jump to navigation

A church, a firetower, and possibly a panther September 6, 2010

Posted by Jenny in hiking, history, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: , , , , , ,

Little Cataloochee Baptist Church

You, my readers, are going to kill me. I still don’t have a camera, following the destruction of mine during the Lester Prong escapade two weeks ago. I have ordered the particular ***WATERPROOF*** camera I want, but it has not arrived yet. All of the photos you see here come from Wikimedia Commons, a collection of images not subject to copyright. There will be one more outing sans camera, the one I did today. The hike described below was done last Thursday.

I credit Don Casada for giving me the idea for this wonderful outing, though he surely didn’t expect I’d just dash out the door and do it right away. He told me of starting at the Pretty Hollow Gap trailhead, going up to Sterling Ridge and over to the firetower, down the Mt. Sterling and the Long Bunk trails, and back over on the Little Cataloochee trail to close the loop. It turns out to be 18.1 miles and around 4100 vertical.

I got up in the dark and arrived at the gate in Cataloochee Valley at 6:30. The gate was closed. I really should have expected this. After all, I’d run afoul of the same gate a few weeks ago coming out from the Shanty Mountain manway at around 10:00 at night. We found that the gate was closed then too, but unlocked, so we pushed it open, drove out, and closed it back up.

The difference this morning was that I was going in rather than out, and I felt that the Park Service might have good reasons not to allow automobiles in where they could disturb the elk herd early in the morning. So even though I figured I could push open the gate, I decided not to do that. Instead, I drove around to the east end of the Little Cataloochee trail on the Mt. Sterling Gap road to start the loop there instead. But as I left Cataloochee valley, I saw two beautiful bull elk with antlers so impressive as to be positively ornate.

I swear, they were even more impressive than this!

I drove along the seriously potholed Mt. Sterling Gap road for a while, crossed Cataloochee Creek at the gauging station, and arrived at the Little Cataloochee trailhead around 7:00. It was just starting to get light. I walked down to the crossing of Correll Branch, headed up the winding road as it contoured around some side ridges. And then I saw something and said to myself, “What the hell was that!?”

It was large, grayish tan, and had a long tail, not like a bobcat. It was moving away from me in a cat-like gait. I did not get a good look at its head, but I think the tail might actually be more significant. It disappeared around a corner, and I hurried ahead to try to get another look at it, but it had vanished into the woods. What could it have been other than a panther?

The curl of the long tail was exactly what I saw

This seemed a gift, a miracle.

I continued on past the Long Bunk junction to the side trail to the John Jackson Hannah cabin. It stood in a small green clearing that seemed to glow in the early morning. In a way it seemed very simple, but actually I don’t think it was simple at all. Too much human wisdom and skill went into its construction.

John Jackson Hannah cabin

I admired the round stones of the foundation, polished in a stream, and the amazing wide floorboards. It was built in 1864 and restored very nicely by the Park Service in 1976, using tools of the period.

I passed the lovely flat area known as “Ola,” a fond short version of the name of Will Messer’s daughter, Viola. Here he had run a store, a blacksmith’s shop, and had a very nice house. Almost none of this remains except for a “fine rocked-up spring” mentioned in Bill Hart’s description and a line of old locust fence posts that had been mentioned by Don Casada—that helped me to observe them.

Continuing along the road on this cool, fresh, morning, I rounded a corner and met with my next wildlife of this day, a large dark furry shape running across the trail—a bear! I could hear the sound of its solid paws crashing through the leaves for a long time after I lost sight of it.

I climbed up a hill and finally caught sight of the lovely Little Cataloochee Baptist Church, its steeple pointing toward heaven, with its cast-iron bell tucked into the base of the steeple. You see the picture of the church at the top of this post. I climbed up the side path and pushed open one of the double doors. This is what I saw.

Inside the Little Cataloochee church

Again, simple but not really so simple. The white pews with their straight, elegant lines, the faithful cast-iron stove that warmed the feet of the congregation, and the pulpit. I walked up to the pulpit and found that a Bible was open there. The pages were turned to one of those terrible Old Testament books that speaks of the vengeance of the Lord, plagues of locusts, and that sort of thing. It made an interesting contrast to the peaceful green trees that I saw through the large windows.

After leaving the church and visiting the cemetery with its Confederate veterans honored by slightly tattered flags, I walked on along this wonderful winding road to the next point of interest, the Daniel Cook cabin.

Daniel Cook cabin

According to Bill Hart’s information, Cook’s daughter Rachel married Will Messer, and so these families in this small island community were interconnected in several ways.

Next came the climb over Davidson Gap, and then down I went into the valley of Pretty Hollow Creek. Along the way I heard noises among the leaves and saw my next wildlife of the day, a flock of wild turkeys.

Now it was time to get down to serious hiking business. My time of enjoying human history had come to an end, and I had to climb up to Pretty Hollow Gap on the Sterling ridge, an elevation change of around 2300 feet. But it was gradual and not too painful. I noticed that campsite 39 had been closed due to “aggressive bear activity.” Can’t some of those bears be retiring and introspective?

Finally up on the ridge, I was in the land of the large spruces. They have become my favorite evergreen—well, no big reach there—the balsams are still recovering from their adelgid infestation, while the hemlocks are staggering and mostly dead from theirs. I enjoyed the way the sunshine was glowing to the south side of the ridge, and the way I passed through pockets of cooler air at regular intervals. I made the last climb up to the Mt. Sterling firetower.

A sudden temperature drop?

Well, this was the best picture I could find! I climbed up to the top, finding that the last step up to the cab is a bit airy. Good training for acrophobes, since there is actually no rational ground for being afraid. I looked at the 360 degree view and got out my map to aid me in identifying peaks. I’ve never been a good peak identifier.

Then, down the Mt. Sterling trail to the Long Bunk junction. The trail is wide and rubbly. I entertained myself by trying to remember what exactly I was thinking about when I was on the same trail three years ago. Mainly, I believe I was thinking about trying to avoid the yellow jacket nests that came along from time to time. This time I did not run afoul of any yellow jackets.

Then down the Long Bunk trail. Down most of the time, but sometimes up—it seems to have an annoying number of little 100-foot climbs, when its true purpose, as far as I was concerned, was to get me back to the Little Cataloochee trail. Sections of it seemed plagued by gnats. But eventually I reached the Hannah Cemetery, went in through the gate, and sat down comfortably on a nice bed of moss to enjoy the peaceful company of the dead. I like the kaleidoscopic colors that come from all the artificial flowers. There are quite a few veterans here—Civil War, Spanish American War, World War II—as well as many graves marked with the small stone “Mother” at the foot.

I have no good photograph of the cemetery to insert, unfortunately. It is a simple, moving place surrounded by the kind of fence that would be used around a pasture, ornamented with a scalloped design.

From there it was not very far to return to my car. I had not seen a single person all day. This was a truly wonderful hike, one that I will remember for a very long time.

I startled about ten of these along the Sterling ridge


1. don casada - September 6, 2010

Excellent, Jenny. You chose your route well not only with respect to the gate, but got to enjoy most of the historical stuff before putting in the labor going up over Davidson Gap and then up Pretty Hollow. How was the trail going up Davidson Gap? It was being worked last time I was through there, and it needed it (too steep for the horse traffic it sees, IMHO. Pretty Hollow can be Pretty Hot in some of the upper portion since you’re out in the sun. But you had a good day to be there not only with respect to temperatures but also views from the tower.

I’ve not been bothered with gnats on Long Bunk, but you never know when they’ll be pesky. I really like the woods in the upper section of Long Bunk.

I put a fair amount of effort into peak identification, both during hikes – and moreso afterward. The combination of GPS timestamp and camera timestamp marking the photo location is very helpful. Google Earth can also be very helpful in identifying peaks, especially remote ones. I’ll send you some pictures from the Sterling firetower with labels put on a few places.

I don’t know if you noticed the grave markers of Viola’s daughters or not; I’ll also send a photo along. Be sure to note the dates. Folks back then had lives that were incredibly different in many respects from ours. They were tough, yet tender people.

Which Bill Hart book are you using? I don’t know him (my brother Jim does, and gave me a copy of his 3000 miles in the Smokies book). From all I hear, he is a really fine fellow. Good western NC mountain boy.

I don’t recall where I read it, but there was a panther sighting over in Cataloochee in the 1970’s. If I remember correctly, a couple of rangers were involved. Also in the 70’s, a trail crew worker, Raymond DeHart, spotted one near High Rocks. Both of those have been written up (but again, I don’t remember the source).

I also know of a undocumented sighting in the 70’s. My cousin, James Burnett and a friend were fishing up on Deep Creek. James was working on a fly when his buddy hollered to look up the creek. A panther had jumped from one bank to a rock in the middle and then jumped the rest of the creek. James saw the second jump. I consider him to be a very credible witness. He’s a couple of years younger than me, so he’d have been around 20 at the time. He spent tons of time in the outdoors growing up, trained in forestry and parks/recreation management (fellow NC State alum), and has been managing St. Marks Wildlife Refuge in Florida for the last 20+ years.

Bottom line: I absolutely believe your observation. The Cataloochee Basin would be one of the most likely places to find one, by the way. Lots of very remote territory nearby, good food supply. But now you’re going to have me looking over my shoulder constantly over there!

Jenny - September 6, 2010

The trail over Davidson Gap was steep, but it looked as though some rock and log steps had been installed. I don’t believe any part of it had been significantly relocated. I was thinking that if I’d done the loop in the sequence originally proposed, with Davidson Gap coming near the end, I would have found it demoralizing.
Regarding peak identification, I often make myself work at it, but it doesn’t come easily. Thank you for e-mailing the photos. I’d been able to identify only the most obvious ones.
Bill Hart’s information came in the brown “Hiking Trails of the Smokies” guide, in which the author of each individual writeup is identified. His description of the Little Cataloochee trail is detailed and thoughtful.
Regarding the panther sighting, I’ve come to the conclusion that unless I somehow dreamt or hallucinated the event, it had to be a panther, just based on the physical characteristics. Of course, it would be better if someone else had seen it too.

2. Brian - September 6, 2010

Sure wish I could see those elk if they are more impressive than those shown. Wow! Don’t know what to make of your panther sighting. In South Florida they got down to the last few dozen inbred eastern panthers left anywhere. Had to bring in some females from Texas to get them back from the brink. A tiny population in a marginal area where they were spread thin and was almost uninhabited and little visited. Still they regularly got hit by cars, hunters treed them with dogs, biologists could track them down and collar them etc. Knowledgeable people, even biologists, see them in the Appalachians sometimes but nothing physical turns up. No DNA from scat or hair even. Then again a transient male from Florida was shot in central GA. They come up where I live sometimes but only males. The females don’t get the urge to wander and are still bottled up by Caloosahatchee River. There’s a fascinating clearinghouse for sightings I like to check from time to time.


I read something recently that makes me think of your efforts to master Afrikaans phonetics. Here’s another language from that part of the world that sounds like an absolute nightmare.


3. Jenny - September 6, 2010

If you look at the photo of the elk above, the one on the right has larger antlers than the one on the left. The two that I saw both had antlers of that scope. Regarding the panther sighting, see my comment above–I just wish someone with me had seen it too. I have heard it hypothesized that some of the Florida population have moved north. Our friend Dwight McCarter appears to be convinced they inhabit the Smokies, and showed someone clawmarks on a tree he thought came from a panther. Thank you for the link.
I took a look at that language description. Incredible! I think I’m finally making progress with that “G” sound in Afrikaans. So I won’t have to avoid saying “Good morning” to people, or to leave “Graaff Reinet” off the list of towns that I visited on my last trip to South Africa.

4. tom lundberg - September 7, 2010

i enjoyed that loop from sterling gap, which is a little less drive time, a few years ago. and i also had a big cat sighting, in ’84, on the northern end of BRP just after the road was reopened following a long winter closure. i was first on the road after weeks – watched the gate opened, and then drove through. i ran over lots of detritus, nudged deer out of the road w/fender, and then a little after dusk, rounded a bend and saw a low slung, long tailed, flat headed animal on the road shoulder that when crouched, could’ve easily balanced a serving tray on his broad shoulders. i drove past while braking, and then held it in my backup lights for a few seconds. tail twitched. i’ve seen lots of pole cats. they ride high on the back end, and don’t often crouch. they bound off. this animal glided away. i was alone, so the only confirmation is the permanent snapshot etched in my mind.

Jenny - September 7, 2010

That’s a great description! I like your “permanent snapshot,” because that’s exactly what I experienced at that moment very early in the morning along the Little Cataloochee trail. Some things happen really fast and disappear, and it seems that if it’s important, it gets imprinted somehow. In this case, for me, it was the shape of the tail and the particular movement of the animal, fast and gliding.

5. kevinumberger - September 8, 2010

hey jenny,
i was just on long bunk last sunday………question for ya……

after one left the intersection with mt sterling trail, about 10 minutes down long bunk, theres a side trail that looks to go to at least one rock headstone……do you know anything about this, what i’m guessing,is a cemetery?

Jenny - September 8, 2010

I’m not sure, but I know there’s some old rockwork around there that was related to a farm in the area. I’m thinking maybe there wasn’t a cemetery up there, since the Hannah cemetery isn’t far away.

6. Thomas Stazyk - September 8, 2010

Fascinating post and comments. It’s like a trip back in time.

7. kevinumberger - September 9, 2010

yeah……i saw evidence of an old home site sorta up in that area……i look on a generic map of the cemeteries in the park (the paper published this one a few years ago, and doesnt have a ton of details) and there’s a dot listing a cemetery up at that spot……….

to my eye, it had all the markings of a cemetery, but only one small stone……the trail down to it, while not long, was kept clear of blowdowns and brush……..

Jenny - September 9, 2010

I think I remember the path you’re talking about. It went through some pines, but I didn’t follow it. You seem to have good information about cemeteries, so I’m sure you’re right!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s