For many Americans, summer offers a chance to get away and recreate outside. That was the case for me at the beginning of August, and off my wife and I went in search of cooler temperatures. We found what we were looking for in a little 100-year-old cabin, loaned to us by friends. It lies in the middle of a several-hundred-acre finger of land jutting into western North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest. We were thus surrounded on three sides by over 800 square miles of Southern Appalachian oak-heath wilderness.
Our unusual situation, staying in a privately owned old-growth forest, enveloped by public land, allowed us easy access to otherwise remote areas of the National Forest. We took advantage. Our hosts had told us about one particular stream in the forest that was a good place to beat the heat. So on day-2 of our residence, we loaded a daypack and set forth.
An hour’s hike brought us to a gorge where we could hear the gentle hum of moving water. A muddy scramble ensued, grasping at the roots of rhododendrons, and assisted by a rope anchored for the purpose. Thus we made our way to the stream, a stair-step jumble of rapids, potholes, and pools flowing over ancient granite boulders belched up by the earth during the collision of North America and Europe hundreds of millions of years ago.
We enjoyed an afternoon spent alternately soaking in the frigid potholes and warming ourselves on the sun-soaked boulders, before hiking back to our cabin, where we ate a leftover pulled pork and cornbread dinner, and then gloried until bedtime in our lack of internet access or cell phone service.
The rest of our week in the mountains was spent similarly. It wasn’t until we returned home that our hosts informed us that the stream where we spent that splendid afternoon of day-2 happens to be a haven for North Carolina’s only native trout species, the Southern Appalachian brook trout. I had contemplated bringing fishing gear with me, but decided against it, not wanting to add another dimension of logistical complexity to our trip. Hindsight is 20/20. I have never caught a Southern Appalachian brookie, and now it maintains its position among the potentials on my “bucket list.”
Brook trout prefer precisely the kind of water we were soaking in: pristine, remote, cold, well-oxygenated headwaters at high elevations. This preference of theirs is the cause, under one aspect, of there being so few of them now. Beginning in the late 19th century, extensive logging was introduced to the Southern Appalachians.
Logging roads and rail lines tend to follow the path of least resistance, viz. stream beds and river valleys. Splash dams were built to help get logs to mills downstream. The loss of tree canopy allowed sunlight to reach streams, causing water to warm. Brook trout populations paid a dear price.
Around 1900, noticing the decline in brook trout populations, people began to introduce other species: rainbows from out west, European browns, and genetically distinct brook trout from up north, all of which seem more adaptable—or heartier—than our Southern Appalachian natives, which in their turn either hybridized with their Yankee cousins, or retreated even further into the remoteness of the remaining wilderness. And of course during the intervening years, the native brookies, like fish and wildlife everywhere, have had to contend with habitat loss due to the seemingly invincible force of human population growth and development.
But the history of Southern Appalachian brook trout and their habitat has not been all unmitigated bad news. In 1911 Massachusetts Republican John W. Weeks introduced congressional legislation, the Weeks Act, that empowered the federal government to purchase and protect private land necessary for the flow of navigable streams. The bill also allowed land protected under its auspices to be conglomerated into national forests. President William Howard Taft signed the bill on March 1, 1911. To date some 20 million acres of land in the eastern US have been protected by its provisions. Among these tracts is what would become, in 1920, Nantahala National Forest—together with its brook trout habitat.
And of course the Weeks Act is just one of a number of sound pieces of conservation legislation at the federal, state, and local levels that have brought about a situation in which “the good old days” of hunting and fishing are, in many respects, now: the Pittman-Robertson Act, the Migratory Bird Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Magnuson-Stevens Act, among many others. None of them is perfect—nothing is, this side of paradise. But the perfect must not become the enemy of the good. Seeing that it doesn’t is the task of everyone who loves to hunt and fish, who loves the outdoors, and everyone who values the economic opportunities afforded to stakeholders and communities that rely on the fruits of the earth and the seas, which really means all of us.
Were it not for the vision of men like John Weeks or William Howard Taft, fishing for Southern Appalachian brook trout would be only an increasingly distant memory, beyond the possibility of living experience or (as in my case) aspiration. Next time I’m bringing a rod.