The National Parks Service was founded 100 years ago on August 25, 1916. They have since cared for and protected the national parks, ensuring they remain a place for exploration, education and inspiration. In a guest blog post, Lee Mandrell shares a personal reflection on his new book The Great Smoky Mountains: A Visual Journey in honor of the National Parks Service centennial. Lee is a photographer and author of Indianapolis: The Circle City (IUP 2016) and The Great Smoky Mountains: A Visual Journey (IUP 2017).
By Lee Mandrell
For over a quarter of a century now, I have been in pursuit of capturing photos from ‘The Great Smoky Mountains’ and the surrounding areas. I remember my first Smokies trip as well as if I had just taken it yesterday. Young, dumb, and naive about a good many things, I was very much in photographer's shock and visual overload upon arrival, to say the least. Born and raised in Indiana, I had never seen anything like this first hand! I instantly wanted to photograph everything I saw. I knew immediately the mere six rolls of film I had brought for the trip were not going to be enough, nor was the small amount of time that we would be there. I wasn’t even sure where to point the camera first. The visual stimulation was overwhelming and it took a good deal of self discipline to contain my excitement for the photo opportunities that I was seeing, and not to just randomly start shooting and wasting my shots. Remember, film was a whole different beast than digital and careful consideration had to be taken not to waste a single frame. Unlike digital, there are set limits with film, and that was always torture! Trust me, there was always something else you wanted to shoot once you ran out of film. As fate would have it, the camera suffered a shutter malfunction on that very first trip and I instantly learned the importance of having and bringing backup equipment everywhere I went. Fortunately, I was able to get it going once again during the trip, and since then I have never left home without spare equipment. I learned a very valuable lesson that trip the hard way.
This particular year and trip was in January and it happened to be 70 degrees and sunny. It was just beautiful even with no leaves or snow. I don’t know how many deer I saw the next few days, but there were certainly lots of them, more than I had ever seen in one place at any given time in my life. And the rivers, the streams, the cascades and the waterfalls! Oh man! Everywhere I looked! The first drive along the Little River Road, amazing! It felt like it took two whole days! The first trip through Cades Cove left me speechless! And the actual mountains! What wonder! What sights to behold! They just kept going on forever it seemed! It was pure happiness! It’s still just as amazing to me all these years later. In fact, I think it’s more beautiful since I have grown more aware and more appreciative of it, nature and conservation, and the feelings I felt that first trip are still there every time. You can’t help but smile. You can’t help but feel at peace. You can’t help but feel the happiness that surrounds you in this place. To me, there is nothing else quite like it. Of course a person is not able to see all of the beauty in one weekend, week, or month and I strongly believe that even people that live there would be hard pressed to ever ‘see it all’ in their lifetime. 25 plus years and countless trips later I am still discovering new things and places there, and still excited about every one of them! One thing was for sure on that first trip though, I was immediately hooked on the Smoky Mountains' beauty then and there, and I have been ever since. There was no turning back because what I had seen couldn’t be unseen.
Many times we were on the road at 10 p.m., 11 p.m. or midnight in order to get there in time for the sunrise and hopefully capture something inspiring. Lots and lots of coffee has kept us going more times than I can actually recall. I’d guess gallons most likely. There have been miles and miles of hikes throughout the years. Some hikes are easy of course, but some of those hikes can certainly put a person to the test and you have to really push past your limits. The payoff at the end has always been worth it in my opinion. Then there are the bears, and let me tell you about the bears. It’s a bit unnerving to happen across them on trails with no one else in sight, or have one sneak up on you and catch you unaware, and yes they can be sneaky. Luckily, they have only had a passing curiosity as to what we were doing, then quickly moved on about their business. Of course the elk need their distance as well, and also the deer. We have always treated wildlife with great respect, and taken our photos from a distance with very long lenses. With the proper equipment, you can take up close and personal photos of any wildlife and never put yourself in harm's way or be invasive to their personal space. If you don’t have the proper equipment, don’t even try it. It’s just not worth the risk. It never ceases to amaze me to see someone actually chasing after a wild animal and particularly a bear! I realize they look cute and cuddly and in need of some petting between the ears, but they are wild animals and could pose a danger to you or your loved ones if they feel threatened. You wouldn’t want someone to come into your house and chase you around, take a picture with you and try to pet you, would you? Treat them with the respect they deserve and give them their space.
Some locations hold sentiment, some hold strong emotional connections, and some are just too beautiful to accurately portray with only a photo, no matter how good the photo is. As awe inspiring as a photograph is or can be, you don’t get the sounds, you don’t get the smells, and you don’t get the feelings you had while with your spouse, kids, friends or family. Trees creaking in gentle winds, leaves rustling, and the sounds of birds chirping reach your ears. Salamanders scurry out of sight. Chipmunks scamper along a fallen tree. Water trickles over and through rocks, and is perhaps the greatest sound nature has ever given us in my opinion. The smells of the damp undergrowth, decaying vegetation, wood, and leaves fill your nostrils. The flickering light levels as you progress up a trail play peek-a-boo with your eyes. The feel of the earth as you make your way up to some unknown, hidden, magical place. The cool, flowing water as you pass through it touches and refreshes your skin. The changes in air temperatures can cool or warm you as you walk. Wildlife peeking through the forest at you with curiosity from a distance. It ignites all of the senses and lets you come alive! I don’t find any of this tiring or boring. I get so caught up in the moment and place and what’s it’s doing to my senses, I sometimes forget I am there to take pictures. There really isn’t anything else quite like it and I will never tire of its endless beauty, sounds and smells. Hopefully this collection of photos will give you as real a sense of place as is possible to do with photos and if I could bottle the smells and add the sounds, I certainly would!
Lee's The Great Smoky Mountains: A Visual Journey will be published February 17, 2017 and is now available for preorder.