We were getting me outfitted for my first real mountain adventure, and truth be told, I was a little fearful, too. I would be joining BSA Troop 66 for a weekend trek into the Cherokee National Forest, and though I lived in Unicoi, less than a mile from the Cherokee, at that age I knew next to nothing about this vast wilderness, let alone that it would one day become so prominent in both my work and play.
The weekend after I received my new gear I faced my initial “trial by trail” (to borrow a phrase coined by my friend, Johnny Molloy), in which I was brutally subjected to the unexpected (a phrase I just now coined, I think) on the Cherokee’s rugged Rattlesnake Trail. From the perspective of my eleven-year-old mind and body, that trail threw its best at me — foot-knee-butt-busting terrain; steep climbs; head-high patches of stinging nettle; yellow jackets (including six particularly angry little devils) and, yes, at least one of the slithering beasts from which the trail derived its name (no bites, just a few eleven-year-old hearts stopped).
But somehow, despite the seemingly epic challenges and suffering that befell me on that maiden expedition, the die was cast for my lifelong connection to Tennessee’s only national forest, the great, wild Cherokee.
In case you are not yet familiar with the Cherokee National Forest, I’ll start with the answers to a few FAQs:
● The Cherokee comprises 650,000 acres — roughly 150,000 acres more than Great Smoky Mountains National Park — and is the largest tract of public land in Tennessee.
● It is located along the high Blue Ridge border region of eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina, stretching roughly from near Chattanooga to near Bristol.
● The forest is divided into two regions, Northern and Southern, which are separated by Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
● The Cherokee is a national forest, not a national “park,” as it is sometimes called, and there are big differences between these two federally protected areas and how they’re managed for public use. National parks do not allow hunting, logging or plant foraging for example, while these activities are permitted and carefully managed in most national forests.
● There is no entrance fee for the CNF, though some campgrounds and facilities require a nominal fee for their usage.
For most of its existence, up until the late 1980s, the Cherokee National Forest was primarily regarded as “the government land,” where mostly hunting and a lot of logging took place. True, it was utilized for other activities, such as fishing, hiking, camping, horseback riding and some off-road driving, but recognition of the forest as a major recreational asset was not widespread in the surrounding region. A veritable explosion of Americans’ interest in hiking, backpacking, paddling and mountain biking, as well as fly fishing (thanks to the movie, “A River Runs Through It”) occurred in the ’90s and forced public land managers to take notice. After all, national forests generally comprised the largest, most suitable areas of land and water available to the residents of surrounding communities to enjoy these activities. Fast forward to the present, and we see that the communities that are near national forests and have prospered most over those past 25 or so years have a few things in common. Near the top of the list is their early recognition of the increasing popularity of outdoor recreation, and how important the outdoors and its natural resources and assets were becoming to a broad segment of the population. As the outdoor related trends took root and became ever more evident, those communities made commitments to capitalize on them for both improved quality of life and stronger economies. In the past few years, we in Northeast Tennessee, though a little late to the party, have definitely begun to acknowledge the extraordinary value of investing in and supporting outdoor recreation. And by extension this means we have begun to better appreciate and support the Cherokee National Forest, our greatest outdoor related resource, and the hard working people who manage and protect it for us. The enhanced quality of life and economic benefits we receive from the Cherokee Forest cannot be overstated. The clean water that comes from the high, unspoiled summits and coves; the trails, campgrounds, fish-filled streams, wildlife and stunning scenery, among other assets and features, all contribute to the exceptional livability of this region.