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

Posted by Jenny in hiking, history, Smoky Mountains.
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11 comments

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