SHADY VALLEY — Tennesseans who relish exploring unique Volunteer State habitats might slip this high bowl-shaped valley on their bucket list for more reasons than one.
Tucked into the far northeast corner of the state, besides its overwhelming beauty, Shady Valley makes itself home to more than two dozen rare animals and plants. Atop the list for those who enjoy the botanical side of nature would be its half dozen or so bogs, one of only two ecosystems in the state that boasts American cranberries.
Thriving in the valley’s wetlands, the berries typically ripen in September and October as they change from white to ruby red. Though they have never been commercially harvested, local folks occasionally will pluck a gallon or two for personal use.
And while the wildlife boasts everything from red salamanders and brown beavers to golden eagles and black bears, the real treat would be to spot a Southern bog turtle (a nearly impossible feat), an endangered species that traverses the valley floor and finds itself most cozy down in the mucky bogs.
“In Shady Valley the elevation of the valley floor, where most of the bogs are, is 2,800 feet, which in Tennessee is a high elevation to be in the bottom of the valley,” said Gabby Lynch, director of protection for the Tennessee chapter of the Nature Conservancy, which owns two of the bogs. “So, the climate is cooler, wetter and has vegetation more like New England. That’s how the cranberries and other bog species have come to live here.”
(Note: the elevation of Nashville is 597 feet; Lebanon sits at 528 feet above sea level.)
“We always have seen the bogs as a remnant of the last Ice Age in North America. The ice didn’t come to Tennessee, but south of the ice the climate changed a lot, and this habitat started to take hold in Shady Valley about 12,000 to 15,000 years ago,” said Lynch, whose primary duty is managing the Conservancy’s land acquisitions in the state while also overseeing the Shady Valley program.
Family of the valley
Assisting the Conservancy at this location for more than 25 years has been the McQueen family, whose ancestors came to the valley in the 1840s.
“It’s a unique place here. We’re surrounded by the Cherokee National Forest, and there are five roads in here, and four come across the mountains,” said Charles McQueen, referring to Iron Mountain, Holston Mountain and Cross Mountain that hover above the valley.
“I’m a fifth-generation here, and I have a son on the farm and a grandson on the farm, and we have a great-grandson who is four months old,” said McQueen, who became the Conservancy’s first Shady Valley preserve manager in 1996. (His son took on the role in 2017.)
The early generations of McQueens were fellers of timber. During most of Charles’ life, they grew burley tobacco but today the family raises black angus beef cattle and hay. He and his wife, Helen, also operate McQueen Farm Equipment, and he serves as chief of the Shady Valley Volunteer Fire Department, while Kenneth is captain.
By the way, Shady Valley (population 1,200) celebrates its famous wild berry with an annual cranberry festival on the second Saturday of October, an event that typically draws between 1,000-2,000 celebrants.
Lynch and Charles McQueen shared that there are seven bog locations — two in the mountaintops and five in the valley. They wear the names McQueen Bog, Little Pond Bog, Orchard Bog and Quarry Bog (the latter two owned by the Nature Conservancy), the quarter-acre Jenkins Bog (owned by East Tennessee State University), and Osborne Bog and Barry Farm/Johns Bog (both owned by the U.S. Forest Service).
Keeping up with the crops
As for the cranberries, Kenneth noted, “They don’t get pretty till first frost. People harvest them at Thanksgiving. … They taste very strong and tart. Most people would not like it. You eat one of these raw, you’re gonna know it. It’s true cranberry. Most people are gonna pucker up. Deer love ’em. Bears like ’em.”
Due to a late freeze last spring, many of the berry blooms wilted said Kenneth. Thus, there are few cranberries this autumn.
Twice during the 20th century, well-meaning ventures to help valley farmers took their toll on the ancient bogs.
The second, a channelization project known as the Shady Valley Watershed Plan, which occurred from the late 1950s into the ’60s, was intended to drain the wetlands in the valley floor so that more crops could be planted.
“There were so many wetland streams that dried up that the valley began to have some flooding,” said Lynch. “We learned wetlands reduced flood damage, but back then it was not fully understood.
“The Conservancy and our partners realized there were farms in the big bog prior to the drainage. The farms came up for sale, and we thought maybe we could buy some and do work to repair the area. The first land purchase for the bog began in 1994. The Conservancy had been working in the valley already and acquired a small bog in 1979 but began largescale in the mid-1990s and continues today.
“About half a dozen of the original bogs survived the drainage. I say bogs ‘plural’ because we have bogs on multiple sites. At one time it was one big bog but now is splintered into fragments of bogs. We often say by the time the last drainage was completed, we basically lost all but 10 or fewer acres of the original wetlands. Today 250 acres are considered bogs or wetlands on the Conservancy nature area.”
Charles and Kenneth in their role as preserve manager have worked to protect the bogs and its berries as well as the tiny bog turtles. (Among other rare creatures in the valley are the star-nosed mole, the hairy-tailed mole, the four-toed salamander and the southern bog lemming.)
“The cranberries like to grow in wet places. They like the sphagnum moss. Woody vegetation will crowd the bogs out. We’ve got a nursery where we plant our cuttings from the wild, and we transplant them into the wetlands. We try and keep the woody vegetation cut back,” said Charles.
“I coordinate things with all the different agencies that come in,” Kenneth said, ticking off a list that includes the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Tennessee Valley Authority and Zoo Knoxville.
Also in the mix is Virginia Tech which is studying the effects of grazing cattle on the wetlands to see what works best for the turtles. On three plots of wetland they placed a large herd, a medium herd and a small herd, respectively, while a fourth plot has no cattle.
“We put the cattle in the first of May and take them out the first of October,” said Kenneth. “The question is: which pasture management realistically is better for the bog turtle? Whatever is best for the turtles should be best for the cranberries and everything else. Doing nothing and letting it grow up is not what we want.”
As for the elusive bog turtles, Charles has seen maybe a dozen while Kenneth has spied only four or five in his lifetime. “Unless you got a hawk’s eye, you’re never gonna see one,” Kenneth noted.
“I’m a believer in keeping some of the older ways of life around that our ancestors had,” said Charles, “and I enjoy working with the Tennessee Nature Conservancy as they work side by side with farmers to protect endangered places and species.”
The McQueen patriarch added that Orchard Bog, which is split by Beaverdam Creek, has a mile-and-a-half trail. Guided tours often are given during the Cranberry Festival but otherwise nature lovers are footloose and fancy free to seek the diversity of birds, plants, insects, reptiles, amphibians and mammals this splendiferous Tennessee landscape provides.
SHADY VALLEY CRANBERRY BOGS
Shady Valley is 312 miles east of Nashville, about a five-hour drive, and located in the Eastern Time Zone.
To learn more about the Nature Conservancy’s work with the cranberry bog preserves in Shady Valley, go online to: nature.org/en-us/get-involved/how-to-help/places-we-protect/shady-valley/.
Other attractions in or near the northeast corner of Tennessee include:
“The Snake,” a 112-mile route favored by motorcyclists, which includes “The Snake 421,” a 37-mile section that passes through Johnson and Washington counties and offers 489 curves while crossing three mountains;
The scrumptious Shady Burger, only to be had at Shady Valley’s Raceway Grill;
Backbone Rock Tunnel, a 22-foot-wide hole blasted through rock in 1901 for railroad access. Cars now pass beneath it on Highway 133 (it is known as the shortest tunnel in the world);
The Virginia Creeper Trail, a premier 34-mile rail-to-recreation trail, a favorite for bicyclists of all ages, that begins in Abingdon, Va.