Trail of Tears Update One: Smoky MountainsFrom The Field
Words: Ian Finch // Photography: Will Saunders
Jamie Barnes and I sit on a small floating boat dock in rural Waverly, Tennessee. Yesterday, strong south-easterly winds and dangerous sideways swell forced us from the east side of the Tennessee River into a large cove stretching a mile inland. Cutting across to the next peninsula would’ve been a risky move at this point, yet risks are part of daily life now. The waters of the Tennessee River have been known to be violent and swallow people whole, especially in the spring winds. We don’t want to add to that statistic. As the white rollers sweep the wooden dock left to right, we take shelter in a small secluded bay where local boats moor. At this point, after 500 miles of paddling, we’re almost halfway into retracing the journey the Cherokee took during their forced removals to Oklahoma in 1838. This section of our route is part of a wider story, which began six weeks ago in a mountain range a long way from Waverly Tennessee.
‘Smoky Mountains’ is derived from the Cherokee Word Shaconage (Sha-Kon-O-Hey), which means ‘Land of the Blue Smoke’. At this time of year, in mid-March, the oak and cove wood trees stand bare yet they still form an almost impenetrable brush over these endless rugged contours. The spine of the Great Smoky Mountains stretches north-east to south-west over North Carolina and Georgia. In the valleys at their base, huge arterial rivers are fed by small creeks that start their journey somewhere amongst the 5,000ft summits. This vast and beautiful landscape was the ancestral home of the Cherokee for thousands of years.
Starting at the north-western flank of this great range was never in doubt. Our aim was to cross from one side to the other on foot, Elkmont to Tapoco, using the spine of the mountains and the sun as a compass. This would then feed us south-west and down to the Little Tennessee River and onto the wider and longer Tennessee River, the only water source running south to north in the US. On a much deeper storytelling level we wanted to experience the region from a perspective of immersion into nature. This was our chance to see, even in a modern world with all its influences, a place that has remained largely unchanged in hundreds of years.
It’s bitterly cold and the skies are clear over the whole of the Smoky Mountains. At high altitudes, flat wispy clouds stretch out from horizon to horizon. We use smaller, lesser-known trails that weave and tumble over creaks, fertile forested plateaus, and across bridges made from fallen trees. As the switchback trails climb higher, we find white-tailed deer roaming the steep hillsides, inquisitive and interested in the new visitors. We’re carrying everything we need for five to six winter days in the mountains and for seven weeks on the river. Our wooden canoe paddles – to be used when we reach the Tennessee River – are double-strapped vertically to the outside of our auburn and blue Lowe Alpine expedition packs. The packs are shoulder-crushingly heavy thanks to the length of this journey. Every few hundred metres there are strap readjustments and clothing changes, regular occurrences on a mountain journey in an unfamiliar climate. These moments are all about finding your system and pace and staying within that framework. Each upgrade in pace or gradient requires some tweak.
At this slow, grinding speed, everything is reduced down to a point where we are able to look more and learn more – especially when our very reason for being here is to immerse ourselves in the very landscape nurtured and cherished by the Cherokee. As the sun dips below the horizon each day we either find solace in our cold tents under the pine trees or in the wooden shelters scattered along the immense mountain ridgelines every 10-12 miles. Each night there would be a fire, not only to provide warmth but as a point of community – a place for people to come together and friendships to form. It’s also a good chance to hone skills needed for the long wet stretches along the Tennessee River that are bound to happen. We’d meet lonely hikers in the remote stretches and small groups sometimes frequented the shelters. Around the fire is where we’d explain why we have paddles strapped to the outside of our packs and why they weigh the same as a baby elephant. Raised eyebrows are commonplace when the details of our journey come to light.
As the bitter mornings give way to warm afternoons it’s evident to see why these mountains are not only a place to see and protect but were once inhabited. There’s magic and mystery here. The trees and vegetation in these mountains are the source of the haze (‘smoke’). Where trees give way to open clearings (balds), views drop in an almost 360˚ view over flat river valleys and distant mountain ranges hundreds of miles away. It’s here that you see why people would choose to inhabit such a place and hold it in such a sacred reverence. I like to imagine that some of the overlooks here remain unchanged since the day of the Cherokee. That they would stop and look as I did, maybe pause for a second or two in awe before moving on to collect water or to search for an animal to hunt. Locals tell me that each of the balds still retains a specific story that links the landscape and wildlife to the native people of the region. These are the stories I search for and hold onto.
As the Little Tennessee River and valley feels within reach, the cold weather, heavy pack, and the continued ascent and descent have slowly chipped away at reserve energy levels. Our bodies use every available calorie we eat, leaving nothing for surplus storage. We rapidly consume the dehydrated Firepot food for breakfast and dinner, scraping the packs with plastic spoons and sipping the last nutritious remnants of sauces. At times like this, when food is rationed and counted, you remember what it feels like to be hungry. In today’s ‘everything accessible’ world that’s not a familiar feeling, but one that brings me down to earth.
I first set my eyes on the Little Tennessee River midday on day six. We’ve descended over 3,000ft in one long and hot morning. A week on foot over the Smokies has taken its toll on our knees; each descending step is awkward and painful even with trekking poles. As we emerge at the river, a snaking main road intersects the mountains and the forested banks that lead to the water. The emerald-green river flashes through the trees. High forested bluffs and low-level mountains start at the water’s edge on the opposite bank and ascend steeply back up, creating a deep valley. The breeze creates gentle ripples on the otherwise motionless water. This area has been dammed six miles down and the water has backed up to here, creating a series of small secluded lakes.
Going from rocky mountain trails to hard tarmac gives the feet an early wake-up call. We strap boots to rucksacks beside our paddles, replacing them with lighter shoes we’ve carried the whole way. As we reach the dam some two hours later, we witness the immense hydro output of the first of many Tennessee River dams. 50,000 gallons of water a second creates a thunderous roar. But this spectacle supplying electricity to the surrounding counties is also changing the river’s natural ecosystem and flow: a sad and destructive biproduct of our need for more power to support the growing world. Looking 300m down through a chain fence I see the huge waterflow channelled downriver to a bridge. The waters boil and spiral violently under its concrete pillars. Adrenaline and nervousness buzz through my veins at the thought of that fast current and the chance to make distance quickly in the canoe the following morning. The reality is that the current would dissipate as it meets resistance and in no time we’d float gently along with the first of a million paddle strokes. We are 1km from where we will change mediums to canoe and retrace the exact waterborne route of the Cherokee removals. A journey of 880 miles.
To be continued.