The morning of day three is busy and crowded at Tricorner Knob with 16 people stumbling over one another to eat breakfast and pack up. Numerous Red Crossbills surround the privy hopping on neighboring branches and peering in at the occupants. They fly up noisily when disturbed with a tremendous flutter of wings invoking quite a startle response in privy visitors. Given their numbers here (we also saw one at Pecks Corner), I am surprised to learn that they are rather elusive birds at higher elevations.
This is the trail crew’s final day, and they gather in a circle for stretching exercises prior to heading out. Once again, Mary, Clarence and I are on our way about 9:00 a.m. In 0.1 mile we reach the AT/Balsam Mountain Trail junction and strike out along a relatively level path that descends just 500’ in six miles to Laurel Gap shelter. The walking is very easy, but the trail is quite wet in places from the torrential rain yesterday. Deer tracks are readily visible in the mud. To the delight of our feet, we pass through several cool, dark Hemlock groves with soft, spongy layers of needles on smooth ground. We pause to soak in the fresh forest fragrance and silence (only the faint patter of water droplets from the trees can be heard).
In places along the trail we see big hunks of quartz surrounded by smaller bits and pieces. I’m guessing that this is an example of what geologists would call mass wasting, specifically frost wedging and heaving. Freezing water breaks up and begins to move larger rocks exposing them to the effects of weathering and facilitating the slow but continual erosion of these beautiful old mountains.
At these higher elevations, Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) with its slender, ghostly white stems, nodding white flowers, and near translucent leaflike scales is in its prime and scattered broadly along the trail. At lower elevations these plants have already set seed, turning the seed capsule upright to sit atop the stem as the entire plant blackens. Indian Pipe does not manufacture its own food through photosynthesis. Instead it relies on an association with mycorrhizal fungi to get nutrients from decaying plant matter in the soil. Actually, I just read that it may be myco-heterotrophic, dependent on a fungus and its associated plant (typically tree roots) for water, minerals, and nutrients, rather than decaying organic matter. So Indian Pipe taps into a fungus that has tapped into a green plant. Isn’t nature a marvel!
I spot green and blue/back fruits littering the trail and discover Withe-rod (Viburnum nudum var. cassinoides) in the process of fruit maturation. Lots of Blackberries are ripening too, and we snack along the way.
We arrive at Laurel Gap shelter in the early afternoon. The shelter is a small, three-sided stone building. It has a ground-to-roof chain link fence across the open end and a door for access. A heavy chain loop “locks” the door in place. It has not been renovated like the other shelters and has no skylight and no covered benches nor cooking tables. There is just an open air fire ring and logs on the ground immediately outside, plus a few spiders inside. Knowing my aversion, Mary and Clarence quietly sweep them out of the way and don’t even mention it until the next morning. Thank god for good friends!! The sun is shining brightly this afternoon, and we scramble to take advantage, putting out our wet clothes from day one that still have not dried and are now beginning to smell far worse than they should!!
Clarence scopes the water source and finds very, very fresh evidence of bear activity. We keep his can of bear spray handy at all times. There are thick stands of Blackberry brambles just behind the fire ring. Fortunately, there is little fruit left. Instead, they shelter a Gray Catbird family. Mother and father bring nutritional insects to the babies, and mom shelters them from the heat of the sun. I manage to get a few photos, but they resent being targets of the paparazzi, so I leave them alone.
The shelter may be quite dumpy, but its location is quite beautiful. The immediate area is just gently rolling terrain and has some open grassy areas and widely spaced trees. It had to have been settled and farmed or at least grazed in the past. Most relatively flat areas were. Now, it appears to be maintained and mowed to better accommodate the horses and riders that use it. Regardless of the history and current usage, the environs are quite a treat for the eyes…lush swathes of ferns, cool little glades, shady woodland understory, clear trickling streams…a perfect candidate for a “happy place” to retreat mentally when life just gets too intense.
Late in the afternoon, another hiker arrives. Rick Larsen, a Georgia ecologist on a busman’s holiday, makes it a foursome for the night. We eat dinner, enjoy good conversation, and watch the waxing gibbous moon move through the sky. Thanks to the sturdy fence, we just hang our food and cooking equipment outside and keep our packs and other gear in the shelter. Aside from the fresh scat that afternoon, we’ve neither seen nor heard any further evidence of bears. So with the chain holding the door shut, we sleep securely.