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Communing with ice November 19, 2014

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, photography, Smoky Mountains, Southern Appalachians, weather.
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Up close and personal with ice.

Up close and personal with ice.

It’s been a bit cold lately. Approximately 20 degrees colder than normal temperatures for the date.

There’s a blog put out by the folks at the lodge on top of Mt. LeConte. Yesterday they had a 24-hour high of 9 degrees and, I think, a low of -1. (Actually not that wide a range—they must have been in fog or clouds.) People were talking about how cold it was. Someone chirped up with a comment along the lines of, “It’s a high mountain! It’s supposed to be chilly up there!”

This person didn’t understand the concept of the weather history of a particular spot. Yes, summits are colder than valleys (usually—except when there’s an inversion). The point is that on the date of November 18 each year, there’s an average temp. This year, it is way below average for that summit.

I took a short walk this afternoon to my favorite local destination, an unnamed waterfall on the East Fork of Fisher Creek in the Plott Balsams. You have to bushwhack a short distance to get to a good viewing point at the bottom.

I communed with ice.

Blobs of ice.

Blobs of ice.

I  liked the blobs so much, I did a closeup.

I liked the blobs so much, I did a closeup.

The flow of water is frozen in time. Wait a minute---I mean, it's actually frozen.

The flow of water is frozen in time. Wait a minute—I mean, it’s actually frozen.

Ice formed on the rhodo over the stream.

Ice formed on the rhodo over the stream.

The whole upper section of the waterfall. It has two main sections.

The upper section of the waterfall. It has two main sections. You can’t take a picture of the whole thing.

I have been to this waterfall many, many times in all seasons, but I like it best in the hard uncomfortable season of ice.

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The place with world record rainfall July 22, 2013

Posted by Jenny in nature, travel, weather.
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Sign at Cherrapunjee, India.

Sign at Cherrapunjee, India.

Read Chasing the Monsoon by Alexander Frater.*  It’s about a man who, after a spell of physical illness and mental stagnation, breaks out of his torpor and embarks on a journey to follow the course of the monsoon in India. His final destination is Cherrapunji in the northeastern state of Meghalaya, a small town that holds the world record for the most rainfall in a calendar month and in a year.

Those records were set during a freakish period. Cherrapunji received 366 inches of rain in July 1861 and 1,042 inches between August 1, 1860 and July 31, 1861. Yet despite what the sign says above, it is not currently the wettest place on earth. That title is in dispute between Mawsynram—a village close to Cherrapunji—and Lloro, Colombia. Mawsynram has average annual rainfall of 467.4 inches, while Lloro averaged 500.7 inches a year between 1952 and 1989.

I begin to see how hard it is to define “wettest place on earth.” Over what period? How recently? Wettest in normal conditions or during a period of bizarre, catalysmic drenching?

But any way you look at it, these places have incredible amounts of rainfall compared with annual precipitation of around 45 inches for temperate Eastern cities in the U.S. and about 85 inches for the highest points in the Smokies. Totals for this very wet year will be quite a bit higher than average, here in western North Carolina and east Tennessee, but I think it’s fair to say the Cherrapunjians would laugh at us.

Alexander Frater reached Cherrapunji with great difficulty on his 1987 trip. The region was experiencing political unrest that year, and it took formidable persistence in the face of the famously sluggish Indian bureaucracy to obtain the precious document he needed, his “Cherrapunji Permission.” But after shuttling back and forth between one self-important official to another, from ministry to agency to Foreigners Registration, pulling strings, whining and pleading his case, he obtained the magic words: He could go within a window of three days.

He got there in a small aircraft piloted by one of India’s best monsoon flyers, and even so the landing was hazardous.

Captain Ravi went skimming down the valley wall like a swallow, racing the mist and rain to the runway threshold. It was a wild, exhilarating ride, made with surging engines and many small, abrupt course changes. The strip, visible across a rushing forest canopy, began diminishing as the rain squall reached its further end and hastened along it. Green birds exploded from the tree tops and passed inches beneath our wheels.

And so he arrived in a world of water, everything vivid green under gray supersaturated skies, where waterfalls tumbled from a massive plateau down to the Bangladesh plains.

I first read the book quite a few years back, and I still dip into it—so to speak— from time to time. It’s one of my very favorite travel books. Read it, if you have a chance.

* Alexander Frater, Chasing the Monsoon. Alfred Knopf, New York, 1991.

Nohkalikai Falls, Cherrapunji.

Nohkalikai Falls, Cherrapunji.

Floods January 17, 2013

Posted by Jenny in hiking, nature, Smoky Mountains, weather.
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This is going to cause big problems for me. Source: Park Service

This is going to cause a headache for me. Source: Park Service

1/29/13: We’ve finally gotten an estimate of when Highway 441 (Newfound Gap Road) will reopen: “mid-May to early June.” We’ll see.

4/24/13: The road reopened April 15. Those contract incentives for early completion really did the trick! The town of Cherokee kicked in some for the incentives. I’ll be up past the repaired road section very soon.

It started raining four days ago. I was driving home across the Smokies from the Pigeon Forge Wilderness Wildlife Week, where I’d given a couple of presentations about my book Murder at the Jumpoff. It had just started to drizzle, but I wanted to get a bit of exercise, so I pulled off at the Kanati Fork trailhead and did a quick 6-mile, 2000′ vertical hike.

That day’s precipitation didn’t amount to much, but on Monday it started to rain in earnest, and it’s still pouring now, Thursday afternoon. There was a let-up for a while yesterday, and I got out and checked conditions in the Plott Balsams.

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West Fork of Fisher Creek.

The streams were all raging. They are small streams, but somehow the effects of the flood are more impressive in them than in large bodies of water like the Tuckasegee River, which flows below my hillside house. The streams are completely transformed, becoming wide ribbons of pure frothing white, unlike their normal calm, translucent selves. The change from “trivial rivulet” to “dangerous torrent” does tend to make one wake up and pay attention.

The basin of the Tuckasegee simply filled up steadily, like a bathtub. It has not yet overflowed its banks in this portion. The rapids that I see from my house are not more numerous than the rapids I see hitting the rocks in times of low water levels, but they have a different shape. The rocks are all submerged, of course. The rapids now take the form of standing waves that form, crest up, collapse, and re-form in a regular pulsating rhythm. The water is a murky, ugly shade of gray.

In the Plotts yesterday, I saw strange things that had to do with the high water table. Walking along the East Fork trail, looking at a slope covered with oak leaves, I saw a good-sized flow of water spurting up among the leaves, like a spring. I couldn’t tell whether the water upslope of it was flowing invisibly between ground and leaves or whether it had in effect formed a temporary spring by flowing below ground, under pressure, along a subterranean pathway normally above the water table.

In other places water ran across the trail, disappeared under the leaves, then re-emerged lower down. As always happens in big rains, the trail itself would become a streambed for a while until the water found a depression to the side and flowed off. Then the process repeated further down the hill.

The photo at top shows a landslide at mile marker 22 on the Newfound Gap Road, on the North Carolina side of the Smokies. The slide occurred at 9:40 yesterday morning, and fortunately no one got hurt. The Park Service must have had quite a time getting vehicles with flashers out quickly to stop the traffic in both directions. They are going to open (or already have opened) the road on the Tennessee side up to Newfound Gap, while on my side it will be closed at Smokemont “for an extended period.”

With the continuing downpour, the slide must be getting worse. It’ll be a while before they can even make an assessment of the damage. This means that North Carolinians will have to drive a long, long way around to get to the heart of the Smokies, the places I like best to explore. Well, could be worse—I-40 could be closed because of a landslide in the Pigeon River Gorge, as has happened many times. Wait a minute…  I shouldn’t have said that…  Please, gods of highway geology, don’t let that happen too!

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