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Rainbow Falls / Bullhead loop on LeConte January 30, 2011

Posted by Jenny in hiking, nature, Smoky Mountains.
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The ice cone had an amazing bluish color

The temperatures in the valleys were supposed to get up into the 50s with sparkling sunshine. The top of LeConte had 22″ of snow following a fresh storm two days before. What does this add up to? A decision to do a hike with a large amount of elevation change so that I could see all the different conditions—a winter/spring sampler!

I started at 8:00, and apparently that was the time that everyone doing the Rainbow Falls/Bullhead loop had decided to start. A pair of college-age guys set off just as I pulled into the parking lot—a woman arrived in a silver pickup, jumped out, and headed up the trail—and then a guy swished into the lot in a late-model BMW sports coupe just as I was starting up. Sports coupe guy passed me when I stopped to put on my microspikes, and I never saw him again—I passed the two guys, who had heavy gear—I passed the woman, but we crossed paths again when I was coming down from the summit, and we had some pleasant conversation. I was pleased to see another woman doing a challenging hike solo. It’s amazing how rare that is.

I found myself wondering about the patterns of hiker traffic on LeConte yesterday. Clearly, the hikers just going to the falls didn’t need to start until much later. When I got back down at 3:00, the parking lot was jammed. But the weird thing was, I only saw three people on the summit, and I think one of them was the caretaker. I’d expected hordes to be coming up Alum Cave. Where were they? Did icy conditions on the trail turn people back? I ran into a couple coming up the Bullhead trail. So, total of nine other humans seen on this very popular mountain on a beautiful Saturday.

I encountered some icy patches below the falls, but I could have done it without the microspikes. It’s just that you can go faster when you don’t have to watch where you put each foot. Just below the falls, at around 4000′, the trail started to be snow-covered. A thin layer, well packed down, and undoubtedly gone by the end of the day. I passed the tributary of LeConte Creek that I and two others descended last May on a traverse of Balsam Point.

Side branch coming down from Balsam Point

I arrived at the falls. The ice cone was distinctly eerie in its radiant blueness, almost as if it belonged to a different dimension and had been superimposed in front of the falls by some science fiction process. It was the same kind of blue that you see sometimes in glaciers. I read somewhere that the blue color has to do with the absorption and reflection of different areas of the spectrum by ice crystals.

Rainbow Falls with ice cone

There were some good icicles over to the side.

Icicles at Rainbow Falls

Above the falls, the snow grew steadily deeper, and of course the amount of previous foot traffic dropped off. It looked as though a sort of trough had been created following earlier snow events, and that perhaps one or two people had been up the trail since the most recent snow, plus one set of prints that morning from sports coupe guy. My pace slowed, and slowed, as I worked through the snow. It was a grunt. Not far above the falls I saw a nice crisp set of bear prints mixed in with the hiker prints.

Bear prints

The snow banks on the side got higher.

Upper trail section

I stopped for a Power Bar, then ploughed onward. The snow wasn’t horribly deep, but it wasn’t consolidated. Take a step—sink down maybe four inches—take another step. In New England I would have used snowshoes, but they would have been useless here where a narrow track with high walls had been established. The snowshoes are too wide for this situation.

Finally I reached the Bullhead junction and discovered, much to my surprise, that Bullhead had been packed down into a tidy sidewalk. I’d been sure the Rainbow Falls trail would have seen more traffic, but that wasn’t the case. Perhaps a large group had climbed Bullhead the day before. (That’s what’s great about snow—all kinds of puzzles written into its surface.) I pressed on to the Lodge, enjoying the firmer surface.

Made it!

It was noon. I found a sunny spot and had some hot tea and something to eat, wondering what had become of all of the Alum Cave trail people. It felt fairly wintry up there. The strong wind out of the south that could have been described as a “zephyr” in the lower sections had become not so pleasant. Because of the wind and also because my legs felt like toast at that point, I decided not to do the short climb up to Cliff Top.

The way down was exponentially easier. I looked for the spots where our group had entered and exited the trail on the Balsam Point traverse. After passing the shady sidehill section that crosses the headwaters of Big Branch, I emerged in the lower pine forest that gets strong afternoon sun. There was practically no snow on this section. The galax was gleaming in the sun.

I love the color of galax in the winter

I noticed some chestnut sprouts at 3700′.

Chestnut sprouts

Further down, at 3200′, I saw a 20-foot chestnut that had dropped some burrs into the trail. Unfortunately you could see from some branches that had lost their bark that the tree was dying.

20-foot chestnut

Where the trail turned sharply to the east, I entered a zone of shade once again and found that the trail was quite icy. It was only in this section that I would say some sort of traction device would be nearly mandatory. So I put the spikes back on and wended my way down the switchbacks among giant boulders. Some big ice chunks had fallen into the trail off some of the boulders—ones that could kill you if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And so, emerging into the sudden congestion of mid-afternoon traffic at the trailhead, my adventure had ended, and a fine one it was.

Seen on upper RF trail---something in the soil, I guess

Ed Pulaski and the tool he invented January 27, 2011

Posted by Jenny in history, trail maintenance.
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Ed Pulaski

When I first got involved with trail maintenance 25 years ago, I quickly became acquainted with a tool called the pulaski. It’s about the size of a long-handled axe, but the business end of the tool has two sides: one side is an axe and the other is a grub-hoe. We used pulaskis for digging out water bars, cutting tree roots when digging, cutting small brush, shifting piles of debris. We were told that the pulaski was a firefighting tool. But I never knew the whole story until I read The Big Burn by Timothy Egan.*

Pulaski tool

The “Big Burn” was the name given to a tremendous conflagration that started along the Idaho-Montana border on the hot, dry, windy afternoon of August 20, 1910. Altogether, an area of about 3 million acres burned, about the size of Connecticut. There had been no rain all through that summer.  The forest floor was covered with slash from logging operations, dried out and ripe for burning. Small blazes had been sprouting up by the hundreds, and already thousands of men had been brought in to fight the fires. They were a ragtag bunch—ranging from eager college boys to immigrants to guys pulled out of the bars who needed a quick buck.

But even if the firefighting crew had been tripled, quadrupled in size, there was no way anyone could have dealt with what happened that afternoon. As Egan beautifully describes, it started with a wind called a Palouser that fed on the differences in temperature, moisture, and barometric pressure between adjoining regions of desert plateau and big forests. The wind built up furious strength and slammed into the already smoldering forests.

Egan tells the tale of the various pockets of humans who got caught when the world around them turned into towering flames. Some jammed onto trains leaving the area—shoving and pushing others out of the way. Some ran for a creek or a river, lying in the water with damp blankets over their heads, often to be killed anyway by falling, burning trees. Some ran for isolated cabins that burst into flames. And some found old mine shafts where they could wait out the conflagration.

Ed Pulaski, a ranger who’d been with the Forest Service since 1908, led about 45 men among burning trees toward the town of Wallace, Idaho. They stumbled down a steep ridge, some crying and screaming with fear as balls of flame jumped over their heads. Soon it became apparent they wouldn’t be able to make the town. Pulaski recalled an old mine tunnel he’d seen back in prospecting days. It was amazing he was able to find it in this overturned, disorienting landscape, but he led the men there. They dashed inside, but the air in the tunnel soon turned hot and stale as the flames right outside the entrance sucked the oxygen out of the opening.

Wallace, Idaho, after the fire

Pulaski ordered everyone to lie down, but they were choking and gagging. One man panicked, fearing suffocation in the small stifling space, and ran toward the opening. Pulaski knew that was suicide. He pulled his .44 revolver and shouted, “The next man who tries to leave the tunnel, I will shoot!”

They waited it out. Five men died, but the rest staggered out the next day. Pulaski had survived with terrible burns to his eyes, his head, and his hands, as well as damage to his lungs. He permanently lost sight in one eye. He and many others wounded in the fire hoped for aid from the Forest Service—they needed costly medical assistance. But the help that came was too little, too late. The Forest Service had been gutted, neglected, left with inadequate funds under the presidency of William Taft, who’d come under pressure from the timber barons to disband the agency.

In the end, the plight of the wounded firefighters came to the attention of the newspapers and the general public. It was an outrage! The mood of the public turned toward support of the young Forest Service, and it was an important rallying point for Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt, the leading spirits for conservation of public lands. Still, the men who had suffered never did get the care they deserved.  An embittered Pulaski tended the scattered graves of those who had died, lobbied for a memorial, and pushed for a graveyard where the dead could be gathered from many locations. Six years later, Congress finally appropriated the funds for a granite slab engraved with the names of the dead. But it wasn’t until 1933 that a central graveyard was established and the remains gathered there. Pulaski died before he could see that happen.

In the meantime, he invented a tool that would come to be of great use for the firefighters of the future. And for trail maintainers. I will think of him now whenever I use a pulaski.

The "Big Burn" of 1910

* Timothy Egan, The Big Burn. Mariner Books, Boston, 2010.

My mother’s walks in the woods January 21, 2011

Posted by Jenny in hiking, memoir, nature, poetry.
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Mom on a walk along the Potomac, mid-1970s. She would have been in her early 50s. The ground is spangled with Virginia bluebells.

Recently my hiking friend Greg Hoover mentioned his mother’s appreciation of wildflowers in a post about Fort Harry Falls. His words have prompted some fond memories of my own mother’s love of nature and in particular the family ritual of Going For a Walk in the Woods. Yes, the words were always capitalized in my mind—especially the word “Woods.”

One might think that since I am such a dedicated hiker, I must have grown up in a family constantly engaged in vigorous, athletic, outdoor activities—hiking, camping, canoeing, archery, God knows what. This was not the case. We were a family of quiet, pale, bookish people. We did not go on hikes, we went on Walks. I came to realize over the years just how non-outdoorsy my family was, each time my longtime companion, Bob, pointed out yet another place, seemingly across all of New England, where his family had gone camping. It became a running joke, as we drove along through western Maine or central New Hampshire or southern Vermont: “Oh, my family used to camp here.” The thing was, his Mom and Dad were not the slightest bit athletic. Yet they were quite willing to load up the car with a giant tent that would be set up quasi-military style with trenches dug all around, the lawn chairs and the tarp set up, the food set out on the picnic table, as the kids ran down to the lake or the river or whatever the attraction was. The point was, they were putting in many, many hours enjoying the Great Outdoors (more words that need to be capitalized).

My mother and father loved nature, but we never stayed out overnight in it. I’m not even sure exactly why not. We didn’t have any of the gear, and we never acquired it. It wasn’t that any of us minded getting dirt under our fingernails or slapping at a few mosquitoes or maybe encountering a snake or a bear. It just… never seemed to occur to us.

At any rate, in the area where I grew up, in Arlington, Virginia (the family moved to Massachusetts later on), we would take walks in the woods right behind our house, in Glencarlyn Park. Further up the Potomac, Great Falls was a popular destination, or the C&O Canal towpath, or Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland. We probably seldom walked more than five miles. But we walked almost every weekend, and Mom and Dad continued to walk together after the three kids had left home, both of them taking walks up to within a year or so of when they died, Dad in 2001 and Mom in 2007.

Mom and Dad had slightly different angles on the woods. My father loved to identify trees and to locate especially large specimens of different kinds (I will write about this in my next post). Mom knew her plants, trees, and animals pretty well, but for her, that was not really the main purpose of being in the outdoors. For her, the Woods were a mystical kind of place. It went back to her childhood, full of the classics of children’s tales such as Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Book. As I have written elsewhere, the forests of those tales were full of danger and mystery. They were not a place where, for example, children’s environmental consciousness would be raised.

Hansel and Gretel. Illustration by H.J. Ford.

For Mom, the Woods were a place where mystery, beauty, and science came together. I will try my best to explain. The mystery was a deep sense of awe about the place. Not exactly reverence—that seems too deferential, or too pious, or something. Just a gut-level feeling that something extraordinary was going on out there.

Mom’s sense of beauty caused her to notice and admire things that were not usually seen in the first place, let alone focused on. She would point out to us the texture of a blanket of moss, or the way a tree’s shadow was moving in the wind, or the sound of rain gently pattering on the leaves. She gave the three of us kids a tremendous gift: the ability to see things that did not neatly fit a word or a concept or a label.

Now, the science part. Again, this had nothing to do with environmental education—not that there’s anything wrong with that. Mom, being the unconventional person she was, had an interest in the philosophy of science, especially the oddities of quantum physics. It was an interest she took up in middle age and studied deeply. So when she went for a walk, she tended to find things that fit some pretty abstract ideas she had about the way the universe works. The best way I can convey this kind of thinking is to share one of her poems.

Weed Field

All over a newly-plowed field

neat, clean-cut weed sprouts

materialize as heedlessly

as spatters of rain.

Each weed takes a well-ordered

form according to its coded

instructions—and then grows

from soil of chaotic black

rot and silt, a random

distribution of rainwater, and

plain white, unsorted sunlight.

Yet every leaf that appears

fits the pattern exactly.

*     *     *

Mom, Jenny, Peter, Dad in back, Betsy in front. At Great Falls, 1961.

Part of Great Falls (from Maryland side)