Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Bull Elk With A Huge Set

A few weeks ago I went camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and of course I was also there to photograph the Smoky mountain fall colors.  I started off camping in one of my favorite places in this beautiful country, Cades Cove.  The best part of shooting in the fall is not just the colors, but the wildlife are at their prime and can be easily found because they're taking in the autumn bounty of nuts and berries before the cold winds of winter take hold.

In Cades Cove I was getting some great animal shots along with the colors of the surrounding hardwood forests.  I wanted to also visit my favorite river location to capture the colors of the forest with smooth flowing rapids, so I drove down the road a bit to the Middle Prong of the Little River.

While skipping...well maybe not skipping....while maneuvering from rock to rock to find the best angle, tragedy struck.  No, I didn't hurt myself. But to a photographer out looking for sweeping scenic shots of a Smoky Mountain autumn it was the next worst thing. I slipped on a moss covered rock and when the dust settled, or rather the water and I settled, I noticed my wide angle lens was no longer where it belonged.  When I tried reconnecting it to my camera, well, that just wasn't happening.  Yes...a scenic photographer in the Smoky Mountains during the peak of autumn and he has no scenic lens. Well, I didn't panic.  Afterall, what can you do?  I went back to camp and made lunch.

Now I still had another lens.  My long lens is an awesome lens, but it's best for shooting wildlife and distant vistas.  Not much good for those colorful scenics that I was hoping for. But, there is plenty of wildlife in Cades Cove so I just adjusted my goals and looked for good opportunities for some unique animal shots.  In the autumn bear, deer and coyotes can be seen from just off the road in most of Cades Cove.  There are also a few herds of horses still maintained in the park.

But I began to want something more than the typical wildlife shots I had been getting for years.  So that night at camp I decided after shooting the morning wildlife activities in Cades Cove, I would pack up and travel to Cataloochee Valley on the other side of the park.  In 2001 The National Park Service reintroduced Elk back into The Great Smoky Mountains National Park when they released twenty-five elk into this valley on the eastern side of the park.  The next year twenty-seven more were released and by 2011 there were approximately 140 elk roaming where the last known elk siting was in the late 1800's. 
The ride to the Cataloochee Valley was phenomenal. Riding in from Gatlinburg took me over a long dirt road, twisting and winding through hardwood forests of yellow, green and red. It took me a few hours to finally reach Cataloochee, but once I arrived I knew I was going to enjoy my stay here.  Cataloochee is a long narrow valley with a two-lane road going from end to end.  Once I set up camp I drove to the other end of the valley to look for elk. This is where the title of my story, A Bull Elk With A Huge Set, comes in.  After traveling down the road going through groves of hardwood trees, passing old buildings and open meadows and following a babbling brook, I reached the end of the road.  After taking a short hike along the brook I decided to look for some elk.  I backtracked down the road and to my left I spotted a big bull hugging the tree line.  I got out and set up for my first shots, but when I looked through the viewfinder I noticed the bull was missing something.

This bull only had one antler.  The one antler he had was huge, but obviously he had already met his match on the field of rutting bulls.  I really had no doubt that he had lost that antler in a battle of testosterone with a bigger, probably older bull. Although the one antler he did have had really good size to it, the elk to me appeared to still be a rather young bull.  So I took a few shots of him and started down the road to look for a bull with a full set of antlers.  After all, how could I use shots of a one-antlered bull elk.  But just as I was about to leave a movement in the woods to my right revealed another bull arriving on the scene and this one had a full set on him.

Right away this new visitor to this meadow noticed the disadvantaged bull.  And my first thought was that this had to be the rival that had beaten this younger one-antlered bull.  After taking a few more bites of grass, our boy quickly headed to the forest to let the newcomer claim this territory, which to me was more proof that this newcomer was the victor of the previous unseen battle. After taking a few more shots, the sun was already setting behind the surrounding mountains so I decided to head on in to my campsite for the night.

At first light the next morning I made my way to the first meadow in the valley where I had noticed a bull watching over a herd of cows and their young.  He was a good sized bull, bugling often and testing the air to see if he could sense any one of the cows that could be ready to mate.

The cool air and the soft light of morning made great conditions for shooting.  Whenever the bull would raise his head to send his claim on this territory throughout the valley, his breath could be seen blowing from his mouth. He went from cow to cow searching for any sign that one was ready to accept him.
After a while I noticed the bull's attention drawn to something behind me.  All of a sudden he paid no attention to the cows in his harem, but something was more interesting to him now.  When I turned I couldn't believe what I saw.
Coming all the way from several miles up the valley, our friend from the day before was crossing the road and making a beeline to this harem of cows.  The bull who claimed this territory and everything in it was now following the same beeline and I thought surely the one-antlered bull would know he stood no chance with this bull in his prime...and a full set.  

I was amazed! When the apparent dominate bull approached the one-antlered bull, our friend lowered his head, scratched the ground with his hooves and lunged forward.  The two met as the clatter of intertwined antlers sounded across the valley.  The cows of the herd, who just seconds before were grazing in common oblivion, raised their heads to watch the battle before them.  The bulls twisted and pushed each other, but it was obvious from the start that the outgunned bull had no chance against the bigger bull who still had his full set.  And after a couple of minutes the lesser bull began to give way and was being pushed back.  And suddenly it was over.  The losing bull quickly trotted towards the forest with the victor following for a short distance.  
The winning bull stood there proud, saliva dripping from his mouth from the adrenaline of the fight.  Although he looked magnificent standing there backlit by the morning sun, I still held most of my respect for the losing one-antlered bull.  He went into this fight knowing he was at a disadvantage.  Watching him during the brief encounter, he always lead with his one antler, keeping the other side of his head back protecting it from the sharp weapons of his foe.  But still he fought. He knew what he wanted and he had to at least try. Although this young bull, who was now at least 2-0 this season in the fighting ring, lost this round, he'll be back next year and the next.  This bull proved on that morning, that although he doesn't have a huge set of antlers like this year's rivals, he does have A Huge Set know what I mean.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Pucker Factor

It’s a great mountain road, big curves and beautiful scenery. Everything is just right, the motor is purring and the road is grabbing you and pulling you forward.  You see a yellow sign and you decel just a bit preparing for another big sweeping curve.  You enter the curve and you can’t see where the road continues and you realize this is a little sharper curve than most you’ve seen this day.  It’s not a nice ninety degree curve; it’s an S-curve.  You rise up in the seat a little more, you decelerate just a touch and you lay your hands across the controls. You push down a little more on the handlebar, holding your line in the road by a hair. You pull it all back together and find your line again and now you’re back in control.  You just went from a Pucker Factor 2 to Pucker Factor 8 in less than a second. 
Yes, your butthole just puckered up into an airtight orifice that wouldn’t have allowed even the smallest amount of gastronomical extract to escape.  You’ve entered the world of The Pucker Factor.   We’ve all been there.  It can be a certain road that never lets you really relax or a car that looks like it’s going to pull out of the driveway just in front of you.  Maybe it’s that big dog in the yard up ahead and you’re wondering if it’s going to chase after you. It may be the gang of turkeys grazing just off the side of the road ahead. It can be any one of many different situations that we experience while we’re riding.  But the same thing always happens and there’s nothing we can do about or do we really even know it’s happening at all.

When I’m talking about Pucker Factors, it’s not just moments in time.  I grade roads themselves based on the Pucker Factor.  I would give the Dragon’s Tail on the Tennessee/North Carolina border overall a PF8 just because of the whole experience.  A straight line desert highway in New Mexico would probably be about a PF3, until the coyote bolts across the road.  Usually this will make a PF rating rise just for a moment and then you’ll settle back into the PF3. An interstate highway changes all the time, from a PF2 in the long rides between towns and cities, to at least a PF5 once you hit traffic.  And if you hit a major city during rush hour, you don’t need to worry much about gastronomical extractions until you leave the city.  Every other car has a nut driving it, so if you’re anything less than PF7 in heavy rush hour traffic you’re just asking for trouble.

The amount of Pucker is proportional to the perceived danger in the road ahead.  Unless you have a medical condition, everyone starts off at PF1.  Hell, you have PF1 if you’re sitting in your favorite chair at home, unless that chair is porcelain and you use it for reading a lot, but that’s another story.  When riding your bike the Pucker factor changes sometimes every other mile or so.  A nice big country road with long sweeping curves may run you about a PF2 or three.  You should always have some sort of pucker going on when you’re riding, just to know that you’re paying attention.  But when conditions a head change quickly and you need to come out of your riding coma, the Pucker Factor usually rises to the level of the potential danger ahead.  It’s easy to go from a PF3 to a PF8 in just a second, but it takes time to go from a PF8 to a PF2.  And if you reach PF9 or ten and you’re still on the road you should probably pull over at your earliest convenience, if not to calm down, at least to see if a change of clothing may be needed.  

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Riding The Trace

The Blue Ridge Parkway…every rider in the southeastern US and other parts of the country has heard of it and probably has ridden at least a part of it. But, have you heard of The Natchez Trace Parkway?   I have found that many bikers and travelers have not.
The Natchez Trace Parkway is 444 miles of beautiful scenery, from the delta region of Mississippi to the foothills of southern Tennessee.  It is loaded with 10,000 years of North American history.  Native Americans used the old Trace for thousands of years as a trading path, settlers used it as a way west and future presidents used it for traveling through the region.  Lewis Meriwether of Lewis and Clark fame died along the trace and his gravesite is located along the Parkway.  The Trace has played an important part in American history. 
The only difference between The Natchez Trace and The Blue Ridge Parkway is location and scenery and I realize that statement may have just made you laugh.  But, if you take away the obviously fantastic scenery of the Blue Ridge Parkway, is The Trace just another road?  Maybe, but the Trace is 444 miles long with no stop lights or stop signs, no billboards and usually you can’t see many signs of civilization other than the road you’re on or maybe a few farms or old houses. 
 And if the 444 mile long uninterrupted ride isn’t enough, maybe Indian burial mounds, a ghost town, a burned down 1800’s mansion with lonely Romanesque columns left standing, modern architectural wonders or even the 200 year old home of a captain of spies may interest you.  But the best thing you’ll find is a great road to ride that sometimes makes you feel like you’re the only person around for miles.  The Trace was just rated #11 in the AMA’s Fifteen Best Motorcycling Roads in America.
Traveling from Atlanta, GA, I met my riding partner Jimmy in Nashville, TN. Other than the fact that the northern terminus of the road is located just south of Nashville, there is one main reason for using Nashville as a starting point.  I’m from North Carolina and we take BBQ seriously there.  Nashville has a BBQ restaurant that has what I think is the best beef brisket outside of Texas.  
I found Jack’s BBQ years ago while shooting at the CMA awards for a national broadcast service.  Jack’s is located downtown on Broadway St. and if the lines are any indication, everyone pretty much knows about it already.  The brisket melts in your mouth and the sides are deliciously what you would expect in a down home southern restaurant in the heart of Tennessee.  
After dinner you can wander the neon streets of Nashville looking for that perfect cold beverage, while listening to some great local talent that may just be the next big thing in country music.  At night the streets of Nashville seem to breathe music, with every bar opening their doors to new talent just itching to be heard.

The first morning of the trip began at another famous place for enjoying great southern food.  Yeah, I know, it already sounds like we love to eat on our trips.  But, Jimmy and I have made a deal that we never eat at a chain restaurant if possible.  Nothing will help you get to know more about the country you’re traveling through than sitting down and eating with the locals.  
Not only is the food usually much better than most chains, but you never know who you’ll meet that could make your trip even more memorable. The Loveless Café has been serving up biscuits, country ham and red-eye gravy since 1951.  Usually I don’t like to start the day off with a big breakfast, but the food at this Café makes me think, why not start our trip down The Trace with a breakfast that will take us miles to recover from?
The northern part of The Natchez Trace Parkway begins in the southern foothills of Tennessee and travels through a bit of Alabama before entering Mississippi. The road has broad sweeping curves with small hills leading down to open meadows surrounded by hardwood forests.  The Trace’s corridor is a National Park, so the only signs of civilization are cotton fields or pastures rolling over a roadside ridge.   
The first must stop and see is the Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge.  This bridge is a 1600 feet long double arch bridge that will carry you almost 150 feet above the valley floor.  The valley below is spotted with homes on one side and a horse ranch on the other. The surrounding mountains are covered with hardwood forests that I’m sure would be beautiful in the fall. The bridge, which is sometimes known as the Natchez Trace Parkway Arches, is the first segmental constructed concrete arch bridge in the United States.

Meriwether Lewis, of Lewis and Clark Expedition fame, died traveling on the Trace. While serving as governor of the Louisiana Territory, he was traveling to Washington, DC from his office in St. Louis, Missouri. Lewis stopped at Grinder's Stand, a tavern and inn, for an overnight stay in October, 1809. For months his friends had worried about his state of mind and while staying at the inn it is said he committed suicide with a gun to his head.  A monument has been erected at his gravesite along the Trace. The surrounding Lewis Meriwether Park offers a reconstructed cabin from the time of his death, as well as picnic tables and free camping.
Unlike The Blue Ridge Parkway, most of the time on The Trace you rarely see other vehicles.  Commercial vehicles are not allowed, but you may need to slow down a bit when you come upon a tractor or other farm vehicles.  
Only when you get close to Tupelo or Jackson will you experience much traffic anytime of the year.  Of course Tupelo, MS is the birthplace of Elvis Presley, so some may want to pull off The Trace here to see where The King was born.  Now keep in mind, because the Trace is a national park, there are no road services like gas stations or restaurants.  You have to actually get off the parkway to find these services.  If you pick up a park service map, it will show you where you may find the best pull-offs to gas up or pig out. 
Once you pass Jackson, MS, now you’re beginning to enter the Mississippi River delta region.  More and more cotton fields are along the road and the hardwood forests start to give way to an occasional cypress swamp.  There are places here where you can pull off to see signs of the original Trace when Native Americans were using it as a trading route.  In some places, after thousands of years of foot traffic and then a few hundred years of wagon and horse traffic, the trail has cut 40 feet through rolling hills. 
One of the most surprising stops we made on the Trace, and my personal favorite, was the Windsor Ruins.  Built in 1861, in the brief history of this plantation mansion, it is said to have been used by Mark Twain to view the Mississippi River from the rooftop observatory and its doorway was stained with the blood of a Union soldier.  But in 1890 a visitor left a cigar burning on an upper balcony and the mansion burned to the ground leaving only tall Romanesque columns and iron stairways standing.  The sight of these tall columns from another era over the sea, surrounded by tall Mississippi Oak trees, really makes this site worth the short trip off of the Trace.
Our ride down the Trace ended along the Mississippi River in Natchez, MS.  Our timing was impeccable.  As we followed the sun to the center of town, we found a small park with a walkway along the river.  The view the park offered as the sun set behind the bridge that crosses the river into Louisiana was spectacular.  A river boat was moored along the riverbank and the lights from the bridge illuminated the waves of the Mississippi River as it passed on its way to the Gulf Coast.
I’ve only touched on a few of the many historical, cultural and natural sites along the Natchez Trace Parkway.  The road itself is really worth the trip, everything else is just a bonus.  Sometimes while riding on the Trace, the engine of my Road King would hit that certain tone and the road would be stretching out with something new around every curve.  I had found that zone that so many of us bikers are riding to find. 

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Smoky Mountain Morning

It is a brisk star-lit morning as I walk out of the canopy of the Smoky Mountain forest.  The howling of the coyote drifts in with the morning breeze.  The sun's rays are not yet peeking over the surrounding mountains.
Cades Cove is just beginning to reveal the morning fog that seems to surround this valley in secrecy.  As I walk down the 11-mile loop road through the valley, fog leaves the air so moist that rain appears to be falling from the leaves of the cherry trees as I pass under them.
With the first bit of light forcing it's way through the morning mist, white-tailed deer begin to graze the valley's lush offerings.  

Pileated Woodpeckers go from fencepost to fencepost trying to keep up with the demands of hungry babies. 

As the sun begins to make it's way over the mountain ridge, the stars disappear but the meadows glisten with the sparkle of dew-covered spiderwebs.  All around me the morning light reveals the colors of the mountain flowers as they wait for the sun's warming rays.

Passing under another cherry tree, I am startled by what sounds like a branch breaking above me.  As I peer through the berry-laden branches,  a dark movement reveals a black bear feeding on the ripened fruit.  As I pause, he watches me warily but continues to feed.  Finally, having his fill, he quickly climbs down and lumbers off through the high grass, pausing twice to stand and look back.
By now the sun has risen above the mountain ridges and begins to burn the fog from the valley.  But the light reveals in all it's misty glory the beauty of the Smoky Mountain morning.  The remaining mist seems to separate the mountains and pull in the horizon.  Layer after layer of blue mountains surround me with impressionistic beauty.  
Within a few minutes the golden light of early morning will be replaced by mid-morning light, when the animals will retreat back into the forest to sleep off their morning meals.  Maybe it's now time for my morning meal, fresh with the thoughts and images in my mind of a Smoky Mountain morning
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is not just a weekend getaway, it is a week long adventure or a yearly destination.  From the flowers in the spring, the colors in the autumn and the snow covered mountaintops of winter, any time of the year is the right time to visit.  And don't forget your camera.

*Originally published in the "Blue Ridge Country...Covering The Mountains Of The South" magazine in April, 1999.  A few of the pictures have been changed from the original article just to update it a little.  This article along with the accompanying images are copyrighted by T.Eric Albright.