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McWhorter's Independent Study Documents Sheltowee

Most classes and classrooms are pretty safe. Aside from an occasional paper cut or last-minute test, most courses are neither physically demanding nor dangerous. However, junior technology major Jim McWhorter traded pencils and textbooks for a backpack and hiking poles to trek the Sheltowee Trace, a little used trail stretching from Tennessee to Kentucky.

Jim McWhorter hikes the Sheltowee Trace.

McWhorter hiked the Sheltowee's 274 miles two goals in mind: chart/map/plot the meandering and often overgrown trail ... and survive. This was Jim's second time taking the journey, though with a different cause. "It's a good way to see the nature in the Daniel Boone National Forest. I also did it because I am doing an independent study in photography." This independent study course would help him use his photography and map-making skills. Jim actually took a risk before he even strapped on his boots. "I took a chance before the proposal [was approved] and invested in a $1,000 camera and $400 GPS." Fortunately, his proposal was approved. Jim was sure that this would prove to be not only a very valuable learning experience, but "an interesting way to document the trail."

Jim's journey led him to many different sites including the John Muir Trail, Thompson Overlook, Rock Creek Loop, Peter's Mountain, Yamacraw Bridge, Cumberland River, Barren Fork Creek, Laurel River, and Bark Camp Creek. Though spending most of his time alone with nature, he encountered a few memorable people: the son of a stonemason who built the Cumberland bridge; a soldier just back from war who welcomed Jim into his home; and a family who packed him a t-bone steak to go. In the midst of wilderness, Jim always seemed to find hospitality from warm, giving people.

Yet, Jim saw some saddening things on the way. Sometimes he encountered mounds of trash that ranged everywhere from soda cans to torched SUVs. His experience of living so close with nature led him to think deeply about humans' interaction and responsibility toward the environment. "A mostly dried puddle that I had just stepped through had captured more than just me and my trekking pole. In it were the prints of a turkey, deer, and a raccoon. It reinforced my perspective that we are living on the same earth." Yet, Jim's trip was still filled with natural wonders. On his hike, he was able to see and photograph the the moonbow at Cumberland falls. "I made my way back down to the falls and walked out to the close up viewing area of the falls and to my surprise I saw the moon bow for the first time. I was not expecting to see it for another night, but due to the exceptionally clear night and brightness of the moon, I took a successful photograph."

The Sheltowee Trace runs through McKee, where Jay Buckner, communications manager in the public relations department, and his golden retriever Josh joined Jim for a few days on his adventure. Hiking northward, the trio trekked toward the Red River Gorge. Josh, a rookie on the trail "was having a blast and was adjusting well to trail life," says Jim.

Along the way, the trio encountered more environmental damage where rusting barrels of unknown contents prompted a sign that warned against drinking water in the area. "It was strange to see these barrels in such a remote location," says Jim, who examined a resident turtle suffering from a tumor on its leg. "I would like to return to that area and get it cleaned up and safe." Perhaps that will be Jim's next independent study.

Jim's trek caught the eye of NRT News, a newsletter for managers of National Recreational Trails. NRT News found his project so interesting that they offered to publish his work in the next issue of the newsletter and promote his project on their website.

Read Jim's journal and view his photo galleries at the link below.

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