Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Interpreting the Forest


            “Take a guess.  What’s that thing for?” Joel asked while pointing to a telephone- pole-size, wooden post shaped like a giant 7 stuck along the gravel road in the Nantahala National Forest.  “A nesting place?  Maybe a roosting spot?” I guessed.  “No, the park service built if for flying squirrels to cross the road.”  From anyone else, this tidbit would have made us skeptical.  We’d have asked how the squirrels knew to cross at that particular place.  And why do they need it since there’s almost no traffic at all?  Also, flying squirrels?  Really?  But hiking with Kathy and Joel Zachry is like having translators in a foreign country.  They speak forest fluently.  You could attribute it to his 30 year career as a college biology teacher or their 50 years of combined experience hiking and leading trips.  But it’s their passion for the natural world that really distinguishes them.
            When Joel retired in 1999 he anticipated missing the field trips he’d taken with his students.  So he and Kathy, a medical products company vice president, started their company GOAT (Great Outdoor Adventure Travel).  Its name refers to the couple’s pet fainting goats.  “They just pass out and fall down when they’re scared,” Kathy explained with obvious amusement.  It also refers to the animal’s sure-footedness.  Each year the couple leads hikes and workshops at a variety of venues including at J.C. Campbell Folk School, The Swag Country Inn, the Arrowmont School and even to Alaska where they've been over 25 times.  They also lead multi-day hikes on the Appalachian Trail and are particularly proud of their work with the Smoky Mountain Field School.  That 30-year old, award-winning program offers one-day and longer programs on various aspects of nature within the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  As the program directors, the Zachrys help arrange the 60 classroom and field offerings taught by a diversified host of experts serving over 700 students a year.
            “Look at the hillside,” Joel said while gesturing across a steep slope. “Notice there are no tall trees.  They were all harvested 50 to 100 years ago.”  He led us to imagine how that was accomplished in those days:  miles of cables strung across the rocky terrain, mammoth rolling logs careening to the river, the impossibly strenuous work and the arduous lifestyle it required.  Another stop was along the gravel forest road that had recently collapsed and been repaired.  He wanted us to admire the engineering work.  They are thrilled with the emerging trillium that are sprouting despite  the recent snowfall. “There is a greater diversity of plant life in North Carolina than in all of Europe,” Joel pointed out.  They seem to know the name and medicinal uses for most every one of them.
 They make us stop to examine droppings.  “Notice the hair in it, “Kathy says as she prodded the poo with her walking stick.  “What animal was it and what did it eat?” They point out the symptoms of the disease challenges facing the piney forest and the Joyce Kilmer nearby.
            I joined their entourage during my stay at Snowbird Lodge in Robbinsville, N.C.  It’s one of several places where the Zachrys offer daily hikes and evening naturalist talks as an amenity.  I was surprised to learn that many of the inn’s guests had come not knowing about the free hikes.  For me it was the selling point.  Their promise of safety, maximized enjoyment and minimized worry had attracted me. Their familiarity with the dozens of hiking trails eliminated my having to do any research or to bumble around looking for trailheads.  The March weather varied like a light switch:  spring to winter, warm to cold.  This early in the season, trails were obscured by leaves and not recently used.  I would have thought we were lost without their confident strides ahead of us as we walked across the frosty, rocky terrain one day and to the sunny foot of a waterfall the next.
         The Zachrys are also experts on bears.  In fact they've written a book about it, Bears We’ve Met .  Although there are about two bears per square mile in the Smoky Mountains, “Black bear rarely attack humans with fewer than 60 human fatalities within the last 100 years …” Joel writes.  When they’re startled, they chomp, huff and snort which are merely anxious blusterings and not signs of imminent attack.    So he advises to make yourself as large as possible by spreading your arms, to back away slowly and to not run which triggers a pursuit response. “They have very little interest in eating us…of course there are always exceptions to that.”  Fortunately the only anxious blusterings  I heard were the hikers trudging uphill as we marveled at spring emerging in one of the most beautiful parts of our country.   

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