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Vast N.C. woods offer wild foods, secret sites
Trick to hiding is not risking smoke, trash
By BO EMERSON
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Eric Robert Rudolph may have been the most successful “leave-no-trace” camper in history.
Or perhaps he was just lucky.
On Monday, FBI agents combed the woods near Murphy, N.C., where Rudolph was captured, to find any clues he might have left pointing to his hideouts.
Agents closed a Forest Service road into the Nantahala National Forest, about 30 miles east of Murphy, on Saturday. On Monday, FBI agents drove up and down the winding mountain road looking for signs he had camped in the Fires Creek area.
Until Rudolph was arrested Saturday in Murphy, federal agents had failed to find much of a trail. While some say he must have had help, authorities believe he spent most of his time living off the land.
So how difficult is it to hide and survive in the woods?
“I’ve lived out in the woods for a year and a half,” said Jim Morris, a sheriff’s deputy in nearby Maryville, Tenn., who, like Rudolph, was a former Army Ranger trained in wilderness survival techniques.
Setting traps and snares, checking them at night, collecting acorns, greenbriars, cattails and blueberries, Morris found plenty to eat. He said one can even enjoy a bit of “luxury,” such as deer jerky.
Morris, 45, who is part Shawnee Indian, was pursuing a vision quest of sorts during his woodland sojourn, he said. Rudolph would have had a harder time, because of the necessity of staying out of sight. But it wouldn’t be impossible, Morris added.
Ila Hatter, who teaches courses in wild edibles to students at the University of Tennessee’s Smoky Mountain Field School, took television news crews into the Nantahala Gorge on Monday morning, showing off the wild raspberries, dandelion greens and yellow dock that one can use for food or medicine. She pointed to hemlock needles that can serve as a source of vitamin C (They taste like Pine-Sol with a dash of lemon, she said.) and birch bark that can be used for tea.
A resident of Robbinsville, N.C., Hatter said she imagined Rudolph did not remain in the North Carolina woods for five years, but moved up the Appalachian Trail for a while, living elsewhere before returning to the Nantahala area when the heat was off.
“There’s a lot of wilderness here,” said Joan Petit, marketing manager for the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City, N.C., where more than two-thirds of the land is undeveloped, including 500,000 acres in the Nantahala National Forest alone.
Even during the drought of the last three years, many springs continued to flow in the mountains, said Petit, whose company is one of the largest outdoor outfitters in the East.
The trick, said Petit, would be to avoid leaving a trail of garbage or revealing one’s position with a campfire.
Survival camping is, in fact, very high impact camping, said Shari Kearney, a former instructor with the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander, Wyo., one of the country’s leading wilderness training centers.
“There are ways to have a low-impact fire,” she said, “but you are still putting smoke into the air, still utilizing fuel.” Even a so-called “wilderness area” will attract hundreds of hikers, campers and runners in the summers, she said, which would also make evading notice difficult.
Unless one looked like just another hiker, said Petit. In which case, a fellow outdoorsman might not pay the slightest attention.
— Staff writer Andrea Jones contributed to this article.