2011 was a busy year for Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The park made headlines in the national media on a couple of occasions, but also made headlines within the hiking community. Below is my rundown of the top 10 stories from the Smokies over the past year.
10) Smokies interpretive ranger, David Worth, set the new record for the fastest trek across the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains on May 19th. David ran/walked/trekked 72 miles - from Fontana Dam to Davenport Gap - in 14 hours and 50 minutes, besting the previous record set by Will Harlan of 15 hours and 57 minutes.
9) Great Smoky Mountains National Park received an early Holiday gift on December 14th when the Friends of the Smokies officially transferred 20 acres of new land to be added to the Park. The land lies along Soak Ash Creek in the Pittman Center community just east of Gatlinburg.
8) Four hikers had to be rescued by Appalachian Trail Ridgerunners during an early March snow storm. The ridgerunners escorted the hikers from the Double Springs Shelter to Park Rangers waiting at the Clingmans Dome Parking lot. The hikers were all dehydrated and suffered from mild-moderate to moderate-severe hypothermia, while one had an injured knee.
7) Earlier this year the restoration of the Appalachian Clubhouse was completed by the Park’s Historic Preservation Crew. Now restored to its original appearance in the 1930s, the clubhouse was used for social gatherings by tenants and guests of the Appalachian Club in Elkmont whose members, mostly from Knoxville, built rustic cabins nearby to serve as weekend or summer retreats in the years before the Park was created. In April the Park announced that the newly-restored clubhouse would be available for public day-use rental.
6) During the month of July the Smokies reported two separate drownings at the Sinks on the Little River (about 10 miles west of Gatlinburg).
5) In July Great Smoky Mountains managers announced that they were considering a move to make all backcountry camping permits (for all sites) go through Recreation.gov, an online and call-in reservation service. The proposal would cost backpackers between $2.25 and $10.00 to make a reservation for a backcountry campsite (depending on which of three proposals is ultimately adopted). The announcement has created an on-going firestorm of controversy within the backpacking community.
4) On October 27th the Great Smoky Mountains announced that research findings from the experimental elk release indicated that the elk population was sustainable, had minimal impacts on the Park's resources, and human-elk conflicts were manageable. The approved plan, signed on October 20th by National Park Service Regional Director David Vela, culminates a 10-year effort to reestablish elk to their native range.
3) 2011 has been an extremely tough year for black bears in the Smokies. As a result of a terrible food crisis (limited berry and nut supplies) caused by heavy rains throughout the year, the Appalachian Bear Rescue has taken in a record number of bear cubs (31 through the end of November) this year, topping the previous high of 23 in 2009. Some are even starving to death when they arrive at the mission in Townsend.
2) Two sewage treatment plant employees in Gatlinburg were killed on April 5th when a wall on an equalization tank collapsed, resulting in a massive sewage spill. An estimated 1.5 million gallons of untreated effluent was released into the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River, a park-owned stream that bisects the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge Spur of the Foothills Parkway.
1) On April 27th a massive tornado ripped through the west end of the Great Smoky Mountains. The tornado was categorized as an EF-4, with maximum wind speeds ranging between 165 and 170 miles per hour, and had an estimated maximum path width of one mile. The tornado touched down near Chilhowee Lake and moved northeast into the western portion of the Park, and was on the ground for 20 miles. Surveys by trail workers reported that more than 4500 trees were blown down, resulting in the full or partial closures of nine trails (more than 35 miles) in the Cades Cove area, including the popular Abrams Falls Trail. Three trails still remain closed.