“Do you think we’ll see bears?” excitedly asks one of the guests from across the Asheville, North Carolina conference room. I shrug an answer that’s non-committal but hopeful. In this space, I stand at the front of the room with a projector shining a presentation on the screen so the guests can get an insight into the coming week’s itinerary.
All-day, guests from across the country have trickled to our hotel in anticipation of spending the week exploring the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in the spring. Now, everyone’s collective travel efforts have culminated in us coming together to officially launch the start of the trip. Here in the hotel’s conference room we’ll eat a meal, get to know one another, and go through the plans for the week – and it’s all done in a brisk question and answer format that’s meant to be casual and low-key.
Our conversation is brisk and two hours pass in no time. Before everyone heads to bed for the night, me and new BCJ guide, Trevor LaClair, provides instruction for the next morning. With everyone on the same page as to our leave time, we break for the evening.
While still dark, we leave Asheville early enough to get on the road and head to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The mountain roads are serpentine and travel is a bit slower in the dark but the excitement and energy are palpable as we make our way towards Bryson City and the Deep Creek area of the park.
We arrive at sunrise and park amongst an understory of trees whose leaves are still unfurling from the onset of warm weather and longer days brought forth by the natural changes occurring after the vernal equinox. We park and everyone is given instructions as to gear selection and we make the short walk to photograph a dup of waterfalls along the short trail.
Tom Branch Falls is a tall waterfall that plunges over a precipice some eighty feet above the creek. Slow shutter speeds are the rule and each person lines up to photograph the water feature with their creative sensibilities in mind. Looking at the back of other’s cameras, a chaotic liquid plunge is captured as a smooth and silky flow thanks to the slow shutter speeds. The falls are tamed.
Further upstream, Indian Creek Falls awaits, and one after one, the guests head up the trail to photograph that feature. Along the way, wildflowers bloom. Over 1,500 kinds of flowering plants exist in the park and while it is impossible to see all of them, we did try our best. Each species of tree and flowering plants forces me to rack through the botanical library that’s buried deep in my brain to come with the appropriate name. Many of the plants and flower monikers are complicated, puzzling, and amusing all at the same time. Around us, we have plants like Mountain Doghobble, Rue’s Anemone, Carolina Sweetshrub, and scores more.
I know many of the plants and flowers but admittedly, I swing and miss on a few. No worries, however, as the guests are enthralled with the beauty before them.
Soon we are back on the road and headed into the park’s interior. A stop at the Oconoluftee Visitors Center and the guests fan out to explore the mountain farm that’s been exactingly recreated for visitors. The details and textures of the old buildings make for an interesting photo study and learning about the people who once made these hills their home adds to the richness of the experience.
After a picnic lunch and a few photo stops, we eventually make our way to our hotel in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. After unpacking and settling into the rooms, we head out for the evening shoot: a view of the western Smokies from atop Clingman’s Dome.
From the top of the domed mountain (which incidentally, is the highest peak in the Smokies) you can see for miles. Each row of mountains is stacked on top of one another and the characteristic blue haze that clings to the sky about the rounded peaks is what gives the mountain range its name. With each passing minute, the sun sinks towards the horizon. As the sun slips lower, the light changes. It’s a kaleidoscope of colors that’s inspired humans for the ages.
In the dark, we pack up and head into Gatlinburg, Tennessee where we’ll spend the next two nights.
Day three finds us where Day two left off: atop Clingman’s Dome. The broad parking area just below the 6,600-foot peak ensures a wide panoramic view of the countryside. From here we can watch the sun come up in the east and provide a different view of the mountains than what we’d witnessed the evening before. The morning was cold and a bit blustery but we all braved the weather in favor of the spectacular views the mountaintop affords.
Soon we are headed down the hill, back across Newfound Gap, and back into North Carolina for a late breakfast in Cherokee. Along the way, however, we run into a band of elk cows, bellies taught due to an impending calving season. They grazed on lush grass in front of us and fed for a bit until sauntering into the woods.
From there, we drive over to the historic Mingus Mill – a 19th-century grist mill that uses turbine technology to turn the millstones against one another to finely grind corn. Water from a nearby creek flows through a wooden sluice and slides down the long flume to the mill. The entire contraction is rustically beautiful and makes for an interesting photo study.
After breakfast, we head over to a quiet corner of the park. The Cataloochee Valley is a broad and beautiful dale that’s surrounded by 6,000-foot peaks and was once one of the most vibrant settlements in the Smokies before the national park’s formation. The road is circuitous as we wind our way through the hills to the valley’s entrance.
Once back inside the park, we stop to photograph old barns and churches that sit streamside in this picturesque valley. We explore each building and see first hand the amount of craftsmanship it took to build these structures that still solidly stand even after more than a century.
A quick supper at a local BBQ spot and we’re back on the road for a sunrise shoot. I’ve got an overlook spot on the Blue Ridge Parkway in mind. It takes a few minutes for us to drive there from Cherokee but our patience is rewarded. A fire of unknown origin leaves a patina of haze lingering in the valley while a smattering of clouds from an approaching rain even provides some drama to the sky. We spread out along the turnout and photograph until the light won’t allow it anymore.
By the time we fell asleep on Tuesday night, the rain was already spitting from the low overcast. A quick-moving western storm that dumped rain over much of the nation’s mid-section headed our way. By the time dawn broke, the rain was still falling. Not getting in a big hurry we decide to eat breakfast at the hotel before venturing out for the day.
This morning our drive isn’t far. We take the Roaring Fork Nature Trail that flanks Gatlinburg. It’s a six-mile-long drive that takes us past old log homes, beautiful mountain streams, and even more wildflowers. On each of our stops along the Roaring Fork trail, each person finds what suits them. Some take to the barns and log cabins, others find photographic inspiration in the intricacies of the water, and I focus my efforts on documenting plants and flowers.
The old saying is trite but true: time does fly when you are having fun and soon we pack up and make our way back to the hotel in Gatlinburg. The rain’s beginning to fall once again and we have a session on Lightroom and lunch planned back at our hotel.
Today is also the day we change hotels for the last leg of our trip. This time, we make our way to Townsend, Tennessee where we stay in quaint log cabins at the Dancing Bear Lodge. Along the way, we stop at a few locations along the Little River to photograph riffles and wildflowers along the river bank and escarpments that flank the watercourse.
At one stop, we were surprised to see a bald eagle perched atop a sycamore tree and preening itself next to the road.
Once at the cabins, our check-in is quick and we stop in at the Apple Valley Cafe for supper, and then it’s back to the park for an evening photography session.
Along the park’s road is an accidental waterfall called The Sinks. Formed in an attempt to re-route the river, the sinks feature an immense deluge with upstream riffles that rival any stretch of river on the creek. The landscape is verdant, serene, and full of photographic richness and ample opportunities for memorable shots. Looking around, I notice from everyone’s body language that everyone has made the pictures they envision. So with the light waning, we made one last effort to make it to Cades Cove for the evening’s last rays.
While a thick cast of clouds hung in the sky most of the day, five minutes before arriving in Cades Cove, the clouds broke. With the last rays of the day, golden sunshine poured into the valley. Frost-colored mountain tops juxtaposed against the verdantly appointed cove. It was beautiful and we made it to our spot just in time.
As time wound down on our adventure, I could tell everyone was thankful for what we’d just witnessed. The magic of the Smokies is evident.
We awake to frost on the vehicle’s windshield and I was taken aback by the site. It is late April and the temperatures dipped to below freezing and left a thin crust of ice over everything. Since the roads were still safe to travel, we head back to Cades Cove. Bears and other wildlife are on the ‘to photograph’ list and Cades Cove is the best place in the park to check the proverbial boxes. Before the hunt for animals began, however, we stop and photograph the frost that coats the trees, fences, and vegetation of the valley. The crust of delicate shines in the early morning backlight of the sun. Interesting compositions aren’t hard to come by when nature gives us such an abundance of beautiful scenes in which to photograph. Like a phantom, however, the frost soon fades and is gone and only the memory (and photographs) remain.
Cades Cove is a former pioneer settlement and is traversed by a big loop road that cuts around the valley’s margins. To find great scenes and wildlife, maintaining fidelity to the road is a sound practice so we take to the road once again to look for picture-worthy scenes.
Like the Cataloochee Valley, Cades Cove is full of pioneer cabins and barns. Each one is unique and provides an insight as to how folks lived when living off the land was a necessity and not a lifestyle choice. While exploring we see several of the cove’s birds perched on trees and fences. American crows, eastern bluebirds, eastern meadowlarks, chimney swifts, and a host of other, nondescript sparrows flitter about the deciduous brushlands and forests.
At lunch, we stop for a picnic lunch at the Cades Cove Visitor’s complex. A gift shop attracts a few but the mountain farm – complete with a working grist mill – attracts the most photographic attention. Soon, however, we are back out of the trail.
By the time the evening fell, great light was once again back on the valley. We stop and photograph a band of horses grazing in the valley and then make our way to an overlook that I hope, will provide the best view of the cove at sunset. Plans change, however.
Along the way there we spot a black bear feeding in the woods. We stop to watch. Soon, the bear makes his way to the wood’s edge and begins to wrestle with a cedar tree. Was there a biological reason for his behavior? Who knows. I think he was just having fun. He looks our way and I hear the rapid clicks of cameras all around me. While everyone is silent save for their cameras, the excitement is tangible. The black bear left as uneventfully as he appeared and we all stand there aghast at what we’d witnessed. It was a special moment indeed.
At last light, we hustle to an overlook down the road. The sun is sinking fast and I’m afraid we arrived too late but we did not. As the last rays of light spill across the mountains (that incidentally, are among the oldest on the planet) a quiet peace settles over the valley. In my estimation, it’s the kind of peace more should experience; a place far away from the frenetic pace of everyday life and the societal divisions brought forth by the unhealthy intersection of social media and politics. Here, we are just photographers with a shared love of nature.
By the last day of the trip, most of everyone’s photographic checklists were complete. Therefore, we head out a little later than we normally would and enjoy a hearty breakfast together. The bear the day before got everyone excited. So with a bit of time left, we head back to Cades Cove for one last attempt at some great wildlife or landscape photos. Before entering the cove, I see someone standing on the side of the road looking into the woods. I slow to peek in the same direction in which the pedestrian is looking and I see a trio of bears. Pulling into a parking spot, we all spill from the vehicles and ease our way back down the road. There is a mother bear and her twin cubs feeding on American cancer weed and other nondescript vegetation. They are intent on eating and we watch and photograph them for a time as a crowd built around us.
The bears eventually filter deep into the woods and beyond our camera’s optical capabilities so we drive further into the park. Immediately upon driving into the upper reaches of the cove we see a mature eastern wild turkey and he’s strutting and gobbling as we pull up. He’s vocal, animated, and he loves his spot in the field so we each fan out to get a better position on the tom. For fifteen minutes we photograph him in beautiful light against a beautiful background. It’s exciting to see a turkey display and strut but after all, it is breeding season for the turkey.
For that reason, I can’t think of a better bookend for a remarkable trip.
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 been traveling 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 work and portfolio on his webpage at www.russellgraves.com