Tag: Nature Photography

I Was A Leaf Looker This Weekend

I Was A Leaf Looker This Weekend

The sweet smell of balsam fir trees hung in the thick fog. Every droplet that kissed my face seemed to anoint me with Nature’s most amazing scent.

I arrived early at the parking lot at Clingman’s Dome, hopeful for fog. Most people that visit want clear skies for the long-distance views. And they were there at the parking lot, but the top of the mountain was blanketed with cloud cover.

It’s a steep, 1.2 mile walk up to the observation tower made a bit more challenging because I was on Day 2 of my ‘Play Tourist’ weekend. Why I chose this weekend—when the leaf lookers were out in full force—I’m not sure. Maybe I wanted to see color. Perhaps I wanted an excuse to visit my favorite fly fishing store in Townsend. But most likely it was due to the rivers and creeks I fish running very high due to several days of rain. I wanted to let them drop before wading.

So, I got out the Big Mama Nikon and tripod and grabbed a telephoto lens as well as my wide-angle zoom—heavy equipment that I normally don’t hike with and reserve for special photographic endeavors. But the weather was finally rain-free and the temperatures very nice so on Friday I headed to Townsend, through the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

I wanted to photograph some of the creeks and rivers since the water level was high. Water…the element that balances me, heals me, directs me back into my soul skin without fail. In my wandering, I had a perfectly timed encounter with three kayakers running a big rapid that’s normally not a kayaking river. After that, I decided to head to another watery place near Cades Cove but traffic was at a stop almost two miles outside of Cades Cove. No thanks. I turned around and went to Townsend.

I’ve been fly fishing since April and over the past month started tying flies, which has opened an entirely new, creatively amazing, journey. Little River Outfitters is where it all began for me and the staff there is beyond amazing. And their store…it feels good just to walk in there. I hadn’t visited their second story which is all fly tying goodies. Threads, equipment, furs, feathers, hooks of every imaginable size and kind and an artist’s dream. Color! Parts and pieces to create small versions of insects, or in my case…insects from Wonderland. Alice would be pleased. I had fun…way too much fun.

A drive back through the park, stopping at beautiful waterfalls and creeks and letting my Nikon play, added more fun to my day as I wound my way up and over the ridge through the park, and finally to my home. A late afternoon walk at my usual trail ended the day beautifully.

Saturday, I intended to go to the Upper Nantahala with the Nikon, but when I got in my car it headed to Clingman’s Dome. I explored the magical, foggy, balsam fir forest on top after the walk up. It felt like I was in another realm, like the fairy dimension opened and invited me to explore. Even though it was early, there were other humans there so I headed down to the parking area to leave before the insane crowd developed. But I got to Forney Ridge Trail and decided…what the heck.

The trail was downhill through beautiful moss-covered rocks and boulders. I was surprised at the number of people on the trail, but it was not nearly as crowded as the main trail. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring a water bottle or put the heavy telephoto lens in the car so I had quite a grueling hike. But it was worth it just for the beauty. There’s something very special about hiking through terrain that’s over a mile high. The trees are different, the air is cooler, and it seems somewhat removed from the chaos of the parking lot and everywhere really.

While I appreciate the opportunity to do short day trips in the national park—it is the most-visited national park in the country—I generally stay away from highly visited tourist areas until January or February, when visitors aren’t as numerous. When I finished my hike and came back to the Clingman’s Dome parking area, there were hundreds of people milling around, walking, blocking the way. It felt like entering a chaotic, alternate reality. I quickly walked to my car, dodging stopped cars waiting for parking spaces, gulped half a large bottle of water and left the chaos. There was a line over a mile in length just to get into the parking area. And cars were parked all along the side of the roadway. I was glad to be headed to my cabin in the woods.

Finally, Sunday dawned chilly and I took a chance to fly fish at my favorite creek. The water was up but running clear. While I couldn’t wade some areas due to high water, it was amazing to be in 51 degree, crisp air, standing in a mountain creek. 

I chose to fish a fly I tied and it was a huge hit with my trout friends. The first cast got a strike. But they carried it underwater without biting the hook…several times. I’ve never fished a fly that got so much attention from trout. One trout even came up under it, opened its big, white mouth, and acted like it was going to take it but then just backed away. It was the best entertainment I’ve had in a long time. It was amazing that something I created brought entertainment to the trout as well. But they didn’t engage in anything but playing with the fly…and that’s okay with me. I saw a couple of mistakes I made in tying it that created a crippled insect appearance. Sometimes they go for a crippled fly, but it probably makes them more suspicious. And our wild trout in the national park are spooky to begin with.

After nearly three hours of wading and standing in the creek, casting a line, and generally losing myself in the non-linear time of Nature, I felt like a reset button had been pressed and I was back inside my soul skin. 

The leaf looker season is just getting started. Today (Sunday) over 2000 people went through the Oconoluftee Visitor Center—I wasn’t one of them. I’ll be seeking the quiet places, the hidden places, and avoiding the crowds and chaos for the next few weeks. But you can bet I’ll be wading and playing with trout and allowing the creeks to keep me in balance.

Barbie on the Rocks

Barbie on the Rocks

“WOW! Did you see that Barbie on the rock and there was a timber rattler right under her!” The young man ran up to me, sweaty, flushed, with wild eyes. The young woman with him looked calm. “Man, it was so cool.” 

I figured it was probably a garter snake. Or a stick on a ledge. And Barbie? Probably a fairy vision brought on by ingesting a white-spotted red mushroom…the ones that make you fly. But I thanked him and walked on up as they walked down the trail.

Didn’t see Barbie or a snake on these rocks.

Of course, the entire walk was spent looking for Barbie sitting on a rock and naturally, a timber rattler. Even though the trail is very wide—wide enough for a large pickup truck to drive up as it’s an old roadbed—I kept a close watch for the snake.

As I walked, I thought about his suspected hallucination and how it seems our society is living a massive hallucination. What if what we think really is our reality? Then the dude was actually seeing Barbie and a rattlesnake even if I never saw her or her slithery friend. But there was nobody to join in his hallucination so it was relatively harmless. But the bigger hallucinations—those can get scary and bring a lot of chaos or maybe we could all dream up calm and peace.

No Barbie or snake here.

It wasn’t the most relaxing walk. I was picking up beer bottles, plastic wrappers, cigarette butts and while the flowing water was clear and clean and beautiful, I kept thinking about Barbie and her fanged-friend.

No snake or Barbie here either

How much time do we spend on fear generated by someone else’s hallucinations? How do we, as a society, become so sure of things that perhaps aren’t even real? And what makes them real anyway? Maybe something is ‘real’ only if enough people believe it in their minds.

I have no answers to these far-out questions. For late afternoon, there were many people out walking. A mushroom eater (?) and a lot of larger groups who refused to yield the way. I could step off the trail and fall down a very steep slope or worse step on that timber rattler or I could clear my side of the trail. So I started swinging my bag of trash like a priest swinging an incense censer to cleanse a holy place. It worked. I don’t need to explain any of the similarities.

It became quite obvious, by the end of the walk, why I prefer to walk at sunrise…before the crowds and kooks arrive. And by the way, I’m super-disappointed that I didn’t get a photo of Barbie and the monstrous timber rattler frolicking.

Deep Peace

Deep Peace

It’s a sensation that is birthed at the core of my being and moves through my body and mind. I used to find it diving—being in neutral buoyancy, surrounded by water, contained by an ocean or freshwater spring or underwater cave. But it’s been a while since I’ve been diving…selling a home, moving, the plague has redirected my pursuit of deep peace but it’s still with water.

I walked up the trail a mile and a half before exchanging my trail shoes for fly fishing boots. At some point during the wading and casting I paused, seeking something…what am I missing, I wondered. Within a moment I knew…that deep peace that finds me as I merge into blissful Oneness with creek, rocks, trees, fish. Ah…yes. It will come.

I intentionally slowed my wading, created longer pauses in casting, spent more time watching the surface and soon that delicious feeling began to move through me—the return of a cherished friend.

From the first time I cast a line and watched a rainbow trout wiggle its tail and spit the hook, I knew I was hooked. I have been in the water with humpback whales and photographed them and learned from them. I’ve been with a large pod of wild spotted dolphins that befriended me and played with me, but these trout are no lesser teacher and guide than my cetacean family.

Often while wading I am grateful for my yoga practice that helps strengthen my legs and improve my balance. The rocks are slippery, the water is rushing past, the bottom is uneven, so every experience of fly fishing is a yoga practice…slow movement, balance, breathing, connecting with something greater than myself. 

It can be seductive to analyze it, to categorize it, but the ultimate outcome is that I feel really good after connecting with deep peace. At first, I thought it was the neoprene smell of waders or wading socks that reminded me of diving. And that might be a trigger, but the real reason I love fly fishing so much is that it opens a doorway to profound peace, just like diving. It’s my meditation, yoga, mindfulness and Oneness practice. 

What is Your Message to the Earth?

What is Your Message to the Earth?

I love to walk at a very beautiful place in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I go there regularly and have started picking up trash there because the first mile of trail is used by tubers on the creek and they are really being litter bugs this year. It’s been horrible to see the trash they leave behind.

Yesterday I picked up five bags of litter in that mile and today I thought there wouldn’t be as much. There wasn’t until I got to a popular viewing area. There I found a mound of trash…but it was from someone taking it out of the creek. And they had other piles created from their efforts along the creek.

While I was so happy that others are taking an interest in keeping our beautiful creek/trail clean, I wondered if humans would ever wake up. Can they not see the beauty they are trashing? And it led to this question: What is your message to the Earth? What do your actions say? And I put it to a favorite song in this little video.

River Wisdom Keepers

River Wisdom Keepers

A wisdom keeper with his student

We stood at the edge of Humble Hole, the place where big trout hover suspended in the cool waters of the Davidson River and watch as your fly floats by…dry, nymph it doesn’t really matter. This might frustrate many fly fishers; for me seeing those fat fish relaxed, unspooked by the fly line or movement of the two humans on the bank was beautiful to behold. After all, I’m not there to catch fish—I’m there to witness beauty. And those trout magi are the wise elders. Except that day the other human was also a wise elder in the art of fly fishing.

The largest fish hatchery in NC is located at the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education. They raise rainbow, brook and brown trout. It’s open to the public every day except Sundays….and worth the visit.

The past two mornings were spent at the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education near Brevard, North Carolina. I took part in a women’s fly fishing school presented by the North Carolina Wildlife Commission. They have various fly fishing offerings that include a kid’s program, casting classes, fly tying. Our two day school included the basics of fly fishing and casting on day one and fishing with a river wisdom keeper on day two. 

Steve was my mentor for the morning. I learned so much and improved my casting a lot.

I call these volunteers river wisdom keepers because they offer their experience and expertise as fly fishers to those wanting to learn. Veterans of being snubbed by trout, they offer solace to those of us eager to learn how we, too, can be humbled by a rainbow or brown or brook. But they gift us with so much more. After all, fly fishing is creating art while fishing.

It’s good to know what nymphs are living in the place where you are fishing. Steve shows me a nymph that looks like the pheasant tail fly that I’ve caught a lot of fish on in my endeavors thus far.

There are many elements to fly fishing…selection of the fly or flies to use (dry fly, nymph, streamer), tippet length, strike indicator placement, stealth, casting (without catching rhododendron, brush piles, rock edges, submerged sticks, yourself, your guide, your rod/line), water flow, ledges, holes, riffles, seams, shadows. The river wisdom keepers volunteer their time to teach about all of these elements and more.

Too often we fail to take advantage of the wisdom held within individuals who have spent years learning this living art. As I stood beside Steve yesterday, I felt honored to be one of those lucky enough to learn what he had to share. As I glanced upriver and downriver, other mentors were with their students…what a beautiful sight.

Steve was very trusting of me to hold the rod still as he changed flies. Once he even held one fly attached to the line in his mouth to add another one below it on a nymph rig…he did remind me not to move the rod. Trusting soul isn’t he!?!

The North Carolina Wildlife Commission provides these programs free of charge. Yes…free of charge (unbelievable, I know). The programs are paid for with funds generated from fishing license sales for the most part. According to an article in the Citizen Times several years ago, trout anglers gave the state’s economy an estimated $383 million from direct sales on fishing equipment, food, gas, lodging, and guides. That same 2014 study found 3600 jobs were supported by mountain fishers. A 2009 study showed a total impact of trout anglers in North Carolina impacted with $174 million boost to the economy. That’s a significant jump in five years. Considering the Great Smoky Mountain National Park had the highest visitor numbers ever last year, it’s difficult to imagine what economic boosts fly fishing is providing the state present day. A drive along trout creeks and rivers or a hike into even more remote creeks gives evidence to the high demand for fly fishing in our Western North Carolina cold creeks.

Women are the fastest growing demographic among fly fishers and our wildlife commission acknowledges this by providing dedicated classes for women. Because fly fishing has been a male-dominated endeavor, it’s sometimes challenging for women to enter into it. In the four months I’ve been involved with it I’ve visited several shops or outfitters just to see how a woman is welcomed. Some have been amazing and supportive beyond imagination. One was so full of testosterone and loud, vulgar stories I will withhold any support of that particular place or their guides for anyone. In April, when I started practicing art while fishing, I connected with several guide services for instruction (since classes were not happening due to Covid). Every one I ‘interviewed’ was asked how they felt working with women clients. My favorite outfitter, Little River Outfitters, recommended a company (Trout Zone Anglers) and I went with them after emailing the owner and checking out the bios of their guides. I chose one with a wife and two small kids…I mean, he must have patience. It’s important for women to feel supported and respected, especially when entering an arena that has been dominated by men for so long. But the smart outfitters, stores, and guides realize that supporting women means their business will prosper.

I didn’t intend for this writing to meander like one of our mountain creeks so I will bring in the line, so to speak, and simply thank the instructors and the wildlife commission for being so progressive in their putting education for all as a priority and especially to those river wisdom keepers that volunteer their time to spread the love of fly fishing.

Trout are some of the most beautiful fish. I hope to be able to paint abstracts that are inspired by their colors and patterns.