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In search of the 150-foot spruce April 15, 2013

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, nature, plants, Smoky Mountains.
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16 comments
I say this is close.

I say this is close.

Ever since I read a trip report by members of the Eastern Native Tree Society about finding a record-size red spruce in the Raven Fork area, I’ve wanted to go there myself. In a way my mission was silly. I don’t have the scientists’ instruments for measuring the height of trees. Maybe what it boiled down to is that I just wanted to wander around in that incredibly wild area in the quadrant northwest of the Raven Fork/Enloe Creek junction.

The ENTS team found a spruce in the Simmons Branch valley that they measured as 146.7″ tall and 12’8″ cbh (circumference at breast height). Those dimensions combined make it a national champion, they said. They found another leviathan even taller, 155’3″ tall, but not as thick (10’7″ cbh). They also found all kinds of other wild, weird, gigantic trees, such as an enormous yellow birch with adventitious roots like those of a strangler fig.

But what is it about spruces? When my friend Brian Worley and I went exploring up there yesterday, we saw skeletal hemlocks that were bigger. But spruces are not usually as large as hemlocks, and I’ve developed a special fondness for these dark, dense evergreens that crown the heights with their sharp pointed tops. I always look for the first spruce when I climb a mountain, though it’s usually a baby. And I always look for those dark shapes on the remote beckoning tops of the farthest heights.

Our route west of Raven Fork and north of Enloe.

Our route west of Raven Fork and north of Enloe.

On an overcast day with refreshing cold winds, we climbed up the Hyatt Ridge trail and descended to Raven Fork. It was my pleasure to introduce Brian to these places. He is a long-time bushwhacker who lives in East Tennesse and had never visited this area.

We stopped for a rest and a snack at the hemlock boulder on Raven Fork—the one where the Park Service has treated  the landmark trees for the woolly adelgid. We admired the stream.

Raven Fork

Raven Fork

Here came the tricky part—the ENTS report said the team left the Enloe Creek trail “about a third of a mile” past the metal bridge. I actually spent time with my maps and an architect’s ruler, measuring the trail against the map scale. I came up with a plausible departure point. But even if I’d identified the correct spot on the map, we then had to match it to the actual location. I still can’t be certain we selected exactly the same route visited by ENTS, but we left the trail at a nice little stream valley and started to climb.

Lower valley where we left the trail.

Lower valley where we left the trail.

We climbed from about 3800′ to 4800′ up this valley, finding it remarkably free of thick brush. It seemed too good to be true—and in fact the rhodo-free conditions didn’t last. As we climbed, we found the forest floor carpeted with the infinitely variable shapes of new green leaves.

Dutchman's breeches.

Dutchman’s breeches.

Spring beauty.

Spring beauty.

Stonecrop---not a flower, but still interesting.

Stonecrop.

We climbed through a boulderfield.

We climbed through a boulderfield.

There were lots of ramps.

There were lots of ramps.

The way grew progressively steeper, and we passed a cascade.

We had to start picking our way around obstacles.

We had to start picking our way around obstacles.

As we reached the top and got into thicker brush, I took a photo looking south, toward Hughes Ridge and Ace Enloe Ridge.

Looking south.

Looking south.

Suddenly we found ourselves in dense rhodo, standing on the ridge that marks the southern boundary of the Simmons Branch drainage. The ENTS route took them down toward the stream to the northwest. But their description said they’d emerged on the ridge in a heath bald, and we saw no heath in any direction. And as we gazed into the incredibly dense, snarled, wild forest between us and Simmons Branch, we realized that we might have bitten off more than we could chew. We’d gotten a late start, and we were facing the possibility of getting caught out in the dark looking for the national champ.

Since the second 150-foot spruce was located near a saddle between Simmons and the next stream drainage to the west, we decided to keep to the high ground and head over to the saddle. We worked our way through the enchanted forest, seeing many tall spruce and one of the largest sugar maples I’ve ever come across. Even the fungus growths were larger than normal.

Interesting fungus.

Interesting fungus.

View toward Breakneck Ridge.

View toward Breakneck Ridge.

Base of large spruce.

Base of large spruce.

We crossed occasional stretches of open ground, but most of the time we fought through rhodo and blackberries. The going was very slow. We reached the saddle and turned west, soon finding the spruce pictured at top. Rhodo hemmed in its base. But as I gazed up the towering trunk, I felt that we were in the presence of a giant. Of course, we’ll never know its actual height or whether it is the second one mentioned in the ENTS report.

We made our way down into the unnamed tributary of Enloe by a small draw choked with rhodo and the thickest blackberry canes I’ve ever seen (thick in their diameter, I mean). Things finally opened up and we were able to make faster progress.

Brian descends.

Brian descends.

This valley had the opposite gradient than the one we’d ascended by, being steepest toward the bottom. The stream cascaded down over attractive waterfalls, and we finally returned to the trail.

Stream where it meets the trail.

Stream where it meets the trail.

Enloe Creek was plunging along with high water levels. It was beautiful.

Enloe Creek.

Enloe Creek.

All through the day, we saw countless white trillium.

Trillium grandiflorum.

Trillium grandiflorum.

Countless trillium.

Countless trillium.

Variegated violets.

Variegated violets.

We stopped for a snack beside my favorite Raven Fork pool before making the climb back up to Hyatt Ridge.

A magical place.

A magical place.

Polypody ferns attached to tree trunk.

Polypody ferns attached to tree trunk.

Lousewort (wood betony).

Lousewort (wood betony).

We descended along Hyatt Creek in a light, gentle rain. All the plants were once again being nourished by the rain clouds so that they will grow and thrive. Ah, the Smokies in April. Indescribable.

Hyatt Creek.

Hyatt Creek.

The Enloe Creek trail is mine now August 18, 2010

Posted by Jenny in hiking, Smoky Mountains, trail maintenance.
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3 comments

The trail has a few minor problems

Last month I attended a session for people interested in becoming an “Adopt-a-Trail” volunteer in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I have done trail maintenance on and off over the years, and it’s become sort of a habit with me.

When I lived in Knoxville in the 80s, I maintained an A.T. section between Sassafras Gap and Doe Knob, which included the infamous Birch Spring shelter (since removed due to drainage problems and possibly because it was simply hideous). In my more recent residence in New England, I maintained a really great section of the Carter-Moriah trail, going up to Mt. Moriah over beautiful granite ledges with views to the Presidential range. That was a side trail to the A.T.

Now, back in the Smokies, I felt the urge to go out there once more and clean out waterbars, lop branches, and whack stinging nettles. So off I went to learn more at a informational meeting held at a mysterious complex of buildings, not often seen by the general public, not far from the Oconoluftee visitor center. Actually, I have to admit there wasn’t anything that exciting about this building complex, which seemed to be a collecting point for a whole lot of machinery and vehicles and trail equipment.

About 35 people were present. Christine Hoyer, the head of the AAT volunteers for the Park Service, gave us a whirlwind explanation of the scope and objectives of the program, complete with an overview of the Leave-No-Trace program, a description of all park regulations affecting hikers and campers, a description of the various tools and their purposes, and last but not least, a lot of info about safety concerns. Christine was a very entertaining presenter, though she kept claiming that she was really an introvert deep down inside.

She gave us a list of available trails. It looked like an awful lot were up for grabs, including very well-known ones like the Chimney Tops and Alum Cave. (No way would I ever adopt one of those—just too many people to deal with!) I decided right away that I wanted the Enloe Creek trail, because it crosses Raven Fork, and I have a history with Raven Fork.

Christine came up with a complicated, even suspenseful, system of having us draw numbers to be picked out of a hat to help make the process of assigning trails more fair. It was actually so complicated that I won’t try to describe it here. But at any rate, for me there was no problem, because no one else wanted Enloe Creek.

So I went out to visit my trail on August 9 with my friend Gary and his daughter Noura, who is an engineering student at Olin College. It occurs to me that I should have picked Noura’s brain a bit more about engineering aspects of the trail.

Noura and Gary near Raven Fork bridge

Christine had told us that our first visit to the trail should just be a walk-through to survey conditions and determine what areas would need work—and what tools would be needed. We did bring along a pair of loppers and attacked some witch hobble and rhodo between the Hyatt Ridge turnoff and the Raven Fork bridge.

There was a sidehill section before the bridge that had a severe erosion problem.

Not too bad for someone on foot, maybe bad for someone on horseback

We had lunch on the beautiful boulders above the metal bridge, which is in fine shape (unlike the log bridge seen at top). Noura did some good scrambling around in the grotto-like spaces between the boulders.

This giant boulder has its own mini-forest on top

The logs are a good reminder of the terrific floods that roar down Raven Fork sometimes. In one that occurred in 1992, a 12-foot wall of water swept down into the Qualla reservation.

Gary and Noura had to turn around at that point, for this was the end of a weekend trip for them and they needed to drive back to the Raleigh-Durham area. I continued on and found that past the bridge, the trail was terribly overgrown with nettles and blackberries.

I have my work cut out for me

I enjoyed following the beautiful stream of Enloe Creek. I encountered the bridge shown at top. It wasn’t hard to cross halfway by rockhopping and then get onto a truncated bridge section, but it could be tricky in high water.

Past the bridge, there was a large blowdown, but you could duck under it—at least if you weren’t on horseback.

Blowdown past the log bridge

I continued on, enjoying views of Katalska Ridge, a very remote, woolly-looking place. The conditions were similar the rest of the way to the end of the trail at Hughes Ridge. It is a fairly hefty trip to do the whole trail. Because you have to do a piece of the Hyatt Ridge trail at the start, the whole outing amounts to 11 miles and about 3200′ vertical, with all the ups and downs.

The other significant problem I discovered was a big stack of folded tarps and cast-iron cooking pans at campsite #47 that looked like they had been brought in on horseback and just left there. Sorry folks, it may be convenient for you to leave that stuff there for return trips, but the rest of us don’t want to look at your clutter right there at such an otherwise beautiful spot. Unfortunately, it will probably take someone on horseback to get that stuff back out.

I’ll be back in a week or so to start tackling the underbrush with a swingblade.

Anyone interested in learning more about the Adopt-a-Trail program can contact Christine at christine_hoyer@nps.gov .

I saw my first pink turtleheads of the season