A Winter Walk in the Great Smoky Mountains

Reading by Robert Towe

From my nature journal, February 8: A still, gray winter morning, smelling of snow. But the clouds are thin like skim milk, so we keep our day-hike plan and drive an hour to Big Creek, a bouldery fast-falling stream of white waters rushing out of the northeastern edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Big Creek watershed describes a steep, twelve mile long gorge four thousand feet deep, bounded by 5842’ Mt. Sterling on the south, 6621’ Mt. Guyot standing tall on the west, and the high, 6,000' state-line ridge to the north. I’ve fished and hiked this wild stream since boyhood. It is one of my favorite waters, redolent with the smoke of many campfires, faces of dear ones come and gone.

We park at the picnic area beside the noisy creek, and walk upstream through the campground (closed for winter) on a wide bench of flat woodland, one of few sizeable level areas in the entire watershed. This is the early-1900’s site of Crestmont Timber Company’s sawmill and shanty town for several hundred loggers who clearcut the virgin timber in the whole Big Creek basin. Old sepia photos reveal a shambles of rough shacks, muddy roads and rugged men (long before chain saws), logging railroads and mountains of enormous logs waiting to be sawed into lumber. Today, just a few mossy foundations and rock walls remain in a deep forest of tall poplar and sweet gum. The only sound is the roaring creek running full of snowmelt and winter rains. Far above us misty spruce-fir ridgelines are crusted with rime ice frozen on the trees during the night.

About a mile up the trail we leave the creek and clamber up a steep side-trace through rhododendrons to one of the largest boulders in the Big Creek gorge. Named ‘House Rock’, the monolith stands over forty feet high, with a roomy overhang formed by vertical twenty-five foot walls. It was used by settlers and hunters in this area in the early 1800’s, and long before that by the indigenous peoples who inhabited this wilderness for unknown centuries. Smokes of old fires stain the granite wall. House Rock is an excellent place to just sit and be quiet a long while, as the sheer concave of stone echoes the waters rushing endlessly below. Being still and listening to the stream, the mind gradually gets cleansed of clamoring “civilized” noises. We live more deeply in the delicate present moment, linking us to all other moments flowing down the mysterious stream of time. I find myself wanting to hear the human voices of those who have found shelter under this big rock for thousands of years.

Skies are darkening, lowering over the jagged high mountain rim. Drops of cold sleety rain start falling, rattling the fallen winter leaves. After a cup of hot tea with apricots and almonds in the shelter of the big rock, we return to the creek-side trail. The Great Smokies, true to their name, create their own mists and wild weathers in all seasons. We turn our steps around and walk downstream, back to our warm homes.