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Richland Balsam the hard way June 30, 2011

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, peakbagging, Southern Appalachians.
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Seth battles a blackberry thicket

Note added 7/8/11: When we walked from the Richland Balsam parking lot along the parkway toward Reinhart Knob, I was looking for the big sign that said: “6053 ft. Highest Elevation on Blue Ridge Parkway Motor Road.” I didn’t see it and wondered if I had remembered its location incorrectly. Turns out the whole sign was stolen by vandals. What a terrible shame. It was a beautifully designed wooden sign set into a stone base. Today’s article in the Asheville Citizen-Times describes how theft and defacing of signs has become a big problem on the parkway. It just disgusts me. The sign will be replaced. I wish it could be loaded with some kind of poisonous gas that would be released when someone attempts to molest it.

My friend Seth O’Shields has nearly completed the SB6K challenge (climbing all forty of the Southern mountains over 6000 feet). I offered to join him as he tackled two of the remaining peaks on his list, Richland Balsam (6410′) and Reinhart Knob (6106′). They are located in the Great Balsam range, close to the spot where the Blue Ridge Parkway reaches its highest elevation point, and on the southwest boundary of the Middle Prong Wilderness, which I’d visited just a few days earlier.

Seth had a diabolical plan. Not for him the usual route, which involves linking the two peaks by way of the Mountains-to-Sea trail close to the parkway. No, he wanted to start at Sunburst down on the West Fork and climb 3300 feet to get up to Richland Balsam, then walk along the parkway to nab Reinhart Knob. He’d studied maps and listened to the advice of a knowledgeable hiking friend, and he came up with a route that involved linking gated Forest Service roads to get up to Double Spring Gap on Lickstone Ridge and then following the ridge to Richland. The walk over to Reinhart would, in theory, be merely a postscript.

The network of FS roads he planned to use doesn’t even show up on my Nat Geo Pisgah Forest map, but he had a more up-to-date version that showed not only FS 97 but some obscure tributary roads: FS 97B and 97D. The main 97 road is not accessible to the public, but it is drivable for Forest Service purposes. The side roads are not drivable any more, but we expected they would be clear enough for hiking. That turned out to be true in the lower sections but not the upper.

We parked on a side road near Sunburst and walked up 97B. It was easy to follow, bordered with white bee balm, jewel weed, nettles, and other assorted vegetation starting to close in. Before long we came out on 97.

This looked like a real superhighway compared to the side branches

But our fate was not to walk along this easy road, but merely to cross it and to head on up 97D.

97D where it branches off 97

The grade climbed several hundred vertical feet and then started switchbacking. One end of the switchbacks was always defined by Boomer Inn Branch. With each zigzag, the grade became harder to find. At one point we lost it, returned to the last switchback, and took a bearing off the map to bushwhack up to the next switchback. We found the grade again, but before long it was simply swallowed up in the forest.

At this point we gave up on finding the grade

We could see that blackberry thickets loomed ahead, so we pulled out our gloves and prepared to meet the enemy.

Tall spruces surrounded by tall blackberries

We fought our way through the thickets and emerged for a while into a beautiful area of trickling headwaters embedded in thick moss. Dappled light sparkled in little clearings and a tiny tributary flowed over a cascade. We noticed a spruce that was growing in a peculiar curve, going along the ground and then rising into a vertical position.

The trunk rested on the ground and then lifted up

Before long we reached Double Spring Gap, which was adorned with boundary signs warning against trespassing into property of the city of Waynesville.

Lots of blackberries, and trees with property signs on them

The ridge was broad at that point and not so easy to follow, especially amidst the high green curtain of vegetation. We resorted to the compass once again and proceeded in a southwesterly direction. We encountered the worst blackberries I’ve ever had to deal with. They were over head high, full of thorns, and horribly dense. (See top photo.)

Wherever we could, we took to the shadier edges where the blackberries weren’t quite so dominant. But it was incredibly slow going. Finally we reached a point at about 6100′ where Seth had noticed a grassy bald on a previous outing. Turns out it wasn’t grass at all, but an odd kind of heath. But even though the heath wasn’t easy to walk through, it was a vast improvement over the blackberries and offered wonderful views.

Seth stands in the heath and admires the view

The vegetation here really puzzled me. At first I thought it was blueberries, but it wasn’t, though the leaf was somewhat similar. It was a deciduous shrub I couldn’t identify, uniformly three feet high, with the thin upper branches all snapped off so neatly it looked as though they’d been pruned. The only theory I could come up with was that winter snow covers the growth up to a certain height, and anything taller than that gets sheared off by the wind. (If anyone can shed light on this subject, I’d be interested.)

Our goal was now in sight

Leaving the heath bald, we continued to encounter blowdown and blackberry thickets, but finally we reached the zone of solid spruce-fir forest and made it to the summit. We followed the tourist trail that comes up from the parking lot. It had taken us nearly six hours to go about five miles, of which the bottom two miles or so was easy going.

But for Seth the job was only half done. He still needed to go get Reinhart. We walked along the parkway back to the Beartrail Ridge parking area, where we had left one of our cars. We rested and had something to eat. Our information was that from a corner of the parking area a very rough herd path led up to the summit. So we got to our feet and headed off once again. The obvious path quickly disappeared. We were once again fighting over blowdowns and wading through thickets. The distance was only a half mile, but it had absolutely nothing to recommend it unless you were a peakbagger needing to add this mountain to the list.

About 15 minutes into this journey I asked myself, “Why am I doing this? I’m not working on the SB6K list.” It wasn’t that there would be any routefinding difficulties. Just struggle up the short distance and struggle back. I heartlessly abandoned Seth to his quest, turned around, and went back to the parking area. He turned up an hour later, feeling pleased at having tagged his summit, but saying, “It was frigging horrible.” I felt glad he had done it, and I felt equally glad I hadn’t. And so our long day of hiking was over.


Coming soon: The wilds of Germania June 30, 2011

Posted by Jenny in ancient Rome, history.
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Followers of this blog have undoubtedly noticed that in recent weeks I’ve departed from my scheme of alternating posts about personal experiences (usually hiking) with posts on topics of history, art, philosophy, poetry, and other subjects. You have been getting an extra-heavy dose of hiking! But fear not, non-hikers, you will soon see a new series of posts on the subject of Germania, a mysterious region of ancient times east of the Rhine known to the Greeks and the Romans.

I will be using two writings of the Roman historian Tacitus as my touchstones: The Annals of Imperial Rome and Germania. Tacitus was a man of genius, meticulous in his collection of historical details, unblinking in his observations of moral hypocrisy, and supremely gifted in the balance, the heft, and the sharpness of his prose.

Here is a passage from the opening pages of Germania.

The Germans, I am apt to believe, derive their original from no other people; and are nowise mixed with different nations arriving amongst them: since anciently those who went in search of new buildings, traveled not by land, but were carried in fleets; and into that mighty ocean so boundless, and, as I may call it, so repugnant and forbidding, ships from our world rarely enter. Moreover, besides the dangers from a sea tempestuous, horrid and unknown, who would relinquish Asia, or Africa, or Italy, to repair to Germany, a region hideous and rude, under a rigorous climate, dismal to behold or to cultivate, unless the same were his native country?

Translated by Thomas Gordon, 1910.

Germania as of 116 A.D., with tribes described by Tacitus

Fork Ridge in Middle Prong Wilderness June 25, 2011

Posted by Jenny in hiking, Southern Appalachians.
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Bee enjoying rosebay blossom

The more I think about this hike I did today, the less I can explain it to anyone else or even to myself. But it did have several entertaining moments. OK, here’s the basic situation.

1.  I’m planning on doing an ambitious hike in the next few days, and I was in the mood to do an easy hike today plus some things around the house.

2. I’ve been wanting to visit the Middle Prong Wilderness for a long time but never managed to hike there. For my friends in Tennessee, this is the wilderness area in Pisgah National Forest that lies on the west side of the West Fork of the Pigeon. Its much better-known neighbor, Shining Rock Wilderness, lies on the other side of the West Fork, between it and the Big East Fork.

3. I went to bed unsure where I was going to hike the next day. I woke up in the middle of the night, went downstairs and looked at some maps, and decided, “I’m going to start from the north end of Fork Ridge and just go however far I feel like it!” I deliberately did no googling at all on it. As far as trail guides are concerned…I don’t think this hike is in a trail guide. Maybe the south end, but not the north end. Then I went peacefully back to sleep, got up the next morning, grabbed up my Nat Geo Pisgah Forest map and my Sam Knob quad, and off I went.

I arrived at the Sunburst campground on Route 215, saw no indication of a nearby trail, tried a couple of small gravel side roads. No luck. I saw a fisherman getting out of his truck and walked over to him, asking, “Do you know where the Fork Ridge trail is?” He looked down at my feet and said, “Doesn’t look like you’ve got your wading shoes on. You have to cross the river.” Wade across the river! That just didn’t sound right—the map showed the trail starting next to the Middle Prong where it flows into the river, and staying on the same side of the river, never crossing it—but with just this funny little blank space in between the trail and the road. We finally figured out he’d been referring to a completely different trail that goes the other way, into Shining Rock and over Birdstand Mountain. But his pride in his local knowledge was ruffled now, and he started thrashing through some waist-high weeds on the other side of the road. “It’s here! It looks like an old narrow-gauge railroad grade.”

The elusive trailhead

A railroad grade going straight up the spine of the ridge, as the Fork Ridge route indicated? This was getting stranger and stranger. But I was taking up too much of his time, and his son was eager to start catching some trout, so I thanked him and decided I’d just figure it out myself. I changed into my hiking boots and went into the weed patch. Finally I saw my friend’s railroad grade heading straight along the creek, and spotted what had to be my trail, departing the grade immediately and heading very steeply up the ridge.

I liked this trail, actually. No sign at the trailhead—because we are in a federally designated wilderness area. But the footway was easy enough to follow, with a lot of soft duff on the trail. The contrast with Shining Rock was striking to me. Yes, S.R. is beautiful, but its trails are so beaten down and there are so many downtrodden looking campsites everywhere. And no signs there, either. There, the weird conjunction of the wilderness designation and the very heavy usage has created confusing mazes of unofficial trails, and I think it would actually be kinder to the wilderness to have signs there.

The trail climbed a few hundred feet in no time at all. I’d say it rivals the famous Old Butt Knob trail in S.R., at least for the first mile. I stayed in a rhodo tunnel for a while.

Rhodo tunnel

I enjoyed the blossoms of rosebay.

I like the way the buds are pinker than the open blooms

I spotted some high-bush blueberries that weren’t ready for picking, but the colors were nice.

Not quite ripe

I reached an open outlook at 4300′. And there, looking at my USGS map, I realized that I was not going to continue to Green Knob, the semi-bald 5800′ peak that lies about halfway along this six-mile-long ridge. It was just too far for what I had in mind for the day. But it’ll make a nice destination some other time. And yes, I do realize that most people approach it from the Parkway end—a lot less elevation change that way.

I retraced my steps. Just as I emerged from the weedy trailhead, I spotted my friendly fisherman again. He seemed happy to learn I’d found the trail. We chatted for a bit, he showed me some gemstones he’d collected locally, and we shook hands goodbye.

View over Tom Creek valley and Green Ridge