Certain places just get in the blood. There are people for whom hiking Mt. LeConte is an annual rite. Porters Creek is a sentimental favorite of mine. Whiteoak Sink has a hold on Allen Sweetser. He and Susan share interest in a cabin just a short walk outside the park boundary at Schoolhouse Gap, allowing him to roam that bowl at will for the past 30 years. He’s climbed in and out from many different directions in all seasons, exploring every depression and identifying the plants to better understand Whiteoak Sink’s natural history. He’s consulted old photographs among other archived material and tagged alongside a neighbor and lifelong resident recounting the families and industry (sawmill) of its cultural history.
Walking Whiteoak Sink with Allen is special. He moves through it with an intuitive grace that can only come from intimate knowledge gained slowly and methodically, like an old caretaker acutely sensing every nuance. He loves this place. What a treat for Clarence and me to spend the day wandering Whiteoak Sink with Allen as our guide. The sky is heavy with clouds, and rain is a constant threat. Apart from a brief, stray shower, however, the threat is mostly an empty one. We walk up the gravel road intersecting the top of Schoolhouse Gap Trail and head down to the well-traveled manway just before Turkey Pen Ridge.
Lush growth fills Whiteoak Sink in the summer, so winter is a great opportunity to gauge and survey the land. We walk to the usual attractions — the disappearing waterfall and the Blowhole, then head off to see a number of smaller sinks. Like a limestone nesting doll, Whiteoak Sink contains several other pits and depressions. Two of them are named for the profusion of certain spring wildflowers found in and around them — Bluebell Hole and Shooting Star Hole. Allen says the Virginia Bluebells seem to be on the decline, noting fewer of them in recent years.
Given the soft, soluble limestone, one tiny spot in Whiteoak Sink presents a geologic mystery. Allen walks us straight to a shallow pool of water about five or six feet across. Several clusters of frog eggs are in it. According to Allen, this little pool nearly always contains water. Where does the water come from? Why doesn’t it perk through the soil and drain away? Whatever the explanation, the sink’s frogs are undoubtedly grateful.
One lone grave may be found on a small ridge near the manway. Abraham Law (1790-1864) lies peacefully at the crest with a small engraved rock, a few pine cones, and a red plastic rose to mark his final resting place. Further in, an occasional roof shingle or piece of siding is evidence of the 2011 tornado that struck the park just northwest of Cades Cove.
Rich soil in Whiteoak Sink combines with the protecting rim to offer plants an ideal place for living and growing in relative luxury. We see last year’s mottled foliage of Liverleaf (Hepatica acutiloba or Hepatica nobilis var. acuta or Anemone acutiloba — the last botanical name is the most recent taxonomic adjustment) and this year’s fresh foliage of Two-leaved Toothwort. Hazelnut shrubs are expanding male catkins. A striking patch of Puttyroot leaves graces the ground at the base of a tree.
Following a nearly invisible path that puts us perhaps a mile out on Scott Gap Trail, we hike the boundary back to Schoolhouse Gap and down to Allen’s cabin. Just in time too. The rain decides to make good on its threat with a well-timed downpour.
I’d like to share one additional geologic wonder in limestone, though this one is not in the park. Walls of Jericho is a State Natural Area in Tennessee found in the dissected western edge of the Cumberland Plateau along the Alabama border. Millions of years of water have eroded plunge pools and tunnels through the rock and created a natural amphitheater of limestone within sheer walls best described as a canyon. Clarence and I hike to Walls of Jericho March 16. We take the Alabama trail in and follow a less traveled, longer route out into Tennessee. Just off that trail is Mill Creek Blow Hole. Expecting something similar to Whiteoak Sink’s Blowhole and anticipating the rush of cool air on this very hot day, we head down a steep path into a narrow ravine to find an explosive rush of churning whitewater shooting out from a side cavern, slamming against the bedrock on the opposite side, then rocketing down a natural sluiceway like some terrifying log flume ride. A visit to Walls of Jericho is highly recommended.