Easing into the wilderness

“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
Camping and Woodcraft, 1906

The return of fall’s cool, crisp mornings and clear blue skies seems to spark an instinctual longing to seek out wilderness. For some, that may simply mean an easy family stroll along a local stretch of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.

Others, however, crave a richer experience. And that, say local adventurers, can take many forms: long or short, strenuous or lazy, a day trip or an extended hike along the Appalachian Trail. It can even be an art form.

Each fall, leaf-lookers from all over the country and beyond our borders flock to the Southern Appalachians to see the magical palette of fiery hues ignite the mountain landscape. In WNC, autumn displays her spectacular tints in an altitudinal decline first detectable in late summer along higher-elevation ridges. Gradually, the color creeps down the mountain slopes in a dazzling show that usually climaxes in the lower cove forests.

For Thea Young, it’s an unparalleled spectacle. “Of all the areas that I’ve explored, Western Carolina is one of the most beautiful,” she maintains.

Young, who manages Take a Hike Mountain Outfitters in Black Mountain, graduated from Virginia Tech two years ago with a degree in natural-resource recreation; she’s led monthlong outings with kids, worked on search-and-rescue squads, and even battled forest fires. For her, WNC is a four-season adventureland offering abundant opportunities for paddling, hiking, camping, backpacking and horseback riding.

“WNC is simply geared toward recreation,” she concludes.

Finding your environmental comfort zone

“In the school of the woods, there is no graduation.”

— Horace Kephart

Other outdoors enthusiasts particularly savor the seasonal change. Chad Morgan, who coordinates UNCA’S Outdoor Education Program, says he appreciates the break in the weather.

“I love it when it’s cool at night, but warm enough in the day where I can still hike in shorts and a T-shirt,” he says. During the fall semester, Morgan introduces his new students to the region’s abundant natural resources through an imaginative freshman orientation. Appropriately titled Wild X, it encompasses a full week of trips, including rock climbing, whitewater rafting and backpacking. Other students in the program choose from among a variety of group outings — everything from caving expeditions to map-and-compass clinics — where they learn such practical skills as water-purification techniques, how to handle a camp stove and the art of orienteering.

While these clinics focus on specific skills, the outings themselves allow students to learn by experimenting. This, confesses Morgan, sometimes means letting nature take her own course. “In the wilderness, you’re on someone’s else’s turf,” he notes. “There’s a certain respect that you develop along the way.”

But the longer you stay out, “the more comfortable you get with yourself and the environment,” Morgan continues. Trial and error in the field, he maintains, often enables students to develop an environmental “comfort zone” that can be gradually extended via further experience.

In the eye of the backpacker

“To equip a pedestrian with shelter, bedding, utensils, food, and other necessities, in a pack so light and small that he can carry it without overstrain, is really a fine art.”

— Horace Kephart

The widespread popularity of camping today may seem like a recent phenomenon, but a number of naturalists — including outdoor writer George Washington Sears and Kephart (who penned Our Southern Highlanders, among other works) — were already proclaiming the virtues of getting back to nature nearly a century ago.

Kephart spent the final two-and-a-half decades of his life in the woods of what later became (due, in part, to his efforts) the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Learning how to coexist with nature, he described his firsthand experiences with the native Cherokee, the remote region’s white settlers and the abundant wildlife.

His articles were soon popular with readers throughout the country. In 1906, the “Dean of American Camping” published Camping and Woodcraft, a best-selling guide to surviving, and thriving, outdoors.

For Kephart, camping was a creative endeavor — and today, when nearly everyone, it seems, desires to claim the title “artist,” his century-old, camp-as-art concept is worth celebrating.

“Camping can evolve into a kind of personalized art,” explains Thea Young of Take a Hike. “The more you’re involved in the outdoors, the more you’re able to appreciate it.”

U.S. Forest Service Resource Assistant Sally Browning takes the notion a step further. She views camping as a highly subjective undertaking; like art, the experience will be different for everyone.

“It’s basically an individual choice,” muses Browning. “Some people enjoy the conveniences of grills and pit toilets in primitive campgrounds, while others prefer to backpack to get away, seek solitude and enjoy the silence.”

For Browning, the Nantahala National Forest’s Wayah District (nestled along the Georgia/North Carolina border and extending northwest to include Fontana Lake in Swain County) offers something for everyone. Its 133,894 acres include two river gorges; the Southern Nantahala Wilderness Area; waterfalls; miles of pristine, trout-filled streams; several 5,000-foot peaks; a vast network of multiuse trails of varying lengths (including nearly 60 miles of Appalachian Trail and a section of the Bartram Trail); and nine recreation areas, among them the popular Standing Indian Campground.

For many fall tourists, developed campgrounds in the national forests may constitute the perfect compromise.

“Day hiking from camp allows people to get in shape, learn what supplies to bring, and what not to carry along,” notes Browning. “Over time, these campers develop the skills and confidence to attempt a longer overnight outing.”

Still, for some folks, pit toilets and high art just don’t go together. So if camping is unlikely to make your “things-to-do-on-vacation” list this fall, you might consider the nearby Mountain Waters Scenic Byway, a 61.3-mile drive that winds through forests, two river gorges and rural countryside. And if that’s not enough, throw in a 120-foot waterfall and a side trip to Wayah Bald — or finish the day with a shopping spree along the twisty streets of trendy Highlands. At least you’ll get your exercise.

The next step …

For more details, contact these folks or your favorite local outfitter:

• Wayah Ranger District, (828) 524-6441, www.cs.unca.edu/nfsnc

• Take a Hike Mountain Outfitters, (828) 669-0811

• UNCA Outdoor Education Program, (828) 252-5658

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