Goodbye, Watauga Lake Shelter

Built in 1980 by the US Forest Service, the basic three-sided shelter was designed for six people and located 50 yards off the Appalachian Trail south of TVA Watauga Dam not far from the lake.  The original shingled roof was replaced with metal in 1997.  The shelter was further maintained in 2007 by staining the outside and installing a gutter on back.   A BSA Eagle project in 2011 by Seth Douthat provided a bear pole for food protection. 

Former Watauga Lake Shelter (built in 1980)

In 2013, activity by multiple families of bears, and not just a couple of bears, at the TVA campgrounds (Watauga Dam and Little Wilbur) and along the A.T. around Watauga Lake led to the US Forest Service issuing a facility closure notice for the Watauga Lake Shelter.  Instructions were to not stop between US321 to Wilbur Dam Road to eat, rest, or camp overnight to reduce any potential encounters.  TVA successfully implemented strategies to reduce access to food/ waste in the campgrounds with elimination of tent camping, banning (with fines) outside storage of food, improved trash containers, and education signs.   Options for the shelter area were extensively discussed between the partner organizations.

The temporary closure notice for the shelter was lifted in Spring 2016, and unfortunately, bear encounters immediately resumed.  A bear destroyed two tents at the shelter, was scared off, then returned to climb the food pole.  A bear appeared the next night to destroy another tent holding equipment and supplies while hikers slept in the full shelter and another nearby tent.  The bear then came back to successfully acquire food bags hanging from trees.  The ranger district immediately imposed the bear closure again “Until Further Notice”.

Situation with bears at Watauga Lake Shelter was further discussed during 2016-2018 to conclude it was not going to be improved with available administrative and physical controls.  The shelter itself was deemed not suitable for relocation, thus decision made by the partner organizations to take down the building.  In March 2019, the bear pole, steps, and table were removed to discourage use.  Finally, the shelter was disassembled in May with the metal parts and shingles hauled back across the lake by TVA boats (many thanks for the assistance!) for disposal while the wood components were burned in place.  The closure notice for camping between US321 and Wilbur Dam Road remains in force.

While Watauga Lake Shelter provided nearly forty years of service, it is a disappointment that the recreational use on and along the lake could not sufficiently practice Leave No Trace principles to avoid creating an attractive enticement for the bears. 

Bear Activity near McQueen Knob – May 2019

ATC has received multiple reports in early to mid-May of bears taking food in the trail section around McQueen Knob – from south at the old farmstead to the emergency shelter.  This same stretch of trail had bear activity in 2018. 

Several campsites were visited by a bear that was circling around until able to grab insufficiently hung bags or broke the low branch to gain access to the food.  Sometimes the hanging bags were just torn in place to drop the contents. 

Please take necessary precautions to limit risk of encountering a bear,  Hikers should camp 200 feet away from where their food and “smellables” are stored for their own safety. For most adults, 200 feet is about 80 steps.  Bear canisters should be sealed correctly and not stored in shelters. (Certified list)  Proper use for Ursacks are to tie securely to the trunk of a tree.  (Link to their How to Use page)  Hanging bear bags should employ a very high branch away from your campsite. (Instructions – practice at home first!)

Mount Rogers/Grayson Highlands reopened to dispersed camping (10/2), but be aware of possible bear activity

As of 10/2/2018, the National Forest lands, including section of the Appalachian Trail, temporarily closed in the Mount Rogers NRA and Grayson Highlands SP are now available for dispersed camping; however, maintain caution.

Since closure on August 30, the Forest Service and partner agencies have monitored the area with no further issues regarding black bear activity and human encounters. Habituated bears may still be active in the area, so visitors should remain alert. Campers should be extremely vigilant about storing their food according to recommended guidelines. Dogs should remain on leashes to avoid surprise encounters.

The prior notice involved the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests prohibiting overnight camping in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, Grayson Highlands State Park, and surrounding National Forest lands. This order impacted 17 miles of the Appalachian Trail between Elk Garden/VA-600 and Fox Creek/VA-603, including the three A.T. shelters: Thomas Knob Shelter, Wise Shelter and Old Orchard Shelter. Backcountry camping within Grayson Highlands SP was also closed, not just along the A.T., which changed the plans for other groups such as BSA Troop 48.

North Carolina USFS Proposes Bear-Resistant Food Container Requirement for A.T.

In mid-August, the US Forest Service announced that is seeking input on a proposal to require bear-resistant food containers for all overnight campers on the Appalachian Trail located in the North Carolina National Forests. The obligation would also be applied to the Panthertown Valley near Cashiers, NC. The backpacking public is encouraged to submit written comments by September 19, 2018 to comments-southern-north-carolina-nantahala-nantahala@fs.fed.us email address. Please reference “Bear-Resistant Food Container Requirement” in your subject.

Context for the need is that visitors to the NC National Forests have experienced an increasing number of black bears encounters involving food over the past few years. Most are at places where the public repeatedly camps in the general forest, such as along the A.T., rather than at campgrounds that are equipped with bear-proof trash cans. The incidents include bears taking food and backpacks, damaging tents, and staying near inhabited campsites for hours. While the loss of food is inconvenient for humans, the potentially serious encounters with bears needs to be addressed by eliminating human behaviors which lead bears to see people as a source of food. Secure storage for food and scented items (toothpaste, deodorant, beverages, or snacks) which is then placed away from the immediate camping location can help discourage this conduct.

Georgia National Forests already require the use of bear-resistant food containers when overnighting in a designated A.T. section during the spring months with a $5,000 fine per individual and $10,000 per organization. The proposal by North Carolina Forests is continuation of that approach as overnight use of the Appalachian Trail is typically dispersed.

North Carolina has not yet established a list of approved storage systems (would be part of the next phase once a decision is made to proceed). Here is a list certified by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee.

Pro or con… now is the time to provide specific comments to determine if and how this policy proposal proceeds.

 

Kim Peters – August 2018 ATC Volunteer of the Month

Kim Peters is the ATC’s Volunteer of the Month for August 2018!

Kim has been an active TEHCC member for more than 18 years, and over time, has taken on more responsibility by providing trail maintenance leadership. In 2010, she began serving as TEHCC Maintenance Coordinator engaging many different volunteers, from new members to retirees, in various maintenance activities. TEHCC typically has more than 13,000 hours invested in the Appalachian Trail each year, by roughly 450 different volunteers, across regular outings and special events. Therefore, the role of volunteer coordinator is critical to our club’s success

A search of club newsletters reveals that Kim started out hiking with TEHCC on April 1, 2000 with a trip to the Sand Cave/White Rocks in Ewing, VA. Since then, her retirement has enabled her to spend more time in the outdoors through both hikes (TEHCC Hiker of the Year in 2001 and 2007) and trail maintenance. Kim has hiked the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain to Harper’s Ferry. Over the years, she has logged personal maintenance time of nearly 5,000 hours over 600 events. Currently, Kim invests around 450 hours (~56 days!) each year; thus is the third most active TEHCC maintainer.

As Maintenance Coordinator, Kim recruits volunteers for our 36 trail sections and 15 shelters over 134 miles of the Appalachian Trail. She hosts a large winter meeting to kick off each new maintenance season with recognition, safety, and training. Inquiries from potential volunteers are matched with the weekly trail project crew, section groups, or a regular monthly outing. In 2012, Kim rebranded the third-Saturday events to “Hiking with Tools” to reach out to those who are new to maintenance, have a weekday job, or desire lighter tasks such as cleaning out waterbars, lopping rhododendron, breaking up fire rings, or painting blazes/shelters. This latter effort has been very successful in recruiting new maintainers of the Appalachian Trail.

The Tennessee Eastman Hiking & Canoeing Club sincerely thanks Kim for her service and leadership over the years. And congratulate her on being further recognized as ATC’s Volunteer of the Month for August 2018! Please contact Kim (atmaint@tehcc.org) if you’re interested in helping with the Appalachian Trail.

AT near Watauga Lake no longer rerouted

June 2018 – The lake level has receded, thus the Appalachian Trail has returned to its normal path.

May 2018 – Due to recent heavy rains, TVA has temporarily raised the Watauga Lake level, so that a couple of bridges on the Appalachian Trail are now under water. The trail is temporarily rerouted on US 321 and Oliver Hollow Road. Signs are posted and route is blue blazed. If heading trail north on Shook Branch Road, cross US 321 and walk left or west along US 321 for about a quarter mile and then go right along Oliver Hollow Rd. Follow the road for a third of a mile and take the short woods path to the right to the A.T.

This situation previously occurred in April 2017.

For future reference, Watauga Lake levels above the 1961 foot level trigger the need to put up the re-route signs.