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Spring in the Smokies April 11, 2015

Posted by Jenny in hiking, Life experience, nature, plants, Smoky Mountains, White Mountains.
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Nodding trillium.

Nodding trillium.

Hooray! I saw a trillium blooming today. As I started along my hike, I saw many trilliums that weren’t quite blooming yet. As I usually do, I go up the trail at a fairly good pace just for the aerobic benefits, and then as I come back down I stop and look more carefully and take photos. I kept thinking, “Somewhere I will see a trillium in bloom.”

As I got back down toward the trailhead, I was looking more and more closely among those unblooming trilliums. Surely I would find one at least that had erupted into blossom. Hate to say it, but I did not find it in some remote pristine area. It was almost back to my car. (Could the heat from my radiator have caused it to bloom? Ha, ha! No, not quite!) Actually, the woods near this trailhead are quite pretty.

To take the photo above, I very gently lifted the blossom on its stem and placed it atop one of the three leaves so that I could take its picture. (I couldn’t quite ask it to “say cheese.”) The trouble with nodding plants is that they hide from the camera. After I took the photo, I equally gently placed it back in the nodding position.

What follows is just a typical range of what you see in the Smokies in the miraculous month of April. I am not absolutely sure of all my plant identifications and I welcome corrections.

By the way, this place is not at all one of the famous Smokies wildflower spots. I won’t even tell you where it is (if anyone figures it out, I will be somewhat surprised). This is not Porters Flats with the carpets of phacelia, or Chestnut Top with its amazing variety.

This is just ordinary Smokies in spring.

Rue anemone.

Rue anemone.

Chickweed.

Chickweed.

 

Hairy buttercup.

Hairy buttercup.

Violets. According to one source, there are 31 species of violets in the Smokies. I will not try to specify any of my violets.

Violets. According to one source, there are 31 species of violets in the Smokies. I will not try to specify any of my violets.

One of these violets has a small insect enjoying itself.

One of these violets has a small insect enjoying itself.

Fuzzy new ferns.

Fuzzy new ferns.

Geraniums. An insect also visits here.

Geraniums. An insect also visits here (the left blossom).

 

Violets next to a very small stream.

Violets next to a very small stream. I think the water is more interesting here than the flowers.

Ah! Another one I really wanted to see! A bloodroot.

Ah! Another one I really wanted to see! A bloodroot.

A tiny, insignificant, beautiful stream. There are myriads of these in the Smokies.

A tiny, insignificant, beautiful stream. There are myriads of these in the Smokies.

Mayapples.

Mayapples.

Bee and violet. So much life going on around us, nearly invisibly.

Bee and violet. So much life going on around us, nearly invisibly.

The life of the Smokies is so vibrant, so flourishing, so exuberant in its variety. I will soon be leaving this place for another world (northern New England) where the life of the plants has a very different aspect. There is not nearly so much variety. But it is an interesting story. The plant life in places like, say, the region above treeline on Mt. Washington has adapted in the most incredible ways to the harsh environment. I find that equally inspiring, in a very different way.

Below you see a plant that has adapted to a world where the wind can easily blow well over 100 mph in the winter (as you probably know, it blew 231 mph sometime up there on George in the 1930s, setting a world record). This is rhododendron! Smokies bushwhackers may laugh, having wrestled endlessly through giant rhodo. But here this little guy pops up amidst the above-treeline scree. A mini-rhodo! Don’t think bushwhacking in northern New England is easy. You have that belt of scrub spruce that girds the treeline area. And you have all the complicated aspects of snow and ice, especially the freakish ice formations that you find above treeline in winter.

I will be writing about these things on this blog.

Lapland Rosebay, found on the Boott Spur Link approaching the summit of Mt. Washington. Funny little thing, right? Don't make too many assumptions!

Lapland Rosebay, found on the Boott Spur Link approaching the summit of Mt. Washington. Funny little thing, right? Don’t make too many assumptions!

I am grateful for the Plott Balsams December 23, 2013

Posted by Jenny in hiking, Life experience, plants, Southern Appalachians.
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Looking toward Pinnacle Bald from the Fox Hunters Camp.

Looking toward Pinnacle Bald from the Fox Hunters Camp.

I am so glad to live close to the Plott Balsams, a range that includes several 6000-foot peaks, located just southeast of the Smokies and north of Sylva, North Carolina. It takes me just fifteen minutes from my house to reach a major trailhead at 3000′ on Fisher Creek.

I was going to say I am lucky to have the Plott Balsams so near, but that isn’t quite the right word. That suggests that I ended up here by chance, when actually I am here because I made certain choices in my life. Years ago I opted for self-employment, which gave me the freedom to work from home and therefore the freedom to choose where I live.

I paid a price of uneven income and financial uncertainty for a while, but now I am in a more secure situation thanks to good financial advice and good investments.

Not everyone would want to live in a town of just 7,000 people that is also the largest town in its county—a pretty unpopulated area. And some probably scratched their heads when a couple of years ago I opted to move away from Asheville, such a fun place to live with so many interesting things to do. It’s just an hour away from here, and it’s nice to know it’s there, but I don’t go there all that often.

My life is very quiet. My main activities are writing, reading, and hiking. That would be too quiet for most people!

I head up to the Plotts two or three times a week, usually to go up the East Fork trail. It’s good exercise—quite a steep trail—but also I go because there’s something deeply restorative about it.

Today I headed out to get in a last hike before I leave town tomorrow to be with my sister in Massachusetts. After yesterday’s heavy rain, the mountains were shrugging the water off their backs. I made the short bushwhack from the trail to get over to the big waterfall.

Waterfall on East Fork of Fisher Creek.

Waterfall on East Fork of Fisher Creek.

Looking the other direction.

Looking the other direction.

The falls keep plunging down and down in stages, and you can’t get a picture of the whole thing at once.

I hiked up to the Fox Hunters Camp, a flat area at close to 5000′. Last winter the Jackson County rescue squad cleared out some brush there and opened up the view. The rescue squad does trail work each year before the infamous “Assault on Blackrock” trail race in March.

Even though the main area of the Fox Hunters Camp is bare, it has an incredible variety of plant and bird life. I saw hummingbirds there several times last summer. A couple of tall spruces grow down at the end.

Looking down the West Fork valley toward the Tuckasegee valley.

Looking down the West Fork valley toward the Tuckasegee valley.

Interesting mosses grow there, including this one that sends out long runners.

Moss and laurel.

Moss and laurel.

There are carpets of wintergreen.

There are carpets of wintergreen.

A shrub there is full of buds for next year. The buds remind me of leucothoe (dog hobble), but it’s a deciduous shrub.

All set to bloom next year.

All set to bloom next year.

There is a grove of red spruce not far below the camp where I like to stop and look at the dark, somber shapes of the trees.

A gathering of spruce.

A gathering of spruce.

Spruce are probably my favorite tree.

Grow and flourish, baby spruce!

Grow and flourish, baby spruce!

The streams in the Plotts take a different form than in the Smokies. Rather than scouring out U-shaped basins, they flow over the jumbled surface as if they were just temporary flows—even down in the zone of permanent water flow.

Left fork of the East Fork.

Left fork of the East Fork.

A magical place.

Lower East Fork as seen from trail.

Lower East Fork as seen from trail.

Stewartia walk June 21, 2013

Posted by Jenny in conservation, hiking, Nantahala National Forest, nature, plants.
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Stewartia ovata. Wikimedia photo.

Stewartia ovata. (Wikimedia photo.)

The Stewartia are late this year---as we discovered!

We saw buds, not flowers.

Many things didn’t go according to plan on this joint outing of the Southern Appalachian Plant Society and the Wilderness Society. Yet I learned much of interest from the leader of the walk, Jack Johnston, a naturalist who specializes in stewartia.

The obvious disappointment was that the stewartias forgot this year to bloom when they are supposed to—the summer solistice.  Jack told us that the solstice bloom had been reliable for the past twenty years, but he warned the group that because of this year’s cold spring we might see buds fully closed or just barely starting to open.

Jack talks to the group.

Jack talks to the group.

Other things went wrong. The road we planned to drive into the Fires Creek basin near Hayesville, NC, was closed for construction, as we found after we’d nearly reached our destination. We then drove a long way around to bypass the closure and did manage to reach our starting point at the Leatherwood Falls picnic area. And when we proceeded on our hike to the point where we needed to wade across Fires Creek several times, we found that the stream was running too high and fast for a comfortable crossing. Only the first crossing was manageable for the group.

And then there was an awful lot of logistical confusion around shuttling cars and people to a point along a Forest Service road where we might approach stewartia locations from another direction.

Nevertheless.

Two things in particular interested me in Jack’s information. The first was that the root of a stewartia can be hundreds of years old. A main stem grows to an age of 80 or 100 years old and is replaced by a newer stem growing from the same root.

Old and new stem growing from same root.

Old and new stem growing from same root.

Leaves of stewartia.

Leaves of stewartia.

The other point I found especially interesting was the concept of canopy gap. Stewartias like to live on edges of streams, which form permanent gaps in the forest canopy. They like other gaps that let in light on one side, such as gaps formed by rock bluffs. A temporary canopy gap may be formed by a downed tree, but that gap will not persist in the long run as other vegetation grows in to fill the empty spot.

Stewartias frequently grow in the company of red maples, hemlocks, certain pines, sourwoods, and rhododendron. The bloom usually occurs at about the same time as the rosebay rhododendron. This rhododendron at least gave us something pretty to look at.

Rosebay rhodo.

Rosebay bloom.

The first place we wanted to cross the creek worked out even though it was downstream of the other planned crossings because the stream was flowing at a flatter gradient at that point, therefore had slow-moving water.

The one successful stream crossing.

The one successful stream crossing.

Fires Creek was simply running higher than normal this year. Rainfall in western NC to date in 2013 has been more than 16 inches above average levels.

We saw a deep pool that some members of our group have used as a swimming hole in hot weather.

The pool is about five feet deep in the middle.

The pool is about five feet deep in the middle.

Patterns of light in the pool.

Patterns of light in the pool.

We followed a Forest Service road as far as a bridge, looked at a possible wading spot a little downstream of that which could take us to our unmaintained pathway, and decided we didn’t like the look of it. At that point we opted to cut our losses and head back. But still, it was an outing worthwhile in certain respects.

The Fires Creek Basin is an area designated as one of North Carolina’s  “Mountain Treasure” by the Wilderness Society, which is working to obtain higher levels of protection for these areas within the current revisions to management plans for Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests.

Fires Creek from the bridge.

Fires Creek from the bridge.