The last few days have involved some very intense hikes. Welcome to tracking in the Twenty Mile (GSMNP Backcountry Map) area of the Smoky Mountains. It hasn’t rained here in days and the temperature has been around the 90s everyday. July is starting out bold.
Max & I hiked up, across, through, around, and down most of the ridges in the Twenty Mile area in search of the two Indiana bats we are tracking. The best place to pick up a good transmitter signal in the mountains is from the top of a ridge. Unfortunately all of that hiking resulted in finding only one roosting tree and lots of itchy chigger bites to replace my poison ivy rashes. I’m pretty sure the two bats came up with a scheme to hide in a tree in the highest and steepest area. One of the bats we were tracking was a recapture from last year that we also spent some time tracking. She must have remembered how things worked and flew off as far as she could.
Despite the fact that we were only able to find one of our bats, we did come across some other incredible and intense finds. The heat of the summer has also welcomed us with wasps, hornets and yellow jackets. They are busy building up their homes and will do anything to protect them. Thus far, I have avoided the stings but we have come across the nests often.
After climbing to the tops of ridges in July you are welcomed with the glistening of ripe berries. The blueberries and blackberries are coming into season and although berry brambles draw blood, it often seems worth it as I come across a ripe berry to pluck one up and savor the sweet yet sometimes still sour juices. And we hike on. and on. and on.
Guess what other animal also loves berries?! (& yes I make sure to save some for the other animals). Did you guess bears?? Black bears love ripe berries and as we walk on ridges we often come across the remnants of the processed berries, and sometimes (4 times this week) we are fortunate to catch a view of bears as well. Close enough to make eye contact, close enough to watch one lick her lips. You’ll often hear them crushing twigs and rummaging in the forest before you see them. However on one occasion, walking downhill at a fast pace I came around a bend and not more than 15-20 feet in front of me was a black bear. We both stopped in our tracks. Staring for a moment, startling one another, the bear runns up the ridge, leaving me with a giant smile on my face.
On those hot & sunny ridge tops you may spot a few copper heads, but there is also the very rare chance that you’ll come across a timber rattlesnake. Until the other day I had sadly only found them on roads, some alive, some dead, others somewhere in between. Joy and I would always stop and move them off of the road. I can’t even stress the hatred that I feel towards people who would see a venomous snake while in their vehicle and would purposely run it over because at that very moment they had the power to kill an animal. An animal whose habitat has been destroyed so we can drive through it, an animal who is hated because they have the potential to kill us. So when some have the power to do so, they let it take control and destroy the beautiful and incredible life of a rattlesnake. Out of fear, out of ignorance, out of selfishness. Back to the ridge top…. with a <i>SSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS</i> and a yelp and a jump, Max found our first rattlesnake in the field by nearly stepping on her. He pissed her off, and she nearly made Max piss his pants. No doubt that she, too was terrified. “RATTLESNAKE?!?!?” I yelled with excitement to Max. He had to take a moment to catch his breath & his sanity. Anyone would be startled by this close call, but poor Max is terribly afraid of snakes and has already had multiple close calls with copperheads on our workdays. We both stood there admiring her, taking photographs and talking about how incredible this was. Well, he was probably still a bit shocked but at least he’d have a good story to tell.