Dave Landreth is an outspoken Southern Appalachian conservation advocate who, through years of researching wildlife in the Northern Rocky Mountains of Wyoming, has developed a passion for protecting clean air and water, public lands and the plants and animals that live among us. His penchant for collecting plaster molds of grizzly bear and wolf paw imprints from the mud of the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone gave him his handle, Griztrax.
If you missed Part 1 of Meanderthals’ interview with Dave, you can catch it here.
[Meanderthals] Dave, this wouldn’t be complete without talking about the off-trail bushwhacking. You are renowned in the Southern Appalachians for going where there is no trail in the wilderness and documenting your discoveries. How did you get started? What is it like?
[Dave Landreth] As mentioned earlier, rambling around off-trail is just what I grew up doing for fun. I don’t look at it as ‘sport.’ It’s just a way of life. I’m a kid that never really grew up, at least not where playing in the woods is involved. I’ve always loved finding my way from Point A to Point B, along with all of the wonders that are discovered along the way.
I think that we as a nation have forgotten how important getting dirty and banged up is to learning to deal with the challenges that we face in life. We’ve gotten used to the belief that any valid outdoor experience has to be very structured and safe. That totally removes the thrill of discovery and the challenge of finding our way through difficult terrain.
Of course, in many smaller parks and reserves, off-trail travel is rightfully restricted, simply because there is little room to explore in those places. They would soon be covered in ‘volunteer’ trails along with the negative impact that goes with that heavy use.
In many of the places that my friends and I explore, we might very well be the only people to pass through for years at a time. In others, like the High Top slide that I love so much on the slopes of Mt. LeConte in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, each climb follows a different route, often following game paths or bare rock left behind after the numerous landslides. That’s violent, wild, dangerous and rapidly changing terrain and our moving through it has no more impact than the bear that roams the slopes in search of mountain ash each fall, and a lot less impact than the violent storms that sweep the ridges every year.
I tend to do most of my wilder off-trail routes with Ronnie McCall. His views toward exploring off-trail are a lot like mine. We enjoy a relaxed, non-competitive sort of rambling with the journey being more important than the destination. I had gotten away from hiking off-trail for several years while competing in road and bicycle racing, but after encountering Gretch and Paul (two more great friends from Maryville), I realized that I had met two kindred spirits.
We were soon roaming all over the backcounty of the Great Smokies. Paul has done a lot of our favorite climbs with me and Gretch has gotten into a few as well, though she doesn’t share our enthusiasm for the open ridges and cliff faces. I’m lucky
— no matter how much I enjoy exploring the wilder reaches of the Smokies, the company of good and trusted friends is what really makes it so addictive.
I don’t like or enjoy the competitive nature of the “only my way is right” fuss between on-trail and off-trail ramblers. To me it’s all fun, and what is really important is that we encourage people to get out there and do whatever they can to enjoy our public lands.
A lot of the anti-off-trail folks that I hear voicing their displeasure seem to have no idea of what we actually do on our treks. One fellow went on and on about how wrong it was to step around a mudhole on the trail or to cut a switchback. I can assure you that those actions have no resemblance to our exploring the wild valleys and ridges of the Smokies, often far from any ‘official’ trail or path.
Nothing gives me more satisfaction than the excitement that I see on the faces of the friends that are experiencing the challenge of a good off-trail trek for the first time. I have no desire to ‘test’ them or to prove any skill that I might or might not possess. I’m just a guy that likes to see what’s around the next bend or over the next rise and it’s more fun when I have some friends along for the trip.
Before we take anybody that is new to off-trail along on one of our trips, we do like to have an idea of what they’re comfortable with. Some of our explorations can really test the resolve of even an experienced off-trailer, especially when we get into the areas that are swathed in a rich growth of rope-like greenbrier where progress might be measured in yards per hour.
[Meanderthals] Are there too many maintained trails in the national parks and forests?
[Dave Landreth] No, flat out No! I think that if anything, we need a lot more trails. I don’t want to see trails in every drainage and over every ridgeline, but there is plenty of room for more good trails on our public lands. We need all the opportunities for getting our kids out into the woods that we can provide.
Some of my favorite ‘official’ trails in the Smokies have been closed or at the least, have been taken off the maintained list and I think that it is a great loss. I could see closing them to horseback travel because of the great impact that horses have on wet trails, but it’s a real shame to lose a beautiful path like the upper Hyatt Ridge Trail or the Pinnacle Creek Trail between Sugar Fork and Eagle Creek.
I like to keep those open by using them occasionally and clearing some of the overgrowth and debris from the paths. Upper Hyatt Ridge is pretty much lost to use now following some downburst weather events that flattened vast stretches of timber along the ridgeline. The Greenbrier Pinnacle Trail was one of the most beautiful and enjoyable paths in the park and I hated to see it taken off of the maintained list. I try to walk it at least once a year to keep the worst of the overgrowth cut back.
There are certain manways, or unofficial trails, in the Park that have great historical significance. The Ekaneetlee Manway, for instance, has been traversed for centuries by Native Americans passing over the mountains between North Carolina and Tennessee. I don’t want to see those manways become groomed trails or even easy to follow paths, but I feel that it’s important to maintain a trace of the route so that somebody with an adventurous bent, and a map and compass, can follow in the footsteps of those who passed that way in past times.
[Meanderthals] What is your most harrowing off-trail experience? With wildlife? And your greatest rewards?
[Dave Landreth] Years ago, when I was first getting into doing a lot of off-trail in the Smokies and in the Shining Rock Wilderness, my buddy Nolan and I started climbing each of the streams that have their headwaters inside the Wilderness. I had the bad habit then of letting my enthusiasm overrule my common sense.
We were working our way up the Dark Prong, hopping from rock to rock and crawling along the steep banks of the stream. Near the top of that drainage is a high rocky bluff that the stream pours over. I was leading the climb to the top and broke the “3 good points of contact” rule. I grabbed a tree root to use to pull myself over the final ledge, maybe 30 feet above the rocks below.
Just as I pulled up even with the top, the root gave way and I peeled off backwards. I still don’t know how he managed to do it, but Nolan was able to throw up one hand to catch me and hold me long enough while I regained a secure hold, all while maintaining his own grip on the vertical cliff. At the least, he saved me from severe injury and in all probability, death.
Other than the meeting I had with the grizzly in Yellowstone (on-trail), I really haven’t had any bad experiences with wildlife. I’ve encountered grizzly off-trail on a couple of occasions, but in both instances, they knew I was there and we had no problem with sharing the woods.
A lot of folks that aren’t familiar with hiking or backpacking seem to live in fear of 1. Snakes 2. Bears.
Snakes can be dangerous, but are fairly easy to avoid. They are invariably shy, and don’t want to see us anymore than we want to see them. They’re on my mind when I’m off-trail, but not something that I worry about a lot. With black bears, I keep a clean camp and step off the trail to let them pass if need be. I’ve seen hundreds over the years and it’s always a treat. I’ve chased one out of my camp at Sheep Pen Gap with a stick, and had one lick the inside of my van’s window, a few inches from my nose, while napping at a trailhead before a hike. They’re amusing, powerful and deserve respect, but we shouldn’t fear them.
Frankly, the one critter that my buddies and I fear more than any other when off-trail is very small
— yellow jackets and to a lesser extent, hornets. On the trail, you can easily run to escape an encounter with a nest of angry bees, but we sometimes find ourselves off-trail in places where it would be impossible to beat a hasty retreat. We avoid areas in warm weather that tend to favor the nests and listen carefully for their hum when in a dicey spot.
Ronnie and I froze in place for a couple of minutes last year while descending the Devils Elbow. We could hear loud buzzing, but couldn’t see the bees. We were really relieved to find that it was just hundreds of large sweat bees making the racket.
Greatest rewards? The looks on my friend’s faces when they first see the wild beauty of some of my favorite places. More than anything else, I treasure the time that I share in wild places with my friends.
[Meanderthals] For those a little less daring, what are some of your favorite trails in Pisgah, Nantahala, and the Smokies?
[Dave Landreth] Pisgah National Forest is my ‘backyard’ playground and I have a lot of favorites there. There is a loop that I often take that walks up the Laurel Mountain Trail and then uses a manway to connect for the return down the Slate Rock Creek Trail.
When the Blue Ridge Parkway is closed, I love to take the Case Camp Trail up to the Parkway. I then walk the high road out to the Seniard Ridge Trail to descend back to the bottom to complete the loop. That’s got a great climb on it and the views are as good as it gets.
I really enjoy hiking the Squirrel Gap Trail above South Mills River during the winter months. I connect it with the logging road on Funneltop Mtn. to make a great loop that offers a little bit of everything in one good hike.
In the Smokies, Alum Cave Trail is by far my favorite. I don’t mind the crowds
— I think that it’s wonderful to see all of those people out enjoying the Park. If they’re overweight and out of shape, I like it even better. That is such an incredible trail and I always recommend it first over all others to anybody that is visiting the National Park for the first time.
It was one of the first trails that I ever hiked in the Smokies and I never grow tired of its beauty. It’s also the trail that I use most often when I’m returning from some of my favorite off-trail rambles, so I’ve hiked it at least one way hundreds of times over the 40 something years that I’ve been hiking the Smokies.
I really enjoy the Baxter Creek Trail to the top of Mt. Sterling too, though it’s been devastated by the loss of the magnificent hemlocks that used to grace the climb. Inadu Knob (aka Snake Den Trail) is another favorite
— I love the views there, especially during the rhodo and laurel bloom each year.
In the Nantahalas, I suppose that Naked Ground and the Hangover in Joyce Kilmer–Slickrock
Wilderness is a favorite, but there are so many good trails to choose from there that it’s hard to pick. I like the ‘old-school’ type of trails that exist in the Nantys
— they’re steep and rough, but a blast to hike.
[Meanderthals] If you could go back in time and spend a day hiking with Horace Kephart, what would you want to know, and what would you tell him about our time, a century later?
[Dave Landreth] The thing I admire most about Horace Kephart’s writing is that he didn’t try to perpetuate the stereotype of the mountain people being a bunch of lazy ne’er-do-wells.
I would love to be able to ask his opinion about the removal of the families from the Park during its creation. I would like to be able to show him the park today so that he could see how it’s recovered from the ravages of logging that took place during his time. Would he feel that what we have gained is worth the changes in our mountain culture? What about the Fontana Dam that flooded so many of the places that he was familiar with?
Finally, I’d love for him to visit Mt. LeConte to witness the thousands of people that make the pilgrimage to the peak each year
— something that might not be available if not for his efforts years ago. Oh, and of course I’d want to ask his opinion of off-trail rambling. I believe that I know what he’d say about that, but it would be interesting to hear him say it.
To many in our ‘gang,’ there are two people who we would really love to be able to bring into the present to share the trail with us
— Harvey Broome and Dutch Roth. We feel a closer kinship to those two (and their companions) than with just about any other persons in the history of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Dutch in particular was very enthusiastic about going where few had gone before and loved nothing better than heading far off-trail with his group of fellow adventurers. Harvey Broome was instrumental in getting me addicted to off-trail exploration. His book, Out Under the Skies of the Great Smokies, a Personal Journal, is in my opinion, the finest book ever written about the Smoky Mountains. Broome contributed so much to the efforts to protect the park from development schemes and commercialization. He was truly the Edward Abbey of the East!
[Meanderthals] Southern Appalachia is one of the most fulfilling areas in the country for those who love the outdoors. What are we the people doing right, and what are the most pressing issues facing the outdoors community. Where are the volunteer opportunities most needed?
[Dave Landreth] We’re lucky here in Western NC in some ways. Asheville has been recognized as one of the great outdoor cities in America and even though some bemoan the increase in tourism that has resulted from the publicity, we need the enthusiasm for outdoor opportunities that the recognition has brought to the region.
Business interests realize now that preserving our public lands has an enormous financial payoff. The publicity has also resulted in a lot more support for the local land conservancy groups that work with landowners to make their property available to public access.
We’ve had some huge successes here in the southern Appalachians
— the Jocassee Gorges, DuPont State Forest, Bearwallow Mountain, Chimney Rock State Park and many other beautiful swaths of mountain land have been saved from development for the benefit of future generations.
We have a governor in office now in the state of North Carolina who has done everything in his power to do away with the rules and regulations that protect our clean air and water resources. Despite the recent coal ash spills that have devastated miles of our state’s streams, the governor is now saying that the best course of action would be to remove even more of those protections.
His crocodile tears are a pretty lousy substitute for a heartfelt mea culpa to the citizens of North Carolina and to the agency that is now taking the heat for following his instructions to back off enforcement of the regulations that would have prevented the coal ash spills into our state’s rivers. Of course we all know that the $1.2 millon that Duke Energy, his employer for 28 years, popped into McCrory’s campaign coffers had nothing to do with his quick work at dismantling the rules that protected our water and air from abuse… did it?
It’s not just dirty water, it’s dangerous, poisonous water. It poisons the water that we drink, the water that we swim in, the water that we fish in, it poisons the fish that we eat, the shellfish that we consume, it poisons the water that livestock drinks before being slaughtered and sent to our dinner tables.
It seems that a $1.2 million campaign contribution is all that it takes for a company to avoid responsibility to the poisoning of our state’s most precious resource. If all of the money that Duke has pumped into political campaigns to obtain immunity from responsibility for their actions had been put into designing and using safe storage instead, we probably wouldn’t be facing this problem now.
I don’t make any bones about it
— I’m a big believer in a strong government that uses common sense regulations to protect the interests of it’s citizens from rich and powerful corporate entities. I feel that those who fall for the “deregulation is good for our economy” line are gullible fools that are as responsible for the coal ash spills as the good governor himself. They remind me of the sheep in Orwell’s classic, The Animal Farm, who faithfully chanted whatever line that Napoleon the Pig told them to, regardless of how it would have contradicted what they had been chanting just the day before.
“Two legs good, four legs bad…” It’s Tuesday.
“Four legs good, two legs bad…” Must be Wednesday.
Good sheep, lousy government.
There is tremendous resistance in some quarters of our government to any public land ownership, ignoring the economic and social benefits that we might gain from those lands, along with clean air and clean water. Budgets for our national parks and forests, as well as state parks, have been cut to the bone, ham-stringing efforts to preserve our wild lands. Research budgets have been cut deeply or done away with.
Political and business interests exert tremendous pressure on our public land managers, especially in the National Parks, to manage our land for financial profits rather than resource and recreational protection. If we care about our public lands, we need to vote to protect them. Turning out the vote is one of the most important things that we can do.
On a more personal basis, doing volunteer trail work, river cleanups etc. can be a tremendous help to budget strapped agencies. As hikers and backpackers, we need to encourage others to get out and get familiar with the treasures that many take for granted here in the southern mountains.
[Meanderthals] Dave, thanks so much for all the time and effort telling your story, and for your works on behalf of the public lands across this country. This has been an educational opportunity for me, and a means of increasing awareness for those who are just discovering all that the great outdoors has to offer. Those of you reading, if you have any thoughts to share or questions to ask, please feel free to use the comments facility below.