What's a camping trip without a visit to the mountains? It's only the first day, but Brook, Sunny, Sky, and Forrest are already tired from walking up, and down . . . and up again!

Where are we?

Georgia's mountains are old, much older than the Rockies or even the Himalayas. The base of the Blue Ridge formed over a billion years ago, but the bulk of our mountains was created from oceanic sediments between 200 and 450 million years ago.

Our mountains have been forested for at least two million years, and this forest is part of a highly-complex ecosystem. There are very few places so biologically diverse outside of a tropical rain forest.

The first people to live in the Georgia mountains were the Mississippians. By the time Spaniards arrived in 1540, permanent Mississippian villages were well established. But Spanish explorers carried epidemic diseases within themselves, diseases to which they were immune but native people were not. Mississippians died by the thousands, and within a century had almost completely vanished.

In the early 1700s, Cherokee Indians settled the region and began trading regularly with European settlers on the coast. Cherokees hunted deer, buffalo, and beaver to trade pelts for weapons, and became more dependant on European goods. By 1760, buffalo and elk began to disappear from the Georgia mountains due to overhunting and grazing from open-range livestock.

After the Civil War, the copper industry started up, which caused great damage to the forests, large amounts of timber being needed to fuel copper smelters. Fortunately, a new national forest movement organized the preservation of public lands. Georgia mountain lands were some of the first acquired by the U.S., and would later become the Chattahoochee National Forest.

Adapted from Sherpa Guides and the New Georgia Encyclopedia

Too much for kids? You decide!

Wanna be an expert in integrated conservation? That's when humans live within the ecosystem we wish to preserve. Native Americans did it for centuries, but these days we mostly practice another type of conservation, one that separates nature from humans. That's how National Parks and other protected areas came about. Trouble is, with this type of conservation, people think, "I'm here and nature's over there, it's protected so I don't need to get involved."

Now, conservation as practiced by many indigenous peoples is coming back. For example, there are small organic farms in the north Georgia mountains where farmers' practices are not harmful to the environment in which they live.

In modern large-scale farming, bugs are controlled by industrial pesticides. Birds eat the crops, and toxins in runoff water harm fish in lakes and rivers, as well as killing off smaller insects that would otherwise attack the bugs that eat our crops! To live in harmony with their environment, organic farmers use natural methods of pest control. Organic fertilizers (manure, crop residues) make plants strong and more resistant to pests and disease. Natural methods of pest control, like plants that repel insects, are also used. Traditional crops or "heirlooms" like the tomatoes above are stronger than modern varieties. Developed by native Americans or early European settlers and adapted to local environments and diets over generations, they vary from place to place and are naturally resistant to different pests, diseases and climatic stresses. These heirlooms minimize the need for pesticides and are gifts from both nature and our ancestors.

Organic crops require more work to produce, but they're better for the environment and are healthier to eat. And they're a good example of integrated conservation, where people and nature live side by side. —Laura German, Ph.D.

Forrest: Can't go . . . any farther. Too tired . . . must . . . stop.

Brook: Forrest, stop your complaining, we all rested a little while ago. Anyway, I think you're faking.

Forrest: Faking?! I'm telling you, I'm in pain here. This must be the highest mountain in Georgia. I think I'm getting altitude sickness.

Sunny: Uh, actually, the highest point in Georgia is Brasstown Bald, 4,784 feet above sea level, and we're nowhere near that high. And don't joke about altitude sickness, it can be pretty serious: headache, nausea, vomiting and trouble sleeping.

Forrest: No, I've got a headache and all that other stuff. I need to be medevac'd! Get the helicopters!

Sky: Well, since people rarely get altitude sickness below 6,000 feet, I think you'll be okay. Hey . . . wait a minute . . . what is that? Looks like a big circle around the sun.

Brook: Oh, I know what that is! Our teacher showed us pictures. It's an ice crystal halo. When there's clouds way up in the atmosphere, they're made of ice crystals, not water. Each crystal acts like a tiny prism and bends the light from the sun, so we see a halo. It can happen with moonlight too.

Sunny: Maybe we'll see one tonight. I'm looking forward to some serious stargazing. I bet we'll see lots of stars with the air so clear and us being so far out of town.

Brook: Maybe, but you know, light pollution makes that harder and harder every year.

Forrest: Light pollution? I've heard of other kinds of pollution, but not that.

Brook: It's from cities getting bigger and bigger and putting up more lights. All that light bounces off particles in the air, so the night sky's not black anymore, even this far out of town.

Sky: Well, what can we do?

Brook: Sometimes cities pass laws that restrict lighting, and there's also ways to design lights so they aim mostly down, at the ground, instead of up. I think it's one of those things where if enough people shout about it, something gets done.

Sunny: Well, I will start shouting if I don't see any stars tonight. Hey, look at this. Don't step on it! Looks like some animal tracks. Do animals use the same paths people do?

Sky: More like the other way around. My grandpa told me, some of the roads we drive on started out as game trails that animals used. Indians who hunted the animals turned the game trails into walking paths. Later, when the first white settlers came through with horses, they widened the paths into pack trails, and when families started moving in, they had to widen them even more into wagon roads. Eventually they were turned into roads and highways for cars.

Forrest: So today's animal track might be tomorrow's turnpike?

Sky: Well, I don't know about that, but I've heard Georgia Highway 441 follows a very old Indian trail. There are historical markers about it on the highway. Usually my folks won't stop for the markers, but sometimes they do and it's always interesting.

Forrest: You know what, I'm not tired anymore. Now I'm hungry! Let's stop and eat some dinner.

Piedmont? What's that? It's where we're headed next, so we'll all find out together. Lace up your boots and let's go. . . .