drive vehicles or put chains on their car tires.
N.C. Ski Areas Association defines “economic value” as the total value to the economy from the existence of ski areas. Winter value, employment value, capital improvements and economic multipliers were considered. The study looked from November to March as the “ski season” when compiling this report.
North Carolina has six ski areas: Cataloochee Ski Area, Sapphire Valley Ski Area, Ski Beech, Appalachian Ski Mountain, Wolf Ridge Ski Resort and Sugar Mountain Ski Resort.
Collectively, these ski areas provided 96 year-round jobs and 1,557 seasonal jobs during last year’s ski season. The industry generated over $32 million in gross revenue from ski area operations, including lift tickets, lessons, equipment rental, retail stores and food and beverages.
David Huskins, who heads the regional tourism group Smoky Mountain Host that is headquartered outside Franklin, said the rockslide and subsequent closure of Interstate 40 in the Pigeon Gorge section of Haywood County “obviously … impacted our region’s ski economy.”
“But, generally, reports are that it was offset by the continued natural snowfall through December-March 2010,” he added. “Good news for our region.”
(Per person spending, and percent of total)
Lift tickets/tubing/ice skating: $44.78; 33.5%
Ski/snowboard lessons: $5.75; 4.8%
Equipment rental/demo at ski area: $13.81; 10.7%
Equipment rental/demo at other N.C. locations: $1.97; 1.4%
Food/beverage/restaurants on mountain/base: $16.88; 13.2%
Food/beverage/restaurants in other N.C. cities: $14.22; 9.8%
Lodging accommodations (nightly rate): $18.88;14.4%
Shopping/gifts/souvenirs/retail stores: $9.04; 6.6%
Entertainment/activities: $3.85; 3.0%
Local transportation/rental car: $1.54; 1.6%
Other spending: $0.98; 0.9%
Total per person spending: $131.70
Source: N.C. Ski Areas Association
Total Visits: 671,554
Total Revenue: $32,526,608
Year-Round Employees: 96
Seasonal Employees: 1,557
Capital Expenditures: $3,341,237
Source: N.C. Ski Areas Association
Cataloochee Ski Area continued a long tradition of holiday giving to the local community recently with its 9th Annual Can-U-Ski Food and Coat Drive.
Cataloochee skiers and riders turned out in record numbers to participate in the area’s annual event benefiting Haywood Christian Ministries.
Thousands of cans of food and hundreds of coats were donated to the area during the event. All donations will be given to the local non-profit organization in order to stock its pantry for the Christmas holiday season.
Skiers and boarders from across the Southeast came to Maggie Valley to take part where ten cans of food or a winter coat could be redeemed for a free lift ticket for the day.
“What better way to start the season of giving than by giving back to your local community to folks in need.” said Chris Bates, Cataloochee Ski Area general manager. “We appreciate all of our guests who participated in this worthwhile event and thank them for their support.”
Many customers showed up at the ticket window on Sunday with more than the minimum required to be able to ski for free.
Cataloochee Ski Area in Maggie Valley is off to another strong start to its season.
“We’ve been open since Nov. 6,” said Cataloochee General Manager Chris Bates. “We have a base of anywhere between 18 to 80 inches. And the weather for snowmaking looks great for the next couple of weeks.”
Currently there are 11 trails and three lifts operating over a groomed surface.
Despite a lot of equipment upgrades during this offseason, Cataloochee ticket prices will remain the same for this season and all of the ski area’s great programs like Family Day, which starts Jan. 12, will be in place.
According to Bates, last Sunday’s partnership with Haywood Christian Ministries drew its largest crowd ever.
“And we are happy to be able to partner with them to make a difference in the community,” he said.
Additions to enhance skiing at Cataloochee this year include 30 new snowmakers and two new grooming tractors. Bates said the advance in equipment and computerization since Cataloochee revamped in 2004 has been amazing. “It’s like going from a car that gets 18 miles to the gallon to one that gets 35 miles to the gallon.”
The new equipment and dip in temperatures are really aiding Cataloochee’s snowmaking abilities. “We can make snow at 28 degrees,” Bates said, “but with the new equipment and technology, when the temperature falls to 7 degrees, like now, our capacity increases 25 fold.”
Cataloochee also boasts over 4,000 sets of snow sports equipment. According to Bates that includes 700 new pairs of rental skis.
The Cataloochee Ski Patrol began in 1961 as a group of friends who enjoyed skiing at the new Cataloochee Ski Hill, the first ski area to open south of Pennsylvania. As Cataloochee Ski Area grew and became more popular, it’s Ski Patrol grew and became more professional.
Today’s Cataloochee Ski Patrol is still a group of friends who love skiing on the local mountain, but their numbers have grown to more than 100 counting paid staffers and volunteers. And they are all highly trained professionals with a minimum of 80 hours of Outdoor Emergency Care (OEC) training.
According to Wayne Morgan, director of Cataloochee’s Ski Patrol for the past seven years, OEC is a worldwide standard established and regulated by the National Ski Patrol. The National Ski Patrol system is composed of more than 625 patrols with more than 26,000 members across the U.S., Asia and Europe.
“That standard is the same across the board,” Morgan said.
Dan Greene, the representative for Cataloochee Ski Patrol volunteers, said the OEC program is designed “to prepare individuals from all walks of life and all backgrounds from the high school graduate to the PhD to work side by side providing the same level of care.”
“The focus of Ski Patrol is safety on the slope,” Morgan said. And that begins with the slope itself.
“We survey the slope for any kind of hazards that might be a danger to skiers,” he said. That could be anything from holes to ridges that develop that could bump skiers into a different flow of traffic to snowmaking equipment.
“North Carolina law mandates that all snowmaking equipment be marked, so we flag all the equipment plus any other hazards we see,” Morgan said.
“We are most visible in that we provide rescue and first aid,” said Greene. “That’s what Ski Patrol is known for. But the overarching principle is safety on the course, whether it’s the slope itself or skiers on the slope.”
“We don’t like being policemen, but it’s part of the job,” Morgan said. “We try to be proactive, rather than reactive,” he said, but still it’s a tough job.
“Face it,” Greene said, “we’re dealing with a public that doesn’t necessarily show a lot of common sense all the time.”
Morgan said that how Ski Patrol is perceived on the slope usually has to do with the attitude of the skier. “If we see people doing unsafe things and have to intervene, they may not be happy to see us.
“I’ve been on the slope slowing people down, and I’ll have some people cussing me and some will stop and pat me on the back and say thanks — good job — we’re glad you’re out here,” Morgan said.
The basic training to become a patroller begins with OEC training.
“That course is usually between 80 and 110 hours and begins in the summer,” Morgan said. “OEC test are given the first or second week in November.”
Morgan said that one of obstacles the National Ski Patrol’s Southern Division has is finding competent skiers. The Southern Division runs from West Virginia to Alabama and includes Cataloochee, Beech Mountain, Ober Gatlinburg, Wolf Ridge, Wintergreen, Massanutten, Appalachian, Sugar Mountain and other southern ski areas.
“Here in the Southern Division we have smaller mountains and we don’t have that real skier mentality. Great skiers don’t flock here, like they do at Vail or Whistler to join the Ski Patrol. So we’ve created a ski school in our division and each slope has at least one PSIA [Professional Ski Instructors of America] certified instructor. We’re really fortunate here at Cataloochee. Our guys are really enthused and we have about 10 PSIA instructors on our patrol.”
After a Ski Patrol candidate has successfully completed OEC training, they must pass a basic ski and toboggan course (S&T) to become a basic patroller.
“The toboggan is basically a stretcher or litter on a sled, designed to transport an injured person off the hill,” said Greene. “There are very specific skills required to handle them.”
Morgan said Cataloochee has about a dozen toboggans that ski patrol stashes at strategic points along the slopes so that they will be accessible in an emergency.
“To become a basic patroller, a candidate must pass an S&T test on the hardest slope at his area,” said Morgan. “To progress to a senior patroller, the basic patroller must pass an S&T test on the toughest slope in their region. Our senior patrollers have to pass their test on Mogul Ridge at Ober Gatlinburg.”
And the rigors only get tougher to become certified in S&T. According to Morgan, of the more than 26,000 members of the National Ski Patrol there are only about 7,000 who are certified in S&T.
But that doesn’t mean your care is compromised. The ski patrol candidate has the same OEC skills as the certified patroller.
“As your level increases from candidate, to basic, to senior patroller you acquire more and better management skills regarding multiple traumas and managing an accident scene but OEC is OEC,” Morgan said.
“We’re somewhere between a wilderness responder and a paramedic. We have victims in a hostile environment and we have to stabilize them and get them out of that environment, then assess the injury and decide the proper course of action.”
And every patroller is trained to do that whether he is a candidate or certified said Morgan.
All National Ski Patrol members have to renew their certification every three years. Their continuing education is done once a year and the course topics and structure is mandated by the National Ski Patrol so that any patroller could walk into a course anywhere and get the credit needed for that year.
Morgan said that during the week he generally had five or six patrollers on the slope. On the weekends ski patrol duties generally fall to Greene’s volunteers and because of the extended hours they run two shifts and generally have between eight and 10 patrollers on the slope.
This is Dan Greene’s first year as patrol representative, but he has more than 20 years experience as a patroller. Volunteers have to pass the same tests and meet the same requirements as paid patrollers, they are just rewarded in a different way — free skiing. According to Greene all volunteers have a set rotation that they are required to fill, but other than that they ski at any time.
“They can also patrol at any time and there are added benefits to putting in more hours. The management here is very generous and we get rewarded with complimentary tickets,” Greene said.
For Greene, who lives in Atlanta, it’s the love of the sport.
“I do a lot of volunteering in other areas as well, but I love to ski. I love the sport. It’s something my family and I have enjoyed for years, and I see this as a way of giving back to the sport. And, selfishly, it gives me a reason to come up here and play in the snow.”
Morgan notes that there are other benefits to becoming OEC certified.
“I was able to use my OEC certification to work the Olympics in Atlanta,” he said. He also noted that many rafting companies were adopting OEC as their standard of care and venues like Asheville’s mountain sports festival and area mountain bike races welcomed volunteers with OEC certification.
Cataloochee Ski Area opened for the season on Saturday, Nov. 6, making it one of the first resorts in the east to start skiing for the fifth year in a row.
The resort will open on Saturday and Sundays only for now, with skiing from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. (check the resort’s website at www.cataloochee.com for the most up-to-date information on hours and conditions)
Cataloochee — North Carolina’s first ski area which is now in its 49th season — spent more than $1.2 million in capital improvements this summer, including the purchase of two new Pisten Bully snow groomers and the installation of 13,000 feet of snowmaking pipeline. The area has also replaced 24 snowmaking guns with new, more efficient, automatic fanguns and installed a new efficient six-stick automatic snowgun system on the Alley Cat Racing Trail.
Additional improvements have been made to the area’s rental fleet with the replacement of all adult boots and 700 adult skis in their main rental shop. Cataloochee has also added a second terrain park on the mountain with four new snow guns.
“We continue to expand our snowmaking system which allows us to utilize these early colder temperatures and allow us to open as early as we can,” said Chris Bates, Cataloochee’s vice president and general manager. “We remain committed to our customers in providing the most skiing and riding time we can each season and will continue to make snow and open early each year.”
But a decade after the first elk hoof hit the soil of Cataloochee Valley, the National Park Service is ready to declare the elk project a success and designate the species as an “official” reintroduction.
The elk have grown from an initial 50 to an estimated 134 animals. Aside from the logistical nightmare of trying to find and remove them all, the park service would have been the target of public firestorm if it decided to do away with the elk at this point.
“I have never seen the ownership that people have shown toward these species,” said Kim Delozier, the Smokies’ lead wildlife biologist. “They are a large animal, a majestic animal and symbol of wilderness, and we tend to gravitate toward those things.”
The official designation as a reintroduced species means the elk, which were hunted to extinction in the Southern Appalachians in the 1800s, are back for good.
If their numbers keep growing, elk may one day roam widely across the mountains again. Kentucky and Tennessee have reintroduced elk as well, and Virginia announced just last month that it will follow suit.
“I would like to see elk throughout the Appalachian chain,” said Joe Treadway, a founding member of the Smokies chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and an early advocate for the reintroduction. “Will I see it in my lifetime? Maybe not, but I certainly hope my son and grandson will.”
The change in the elk’s status from an “experimental release” to an “official reintroduction” is rewarding, Treadway said. And it’s more than just semantics.
“It allows us to get together and develop a serious long-term management plan that to this point we have not had,” Treadway said.
Treadway, along with many in the Elk Foundation who supported the reintroduction, hope to hunt elk one day. Elk can never be hunted in the park, but Treadway hopes they will disperse into the national forests and state gamelands and that the population will grow enough to make hunting viable.
Under the new designation, elk that wander out of the park will be free to go their own way.
Before, the park would round elk up and bring them back if they roamed too far afield, into areas the park had declared early on as “no elk” zones. One elk was retrieved from Hot Springs. Another even made it to Glenville, a community near Cashiers, where it had taken up residence on a Christmas tree farm alongside a couple of domesticated reindeer.
Under the new plan, those elk would be left alone to make their home where they pleased.
Elk that wandered only a little bit outside the park had always been given a free pass unless the landowner complained. Delozier said the park rarely got complaints from neighboring property owners.
“Most people loved them. They think they are the greatest thing since sliced bread,” Delozier said.
Some wouldn’t let the park come on their property to retrieve an elk even if the park wanted to.
If a park neighbor did complain about a stray elk, however, park rangers would go get it. Under the new designation, the park will no longer do so as a matter of course.
“The change is now we will not take the lead. The state will take the lead on dealing with elk calls,” said Delozier.
Delozier said the park service will help the state Wildlife Commission with calls about nuisance elk if requested.
Exactly how the state will deal with the new species isn’t known. It has not yet developed a management plan for elk.
In anticipation of the park service backing away from oversight of the elk, the Wildlife Commission proposed a status change earlier this year that would make it legal for landowners to shoot an elk if it was causing property damage.
The Wildlife Commission said it didn’t have the time or resources to police elk run-ins once the park stopped doing so. But public outcry led the Wildlife Commission to drop the proposed change in status.
When elk were released in 2000, there were a few naysayers. Some feared they would bring diseases with them that could spread to deer or even cattle. Farmers worried elk would get into their crops. Some worried they would overpopulate. Others simply doubted the elk would make it.
So far, none of the fears have come to fruition, Delozier said.
Still others claimed the elk would be easy targets for poachers. But only two elk have been shot.
One was maliciously targeted inside the park by a poacher, who was ultimately caught. The other was killed at the hands of a dairy farmer in Jonathan Creek, a community bordering Cataloochee Valley. An elk had repeatedly come onto his farm and eaten the cattle’s food. He called the park and told them he would be shooting the elk.
One elk prediction that hasn’t come true, at least not yet, has proved disappointing. Park rangers hoped that elk would migrate to some of the high grassy balds where continual grazing would help keep them open. The Southern Appalachians were once home to numerous high grassy balds, but most have been overtaken by trees and bushes in recent decades. The park has lost several of its former grassy balds. Two that are still left — Andrews and Gregory balds — are mowed to keep the forest from encroaching.
Delozier said if the elk stumbled upon the balds, they would likely take up residence there and keep them maintained. But the elk population has not grown enough yet to disperse throughout the park.
Right now, elk are designated a non-game animal by the state, so it is illegal to shoot one even outside the national park boundary.
In Kentucky — where 1,500 elk were released between 1997 and 2002 — the population now numbers close to 10,000. A limited number of elk hunting permits are given out each year through a lottery system. This year, 40,000 applied for one of only 850 elk tags. Each person who applies forks over a $10 fee that goes to the state wildlife agency.
In Tennessee, an auction for one of its elk hunting tags in 2009 went for $17,000 on eBay.
Tennessee released 200 elk between 2000 and 2008, and now has a population of around 400. It held a lottery for just five hunting tags last year — a token number given the still small population.
Virginia plans to release several hundred elk in three mountain counties in the southwest corner of the state next year.
Tennessee and Kentucky — and soon Virginia — all have larger herds than North Carolina since they brought in more animals to start with. Unlike the other three states, however, North Carolina has indefinitely halted the release of any more elk.
The rule was put in place by the N.C. Wildlife Commission because it feared an elk could be carrying chronic wasting disease, a deadly and contagious illness that can infect any hoofed animal, including deer or cattle.
That stopped the Smokies from bringing in additional elk, and the park’s herd has been hamstrung as a result. For a few years, the numbers seemed touch and go. Black bears were eating so many elk calves that the herd was barely reproducing enough to replace those that died from natural causes.
But the herd finally got over that hump, thanks to a little help from park rangers who took to moving the black bears out of Cataloochee Valley during calving season.
This year, no bears were moved, and the herd still saw roughly 25 calves survive.
It bothers advocates of the herd that additional releases can’t take place.
“You have to worry about the long-term genetic pool, with the lack of genetic diversity can they grow and prosper like they need to?” Treadway said.
The National Park Service is seeking public comment on the long-range plan for managing the elk herd in the Smokies. To comment, go to parkplanning.nps.gov/grsm. Deadline is Sept. 27.
To read a copy of the environmental report on how elk have adapted to the Smokies and their long-term outlook, go to the outdoors page at www.smokymountainnews.com and click on this story.
There have been several successful reintroductions in the Smokies, including river otter and peregrine falcons.
Only one has ever failed. A pack of red wolves released in Cades Cove were unable to make it, mostly due to competition from coyotes, which had filled the top predator niche once dominated by the wolves. Seven years after their release, the few wolves that had managed to hang on were removed and the project terminated.
Elk will now join the list of successful reintroductions in the park’s book.
“The reintroduction of the elk is another success story of increasing biodiversity in the park, like the peregrine falcon, as well as the continuing efforts to restore the brook trout,” said Holly Demuth, North Carolina director of Friends of the Smokies. “The viability of the coalescing elk herd shows that the park is a great refuge for wildlife.”
Requiem by Fire by Wayne Caldwell. Random House, 2009. 335 pages
Dear readers, if you have some slight respect for my opinions about Appalachian literature, I hope you will believe me when I say that Wayne Caldwell has written a remarkable novel — one that we will be talking about for many years. Requiem by Fire, Caldwell’s second work in what may well be a series of novels, is rooted in the history, folkways and culture of a vanquished place: Cataloochee. Whereas the first novel gave breath, blood and passion to the early settlers of that place, this sequel attempts to capture the lives of those same settlers and their descendants (some 1,100 in all) when they are faced with eviction.
If you have ever wondered how the federal government and the U.S. Park Service orchestrated the removal the households in Big and Little Cataloochee, here is a detailed and sometimes heartbreaking account. At its worst, the “presence of the Park” in Cataloochee and elsewhere sometimes resembled occupation by a conquering army, since uniformed and armed officials took up residence in the designated area and began issuing mandates — regulations that stipulated everything from reimbursement for land to deadlines for final departure. From the beginning, the Park stressed a singular dismal fact: This land now belongs to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You must leave.
For many of the aged residents such as Silas Wright, the coming of the Park was a death notice. In response to petitions from landowners who refused governmental reimbursement and requested permission to stay, the Park relented but issued restrictions that were so rigorous most landowners felt that they could not comply. No hunting, no cutting of trees (firewood was restricted to deadfalls) and severe limits on gardens and fishing. Although there was considerable dissatisfaction with the Park and its dictates, the majority of the people finally loaded their belongings and left. Silas Wright, the oldest member of the community, chose to stay.
Many of the elderly “exiles” did not survive for long. Like some of the plants many of the families attempted to transplant to their new homes in Saunook, Maggie Valley or Waynesville, these displaced souls faded and died — as though they had been deprived of some vital nutrient that could only be found in the soil of Cataloochee. There were suicides and many suffered psychological damage. There were exceptions, like the family that moved to Saunook, bought an old garage and converted it into a mercantile store that specialized in “mountain crafts.”
Noting that their customers were fascinated by such antiquated items as sun bonnets, quilts, corncob pipes and rustic chairs, they quickly became “real mountaineers” (or at least what the visiting public perceived them to be), and in the process provided an income for other Cataloochans who could whittle, sew, hew and weave.
Much of Requiem by Fire deals with the trials and tribulations of Jim Hawkins, a young native of Cataloochee who readily accepts the job of warden for the Park. In essence, Jim must enforce the unpopular rules and regulations devised by the Park. Hawkins accepts his job with a sort of religious fervor. His love for Cataloochee and its people motivates him to see if he can ease the pains of their transition. Since the Park authorities have quickly developed a reputation for insensitivity and arrogance, the local residents accept Hawkins who is “one of their own” and who has a talent for acting as a buffer between the Park and the disenfranchised residents.
Certainly, he has a knack for defusing explosive situations. He also knows when to look the other way.
However, Hawkins has made one serious mistake that causes him considerable suffering. He has married a “town girl.” Born in West Asheville, Nell comes with Jim to Cataloochee and is immediately distressed. No telephone. No movie theater. No restaurants or social life. Although she endures several years of discomfort and boredom, she does not adjust but becomes increasingly resentful. Where Jim sees beauty and solitude, Nell sees discomfort and isolation. Nell’s departure is inevitable and comes at a time when Hawkins is beset with serious problems ... one of which is a pyromaniac.
Willie McPeters is an unforgettable character. Although he has much in common with other mentally deranged characters in southern fiction, such as Flannery O’Conner’s Hazel Motes or Faulkner’s degenerate Snopes family, McPeters is more elemental, a kind of embodiment of mindless and bestial destruction. McPeters begins to burn abandoned buildings in a sexual frenzy and as his destruction in Cataloochee increases, Jim Hawkins finds evidence of Willie’s presence near his home (McPeters leaves an acrid stench where ever he goes).
Ironically, as Hawkins struggles to save his marriage and track down the elusive firebug, the Park announces its new edict. All of the vacated buildings in Cataloochee are to be burned. Nothing is to be left that would detract from the Park’s mission: to return Cattaloochee to a wilderness state. Consequently, this sets the scene for the most heartrending section of Requiem by Fire — Hawkins is ordered to officiate at the burning of the place where he was born:
Destroying the place where as a baby he had padded in knitted booties. The place he’d learned fire burns and ice is cold, and that nothing is better for the sniffles than a mother’s love and warm VapoRub.The place he’d broken windows with homemade baseballs.The place that had kept him dry during storms and wet in the tub on Saturday night. The place where his father had read the Bible out loud every night and where Jim had learned about alcohol when he was caught sneaking from Mack’s jug and where his punishment had been to keep drinking until he retched. His place.
As Hawkins stands watching the inferno destroy even the boxwoods and the maple tree in the front yard, he is joined by the lonely and stubborn Silas Wright, who now believes that Cataloochee is truly gone. Silas also encounters a group of campers from the flatlands and their behavior and opinions presage the coming of vast hordes who will perceive Cataloochee as a “vast outdoor playground.” Silas senses that it is time for him to go as well.
Requiem by Fire begins and ends with dreams — Silas Wright’s dreams. The first fire is one that Silas and his friends deliberately set when Silas was a young man. They had burned the old Cataloochee school because they believed that the only way they would get an adequate school for their children was to burn the old one. Now, at the end of his life, Silas dreams of fire again. However, this time the fire is multi-faceted. It both cleanses and obliterates, destroys and renews. In Cataloochee, a way of life has perished, but a new world is approaching by a paved road. The tourists are coming.