Vacation at Land Between the Lakes

This beautiful strip of land on the border between Kentucky and Tennessee was originally known as land between the rivers.  The Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers flowed parallel to each other and often flooded the land in between.  The floods enriched the soil, creating fertile farmland, but they were disastrous to homesteads.  By the 1920’s a once-thriving iron smelting industry began disappearing because the trees being used to fire the blast furnaces had largely been felled.  During the Great Depression the people living here had depleted most of the natural resources, and floods were ruining their only other remaining source of income–agriculture.  The Federal government saved the region by creating the Tennessee Valley Authority.  The TVA dammed the 2 rivers, creating Kentucky Lake and Lake Barclay, and in the process provided many much needed construction jobs and a long term source of hydroelectric power and flood control. The Land Between the Lakes was protected and trees grew back.

Black walnut trees are once again common in the forests of Land Between the Lakes.  This surprised me.

Thanks to the public works projects of the 1930’s, thousands of hillbillies and rednecks were elevated above poverty.  Ironically, today this region is a stronghold of Ron Paul followers who believe in free market Laissez-Faire economics, lax regulations, and no taxes–a return to the policies that wrecked this region almost 100 years ago.  They reject the federal government, the entity that literally saved their lives then.  The stupidity and ignorance of Ron Paul supporters is astounding.  If these tea baggers think the government is so bad, why do they want to be in it?

Land Between the Lakes is the greatest natural area I’ve ever visited.  From my cursory 5 hour survey, I estimate the upland is covered in about 80% hardwoods, 15% meadow, and 5 % pine.

Much of 18th century North America from Ohio and Pennsylvania south to middle Georgia and Alabama looked like this.  Note the buffalo wallow.  There were buffalo wallows all along the road that went through the Elk and Bison Prairie within Land Between the Lakes.

Biologists use fire to establish these 18th century-like landscapes.  Imagine bigger trees and this is what much of the eastern half of the continent  looked like when the pioneers first crossed it.  Many Pleistocene landscapes probably looked much like this as well.

Dominant trees include white oak, post oak, southern red oak, black oak, shagbark hickory, pignut hickory, sycamore, black walnut, sugar maple, red maple, mimosa, and cottonwood.  Willow grows in the low areas.  There are some wetlands but most were inundated by the reservoirs.  I recognized 3 species of pine–shortleaf, white, and Virginia.  I notice on the range maps that this population of Virginia pine is a disjunct one.  Birch, juniper, and ash are also present.  I forgot to try and identify the kinds of grass that grows in the meadows here but purple coneflowers and various species of coreopsis were blooming in abundance.

Coreopsis is abundant in meadows this year everwhere from Augusta, Georgia to LBL.  Heavy spring rains made for a good wildflower year.

Most of the mature trees look to be about 80 years old, but I did see 1 exceptionally large white oak growing on land within “The Home Place,” a replica 1850 farm.  This oak may have been growing on private property, and landowners saved it from the shortsighted iron smelters who were cutting all the trees down from 1870-1925.

I estimate this white oak to have a diameter of almost 6 feet.  Primeval forests consisted of widely spaced trees such as this.  Imagine the photo of the bison wallow above juxtaposed with bigger trees like this one.  Many shagbark hickory sapling grow in the shade of this oak.  Several nice specimens of mature shagbark hickories grow nearby.

LBL is 250 square miles, and there probably are other trees surpassing this one in diameter.

I enjoyed LBL much more than my trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  The latter is crowded and holds little wildlife accessible to the public.  We saw only a few people in LBL during mid-morning hours and maybe a few more in mid-afternoon.  Despite the heat wave, an unfortunate stroke of luck, we saw lots of wildlife.  At the Elk and Bison prairie we ran into a herd of bison and a flock of cattle egrets.  They hardly noticed us.  We also saw 2 small flocks of turkeys.

These bison must be used to cars.  They didn’t budge, though the nursing calves hid behind the cows.  Note the cattle egret, and the bison’s coat in the process of shedding. Bison wallows occur all along the road and flattened bison patties are visible.

Cattle egrets, an African species, naturally colonized North America within the last century.  Nobody knows exactly when or how.  Presumably, a few flew here.

This is a mounted elk at the visitor’s center.  Unfortunately, I must be destined to never see a wild elk.  The hot weather forced the elk to bed down in the shade where I couldn’t see them.

We saw several wild white-tailed deer in broad daylight, despite the heat, but they wouldn’t stay still for a photo.  They are in their beautiful red summer coats.  This is the time of year 18th century market hunters killed them for their hides.  A buck skin was worth a dollar then, hence the slang “buck” for dollar.  I suspect a person traveling through the length of LBL during dusk or dawn would see dozens of deer–LBL is just ideal habitat for them and so is the adjacent Fort Campell and Fort Donelson Battlefield Park.

In addition to turkeys and cattle egrets, I saw brown-headed cowbirds, bluebirds, purple martins, eastern kingbirds, black vultures, turkey vultures, an unidentified hawk, a great blue heron, cardinals, and crows.  The Woodland Nature Center is a little zoo within LBL for orphaned and injured animals.

Gray rat snake.

Timber rattler.  Accounts of early white explorers suggest rattlesnakes were abundant in pre-Colonial Kentucky.

LBL is 20 miles from any town that is big enough to have a decent hotel.  From Augusta, Georgia a traveler can choose from hotels in Clarkesville, or Paris, Tennessee.  (There are plenty of campgrounds within LBL, but I like to sleep behind locked doors where tv is available.)  We stayed at the Westgate Inn  in Clarkesville and enjoyed a spacious clean room, a reasonable rate, an indoor swimming pool, and a generous breakfast bar, plus we got to witness a loud dispute between a tattooed customer suffering from a severe case of PMS and the hotel management who with the help of the police were trying to evict her and her family.

Jim Oliver’s Smokehouse Restaurant

Jim Oliver’s Smokehouse Restaurant in Monteagle, Tennessee.  The food was so good we ate here for lunch on the way to LBL and on the way back to Augusta.  It’s like a museum inside.

The best and most interesting restaurant we encountered on our vacation was Jim Oliver’s Smokehouse in Monteagle, Tennessee which is halfway between Nashville and Chattanooga. The place has a Cracker Barrel type atmosphere, but it seems more like the original blueprint, whereas the famous chain is merely an inferior rip-off.  Jim Oliver’s Smokehouse resembles a museum.  It houses a player piano, taxodermic wonders, and antiques of all kinds.  Jim Nabors’ albums plaster the walls.  There’s a tribute room to a locally famous country music band I never heard of.  Old fashioned candies, Jim Oliver’s country smoked hams and bacon, cheeses, and genuine fried pies are for sale.  They serve smoked meats–pulled pork, brisket, turkey, and ribs.   On our first visit I had a smoked roast beef open-faced sandwich with mashed potatoes and covered with gravy.  Smoking roast beef made for a delicious and unique dish.  Jim Oliver makes at least 8 kinds of sauce to go with his dishes.  I used the Trail of Tears sauce, a sweet, hot, barbecue sauce.  My beef didn’t need it, but it added nice variety.  I would alternate one bite with just gravy and one with sauce.  On our return visit I tried fried frog legs–the most unusual item on the menu.  The frog legs were juicy but lean white meat.  There’s nothing objectionable to the taste when they’re fresh.  (Frog legs can taste like biology lab, if they’re not.) 

This restaurant deserves high praise for serving authentic fried pies.

Fried chocolate pie !!! Words can’t describe how good this is.

The fried pies sold in grocery stores are made with regular pie crust and taste like cardboard.  Real fried pies are made with fluffy biscuit dough and resemble doughnuts.  Jim Oliver’s Smokehouse offers apple-pecan, peach, coconut, chocolate, and blackberry.  I had the peach.  On request they serve it with homemade ice cream.  One of the waitresses told me the fried pies sell out everyday.

Mounted bobcat, ruffed grouse, and gray fox on top of an antique piano.  That’s a particularly large specimen of bobcat (and fox).  This bobcat’s hind leg is bigger than my pet cat’s entire body.

Mitt Romney’s Tour Bus

While traveling home on I-24 through Nashville, we drove alongside Mitt Romney’s tour bus by accident.  What a coincidence.

Couldn’t be.

Yep, it is.  If the American people are stupid enough to vote for a man who says “Corporations are people too, my friend,” than they deserve what they get.

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3 Responses to “Vacation at Land Between the Lakes”

  1. James Robert Smith Says:

    You should go to the Catalooochee area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You will absolutely and definitely see wild elk there. All from the gravel Park road, which will ensure that your wife will also get to see them. There are also plenty of places to park your auto to get good views of the elk which are almost always in the fields and along the edges of the forest.

    I have yet to visit Cataloochee since the reintroduction of the elk when I was unable to see them. What’s nice is going during the rut and seeing the big bulls with their full racks.

  2. markgelbart Says:

    Two years ago, we started driving up the lane that leads to Cataloochee, but the winding uphill road discouraged us. Maybe we’ll give it another shot some time.

  3. James Robert Smith Says:

    The road goes to gravel once it enters the Park, but it’s very well maintained. Any vehicle can make the journey (except for deep snow events). It’s a gorgeous part of the Park, too, except for the fact that all the hemlocks are dead now. But of course they’re all dead everywhere in this part of the country.

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