I am grateful for the Plott Balsams December 23, 2013Posted by Jenny in hiking, Life experience, plants, Southern Appalachians.
Tags: East Fork trail, Fisher Creek, Plott Balsams, red spruce, Sylva NC
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.
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.
Interesting mosses grow there, including this one that sends out long runners.
A shrub there is full of buds for next year. The buds remind me of leucothoe (dog hobble), but it’s a deciduous shrub.
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.
Spruce are probably my favorite tree.
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.
A magical place.
In search of the 150-foot spruce April 15, 2013Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, nature, plants, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: Eastern Native Tree Society, Enloe Creek, Raven Fork, red spruce, Simmons Branch
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.
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.
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.
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.
The way grew progressively steeper, and we passed a cascade.
As we reached the top and got into thicker brush, I took a photo looking south, toward Hughes Ridge and Ace Enloe Ridge.
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.
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.
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.
Enloe Creek was plunging along with high water levels. It was beautiful.
All through the day, we saw countless white trillium.
We stopped for a snack beside my favorite Raven Fork pool before making the climb back up to Hyatt Ridge.
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.