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Collaboration and Purpose: Rock/Creek’s day in the gorge with the TRGT

In much of the world even today, and certainly for the decisive majority of our human past, this sense of other-than-human nature as something thoroughly alive and intimately interwoven with human existence is and was the mainstream perception.  A world without electric lights, a world without engines, is a different world entirely.  It is a world that is alive.  Our world of science and industry, of monocultures and monotheisms, marks a decisive shift in human seeing…Our world is not alive; it is machine, not animal, and we have become starkly desensitized to the reality beyond the asphalt and street lights…

~Paul Kingsnorth, In The Black Chamber

Tennessee River Gorge
The un-named creek comes back to life a the temperature hovers around freezing.

As was announced in early January of 2015, Rock/Creek has partnered with the local non-profit, Tennessee River Gorge Trust.  Proceeds from Rock/Creek’s two premiere trail running races, the R/C River Gorge Trail Race and the R/C StumpJump 50k, will benefit the land conservation projects of the Tennessee River Gorge Trust–either through funding of research, trail improvement, and/or land acquisitions.  These two races, held within the Tennessee River Gorge watershed and Prentice Cooper State Forest, utilize trails on the most spectacular bluff lines and biologically diverse coves in the region.  These trail systems offer the most beautiful views of the gorge in the area–views that remain prominently intact and preserved in their natural state…as they have been for thousands of years.  This pristine “pocket” of natural beauty would not be possible without the dedicated efforts of the Tennessee River Gorge Trust and its affiliate partners.

Last week, Mark McKnight and I, had the privilege of spending the day exploring the sedimentary cliff bands of an unnamed drainage in the gorge with TRGT Executive Director, Rick Huffines.  After spending 26 years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and most recently, as the Deputy Regional Chief of the National Wildlife Refuge, Rick is an experienced and knowledgeable outdoorsman that respects the intricacies of the woodland’s that he treads upon.  A passionate and committed conservationist, who understands the value of a healthy and biologically diverse ecosystem, Rick was eager to share his experience of the Tennessee River Gorge with us.

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TRGT Executive Director Rick Huffines leads the way past rock formations as we work our way up the escarpment.

Beginning about 5 miles east of the city around Williams Island and extending for 27 miles to Hales Bar Dam near Nickajack Lake, The Tennessee River Gorge is a natural paradise–complete with 10,000 year paleo-indian archaeologic remnants, a unique biodiversity that is home to both threatened and endangered species, as well as some spectacular geologic features.  Rick took us to a remote spot up Cash Canyon, near the Trust’s migratory bird-banding research station.  The remoteness of this area is astounding considering the relative proximity to a city of Chattanooga’s size.  But then again, this is just another reason that Chattanooga has become such a draw for outdoor enthusiasts all over the country.

It was cold, and the grey sky was heavy with sagging moisture, that we would soon learn was a biting freezing rain.  We jumped out of the truck and headed up the gentle slope of Raccoon.  Below us, beyond the solemn stands of winter-barren hardwoods, the mighty Tennessee River pushed toward its destination, steady and unconcerned.

Rock piles show evidence of human habitation thousands of years ago.
Rock piles show evidence of human habitation thousands of years ago.

On a wide and sweeping bench in the land, Rick pointed out the faint lines of stacked stones, weathered in acutely angled lines across the forested floor, almost hidden amongst the erratic sandstone rocks, tangled brush, and the decaying deciduous detritus–remnants of stone walls, preserved and hidden within the rocky land.  These were the archaeologic sites of elaborate ancient human civilizations that lived in this gorge, and as a side note, that hunted jaguars (yes, the remains of which have been found in nearby caves within the gorge)!  We would soon notice that these stone walls were quite prolific.  Zigging and zagging between huge boulders, terracing natural benches in the land, and bordering (possibly channeling) a spring-fed stream that quietly gurgled at the base of a sandstone block in the mountain’s side.  This remote spot, at this sweeping bend in the gorge, and anchored by the sandstone cliffs of the gorge’s walls, was thought to be the remnants of a native american village–a small civilization that thrived, protected by these natural boundaries, within this gorge of the Tennessee River.

As we continued our hike up this drainage, a light precipitation began to unfurl from the thick clouded sky.  It was a freezing rain that coated the ground in a glass of slick ice.  We traversed the creek, scrambling across the deceptively frozen, moss-covered sandstone blocks, our hands digging into the rich earth for assurance.  The water cascaded around and through the crystalline icicles that lined the precipitous edges of the stream.  We made our way mid-way up the mountain to a rock shelter and stopped for a snack break. We sat comfortably in the dry cushions of leaves under the sandstone overhang, the spitting drops of frozen rain pattering the winter landscape around us.

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From the top of the escarpment sharp cliffs make dramatic silhouettes against the foggy skies.

We needed to move to stay warm, so we identified the best path to the summit of the plateau–a 60 foot icy, leaf-covered gully in the sandstone outcrop.  We scrambled, on all fours, up the slope and crested the top…of Raccoon Mountain.  A cold breeze whipped through the trees.  Ice covered limbs crackled and clinked like the whispering shatter of delicate crystal glass.  We made our way towards our destination–a unique mushroom-like rock outcropping that teetered right on the edge of the bluff, overlooking the gorge.  It was a spot, Rick assured us, that not many, if any ,”modern-folks,” had ever visited.  This spot provided an incredible perspective of this beautiful location that Chattanoogans are so privileged to call their home.  From this point of preserved and unmolested land, we could view a massive expanse of the gorge with barely a sign of human habitation.  It was a view of almost timeless, and pristine “wildness”, the land as seen, as has been, through the progression of human history.  From those stone walls of its paleo-archaic inhabitants to its modern evolution as the city of Chattanooga, this section of the river and this gorge has been a symbol of our relationship to the natural world, of our desire to preserve, to protect the land that surrounds us.  And the fact that it remains and has remained, for millennia, as such, is testament to our connection to this place.  Such is passion and the commitment of the Tennessee River Gorge Trust.

The temperature was rapidly dropping, and we decided to head back down the mountain.  Taking a more cautious descent in the accumulating ice, we followed a well-worn deer trail that meandered its path of least resistance through the rocky cliff bands and forested slopes.  We stopped for Rick to point out the small saplings, sheared of their bark, the bright and yellow inner cambium exposed.  It was the antler rubs of a buck.  Not soon after, just ahead of us, a young deer, startled by our presence, bounced down the slope and disappeared amongst the grey trunks of dormant hardwoods.

The freezing rain continued to collect in icy drips upon the last bleached clusters of beech leaves frozen by winter’s depth.  We wound through the tangled looping spirals of massive grapevines that ascended toward the canopy of its poplar host, and made our way back to the truck.   Droplets of ice clung to our clothing. We were cold and wet.  We had just spent several hours wandering the side of Raccoon Mountain, exploring the land, the gorge, the rocks, the streams…no trails were needed.  We were just at ease being outside–methodically observing, quietly talking.  There is no such thing as bad weather, only different weather.  With preparedness and the proper gear, comfort in any situation is possible and, in doing so, the wonders of the forest may be experienced in a vastly different medium–further creating that unique “experience” for which we all long, as we seek both solace and adventure in our natural world.

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Mark, Brian, and Rick pose at a mushroom rock at the top.

The quote to which this account began, is an excerpt from an essay that Executive Director, Rick Huffines, gave me after we returned from our hike.  Spurned by a conversation we had in his office before the hike about the importance of the preservation of wilderness, of wildness, and of biodiversity relative to the health of an increasingly isolated and tech-dependent human community. Having read it after the fact, the essay seemed an articulate representation of our day in the woods.  Yes, Rock/Creek is a retail store, but we remain, first and foremost, a local outdoor gear store–as such, we remain committed to the protection and preservation of those lands that ARE our backyard.  The trails, the streams, the rocks, the forests all comprise our local outdoor paradise of which we all strive to enjoy and that which we all must strive to protect so that the natural world does remain relevant within our increasingly fast-paced lives.  It is through this shared ideal of a commitment to preserve our forests and local lands, that Rock/Creek and the Tennessee River Gorge Trust are proud to work together–with collaboration and purpose–to make Chattanooga, not just another city on a map of roads, but a destination amongst our forested hills–a conduit to the experience of beauty and preservation within the natural world that is our backyard.

If you’re looking for ways to help the Trust and its mission, be sure to see their web site and follow their work on Instagram. There are a variety of opportunities to give of your time and resources, no matter what skills you may have to offer.