Putting boots on the ground in the Cherokee National Forest

TELLICO PLAINS, Tenn. — On a flawless day in early November, with nary a cloud diminishing the blue sky overhead and the temperature just cool enough to require a light jacket, Tennessee Wild director Jeff Hunter is leading an expedition.

Inspired by Jenni Frankenberg Veal’s article about the Tennessee Wilderness Act, photographer Jeff Guenther, an avid outdoorsman, and I are tagging along behind Hunter so we can see for ourselves why this bill matters. Introduced by Sen. Lamar Alexander and co-sponsored by Sen. Bob Corker, it seeks to expand five existing wilderness areas all the way from Monroe County to Johnson County and also create the first new wilderness area in Tennessee in 25 years, the Upper Bald River Wilderness.

The Tennessee Wilderness Act is still open for debate in the lame-duck Congress, and its supporters would like nothing more for it to be passed into law before the end of the year.

All it took to arrange this hike was one email to Hunter, a tireless steward of and advocate for the environment. Alexander’s bill could have no finer front man than Hunter, who in 2000 abandoned a 16-year career as a telecommunications executive to hike the Appalachian Trail. The journey changed him in ways he never dreamed possible, and uniquely prepared him for what he considers his life’s work.

The hike Hunter has chosen is moderate—two-and-a-half miles with a gradual increase in elevation and only the occasional challenge. At one point the trail forces us to cross the Bald River via a downed tree. For a guy who has spent the majority of his adult life covering events that take place in arenas, this is a departure, but not foreign. My father grew up in rural West Tennessee and instilled in me a love of the outdoors. I also love watching Duke and Kentucky joust in basketball, but this is different.

“It’s one thing to see pictures,” Hunter tells us as we walk the Brookshire Creek Trail, located in what he hopes will become the Upper Bald River Wilderness. “It’s one thing to fly over the forest in light planes. It’s a whole other thing to come here, put boots on the ground, feel the wind in your face, see the light through the trees. You can smell it. Sense it.”

As we trek on, Hunter puts that difference into words.

“There’s something that a place like this does to the soul,” he says. “That’s just so important. It calms us down in a hectic fast-paced world.”

It takes nearly an hour, but the payoff Hunter planned for us is well worth the effort. It’s a small waterfall, as yet unnamed, though Hunter has the perfect name in mind—Alexander Falls.

“There’s so much to see in the forest, and it’s often very subtle,” Hunter says. “This is not quite so subtle. It’s not the falls coming off the Yosemite cliff that drops 500 or a thousand feet, but it’s pretty darn good.”

Yes, it is pretty darn good. This is the sight—and the sound and the smell—that Guenther and I were looking for, that we wanted to bring back for the uninitiated. Hunter, who has seen this waterfall numerous times but never grows tired of it, nods his head as Guenther snaps pictures and I stare in slack-jawed wonder.

“I like to say that a hike has to have a reward,” Hunter says. “And the output of energy needs to be commensurate with the reward. And this reward is very high for the amount of energy that you have to put out there.

“People will generally not advocate to protect what they do not know and love. My role as part of our outreach is to connect people to the Cherokee National Forest. To show them the landscape we’re trying to protect. To talk about those values, have that conversation. People usually get it pretty quickly out here. You don’t come out here and say, “Yeah, what this place is missing is …”

We break for lunch, sitting down above the falls in this perfect natural bistro. Just as we’re about to pack up and head back, a dog comes splashing through the creek. It’s a Plott hound, a medium-sized dog bred to track wild boars and bears. The dog looks emaciated, and we thought he had been lost in the woods despite the satellite tracking collar he’s wearing, so we beckon him to follow us back down the trail.

As it turns out, the Plott knew exactly where he was going, headed back to his owner, who had a pack of dogs out that day. Yes, the owner told us, “Rocky” had been lost, near the North Carolina border for nearly a week, but it’s been hard to fatten him back up. Plotts, lithe and athletic, are relentless creatures, the thrill of the hunt driving them to the point of exhaustion and burning more body fat than they can replace by eating mass quantities of food.

Rocky’s owner is not here to hunt bear. The baying of the hounds is his reward.

Running into Rocky was a fitting end to our journey, for it further illustrates the countless simple pleasures that can be derived from the land. It’s why Hunter does what he does.

“I wake up every day and it’s not lost on me that I’m lucky to have a job and do the work that I do,” Hunter says. “If you can live your values and find yourself in a position to help protect an important place like this—for not only current generations but more importantly future generations—you are truly blessed.”