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Alarka and Panthertown February 28, 2011

Posted by Jenny in hiking, Southern Appalachians.
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Upper Tuckasegee River in Panthertown

Seth was the mastermind behind this two-part hiking day. He wanted to explore a little-known area called Alarka Laurel, but he thought it would be a good idea to add on another hike, since Alarka itself is rather small. So we started with Alarka and then went on to Panthertown, a place that I’ve been wanting to go if only because of its name.

We met up at the Cork and Bean in Bryson City and had a fine breakfast of crepes, which is the C&B specialty. Then we headed east of B.C. to a town called Whittier and, after some circling around caused by a missing street sign, located the Connelly Creek road. We drove up to a gap where we suddenly faced three gated roads. Fortunately, the Walton trail through Alarka has one of its starting points at this three-gated junction. However, a side visit to the Cowee Bald firetower was now off the table, since it would involve more of a road walk past a gate than we wanted to do. (The gates will open sometime in March, depending on road conditions, according to a road engineer we passed as we drove back out.)

Big, beautiful red spruce soar up from the bog

The thing that’s special about Alarka is that it has the southernmost naturally occurring growth of red spruce, which rise out of a bog in an unusual high-elevation (4000’+) flat-bottomed hanging valley.  It boasts an incredible variety of plant life growing side by side that you don’t normally see near each other, like oak growing cheek-by-jowl next to spruce.

I understand the area was under threat of private development (like so many places in Swain, Jackson, and Macon Counties), but that a land swap was arranged, with the Forest Service taking the land in exchange for acreage on the shore of Fontana Lake.

We followed the trail with its interpretive signs through a rhodo/laurel tunnel, spotting a few baby spruces that served as an appetizer for the spectacle that lay ahead. Eventually we came out on the  boardwalk you see above. Spruces towered over our heads.

Towering trees

What an incredible place this is. It has just the right magical combination of ingredients—the elevation, the dampness, the exposure, the soil—to make this combination of plants possible. We saw all the trees that you would see in a typical oak-hickory forest, plus a lot of higher-elevation hardwoods, plus the spruce.

I’m not sure whether I can explain why I like spruce so much. It’s partly, I guess, that they are about the only needle evergreen still looking big and healthy in the Southern Appalachians after the infestations of the balsam woolly adelgid, the hemlock woolly adelgid, and the pine bark beetle. (One of the interpretive signs ominously stated that the pine bark beetles have started eating the spruce. They all looked healthy to me, and I pray that the sign is just plain wrong.) It’s also that I like the delicate round needles, the bushy shape of the tree, and the nubbly bark.

Trees in the bog

Since the boardwalk prevented us from actually touching the bog, we looped back around to the gates and followed the road that goes along the edge of the area. We crept in among wet mossy spaces and worked a short distance through some laurel and greenbrier until we reached a point where it was so thick and the footing so difficult that it would have been virtually impossible to bushwhack. Now we had truly experienced the bog. The standing water had a barely perceptible flow to it that perpetually cleanses the valley floor so that it never becomes stagnant.

Bog jumble

I plan to return to Alarka several times this year to experience the wildflowers that grow here: everything from painted trillium to pink ladyslipper to showy fringed orchis.

Now, it was on to Panthertown. I told Seth that the name made me think of a city inhabited by panthers, with their own homes, schools, and restaurants. The name of the Panthertown high school football team would be “The Humans.” Convenience stores would provide sour-cream-and-onion-flavored or BBQ-flavored mice for snacks. Of course, the real story behind the name is that early settlers saw panthers (cougars) here.

Panthertown is an area of the Nantahala National Forest located west of Route 281 and north of Lake Toxaway, not far from Cashiers and Rosman. The area passed through a series of private hands until 1989. It was logged in the 1920s and 1930s by the Moltz Lumber Co., and was sold to a private developer who had plans for a big resort. That particular area of western N.C. seems to have become the victim of an unusually large number of grotesquely pretentious gated communities with golf courses. Fortunately, Panthertown was spared that fate, though it didn’t come through unscathed—Duke Power bought the land and built a large transmission line across the area. The Nature Conservancy bought all the land except for the power line right-of-way in 1989, then sold the land to the Forest Service.

Panthertown encompasses the headwaters of the Tuckasegee River and the east fork of the Little Tennessee River. Beautiful streams wind between mountains with faces of granite akin to those of Looking Glass Rock and Table Rock—the “plutons” of the Blue Ridge. The streams have a certain distinctive character to them, gliding over panels of granite, dropping over cascades and waterfalls, lined with a tapestry of rhodo and laurel that hangs over the banks, big pines soaring up in the background. A wonderful place.

Hanging garden

We started at what I believe is called the Wolf Mountain trailhead (I seem to have lost my map) and followed the Rattlesnake Knob trail, the Power Line trail, and the Riding Ford trail. Then we took an unmarked manway that led from the Devils Elbow trail near Riding Ford up past Elbow Falls and finally to Red Butt Falls—the manway was very rough in the last section.

Riding Ford

Riding Ford is just what it says—a ford that has to be waded. Seth was wearing his kilt, so he didn’t have to worry about getting pants legs wet.

Seth crosses the ford

Elbow Falls was very pretty.

Elbow Falls

There were some wonderful potholes.


Some potholes were underwater.

The water had a beautiful amber color

At Red Butt Falls, we found an interesting overhang as well as the granite island shown in the photo at top.

Overhang at Red Butt Falls

By the time we got back out, it was starting to get dark and chilly, and we were glad we’d paid attention to the route. You do need to notice where you’re going here. Only the major trail junctions are marked, and the manways are obscure and unmarked. In one spot on the way in, we turned onto the Riding Ford trail and followed a roadway until it ended at the power line cut, then realized that the trail used the roadway for only a short distance before turning onto a small unmarked path.

It is a place that I plan to return to many times.

Red Butt Falls

A tale of St. Louis and the Transvaal – 3: Stubborn as a mule February 25, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, serial fiction.
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Boer War mule postcard. They were often used for carrying sections of artillery.

This is the continuation of a good old-fashioned piece of serial fiction about Jack Brown, who lives in St. Louis. The time: early 1900. The serial starts here.

Jack had been by the mule yard in East St. Louis and seen British agents inspecting and purchasing mules. The animals were barged to New Orleans and transferred to ocean vessels headed for Cape Town. He spoke with one of the mule handlers and learned that the British army was hiring muleteers at $15 for the trip over and $0.75 a day coming back. He had no experience with mules, but he was comfortable with horses, and the fellow seemed to think the British weren’t very fussy about people’s backgrounds. All they needed was a crew to take the mules up to the deck once a day and walk them around for a bit. Once he got to Cape Town, he would find a way to get to the front.

He quizzed one of the British mule buyers about it and found out that the H.M.S. Bacchante would be departing with its cargo of 500 mules in New Orleans on January 10. The buyer was sure they were looking for muleteers. That meant Jack needed to get moving pretty quickly.

He had to break it to Sarah that he was going. He was curious how she would react to the preposterous idea of his going over to South Africa and joining the Boers. If she supported the idea, that would show that she was truly in harmony with him, that she understood something essential about himand that would make it harder to leave her. But she made the task easier by being completely incredulous. “You’re joking, aren’t you?” she said. When he assured her he was dead earnest about it, she said, “This is some childish thing that’s taken hold of you. You’re trying to prove something, aren’t you? Well, you needn’t prove it to me.” He said, “Well, I guess I’m trying to prove I’m a fool, and it looks like I’ve already succeeded.”

Mother cried when he told her, and Dad shook his head, but he had a funny little smile at the same time. Then Jack had to turn in his resignation at the Post Dispatch. Of course he’d floated the notion of the paper making him a correspondent, but old George didn’t warm up to the idea. A couple of New York papers had men over there, and Scribners did too, but George seemed to think the citizens of St. Louis weren’t all that interested in the subject. They left it that if Jack stumbled upon a “really big” story, he could cable it over, but otherwise he shouldn’t bother. Perhaps it was just as well. He was going over there to fight, and he wanted his relationship with the Boers to be simple and straightforward.

Howard Hillegas of the New York World on a Basuto pony at Sanna's Post

On January 8 Jack took the train to New Orleans. It wasn’t hard to find the Bacchante. It was as high as a five-story building and as long as a city block. Mules were being driven up the gangplank, although some that weren’t cooperating with the procedure were being led off to a pen. Jack wondered how they would be dealt with. He asked one of the handlers if the ship was hiring. “Oh yes, just go to the brick building over there and ask for Mr. Bates.”

Mr. Bates was a grimy-looking fellow with what looked suspiciously like a bit of mule dung stuck to the side of his hat. “Got experience with mules?” he asked Jack. “Oh yes, lots of experience,” Jack lied. “Okay, we can use you right away. We need some help with the crating.” “Sure thing,” said Jack. Mr. Bates led him over to the pen where the uncooperative mules were being held. A tall man, even grimier than Mr. Bates, was leading a mule from the pen over to another part of the dock. “Take this mule right here and lead him over to where Wilbur is. Here’s a lead rope for you.” Jack found himself staring into the big brown eyes of a beautiful velvety-looking mule. He fastened the clasp to the mule’s halter and pulled. Nothing happened. The animal wouldn’t budge. “Going to be that way, are you? Let’s try this.” He pulled the rope to the side until the mule’s neck was bent around and it was forced to take a step. Jack pulled it around in a couple of tight circles. “We’ll just keep going in circles until you feel like going forward.” The trick had always worked with horses, and it worked this time, too. The mule followed him out of the pen and over to a spot where several large wooden crates were stacked.

Jack arrived in time to see a mule disappearing into a crate as Wilbur gave it a good slap on the rump. “”You make it look easy,” he said.  “It helps to bribe them with a lump of sugar,” said Wilbur. “You give them a lump to whet their appetite and then you put a second lump into the far end of the crate.” Wilbur handed him a couple of sugar cubes from a big glass jar. Jack put one into the center of his outstretched palm and felt the whiskers of the mule tickle him as it gulped down the sugar. Wilbur said, “Now make like you’re going to give him the second lump and then pull your hand back gradually and put the sugar into that crate right there.” It worked! The mule vanished into the crate.

(To be continued)

Maddron Bald via Greenbrier Creek February 20, 2011

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Pinnacle Lead still had some snow

This was a solo bushwhack. Last March I bushwhacked up Buckeye Lead, and today I went returned to follow the stream next to it, the right fork of Greenbrier Creek. I’d been up there years before with the Hiking Club.

I arrived at the Maddron Bald trailhead and emerged from my comfortable car into a chilly gloom. In an effort to work off the chill, I made the 1.2-mile climb up to the Gabes Mountain trail junction in 23 minutes, equals 3.13 mph. I know a lot of people are faster than me, but that is fast by my standards!

I slowed down as I traversed the Gabes Mountain trail, winding in and out of its many stream valleys. At campsite 34, three guys were cooking their breakfast. I said hello, stopped for a moment to check my map, and then started following the left bank of the stream. I looked over my shoulder and saw that the guys were staring at me—“What the heck is she doing?”

Left bank of Greenbrier Creek

The stream had many small cascades and nice little boulder gardens. I liked the Christmas ferns growing atop this boulder.

Christmas ferns

There were quite a few blowdowns across the creek, which made for slow going. I noticed many as well as I came down the Maddron Bald trail. I think last Monday’s very gusty winds brought down quite a few trees.

Continuing on through a spotty drizzle, I ran into another obstacle: witch hobble, or hobblebush, as some people call it (a kind of viburnum). I don’t remember the valley being so clogged with it when I came here in 1984. And neither do I recall seeing so much of it anywhere else in the Smokies. When its leaves and flowers come out in the spring, it looks pretty, but in the winter it is really an ugly, shapeless plant, with limp gangly branches that rival rhodo branches for snatching you around the waist and holding you back. At around 4000′ I ran into a combination of boulders and witch hobble that was so annoying that I started gradually working my way to the right, closer to Buckeye Lead.

Witch hobble

The climb became steep (600 vertical feet in a third of a mile), and I worked my way past some bluffs and eventually intersected the upper part of Buckeye Lead. Incidentally, last year I never saw any buckeyes on Buckeye Lead, but there were some in the stream valley.

This buckeye had a strange-looking wart on it

The last few hundred vertical feet were a rhodo crawl, but eventually I popped out on the trail near the hairpin turn at 4900′. I strolled up to the bald, which is no longer bald but still has some nice patches of myrtle, and ate my lunch.

I passed quite a few people as I went down the trail, some at campsite 29 and others lower down. I saw a total of about 20 hikers, all of them men. Women hikers, where are you?!

I stopped at the overlook and saw that the sun was making an attempt to come out.

Spots of sun

Below the overlook, I encountered the three guys who had been at campsite 34 on the Gabes Mountain trail, chugging along with their heavy packs. They couldn’t believe it when they saw me. I just said, “I took a short cut.”

All of the stream crossings were high because of snowmelt, and I got a wet foot on one of them. Nevertheless, I always enjoy the trail down to the very clear dividing line where you emerge into spindly second-growth forest and the trail widens out into a road. I find this last part tedious. The Baxter cabin near the bottom is the only highlight along the way. And so my hike ended.

Baxter cabin