Elkmont to Three Forks: A Four Day Expedition for Fireflies

June 25, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

It's raining again.  For whatever reason this is the common beginning for most of my trips into the Appalachians.  Not that I mind it.  I've always seemed to enjoy the mountains better when they're damp and cloaked in the ethereal mist of their namesake.  Still though, the thought of being soaked to the bone on a landlocked island in the middle of nowhere doesn't appeal to even the most hard-bitten of the Moose's sensibilities. I'm even more worried about the effects of the weather on my camera gear and the fireflies that I am travelling to observe.  I tell myself that I can rig up waterproof gadgets and still shoot...maybe.  Sleepily I shrug off the thoughts of impending doom and drive.  There's still a lot of highway between me and Elkmont and the situation, whatever the outcome, is now fixed.

Mission priority for this particular visit is to seek out the famous synchronized fireflies that occur in early June each year in the Elkmont area of GSMNP.  It's a unique event that occurs in only three or four areas of the world.  All the fireflies blink on and off in near perfect union.  Go and science yourself here  to learn more about them.  I've made good time so I decide to make a possibly disastrous change of plan and stop in Pigeon Forge to retrieve some photos I entered into a contest back in the winter.  I say disatrous because I am on an unusually strict timetable.  You see, these lightning bugs are apparently a big deal.  So big of a deal that the National Park Service shuts down the section of the park where they appear because the crowds have gotten so out of control.  They sell a limited number of tickets for shuttle service to and from the viewing area and if you're not staying in the Elkmont campground or have one of these tickets you're screwed.  Fortunately enough me, I've managed to secure a backcountry permit well in advance of the madness so I can get away from the crowds and be allowed to work in my own element.  The only turd in the punch bowl for my little plan is that I absolutely have to be at the trailhead by 5 PM before the rangers shut it down.  If I'm not, there is nowhere to stay because of all the tourists that have flocked to Townsend and I will have to camp in front of some Dollar General back in town.  

Rest easy, everything worked out.  I rushed over and pick up the photos and made it back to the park around 2 PM.  Now I have a brisk seven mile hike from the Jake's Creek trailhead detour to my tiny home away from home at campsite #30...which is the most remote backcountry site in Elkmont.

I strike out from the parking area at a boot crushing pace even though I know I shouldn't.  My path will take me from the Little River trail onto the Rough Creek passage, ending at Three Forks which is where three creeks come together to form the Little River close to the base of Clingmons Dome.   The first two miles or so are easy even for a beginner.  The trail follows the Little River(hence the brilliant name) which is actually the remains of the old Elkmont Railroad used first for logging and then for the comfortable transport of the rich and powerful before the park roads were better established in the early 1900's.  It takes about three miles to rid myself of the day-hikers and fanny pack sporting site-see'ers.  The easy portion of the hike is over, and the path narrows to become Rough Creek trail.  It's nothing but climbing from here on until I reach camp.

I begin to slow my pace and before long I find myself in the company of two other hikers.  They're part of a group of biologists who are there to study the firefly event as well as other creepy crawlies that share the mountains with us.  They are staying at the campsite north of me and will be about two miles away.  We talk as we walk and it isn't long before I remember that I am in fact not a biologist or a PhD candidate from UT Knoxville. My contributions to the conversation reduce themselves to "uh huh" and a series of destitute sighs.  I leave my new found friends when they reach their camp and push on up the mountain to my campsite which I am becoming more and more certain has been moved.  The next ridge; every bend in the trail; every crossing of the river; the next one has to be camp.  My pack seems to be giving into gravity more and more and I'm getting tired.  The sun is slowly creeping down my left shoulder and night will be down on me in a couple hours.  There it is.  Finally.  The familiar sight of a small clearing within the dense canopy.  It is the welcomed first pitch of campsite #30.  

To my slight disappointment I am not alone.  I notice another camper is also in the area.  I hike on and locate the most southern spot of camp and shed my backpack.  If you've never experienced the sensation of taking off your pack for the first time after a long hike, it is nearly euphoric.  Your back wants to massively arch itself because it doesn't understand why suddenly your shoulders aren't being pulled backward by the weight of your gear.  With each step you unintentionally lift your legs too high because you've just lost fifty pounds in five seconds and you end up walking around like some kind of goose-stepping pigeon. To top it off you look idiotic because the sudden relief of your burden has caused you to smile uncontrollably.  I'm sure it must be a hilarious show for the the uninitiated onlooker.


Fast forward an hour or so. Hammock is set; tarp is pitched; water has been gathered for the nights meal and everything has been arranged for easy access and protection from the grey clouds that are shrouding the setting sun.  The rain never comes so I begin gathering wood for a fruitless fire.  Meanwhile, the other camper passes by and introduces himself.  He is an older gentleman on an overnight fly fishing trip and we speak briefly.  He tells me that he and his daughter used to make this hike when she was a child and we exchange abbreviated stories of our past time spent in Elkmont.  He continues on his way and I set myself to scouting the area for possible spots to photograph the fireflies the next night.  As I leave camp its already nearly dark.  There's a waxing moon but it's still hard to see very far up the trail even with my headlamp set to spot.  I go only a mile or so before the day catches up to me and the thought of beef jerky with rice begins pulling me back towards camp and my waiting hammock.  I remember I haven't set my watch forward for the time change and realize that its well past 1 AM.

Keep in mind that it's early June.  The temperature in the lowlands is mid eighties this time of year and around 60F at night.  Even I wasn't worried about getting chilled in my hammock on this outing.  I am abruptly proved wrong. Sometime before dawn the vibration of my teeth clanging together wakes me from a dead sleep.  I am torn between getting out of my hammock to dig through the pack for more clothes or just laying there and dealing with my situation.  I'm generally lazy and slothful by nature so I stay put.  I go fetal and tuck my arms inside my t-shirt like a frightened turtle and drift back to sleep.  The morning sun apparently remedied my predicament and the next time I wake it's nearly noon.  I awkwardly birth myself out of my cocoon to make coffee and have a couple granola bars and jerky for breakfast.  The woods are literally alive with movement and sound.  No matter how many times I've done this I still pause and tell myself the same thing I always do when I'm in the backcountry: I am only a visitor here.  In the true wilderness you aren't of importance to anything else really.  You are not at the top of the food chain and everything around you will continue whether or not you are there. The feeling is overwhelming, self-affirming, and freeing.  I have missed this.

I pack light to travel fast and then I'm off like a prom dress.   I cross the river and  make my way north in search of opportunities to make photographs of whatever strikes me as picturable. Fellow hikers build small stone effigies to mark the best water crossings for others. I pass by campsite #24 and speak with the scientists I had met the day prior.  They tell me of a bear they had saw the night before and I half way think it's just a story to rack the nerves of a fellow hiker.  I calmly ask how big the bear was and am met with unsure looks and uncertain answers.  I contemplate saying something to the effect that the bear should watch his ass because the Moose is in town but I remember these folks don't know me and that the comment might come across as questionable or even psychotic in this kind of environment.  So I smile and make some generic goodbye and go on about my business. I hike down to the old railroad bridge that I know is the five mile mark from my camp as dusk begins to set. I make a few exposures to return to a client who has commissioned a custom photograph(much appreciated) and have a granola bar with my feet in the ice cold river water. I put my boots back on, break out my low light gear and wait for the darkness that will bring the fireflies.  When night finally comes I begin making my way back up the trail. It's black.  I can't see much of anything and for a few minutes it seems I have lost the trail.  I encounter a few people who have broken away from the shuttle crowd but I quickly lose them in the darkness as I make my way back deeper into the mountains.  After a while my eyes adjust to the night and I get my bearings back.  The bad part about doing any kind of night photography at length is that your eyes adjust but your camera doesn't.  So in order to focus your lens on whatever you're shooting you have to use some kind of light source otherwise you can't really see anything though the viewfinder.  This is like turning on a bright light after you've been asleep.  It sucks. For a few seconds I'm blinded by the light it requires to focus my camera.  This happens virtually every time I stop to set up my tripod.  

When I first see the lightning bugs there's not a lot of activity. Honestly, they just look like lightning bugs and I'm somewhat let down.  Is this what I've came all this way to see?  Apparently it takes a while for these things to warm up.  When they do, it's incredible.  

First there's nothing; just the night and a few shapes of trees outlined in the moonlight.  Then suddenly, the forest floor lights up with thousands of what look like Christmas lights.  Then black.  Then there they are again.  Some dart around, others stay put.  Some are dim and others shine at you like tiny flashlights.  Then nothing again.  With this first viewing I understand why people travel from all over the world to this little spot in the mountains. It's one of the most alien events I've ever witnessed.  You can actually feel the life going on around you.  It's quite strange and it's constant.  I walk through this amazing show of light and it is all around me.  This was truly an experience I will remember. I find my way back to camp to eat and then put on literally every stitch of clothes I have in my pack.  I pass out listening to the rain pounding on the outside of my tarp.

I wake up on this third morning still freezing despite wearing all my clothes including my boggin.  I inbibe my coffee and head down to the river to brush my teeth and wash my utensils from last nights cooking.  As I'm squatted down, I see the ferns across the begin to bristle with movement.  The opposite bank is about ten feet from me and I immediately freeze.  I watch the plants shuffle as if a ghost is walking right through them.  Then I see a black ear...then another.  It's a bear.  I see its head emerge from the fauna and at first glance it looks like a cub.  If you know anything about hiking in bear country you know female bears are murderously protective of their cubs.  At this instant primordial instinct takes over and I grab my bag of toiletries and spin around to head up the bank.  If it comes to it, I think I can make it to my shelter where I have my Parang(kind of a machete) and if the worst happens maybe I can defend myself.  With the first step up the bank I turn and realize it's not a cub, just a small bear.  Somehow it still hasn't noticed me and is beginning to cross the river towards me.  I get half way up the bank and look back again and it's at this moment when the bear at last sees me and takes off in the opposite direction.  I make it to my camp but lose all thought of the knife. Instead, I wretch my camera off the tripod and take off after the bear.  I mentally kick myself for not having my camera with me to begin with.  Unfortunately, the animal has vanished; melted back into the trees and brush from where it came.  I can't believe I had missed the opportunity to photograph a truly wild bear...never again.

I won't limit this story just to the bugs and bears because I am also here this time to try something new.  I have been testing my hand at some underwater picture work with my Nikon AW110.  It's a beast of a little camera even though Nikon insists they did n't name it after me(we all know they did). It's shock proof, waterproof, me proof, and probably will be with me during the zombie apocalypse.  I have been rolling around the idea of photographing waterfalls from beneath the water.  I call it the "Underfall Project" because it sounds artsy and cool and didn't require me to think too much in coming up with the name.  This is something I will be working on more in the coming months.  

I end this recollection here because I see no need to document the depression of having to leave one of my favorite places on Earth. The hike down was uneventful and relatively easy.  The pack was lighter from no food and I was looking forward to a shower.  I take a quick drive through Cade's Cove because I simply could not be that close and not visit.  The drive back to west Tennessee takes me through one king hell bastard of a thunderstorm that would have certainly trapped me in the mountains had I left a day later.  I stop to collect some Sam Adam's Summer Ale and then land back at my house to unpack and plan my return. 










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