Alpine Lakes of the Smokies

Good Medicine
By T. Edward Nickens

I checked into my two-bedroom cottage, with a private front porch and a stone fireplace, but there was barely enough time to dry my waders before the alarm clock jangled the next morning. I met Ila Hatter, an expert in wild foods and medicinal plants of the Southern Appalachians and a dedicated student of Cherokee culture, at the Fontana buffet restaurant. We headed further inland, climbing high above Fontana and cresting out at Deal's Gap. Situated near the juncture of Cheoh and Calderwood lakes, Deal's Gap is famous among the motorcycling set. It's at one end of an 11-mile stretch of U.S. 129 with 318 curves—you can buy t-shirts at Deal's Gap boasting of surviving the route, but instead I picked up a few fillets of smoked trout and jumped back in the car to hurtle towards the shores of Calderwood Lake, one of the most remote of the five Finger Lakes.

The trail to Slickrock Creek starts along the upper reaches of Calderwood, not far from the dam spillway from which Harrison Ford—or his stunt double—plunged in The Fugitive. Ila calls herself a "wildcrafter," and as we picked our way along the emerald-green shoreline she seemed to know every greening plant in the woods by the water. Breaking apart a stem of touch-me-not she showed me the clear plant juice settlers used as a poison ivy remedy. Along the trailside grew a thick maze of viney shrubs. Doghobble, she said, so named because bears could run right through it but the thick growth tripped up pursuing hounds. And then she dug up the rootstock of a Solomon's seal plant, pointed to the tuber and explained the Cherokee Indians' "doctrine of signatures."

According to Cherokee mythology, plants gave the Indians clues about their potential uses, but the natives had to be wise enough to discern them. She pointed to the gnarly root. "Looks like a swollen joint, doesn't it?" she asked. "That way the Cherokee knew to use Solomon's seal as a poultice for arthritis."

By the time we hiked back to the car, Hatter had shown me a virtual wild buffet of edible plants and a glimpse into the medicine chests of the ancients. The Cherokee had the benefit of centuries to weave their tapestry of lore from these mountains; I had but a brief few days to follow their footsteps by placid mountain lakes. But as I learned by the shores of verdant Santeetlah, Fontana, and Calderwood, you need only to spend a long weekend by these secluded Finger Lakes to find a poultice for a city-wounded spirit.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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