Category Archives: Special Features

Smokies travelogue: Attack of the Junior High

In honor of the vacation season, here is another travelogue previous published as part of our Out In The Open newspaper column:

The view from Look Rock- somewhere below lies Abrams Creek

There is a saying among airplane pilots and boat navigators: always trust your instruments.  I did, but it was also a little disconcerting to realize that it wasn’t the GPS unit that was going to be dragged from the car, robbed, shot and buried in a shallow grave.

I have just returned from a week-long backcountry adventure in my own personal version of Fantasyland, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Feeling it was time to take a vacation, I fled into that vast Tennessee and North Carolina wilderness to enjoy some trout fishing, solitude and relaxation.

The goal for this trip was the western-most area of the park around the Abram’s Creek campground.  Though I have traveled extensively in the 800 square miles of park, this area was the last remaining major trailhead that I have not explored.  Considering that the creek is considered one of the finest trophy trout streams in the park, I felt it would be worthwhile and stimulating to spend four days backpacking, fishing, exploring and generally shedding the annoying restraints of civilization.

However, before I could begin my frolic, I had to reach the small campground and ranger station that would be the base of operations.  Fortunately, since I am equipped with the latest in satellite navigation technology, it was presumed this would be a simple matter. Gear packed and stored in my new mini-SUV, the route was locked into the magic navigation box and I headed out onto the highway early on Monday morning.

The first major checkpoint was Look Rock on the Foothills Parkway.  The parkway is a discontinuous stretch of highly-scenic roadway that skirts various areas of the park and offers a nice trip into the wilds for those who would like to sightsee without dirtying their shoes.  This particular section travels for 20 miles atop the ridgeline of Chilhowee mountain, the western vanguard of the smokies.

At Look Rock, there is an observation tower, picnic area and large campground.  I chose to ignore the fact that this campground was the most recent site of a fatal bear attack in the region.

From the campground a small county road heads down the mountain through progressively lower economic strata, finally descending into the ironically-named “Happy Valley.”   While there were certainly some modest but well-kept homesteads in the valley, these were overshadowed by others that were like those in the movie “Deliverance,” only more run-down and ominous.

It didn’t help that I had read reports from local hikers of frequent vehicle break-in’s and other various crimes in the area.  I was glad it was daylight, though my anxiety rose like a rain-soaked creek as I head farther into the “holler.”

Things reached the crisis level when I turned as directed by my GPS.  Though a faded road sign indicated that it was indeed Abrams Creek Road, the battered “KEEP OUT” notice and rusted yellow sign noting “DEAD END” did a better job of drawing my attention.  After setting stationary for a minute or two, I gulped and started slowly forward.

The road grew worse and worse, old pavement fading to a rutted single-lane of gravel.  There were more signs warning away trespassers though I wasn’t sure if they were meant for the roadway or to anyone contemplating heading into the mountains.  Finally the road passed two hillside shacks and made a hard bend.  Things were getting too “picturesque” and I stopped to contemplate the wisdom of continuing.

Easing forward, I decided to drive 100 more yards around the bend until I either saw signs of civilization or shotgun-toting mountain men, whichever came first.

Slowly passing the shacks, I eyed the porches for any sign of a snickering inbred boy playing banjo.  Suddenly, something popped into view that caused me to exhale.

It was a small sign along the roadside, partially hidden by foliage: “Welcome to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”

I had made it.

A few minutes later, I was parked in a beautiful campsite along Abrams Creek. The campground, less than 20 spaces and offering no other services aside from a restroom, was only half full.  Most of the sites were alongside the creek and all stood under a canopy of enormous old-growth hemlock trees.

I ran into a couple of National Park Service Rangers on routine patrol who were checking out the campground.   While staking out my tent, I spoke to the pair.

”This is a really beautiful campground but, wow, you really have to WANT to find this place,” I noted.

“Yep,” one of them said ominously as he pulled a banjo from the back seat of his cruiser.

NEXT WEEK, part two- backcountry trout fishing, one thousand seventh graders on top of a mountain and my apology to the National Park Service for inferring that one of their rangers was an inbred mountain boy.

 PART II- The Adventure Continues

Last week both regular readers might remember our description of a recent week spent in the western end of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Our story closed as I had finally found the Abrams Creek Campground after traversing the ironically-named “Happy Valley.”

In that story I did allude to the movie Deliverance in my description of the area and I did also throw in the obligatory appearance by an inbred mountain boy.  However, I want to take a moment to publicly assure the Director of the National Park service that when I recounted a conversation with park ranger, it was merely a case of literary license.  I swear his eyes were the normal distance apart and he never once inquired if I would be traveling via canoe.

Having apologized in print, I would ask that the director call off the government assassination team dressed as spotted owls that are parked near my driveway.

Anyway, once I was safely ensconced in my streamside campsite, I sat back to appreciate the Abrams Creek and its surroundings.

The creek arises in the Cades Cove area of the park appears to be a typical smallish and raucous mountain drainage.  However, the stream is unique because it is as it more fertile than most in the region and harbors some incredible trout.  I also learned it harbors a rather large number of fishermen.

I’ve fished all over the Smokies and encountered fishermen many times, especially near roadways.  It’s simply part of the game when visiting the most popular National Park in the U.S.  However, more so than anyplace else, don’t visit Abrams Creek if you are looking for solitude.

Though the numbers of fisherman are not necessarily extreme compared to other areas in the park, the more disheartening problem from a fishing standpoint is the fact that most of these anglers seem to know what they are doing.

So, I won’t tell any great trout stories in this article. I did land lots of little fish but spent too much time staring at fresh footprints in sandbars along what I had, moments prior, believed were remote stretches of stream.   I won’t complain however, because the simple act of standing by yourself in a tumbling mountain river, casting for wild trout with a fly rod, fills the soul with enough satisfaction to let you survive until the next vacation.

One day during the mid-afternoon fishing lull, I drove to the top of the Smokies at the well-known and popular mountaintop known as Clingman’s Dome.  This 6600-foot titan is often shrouded in clouds but on my chosen day, the weather was more perfect than a mountaineers dream.  Under cool, cloudless blue skies, I ascended up, up, up on the winding road until reaching the Forney Ridge parking area just below the summit.  From here, it is a steep half-mile climb to the mountaintop observation tower.

Aside from the usual collection of cars, van, trucks and motorcycles in the curving parking lot, I noticed something else: buses.  I saw three enormous tour buses idling in the thin mountain air.

Frightened, I sat in my vehicle for a few minutes to determine what species of Touron  (tourist+moron) inhabited the buses.  From previous experience, I knew it wouldn’t be good.

In fact, the situation proved more horrific than I could have imagined.  Moments later I discovered that the buses had disgorged a veritable plague of seventh-graders on a class trip.

Far worse than gaggle of grouchy grandmothers on a quilting tour or a photo-snapping pack of Philippine tourists, such a critical-mass of adolescents on a class trip is capable of producing some of the loudest sounds know to man aside from a jet engine at full throttle or Rosie O’Donnell.

As I’ve said before, I love children; just not yours, especially when they are on a class trip with an inadequate number of chaperones.  As a veteran of such outings, I’m sure the absent fathers were all gathered in the back of one of the buses secretly sharing a round of “nerve tonic” before facing the remainder of the trip.

Fortunately, the class only spent an hour on the mountain so I sat in my vehicle listening to music and admiring the view as they were herded back onto their submarine on wheels.

An hour later I reached the mountaintop.  From the top, I could see from horizon to horizon in the flawless weather, a view that spanned states instead of miles.

I stood, enthralled, entranced and inspired by the panorama as a crisp wind tugged at my light jacket.  Aside from the few other people sharing my special moment atop the world, I was free, alive, soaring and at peace with the universe and all its inhabitants.

At least until I noticed the second assault of seventh graders ascending the hill.

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Cumberland Gap National Park Ridge Trail Hike

It has often been said that you should “be careful what you wish for.”  If you were the two novice backpackers who volunteered to go hiking with Your Humble Servant this week, that advice goes in spades.

Our adventure of the week was a three-day, end-to-end backpacking trip of the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, located at the point where Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia rub shoulders.

Both regular readers of know that we have visited Cumberland Gap N.H.P. on a frequent basis in the last few years.  As the park is only a five-hour drive from Indianapolis and offers history, 70 miles of great hiking and wonderful facilities, Cumberland Gap is a no-brainer for Hoosiers who enjoy backcountry adventure.

This trip was hatched last fall when frequent co-conspirator Ken and Yours Truly were conducting a hike that has since become known as the Cumberland Death March.

What started out as a simple September two-day adventure became a survival ordeal after temperatures soared into record levels.   In spite of the terrible temperature, lack of water, horrific climb and subsequent thunderstorm that came within a few feet of turning us into smoking lumps of carbon, we decided a return spring backpacking trip might be fun.

Our plan was to finally hike the entire 20-mile Ridge Trail, a foot and horse path that runs the length of Cumberland Gap park along the top of the mountain of the same name that served as a substantial barrier to the westward expansion of America in the late 1700’s.   As an afterthought, we chose to invite some friends who had expressed a slight interest in undertaking such an adventure.

One of those friends, with only six months lead time to plan, was forced to back out at the last minute due to a conflict.  Instead, we got Kevin, who turned out to be a great guy and wonderful hiking companion.  Kevin was available due to one of those little downsizing decisions that nowadays make corporate executives seem to resemble pond scum.

He took the whole job-loss thing in stride, while we would have probably driven a rental truck full of manure through the front doors.  But I digress…

Fast forward six months to this past Monday and you would see this writer, Ken, Tony and Kevin standing at the Pinnacle Overlook parking lot ready for the challenge.  With a second vehicle parked twenty miles east at the trailhead in Ewing, Virginia, we stepped off under china blue skies and leafless trees that offered an open view of the valley a thousand feet below.  Life was grand.

Our mental portfolio of adventures can seldom remember such a sublime hiking experience as that first day on the ridge trail.  The temperature was perfect for hiking in the lower 60’s and a steady wind provided a bit of refreshment whenever the climbs generated sweat.

It seemed like every few minutes there was another outstanding view that seemed to go on forever, or at least until Georgia.  We burned up much digital memory in our cameras as while attempting to capture the impossible.

There were a few tough climbs along the trail, especially the climb out of Lewis Hollow.  After much huffing and puffing, we finally climbed back to altitude and enjoyed a relatively easy trek along the ridgeline.

Around noon we stopped at Table Rock, a nice spot for lunch out of the chilly wind.  The hour was spent lounging around on the large rock slab and discussing the rest of the poor unfortunate souls in the world who weren’t likewise eating their noon meal in the backcountry.

Your Obedient Servant noshed on our standard trail lunch of foil-pouch tuna and whole-wheat tortillas from a large plastic bag.  As the lifetime total of miles under our boots increases, we lean more and more towards dining simplicity rather than extravagant tastes.  On the other hand, everything tastes better in the outdoors, especially when you’ve been working hard to reach your lunch spot in the first place.

Lunch finished, we shouldered our packs and staggered back up the trail.  Though Ken and I had visited this area last year, apparently the heat had baked our brains and we didn’t realize that table rock was less than a half-mile from our first overnight campsite at Gibson Gap.  We staggered into camp around 1 p.m. having done approximately 6 miles.

The campsite at Gibson Gap is located in a slight notch and sits 100 yards above a good flowing spring, a rarity on top of Cumberland Mountain.  That night, Kevin and Ken build a large campfire with wood that some kind soul had left behind and we sat around telling stories, poking the fire and taking the occasional nip of snakebite medicine.    Each man packed a flask of spirituous beverages in case of attack by reptile and we all made sure to take a preventative draught or two each evening.  Cigars were also included on the bill of fare as added protection against mosquitoes and respectable ladies.

The next morning we headed out early under windier but still-clear skies.  Our destination was Chadwell Gap near the Hensley Settlement.

As day two progressed, everyone fell into the rhythm of the hike and we often went long periods without conversation.  Lunch was held on another large sun-warmed rock that seemed to overlook a good portion of the commonwealth of Virginia. The hiking on this day didn’t involve as many large climbs but did provide numerous elevation changes that quieted everyone as each man sought to conserve strength and continue the grind of up-and-down.

In the early afternoon, after walking along an unseen but heard creek in a tunnel of rhododendrons, we began seeing signs of human habitation such as clearings that were reverting to forest and finally the ruins of old cabins.  We had reached the outskirts of the Hensley Settlement.

Here the Ridge Trail makes a right hand turn and sees much more horse traffic.

Before we continue, we feel the urge to rile up horse owners.

It became obvious to all that the amount of trash and trail destruction increases in proportion to horse usage.  While we feel that everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy the backcountry, we would again publicly ask horse riders to refrain from discarding their water bottles, cigarette butts and beer cans along the trail.

Cynically (and sadly), I believe this plea falls on deaf ears.  Please prove us wrong.

For the sake of argument, we will admit to not having seen any horse riders  pitching Natty Light cans into the wilderness but my counter-argument is that I’ve also never seen a hiker carrying a 12-pack of beer seven miles from the nearest trailhead.  As they say, “Do the math.”

Moving along….

The Chadwell Gap campsite was at a high spot on ridge, larger than most anf gave the appearance of having been an open field when the settlement was in operation.   With a scraggly collection of trees, tired outhouse and no water nearby, the  campsite wasn’t the most desirable in the park.  After a quick conference, we agreed to move along to the Martin’s Fork cabin area, approximately half a mile away.  At least it was closer to our destination.

Part of our reasoning was a weather system that was reportedly bearing down on the Cumberland.  None of us savored the idea of being caught in a bad storm on the high open ground at Chadwell.

Foreshadowing Alert: our fears proved well founded.

We walked another .3 of a mile and then took the .2 mile side trail down into the small valley where the cabin is located.  Turning a corner on the steep downhill, we were pleasantly surprised.

In a small clearing framed by rhododendron and hemlock, a picturesque cabin stood guard over a verdant one-acre clearing in the forest that was wrapped by a clear burbling brook.  In all, it was a picture of Appalachian paradise.  After seven miles of hiking, it was a great place to call an overnight home.

The evening was uneventful as we told more stories, took our standard precautions against snakebite and then turned in under clear skies.  One member of the party who happens to own this website enthusiastically stated (repeatedly) that the weather system had blown over and the forecast was wrong.

Our trail mascot "Jason" and a salamander

I was reminded of this prediction around 5 a.m. when the hail started in earnest…for the first time.

It was fortunate that we had picked such a sheltered campsite as I shudder to think about our fate had we stayed at Chadwell.   Based on the wind gusts, it seems likely that our tarps would probably have been found somewhere near South Carolina or perhaps Bermuda.

The cabin was a godsend as its meager porch provided a sheltered space to eat breakfast and pack our gear in the rain and gathering gloom.  “At least,” I told our rookie hikers, “you get the full-meal-deal.  Now you will experience real backpacking in all its glory!”

Judging by the looks I received, it is fortunate that: A) these people were really good friends and B) I was carrying a pistol (legally, of course.)

Actually, I must commend everyone in the expedition as there was no grousing, whining or complaining during the entire day.  We all just geared up, hit the trail and slogged onward toward our car and the decadent possibility of dry underwear.

The entire final day was spent hiking in rain, heavy fog and the occasional downpour of misery.   As visibility was often less than a dozen feet, I expended my entire arsenal of bad jokes, worse songs and rambling gibberish in an attempt to not surprise any bears as we tromped through the mire.  As it was cub season, I didn’t relish the idea of inadvertently getting between mama and her babies.

After one long climb, Kevin and I waited for the other two to catch up when I was startled to see a giant skull staring at me in the fog.  I thought that things had finally reached the point where hallucinations had set in when realization struck: I knew where we were!

The apparition was actually a 30-foot rock was that, in the fog, presented a remarkable likeness to a human skull.  Even better, I recognized that we just 100 yards from the junction with the Ewing trail that would lead down to our car.

Our original plan was to hike to White Rocks before heading down but the fog made those extra two miles an exercise in futility.  In all, nobody seemed especially upset.  We could hear clean clothes calling our name.

The 2.5 mile hike down was a nice change from the pulse-pounding climbs and we hiked out of the clouds within the first mile.   Once below the clouds, the hike was visually interesting as dozens of springs and small creeks cut across the trail due to the cloudbursts at the peak.

Several times we saw the small orange salamanders endemic to this area lounging around in the middle of the trail.   We kept our head down to avoid slipping on the water-slicked rocks but regardless, we would have been equally attentive because accidentally crushing one of the benign little lizards would have ruined the mood.

Finally, after what seemed like a week on the trail, we arrived back at the trailhead in Ewing for a round of handshakes, rest and dry socks.

Overall, the hike remains one of my favorite backpacking destinations.   With plenty of challenges and scenery but easy access to the frontcountry and low probability of getting lost, the park is ideal for introducing first-time backpackers to the sport.   To our subjective minds, the trail would merit a solid “moderate” rating.

Now that Tony and Kevin are grizzled backpacking veterans, they’re already talking about the next backcountry challenge.

Of course, judging by the looks I got back on the cabin porch, I’m assuming I won’t be invited along.

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A few nights on Cumberland Mountain


Cumberland Gap National Historic Park homepage

C.G.N.H.P. Maps page


Center map
Get Directions








Squire Boone Caverns

We have just returned from deep in the earth under the gift shop.

If that introduction seems a little odd, you haven’t been to Squire Boon Caverns.

The entire staff of and our family love caves.  So, during our usual spring-break camping trip, we decided to take our Heir to the Throne to southern Indiana to visit yet another hole in the ground.

Our primary goal was Squire Boone Caverns, a commercial tour cave and tourist attraction deep in the southern Indiana hinterlands near the Ohio River.  According to legend, Colonel/Reverend  Squire Boone, brother of famed explorer Daniel Boone, discovered the cave while hiding from a band of indigenous peoples (otherwise known as “Indians”) who were apparently bent on using the good Squire’s hair as a knickknack.  Convinced he was delivered by divine providence, he returned to purchase the land and build a mill in 1808 that still stands.  As he considered the cave to be Holy Ground, he chose to be buried there upon his demise in 1850.

Driving two hours south from our home base in Central Indiana, we headed down to Corydon, our first state capital.  Following the signs on State Road 135 and then onto Squire Boone Road, we finally found the little commercial venture after deciding that we were possibly the victim of an enormous and well-played joke.

Having seen no traffic in 20 minutes, I was surprised to find the graveled parking lot did indeed hold several other vehicles belonging to likewise hard-to-discourage travelers.

Upon pulling into the parking lot, you are surrounded by Squire Boone Village.  This small square of wooden and log buildings houses craftspersons who demonstrate frontier skills such as candlemaking, soapmaking, famous explorer scalping and other rustic arts.  We’re joking about the scalping demonstration.  Unfortunately, being the “off season,” everything was closed.

Checking in at the well-appointed gift shop, we paid our $29.0o ticket for two adults and pondered how to spend the next 45 minutes waiting for the tour.

On the hill below the gift shop is the restored Boone’s Mill.   The large overshot waterwheel is supplied by a flume that gathers cold spring water from the lower levels of Squire Boone Cave.  We poked around for a moment, then headed back up the hill.

Still finding a few moments to spare, we followed the signs above the village to a small crack in the ground that was identified as Squire Boone’s Burial Cave.  According to the story we later learned while taking the tour, Squire was originally sealed in the cave but was later allegedly moved to the large cave that bears his name.  We say “allegedly” because it was revealed that he was never actually moved but family made sure the local hoodlums were convinced of the fact to prevent the ongoing grave robbing that apparently occurred with great regularity.

The burial cave is basically a pit that was undergoing excavation at the time of our visit.  By carefully peering over the ropes, we could see….a pit.  It’s worth the visit up the hill but don’t expect the Grotto of Lourdes.

It was finally our appointed tour time and we joined about 15 other people and our young guide…whose name, unfortunately escapes our grasp at this moment.  He was a college-aged young man who was both very knowledgeable and practiced in the art of shepherding visitors through the cave.

To our surprise, we learned that the entrance to the cave was via a secret door in the back of the gift shop.  Our guide explained the tour and made sure that everyone understood the physical requirements of the tour.   As we were to descend and then return to the cave proper via 73 wet steel steps down an impressive spiral staircase, he wanted to make sure everyone was up to the task.

Entering the staircase in much like descending into a dungeon.  Cold, most air immediately greets you and the steel steps and handrails are slick with humidity.   While the trip wasn’t exactly challenging, it was a bit nerve-wracking when you considered the possible consequences of a slip.  Fortunately, everyone made it.

At the bottom, we immediately entered a large gallery with a stream in the middle.  A well-graded, well-lit concrete path went into the cave and also included strong steel handrails, steps and grates where necessary.  Overall, once you had negotiated the spiral staircase, all other physical exertions were mundane.

Once past the first gallery, the cave becomes a fairyland of beautiful formations, interesting lighting and intriguing water features.  The guide pauses every few minutes to discuss various features within the cave and explain how they were formed.  There were several deep pits that make you glad that you are confined on a sturdy steel bridge.

The trip is out-and-back, turning around at the highlight of the trip: the waterfalls.  Here, what are reputed to be some of the largest rimstone dams in the U.S., the stream within the cave flows impressively over the mushroom-shaped features.  The sound is loud enough that you must nearly shout over the water and seeing the water rush under your feet is thrilling.

The trip lasted an hour and after what seemed only a few minutes, we began the thigh-burning trip to the surface.  In the cool cave air it didn’t seem quite to bad and we made it to the top, huffing and puffing into the unseasonable 80 degree air outside.

As it turns out, Squire actually was moved to this portion of the cave back in the 1970’s and you’ll pass his coffin.  Don’t forget to check out the pictures in the gift shop of the Squire’s skull and 27 bones that now reside in the coffin.

Center map
Get Directions

If you go:

Squire Boone Caverns Website

Wikipedia listing

Tomorrow: hiking & camping in O’Bannon State Park



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Washington State Trip #1

Sea-Tac airport concourse- notice the snow-capped mountains in the distance

There are benefits to being a scribe.  Currently, I’ve decided that writing a blog posting sitting in an airport looking at snow-capped mountains is one of the better ones.

We are live, ‘on location’ as they say,  in the Seattle-Tacoma (Sea-Tac) International Airport on our grand Western Swing.  The occasion is ostensibly a magazine assignment for S.W.A.T. Magazine but sometimes we feel just a little guilty for such grand adventures on someone else’s dime- even if they do expect 2000 words of profound pontification in return.

We started out before dawn at Indianapolis International Airport, one of the best in the nation.  Everything was looking Condition Green until they started boarding the aircraft.  Suffice it to say that we were the last soul to board the aircraft and it appeared somewhat doubtful if the adventure would literally get off the ground.

The flight out to Minneapolis was enjoyable as the weather was perfect and we managed to orient ourselves to the passing landscape, a somewhat unusual occurrence when flying.  Quite accidentally we picked out a major highway interchange near our home and managed to follow Interstate 65 to Cedar Lake where we lost interest in the proceedings.  In the intervening 30 minutes, it was very entertaining and informative to review many of our hunting and fishing haunts climbing through 10,000 feet.

Minneapolis was cloudy and raining, much as I imagined Seattle.  However, once we dodged through the thunderstorms surrounding the airport, we were once again in the clear and enjoyed the ride.

A better- but still inadequate- picture of the view from my keyboard

It was so flawlessly beautiful that traffic on highways could be seen five miles below.  Even better was our route.  We flew over Flathead Kootenai and  Kaniksu National Forests,  Glacier National Park and through the Northern Cascade mountain range.  Seattle, contrary to common wisdom, was nestled under a flawlessly blue sky and Mount Ranier, Baker, Hood and St. Helen’s were clearly visible jutting above the other snow-capped mountains.  In all, the panorama as we descended into Seattle was very reminiscent of the Arctic ocean with four white-crowned icebergs towering over the scene.

Now, we are enjoying a four-hour layover at Sea-Tac, watching planes arrive and depart from all over the Pacific.  It seems odd to watch both Air France and IcelandAir jets sharing the ramp, along with unmarked 747’s undoubtedly carrying fresh seafood to the orient and prop-driven cargo planes bound for their home base in the last frontier.  The Inuit visage that appears on all of the Air Alaska planes is scattered everywhere on the tarmac and the departure board in the concourse reads like a menu of adventure for outdoors enthusiasts.

The last, and perhaps greatest (or most frightening), leg of the trip awaits: flying through the Cascades on a twin-turboprop plane to our final destination of Yakima, located in the high desert of interior Washington.    We’ll be on the ground in about three more hours, ready to begin our evaluation of a new shooting school.

We will endeavor to post updates frequently throughout the next few days; stay tuned for further developments.  Until then, we’ll host a Alaska Pale Ale at the airport bar in honor of everyone who wants to be here but isn’t!

Did I mention that it is sometimes good to be a writer?


The Big Boom

Ah, the Fourth of July!  The sharp staccato of fireworks, the good times shared at countless outdoor parties and the delicious scent of seared meat wafting on the breeze.  Unfortunately, in years past, some of that burnt flesh belonged to Yours Truly.

Today we are going to cover discuss fireworks.  Given that the Independence Day holiday is fast approaching, fireworks involve gunpowder and they are most often used outdoors, this makes the topic entirely appropriate for this corner.  Besides, I didn’t have any real luck fishing this week.

I’ve often mentioned that writing a column is a delicate balancing act.  You want the reader to share every moment of your adventures, yet real-life is fraught with many so many things that are illegal, immoral and/or fattening.  However, some stories simply lose their zest if you remove the “questionable” parts.

Therefore, gentle reader, please realize that I have wrestled with the decision to print the following fireworks story.  Before you send an outraged letters to the editor explaining how stupid, dangerous, illegal, immoral and possibly fattening this column is, please know that I agree one-hundred percent.

It’s also pretty funny, especially if you happen to be a guy.

First we must cover the obligatory legal mumbo-jumbo.  The events described within are incredibly dangerous and quite likely to cause serious injury or death to anyone who also attempts the same.  At the time, over a decade ago, they were also of questionable legality.

Impressionable youth are warned never to play with gunpowder or fireworks.  Of course there are no impressionable youth read this column because they are all busy searching the Internet for instructions on how to build remotely-detonated nuclear fission bombs using only common household item but we are required to add that caution.

Moving along;

As a child, I discovered that shotgun shells could be cut open and the propellant inside extracted for use in scientific experiments such as: “What happens when model airplanes are packed with smokeless powder and set afire in the field behind our house?”  You might have also read the lesser-known follow-up thesis: “The effects of severe corporal punishment and home detention on young smokeless powder researchers”

Later, in my teenage years, I discovered real black powder.  In an effort to protect the guilty, I’ll just say it originally was a gift from an adult hunter.  I later became old enough purchase the magical substance myself and life was never the same.

The black powder, along with fireworks scrounged from a variety of sources, was turned into an endless procession of home-brewed explosives that either delighted, or more often, bored the assembled crowds.  In that quest for the ultimate show, my fireworks grew larger, more dangerous and in a few successful cases, even more spectacular.  Flash forward a few dozen years to our annual July 4 neighborhood picnic.

I will not divulge construction details of my grand-finale firework except to say that a substantial quantity of powder was involved and it probably would have been illegal under the Geneva Convention.

In the videotape of the incident, mothers of the various participants are heard off-camera, murmuring concerns about the safety of their offspring and the dim-wittedness of beer-fueled fathers.  Finally, we reached the moment of truth.

A transcript of the end of the video reads something like this:  “What is he doing…why is he using a car battery…that doesn’t look safe, get the kids back…has anybody…..AAAEEEEEEEEEIIII!!!!!”

The screen goes completely bright orange in the split second I completed the electrical triggering circuit.  Screams, rattling casserole dishes, car alarms and barking dogs provided the soundtrack as smoke, flame and exploding fireworks were carried into the air from the force of the blast.  The streetlight overhead is obscured by a mushroom cloud and several particular vulgar words are heard above the din.

It was fantastic.

After the commotion died down, stunned witnesses gathered their wide-eyed children to flee the area.  No one was injured but a number of the moms refused even to acknowledge the master pyrotechnician afterward.  On the other hand, several of the assembled dads thought it was the coolest thing they had ever seen so the overall score was a tie.

I quit making homemade fireworks after that.  Aside from the long-term prospect of losing several digits or assorted arms, I was sure that a government agency had seen the blast from an orbiting spy satellite and would likely send a team to investigate.  Since I’m not a big fan of prison food, I decided in the future to stick with store-bought goodies.

Though nothing bad happened, I am still required to end the column with a note cautioning everyone not to mess with dangerous and possibly illegal fireworks.  It’s simply not worth the danger and trouble.

Not even if the video clip becomes one of your most prized possessions.

High water alert!

With the recent (and ongoing) torrential rains, high water in streams and rivers has become a problem.

Remember: never cross flowing water in a vehicle and don’t wade or paddle in flood-swollen waterways.

Here are a few resources to help you navigate the waters or plan your day afield.


Indiana Real-Time water levels from the USGS

Flood water predictions for Indiana

Water Watch– Synopsis of flooding and high water events

Real-Time radar precipitation plot

NOAA Weather Radar