Peaks and Valleys
The Blue Ridge Mountains beckon, promising cooler weather, an improving environment, and a little bit of maritime, for good measure. This weekend, we answered the call.
Mount Mitchell, NC: In the choppy wake of putting not one, but two magazines to bed in the previous eight days, I took to the road this past weekend and headed for the Blue Ridge Mountains. A weekend at the cabin always just the recipe to recharge the batteries, and the temperature differential of almost 15 degree F is an added bonus. Although we do have central air out there, the temperature typically dips into the mid-60’s at night during this time of year, even when it can soar to 95 F in Charlotte. This weekend was one of those times. Heaven.
On Saturday, we decided to find even cooler weather and made the 40-minute drive along America’s favorite byway – the Blue Ridge Parkway – to Mount Mitchell, which at 6,684 feet is the highest point this side of the Mississippi River. That piece of trivia is also the nexus of the biggest sucker bet in New Hampshire. Most folks in New England think that Mount Washington is the tallest. It is not. I’ve won a very expensive dinner on that bet. And, for our West Coast friends who think that anything shy of 7,000 feet constitutes nothing more than a hill, I invite them to hike the trail to the top with us.
It isn’t a terribly difficult hike; the altitude gain not withstanding, but several of the area trails are very rocky, with roots exposed and the like. Saturday’s route, one which we had done before many times, is especially challenging in this regard. My wife and I – we’re not 35 anymore – are beginning to move away from these kinds of trails and trying to find softer, wider treks. We don’t mind some distance and we can find any number of hikes within 50 miles that offer a 2,000 elevation change along with some good mileage. But, you can’t beat Mount Mitchell and surrounding peaks for the view. That’s especially true today.
A trip to the top typically reveals that 97% of the folks who go to the summit at Mount Mitchell do so in their automobile, after which, a short five minute walk to the observatory rewards them with a view that takes in everything within 50 miles in any direction. That said; it wasn’t always that way. That’s because scientists determined that air pollution and acid-laden precipitation were contributing to the long term decline of Mount Mitchell’s forests. The dead trees can easily be seen today, poking out of the smaller firs now trying to make a comeback. Back in the day – around the year 2000, right about when we bought the cabin – the situation wasn’t good.
Similar to what they finally discovered in London, England years before, it really wasn’t fog that was shrouding the city’s tallest buildings – it was pollution. In the 1990’s, on most days, Mount Mitchell was covered in clouds laced with the pollution from coal-fired plants from the West. Because of it, the forests of the Black Mountains were altered forever. In 2006, though, North Carolina’s attorney general actually sued the Tennessee Valley Authority for failing to reduce pollution from its coal-fired power plants. After all, that pollution moves, west to east with the prevailing winds.
To be fair, and over time since 1977, TVA says it has reduced sulfur dioxide emissions by more than 85 percent and cut nitrogen oxide by more than 80 percent during the summer. That work goes on today. My wife and I have seen some of the worst of it over the past 20 years and we always notice when it is exceptionally clear. For my part, it brings home the real truth that environmental efforts are needed everywhere. While it is fashionable today to beat up on the maritime industry for their role in pollution, especially where it intersects stack emissions, there is much work still to be done everywhere. And, even when you try to take a day or two clear your mind from the work ahead, a peek at the skyline at one of the prettiest places east of the Mighty Mississippi River is enough to bring you back down to earth.
Mount Mitchell – more than a mountain
With most of the hard work in our rearview mirror on Saturday, my wife encouraged me to pop into the gift shop adjacent to the restaurant near the top. “You need some new T-shirts.” I was in a hurry to get back down to the car. “Nah, I’m good.” She persisted, “Trust me, you do.” Naturally, we went into the gift shop. *Sigh*
As it turned out, the choices were slim, and mostly cotton. I like a synthetic hiking shirt that wicks away the moisture as you toil, and at the same time is a little more forgiving of my … ah … expanding girth. With nothing to spend my money on, I wandered to the other side of the building where, much to my surprise (and somewhat irrational joy), I found a very nice exhibit about the decommissioned former USC & GSS Mount Mitchell (MSS22), a survey vessel that toiled in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from 1970 to 1995. Prior to her NOAA career, she was in the commission in the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey from 1968 to 1970. By 1995, however, the government had determined that the vessel’s equipment was inadequate to keep up in an increasingly sophisticated world of offshore survey.
Throughout its distinguished career, the vessel conducted countless offshore voyages, surveys and ocean monitoring missions, including one which stakeholders say made significant contributions to the world of weather forecasting. In a small footnote to the very nicely assembled historical tribute, the vessel’s decommissioning note proclaimed, “The MT Mitchell reached the “highest peak” of service for the welfare of mankind.” High praise indeed.
I was happy to linger a bit longer and take in the historical notes and images. I just love the old boats - the Nuclear Ship 'Savannah,' and the Jeremiah O'Brien, among them. Someday - if it is ever open to the public when I'm in town - I'll even get on board the Mather in Cleveland, Ohio. I have been trying for 31 years now. Oh-for-31.
Naturally, I dug my cellular telephone out of the backpack and proceeded to snap a few shots of the Mount Mitchell's historical tribute, with, of course, my trusty hiking partner now ‘toe tapping’ in the background. I can take a hint. With a final 360-degree look around on what was an exceptionally clear day, we headed back down and then on to the cabin where a chilled, mouthy little chardonnay – it had been softly calling my name for several hours – was waiting for me.
If you find yourself in North Carolina in the not-too-distant future, I recommend a trip up Mount Mitchell. On foot or by car, it is worth the trip. And, when you get there, the reward of a spectacular view – probably the best in decades – is the ultimate dividend of decades of air quality improvement efforts. For maritime stakeholders, it also reminds us of the importance of the tasks ahead, as well as what can happen when we succeed. – MLPro.
* * *
Joseph Keefe is a 1980 (Deck) graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and lead commentator of MaritimeProfessional.com. Additionally, he is Editor of both Maritime Logistics Professional and MarineNews magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Keefe@marinelink.com. MaritimeProfessional.com is the largest business networking site devoted to the marine industry. Each day thousands of industry professionals around the world log on to network, connect, and communicate.