Jenni’s Bucket List

When most people compile their life bucket list, they include things like, “drive a racecar,” “visit the Taj Mahal” or “dance the tango.” For Jenni Frankenberg Veal, a freelance writer with a passion for the outdoors, top on the bucket list was seeing a big, brown, bottom feeding salamander. And last week during a snorkel trip on the Hiwassee River in Polk County, Jenni checked off her item.


Jenni Frankenberg Veal (3rd from right) poses with the Hiwassee Hellbender Club.

Jenni and several other folks from the Polk County Chamber of Commerce, Thrive 2055, the Cleveland-Bradley Chamber of Commerce, National Park Service and McKee Foods joined the National Forest Service for a guided snorkel trip on the Hiwassee.

The snorkel trips, which are also offered on Citico Creek and the Conasauga River, give us land lubbers a rare glimpse into the extraordinarily rich and colorful world that lies under the surface of our region’s fresh water streams.

“We saw a Hellbender!” crowed Jenni, giddy as she slogged out of the river shallows in a dripping wetsuit. “We actually saw two!”


The Hiwassee Hellbender

Young Ethan Bullock, a trip participant with sharp, 10-year-old eyes, had spotted a juvenile Hellbender, only 4 inches long. He set the tiny creature in his snorkel mask for some pictures and then released it back to the river bottom.


File Jul 25, 4 28 53 PM

Seeing a Hellbender in its native habitat is worthy of a bucket list item. Seeing two, especially a young one, is almost impossible. Though reaching up to two feet in length, the reclusive salamanders hang out on river bottoms and closely resemble the rocks that they hide under. Seeing one in the wild requires stealth and a very sharp eye.

Hellbenders are also becoming rare, even in the rich waters of our tristate region. According to a recent National Geographic article, the salamander, which is native only to the eastern U.S., has been slipping quietly away since the 1980’s. And populations in the northeast and in the Ozarks are declining to the point of endangerment.

“Unlike a lot of other salamanders, [hellbenders] breathe entirely through their skin,” says Kim Terrell, Conservation Biologist with the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., in the National Geographic article. As a result, Hellbenders require cold, clean water in which to live. The peaceful creatures are extremely vulnerable to silt and pollutants that disturb their pristine environment.

File Jul 25, 4 28 19 PM

So it is good news that Jenni Veal and Ethan Bullock spotted two Hellbenders in the Hiwassee River, which is fed from the clear springs and creeks of the Cherokee National Forest. For our region’s future, the Hellbender could be considered an indicator species. If we do a good job planning how our communities develop, the big, brown salamander and his river cousins will thrive. If we grow with disregard for our natural treasures, especially those that we don’t see every day, then Jenni’s treasure might be lost forever.


To learn more about the Cherokee National Forest’s guided snorkel trips on Citico Creek and the Hiwassee and Conasauga Rivers, read Jenni Frankenberg Veal’s story in


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