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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.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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Roll into Standing Stone for Marble Madness

Standing Stone’s ‘Rolley Hole’ Tournament Celebrating 35th Anniversary

It’s something of a well-worn cliche to label a secluded place of natural beauty a “hidden gem.” But in the case of Standing Stone State Park, the description fits perfectly.

Located deep in the steep rises and ridges of the Highland Rim, the park is set covertly against the Cumberland Plateau amidst a maze of cryptic hills south of Dale Hollow Lake, about 10 miles northwest of Livingston.

Standing Stone is tucked well off and away from paths typically beaten by travelers and tourists exploring the Volunteer State’s numberless destinations for scenic eye-appeal. The 855-acre park in Overton County is also surrounded by more than 8,000 acres of state forest. Its rolling countryside is lavishly adorned with rugged woods and resplendent waterside scenery.

Opportunities for observing thriving wildlife populations — deer, turkey, fox, raccoons, bobcat, waterfowl, hawks, owls and songbirds — are commonplace, often tranquilly intersperse among areas frequented by crowds of human visitors.

“It’s most definitely not a place where you get tired of working,” said Shawn Hughes, a ranger at Standing Stone who grew up in the area. “It’s gorgeous in whatever season you are in, and it always offers something for everyone.”

Wildflower blooms are immense, and Standing Stone offers particularly spellbinding sprays and displays along contemplative timberland footpaths. “On our lake trails, the abundance of the shooting-star wildflowers is one of the highlights,” said Hughes. “And you don’t have to go very far — you might just go down one trail a little ways and see 70 or 80 specimens in bloom.”

Standing Stone’s colors and bold contours draw visitors throughout the year, but it’s late summer that brings about one of the most distinctive attractions for which Standing Stone is known, beyond just the grand landscape. The most highly anticipated happening the park has annually offered for the past three and a half decades is a crown-jewel of a marble tournament.

On Saturday, Standing Stone will celebrate the 35th anniversary of the National Rolley Hole Marbles Championship, one of the the most prominent and history-laden events of its kind in the United States — perhaps even the world.

Many books and articles have been written about the Rolley Hole tournament over the years — and the ageless sport of marble-shooting in general along the Tennessee-Kentucky border. From Sports Illustrated to Southern Living to the Smithsonian Institution, Standing Stone’s Rolley Hole tourney has been spotlighted numerous times over the years on national television news and sports programs. It even made an appearance in Charles M. Schulz’s famed “Peanuts” comic strip.

“The sport of rolley hole requires technical shooting skiffs as well as thoughtful strategy. It shares features in common with golf, pool, and croquet,” wrote renown Tennessee folklorist Robert Fulcher. “A centuries-old phenomenon, numerous variants of rolley hole have been documented worldwide. Shakespeare mentioned the game of Cherry Pit, which involved rolling a marble into a hole.”

Ranger Hughes is the chief organizer for the annual Rolley Hole tournament. Getting to know the game means gaining greater appreciation for regional culture and history, he said.

“The whole marble culture thing is so neat and cool,” said Hughes. “It really is deeper than what it looks at first glance, and the more you are around it and learn about it the greater it is.”

The game “seems super simple but the depth and complexity and strategy is really amazing,” he said.

More than even that, the Rolley Hole Championship and the accompanying festivities throughout the day — live music, food, marble-making, trading and selling — brings together the past and connects it with the future.

“You see a lot of older folks sort of get to step back in time and relive some of their youth,” said Hughes. “Or an older generation teaching a younger generation. Seeing a grandfather with his grandkids, teaching them to play marbles — I don’t know how much better it can get than that.”

In addition to “a day full of marble fun,” the 35th Rolley Hole event will include 7 hours of live bluegrass, blues, and old-time music by bands and artists like Uncle Shuffelo & His Haint Hollow Hootenanny, the Rockdale Ridgerunners, Avery Trace, Lonesome County Line and Kentucky Just Us, Trenton Caruthers, Mike DeFosche, Conner Vlietstra and a special set by Robert Eskew.

Also planned is a tribute to the music of the late Robert “Bud” Garrett, a legendary local blues musician and marble maker.

The festival begins at 8 a.m. and admission is free. For more information about the festival and Standing Stone State Park, visit http://tnstateparks.com/parks/about/standing-stone or call 931-823- 6347.

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Edgar Evins Manager’s Mission: Promote Park’s Appeal

Scenic Center Hill Lake recreation preserve something of an undiscovered treasure

When Kenny Gragg took over the top managerial post at Edgar Evins State Park last winter, it was something of a homecoming for him.

As a kid growing up in Cookeville, Gragg would often visit the 6,000 acre nature preserve and recreation destination overlooking Center Hill Lake on fun-seeking outings with friends or camp-retreats with his church group.

But it wasn’t until after he graduated with a degree in wildlife management from Tennessee Tech and worked at other parks that he said he really came to appreciate what Edgar Evins has to offer.

Kenny Gragg, managing ranger at Edgar Evins State Park

“Edgar Evins is so unique and diverse with flora and fauna. It’s nothing to see all kinds of wildlife just walking a quarter mile down one of our trails,” Gragg said. “Of all the state parks, it has some of the most diverse wildlife in the state. In my entire career I’d never seen a bobcat until I came here.”

He added, “There’s always the possibility that a bear could migrate in and show up, although I haven’t seen one, but I would never rule it out.”

Gragg, who worked as the managing ranger at Tims Ford in Franklin County before taking over the chief administrator slot at Edgar Evins, said he’s a deeply committed advocate of the Tennessee outdoors in general.

“You won’t find a bigger fan of the state of Tennessee than me,” he said. “I worked in Wyoming for a summer and I loved it out there. I even thought it might be great to move there. But when I came back, I fell back in love with Tennessee and now I never want to leave again.”

But Gragg said he was all the same a little stunned when he showed back up at Edgar Evins last winter to start his current job. It was a particularly nice day in February, the sunlight gleaming on the cliffs over the lake. A heartfelt appreciation was stirred in him for the beauty and distinctness the park’s ridges, slopes and crags.

Observation tower overlooking Center Hill Dam at Edgar Evins State Park

“One of the first things I really noticed here after coming back from Tims Ford was the hills,” he said. “It’s hilly at Tims Ford, of course, but not like it’s hilly here. This side of the Cumberland Plateau, the Highland Rim, you really just can’t beat it — I love being back in these hills.”

“Just driving on the backroads around here — like Lancaster Highway down below the dam — I’m not sure where you find a more beautiful stretch of highway in the country than that,” Gragg said.

One of Gragg’s priorities is boosting the “business side” of the government-run park by enticing more people to come to appreciate its appeal. He said he wants to do more to promote the park and “get it on the map.”

“It is amazing how little people know about the park and all that it has to offer,” he said.“You can drive to Smithville and find people who don’t even realize there is a state park over here.”

He believes a key to success in that regard is to “drive up the overnight visitation.”

“To do that we have got to develop more recreational opportunities,” Gragg said.

One of his long-range ambitions is to work with Middle Tennessee and Upper Cumberland mountain biking enthusiasts to design and build riding trails around the park. Designated backcountry biking paths would wonderfully complement the area’s hiking trails and vast capacity for paddling, fishing and boating, he said.

“For visitors to be able to go kayaking one day and then go mountain biking the next would be fantastic,” said Gragg.

For a list of upcoming events at Edgar Evins State Park, go here.

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Something Special About Small-Stream Smallies

Big lakes and large rivers aren’t the only habitat for brawny bronzebacks

Anglers are notoriously tight-lipped about where they go to rip fish lips. And that’s especially true among those serious about stalking skinny waters in search of fat bass.

But one of the great things about Middle Tennessee and the Upper Cumberland is that opportunities abound around here for escaping the mechanized weekend multitudes by sequestering yourself on backwoods bodies of moving water. There’s no shortage of covert creeks, secluded streams and secret side-channels that house hidden lairs holding lunker smallmouths.

Fervent fly fishermen like Sawyer Campbell are, of course, forever in thrall to the thrill of landing a big wily trout on an isolated run of fast-flowing river. Campbell, a Tennessee Tech grad, is Outdoor Experience of Cookeville’s floor manager and in-house fly shop tutor. But when he wants to steer clear of the Caney Fork’s flailing fleets of summer pleasure-floaters — or if an overnight excursion to East Tennessee’s South Holston River isn’t feasible — he likes to trek out to undisclosed stretches of tributaries feeding the Cumberland River in search of the copper-tinted kings of lower-elevation creeks and streams.

“It really doesn’t get much better than this,” Campbell remarks as he admires yet another plump, vermillion-eyed smallie he’s wrestled to submission on his 6-weight fly rod somewhere deep in the Roaring River watershed.

Creek-bass angling in the Upper Cumberland offers opportunities to connect with fish both in numbers and for size. That’s a pretty seductive win-win proposition for any fanatical sport fisherman, says Campbell, who’s always game to gab about fly-angling pursuits with customers browsing in the store. One of his specialty topics is discussing tips and tactics with trout anglers interested in crossing over into the realm of bass-catching.

Always Ready to Rumble

Anybody who’s ever caught a smallmouth will tell you they’re among the fightingest fish, pound for pound, of any inland North American warmer-water species. In moving currents, the initial hookup and subsequent thrashing fracas is especially vigorous.

“If you’ve caught smallmouth on lakes before, then you will understand,” said JG Auman of Mt. Juliet-based Tennessee Moving Waters Guide Service (tnmovingwaters.com). “I’d say these stream fish are on average twice as strong as a reservoir smallmouth.”

Auman and his business partner, Nick Adams, guide almost exclusively in Middle Tennessee on, as their name denotes, moving waters. One of their sought-after talents is putting customers — typically using traditional spinning rods — on secret holes in unfrequented streams that support large smallmouth.

When Auman and Adams head out for a day on the water, they ask clients if they’re looking to catch lots of fish, or just interested in targeting the big ones. If it’s the later, wielding a rod and line with some heft is imperative.

Big Fish Require Bigger Tackle

Battling a bruising five-pound smallmouth in swift current is probably a losing proposition with light gear and tackle, Auman said.

JG Auman of TN Moving Waters

“We do tend to use heavier tackle than what people often associate with stream fishing, because we often try and target trophy fish,” he said. “They will either break the rod off or break off the line when they pull it up under a tree or rock.”

Auman, who also works as an aquatic biologist for the Nashville Zoo, said a creek smallmouth that’s 20 inches long is probably 15-20 years old. “It knows every rock, every tree, every branch in its home,” he said. “And when you hook it, those are the places it’s going. You are not going to be able to stop them if you’re tackle is too light — you just aren’t going to keep them out of the cover. We learned that from experience long ago.”

In 2015 Adams and Auman were featured on Chad Hoover’s popular Youtube channel, KayakBassinTV. Hoover, who also lives in Middle Tennessee, is usually partial to chasing largemouth. But in the episode with the TMW crew, he acknowledged there’s little not to love about paddling for smallmouth on the region’s scenic rivers and creeks.

“Unfortunately, we haven’t done as much (smallmouth fishing) for the show — primarily, because I’m selfish,” Hoover said. “I really like to keep these smallmouth places to myself.”

Destinations Classified 

Auman said he gets a fair number of people calling him up not so much looking to book an outing, but just “fishing for stream names.” But he’s a devoted practitioner of the fisherman’s code of secrecy, especially on the matter of small-stream smallmouth fishing.

Holes that hold big fish will fizzle in a hurry if they get publicized, he said.

Not only doesn’t Moving Waters give out stream names, but some of their highly classified hotspots are designated for tourists only. “If I have clients that are local, I take them to streams that are somewhat known,” he said. “Then I have others that I fish only with out-of-town clients, because I know they aren’t going to tell people or come back later. In this day and age of social media, all it takes is one person to get on a Facebook page that has 5,000 members and start giving out creek names, and it’s ruined.”

All the same, Auman encourages anglers to get out and explore for their own patches of highly productive moving bass waters. Most anybody can be successful if they just scout around and study some maps, he said.

“You want to find streams that flow directly into larger bodies of water — that’s the best way that I tell people to find good smallmouth streams,” he said. “If you can find a stream that is a direct tributary to the Cumberland River or the Caney Fork River, then those are the streams you are going to want to look for. You probably don’t want the streams that just feed into another little stream.”