Tag: Nature’s Teachings

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.

Elk of the Mists

Elk of the Mists

Before I opened my eyes, I felt the warm breath of the bull elk on my face. I had been dreaming and as I made the slow journey from Dreamtime to waking consciousness, the sensation of elk breath was so real, when I opened my eyes I expected to be face-to-face with a big elk. 

That dream was about a year ago and since then the elk have a direct line to my subconscious mind. And for sure to my heart. This season of rut, if I have a strong sense of elk, I go and they are there. It doesn’t really matter where I go, if I just pay attention to the urge to go somewhere, they show up. Or I show up. However that works.

This morning I felt that call but the fog was very heavy. I figured I would just drive through the area where they are found and go up the mountain for above-fog views. I took my Nikon and tripod so was also ready for flowing water should the fog and sunrise not reveal something fun to photograph. 

When I got to the park there was a bull laying so close to the road I had to stay behind my vehicle. A woman there said he had attacked two vehicles the day before and I wasn’t so worried about my car but I didn’t want to be skewered by his amazing antlers. Nor did I want to stress him.

I moved after I took a few photographs and parked in a more neutral location. He got up and tended to his harem of cows, carefully checking them. But a rival male, one a bit larger, started bugling and within a few minutes was herding out the cows of the bull nearest me, one-by-one, and taking them back to his territory. It was epic elk magic.

Normally photographing in the fog isn’t that great due to lighting and white balance, although sometimes correctable shooting RAW format (which I always do). But today, the fog added to the mystery. The energy of the elk was wild and watching the strength of the bulls as they ran and charged through heavy fog was elementally very pleasing to the senses. But the most haunting of all was (and always is) the bugle. There was a bull across the creek, hidden by trees, but traceable through his loud and high-pitched, with a low rumble, vocalization. To hear answering calls from the others that were immersed in fog, was glorious.

I’m unsure why the elk have chosen to speak to me so deeply. More and more I trust that little intuitive nudge to go-be-with-elk. I’ve never been disappointed. And it’s not that they are always there at other times, when I don’t get the nudge. I go fly fishing and drive through the area a lot and may not see any. For some reason, the elk and I have chosen to connect in the Deep Mystery.

Nature speaks to me through dreams, intuition, and sensory experiences. The more I listen, the more able I am to dance in that realm of wild wonder.

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.
Initiation on the Creek

Initiation on the Creek

Since having my first experience fly fishing I was ready to get back on the water. Admittedly, when it finally happened today, it was like learning to ride a bike without training wheels. It started out a bit shaky. 

The first time out I hired a guide from Trout Zone Anglers. Travis gave me a wonderful introduction to fly fishing and ever since then I’ve wanted to get out on the water again. So, ten days after that day, I found myself putting on my waders just to warm up a bit. 

It was 51 degrees and I wouldn’t normally don the waders before preparing the rod, reel and fly…oh, wait. There isn’t really a normal yet since this was only my second time on the water with a fly rod/reel. Anyway…the waders really helped with the early-morning chill. I assembled the ten foot rod…not the 8.5 foot rod that was suggested I initially purchase by various outfitters and even Orvis….but the ten foot rod that’s perfect for fishing the streams of the national park. (Note: I think fly fishing is really a financial whitewater hole that sucks money into it). 

After assembling the rod, I got out the reel to attach it. Hmmmm. It was a different attachment than the other rod but it should work. Everyone said it would work and I could use the same reel I purchased with the 8.5 foot rod. I tried every way, looked at it upside down, upright and eventually just gave up, disassembled the rod, put it in the case, took off the boots and waders and then drove back to my home. It’s only 25 minutes. 

Part of me said, this is ridiculous. What was I thinking? But another part reminded me how much fun I had fishing with a guide. If you get bucked off a horse, get right back on and ride that sucker again.

So, I got the shorter rod at home and drove back to the creek…another 25 minutes. Thus far I had an hour and 15 minutes invested in just driving. And when I got back I didn’t put on the waders as I was a bit heated by then.

After assembling the shorter rod, I heard that little voice inside that is always wise, There’s a way for that reel to work on the ten foot rod. So….I put on my glasses (if all else fails) and saw exactly what I needed to see and quickly attached the reel to the base section of the longer rod. Quite a way to start the day.

After taking the short rod apart and stowing it back into its case, I got the longer rod set up, line threaded and the strike indicator (come on…it’s a bobber for goodness sake) attached and a nymph fly. I didn’t want to fish with two flys…two hooks…which is the traditional method of ‘nymphing.’ I’m a newbie and it takes enough effort to keep one hook out of my skin and the trees. Then I put on the waders and boots and hat and polarized sunglasses, sling with tippet, flys, nippers, hemostats, fishing license, grabbed the wading staff, locked the car, stowed the key in a dry pocket and walked to the creek.

The creek was crystal clear, the flow just about perfect. I waded into the water using the staff. After my first fly fishing experience I invested in a staff and fell in love with it while doing underwater photography a few days ago. It made such a difference.

I settled into the first place to cast. And it was good…I mean the casting was really good…landing right where I aimed. WOW! How exciting! After several casts and a couple of strikes, I looked to my right to pick up the staff where I expected it to be tethered and it wasn’t there. WHAT?!!!

I was NOT happy about losing the wading staff…fly fishing already seemed like a whitewater hole sucking money into it.

I quickly reeled in the line, secured the hook and ran under the big culvert hoping the pricey stick floated there and got stuck. Nope. Then I climbed the bank and ran downstream hoping to find it. Nope. I was ready, after losing the costly wading staff, to pack up and go home. But then I heard that inner voice again, So, you give up now and just walk away? This is make-or-break time. Are you committed to fly fishing? Or will you give it up because of a little setback?

I climbed out of the creek, where I had been watching for the staff, and looked at the blue sky through bright green leaves. I’m all in, I said. Let’s go fish.

I walked back to my original entry point, stripped out a bit of line and started casting. It was great! I was in the woods, standing in a creek, casting and it felt really good. I heard Julie Andrews start singing, Getting to know you, getting to know all about you. I laughed. Yep, that’s about right. Not only getting to know the creek and fish but getting to know myself a little better. (I’m not kidding…that song really did pop into my mind…and I only knew those few lyrics).

I carefully walked up the creek without the aid of the staff. I had to really pay attention to where I wanted to go and look for a safe path without the aid of that darn metal stick. I think it really made me connect deeper with the rocks and flowing water. I had several strikes and only one really interesting tangle…with the line and rod wrapped around itself. But I got it undone and kept fishing. Upstream. It was fun, especially engaging a lively trout that gave a quick fight before it slapped its tail at the surface and spit out the hook. And then danced a bit on the surface as if to say…I am so much smarter than you human. I will teach you if you will pay attention. My reply, Yes, Jedi Trout. I am willing to learn.

After two hours I started to get hungry and kept fishing another thirty minutes and then remembered the staff. If I wanted to spot for it downstream, I’d better make haste as it was getting busy around the campground where I was fishing.

I thanked the fish and water and trees, climbed out of the water and walked back to the car to stow all the gear…except for the waders. I had hope that maybe that darn expensive stick would present itself.

The place where I lost it is where I began. I followed the flow of water, guessed which way it went and started walking downstream. But before I began any of that I asked the spirit of the creek to please give me the staff back with the promise that I would always respect her little finned children. 

At one point I had to climb the bank and continue the downstream hunt from shore. I almost walked past an entry point but again heard the inner voice, The webbing on the strap is orange. Look for that instead of the black staff. I walked down to creek and caught a flash of orange. There, waiting at the edge of the water was the Simms wading staff. I laughed out loud and said a big thank you! as I lifted it out of the water. The original knot tie from the factory had come loose and I hadn’t noticed. 

It made quite a journey downstream. And just as I got back to my car people started walking where I found it…chances are it would be in someone else’s possession now if I hadn’t found it when I did. 

My wading staff was returned to me by the creek spirits…or the flow…or a rock…

Driving home I had time to reflect on the morning. It sure felt like some sort of initiation with a series of tests I had to pass. I felt like a kid trying to ride a bike without training wheels for the first time. I was a bit wobbly. I made mistakes. I lost stuff. I missed little grooves that hold reels. It was sketchy. But as I was fishing I kept hearing the guide’s voice in my head…along with Julie Andrews….good cast….set the hook…look for the calm water…good cast…don’t try to go too fast wading…rod tip up…keep your wrist straight…aim right there…follow the fly as it floats downstream.

The creek and trout and I were….

“Getting to know you; Getting to know all about you; Getting to like you; Getting to hope you like me…”

Even with all the quirkiness of the morning, I had a blast. As I wrote in my first blog about fly fishing, it’s so much more than the fish. Today I passed the tests given and sit here reflecting on the day and am already awaiting the next time I go back out on the creek to learn from the master teachers…the trout.