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A familiar place December 9, 2012

Posted by Jenny in hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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The clouds and light were wonderful.

The clouds and light were wonderful.

I headed out today for an exercise hike starting on Kephart Prong. It’s a standard loop for hikers, 14 miles and about 3600′ total vertical with the ups and downs—K. Prong trail, Sweat Heifer, A.T., Dry Sluice (trail, not manway), Grassy Branch, back to K. Prong.

Only one spot along this loop is truly dramatic—you see the place I’m referring to above. As I approached the A.T., a dark, chilly fog swaddled the heights, and I thought I might even skip the Bunion. I figured it would be socked in. But as I got nearer, I saw that interesting things were happening in the sky.

From A.T. toward Horseshoe Mountain.

From A.T. toward Horseshoe Mountain.

From moment to moment the light shifted.

From moment to moment the light shifted.

Middle Crag and Rocky Crag from Bunion.

Middle Crag and Rocky Crag from Bunion.

The spruces seem to be marching up the ridges.

The spruces seemed to be marching up the ridges.

Looking across upper Middle Crag Gully.

Looking across upper Middle Crag gully.

The world up here is so very different from ordinary forest. It’s almost hard to believe that you can connect such varied places within a walk of a few hours—a leap of imagination is required. But that is one of the things I love about the Smokies. The photos below show where I started.

Oconoluftee River.

Oconoluftee River.

Water fountain from CCC camp that was here 1933-1942.

Water fountain from CCC camp that was near the Luftee-Kephart junction 1933-1942.

CCC chimney.

CCC chimney.

Something will always keep pulling me toward the crags for the kind of adventure I had in October.

Did I really climb up this spine in October?

Did I really climb up this spine from the bottom?

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Plants I’m fond of: Sheep laurel (Kalmia angustifolia) December 7, 2012

Posted by Jenny in nature, plants, White Mountains.
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Sheep laurel in the foreground

Sheep laurel in the foreground

I took the picture above on the same trail section I described in my “Plants I’m fond of” post about black spruce. We are at the first open ledges on the Carter-Moriah trail below Mt. Surprise, looking across the valley at George—I mean, Mt. Washington. I am great friends with George.

Isn’t the color of the laurel great? It’s as if you took the color of regular mountain laurel and intensified it. The Wikipedia article calls the color “crimson-pink.” That’s probably about the best you can do to describe it. The word “crimson” can mean more of a red than a pink, but it also carries the meaning of “vivid,” which is exactly right. This is an intense color that appears in its most concentrated form in tiny dots circling around the base of the five fused petals.

Close-up

Beautiful blossoms

For “five” is the magic number of laurel, just as “three” is the magic number of trillium. Five sepals, five petals, ten stamens. The overall shape is a rounded pentagon.

A musician plays a “variation on a theme,” and this is a variation on the laurel theme, played on a flute rather than the clarinet of the mountain laurel. I love regular laurel too, much larger and grander than sheep laurel, but I have a special fondness for this plant. It is a boreal plant that grows at increasingly high elevations as you move south along the Appalachians. It doesn’t make it as far as the Smokies.

Sheep laurel has the interesting feature that each stem bears leaves at the top, with the blossoms clustered around the stem further down. You see this clearly in the top photo.

By the way, the reason I didn’t use this photo in my black spruce post, even though this is a place I mentioned there, is that the spruce you see in it are red spruce. The black spruce are to the photographer’s back, tucked into the shadows of the taller trees.

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Camel Gap loop December 2, 2012

Posted by Jenny in hiking, nature, Smoky Mountains.
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The A.T. between Camel Gap and Low Gap doesn't see much dayhiker use.

The A.T. between Camel Gap and Low Gap doesn’t see much dayhiker use.

This was a rewarding trail loop of 16 miles and 4100′ total vertical. It took me up and over the stateline ridge from Cosby campground into the Big Creek valley above Walnut Bottom and back.

The only section I’d set foot on before was the Low Gap trail out of Cosby, which must be one of the most heavily used trails in the Park, since that is the way most people head up toward Cammerer. I then descended the other, lesser-used half of the Low Gap trail to Walnut Bottom, followed the Camel Gap trail along Big Creek and up to the A.T., returned to Low Gap, then back down to Cosby.

I didn’t see anyone all day, but then, it was a Friday in late November. It was a little below freezing when I started out and climbed up beside Cosby Creek.

Cosby Creek

Cosby Creek

Tree with a wart

Tree with a wart

The sun finally popped up above the ridges.

The sun finally popped up above the ridges.

I stopped at Low Gap to re-layer, having completed a chunk of the day’s vertical. Now, for a digression about dressing for cool weather. (You can skip the next few paragraphs if this is not of interest.)

Despite my experience doing winter hiking in New England in temps well below zero, it’s always a challenge for me in the colder months to find a comfortable balance between staying warm and not getting too sweated up. The crux of the problem is not so much the absolute amount of cold (for this day was not very cold at all) as having the right clothing for each particular set of conditions.

I long ago realized that I am not really “designed” for winter hiking: I have a very narrow comfort range in temperature (get too cold easily, get too hot easily); I sweat no matter how easy it is and how fit I am; and I have real problems with my fingers getting cold to the point where I can’t even unzip a zipper.

For this hike, I wore a thin, tight-fitting fleece top over my inner layer on the climbing portions and did without the shell. For me, that seemed to work well. I did get a bit sweaty—but I would get just as damp with the shell and without the fleece, and I’d feel uncomfortably chilly. The fleece holds the warmth close to my body while being porous enough that I don’t get overheated. Bottom line: That old advice of “Never get sweated up on a winter hike—take off a layer” simply doesn’t work for me. I’d have to freeze in order to stay completely dry.

That’s probably more than you wanted to hear about female perspiration. (And by the way, for colder temps, I know all about heavier layers, mittens, gloves, chemical hand warmers, hats, face masks, etc.)

At any rate, I descended the trail to Walnut Bottom, finding a number of small blowdowns. On the first section, they had all been cleared either by the Park Service or by hikers picking up brush and moving it aside. I noticed that the rhodo blowdowns looked stripped and peeled in the branches rather than snapped. They must have been under heavy snow in the Sandy-related storm we had.

Stripped rhodo branches

Stripped rhodo branches

Despite that past snowstorm and a number of frosts, some plants stayed remarkably green.

Wet area near Walnut Bottom

Wet area near Walnut Bottom

Big Creek certainly deserves its name. Even up above the point where it is shown as a single blue line on the USGS map rather than the river-like indication of blue shading between two lines, it’s still a major stream.

Big Creek is, well, hmmm, big.

Big Creek is, well, hmmm, big.

Past campsite 37 the trail is designated as the Camel Gap trail rather than the Big Creek trail, but it continues going along Big Creek, soon passing the Gunter Fork turnoff. (The Sierra Club blue book says old maps label it as “Mt. Guyot Creek” above the Gunter junction.)

This stretch had a lot of doghobble, all turning that pretty burgundy color that it has in the winter. For this reason, ornamental hybrids have been developed that turn really red.

Doghobble in its winter color.

Doghobble wearing its winter color.

I passed one of those mysterious artifacts from the logging era.

I have no idea what this is.

I have no idea what this is.

It was not long after passing this relic that I came to a portion of stream where a wall had been built along the bank. I could make out a large pool beyond the wall.

Wall and stream

Wall and stream

The pool turned out to be one of the most beautiful ones I have ever seen. I took tons of photos. I’ve posted some of them in a piece called “The Shimmering Pool” on my author’s blog. Here are a few:

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I was mesmerized by this place. But eventually I tore myself away. The hike was long enough and the day short enough that I had to think about getting out before dark. I climbed up toward Camel Gap.

View across Big Creek valley from near Camel Gap.

View across Big Creek valley from near Camel Gap.

The elevation at the gap is 4694′, and once on the A.T., I had a bit more climbing to do, up above 5000′, before dropping to Low Gap. I was up among the spruces.

My friend the spruce.

My friend the spruce.

After crossing Ross Knob and dealing with one truly awkward blowdown, I descended to Cosby Knob, where I found that apparently the bears have been acting up.

Sign at Cosby Knob shelter.

Sign at Cosby Knob shelter.

I continued on to Low Gap and made the descent to Cosby. I’ve noticed that when coming down this trail after a substantial hike, it seems to take forever to get past all the little junctions and side paths around the campground. But it was worth it. I highly recommend this loop for its variety of terrain, the beauty of the streams, and the experience of getting up into the remoter part of the Big Creek valley.

I saw one tiny little snow patch on Ross Knob.

I saw one tiny little snow patch on Ross Knob.