If you come, come in winter, January is the best time. Bring warm clothing; the hills of southeast Tennessee experience cold spells with occasional snow, ice, and frost. Bring a telescope if you have one, or possibly a friend who has a telescope. Past present and future intersect in this place, and you will want to see the geography scarred with the passage of time. In the distance, Hiwassee Island is visible, right at the confluence of the Hiwassee River and the Tennessee.
Hiwassee Island has a long archaeological history of Mississippian Culture and even further back. They were long gone when the Cherokee passed through, perhaps as many as two-thirds of those Cherokee travelers forcibly removed by a growing nation whose ways they emulated. They had printing presses, a newspaper named the Phoenix, log cabins, corn fields, a constitution and treaties. Their assimilation didn’t save them.
A series of walls bears the name of those who passed through as well as sculptural replicas of their culture. A small museum holds displays depicting Cherokee culture and local wildlife.
When the State of Tennessee planted corn on nearby Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge to attract the Canada Geese and goose hunters, they may not have foreseen the arrival of cranes, a bird sacred to some tribes.
Before they stopped planting the corn, as many as 20,000 Sandhill Cranes arrived each winter. Now it is a stopover, a staging area for them to rest before heading further south. These days, you may see as many as 5,000 and you may see an endangered Whooping Crane. There are fewer than 1,000 of those stately birds remaining. They are pure white, with black tips on the wings, and nearly as tall as a man.
On a foggy day, you may hear the rattling call of the Sandhill Cranes and imagine thousands passing through. The mystic trumpeting of a Whooping Crane may set you to imagining an ancient village on Hiwassee Island, or a long line of Cherokee People boarding the boats. A great Wisconsin naturalist, Aldo Leopold, said he could imagine the Pleistocene when he heard their calls.
Lately Pelicans have begun to overwinter here, the large white pelicans, not the smaller brown ones. They always passed close by, headed to Yellowstone in spring and the Gulf Coast in winter. I have seen as many as 300. They are new arrivals, encouraged to stay by a series of warmer winters.
Wear boots, for the grandeur of the area is offset by muddy trails.