Friday, August 21, 2015

Adventure is Out There

"It is one of the blessings of wilderness life that it shows us how few things we need in order to be perfectly happy." ~Horace Kephart

While Minnesota will always be my home, pieces of my heart are always being left in new places. Places like Denmark, the Canadian Rockies, the Sleeping Bear Dunes of Michigan, and now the Great Smoky Mountains. Many people have been asking me if I’m excited to leave. I’m not. How could I be excited to leave such an incredible place, so awe-inspiring that after twelve weeks I can still hardly believe I’m here?

Admittedly, I am excited to be back in Minnesota and look at a lake for the first time this summer. But there is so much that I will miss about Tennessee. I’ll miss the cloud-covered mountain peaks, the iconic waterfalls, the historic valleys, the wildlife, and the people. I feel so lucky to have gotten to know this park as well as I know my own homeland. I’ve learned its history, geology, and biology; its stories, legends, traditions, and cultures; and I’ve experienced it through more divisions of the Park Service than I can count on both hands.

I’ve created webpages (check out my final AmeriCorps project), gotten over a hundred thousand views on some of my photos used on the official park facebook page, monitored fish populations in streams with the fisheries crew, taken photography and writing workshops with the park’s Artists-in-Residence, and stepped behind the desk at the visitor center to help families and travelers plan their adventures. And that was all just a part of my job!

My most recent adventure was one of my favorites. On Friday the 14th, my friends Maureen and Victoria flew all the way out here from Minnesota to spend my last weekend in the Smokies with me. And what an adventure it was! Hiking to a waterfall, sunsets, biking, an alpine slide, and an evening spent in my favorite place—the high elevations near Clingmans Dome. It was a weekend for the books! Thank you so much for visiting, you guys! I miss you already!

What I’ve learned this summer:
  1. How to communicate and make plans without depending on cell phones or the internet. Hooray for no service in the park!
  2. That the National Park Service is one of the most passionate organizations I have ever had the honor of working with.
  3. How to be creative (enough) when cooking for myself.
  4. How to air out the house after setting off the smoke detectors with burnt French toast.
  5. That adventures generally have a range of ALL KINDS of emotions.
  6. How to properly pack for hikes, day and overnight alike.
  7. The art of putting myself outside of my comfort zone, which—I usually realize—is when I always have the most fun.

Things I will miss about the Smokies:
  1. The Mountains. Period.
  2. The opportunity to go hiking on a new trail every weekend. And over 900 miles to choose from in the park!
  3. NO MOSQUITOES!! That’s right, Minnesota, I’m telling the truth.
  4. My fantastic group of interns, coworkers, and supervisors
  5. The incredibly unique Appalachian culture of bluegrass, moonshine, and mountain log cabins.
  6. Walking to work every morning, crossing stone bridges over rushing streams and seeing the outline of a mountain through the trees from my road.
  7. Living and working in a National Park—something I never thought I’d be able to do!

This summer has truly been a dream come true, and a year ago I certainly would not have thought myself capable of moving out here alone. So for now, it’s goodbye to the Great Smoky Mountains. I have no doubt that someday I will return. They’ve earned a place in my heart, and I have learned skills and life lessons that I will carry with me forever. A post can’t do the summer justice—not even a full blog can do that—but I hope that you’ve enjoyed following along. Keep an eye on my website ( for more photography updates from Gustavus throughout the year.

On to the next chapter! Thanks for tuning in!


Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Taylors Take on the Smokies

Exploring the park I have been living in for the past 8 weeks with my family only made me fall in love with the Smokies more. They arrived on the night of Wednesday the 22nd, car piled high with food, suitcases, and the two dogs (yes, that’s right). We rented a cabin in Wear Valley, a quiet, beautiful area just west of the national park. There are so many cabins to rent in Tennessee that you can easily find a fully furnished two-story house to rent for less than an average hotel room, and certainly less than any hotel room in Gatlinburg.

Early on the morning of the 23rd, I took my family up to Grotto Falls, starting up the trailhead at 7:30 a.m. The air was humid, but not yet hot, as we snaked our way up the mountain-side to the tropical-esque waterfall. My favorite part about this waterfall is that the trail leads you directly behind it, allowing hikers to reach out from behind and collect fresh mountain water in their hands to cool off. Though my family was at first skeptical of the early start, on the way down the one and a half mile trail we began to see droves of families, sometimes forming a line of twenty or more up the hill. There’s something to be said for the early birds.

The next morning our alarms rang at 3:30 in the morning, and we rose with sleepy eyes and dragging feet and piled into the car once more. We arrived at the base of Clingmans Dome by 5:30, and climbed the steep half mile to the observation tower under the stars, so high above the surrounding valleys and peaks that we felt like we were part of the heavens. As we reached the top of the tower, the sun was just beginning to color the sky. Around us, the clouds were still low in the valleys, and the dome we stood on was like an island floating in the mist. The bluish clouds moved and flowed like an ocean around the highest peaks.

The sky turned pink and orange, and the layers of mountains before us were blue and purple, looking iconically “smoky”. As the sun rose over the crest of the tallest peaks, it cast its rays over the mountains, clouds, and trees. I stood watching it, in awe and wonder, knowing that it was one of the most beautiful views I had ever seen.

We stopped at Newfound Gap on the drive back down the mountain, and the traffic in the park was already picking up by 8.

By 8:30 Justin and I were hiking up to Chimney Tops, crossing bridges and climbing too many stairs to count. We reached the rock scramble (after a hike that I would rather not do again) and we were in the clouds, completely surrounded by a mist that swirled around the summit of the mountain. I slid my way up half of the pinnacle, leaving Justin to climb the rest alone. I was content settled into the ledge I had found. We sat on the mountain for nearly an hour, watching adults and families alike attempt the steep climb to the top, some changing their minds and turning around halfway up. It was only 10:30, and yet it felt as though we had been awake for days.

We also stopped at the Craftsmen’s Fair in Gatlinburg, where we were treated to a live bluegrass show featuring a comedian and a fiddle player who even performed “Orange Blossom Special” by heart. The rest of our afternoons were spent sleeping, cooking delicious dinners, and playing Settlers of Catan. A relaxing way to end the days!

On Saturday I promised Justin that it would be our last early morning as we once again loaded the car at 5 a.m. The mountains were black against the starry sky as we drove through Wear Valley toward the park, winding our way along Little River Road to Cades Cove. We arrived in the cove by 6:15 and waited in line to rent bikes for the morning. The air was thick and heavy, and as we pedaled into the cove my heart sank: the mist in the valley had not yet risen, and we were completely enveloped in the clouds that were still hanging below the mountains.

The ride was still beautiful as we kept a sharp eye out for wildlife, spotting only a few deer for the duration of the journey. We pulled over to explore churches, cemeteries, and cabins. A few miles into the loop my dad stopped near a park volunteer to get help with his bike brakes, and I slowed my bike near the edge of the road, looking up to stare across the valley. And to my enormous joy, the clouds were finally beginning to lift, and the peak of the mountains became visible!

By 9 o’ clock we were halfway around the loop, and we stopped at the visitor center to explore the historical buildings nearby. We came to the Cable Mill, its water wheel still spinning with the power of the creek, and walked inside the dusty building. We were greeted by a happy elderly man who had worked as an interpreter in this mill for years. He talked to us about the history of the mill, eyes crinkling as he smiled through his story, and explained how it still runs to produce cornmeal. He reached under a wooden shelf and collected the falling powder in his hand, passing it to us. How incredible that this mill—once an essential link in a farming mountain community—was still running almost 150 years later!

The rest of the ride was more beautiful than ever, with sun-covered hillsides and grasses illuminated by the morning light. We successfully made it around the eleven-mile loop before the cars that entered at 10 a.m. caught up to us, and treated ourselves to ice cream at the campground store.
On Sunday we had a later start, as promised, and spent most of the day hanging around the cabin. We went to nearby Townsend for lunch at the Trailhead Steakhouse (would definitely recommend) and picked up groceries to stock up my house in the park. On Monday morning my family dropped me off at headquarters for work on their way out of town.

Thank you so much for visiting me, Mom, Dad, and Justin! I hope you guys had as much fun as I did. This place is truly incredible for more reasons than I can even explain, and I have learned more than I ever thought I would. Having you guys here and seeing you experience everything for the first time has reminded me how grateful I am to be able to spend my entire summer living among the Smokies in a national park, and I know I will miss it here when I return home.

Here’s to the next two and a half weeks!


P.S. Today  my roommate, Ellie, and I ventured to the Oconaluftee Overlook to view the sunrise at 6 a.m. this morning. One of my favorite views of the Smokies this summer!

Friday, July 24, 2015

Lillies, Waterfalls, and a Banjammer

More than one friendly park visitor complimented me on my cleaning abilities as I leaned over the informational sign with a Windex bottle and a dirty toothbrush at Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park. Some passed with mock pity, apologizing that such a task was given to me. At those comments, I generally looked down at the sign, scrubbing moss and dirt away from the historical photos and storytelling words, and smiled. A reason to spend an entire workday at one of my favorite places in the park? I’d take it any day.

Clingmans Dome is named after a man who was irreplaceable in the measurements of mountain elevations within the park. Though it is the tallest peak in the park, the mountain is indeed a “dome”; its rounded mountaintop was adorned with a large cement observation tower for visitors to climb, giving us the ability to see for miles on a clear, haze-free day. The walk to the tower is steep, however: for a half mile, there is a surprisingly large amount of elevation gain.

There’s no place I feel more at home in the mountains than when I’m either nestled within them or sitting above them. Halfway through the day I found myself a small rock overhang to sit by, and I simply stared at the mountains below me, trying to commit them to memory.

Later, as I was wandering along the parking lot in search of the blooming Turk’s Cap Lilies, I met a kind couple from Florida settled into camp chairs facing the mountains as I had been, two dogs nestled at their feet. I sat down on a rock next to them as I began talking to the woman. The man was holding an instrument in his lap, a long, slender wooden instrument that resembled what I thought was a dulcimer, with four strings, and a strange drum-like circle at the end resembling a banjo. He was strumming it to familiar Appalachian songs, his fingers skimming up and down the fingerboard.

“It’s a banjammer!” his wife exclaimed after I inquired. So it was some kind of banjo hybrid. I laughed with them and told them about the mandolin I had bought on a whim before moving out here. Realizing I must be musically inclined, the man jumped on this opportunity.

Turk's Cap Lily

“Would you like to play it?” he asked me. I first declined, then realized how foolish it would be to pass up a perfectly good opportunity to learn to play such a unique instrument. He taught me a simple tune, using three of the strings as a drone, and the melody on the final string. If I learned one thing that day, it was that I was not born to play the banjammer. I listened in awe as he began to strum it again.

The memory of the friendly couple from Florida stayed with me through the rest of the evening. I realized that meeting new people from all over the country and world was one of my favorite parts about being in this new and frequently-visited place. And it also made me sad, that I could learn so much about people in these brief encounters, and then part ways knowing I would probably never see them again. I have learned so much from the people that I have met here—including visitors to the park, as well as park volunteers and employees—and I am thankful to have met all of them.

Rainbow Falls

Fellow intern and hiking buddy, Qiuandra!

Our hike for the weekend was Rainbow Falls, a hike that I felt should have been easier than it was, but it is incredible how much the heat and humidity can drain your energy in the lower elevations of these mountains. The trail crossed the stream several times, eventually opening up to a large opening in the forest, with an 80 foot waterfall at the back. Its mist reached us over one hundred yards away, and we scrambled onto one of the closer rocks to eat lunch. It was one of the most beautiful destinations I have reached on a hike, even if we were only treated to sparse views of the mountains between trees on the way up. Worth the climb.

Another update to come soon!


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Discovering the Backcountry of the Smokies

It seems as though summer is determined to vanish faster than I can fully get to know this wonderful place. In the last few weeks, I’ve seen and done a lot. I went swimming in a mountain stream with cascades and a beautiful view (until I turned into a prune), discovered a delicious local barbecue restaurant, became more familiar with web design at my job as I completed more tasks and projects, participated in a second photography workshop with the artist in residence, and finally, went flyfishing and backpacking with my dad.

I had July 3rd off for Independence Day, and my dad came to visit me for an extended weekend of outdoor fun. I haven’t had a chance to go on a backpacking trip with anyone here yet, so I was excited to be going out for the first time with my dad. We finished packing up our bags late on Friday morning, with everything from sleeping bags, mats, food, water, and a tent, to matches, tarp, rope, bungee cords, first aid kits, and a compass. After adjustments and a last check of the car to make sure we weren’t forgetting anything, we started up the centuries-old gravel road that was the start of Jakes Creek Trail.

Our destination was campsite #26, nearly six miles up the mountain with over 2,500 ft of elevation gain. On a normal day hike, maybe the climb wouldn’t have felt so bad. But weighed down with food, water, and camping gear, I felt the stretch in my calf muscles with every climbing step. It was over three and a half miles to Jakes Gap, where we would climb out of the first valley. The trail led us past a rushing stream, and sometimes across it by the way of log bridges. The water was flowing fast from the recent storms, and I knew that at these lower elevations flash flood warnings were in effect for the next two days. (One area of the park was recently washed out by a 4 foot wall of water that came down a mountain stream).

As my dad dropped to his knee to fill up his water bottle filter at the first stream crossing, I eyed him skeptically. I’ll admit it—I was still unconvinced that the little black spout was going to filter out the illness-inducing protists that lurked in the streams of the Smokies. I pulled out my water bottle—still full of well water from the house—as we continued on.

Jakes Gap

Turns out my dad is a bit of a photographer as well.
The trail winded us up switchbacks as we gained elevation. Finally we reached Jake’s Gap, similar to a pass, with large pine trees and empty terrain between them, for a change. It was humid and the mist blocked any view through the trees from sight. We continued up Miry Ridge Trail for the next two miles, still going up. Every turn around every corner became a new frustration as no break from the endless hill appeared. As we climbed higher, we began to realize that we were miles away from the last time we'd heard the stream, and as we were continuing to climb to our campsite, it was unlikely another stream that large would appear. Not finding more water would mean a cold dinner in order to conserve the water we had left for drinking. Along one of the hillsides, we came to a small spout of water running across the trail, leaving puddles in the muddy ground. We followed it along, looking for a spot where the water was rushing faster. To say rushing is really an exaggeration: the fastest spot we found was a trickle off the right side of a trial, no more than a couple of inches wide and an inch or so tall as it continued to run along the ground. But it was water, and though there were small pieces of leaves and sticks in it, it didn’t look particularly dirty. My dad held my wrist as I lowered myself off the side of the trail on the mountainside to collect the water—slowly—into our empty water bottles. The filter would purify it, and if I had any doubts we could boil it. It meant we could still have a warm dinner.

Miry Ridge trail led us around the mountain side, spiraling us up until we were at what I assumed was Miry Ridge. We reached a large rock outcrop on top of the mountain. I enjoy being at the highest elevations because there is no vegetation overhead, and seeing the sky is invigorating after being in the dense underbrush for so long. It started raining, and the clouds that we were enveloped in prevented us from seeing a view that I am sure that it would have been one to remember.

We donned our rain gear and reached the first stretch of downhill so far—barely a mile to our campsite. As we began to step off of the rock, the path led us into a dark tunnel, where we were surrounded by a dense thicket of rhododendron. The rain began to pour from the skies and flowed down the path we were walking on, causing the trail to become muddy and wet. The nearer we got to the campsite, the less I tried to keep my feet out of the puddles. The rain soaked our hats and then began to pour off of the rims. we looked forward to a hot dinner and dry bed.

 A wooden post with the number 26 inscribed underneath a tent symbol greeted us as we arrived, by this time completely soaked as the water-saturated, overgrown trail foliage had brushed against us. The campsite was another couple hundred yards off of the trail, through overgrown grass and unavoidable mud. The campsite opened up to a large clearing with ancient trees and flat dirt for tents. One other couple was already set up, and they came over to greet us briefly as we arrived. After setting up our tent, we also rigged a tarp up using trees and tall sticks to protect our tent. It turned out to be worth its weight in gold—our tent would have been completely saturated with rain water come morning had it not been protecting us.

After a delicious dinner of chicken noodles, we packed away our food and gear into one pack and hoisted it into the air with the bear-proof pulley system that is located at every backcountry campsite. There are 1500 bears in the park—that’s over two per square mile!—and is extremely important to take precautions in the backcountry from them. We settled into the tent at around 9:30 pm, worn out from the day’s work. I used my raincoat to isolate my sleeping mat from the wet tent floor, and fell asleep quickly.

The next morning, we woke to find a tent bottom soaked-through, a saturated rain coat beneath my mat, and our rain-covered hanging pack drenched through the back. Nothing sitting outside or in had dried since yesterday. Reluctantly, we began to make our way home, stopping at a campsite along the way to collect water, eat lunch, and take a nap in a hammock. After hiking back down the mountain in soaking shoes that squelched with every step, a dry house was more than welcome.


All in all, a wonderful weekend of adventures. This one’s for my dad, the greatest guy in the world for coming all the way out here to spend a few days with me! I love you!


P.S. Below I attached some of the photos I took at the photography workshop, which was focusing on long shutter exposures. This means that I set my manual settings so that my shutter stays open longer, tracking the water as it flows, creating a smoother effect. It was so amazing to learn from one of the best. So scroll on if you’re interested, and if not, that’s okay, too. Cheers!