Monday, October 25, 2010

Big Trees of Joyce Kilmer Forest

The Joyce Kilmer memorial forest, with its massive tulip poplar trees, seems untouched and unspoiled.  But on my recent trip to this forest, I've learned a different story about these trees (for more info-- see Homan 2007):  this forest used to be dominated by even bigger trees and the trees community is even now changing dramatically.  A hundred years ago, the American chestnuts in the Joyce Kilmer forest were massive compared to these tulip poplars-  in fact some were so large that early settlers lived inside the hollowed out trees.  Now, young chestnut trees sprout from the old stumps, but rarely do they live long enough reproduce before they succumb to the chestnut blight, a fungus introduced from Asia.

On our hike though the Joyce Kilmer Wilderness, I spotted a burr on the ground beneath a grove of sprouts that looked to me like chestnut.  Having just read in the guidebook about chestnuts, I excitedly picked it up (ouch! those burrs are sharp!).  It was spiky on the outside and split in four sections, and the seed was no longer inside.  Could it really be from a fruiting American chestnut?  After I returned home, I consulted an excellent online guide to chestnut identification (link here), and this looks like the American chestnut from what I can tell.  The American Chestnut Foundation says that if you find what you think it is an American chestnut, to send them a leaf and twig for identification.  Unfortunately, I didn't take a sample this time.  The group is trying to identify and study American chestnuts in hopes to breed trees resistant to the blight for reintroduction.
Is this burr from an American chestnut?
The second largest trees in the Joyce Kilmer forest, towering almost as tall as the tulip poplars, are the hemlocks.  Sadly, the hemlocks are now mostly only dead snags, killed by the introduced hemlock woolly adelgid.  On our hike, we learned that next week (link here), the trails will be closed and the tops of the dead hemlocks will be blasted with dynamite.  This will prevent the dead trees from falling on hikers, and the idea is that the blasted-off trees will look more natural than if they used chain saws to fell the trees.  I craned my neck looking up at the huge towering hemlocks, thinking how these snags would be gone in just another week.  How many people before me had looked up at this beautiful tree over the years?  What trees will rise up to fill in the gaps in the canopy?
Ill-fated hemlock snag in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.

Source: Homan, Tim. 2007. Hiking Trails of the Joyce Kilmer--Slickrock and Cisco Creek Wildernesses. 3rd Edition.

Halloween Backpack: Third Time's the Charm

No other place had taken on such mythic status to me as "the Hangover" and Bob Stratton Bald in the Joyce Kilmer Wilderness Area.  I have made two previous attempts to reach these places, hidden high up in the wilds of North Carolina.  In June 2009, we had only hiked two miles into the wilderness area before the blackberry brambles that were overtaking the unmaintained trail scratched one of the members of our group so bad that he was bleeding on his face, so we turned around.  In November 2009, I returned again to Joyce Kilmer, backpacked in to just 1.5 miles short of the Bald, and spent the night in a fierce rain, watching the trees dancing in the wind.  It was so socked in the next morning that we turned around because there wouldn't have been a view anyway (see photos from this trip here).  On these two trips, I'd gotten a taste of the incredible beauty of Joyce Kilmer, and I longed to return.  So I jumped at the opportunity when my friend told me she was coleading a Halloween backpacking trip there with the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club.

Our group of five got an early start up the Haoe Lead trail from the Maple Springs trailhead.  We met a half dozen small groups of hunters and their dogs within the first two miles of trail.  I was happy to learn they were hunting wild boar, an introduced species that are very destructive to the forest.  The Haoe Lead trail became even more wild, rugged, and technical as we hiked deeper into the wilderness.  Our pace slowed to about one mile an hour as we negotiated over loose rocks and gnarled roots, all obscured from view by a layer of slippery fallen leaves.  We practiced our acrobatics through the obstacle course of downed trees, tossing our packs ahead of us to squeeze through the tangles of branches. The trail, which probably sees more deer and wild boar traffic than human feet, was so narrow in spots that my wide feet hung over the edge and were at constant risk of slipping down the hillside.  Thickets of blackberry brambles towered over us, though they weren't as impenetrable to us in our long pants as they had been the previous June on my first attempt.  And yet, I was in heaven!  I marveled at the rugged beauty of this wild forest, which, to me, seemed protected by its very remoteness and these inaccessible trails.
Gnarled old tree.
We took the side path over to the Hangover.  There, we perched on jagged rocks and looked out over the mountains that surrounded us in all directions, ablaze with fall color.  I celebrated FINALLY making it to this spot after my two other attempts.  This place was absolutely stunning-- in the distance, we could see the ridge we'd followed to get here, and in the other direction, Bob Stratton Bald towered up before us.
View from the Hangover.
Then, we set out again, stopping briefly to fill up our water containers at the spring below Naked Ground.  Our trip co-leader, an enthusiastic naturalist, found a record-breaking FIVE salamander under a single rock at the spring!  (When we hike together, we always compete to see who can find the first salamander-- seems like I will have to practice my salamander-hunting!)  We reached the huge bald with plenty of time to make camp and explore.  We found huge candelabras of Turk's cap lily seed pods, and purple clusters of carrion flower fruits (Smilax lasioneura).
Carrion flower fruits.
Turk's cap lily seed pods.
As the sun set, we dressed up in our Halloween costumes, this being the annual GATC Halloween hike, and exchanged treats within our group (mmmm-- candy, dried fruit, and handwarmers).  Under the full moon, we went "trick-or-treating" to the other campsites dispersed across the bald.  No one gave us candy, but we got lots of laughs!

On top of the exposed bald, the wind howled all night, and even with the low end of my tent pitched into the wind, my tent shook.  Fortunately, I stayed toasty warm.  (Note: because I knew we'd be camping on the bald where trees were scarce, I brought along my tent instead of my hammock.)

In the morning, we descended down the Naked Ground Trail into a beautiful, old growth forest, crossing rivulets, and then following the Little Santeetlah Creek.  Amazingly, this whole valley escaped loggers and miners, and this forest has incredible plant diversity and huge trees to show for it.  We ended our hike at the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest loop, which has the highest concentration of big trees (and unlike some of the other trails, this loop is very popular and accessible to everyone).   I know I have a habit of saying this after every trip, but this really was the best backpacking trip EVER and I can't wait to return to Joyce Kilmer!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Mixing things up

It's fun to mix things up.  Some things go well together like peanut butter and banana, or campfires and conversation.   My two favorite forms of exercise, backpacking and trapeze, are wonderfully complementary when performed separately.  After a kick-ass backpacking trip, I can hobble to trapeze class for another intense workout, which uses mostly non-overlapping muscles.  Unfortunately, the practices I pick up in these two activities don't always mix:

1.  While deodorant doesn't work for me for backpacking, wearing it to trapeze is the polite thing to do.  You never know where your partner's head might end up.

2. You can never have too much glitter.. except when it gets all over your tent and sleeping bag.

3.  A big mug of hot chocolate warms you up in the morning and gets you hydrated after a long hike, but doesn't feel good sloshing around when you are hanging upside down with the bar pressed up against your stomach.

4.  Getting slippery silicone seam-sealer all over your hands while waterproofing your tent right before trapeze class does not improve your ability to hang on tight to the ropes during class.

5. Doing trapeze tricks from vines hanging from trees may get you closer to the ground than you'd expect.  Like, ON the ground.

Attempting a shoulder stand on a vine, but ending up on the ground.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Brasstown Bald with the Dames

This weekend, I led a trip for the Trail Dames to go see the leaves changing at Brasstown Bald, the tallest peak in Georgia (4784 feet).  We hiked the Wagon Train Trail, which follows a ridge north from Brasstown Bald all the way to Young Harris, a college town.  This hike is all about the journey, rather than the destination-- especially the views along the ridge and watching the trees change as we drop elevation and go through different forest types.
Down the Wagon Train Trail.
Eleven Dames met at the large parking area early in the morning.  We had a wonderful mix of women- it was one woman's second hike ever, while others had been hiking for years.  We started down the wide, relatively flat path, and reached a viewpoint after an hour.  We stopped for a break and marveled how far we'd come.  The tower at Brasstown Bald, near where we began our hike, looked so small in the distance and it was hard to imagine we'd so easily traveled all this way already.
The tower on Brasstown Bald appears tiny.
After a very long and hot summer, the crisp fall air was quite a relief.  The leaves were spectacular red, orange, and yellow, contrasting against deep blue sky.  As the sun shone through the red leaves, it gave everything a rosy hue.  Leaves crunched beneath our feet.  Though most of the time we were walking through forest ablaze with red leaves, we passed through one part of the trail was all golden yellow.

The Dames that went with me on the Blood Mountain hike recognized the turtleheads clustered around small springs.  We also saw quite a few striped gentians.
After getting back to the trailhead, some of the Dames still had enough energy to climb the remaining 6/10 mile up to the observation tower and visitor's center at the summit.  Stepping off the Wagon Train trail, where we'd seen very few other hikers, was quite a culture shock, because the summit area was crowded with tourists.   At first, I felt annoyed that this summit had been "ruined" by all the development.  But then, we met a woman in a wheelchair that was 95 years old!  She had visited this mountain many years ago, and was excited to make this return trip, even though she couldn't walk anymore herself and had to take the shuttle bus to the top.  Of course this made me instantly appreciate that this mountain was accessible to everyone, and I smiled looking around at all the different people, up there, enjoying the fall day.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Gregory Bald Backpacking Trip

I joined the Atlanta Wilderness Backpackers for a 15 mile loop to Gregory Bald in Smoky Mountain National Park.  There were four of us: Dmitry (hike leader) and Margaret (another flower enthusiast) were taking their first trip as a married couple and were terribly cute together, and Wild Bill is the nicest guy with a great sense of humor.  The trip featured beautiful fall colors, spectacular wildflowers, and incredible views.   I also got to face another one of my fears: night hiking.

It was several hours drive getting to the Twentymile trailhead in the southwestern Smokies, so we didn't start down the trail until 1PM.  The first few miles followed a lovely stream lined with purple asters, blue lobelia, and other fall flowers.  All the worries from my week melted away as I settled into the rhythm of the trail.

Wild Bill taught us the 50:10 method of hiking (hike 50 minutes, rest 10 minutes) which we happily followed.  Studies show this is very effective for hard exercise requiring endurance-- just the ticket for trip which had a climb of 3,000 feet in the first 5 miles and then another 3 miles after that.  Ten minutes sounds like a long time to rest, but it allowed us to chat, snack, stretch,  look around and enjoy the view, and talk some more.  On the second day, ten minutes stretched into 50 minutes as conversation deepened and we were lost in the moment.  We joked that we'd switch to 10 minutes of hiking and 50 of rest and never make it down off the mountain.
Wild Bill and I taking a rest break.  Photo by Dmitry Shishkin.
We kept a comfortable pace on our way up the mountain, and it was a good thing because it was a tough climb.  We passed by four nice backpackers who warned us that it would be getting dark soon and there was more steep trail ahead, but that there was a good, though illegal, campsite if we couldn't make it all the way to the top (in the Smokies, you are required to camp only in designated campsites).   After hearing this, I could feel the fear wash over me as visions of night hiking crept into my mind.  You see-- I've always had a fear of getting lost after dark and I felt uneasy about setting up camp in the dark. 

The climb continued and I tried to push these fears from my mind.   I kept telling myself to focus and look at the flowers.  (Don't laugh!  This never fails to keep me happy and motivated!)  When we finally got to the flat illegal campsite they described, we paused.  Dmitry checked to be sure that everyone was feeling OK and had headlamps.  I gulped thinking about my very lightweight, but somewhat dim headlamp.  Dmitry encouraged us to press on, and we trusted his judgment.  And it turned out to be a good thing too!

Because after hiking all day beneath the golden-green canopy, the sky opened up as we emerged onto the bald around dusk.  Dense, knee-high blueberry bushes were interspersed with patches of  meadow.  Gregory Bald was like a large dome, with a 360-degree view of mountains decked out in full fall color as far as you could see.  At the top, we met another group of four old friends who were also enjoying the view, and we chatted with them pleasantly.  Together, we watched as the last of the sun's rays lit up distant mountains and the sky turned pink-red.  The stars slowly appeared, the sliver of moon brightened.   It was absolutely breathtaking.  I understood the logic of our timing-- to see this spectacle, we needed to night hike.  And it also allowed us not to rush the hike, which made the ascent more pleasant for everyone.
On top of Gregory Bald. Photo by Dmitry Shishkin.
Crescent moon from Gregory Bald.  Photo by Dmitry Shishkin.
Finally, Wild Bill, Margaret and I set off the 0.5 miles down the trail to camp, while Dmitry hung back taking pictures.  Turning on our headlamps as we entered the forest, it took all my concentration to focus on the small patch of trail illuminated by my weak headlamp.   But I quickly adjusted, and followed the others more confidently down the trail.  The forest around me transformed as a chorus of frogs and insects began their nighttime songs.  Woo hoo!  I was night hiking! 

When we reached camp, Wild Bill put us "ladies" up in front to approach the other campers to find out if there was space to camp and locate the bear cables to hang our food, saying other people would be nicer to us girls.  The other campers kindly pointed us towards a free fire ring with level ground around it, and even invited us to join them around their campfire after dinner.  I had my tent pitched, gear efficiently put away, and dinner cooked in record time, like to was second nature to me.  And I must say I was totally pleased with myself, because once again, I did something that I'd been fearing, and once again, I found out that it was actually fun.

One more thing that I want to add is that this was such a great trip because the group came together so well.  It's always amazing how people who are strangers to me in the morning become trusted companions that share conversations about deep things by the time we are sitting round the campfire in the evening.   There sure is something wondrous about backpacking.
What a great group! Photo by Dmitry Shishkin.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Caving with the Dames

Hanging out.  photo by R. Cantrell
This weekend I went on a caving trip with the Trail Dames.  We were fortunate to have several experienced guides and the Dames, as usual, were incredibly helpful and supportive.  Even though we went to a so-called "horizontal, easy" cave in northwest Georgia called Howard's Waterfall, it offered plenty of challenges for us nervous first-timers. 

Caving was a fantastic experience, both for the physical challenge and because being within the earth proved utterly peaceful.  After getting the hang of it (thank goodness for the kneepads and helmet!), I enjoyed squeezing though the tight spots on my belly while pushing my pack in front of me, and rolling down the passageway, which turned out to be easier than crawling.  My arms, shoulders, core, and legs all received a satisfying workout.   I went through holes that I couldn't believe I'd fit through and went down inclines that scared me, and felt such a sense of accomplishment after I realized I could do it!  Also, the cave was such a different, simplified environment-- constant weather, fewer sounds, darkness.  Instead of being scary and claustrophobic, I found this environment enhanced and focused all my senses:  I could really smell the cave, listen to the sound of the drops from the ceiling, and see the glint of rocks.  I felt utterly alive and fully present.

A few times on the return trip, there was no one ahead of me and I tested my route-finding skills.  It took my brain a while to adjust to reading the cave.  Where was the easiest route?  Should I crouch, crawl, or roll?  Which way had I gone before?  Trying to remember the route, I visualized not just a two dimensional trail, but the series of interconnecting tubes that branched in three dimensions.  Using rocks and mud as landmarks was challenging for me because I am normally use plants and trees for navigation because for me they are so easy to remember.  I began to develop a better eye for subtle differences in rocks and formations, like how in winter, tree shapes and shades of brown become totally fascinating.   Mud in some places was dryer like clay for pottery and resisted pressure, while in other places it melted beneath your feet and stuck and slurped.  Caving was thus totally mentally engaging in addition to providing a full-body workout.

During rest breaks, our trip leader instructed us to lay down on the rocks and let our body heat radiate into the ground.  This had such a calming effect.  Much more so than just sitting down or standing during breaks.  The physical connection to the ground is so peaceful, and it reminds me to practice my yoga relaxation and breathing techniques.  I would love to take this practice back with me to the trail.  I normally stand during resting moments, but I think I will experiment with reclining against a tree or even laying down and being aware of my connection to the earth.