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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.

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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.

Huckleberry Knob July 4, 2012

Posted by Jenny in conservation, hiking, Nantahala National Forest, nature.
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I’m not sure which was better, the meadow or the sky.

This post is one of a series about “North Carolina’s Mountain Treasures,” lands targeted for higher protective designation by the Wilderness Society.  For more information about this campaign, please visit the Mountain Treasures website.

Huckleberry Knob is a 5565′ peak located in the Santeetlah Headwaters north of the Cherohala Skyway and adjacent to the Joyce Kilmer/Slickrock Wilderness. The tallest of the Unicoi Mountains, it is a grassy, meadowy bald that is mowed once a year to keep it open. I found it to be a remarkable place.

The trail starts off through a high-elevation beech forest that’s become ghostly because of the frequent fogs that foster lichens and moss on the tree trunks. Soon you reach open meadows filled with many wild grasses and buttercups, pale purple vetch, and fleabane. The colors run in swathes, forming a patchwork.

The tall grasses had a wonderful texture.

Vetch and buttercups.

The pale purple vetch grows all along the borders of the Skyway.  I passed several mysterious signs that showed the diagonal red bar (the “don’t do it” of traffic signs) across images of a tractor and a person spraying herbicides. I can only guess that random individuals have taken it upon themselves to spray along the highway to make it tidier. As it stands, the vetch makes a lovely undulation of color along the road.

It seemed as though motorcycles outnumbered cars on the highway, as bikers went out to connect Cherohala with the “Tail of the Dragon” section of US 129. Since the time I lived in Knoxville in the 80s, the “Dragon” has become a big-time biker mecca. It didn’t used to be that way. I just thought of it as the road that made quite a few people carsick (fortunately I’m not susceptible myself).

But back to the trail. I passed over the first bald, called Oak Knob, and saw ahead to Huckleberry Knob.

Approaching Huckleberry Knob.

The meadows with their shifting configurations of isolated, scrubby trees reminded me of Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia, which I visited last year. The main difference is that the Santeetlah Headwaters have no red spruce. I halfway expected to see red spruce as I drove past 4500′ elevation, then recalled that the Alarka Laurel bog near Bryson City is the southernmost location of spruce. According to the Wilderness Society, the Canadian northern flying squirrel lives in this area, a species that normally lives mainly in spruce forests. It had been flying from hemlock to hemlock instead of from spruce to spruce, and now that most of the hemlocks are gone, there are plans to plant red spruce in the area to sustain these remarkable creatures. It seems as though the climate would be suitable for spruce—it’s just that this area is not contiguous with other areas that have spruce.

Wikimedia photo of flying squirrel.

At the top of Huckleberry Knob I encountered a cross marking the grave of a logger named Andy Sherman, who perished from cold on December 11, 1899. His body and the body of a companion were discovered by a hunter nine months later. Sherman’s body was too disintegrated for removal; the other body was sold to a doctor for use in medical study. An unkind fate for both of them.

Grave of Andy Sherman on summit of Huckleberry Knob.

This was a very short, easy hike of about 2 miles roundtrip and 250′ vertical. I combined this trip with a visit to Joyce Kilmer/Slickrock—I’ll save that description for another post.

Sprinkling of vetch in the meadow, in front of the shrub.