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Synchronous fireflies June 11, 2010

Posted by Jenny in hiking, nature, Smoky Mountains.
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It’s gotten so everyone knows about the synchronous fireflies at Elkmont. The Park Service runs shuttle buses to see them, which is certainly the best way for the park to handle the influx of interest. But there are several other places to see synchronous fireflies in the Smokies.

I don’t want to reveal all the details, because I want this place to be a little difficult to reach. I will say that we started at an elevation of 3,000 feet, climbed up to 5,000 feet, and camped there, because that is the closest legal place to camp, and also it’s just a nice place to go. Then around dusk we walked back down to a point near an old metal bridge, around 3,200 feet, and waited for the fireflies.

A 100-foot tall spruce near our campsite

We got down there on a rather mucky trail and had to wait a bit for true black, velvety darkness. A few fireflies gave us a brief preview of the show.

It got darker and darker. We stood in the middle of the dirt road and peered into the thick night air that was fragrant with vegetation, complicated with patterns of leaves.

Then the fireflies started flashing in their pattern. They go “blink, blink, blink,” for several seconds, and then they all go dark. Then, in unison, they go “blink, blink, blink” again.

It was a bit more intricate than that, but it would take a musician inscribing several lines of melody on composing paper to describe something like this. There were patterns, and there were patterns within patterns.

At first we went into the usual observer mode: “Wow! This is amazing! Look at that!” Then we just fell silent. After a while, as the stream kept running softly over the stones beneath the bridge, and as the tall trees were breathing all around us, we just watched and gave up on commenting about it.

We decided to find the darkest place, where we would be surrounded by the fireflies. We walked a bit further down the road, to where the darkness seemed to be particularly concentrating itself, although our legs were tired, and we stopped thinking about it in the usual way. We just saw the flashing, sparkling lights everywhere, generally about five or ten feet above the ground, in the warm, fragrant, living night air, going on-on-on; off-off-off.

To me, it somehow made me think of Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a time of darkness and magic when everything gets mixed up and people end up in fatally inappropriate relationships; but the single night of folly and enthusiasm makes it all worth while. And I kept looking at the lights, sparkling, sparkling, that were saying, “Joy! Joy! Joy!”

Finally we remembered we had to get back up to our campsite. So up we climbed with headlamps, back up 2,000 vertical feet, for a total 4,000 for the day. We were tired. It was 1:00 in the morning.

The next morning I woke up early and went around looking at the spruces, the early rays of sun, and the many forms of life visible then.

Morning sunbeams


Snail on stalk

Nan and Terri at breakfast