Cohutta Wilderness


A short story, fictional in nature...

Steam rose swiftly, while the lingering smoke stung my eyes. One more douse of water and the camp fire was out. Feeling quite stuffed from a breakfast of pancakes, honey and three patties of Nantahala Pork Sausage, I was ready for what I knew would be an exhilarating hike over a mountain ridge.

Pulling my boot laces tight, I slung my pack over my shoulders and started up the trail. The sounds of the Ocoee River began to disappear as I made my way up and to the South. I've hiked this mountain region before, but never in the middle of Summer. The morning air was heavy, the sun-lit trail was illuminated with rays of golden light. It wasn't long before I reached the clearing and there it was. The emerald monolith rose up from the depth of the gorge, striking an imposing presence against the beauty of nature's canvas. To the west, the mountain ridge ran as far as the eye could see, disappearing into a maze of mountain peaks. Before me stood the summit of today's quest, crowned in the radiance of virgin white clouds, its eastern slope dropped dramatically into the valley below.

Cohutta Wilderness, the third-largest mountain wilderness in the East is one of my favorite places. It is located on both sides of the state line, Tennessee to the North with the majority of the wilderness spilling into Fannin County, in North Georgia. Friends of mine own a cabin in Fannin County and it was my intention to pay them a visit by first hiking over this mountain peak and descending down the opposite slope, meeting them [Gail and Jerry] at a pre-arranged location, on an old forestry road, around dusk. We planned on heading back to their cabin for a home cooked meal and some good ole front porch rocking chair recreation.

One foot forth, then another, I started out towards my destination. Two canteens of water and a day's rations were in my backpack, along with all the other necessities for the day's journey, plus a hand full of pamphlets and brochures that I had collected at a local store.

The trail was surprisingly quiet for a weekend. I hadn't ran into a single soul since I filled up the car at a nearby gas station, just before dawn. I welcomed the peace and solitude this hike would bring. If I had been looking for conversation, I would have brought someone along to keep me company.

When you spend time in the wilderness, you become aware of a certain mystery that's all around you. Life, both seen and unseen, prevail in every inch of the soil, stone, streams and sky. If you listen quietly, you might hear the mountains breath, or the leaves of the trees rustling in a language all their own, while the world of insects clutch the ground and foliage. Chipmunks and squirrels scurry about, driven by their own agenda. Here, your thoughts become focused, the world of man, drifts away. The hand of creation is expressing, evolving and regenerating itself all around you. The biggest concerns in your life become minute in the grand scheme of things...I began to give thanks.

Wildflowers grow randomly in a multitude of colors, flickering like flames, waving back and forth against a breeze, so slight it barely touched the senses. They dare you to pluck them, to steal them of their innocence...I resisted and moved on.

Two hours have passed, the trail began a more than moderate incline. Gravity starts to bear its weight on my body. The sun reaches mid-day height, with the temperature rising at least 20 to 25 degrees since I started out. The air was so thick with humidity, I began to imagine I could refill the canteen I had just finished, with the sticky, steamy residue of this mid-summer air.

My thoughts of tranquility switched over to thoughts of physical stress, as I pushed on. A delicate ecosystem has developed here, out of what can often be a harsh environment. The elements rule here, a welcoming wind can turn into a devastating storm, snapping trees and triggering the start of a series of tree falls. A much needed rain can become a raging, white water flash flood, down a mountain gorge. The heat of a summer drought can bring on the threat of forest fires, alerting the community to beware. It's like living between heaven and earth, order vs chaos.

You rarely see large game when hiking these mountains. A startled deer, the cry of a hawk are common, although other beast of size and prey do exist throughout these wilderness and protected forests. Black bears, bobcats and wild boar move about freely. They threaten with claw, fang and tusks, but attacks are rare.

Experienced hikers know to make noise, this alerts the animals to move out of their path. Black bears are unlikely to attack, mother bears on the other hand are protective of their cub's territory. Bobcats are typical of cat paranoia, so don't provoke. Wild boar are quick to defend and should be avoided. Snakes...yikes! Carry a large walking stick and watch your step. This is the kingdom of the animal, we're only unwelcome visitors, so pass through, enjoy and leave things as you find them.

The trail became a series of switch backs now, this was an indication of the growing steepness to come. The trail became more demanding, I paused for a moment and downed a big gulp of water. Normally, there are the occasional natural springs spouting water, gathering into streams, but the drought has been trying on the land, I doubt I'll see any today, I've got to conserve my water.

The temperature felt like it was rising, bringing greater discomfort to my journey, as I continued my ascent.

After the third switch back, I found myself sweating profusely, not a good day to hike. Every step was physically trying, working my body to its max. With my head hanging down, I pushed on until I notice animal signs left on the trail. Pure exhaustion drew my concern for what might be ahead.

The words bear, bobcat and boar go through my mind, over and over again. Every three steps the words repeated themselves within. "Bears, bobcats and boars...bears, bobcats and boars." It created a rhythm as each foot struck the ground. The rhythm became a melody, the melody broke into song, a musical mantra that reflected my growing concern. As I march on, I found myself singing..."lions and tigers and bears oh my,...lions and tigers and bears oh my." I came to the end of the last switch back and found that I had reached the backbone of the ridge. It rose steeply to a near straight ascent, bordered by trees that ended at what appeared to be the summit. I stopped to sit down and rest, wipe away the sweat and take in more water. Back to my feet again, I started fantasizing about meeting my friends, home cooking and ice tea...shaken not stirred by the momentum of a porch rocker.

Never have I hiked in such heat. The humidity was suffocating, I thought to myself..."it's not much further now." I thought I had met the horizon, just to see another summit to climb. Pulling out my water bottle I decided to conserve what's left, till I reach the summit..."wish I had brought more water."

My feet began to feel like lead, my knees began to ache, left, right, left, right, "I have to keep going, or I'll never get there," I said to myself. My arms hung by my side. The taste of salt covered my lips. I started to feel light headed. Counting my steps, I approached the summit. I arrived, half bent over, with my right hand gripping my walking stick and the other hand palm down against my thigh. I sucked and heaved heavily trying to catch my breath. I felt like throwing up. Uncapping my canteen, I raised the wet essence of life to my lips and took several gulps, which made me feel even more nauseous. Wiping the sweat from my eyes, I looked ahead and tried to focus. To my amazement, I saw the trail lead up even further, disappearing into a cloud. "Where's the damn top," I cried to myself. I was exhausted, I couldn't stop now, I had already passed the point of no return. Checking my remaining water supply, I continued on.

My mind was being driven by the command, "push, push." Clothes soaked in sweat stuck to my body, a flood of perspiration mixed with salt burned my eyes, blurring my vision. Before I knew it, I was deep within the cloud cover. With blurred vision and strongly reduced visibility, I kept focus by directing my eyes toward the ground, in order to stay on the trail.

I could barely breathe. The air felt so hot, it burnt my lungs with each breath. It was so humid I felt as though I was in a jungle where there was no air stirring at all. The sound of my body was all I heard. The beat of my heart was pounding in my chest, the sound rose up into my ears until it sounded like the beating of native drums. I could compare this experience to walking a Stairmaster in steam room with no end in sight.

Stumbling, I now sensed a dizziness to the point that I feared that I would pass out. My lungs begged me to stop, my legs wanted to quit. I kept moving, when suddenly the trail started to drop downward. Wiping my eyes of the stinging sweat, I had to convince myself in my state of dizziness, that it was ok to sit down. Propping my back against a tree, I lowered my body slowly to the ground. Knees bent straight up, arms crossed over both knees, I dropped my head forward for a well needed rest.

My body wouldn't stop perspiring, my lungs felt like I was breathing fire. I took a desperately needed swig of water hoping it would help put out the flame. It didn't, and there was only a couple of drinks left. Maybe I should have brought along a companion, to share in the pain with me. The down slope led me to believe the worst was over...but I'll rest here for awhile. I rummaged through my backpack just for the sake of it, I came across the pamphlets and brochures I had collected at the local store. I figured I could use one or more of them to fan my overheated head. After a couple of flicks of the wrist, my lights went out. When you neglect to take proper care of the body, the subconscious mind takes over in order to give the body what it needs. Rest was mandatory at this time.

I don't how much time had elapsed, but I could hear the faint sound of running water. Opening my eyes I could see the cloud mist hadn't lifted, although, I didn't sense the heat to be much of a problem anymore. I rose to my feet and began to make my way slowly towards the refreshing sound. Finding water this high up seemed pretty unlikely, but I had nothing better to do, so why not check it out.

At times, it's so quiet in the mountains that the silence becomes deafening. You could hear more of what was going on inside the body, than the outside, although this sound of running water was definite.

Leaving the trail, I lowered myself slowly down the side of the ridge following my senses. Soon, I came across a small stream, but the noise I heard was stronger, like water pouring, hitting rocks, there must be a small waterfall nearby. I followed the stream's current up, hoping to find a waterfall large enough to fill my canteen and stick my head under its cool silver veil. Underbrush blocked my path, forcing me to move up the slope around a couple of downed trees and a large boulder. After clearing the boulder, I made my way through the thicket. The falls were near now, I got a glimpse of the liquid silver beyond the last bush.

Pulling the last branch away from my view, I beheld the splendor and the beauty I had been searching for. Five feet wide and dropping fifteen feet, it was the prettiest thing I had seen all day. Once I stepped out of the bushes, I was brought immediately to a startling discovery. I saw three dark objects, sizes ranging from large to small move suddenly. That old song of paranoia flew back into my head once more, "lions and tigers and bears, oh my...lions and tigers and bears, oh boy!" Three black bears, and me without any porridge. I stood perfectly still hoping the three mountain natives would move away, and quickly.

They stood still, looking in my direction until their eyes became fixed on me. The smallest of the three moved hastily toward one of the larger bears or so I thought. The largest one moved quickly in my direction stopping in the middle of the narrow stream, pausing, investigating, protecting. By the way it was standing, I began to realize...this was no bear. The furthest reaches of my imagination could come up with only one possible answer...Bigfoot.

Reports of a mythological creature of this size and appearance have been reported in many parts of the world, including both the North Western United Stated and an even rarer sighting in the South Eastern United States. Could it be?

What appeared to be the leader of the group stood motionless in the stream, glancing once over its shoulder, to check on its companions, then back at me, looking just as surprised at our encounter as I was.

For the sake of identity, lets call this one a male. He stood upright approximately six feet tall and slouched over, positioning himself in the form of a three point stance like a defensive lineman on a football team, occasionally placing one of his long arms to the ground for balance. His head was wide, no visible neck, he was completely covered in black hair with a face and hands that looked like black leather. With no authorized film footage of a bigfoot, all aspects of this animal should have been unfamiliar to me. But as I watched this creature, I noticed his gestures were becoming more familiar. The look, the moves, the obvious protector of his clan. He grunted lowly in a uninviting manner, possibly suggesting that I should leave, but I couldn't move. This Mexican standoff was building with impending tension, then it happened. He charged me with a consuming quickness, I felt myself drawing my last breath, it was at this point, that I began to recognize my foe.

Powerful arms pushed off from the back of his knuckles to the ground, short massive legs drove him forward. As his body twisted in hot pursuit, I saw the glare of silver hair on his back, and right before I turned my head and closed my eyes, my mind confirmed my guess...a Silverback Gorilla.

He stopped short, nearly in my face, growling, swinging his arms, pounding his chest, challenging me, daring me to move. Not one finger from his mighty hands were laid on me, not one inch did I move, I could feel the heat of his breath against my body. I think he was more determined to drive me off than harm me, but I wasn't going to move, not because I was being brave, only because I was frozen with fear. I opened my eyes, amazed that I was still intact.

He thumped his chest and waved his arms in a less intimidating manner now, he knew he was in control. Looking back over his left shoulder toward his companions, he raised his left arm in a gesture as to say, "it's ok I've got him cornered." His companions appeared to be his mate and offspring. Clutching the leg of the mother, the youngster moved a step away from her, leaning his head slightly to the side and glancing at me with a new found curiosity.

The big guy in front of me looked back to my face, jerking his head back slightly and grunted at me. From head to toe, he looked me over, the curiosity of his mind was demonstrated by long pauses at the items I carried. Reaching out his large hand, he used one finger to touch my canteen, making the water container sway gently. His eyes were glancing between the container and my eyes until he gripped the canteen with his right hand. I let the strap of the canteen slide down my arm, he pulled the container away from my body.

He held the canteen with both hands now, first looking, then smelling it before further inspection. It was at this point that the wheels in my head started to turn again. I've been to the zoo and have seen Silverbacks, eye to eye. I've also watched documentaries on television about gorillas and have always been fascinated by the life they live, in the lush green mountains of Africa. The great Silverbacks hold a tight and orderly rule over their clan. What was most comforting to me was remembering that these giant primates are vegetarians and I could rest assured that I would not be today's blue plate special. You can't necessarily make that claim about some of the local carnivores in this region.

The gorilla dropped the canteen to the ground and turned his attention to my backpack. I let the pack slip down my arm as the gorilla proceeded to take it from me. Holding it in both hands he sniffed it, and turned it over and over until the contents fell to the ground.

By this time, the young gorilla had moved away from his mother and closer to the stream, watching, but not imposing upon the business being conducted by his father. I felt like I was trading with a native in a distant land with language being our only barrier.

The Silverback rummaged through the goods on the ground...a nylon poncho, a small cooking pan with lid, a collapsible cup, first aid kit, socks, compass, three packages of dehydrated food, some trail mix, granola bars and a small self contained chess set. Examination of the goods was just too much for the curious youngster. Slowly making his way across the stream, the youngster moved forward with no apprehension at all, keeping one hand clutched tightly.

The Silverback handled and sniffed the contents of the pack thoroughly until he got to the food, especially the granola bars. He wasn't about to let that paper barrier keep him from the treasure trove of savory contents. Biting through the wrapper, he chewed, purred and rumbled, the sounds of a man ravenous with hunger over a most gratifying meal. This was just too much for the young gorilla to bear. The youngster flew over to his father's side with no concern for my presence, and delved into the pile.

They both sat squatted in front of me, eating granola bars. I only wished I could tell them that they tasted better without the wrapper, but they didn't seem to mind. I stood with my head slightly lowered without moving, my reasons, both fear and respect.

The Silverback stared at me while still eating, examining every inch of my being. After about three granola bars, he suddenly reached out his hand toward me, with his index finger, he touched the back of my hand with great interest. His eyes peered up to mine and then back down to my hand, again and again until something caught his eye. It was shiny and mysterious, catching his imagination the way it would any testosterone-filled mammal.

The shiny object was a hunting knife hanging from my belt with a white bone handle and a stainless steel crown. It didn't take him long to figure out that it was removable, and by the time the knife cleared its sheath, my fear graduated to terror. The shine and sparkle amazed him, his eyes were transfixed upon its glimmering appeal. Its seductive beauty mesmerized his senses, as the youngster looked on.

My large acquaintance cradled the knife in both hands, smelling its scent, touching its cool metal to his tongue, Holding the handle in one hand, he dragged the index finger of the other hand across its cold, hard steel back bone. Drawing the tip of his finger over the knife's razor sharp tip, he unintentionally pierced his finger deeply. The blood poured out, as he announced his pain with an agonizing roar. The young gorilla shrieked and leaped several feet away. The mother gorilla, who by now had crossed the stream, ducked behind a bush crying out to the child. The Silverback stuck his bleeding finger into his mouth, took another glance at the knife he held in his hand, before hurling it toward the ground.

The terror in me now escalated to panic, not knowing what to do next. The Silverback looked at me with great disdain and misgiving. It was not a look of anger, his eyes were filled with hurt, betrayal, disappointment. He sat staring at his finger, licking it, the back of his large head was now toward me, I was being shunned. The youngster peered out from his mother's side, then slowly made its way back towards his father.

The Silverback was looking around, occasionally sounding a disagreeable grunt. He looked back at the contents of my backpack. His eyes rolled back and forth, I assumed he was looking for another treat to ease his sorrow. He reached down and picked up the small wooden checkered patterned box, that held chess pieces. After sniffing and fumbling with the box, he was able to flip it open, the hinged box now exposed the playing pieces. Studying its contents, sniffing it, he then ran the finger tips of his uninjured hand across the smooth, inviting playing pieces of its war like characters and powerful queen. After a few moments of inspection he respectfully laid the box with its contents intact gently on the ground by his side.

He sat with his back to me again, poised in utter stillness as though he were contemplating today's experience, or as the chess master of the forest he might have been planning his next move. The mother gorilla moved a few paces toward the Silverback, his huge body stood up erect, supporting his broad shoulders, his arms leaning on his knuckles, starring at his mate. He made a couple of steps toward her and stopped. The mother gorilla turned and crossed the stream. The youngster was back, staring at my backpack and the goods spread across the ground. The Silverback watched the young gorilla intently. After a moment he made a grunt toward the young one. The youngster made a few steps toward his father, then turned back toward the pile. He then walked over and picked up a nearly unexposed granola bar and walked towards me touching the back of my hand with his clutched fist. I instinctively turned my hand palm up, as the young gorilla deposited several nearly squashed berries into my palm. The youngster then sped off, across the stream, up the incline, and into the bushes...the mother was quick to follow.

The Silverback's eyes looked directly into mine, he turned and cautiously headed out across the stream, up the incline. Right before the bushes, he stopped, turned his large head to the right, but not completely around, it was as though he was peeking over his shoulder to see if I had moved. He then turned his head forwards and the great Silverback vanished through the brush and was absorbed into the mist.

I stood there without moving for a couple of moments, wondering if they would return. I began to take inventory of my senses, trying to learn how to walk again. Taking four steps towards my backpack I bent down and started to gather up my belongings. As I bent over, sweat dripped from my chin like the melting of crushed ice. This was not the kind of perspiration caused by heat and humidity, it was the cold sweat of fear. Fear not over what had just happened, or its outcome, but the fear of not knowing. A fear that comes from the lack understanding, a type of fear that's born out of ignorance.

After I gathered everything into my backpack, I made my way across the stream to the rocks by the waterfall. Taking off my boots and socks I stuck my feet into the water. I held my canteen under the veil of the showering liquid and drank to my delight. Sitting there for a while, gazing into the water gave me time to reflect, but my thoughts were blank, unformed. There comes a time when a mature mind has decided it's not necessary to analyze everything that happens, some experiences should be just accepted for what they are, innocent. I began to hope that the mist of the cloud would soon disappear so I could find way back up to the main trail. Exhausted, I leaned back on the rock and closed my eyes, as the soothing sound of falling water lulled me to sleep.

A cool breeze brushed the side of my face, its chill grazed the hair on the back of my neck, causing it to rise. As I opened my eyes I could see the air was clear and the temperature was moderately comfortable. I found myself, not by the waterfall, I was back on the trail at the top of the summit. Grabbing my canteen I could tell it was still nearly empty, I must have been dreaming or worse yet hallucinating. A strong breeze began to blow, causing the pamphlets and brochures I had taken out to blow around. Picking them up randomly, I began to shuffle them into a stack, and then I saw it. Right on the top of the stack was a vanilla-colored brochure with black and green type and an illustration in green of a gorilla head. Had I been glancing at this brochure before I blacked out? I don't even remember picking this brochure up when I originally picked up the others, but I guess I did. It read in bold letters, "Gorilla Haven, mission statement...To help make every captive gorilla's life as natural as possible." Turning the brochure over it read, The Dewar Wildlife Trust, Morganton Georgia 30560.

As I read on, the brochure was about a proposed haven for gorillas in Fannin County Georgia. Suddenly, I was interrupted by a sound coming from the opposite side of the trail. The first thing I saw was a head, crowned in black, then a hairy face, followed by a broad black body that read, Ocoee White Water Rafting. I had to laugh.

A man in his thirties, wearing a black cap, thick beard and a black tee shirt was walking toward me, followed by a woman and a small child coming up the trail. I smiled and they said hello. I told them I hadn't seen anyone all day, and that it was so hot I didn't think I could make it up here. They said it showed, that I looked pretty beat. I asked if they had any extra water. The lady handed me a small bottle of store bought water, which I offered to pay for. She said they brought along several bottles and it looked as though I could use a little charity.

The man said he had noticed the air was cooling, it had been so hot earlier in the day that they didn't want to venture out of their cabin. He also said that the cool air started dropping down from the Northwest and that heavy rains were expected by morning. He told me, he and his wife decided to hike up here with their seven year old son to look at the vista before going back to the city tomorrow. I asked if he knew how far it was to the forestry road where I was going to meet my friends. He told me it wasn't far, that's where he left their car, it took them about an hour to get up here with their small son, it shouldn't take me no more than half of that to get to the road.

I thanked them, and told them I had a date with a full pitcher of sweet tea and a rocking chair. Wanting to repay them for the water, I reached into my pack and pulled out a package of trail mix and handed it to the young boy, who in return reached into his back pack and handed me a granola bar...I smiled.

As I hiked down the trail, I thought about my dream, and the physical and mental stress I endured on this journey. It was as though I entered a parallel universe or something, where all things are relative. This particular region is known for Summers of heat, humidity, rain and thick undergrowth. I've been in both high and low areas in these mountains, and have noticed that many places here look like thick over-grown jungles, this made my dream seem not so far fetched. Just as soon as I get a chance I think I'll write the local forest department and ask them to dub that particular part of the trail, "The Twilight Zone."

I reached a clearing that over-looks the Georgia mountains to the South, and East, and the mountain ranges to the North were North Carolina. Looking across the vast valley that made up the greater portions of Fannin and Union County Georgia, I was touched by its natural wonder. Gazing out, over the valley, I comment to myself, "there are some folks down there who are dedicating their lives to the care and preservation of gorillas...I think I'll look them up, and see what I can Learn."

...C.W. Pendragon


Be sure to read "Gorillas in the Georgia Mountain Mist?"'ll find it of great interest.

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