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No Time Like National Trails Day to Take a Hike

Nature lovers go ambling together along America’s footpaths June 2

Whether you’re a seasoned trail trekker or just looking to get your feet dusty for the first time in a stretch, there’s a day designated just for getting people together to enjoy a nature walk.

On the first Saturday of June for 25 years, the American Hiking Society has promoted a nationwide gathering of hikers of all ages, abilities and experience levels to discover or rediscover a sense of beauty and adventure along a local public-lands footpath. Thousands of the trail-marching meet-ups are hosted throughout the country.

The concept for National Trails Day is to connect people with a wide range of trail activities on a single day. Organizers of the coast-to-coast events say that sometimes all people need to get enthused about hiking is someone to show them what’s available – or biking or horseback riding or any other trail activity, for that matter.

National Trails Day is a “collective effort to connect people with trails,” he said.

“We encourage a wide variety of events, and not all of it even has to be hiking related,” said Wesley Trimble, a program coordinator for the American Hiking Society. “Basically, any kind of trail activity that is muscle-powered, whether it be hiking, biking horseback riding, is something we promote.”

National Trails Day is also envisioned as an event to spur volunteer interest in repairing and improving trails. Last year AHS helped coordinate more 1,500 hikes and trail-maintenance events, with activities in all 50 states. This year’s goal is to improve 2,802 miles of trail across the country — the distance across the United States.

“It’s easy to hit the trail and enjoy being outside without thinking about the tremendous effort it takes to advocate for, plan, build, and maintain the nearly 250,000 miles of trail crisscrossing America,” said Kate VanWaes, director of AHS.

Tennessee’s coordinator for outreach programs and special events at state parks, Morgan Gilman, said National Trails Day is one of a handful of days throughout the year when all state parks organize activities around a common theme

“National Trails Day is one of our signature events at all of our state parks – and it is all about getting people out and enjoying our trails,” she said.

And there are plenty of trails to choose from: together, State parks across Tennessee boast more than a thousand miles of walking paths.

Some parks will offer leisurely strolls; some strenuous. Some parks are doing clean-up hikes and others are more history oriented, she said

In addition to promoting the thoroughgoing benefits to health and well-being that hiking provides, National Trails Day provides an outstanding opportunity for park managers and staff to showcase something that makes their sites worthy of designation as special places in Tennessee, Gilman said.

And when it comes to having a lot to offer, Tennessee’s state park system is among the best in the country. Last year, the National Recreation and Park Association named Tennessee as one of the four best state park systems in the country for demonstrating excellence in management, stewardship and program development.

“On National Trails Day, the parks tend to try to highlight the aspects that make them unique,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity to maybe explore a new trail or volunteer to help clean up or do maintenance on one of your favorite trails.

Events include activities such as hikes, trail runs, bicycle tours, horseback rides, volunteer trail projects, activities for kids, and much more.

“We have a variety of things that they are trying to tap into at all the parks, but it is just a great day to celebrate trails and hiking,” said Gilman.

To find out what’s going on at a state park you’d like to visit, go here for a calendar of events and contact info for all Tennessee’s individual park headquarters.

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Warren County Angler Nets All-American Honors

Vandagriff earns national recognition capping outstanding high school career

A McMinnville student who considers Center Hill Lake his home waters has been named to the 2018 Bassmaster High School All-American Fishing Team.

Samuel Vandagriff, a senior at Warren County High, is among just 12 young anglers from the around the country — one of only two from Tennessee — to earn the prestigious recognition.

He landed the All-American designation after his name rose to the top of a nomination pool consisting of more than 465 names. The Bassmaster organization executives who made the selections said their criteria included not just on-the-water skills and success, but also dedication to academics and good citizenship.

“Samuel also leads off the water in his school, church and community, participating in things like hurricane relief, Habitat for Humanity and Relay for Life,” said David Lowrie, Tennessee B.A.S.S. Nation High School state director. “Samuel provides leadership for Warren County’s fishing team and sets an example for other Tennessee B.A.S.S. Nation high school and junior anglers.”

Samuel will now get to compete against other Bassmaster All-Americans at a special high school tournament being held in conjunction with the professional 2018 Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest beginning May 17.

J.W. Holt, a teacher at Warren County High who serves as the school’s fishing-club faculty advisor, described Samuel’s All-American award as “a very huge accomplishment” that has been terrific both for the school itself and building youth enthusiasm for competition fishing.

“It’s brought us a lot of attention, and put us in a good spotlight,” said Holt, who helped organize the Warren County High School bass club’s launch six years ago. Holt said the fishing club, for which Samuel serves as president, has been growing every year.

“It’s really unbelievable and amazing how it has taken off,” he said.

Holt said Samuel, who turns 18 this summer, has been a tournament standout since he started fishing with the club as an eighth grader, when he was part of a nationally ranked duo with another astute young Warren County angler, Hunter Bouldin, who’s now on the FLW circuit.

“Samuel is very persistent and he practices a lot — he just has a knack for it,” said Holt. “He’s really good at what he does, and he’s one of these kids that can handle pressure. It always seems like he’s on top of things.”

Learning the Ways of Lunkers 

Samuel said he’s been fishing for as long as his memory serves. He credits his dad and grandfathers for teaching him tricks for tracking down and hooking fish early on that have continued to serve him well.

One of the keys to tournament fishing success is versatility, said Samuel. He advises youngsters who want to make a name for themselves boating big bass to get comfortable with all kinds of angling tactics and techniques.

“Putting your time in is pretty much the biggest thing,” he said. “Figure out what you’re best at, and then once you figure that out, work on learning new stuff.”

A big secret to consistent tournament success is “getting good at fishing everything,” he said.

“I catch a lot of fish shallow, but then again I like catching them deep just as well,” said Samuel. “Most people can either do one or the other — they’re either out there deep or up in the trees. They don’t go back and forth. But not every tournament is going to be won shallow and not every tournament is going to be won deep. You’ve got to be able to fish all of it.”

Family Values Fishing

Samuel’s parents, Barry and Shannon, obviously have a lot to boast about these days — and not just because of Samuel’s successes. Their younger son, Matthew, is Samuel’s fishing partner and a rising star himself. Samuel and Matthew have qualified for nationals every year they’ve been fishing together. Last year they placed fifth in the Bassmaster National Championship tournament.

Barry also serves as their coach and manager. “I buy the gas and drive the boat,” he said. As Samuel puts it, “He’s always our boat captain.”

It never took much coaxing to interest the boys in wetting a line when they were little, Barry said. Both got pretty serious about it “as soon as they could hold a pole.”

“I guess it’s in their blood,” he said.

In the fall, Samuel is planning to attend Tennessee Tech in Cookeville. Ironically enough, the only other 2018 Bassmaster High School All-American from Tennessee — Jacob Woods of Lenoir City High School — intends to go to TTU as well. Samuel said he and Jacob have become good friends over the years and expects they’ll be fishing partners in the college tournaments.

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Kayak Fishing Tourney Underway at Rock Island

If you’re looking to test your angling talents against other paddling bass stalkers, then take note: Rock Island State Park is hosting a season of kayak-fishing tournament events this year.

Ranger Allen Reynolds is supervising the Rock Island State Park Kayak Bass Fishing Series 2018, which cost only five bucks per date to enter, or $20 for all of them.

“This year is something of a trial effort, we’re trying to generate interest and build on it from there,” said Reynolds, himself a fisherman who says there’s an abundance of fish and diverse water-types and aquatic habitats holding fish in the area, not to mention a range of fish species.

Using the “hawg trough” and photo method for fish measurement, the competition point-system is focused on the three main black-bass species: largemouth, smallies and spotted or Kentucky bass. You can a contact the ranger station at least a day ahead of a tournament date to rent a hawg trough.

There’ll also be a prize awarded at the end of the year for “most unique fish” as well. Reynolds anticipates that could end up being a gnarly looking muskie, since the launch point for certain tournament dates is the Kings Ramp on the Collins River, just south of the RISP main entrance. The Caney Fork’s tributaries above Center Hill Lake are renown for their mean and stealthy pike-species predators lurking in the currents.

Tournament No. 2 in the series begins this Saturday at 5:30 am at the RISP boat ramp.

The other dates are as follows:

  • May 5 — 6am-1pm (Rock Island State Park Boat Ramp)
  • June 9 — 6am-1pm (King’s Landing Boat Ramp)
  • September 8 — 6am-1pm (Rock Island State Park Boat Ramp)
  • October 6 — Final Event, Time and Location TBA

In addition to hopefully introducing angles to exciting new fishing waters around Rock Island State Park, one of Reynolds’ motives behind organizing the tournament series is to “level the playing field” for people who may want to participate in fishing competitions but aren’t already all-in with high-dollar investments.

“There are a lot of guys that really like to fish but maybe don’t have a big bass boat or whatever,” he said. “I think that’s the appeal of this kind of fishing.”

For those new to the sport of kayak fishing who want to test the waters before plunging in and buying one of their own, kayak rentals are available in the area.

While it’s billed as a kayak fishing tournament, it’s probably more aptly a described as a self-propelled personal watercraft competition. According to the rules, only human-powered vessels are allowed, like canoes, kayaks, paddleboards. No electric or gas motors permitted and all fish must be caught from the boat.

Both fly-fishing gear and traditional rods and tackle are permitted. However, only artificial flies and lures are allowed. No live (or formerly alive) bait can be used, said Reynolds.

Unfortunately, the famed “Blue Hole” between Center Hill Lake and Great Falls Dam isn’t really accessible for the tournaments, said Reynolds.

“If you put in at our boat ramp (on Center Hill Lake) you would have to do some dragging with your boat and it is not really safe,” said Reynolds. “Everybody wants to go fish the blue hole in a boat, but it is just too dangerous. I have had to deal with too many rescues of people who were unaware of what happens when the water comes up. It catches a lot of people off guard.”

Reynolds said he’s angling for corporate sponsorship as the tournament grows, but so far it’s mostly supported locally. Chances are, though, if kayak fisherfolks start showing up in numbers, Eric Jackson will probably take notice. Jackson, a world-champion freestyle kayaker turned competition bass angler, lives in the realm of Rock Island, and the headquarters and manufacturing center for his paddlesport boat-building company, Jackson Kayak, is located just up the road in Sparta.

Contact allen.reynolds@tn.gov to learn more about the tournament, or visit the RISP Facebook page.

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Putnam County Gov’t Gets Good Comptroller Report

Putnam County has secured a place among just over a dozen Tennessee counties to earn a “clean” audit report from the state agency charged with examining local-government fiscal affairs.

Ninety of Tennessee’s 95 counties have been audited since the last fiscal year ended on June 30. Only 13 have been declared free of accounting discrepancies and defects in spending oversight.

Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson’s office issued a news release last week declaring that Putnam County’s financial management — as well as that of Lincoln and Louden — has recently been reviewed without identifying any “weaknesses or deficiencies in government operations.”

Elected officials from Putnam and other counties that earn clean audits deserve appreciation for making a serious commitment to “accurate financial reporting and clear checks and balances that help protect taxpayer money,” according to the comptroller’s office statement.

“A clean audit is a positive sign that a county government in on track,” Wilson said. “I commend all of the elected officials, leaders, and county staff who have committed to a well-run government. This is an accomplishment worth celebrating.”

Putnam County Executive Randy Porter indicated he was obviously quite pleased with the audit results, saying that one of his “primary goals” upon taking office in 2014 was to work toward a clean audit.

“This is really significant for Putnam County, as we know this has not happened in the past 25 years and possibly never,” Porter said in an emailed statement. Making Putnam County government more fiscally responsible “has truly been a team effort” among all the county’s elected leaders and department employees, he said.

On average, Tennessee counties examined this year by state auditors received 3.76 “findings” of fiscal failing or budget-management blundering of one sort or another. That number is an improvement from the previous fiscal year, when the state average per county was 4.26.

The other counties besides Putnam, Lincoln and Louden awarded recognition for state auditors finding no fault in their administrative financial affairs this year are Bedford, Blount, Franklin, Gibson, Giles, Marshall, Rutherford, Tipton, Unicoi and Williamson.

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Coming Soon: New Trails at Edgar Evins State Park

‘Storybook trail’ nearing completion; ambitious mountain biking runs planned

Rangers and volunteers at Edgar Evins State Park are working on two new trails that’ll likely boost the park’s appeal to visitors young and not-so-young alike.

Scheduled for completion by the end of May, the “Reading Ranger Story Trail” near the Interpretive Center will give kids and their parents an opportunity to stretch both their legs and imaginations.

A storybook trail, as it is also called, is a relatively short and easy path with blown-up pages from a children’s book posted along the way. You have to keep walking to get to the end of the story.

Tennessee’s first state park storybook trail opened a year and a half ago at Long Hunter State Park on Percy Priest Lake.

Childhood Development, Early & Often

That trail was the brainchild of Ranger Leslie Anne Rawlings, who built on a concept called “StoryWalks” that originated in Vermont a few years ago. There, the idea was to separate the pages from actual books and affix them along trails for kids to discover.

Rawlings has taken the idea a few steps further — and made it bigger and more weather-resistant. She has secured permission from children’s book publishers to enlarge and outdoor-proof the pages so they will last a long time.

Inspiring early appreciation for the outdoors and amplifying a child’s desire to read for pleasure are ideally where the storybook trails ultimately lead, said Rawlings. She also hopes they will encourage more communication and cooperation between state parks and public libraries.

Trail-building starts with “flagging” a path.

Other parks besides Edgar Evins are planning to build new storybook trails or repurpose existing ones.

“Eventually, we hope to get to the point where we can trade our stories around among a lot of different parks,” said Rawlings.

The Edgar Evins storybook trail, which is a pretty easy quarter or so mile loop, is located across the street from the Interpretive Center. A trail ribbon-cutting ceremony is scheduled for June 2 in conjunction with the park’s celebration of the American Hiking Society’s National Trails Day.

Who Wants Mountain Biking Trails?

Turning Edgar Evins State Park into an inviting mountain biking destination is something Kenny Gragg has been saying is high on his to-do list since he took over as park manager last winter.

He reports that about six new miles of multi-use backcountry trail is now in the course-plotting phase, and it’ll be designed principally with mountain biking in mind.

Volunteers are necessary to make good, sustainable trails as inexpensively as possible. (Photo by Mark Taylor.)

Justin Vaughn, a native of Putnam County who’s worked at the park six years, admits he’s no expert on mountain biking. However, he knows where to go for advice and assistance from mountain biking mentors. The crew at Outdoor Experience’s Caney Fork Cycles in Cookeville, as well as Middle Tennessee’s SORBA chapter, a network of bike trail enthusiasts, are lending energy and know-how to help ensure the project’s success.

“What I am hoping to do is keep costs as low as possible while providing the best trail possible to park visitors,” he said. He’s hoping all or parts of the trail could be open for riding by end of this fall or early next spring.

Vaughn predicts the chances for timely completion and epic results will no doubt be enhanced if calls for volunteers are heeded among interested communities when the word goes out.

“That is something that is part of the planning process — figuring out where I am going to get volunteers,” Vaughn said. “But part of the reason we’re building it is that interest in biking trails is growing. A lot of people come to us and say they’d like to see a trail here. We’ve listened to those visitors and we’re working on it.”

(Feature image: Ranger Leslie Anne Rawlings with local children at Long Hunter State Park. Photo by Jason Allen)

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Boom Times for Black Walnut

Prospects brighter for giant provider of wood, food and forest shade

As it often turns out, for better or worse, the future just ain’t what it used to be.

But in the realm of hardwood forest health, that actually ought to be a big win for the tall, dark and handsome black walnut, which is certainly no stranger to the wooded hillsides, valleys and ridges of Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland region.

Not so long ago, though, it looked like dismal days indeed lay ahead for the opulent heartwood of the eastern U.S. heartland. A tiny twig beetle was casting a long and ominous shadow out over the horizon, potentially menacing the survival of many millions of black walnut trees across their native range.

Given the appalling pandemic that befell and felled the American chestnut, and the ongoing disaster unfolding as a result of the emerald ash borer’s baleful spread, anxiety among forest health experts soared back in the early years of this decade when a malevolent blight called thousand cankers disease, or TCD, was discovered in the Knoxville area.

Thousand cankers disease is described by scientists as a “disease complex” that is native to the western United States. It is an arboreal ailment that scientists say results from  “the combined activity” of a fungus (Geosmithia morbida) spread by the walnut twig beetle (Pityophthorus juglandis).

Walnut twig beetle

A disease that primarily affects black walnut trees, TCD gets its name from a pernicious propensity to inflict numerous small ulcers or “cankers” on trees. If proliferation of the cankers brought on by the beetle’s “overwhelming attacks” goes unchecked, it will kill the tree.

Of particularly worrying concern when the twig beetle and TCD was detected in Tennessee was not only that the pestilence had not yet been observed east of the Mississippi, but that the Volunteer State essentially constitutes the very core of black walnut country.

“Tennessee is roughly in the middle of the native range for black walnut trees,” said Steve Powell, the state’s chief entomologist. “So when it was found in 2010, it was really unfortunate.”

Tennessee’s Division of Forestry estimates there are 26 million mature walnut trees growing throughout the state’s countrysides, and another 1.3 million in urban areas, representing a combined standing economic timber value of $2.84 billion.

Forest Fears Festering

The sinister dread primarily bugging scientists, conservationists, loggers and forestland owners after the discovery of thousand cankers disease in east Tennessee was that black walnut trees were facing a crisis similar to that currently witnessed with emerald ash borer, which is now in more than 60 Tennessee counties. EAB is a bonafide “catastrophe” for ash trees wherever it appears, according to Vanderbilt University biological sciences professor Steve Baskauf.

“The emerald ash borer has been expanding its range throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada at a steady pace and there is currently no way to stop it,” Baskauf wrote in 2015. “All attempts at quarantine or creating ‘firebreaks’ have failed. The only real question is when the EAB will arrive in an area. It’s like a giant steamroller slowly rolling down a hill towards your house. You can see that it’s coming and you know that when it gets there, it’s going to smash your house. But there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”

Fortunately for black walnut trees, though, TCD isn’t EAB.

While TCD has in fact ravaged black walnuts in the Western United States, those trees are not native to that environment. They were historically introduced from the Midwest and Eastern U.S.

“The pioneers took their black walnuts out west and planted them,” said Alan Windham, a plant pathologist with the University of Tennessee’s Institute of Agriculture. “They had black walnuts in New Mexico, Utah and Colorado — usually planted along streams and rivers.”

Windham said it appears now the black walnut’s devastating susceptibility to TCD in the West looks to be greatly exacerbated by natural environmental stresses as a result of the drier climate out there, which greatly inhibits a tree’s ability to fight off and survive the condition.

No Place Like Native Home

The wetter Eastern U.S. climate is, by contrast, more to the black walnut’s liking than the arid west.

Trees here appear much more capable of fending off the disease — and even recovering after a TCD infection sets in, which is uncommon in the West, said Windham.

“When TCD showed up here, there was an assumption that the same thing would happen here that happened there — that it would be very damaging to the species,” Windham said. “But here we are, more than seven years later, and it really hasn’t moved much from the initial location in Knox County. The good news is that we have had a totally different experience with thousand cankers disease in the Eastern United States than what the scientists who had followed it out West were perhaps anticipating.”

While black walnut trees are not as plentiful in Tennessee as in some states, especially further north, they nevertheless play a crucial role in forest ecosystems and wildlife habitats here. Demand for the delicious nuts, among both humans and fulltime forest-dwelling fauna — like squirrels, raccoons, turkeys and bears — is robust.

And like sapling shoots invigorated with the spring, walnut timber prices are reaching ever upward. Demand for the exquisite, richly-grained black walnut wood, especially for decorative veneer, is “extremely strong right now,” said University of Tennessee extension forester David Mercker, who tracks Tennessee timber prices as part of his job.

“It increases almost on a weekly basis,” he said.

And that has been the case for a while now. “The loggers and mills just can’t get enough of it,” Mercker said.

Jonathan Boggs, who manages a woodland resource consulting firm based in Dickson County, said that while it’s true walnut trees are currently fetching premium prices, don’t assume you’re in for a tidy and effortless payday just because you have one growing out on the lawn in the subdivision where you live.

“Believe me, I get two or three calls a week from somebody that’s got a walnut tree in their front yard and they’ve been hearing the same thing that everybody is hearing, that prices are real high,” said Boggs. “The reality is that it may be worth something if you’re willing to cut it down yourself and take it to a mill. But you’re probably not going to get a buyer to come and cut a single tree — or even a few trees — out of your yard. It just isn’t going to be feasible for them to do that.”

Boggs added, though, that if you’re a logger or a landowner contemplating a timber sale, a 25-foot walnut log that’s at least 24 inches on the small end might yield $10 a board foot. “There could be 500 board feet in that tree, so in all reality it could bring $5,000,” Boggs said. “But most yard trees aren’t going to have that quality or board feet in them.”

A forest-grown black walnut tree is “going to have better characteristics” than an urban tree — like “not having any low-hanging limbs,” he said. “They self-thin themselves in the woods.”

Going for Nuts

For some rural landowners and freelance foragers, the nuts are basically just another crop to harvest when they start dropping in the fall.

The two Upper Cumberland black-walnut buying-and-hulling stations in 2017 were Jackson County Farm and Garden in Gainsboro, and at local rancher Brent Hewitt’s place near Morrison in western Warren County. Both sell their walnuts to the Hammons Products Company in Stockton, Missouri.

“The flavor of black walnut is very rich and robust, very distinctive from English walnut,” said Brian Hammons, the company’s third-generation president. “Chefs are increasingly intrigued with what that flavor will do in their dishes. So they are using it more and more all the time.”

Hammons’ grandfather, Ralph, launched the operation in 1946 after he tracked down a used nut-cracking machine for sale in Tennessee and hauled it back to his hometown in the Ozarks, whereupon he started buying walnuts from whoever wanted collect them and bring them in to him.

Today, the Hammons company buys 20-30 million pounds annually. Last year they bought black walnuts from more than 235 hulling stations across 15 states.

Jacob Basecke, vice president of marketing and sales at Hammons, said 2017 was “a really, really strong year in Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio.” Hammons purchased about 731,465 pounds out of Tennessee.

“The 10 year average is about 475,000 pounds, so it was up last year,” Basecke said.

Hewitt, whose hulling station is located about 10 miles west of McMinnville, said he’s been rolling in black walnuts ever since he got into the business five years ago. Like all Hammons-backed stations, Hewitt paid his clients $15 dollars per hundred pounds in 2017, post hulling. Five years ago the price was $13, he said.

“This was a good year,” Hewitt said. Although it could have been even better were it not for some frost-loss, he said. “I done almost 200,000 pounds. That’s about the same as the year before,” he said.

In fact, he actually took in a few hundred more pounds in 2017 than 2016. “I lacked just 306 pounds from having 200,000 pounds this year,” Hewitt said. “Last year I think I lacked thirteen-hundred.”

For Jackson County Farm and Garden, this year in fact wasn’t as good as last, said store manager Alana Pippin. They hulled 95,000 or 96,000 pounds, she said. In 2016 they did 103,000.

“The always say you’ll have a good year, then one bad, then a good one and then a bad one again,” she said. “Some years it’s good, some years it’s not. This was kind of an off year, so hopefully next year will be better.”

Black walnuts are actually alternate bearing, Call it “alternutting,” if you like. They tend to produce noticeably larger average crops every other year.

A lot of people bring in harvest hauls from neighboring counties,  and often those taking particular advantage of the black walnut buy-up are families and individuals of modest means, Pippen said.

“People will drive pretty far to come down here,” she said. “And a lot of times you can tell that they really need the extra money.”

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Set a Course for State Parks This Spring

Multitude of things to do at premier Middle TN recreation spots

OK, so it’s obviously premature to be proclaiming “Spring is in the Air”  at this point.

But before winter even starts to wane it isn’t too early to start marking your calendar to visit state parks around the Highland Rim and Cumberland Plateau region. As usual, they’re offering an abundance of organized outings and seasonal event celebrations in March and April, all of which are aimed especially at helping visitors shed melancholy and embrace the rebirth of warmth and color.

There’s no better way to put the bloom on your appreciation of nature’s wondrous mannerisms than wandering the springtime woods or taking placid walks along waters both peaceful and roiling with end-of-winter runoff.

Below is a partial list of scheduled park happenings that are certain to help lighten grey moods, get the blood pumping and invite new life and vibrancy back into your view of the world.

Edgar Evins State Park
1630 Edgar Evins State Park Road
Silver Point, TN
931-858-2115

March 3: Weed Wrangle. Join rangers and othe park volunteers as they hunt down and remove invasive plants. Meet at the Millennium Trail parking area at 9:00 AM and work till around noon. Bring gloves, wear appropriate clothes and shoes, and be prepared to get dirty and have fun!

March 10: Come out and watch WILDFLOWERS OF THE HIGHLAND RIM emerging from winter’s icy grip! Meet at the Park Office, 2pm.

Brad Halfacre, a ranger at Edgar Evins State Park, shows off a chunk of chestnut wood that’s on display at the interpretive center.

March 17: Join Friends of Edgar Evins State Park for the Annual Waterfall Tour Fundraiser.

March 17: Take a ranger-led walk on the Highland Rim Nature Trail in search of Wildflower Blooms. Hike starts at 10am — meet at park office.

Mar. 24: Friends of Edgar Evins State Park Spring Hike

March 31: Birds, Blooms & Butterflies Hike, 2pm. Meet at Millennium Trailhead parking area for two-and-a-half mile guided loop trek. Don’t forget your camera!

March. 31: Third Annual Easter Eggstravaganza Easter Egg Hunt 2pm at the main campground.

March 8: More Birds, Blooms and Butterflies! Guided two-mile hike departs from park office at 9am.

April 14: Annual Celebration of Spring – All day fun for the whole family.

Fall Creek Falls
2009 Village Camp Road
Spencer, TN
423-881-5298

March 3: Weed Wrangle, starts at 9 am and lasts until 1pm. Join staff and volunteers at the Nature Center to work on eradicating pesky weeds from the lovely landscape of Tennessee’s premier state park.

March 3: FCF Thaw 15k Run & Weekend Excursion. Email Roger Gall (rsgl@cafes.net) for details.

March 16-18: Get cosmic under the Cumberland Plateau’s night sky at the Spring Star Party. Email Lloyd Watkins (watkinslk@comcast.net) for meet-up time & place.

March 31: Easter Egg Hunt in the Village Area. 10:00 am.

April 7-8: 37th Annual Fall Creek Falls Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage. Trees budding, flowers blooming, delightful hues and pastel colors bursting forth. Email Matt Brown (matthew.brown@tn.gov) for full schedule of guided hikes and wildflower related programs.

Standings Stone State Park
1674 Standing Stone Park Hwy.
Hilham, TN
931-823-6347

March 24: Spring Hike 2018: Pick up your daypack and lace up your boots, SSSP is thick with virgin woods, vivid wildflowers and fantastic waterside views. 10 a.m. Ranger Sarah Geeslin is organizing the event. Email her at sarah.geeslin@tn.gov.

March 31: Easter Egg Hunt, 2 pm. Hunt located below the dam, includes age appropriate sections: 4 and under, 5-8 & 9-12. The Bunny won’t wait, so don’t be late!

April 13-14: 15th Annual Nature Rally. Check park’s webpage or email sarah.geeslin@tn.gov as date approaches for detailed list of events.

Rock Island State Park:
82 Beach Road Rock Island, TN
931-686-2471

Twin Falls at Rock Island State Park

March 3: Weed Wrangle starts at 10 am. Come on out and help remove exotic invasive plants to create a better habitat for native Tennessee varieties!

March 24: Spring Hike 2018 begins at 10am. Walk along the Downstream Trail watching for waterfalls and wildflowers — no better way to celebrate the start of spring!

April 14: Rock and Row Triathlon, 8am. Five kilometers of paddling, five kilometers of running (both road and trail), five kilometers of biking on park roads. Contact RISP office to register.

Cumberland Mountain State Park
24 Office Drive
Crossville, TN
931-484-6138

March 3: Weed Wrangle, 9am-3pm. Come be part of the invasive-plant removal crew at the original Civilian Conservation Corps picnic area built at the park. Email monica.johnson@tn.gov for more info.

March 24: Spring Trek, 10am. Two-mile easy loop, guided by park staff who can speak to the natural, cultural and historical treasures you’ll encounter.

April 13-15: Waterfalls and Wildflowers Photography Workshop. Photographers of all experience levels welcome! You’ll learn all the necessary skills to to capture and create stunning waterfall and wildflower images. Email cassie.rapert@tn.gov to inquire about details, registration and fees.

April 27-29: April Waterfall Tour. Join State Naturalist Randy Hedgepath and Ranger Cara Alexander on a three-day excursion to some of the realm’s most beautiful cascades, cataracts and free-falling stream flows. Email cassie.rapert@tn.gov for more info or to register.

State Naturalist Randy Hedgepath

April 28: 8th Annual Wildflower Photography Workshop, 9am. Ranger Monica Johnson (monica.johnson@tn.gov) and photographer Anthony Ladd will lead a fantastical journey through the forest of Cumberland Mountain State Park in search of picturesque vistas and perfect wildflower photo ops. In addition to marvelous hiking, workshop includes photography tips, innovative ways of capturing dramatic natural images, wildflower identification.

April 28: Homestead Hammer Adventure Triathlon, 8am. 2-mile trail run, 1-mile mile kayak, 1.5 mile mountain bike course. Email Mark Houston (mark.houston@tn.gov) for more info.

Burgess Falls State Park
4000 Burgess Falls Drive
Sparta, TN
931-432-5312

March 3: Weed Wrangle, 9am. Staff and volunteers will join forces to remove non-native plants. The four-hour project will involve hiking to remote areas so bring lunch, water and sturdy shoes! Email Bill.Summers@tn.gov for more info.

South Cumberland State Park
11745 US 41
Monteagle, TN
931-924-2980

March 3: Backcountry Weed Wrangle, 9am. Help free native flora from the grip of privet and other invasive plant species deep in the Tennessee outback! Meet at Stone Door Ranger Station and travel by park vehicle to the project area. Register with james.holland@tn.gov.

Great Stone Door Overlook

March 28: Savage Gulf Marathon. Start & finish at Stone Door Ranger Station. Not for the faint of heart, lungs or legs! Race features 26.2 miles of brutal terrain. Participation limited to first 100 registrations. Email Ray.Cutcher@tn.gov.

March 31: Trailblazing, 9am. Come help create a brand new loop trail at Sherwood Forest, a brand new addition to South Cumberland State Park. Email Ranger Jason Reynolds (jason.reynolds@tn.gov) for exact meet-up location.

April 13-16: Trails and Trilliums. A three-day festival featuring guided hikes on the South Cumberland’s most scenic trails. Also, programs, workshops and art displays. Proceeds benefit Friends of the South Cumberland State Park. trailsandtrilliums.org

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When Land Became Lake

“Under the Lake” is a book published in 2016 about life in the Caney Fork River Valley prior to construction of Center Hill Dam. Pictured above are the book’s authors (from left to right): Judy Taylor Fuson, Carol Denson Williams and Ria Baker.

Seven decades have passed since Center Hill Dam construction

This coming year will mark the 70th anniversary of Center Hill Dam’s completion and subsequent submersion of the Caney Fork River Valley above it.

Undeniably, many modern benefits accompanied the lake impoundment, from hydroelectric power production to flood control to numerous forms of recreation.

So it’s easy — perhaps too easy — to overlook the heart-rending historical reality that for hundreds of families living in the area, the coming of the federal government’s new dam meant doom for their old ways of living. Along with displacement, the rising of Center Hill Lake’s waters came at the price of washing away all but the memories of the only life many former inhabitants had ever known.

When the dam closed off in the fall of 1948, once rich farmland and forests were inundated, thus “completely changing the face of the northern and eastern sections of DeKalb County,” local historian Thomas G. Webb wrote in a “Tennessee County History Series” book published by Memphis State University Press.

Fortunately, three DeKalb County women — Judy Taylor Fuson, Ria Baker and Carol Denson Williams — have endeavored, with assistance from Mr. Webb, to record for posterity the remembrances and manners of life that existed in the valley before it was deluged.

Their 2016 coffee table-style book, “Under the Lake,” is a painstakingly assembled compendium of history, anecdotes, images, maps and family genealogies. It preserves and pays homage to a bygone epoch that gave begrudgingly away to the 20th Century surge of modern resource development.

Construction on Center Hill Dam, 1946

Williams, a retired school teacher of 30 years, said she, Baker and Fuson pored over property maps of the entire lake in an attempt to catalog all the families that owned land and were forced to move. Thousands were dislodged from throughout the region, particularly in the fertile farming areas areas close to the dam, she said.

“DeKalb County population in 1940 was 14,588 yet the following census, in 1950, recorded the county population at 11,680 showing a 2,908 population drop after the dam project was completed,” the authors write in “Under the Lake.”

It’s hard for people today to grasp the scope and process of removing all the people who used to reside amidst the fingers, branches, ravines and coves of what is now a lake in excess of 60 miles long covering nearly 19,000 acres, with more than 400 miles of crooked shoreline.

“That is a massive amount of land,” said Baker, formerly the town mayor of Alexandria. “We’re not talking about just taking a 500 foot strip for an interstate or whatever. And it wasn’t like they were saying, ‘We’re gonna to cut your farm in half and take just so many acres.’ No, it was, ‘We’re going take your whole farm and you’re going to move — we’re going to cover your house up or tear it down, and we don’t care if your grandmother lived there forever’.”

The process of picking up and clearing out was exceptionally difficult for the elderly, who were “really hurt” by the prospect of leaving forever behind family hearth and heritage, she said. Often they never recovered.

“So many people, the older people especially, were just broken,” said Baker. “This was their home, it was their lives. It would probably have happened to anybody in those circumstances, but it was just such a mass of people here. Of course, it also happened everywhere a dam went in.”

Williams said many were in denial about the inevitability of what was happening.

One man reportedly didn’t believe the water was going to submerge all his property, so he “neatly stacked all his belongings up under a bluff overhang.” Baker said. “They finally had to go get him and pull him out — he wasn’t going to leave.”

“A lot of people knew it was coming even before the Second World War, when (government agents) came and started surveying,” said Williams. “But when the war came they had to stop. After the war was over they started full-force. Some people kept saying, ‘Oh no, this is not going to happen.’ In the end, though, it did.”

If you’d like to inquire about ordering a copy of “Under the Lake,” visit the Facebook page maintained by the authors: DeKalb County, TN, Caney Fork River (@nowunderwater).

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Domestic Elk a Doable TN Livestock Option

Great grazing here in the Upper Cumberland country, but good fencing needed

When people think of elk, what probably comes to mind is the American West, and in particular, the Rocky Mountains.

But elk, which are one of the largest native land animals in North America, were in fact historically abundant throughout much of the Eastern United States. Prior to their reintroduction in small enclaves by state and federal wildlife managers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, wild elk hadn’t roamed Tennessee’s woods in great numbers since well before the middle of the 19th Century.

“Early records indicated that elk were abundant in the state prior to being settled by European explorers and colonists,” says the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s informational web page on elk restoration. “As these settlers moved westward the elk population declined.”

“The last historical record of an elk being sighted in Tennessee was in 1865 when one was reported to be killed in Obion County,” according to the agency. There was not “one specific reason” for the depletion of the animals, although “over-exploitation by man” and “habitat destruction” played significant roles in their demise.

Self-sustaining herds of wild elk in Tennessee exist today only in a few remote tracts, like Land Between the Lakes, Smoky Mountain National Park and the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area in Campbell County.

But even though elk have had a pretty rough couple of centuries in the Southeastern United States, rearing them in captivity on marginal farm and ranch land is both feasible and potentially quite lucrative.

At least two ranchers in Middle Tennessee are currently raising elk, and have been for years.

Dow Armistead runs a small herd of elk — along with sitka and fallow deer — on his property near the Caney Fork River in eastern Smith County, where his family has owned land in the area for generations — “I’d say 100 years or better,” he told the Center Hill Sun.

“I’d love to see more people doing this,” Armistead said of raising elk. “They’re not the easiest things in the world to take care of, but they aren’t the hardest either.”

With a little general knowledge of raising traditional livestock added to a little basic research, anyone can probably figure it out without much difficulty, Armistead said. He’s also happy to talk to people about the basics, and doesn’t mind people pulling off the road to admire his animals along St. Mary’s/Stonewall Club Road just west of the Opossum Road turnoff.

There’s certainly money to be made selling the the animals for genetics, meat and antlers, said Armistead — who works a regular job in commercial construction. But his primary motivating interest is simply in observing their grace and grandeur.

“A lot of times I come here to feed them and end up just sitting or leaning up against the fence and watching them for a while,” Armistead said.

Installing and maintaining the eight-foot-high fencing to keep the animals penned in is the most costly and labor-intensive element of the operation, he noted. Armistead’s farm consists of about 60 acres of hilly forest and scrubland, and the elk meander about on a little more than half of it.

Not Too Tame

Often when they see him, Armistead’s elk will amble down and see what he’s up to — and often there’s a snack in it for them when they do. Armistead supplements their grass diet with an occasional bucket of grain and provides them additional hay in the winter.

Armistead said he doesn’t like them getting affectionate with people, though. Even unintentionally, a several-hundred pound animal can do serious damage to the human body in short order. That’s especially true of a mature bull that’s wearing a massive, dagger-pronged antler rack.

“They can be dangerous if they get too friendly,” said Armistead.

Herb Fritch owns Two Feathers Elk and Bison Ranch in Hickman County, where he runs about 300 elk on 400 acres. Fritch has been raising elk, buffalo and other somewhat unusual livestock since the late 1990s. His operation was formerly near McMinnville, and before that he raised exotic animals near the Caney Fork River along Smith Fork Creek.

The most lucrative aspect of raising elk in the United States is the market in “trophy antler genetics, buying-and-selling semen from the champion bulls,” Fritch said.

But as with Armistead, Fritch said just having the opportunity to regularly behold and appreciate the singular majesty of an elk herd is for him what offers the deepest sense of personal fulfillment — more than the economics of the enterprise.

“I love just looking at these magnificent animals as much as anything,” said Fritch, a retired Nashville health-care industry entrepreneur. But being the largest elk breeder in Tennessee, “at some point you have to sell something somewhere,” he added.

Call of the Wild

Autumn is an especially rewarding time to own elk, which are noted for the eerie, hollow-sounding high-pitched whistle, or “bugling.”

In an effort to trumpet their desirability to available females within earshot, bulls give vent to the otherworldly whine during rutting season. Bugling also serves to warn away male interlopers — or let them know a fight awaits if they plan to stick around.

Elk are in fact quite vocal beyond just their distinct bugling. They’re actually “among the noisiest ungulates, communicating danger quickly and identifying each other by sound,” according to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

Newborn calves will bleat out shrill squeals and squalls that are individually recognized by their mothers, and adult males and females alike utter a variety of barks, chirps, mews, pips, grunts and snorts that make up an elaborate lexicon of audible elk talk.

“Elk also use body language. For example, an elk displays dominance by raising its head high,” according to RMEF.

Southern Things to Think About

Keeping domestic elk in the South “does have its challenges,” Fritch said. “They have heavy coats, so they can deal with the cold weather — but the heat can be an issue.”

It’s essential to keep a lot of shade available in their pasture ranges, he said. Armistead said his “really like to roll around in the mud during the warmer months.”

Likewise, parasites can be an issue of greater concern here than in northern climes because winter temperatures often don’t drop low enough for long enough to naturally disrupt the lifecycle of dangerous parasites.

“You really have to pay attention to parasites down here,” Fritch said. “The other issue you have to be aware of is ticks. It can get to the point of having to bring an animal down if you don’t stay on top of it.”

“There is a bit of a learning curve,” he said. “The main two things you have to deal with to get started is the fencing and the handling facilities to work the animals.”

If you have multiple bulls pastured together, bulls will fight during the rut. “That is not good – you can lose animals that way,” he said. So it’s necessary to either separate the bulls or removed their antlers at the end of the summer.

“Beyond that, the rest of it is not too different than keeping dairy cattle,” said Fritch. “There are certain nutritional requirements, but that is not to hard to learn and get a handle on.”

The North American Breeders Association maintains a useful FAQ page for anyone interested in learning more about raising domestic elk.

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Savage Beauty Abides at South Cumberland

Picturesque panoramas easily accessible at Great Stone Door 

With more than 30,000 acres under its auspices, South Cumberland State Park isn’t merly Tennessee’s largest state natural area. It’s also as remote, rugged and optically grand a place as you are likely to find within a day’s drive.

Fortunately for people fortunate enough to find themselves visiting or living near Center Hill Lake, it’s in fact hardly more than a 90-minute hop.

Several State Parks in One

South Cumberland State Park is actually a cluster of scenic getaways. Consisting of 10 different natural-area tracts in Grundy, Franklin, Marion and Sequatchie Counties, it’s more like a small subsystem of state parks than a single large one.

“A popular destination for hikers and campers, nearly 100 miles of trails and 13 primitive campgrounds service the area,” the Friends of the South Cumberland State Park website reports. “In addition to hiking and camping, the park offers opportunities for picnicking, swimming, fishing, caving, visiting historic ruins, rock climbing and rappelling, viewing spectacular rock formations, wildlife and waterfalls.”

It’s a region full of history and natural wonder that many a Middle Tennessee outdoor enthusiast has never properly discovered or adequately explored.

Just a few of the popular destinations are places like Foster Falls, Denny Cove, Grundy State Forest, Grundy Lakes and Sewanee Natural Bridge.

The 12.5-mile Fiery Gizzard Trail features “cascading streams, numerous waterfalls, panoramic overlooks, extremely rocky gorges, gentle slopes and lush woodlands,” thus undoubtedly placing it, in Friends of SCSP’s estimation, among “the most diverse and beautiful in the state.” For that matter, it has been ranked among the best in the United States.

Named, as legend has it, by Davy Crockett after he bit into an overly hot mouthful of victuals while camped in the vicinity, the Fiery Gizzard trailhead is located about three miles from the South Cumberland Visitor Center outside the tourist-friendly mountain hamlet of Monteagle.

Stone-Cold Stunning

Nearest to I-40 and Center Hill Lake, and offering epically expansive rimrock panorama views, is the primally untamed Savage Gulf Natural Area. It consists of a trio of 5-mile-long canyons cut ruthlessly over the aeons into the western edge of Cumberland Plateau. The yawning canyons — or “gulfs,” in the parlance of the gobsmacked Scots-Irish settlers who happened upon the realm — converge together into the Collins River Valley.

In the Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau” installment of  his popular series of outdoor guidebooks, prolific trail-trekker Johnny Molloy describes Savage Gulf’s thousands of wild acres as “an area of waterfalls, bluffs, human history, and all around beauty.”

The July 2000 issue of Backpacker magazine assessed Savage Gulf as “one of the last true wilderness areas left in the South.”

“If you like the rugged beauty of the Smoky Mountains but can do without the legions of car-driving windshield tourists who invade Great Smoky Mountains National Park, head for Savage Gulf Natural Area,” declared a writer for the magazine. He added, “The view from these cliffs rivals any you will find in the Smoky Mountains.”

Located just 20 miles southeast of McMinnville, Savage’s Gulf’s remarkable Great Stone Door is a masterwork of patient geological artistry.

Stone Door is just an hour’s drive from Smithville, or a pleasurably scenic hour and a half from Cookeville. It gets its name from a narrow, deep, steep and traversable crack in the sheer outcrops overlooking a Collins headwater tributary.

Described in the pages of Backpacker magazine as “truly breathtaking,” the Great Stone Door overlook boasts what veteran state park naturalist Randy Hedgepath proclaims is “the best view anywhere in the state of Tennessee.”

Unlike some of the hikes in Savage Gulf, getting to the Stone Door overlook doesn’t necessarily require a heroic demonstration of physical stamina. It’s a fairly flat and mild mile-long stroll from the ranger station parking lot.

The magnificent immensity of the view one encounters immediately upon emerging from the woods-enveloped Stone Door trail onto the wide-open cliff-top overlooks can be a little disorienting. Coming up all at once against so much soaring, multi-directional vastness can literally result in not knowing which way to turn next. Best, though, to avoid swiveling and whirling about uncontrollably, as that could lead to a steep fall in the event one’s equilibrium is compromised by vertigo near a high ledge.

Another impressive canyon-viewing vantage along the trail, though not quite so dizzying, is Laurel Gulf Overlook. At just of a quarter mile from the ranger station, and situated on a wooden deck at the end of a paved walkway, it is comfortably accessible to wheelchairs.

Beyond Laurel Gulf Overlook in the direction of Stone Door, the footpath transforms fetchingly into a tramped-and-trodden mulch of forest-floor soil and fine, boot-milled sandstone.

Hikers possessing of hardy constitutions can descend from the Stone Door into the chasm floor and explore a network of demanding but highly rewarding trails. If unsullied solitude is what you seek, this may be your best option. Although owing to the area’s size and general seclusion, it is not entirely uncommon to find yourself agreeably alone along the rim trails and overlooks, particularly on weekdays.

MTSU professor Carroll Van West, Tennessee’s state historian, has written that the Savage Gulf region “is perhaps the most isolated place in the state.”

“Over one hundred years ago, the rugged landscape of Grundy County attracted entrepreneurs who wanted to exploit the minerals underground and the timber on top, as well as entrepreneurs who wanted a respite from their industrialized towns and cities to breath fresh mountain air and enjoy the plateau’s breathtaking scenery,” West wrote in his “Tennessee’s Historic Landscapes: A Traveler’s Guide,” a 1995 survey of noteworthy Volunteer State settlements, communities and architecture.

Periodic Pruning

Savage Gulf’s 800-feet-deep ravines and shelter some of Tennessee’s most pristine stands of old-growth timber outside of Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

But even though the indigenous hemlock and various native hardwoods are now protected from commercial logging, Mother Nature employs clear-cutting techniques of her own on occasion. Massive rockslides will, from time to time, crumble violently away from the bluff faces. The downhill-hurtling boulders often sheer away considerable swaths of virgin forest before coming to rest far below.

In his 1999 book,“The Historic Cumberland Plateau: An Explorer’s Guide,” Russ Manning described how the precipitous crags are prone to intermittent paroxysms of savage remodeling.

“The Savage Gulf forest is kept relatively young by the unstable walls of the canyon which periodically send an avalanche of boulders tumbling into the gorge, cutting down the trees as efficiently as a giant scythe,” wrote Manning. “Even so, the forest is impressive.”

Ranger Hedgepath said he’s witnessed the cataclysmic results firsthand. One morning he said he was gazing out from a rim overlook when he observed what appeared to be a sizable “gash” in the forest across the canyon. “It looked like a big piece of the mountain had disappeared,” he said.

Certain it hadn’t been there the day before, Hedgepath hiked in to investigate, whereupon he discovered that, indeed, “part of the bluff had broken off and fallen down.

“That’s what caused the big gash. Just one morning, there it was,” Hedgepath said. “It happened during the night, I guess.”

For bluff buffs who love everything about Savage Gulf, the fact that it’s still a work in progress just adds to the mystique and majesty of the place.

“The canyons are getting deeper and wider all the time,” said Hedgepath.