On July 18th and 19th Debbie and I completed the first part of a low-cost (because all three kids are in summer camp) no-kids (also because all three are in camp) vacation for 2011. For Part One we revisited the Tsali Recreation Area, a mountain biking destination near the Great Smoky Mountains that we last visited fifteen years ago. It bears the name of a Cherokee leader who resisted removal in the 1830s, killed several soldiers, and was ultimately executed by fellow Cherokees. Considering the popularity of the modern Tsali in the 1990s, we feared that its trails might have suffered from over-use in the years since. We worried that the area would not be as nice as it is in our memories, or that it may be gone altogether like the Cherokees who were relegated to reservations in North Carolina and Oklahoma. Thankfully the trails remain, and they are as nice as we remembered them.
The Tsali trails wind through wooded peninsulas on the south side of Fontana Lake in far western North Carolina. Fontana Lake forms from the Tuckaseegee, Little Tennessee, and Nantahala Rivers behind a dam constructed in the 1940s. When the Tennessee Valley Authority built the dam it was the fourth highest in the world. It originally provided power for aluminum production during World War II. Its massive turbines still supply electricity for the region today.
In a day and a half of cycling, Debbie and I completed three of the four Tsali trails. Late on Monday afternoon we arrived at the Tsali campground and set up our tent. We Ate a big snack, then set out on the longest trail, the 11-mile Right Loop. It took an hour and forty minutes, returning us to the parking area hot and tired around 7:00 PM. We recalled seeing a cutoff trail down to the lake about a mile into the ride, so we set out again to find access to the lake for a swim to close out our first day.
When we found the lake access we ditched our bikes and shoes and made our way carefully down a slippery clay bank. We waded through a soft muddy bottom into clear water, green in its depth, and lunged out from shore to float on the calm surface. The top few inches of water were warm, but water a few feet down was cool. We floated on our backs as a boat drove by out in the broad expanse of lake. On the far side of our cove a father in a canoe coached two teenagers in kayaks, and a kingfisher perched high on a leafless limb watched us disturb his fishing spot. Debbie swam out to the middle and back to shore several times, practicing her strokes while contemplating entry into a local triathlon later this year. I followed with less intensity, enjoying instead the therapeutic properties of the water. No spa could provide more relaxation.
On the ride back to camp after swimming we commented on the many mushrooms along the trail. A patch of orange trumpet-shaped funguses looked like the type that glows at night with bioluminescence. A flat-topped white mushroom was as large as a dinner plate. And dozens of white Death Angel mushrooms dotted the woods. I don’t know if that’s what they actually were, but my rule of thumb is every white mushroom in the wild is a Death Angel. It has never steered me wrong.
As we were remarking on the abundance of mushrooms, we rounded a bend and saw two ruffed grouse strut off the trail and up a bank into the woods. Grouse are skittish birds and well camouflaged in feathers the color of fallen leaves. They are among the most elusive animals in the southeastern highlands. However these two picked their way casually through leaf clutter just a few feet from us, clucking softly like small wild chickens. Very tasty chickens. Mmm.
Refreshing showers, a cold camp supper, and well-behaved youth groups camping nearby made for a restful night. We rose early the next morning and prepared for our second ride, this time on the nine mile Mouse Branch trail. Like the Right Loop, Mouse Branch trail wound through mixed hardwood and pine forest. It often ran near the lake shore but also climbed a few hundred feet to scenic overlooks of the lake and Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the north shore. The climbs deceived us several times. We would grind slowly up a hill toward open sky ahead that surely must represent the crest and a descent on the other side, only to see that a sadistic trailblazer had switched back on the outside curve of a ridge that ran down toward the lake. All we could do was keep pedaling — and once in a while hop off and walk.
To describe the forest as mixed hardwood and pine fails to describe the diverse ecosystems that intertwine on the Tsali peninsulas. Hot, dusty pine woods on some of the southern slopes look like scenery from much farther south or closer to the coast. Hardwood forests look like old, mature woods, even though most of the area has been heavily logged within the last century. A few stumps remain from American Chestnuts that were once the most numerous trees in these woods, but which have been gone completely for over seventy years. And within the hardwood portions of the forest, deep, cool coves cut with clear streams provide a moist habitat for ferns and bright green ground cover under the shade of a high canopy. These areas resemble a scene from Middle Earth or the forest near Hogwarts. In these darker, cooler settings I would not have been surprised to see a black bear move through the understory, or shadowy wraiths drop from upper limbs and swoop down on two unsuspecting muggle cyclists. While I would have liked to have seen a bear at a distance, I am thankful we didn’t ride right up on anything, nor have anything descend on us.
After the Mouse Branch ride we ate lunch and decided to head out on one more trail, the seven mile Thompson Loop. By that time the day had reached its highest temperature, and the exposed southern hillsides of the Thompson trail let the sun bear down on us full force. Each time we neared heat exhaustion the trail turned back into shade. Our water supply held out, as did the waning strength in our tired legs. Finally, after a climb we thought was over several times before it actually peaked, we swept down a long, exhilarating descent to rejoin the feeder trail near our starting point. We pedaled back to camp satisfied to have the ride behind us.
By mid-afternoon we had showered, broken camp, and headed toward home, reflecting on our experience as we drove. In twenty-four hours we logged thirty miles of hard, scenic, rewarding trails, without injury or mechanical failure. Not bad for two riders on twenty-year-old bikes who last rode these trails fifteen years ago. We hope to ride them again in the next few years when our kids are experienced enough to enjoy them. I also hope we can ride them fifteen years from now, both because we are healthy and active at that age and because the Tsali Trails will have survived. This region has experienced a lot of change, from the removal of its original inhabitants to deforestation by logging to the annihilation of a species by blight. One of our challenges as a society, here and elsewhere, is to preserve some of what remains. When our riding days are over and our kids introduce their children to the Tsali Trails, Debbie and I want to be able to tell them the scenes they describe are just as we remember – if not better.