Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Hellbender and the Locomotive

I don't know if the local newspapers will report the real reasons behind the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad's decision to abandon Dillsboro.

But I will!

More often than not in the battles between Commerce and Wildlife, Commerce prevails. We're left to mourn the loss of the snail darter and the elktoe mussel. But occasionally, Nature strikes back, and sometimes with a vengeance.

No one could have imagined how things would turn out when a team of wildlife biologists began their survey of the Tuckasegee River earlier this month. I'm indebted to a friend for keeping me up on the progress of that team, and for providing the photos included here.

On their first outing, they discovered a rare Hellbender near the forks of the river in Tuckasegee. What a beautiful creature it is!

However, it's a good thing I didn't go out exploring with the team of researchers. I'll admit that it bothers me when I see the way that wildlife biologists handle their "subjects". I'd have to bite my tongue, and bite it almost in two, to keep from scolding them:

Don't be so darned rough with that Hellbender!!! Can't you see how you're annoying the little fellow? You've already weighed him and measured him, so just let him go. He wants to get back under his rock!!!

I knew that wouldn't go over well. So I was satisfied to get the emails and the photos instead.

A couple of days later, the scientists found another Hellbender near the Dillsboro Dam. Gorgeous!

Had I known the team intended to proceed much farther down the river, I would have warned them. All this trouble might have been averted. Had I known the team was bound for Barker's Creek, I would have opened my tattered copy of James Mooney and turned to page 404.

I would have held out the book and motioned them to read from that page:

AKWETIYI - A spot on Tuckasegee River, in Jackson County, between Dick's creek and the upper end of Cowee tunnel. According to tradition there was a dangerous water monster in the river there.

What more could I add to that?

Only a grim expression of remonstrance.

It didn't happen, though. Nobody asked me. We didn't turn to page 404 of James Mooney.

Instead, the research team crossed under the railroad trestle in their quest for yet another Hellbender. One of the interns spotted a slimy glimmer under the water and swooped a net along the bottom of the river to capture the specimen.

Without waiting a second, all the wildlife biologists began their wildlife biologist thing of poking and prodding the Hellbender. But this time something was different. This was not just another big Hellbender. It was one toe of a very, very, very, very big Hellbender. And that toe was still securely attached to that very, very, very, very big Hellbender.

The poking and the prodding was the last straw for this ill-tempered Hellbender. He had endured the smothering run-off from clearcut and denuded hillsides along the river one hundred years ago. He had survived the acrid chemicals pouring from the paper mill in Sylva fifty years ago. And for the past twenty years, he had put up with the incessant toot-toot and chug-chug and skreeeeg-skreeeeg and clickity-clickity of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. For two decades he had looked up from Akwetiyi and seen that damnable train crossing the trestle above his home before it disappeared into Cowee Tunnel.

He could not take it anymore.

With a sudden kick of his foot, he sent the researchers flying onto the banks of the river. In one swift motion he exploded from the water and looked all about. The steam locomotive, pictured above while it was departing from Dillsboro just a minute before, was starting to cross the trestle pulling a whole trainload of sightseers.

This only added insult to injury and the Hellbender became angrier than he'd even been, seething with fury. People who knew of Akwetiyi knew that this was the moment they had always feared. Provoked to the breaking point, the dangerous water monster was on a rampage. He raised up as tall as he could and then thrust himself toward the trestle with a sweeping sideways motion.

Grasping the locomotive firmly in his powerful jaws, he surged out of the river onto dry ground, the passenger cars trailing along after the locomotive like beads on a string. Once he reached pavement, he scuttered and lumbered faster and faster, staggering this way and that. His teeth still clinched around the locomotive, he passed the old courthouse and jaywalked from one side of Main Street to the other. Several times.

Down Highway 107 he kept running, leaving a path of destruction in his wake. He slammed his way across the campus at Western Carolina University, where a security camera trained on the Fine and Peforming Arts Center captured this image of the Hellbender-to-beat-all-Hellbenders.

He scrambled out Speedwell, crossed over Cherry Gap, jumped the river at Moody Bridge and careened into the higher hills toward Trout Creek and Pilot Knob and Big Ridge. The last anyone saw of him, the Hellbender was wading the Savannah River on his way to the ocean, a string of railroad cars hanging from his scowling mouth.

What a day that was! The wildlife biologists were stunned. Officials of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad were flabbergasted. Seeing how the wrath of Nature could burst out from the place called Akwetiyi, they knew it was too great a risk to remain nearby. So they made the decision to retreat from Dillsboro and consolidate their railroad operations a safe distance away in Bryson City.

That's the real reason the GSMR is leaving town. A small team of unwitting scientists, and a very, very, very, very large Hellbender ran one business out of Dillsboro...on a rail, you might say.

When the local newspapers get hold of this, you'll read about things like the high cost of diesel fuel and the lack of tourist traffic. But that's just a smokescreen.

You can fold up that paper and set it aside, because you just got the scoop on the real reason why the train left town.


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