The sun was yet to rise but even in the predawn, the fog is evident. Thick and dank, the moisture sat over the western North Carolina hills like a blanket. To put it simply, the weather is soupy.
We were not deterred, however. On Backcountry Journeys trips we are used to waking up early and dealing with whatever the weather deals us. As the guests mingled in the hotel lobby, I checked my phone for the weather and itinerary for the day, I gathered everyone around and we loaded our gear for a day of photographing the Great Smoky Mountains.
Twelve hours prior we’d all first met over dinner. The group is a diverse mix with some guests who were fairly local to some who traveled internationally to be here. The chemistry was instant. Therefore, it wasn’t a surprise when I saw the group in the early morning already huddled and comparing notes about camera gear and travel itineraries.
Soon we are on the road headed for our first photo stop of the day – Looking Glass Falls. The immense waterfall is generally on the way to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park from Asheville so instead of a long drive straight to the park, I opt to break things up a bit and stop in the Pisgah National Forest to see the natural feature.
On our way there I make a slight detour to a college campus. Since I am a lover of wildlife, I knew we had to stop and see the locally famous white squirrels of Brevard, North Carolina. Mythology has it that the squirrels are the descendants of squirrels that escaped when a traveling carnival wagon overturned on its way through back in the 1940s. Whatever the case, the squirrels are exceedingly rare. They are not albinos but a different color phase of the gray squirrel and are only found in two other locales in the nation. This morning, we find five of them.
The fog still hung low when we headed up the winding road on our way to Cherokee, North Carolina. A few miles up the road we stop at Looking Glass Falls – an immense fall with a 60-foot drop. The fog has lifted somewhat and the light is deep and saturated which resulted in beautiful photographs of the falls.
As we travel on the winding forest roads, the fall color was stunning. A tad past peak but good nonetheless. Soon we make it into the park and after a drive over to Gatlinburg, Tennessee to check into our new hotel, we head back out for an evening of photography.
Without a specific objective in mind, we traveled through the park and sought out opportunities to photograph fall colors and water features. On the road from Gatlinburg to Oconaluftee, we treat ourselves to a few mountain overlooks and eventually make our way to the Blue Ridge Parkway where we watch the sunset over the ancient mountain range.
The next morning we are out again before the sun rises. Although the weather forecast called for overcast skies, stars are abundantly overhead as we walk to the Suburban to depart for a new day of adventure. Driving the winding mountain roads in the dark is an exercise in catharsis. It feels like a long and endless tunnel of trees but soon, the sky begins to lighten slightly and as we climb in elevation, the fog and clouds roll in. With just enough light in the sky to see, we pull into the parking area at Clingman’s Dome – the highest point in the national park. Looking east, the mountains and hills undulate in the distance and a thick blanket of fog fills the valley below. The fog is so pronounced, it looks like a body of water filling every nook and holler that ripples through the hardwood hills. Higher in elevation, the clouds are forming and disappearing dynamically as the sun inches up to the horizon. There is so much to see and photograph in this 180-degree panorama, each guest is silent as they take in the natural splendor. Every few seconds the light and clouds change and eyes meet the viewfinders once again.
The trip down off Clingman’s Dome was beautiful as well. Nuanced scenes filled with natural beauty brought out the artistic eye in everyone. If you take the time to slow down and simply look, you’ll see that photography opportunities abound everywhere.
After a slow pace through the park, we look for a herd of elk that we saw the evening before. Luckily, we didn’t have to look that hard as the herd bull and a dozen or so cows were strung out in a meadow near the Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center. The bull had impressively sized, chocolate-colored antlers covered in dew that glistens in the soft morning light. Collectively I know that we took a few hundred pictures before moving on to have lunch on the Parkway.
After lunch, we take some time to learn about the Appalachian culture that permeates the region. Pioneers settled this area in the late 18th century and that lore is still strong. First, we spend a bit of time at the small museum at the Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center where we were exposed to natural facts like what makes the mountains smoky to how moonshine was made in the hills. Living history abounds in the park, however, we head over to Mingus Mill – a meticulously restored and maintained working grist mill. Built-in 1886, the Mingus Mill is turbine-powered from water that flows down a wooden flume. Inside the mill, corn is ground and sold.
Returning to the road, we look for more interesting streams and roadside color before retiring back to Gatlinburg for the evening.
Wednesday morning we head out once again in search of color and wildlife opportunities. By now, the weather is starting to deteriorate a bit. Damp skies dominate but we are undeterred. A curiosity of sorts, Eastern Wild Turkey is fairly abundant in the park and we pause to get photographs of a group of males who pick their way across an open meadow. I spotted a leucistic turkey hen early in the week but failed to photograph it. Like the squirrels, leucism is a fairly rare genetic anomaly in turkeys and I’d hoped to find the hen again but to no avail.
As we traveled throughout the day, the weather worsened and then would get better. This spastic weather pattern is indicative of southern autumns but the push and pull of the season’s as they battle for metabolical supremacy offers a glimpse of the landscape that’s awe-inspiring.
Since ample rain’s fallen all season, the waterfalls are flush with liquid and we find a few that look good in the soft light. As everyone explores and interprets this slice of the Smokies for themselves, I think about the tough existence that previous generations eked out of these mountains. I feel a connection to this land because it is from these same mountains from which my family originated before heading to Texas early in the 19th century.
At 5:30 am I am already up and staring at two or three weather models trying to create a mental composite of what the morning conditions will bring. Most forecasts show heavy thunderstorms early but walking outside in the dark, I see no flashes of lightning and the weather radar confirms my observations. Therefore, I make the call that the morning shoot is indeed a go.
Before the sun even rises we are at the edge of Cade’s Cove – a historic valley nestled deep in the woods between two mountain ridges. For centuries people have inhabited this valley. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the cove, and the structures therein, is a lasting legacy to the people who lived here when the national park was formed in the 1930s.
With rain threatening, we first head to the Primitive Baptist Church tucked back in the woods. The church is a beautiful single room structure and sits next to a pioneer cemetery where pioneer families lie in eternity. From the inside, string music wafts fill the woods as a historic reenactor plays the harp. Aside from the church, the woods are filled with colorful plants and trees and many in the group wander away to explore.
As we work our way through the cove, the weather begins to change drastically. Over a far mountain ridge, cold air and warm air battle for dominance and as such, the light and the clouds are in a constant state of change. We stop on an overlook and watch the meteorological battlefield from a distance. The scene makes for memorable photographs.
Soon, the cold front takes over the mild weather and the rain comes. We spend the rest of the day intermittently photographing waterfalls, fall colors, and cabins and find an occasional whitetail deer.
A subtle but noteworthy feature we photographed is an old pioneer road. A keen eye can spot the overgrown lane that heads down to a creek and its fun to stand and imagine the people who made a hard-living by using this trail.
With some daylight left, we have to throw in the towel because the rain became incessant. Therefore, we retreat to Townsend where we enjoy a gourmet dinner at the Dancing Bear Bistro.
On the last morning of the trip, we decide to look exclusively for wildlife so we head back to Cade’s Cove. When we first arrive we soon see a black bear and three cubs but they are deep in the woods. Soon, though, we find a mature whitetail buck.
The cold front has triggered rut behavior and he’s making scrape just mere yards from the road. He pays no attention to us as we park and pile out of the suburban and get in a position to photograph him.
After making the scrape he walks past us to the opposite end of the meadow and begins thrashing trees in a mock battle in which he’s engaged. He roughs up the tree and then runs to the fence.
He’s in a pre-breeding frenzy.
He then runs straight at us and then around us as he spots a doe in the distance. The moment is exhilarating. Best yet, it is a perfect bookend to a great week.
If you’ve read any Texas-based magazines over the past twenty-five years chances are you’ve seen some of Russell’s photos or read some of his words. Since 1989, he has traveled the state telling authentic Texas stories with his camera and his words – both written and spoken.
A graduate of Dodd City High School and East Texas State University, Russell was an ag science teacher in Childress, Texas for 16 years where he was named Texas Agriscience Teacher of the Year on three occasions.
After leaving that career in 2009, he continued to photograph, write, and speak about his experiences and the people he meets and in 2010, he began delving into television production. His first documentary film, Bois d’Arc Goodbye was filmed entirely in Fannin County and chronicled he and his brother Bubba’s canoe journey as they traversed the creek before a lake forever changes the landscape. The film aired three times to a prime-time, national audience.
Recently he’s worked with such celebrities as the Robertson Family from Duck Dynasty television show, T. Boone Pickens, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Pat Green, and Tracy Lawrence, but he insists that regular people are his favorite subjects.
Currently, Russell lives in the country north of Childress, Texas with his wife Kristy and their two children Bailee and Ryan but still manages to spend a considerable amount of time near his boyhood home north of Dodd City. You can see Russell’s other work and portfolio on his webpage www.russellgraves.com.