Following Footsteps – Working at the Smokies

Palmer Creek by the Little Cataloochee Trail. Lots of fungi, dog hobble and flaming azaleas here!

Thunderstorms came in last night, and rain finally came to the Smokies for the first time in a week or so. That sounds manageable, but for a temperate rainforest, every drop counts. The Oconaluftee River by our visitor’s center continues on its path, as does every beautiful waterway I’ve encountered. Water thrushes, snakes, and elk cool off in the rising heat, the same as people. I’ve seen and held many a salamander in my palm by now (including a massive specimen that I suspect was a hellbender. Every person I’ve told has reacted with jealousy or disbelief. It’s almost a cryptid at this point. Or am I the cryptid in being its witness?) but I worry about this dry weather continuing. This park lives and breathes by the amount of freshwater here, and how well organisms do now determines their entire year.

Life has picked up at the park, and so has my education. I’ve had a significant number of firsts in the past few weeks. I spent a day following the director of the Mountain Farm Museum, doing tasks with the chickens and demonstrations. We have a wonderful volunteer who comes and does hearth cooking once a week. Watching (and eating) how people did 150 years ago is fascinating. The first food I ever had hearth cooked here were blueberry muffins made with the same ingredients people back then would’ve had. The second was an absolutely delicious blackberry cobbler. 

With the same ingredients and methods used back then comes the same need for materials and labor. Our volunteer was sweating when she finished cooking in the summer kitchen, even with its open doors and windows. To make the fire, she uses firewood chopped on-site. With supplies running low, I had to pay for all the food I had eaten from her hearth.

Historical pictures of hearth cooking and splitting wood from the Library of Congress because I care about history, and not because I was too busy gorging myself and missing the middle of the log for the 20th time to take pictures.

Splitting wood is when you take already chopped firewood, and split it down the middle to make it smaller. Hearths aren’t very big, and our volunteer was having troubling fitting the logs already cut into the fire. Michael, the farm director, showed me how to balance the wood, how to measure how far you and your swing is from the wood, and how to safely split it. Since it was my first time, he had me wear gloves and glasses. Michael, having done this for a very long time, did it with his bare hands and his reading glasses. The first time I swung, the axe head literally bounced off the wood. I misjudged how close I was. The second time it hit the stump that we use to place the wood with a strong thwak.  This would not be the last time that happened, and I spent more time pulling the axe out of the stump than I did actually swinging it. But eventually I made my first split, and it was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard. It was fairly easy after that.

In the time period the mountain farm museum represents, most men would be far past learning how to split wood. This was a task done by children, in addition to finding eggs scattered around the farm and fetching water. “Childhood” as we know it today was not really a concept. Children were saddled with many vital responsibilities, especially on farms like this one, where there was an endless amount of labor to perform. If there were any hands to spare at the farm, they’d often be “loaned out” to other homesteads or families. Boys would do manual farm work, and girls would be sent for domestic, labor. (Though both work was intensive and necessary, boys were still paid more because of the social value of “women’s work”.) 

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that children had no separation from adult life. Toys were a primary item made from corn husks, and there was a separation of tasks based on the age of the child. A ten year old wasn’t usually expected to plow and ready a field by himself, but a 14 to 16 year would be considered ready. There was also the more commercial structure of apprenticeships. While this would include blood family members, those who were not related and learning under a master were still referred to as “Family” in texts of this time. Boys would be apprenticed from 10 to 15, and took years to learn a trade. The United States as a whole during the first half of the 1800’s was a young nation, literally and figuratively. The median age was 16 to 17. Life started young, and often ended young.

Back to my education, I also learned how to make split rail fences.

Here is a photo I took along Mount Baldy, one of the beaches of Indiana Dunes. During training, another ranger and I would conduct water quality tests along all eight beaches, ensuring the water was healthy and safe to swim in. Some days we had to be more careful than others because waves would come up all the way past our belt line.

Why have a picture of me splitting rails when you could have an aesthetically pleasing portrait of Abraham Lincoln doing it. (From Library of Congress.)

To make a split railing fence, you need a long downed tree trunk. In our park, the trees used are from fallen trees that trail maintenance finds. You then need wooden, or preferably iron, wedges to split the bark and a sledgehammer. From then on, it’s like separating string cheese if your nails were the wedges, and the cheese had been left in the back of your lunchbox for months. It’s a time-consuming process but extremely rewarding. You never quite know how the wood will split and what the fence will look like. We were interrupted by a cow elk making her merry way to the river through the farm, so we had to run interference between her and the visitors. In fact, I think the same cow elk just walked in front of my porch. Maybe she likes me. Or probably the bull elk hanging around my housing for the past couple of weeks.

A little hard to see but this picture is from a week or so ago, see how big his antlers have grown since then in the next picture? Antlers are the fastest growing bone in the animal kingdom.
I know personifying wild animals is not encouraged, but I am sorely tempted to give him a name. He is here so often that he is practically an employee.

The next day I went electrofishing with the wildlife and fisheries crew. Electrofishing is when you inject electricity into the water to stun the fish. The fish then float to the top and are easily collected in buckets with nets. It’s much less disturbing than it sounds and is the least harmful way to collect fish and count. The fish shake off their stunning easily and are completely fine after a couple of minutes. When the counting is done, they are released back into the water. The crew and I went to Abrahams Creek in Cades Cove, known for its multitude of fish species. They told me they usually only find a few different species at a time, but here we found up to seven. The best part of all was we only found three rainbow trout. These fish aren’t inherently bad, but they are not native to the Smokies and often take over local ecosystems. A lot of what fisheries does in the smokies is damage control from previous stockings of this fish. We also saw a lot of other life in the stream, including crawdads, salamanders, a potential hellbender, and many bugs and invertebrates.

My favorite day so far has been when I’ve gone bird-banding. We visited Newfound Gap and met with a park wildlife specialist to learn how field banding works. We saw an established banding station in training for this program, so I was curious about the differences. While fewer birds were caught, these were bigger and much shyer. Two dark-eyed juncos and one Indigo Bunting were our tallies.

After the bird was caught in the mist net, our master bander gently stuffed them in a cotton bag to move them.
Dark eyed Junco having his wing measured.
Juvenile Indigo Bunting being very patient with us. Thank you sir.

Male Indigo Buntings are a vibrant, gorgeous blue when fully fledged. The one we caught was young but just starting to come into adulthood. He’s in the throes of creating and defending his first territory, and soon he will be completely blue. Some Indigo Buntings at his age are still brown, and some are fully indigo. It depends on genes and the luck of the draw for these little guys. When the master bander was done his work, he let me release him. I carefully held him between two knuckles on my palm and marveled at how soft his feathers were. He was very different from the hummingbird. I had done this with the first banding experience I had. The hummingbird was like a little bullet, the gun barrel being the potential energy of rapidly beating wings. The Indigo Bunting was calmer and seemed to take in the world a bit before flying away. Their wings were made for quick flaps and short bursts, followed by glides through the forest. I let him go, and like a voice on a windy day, he was carried away.

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