We've enjoyed a nice Thursday so far on top of LeConte, but I hear changes are in the forecast. Wednesday's high and low were 63-43 with no precipitation. The overnight temperature readings from the last three days have been a little unique, as the temperature at observation (6:30 a.m.) has been slightly warmer than the temperature at 11 p.m. the previous night. Typically, we register our coldest temperature of the day during that 5-7 a.m. period.
I mentioned the periodic bear activity nearby the lodge yesterday. Today I'll focus on some smaller animals we've been seeing up top. Something we haven't been seeing much lately are the deer. Perhaps they've headed down for greener pastures. I have seen a rabbit hopping in and out of our grassy spots the last week. Spotting a rabbit is fairly uncommon on top of LeConte. I can only remember seeing about five in my four years up here. In perhaps a related note, we've not seen our on-again, off-again neighbor the weasel in a long while. Maybe the rabbit knows something we don't.
Crew member Matt took a walk down Bullhead Trail the other day and saw some grouse fly out of the trail in front of him. He had an interesting way of describing the sound of their wingbeats -- "like the sound of your own heartbeat in your head." Crew member Pat also saw some sort of hawk harassing a raven a couple of days ago. We see the ravens all the time. They may be one of the smartest animals in all the park.
As the first and second days of October rolled around this year, I couldn't help but remember life on LeConte one year ago. This is the anniversary of the dreaded 2013 federal government shutdown, which locked our doors half of October in the prime of our fall season. We've had lots of guests the last few days say they were planning on coming up to see us this time last year, but were thwarted because of the shutdown. Many of them asked how we dealt with the shutdown here. A few of my remembrances follow (others can't be repeated in front of polite company, but I remember my empty wallet and will be voting in November).
I ended up managing for the transition on Oct. 1 and first eight days or so of the shutdown. The park service, whose employees would also have rather been working, allowed our guests to stay the night of Oct. 1 and then vacate the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Oct. 2. General manager Tim Line came up and relieved me for the second week until operations resumed. For two or three nights in the beginning some crew members stayed put because no one knew when we'd reopen, and we'd have to move quick when we got the word. No one was getting paid, and the crew can burn through the money fast on hotels and food down in the valley.
Gradually the rest of the crew headed down, and I spent several days up here by myself, the closest thing I've experienced to the LeConte winter caretaker role. At night, I was probably the only human within at least a five-mile radius. That sort of isolation doesn't often exist these days. Even in Antarctica and the wilds of Alaska where I worked, I was usually pretty close to someone.
There wasn't much to do compared to my 18-hour schedule today. I still had to call in the LeConte weather conditions to the park service early every morning and ask if the situation was resolved yet. Every morning I got a bad answer. Legally, even though LeConte is run by a private company operating this concession through a contract with the park service, we couldn't host overnight guests or even sell someone a t-shirt. We could legally leave the pit toilets open and keep the treated water spigot flowing (as a few people managed their way up the mountain on under-the-radar day hikes).
Also, I wasn't even supposed to leave the lodge grounds, as the park was closed and no rangers were on duty if I got hurt and needed to be rescued. I read a lot, sat out on the porch on a beautiful, sunny October Saturday and listened to the Tennessee football game by myself. On a normal October Saturday there would have been hundreds of dayhikers scaling LeConte, but the shutdown was eerie. After all of the nasty weather we'd experienced during that summer, finally fall had broken through in glorious fashion -- and no one else was around to see it at the top of Tennessee. At any rate, those memories have returned this week. Please keep in mind this is not the forum to blame anyone for the shutdown, just a recollection to respond to a question I've received often this week.
As I alluded earlier, we're expecting a rainy Friday followed by colder weather this weekend. Remember, just because it's comfortable in Gatlinburg doesn't mean you'll see anything similar on top of LeConte. When you're preparing for your trip, always bring raingear and plan for a high and low 15-20 degrees lower than in Gatlinburg or Knoxville to be safe. That's not always the case, but it should put you in better stead if weather is snarly on top of the mountain. Happy trails.