Long before the construction of the nature museum and wildlife habitat the mountain was being birthed below the ground a billion years ago. It began emerging and building in spurts from underground in titanic shock waves between 500 and 200 million years ago. The mountain at one point may have reached Himalayan heights, but more likely settled into high Rocky Mountain elevations before erosion inevitably set in. Grandfather today is a modest 5,946 feet ( 1,812 m) but is still a high peak for the Appalachians. Fifty-three peaks in NC and Tennessee exceed six thousand feet in elevation and are called the Southern Sixers to put things in perspective.
It had been a long hike like most of the others were in the western half of North Carolina. One boy following the other with our heavy backpacks on and hiking shoes laced tight. Most of us boy scouts had our heads down at the moment I saw it, bent over and picked it up. It soon became completely apparent to me this was no ordinary stone, and so I eagerly ran forward to the head of the line to show it to the scoutmaster, who said something to the effect: Well I'll be, you did find one! What the scoutmaster confirmed was the true nature of the ancient Native American stone spearhead in the picture above. Many years later on, looking through artifact books, the closest stone spearhead resembling it had a date of roughly 3,000 BCE, or about five thousand years ago.
Grandfather Mountain and its environs have played host to an extremely diverse assortment of wildlife for a very long time. This collection of animals is what first drew the progenitors, in a sense, of what later became the Cherokee people, 10,000 or more years ago, to the area of the state park. Being animists, who believed there was spiritual power in other living things, they lived with nature and respected its wildlife, always ensuring there was something for the next hunting season, and the ones to come after.
A good visual example of these beliefs occurs at the beginning of Michael Mann's excellent film The Last of the Mohicans, which was made in the beautiful NC mountains by the way.. The scene has the three men thanking the Elk's spirit for its sacrifice, after a hard, exhausting chase. If we go back much farther in time than the mid-1700's that the movie is set in, the mammals, fish and birds the ancient Amerindians encountered were basically the same ones we have today: the black bears, the white-tailed deer, hawks and fish, for just several examples.
At say, about 13,000 years ago, there would have been many prehistoric genera of mammals that later went extinct during the soon to come Younger Dryas 1200 year epoch in the Appalachian's area, and, of course, a great many other places, too; increasingly believed to have been the result of a comet fragment's impact on the Canadian Cordilleran Ice Sheet, with fragments striking southeastward and even into areas of Europe, and its ice cap, and even some northern parts of the Middle East.
Many, many thousands of years forward, in more recent times, some species would became extinct, or rather over hunted or exterminated, with firearms, traps and organized hunts, like the eastern elk ( thankfully and successfully reintroduced into the Great Smoky Mountains) and timber wolves, to name just two. These extinctions eventually happened with the coming of the white man and his Judeo-Christian ethic of exploitation and taming of natural resources, as the Bible was interpreted in those days for man to be a stern, masterful, and sometimes cruel master, over all the creatures on earth that he saw fit to be so to.
The pioneers also brought the practice of fenced and unfettered livestock tending with them, which sometimes
put these folk at particular odds with predators who would occasionally prey on their animals. Blessedly, though, there has been a reevaluation, a reconsidering if you will, of what the Good Book truly meant in regards to our way of interacting with wildlife by many Christians and others of today.
Of course, it should be remembered that the first white settlers to this region were more or less children (which they often referred to the Indians as) of their new mountain cabins in the wilderness and simple survival and prosperity never came easy for them. This was previously mentioned in the article about Stone Mountain State Park -- and that mention was that blood, sweat and tears were often their lot, as these pioneers truly lived by the ax, plow, and gun and the vagaries of nature and circumstances to be found in a tough frontier home life.
The habitat began with this trail. The first animal enclosure I remember seeing was the one devoted to the otters. It was rather unique as one can see the River Otters outside of the aquarium first and then go into a small building and view them from underwater. These charming creatures really seemed to be enjoying themselves frolicking about. Sometimes their movements and antics swimming are simply amazing. The pic below to the far right only caught the tail of one as it agilely torpedoed and twisted through the water. These aqua critters were just so fast!
The otters had been pretty much hunted out or forced to more secluded areas away from the North Carolina Appalachians by the mid-twentieth century, but have since been reintroduced to many rivers in the region. They seem to be doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances and no doubt most of us hope this will be a permanent situation for them. They certainly belong in the wild in their ancient home turf.
Yes indeed, the ones at the Grandfather Mt. Wild Habitat were very happy and enjoying themselves immensely. The visitors watching them were mighty delighted as well. The beaver and otter pelts were ruthlessly taken in the old days by white trappers and Amerindians for shipment back across the Atlantic to the fur ravenous Old World. What a joy it is to see them back where they belong -- although the beavers can still cause private land owners a problem sometimes with their damming up water and things. Most owners I know with that problem don't kill them but have them removed to other secluded areas where they won't be such a nuisance. Thank you landowners with a beaver problem, when it's feasible, to do it that more difficult but humane way.
As cute as these animals can seem, they are nothing to be fooled around with in the wild. The recent tragedy in New Jersey that had four hikers come on a very large male, about 300 feet away from where they were hiking, is a good case in point. After one fellow shouted at the others to come over to where he was and see the bear down in the woods, these four young men made a terrible mistake when it slowly started moving towards them, in fits and starts.
First off, they apparently had no strong bear repellant to hand and instead of standing together shouting with hands held high or holding sticks, which would probably have backed the big male off, they did the worst thing possible by panicking and running off in different directions. If the news article is remembered correctly, the bear went after the one with the camera or cell phone, mauled him lifeless, and was still there hovering over the body many hours later when the park rangers showed up to dispatch it and recover the poor lad's remains.
A horrible shame all around, really, and our sympathies certainly go out to the young man's family and friends.
But those bears at the park were obviously at least semi-tame and fun to look at -- for a short while that is. The children loved them, of course. Generally, black bears in the wild during past times would run or tree from man with his bows and spears and later, firearms and dogs, unless injured or protecting cubs. The unwise habit of feeding them at picnic areas has been banned or discouraged these days, and for good reason. Still, it is very cool thing to be riding in the mountains and come up on bunches of cars pulled over to the side of the road, with dozens of folks gazing up a tree at a cute and furry cub. ...But hopefully, only if the mother is not out and about!
There was also a Bald Eagle penned enclosure but the one seen blended so well into its silent perch that its picture hardly showed up at all and is not included. This national bird, animal and symbol of the USA has made somewhat of comeback in North Carolina but are still far outnumbered by the now protected, large red-tailed hawks. These birds-of-prey were mercilessly shot out of the skies in the past, until it was figured out how very important they were at rodent control.
Thank goodness these large magnificent birds are now very common and sights to behold as they soar through the air or are seen single-mindedly diving for prey- or even on the ground, hunting, say, a rabbit. Once while walking in the woods, I unintentionally interrupted one ground-stalking a cottontail and it turned and gave me an absolutely unmistakable look of disgust before flying off. Thanks a lot, buddy, it seemed to be conveying.
When all was finally ready and the cats were released - the biggest one came lazily onto a big boulder and was a stupendous sight to behold - the fun and amazement began. The children and adults watching were really excited as can be imagined. What was really interesting was how a younger cat, super-cautiously, followed the caretakers scent all the way to the tree, and then instead of immediately playing with the hanging toys, went to a limb over them and continued with its cautious sniffing. It never did play with the toys as things turned out. Regardless, it was the highlight of the nature preserve experience observing these intelligent, crafty, extremely cautious and seemingly happy felines go about their business.
The bridge is a new construct and for many years previous there had been a less sturdy real swingin' bridge. It was a challenge with fine rewards for those with a fear of heights, vertigo or wobbly legs. The present one is still fun and generally windy, and progress, as most of us know, must go on! Of course, it's up to a person's perspective as to whether this is always a good idea in these kind of situations...or is not. Perhaps more visitors, the old bridge's age and condition, or for whatever reason, necessitated the new one.
The other six photos are of local animals and a bisected massive rock of some sort that greets visitors on entering the museum. As stated before these are just several of so very many exhibits and other things in the building.
Particularly, the annual and long-running Highland Games, which celebrate the Scottish heritage of so many
people whose ancestors were pioneers to the park, its wild environs and the southern Appalachian Mountains in general. And for any who remember the movie Forrest Gump, where he is running up a mountain road, that was filmed at number 13 spot 0n the map here. As a final bit of interesting info, it is the only privately-owned park in the world among the International Biosphere Reserves.
In conclusion, thanks, as always, to all followers and visitors to the Carolinian's Archives for coming by.