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Charlie Klabunde February 14, 2015

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, grief, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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A gloomy-looking lunch on Woolly Tops. Charlie enjoys his sandwich. And who is that strange-looking woman on the left? It's me!

A gloomy-looking lunch on Woolly Tops. Charlie is in the blue jacket. And who is that strange-looking woman on the left? It’s me! All photos here were taken by Al Watson.

Charlie died February 7 at the age of 83. He had been a member of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club since 1965. He contributed to the club in countless ways, ranging from production of the newsletter and the handbook to organizing the club’s photo contests to maintaining a section of the Appalachian Trail. It is a huge loss for many people. Here is something I wrote on the “Go Smokies” internet forum, when someone reported his death on that site:

I heard the news earlier this afternoon, and this is devastating to me. As he became very ill late last fall, I shared some of my thoughts with fellow members of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, and I hope they will forgive me if I repeat some of these thoughts. I joined the club in 1983. I looked at Charlie as a mentor (I don’t know if he especially wanted a young woman putting him into that position, but he tolerated it.) As he led the way up many challenging off-trail places, like Cannon Creek for example, or my first trip up the Jumpoff from the bottom, I found his presence immensely comforting. Funny thing was, it was all the more comforting because he never tried to be gentle and accomodating. He was always true to himself, and he always just spoke his mind. Sometimes he could be impatient, sometimes amused, and people did occasionally perceive him as “prickly” and had problems with that. But I instinctively recognized his integrity, and that was much more valuable to me than any effortful politeness. What I truly marveled at was his approach to the subject of risk. Off-trail hiking always involves a certain amount of risk. And yet what I learned from him was that risk can be valuable, it can be an essential component of human experience. As I told the SMHC late last year, one of my favorite quotes from him was, in the face of some ridiculous obstacle, “You only have to go right up the middle.” On many hikes I followed right behind him—it probably annoyed him, actually—trusting that he would know the best way to go. I would pipe up with some comment like, “We must be near such-and-such stream junction,” and he would just look at me, shake his head sadly, and say, “No. We haven’t gone around the end of the ridge yet.” And somewhere nearby in the woods as we made our way along, I would see the familiar sight of him, always wearing the same style of plaid cotton shirts and khaki-type pants, and carrying his map sections in a zip-loc bag.

Andy Zenick and Matthew Kelleher in foreground, Charlie Klabunde to the right.

Still on Woolly Tops—the sun has come out, but we are rather damp! Andy Zenick and Matthew Kelleher in foreground, Charlie to the right, figuring out the best route down.

The photo below doesn’t show a lot of detail, but it reminds me of a neat little observation Charlie made: that on the lower section of Eagle Rocks Prong, all the moss had been scoured off the boulders—you can see that here.  Above a certain point, all the rocks had the normal mossy covering. A flash flood had hit the stream at precisely that point. I learned much from him along these lines.

Charlie sits astride a log on the scoured-out portion of Eagle Rocks Prong.

Charlie sits astride a log on the scoured-out portion of Eagle Rocks Prong.

Charlie gave me something that can never be taken away, and I celebrate that. He gave me an appreciation of detailed observation of the outdoors—the specifics of stream valleys and ridges. He also gave me, as I described above, an appreciation of the value of risk in human life. And whenever I venture off-trail, I think about Charlie.


1. Al - February 14, 2015

Charlie was one of a kind. I last hiked with him a few years ago on a Club trip down from NFG to 441 on the Will Thomas Turnpike. We had 18 people on that off trail hike. I am so happy that he joined us on what may have been his final off trail journey.
He also led my first hike with the Club in 1985. Of course it was off trail to a place called the Devil’s Courthouse.

He was a friend too. He was the driving force to give me a greater love of the National Park and to walk with him and others on many bushwacking adventures.

Charlie, I will never forget you.

Jenny - February 14, 2015

Thanks for contributing these thoughts, Al. You were also a big influence on me in my early years with the club, along with Bill Neal and Paul Threlkeld. Such a great bunch of folks to learn from.

2. Will Skelton - February 16, 2015

What a great remembrance of Charlie; thanks Jenny.

3. Andrew Sisson - February 18, 2015

Very nice tribute Jenny. I met Charlie once on a SMHC hike. I really didn’t get to know him but heard some stories over the years.

4. Jenny - February 18, 2015

Thanks for your appreciation, Will and A.J.

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