The gravel road climbs and winds for two miles through dense, steep forest before peaking and descending slowly to the top of the gorge. In total, the drive is five slow miles. On this day, I am the only one on the road.
The sky is alive and fluttering with brilliantly-yellow tiger swallowtails when I reach the Brookshire Creek trailhead. Underfoot, a large black rat snake sits in shadow awaiting the warming sun.
The narrow trail is choked with dog hobble. Left unmaintained, no path is long for a wilderness world such as this, but I do not mind the encroachment, and soon find a navigable path to the river where I strip line from my reel and flip a dry fly to a riffle a few feet upstream.
My second cast hits its mark and the fly dances down the far side of the current until it meets the silver flash of a rainbow trout and disappears. My reaction is too slow and I pop the fly out of the water and into the waiting arms of an alder. Silently, I implore the tree to be kind, and it releases my lure without struggle—a gesture I do not take lightly. Must remember to be nice to the trees, I think to myself.
A few casts later I hold in my hand a tiny brook trout, beautifully adorned with orange spots and speckled dorsal fin. This is what lures me to wilderness!
Brook trout need clean, cold water, and the Upper Bald River Wilderness Study Area—over 9000 acres of dense Appalachian forest encompassing the entire headwaters of the Bald River—provides just that. Several miles downriver, after passing through a rugged gorge, these pristine waters tumble over a 100 foot waterfall before joining the Tellico River. A tourism mecca, the majestic Bald River Falls is easily the most photographed spot along the Tellico River, but it is the headwaters of the Bald that have my attention.
The Upper Bald River is currently protected as a Wilderness Study Area, but that designation is only good until the current management plan expires. Designating this place as Wilderness would grant protection in perpetuity, ensuring that the water tumbling to the Tellico remains pure and clean, not just for brook trout, but for all the people downstream as well. The Tennessee Wilderness Act would protect those waters, so that for generations to come, every tourist photograph of Bald River Falls will represent clean, pure water for brook trout, and for our great grandchildren.
Jim Pfitzer is a storyteller and writer with a deep passion for conservation. He lives on Lookout Mountain in NW Georgia. Learn about his one-man play Aldo Leopold – A Standard of Change, and read more of Jim’s writing at www.jimpfitzer.com.