Today’s hike features one new trail, Lead Cove, a large chunk of another, Bote Mountain, and a second trek on Finley Cane. All set to go it alone, I receive a last minute call from my friend Meredith Clebsch, itching for a walk in the woods. The forecast threatens rain, but the early morning sky shows quite a bit of blue along with those clouds, and the feared showers do not dampen our day.
Lead Cove is a short trail, 1.8 miles, rising 1200 feet to its junction with Bote Mountain. It is a steady ascent but not an arduous one. Good conversation keeps us occupied and moving; the stifling hot weather is finally losing its grip; and there are interesting plants to see along the way. Before arriving in the mountains, I heard from my other hiking buddy, Mary McCord, that acorns were so thick on the ground her hike down Sugarland Mountain was like skating over ball bearings. Meredith and I are just a few yards into the hike when we hit the first of many Chestnut Oak acorn patches. The big oblong nuts crunch and roll underfoot. Some trail sections are nearly wall-to-wall acorns. Despite the bumper crop, we find few animals taking advantage. I bought a can of capsaicin spray specifically to ward off any acorn-crazed bears, but none are seen.
We do see many plants in the composite family — asters, sunflowers, goldenrods, white snakeroot. White Wood Aster and Wavyleaf Aster along with Curtis’ Goldenrod and probably Slender Goldenrod are frequent along the trail. A new plant for me is Appalachian or Showy Gentian (Gentiana decora), a lovely white flower striped with blue. Southern Harebell is still in flower with its dainty little blue bell blossoms. At this time of year many plants are setting fruit — Maple-leaved Viburnum, Solomon’s Plume, Blue Cohosh, Spikenard, Partridgeberry, Grapes, and Black Cherries. In places, Black Cherry fruits cover the ground in profusion too, and almost every pile of scat we see features black cherries, some look virtually undigested.
Once at Bote Mountain, we opt to hike up an additional 1.2 miles and 800 feet to the Anthony Creek trailhead before heading down to Finley Cane. Sandstone is obviously the dominant bedrock because the trail is as sandy as an ocean beach in places. Meredith spots a marked “bear tree,” where a large section of bark has been scratched and perhaps even bitten away, exposing the heartwood and leaving globules of dried sap. A very cute trail runner comes down Bote Mountain carrying arm weights. His physical appearance is testament to his dedication, and Meredith and I stare as long as he is in view. She oogles his legs; I’m captivated by his chest and arms.
Wiping away the drool, we turn our attention back to plants and find Silkgrass, Pale Jewelweed, Smooth False Foxglove, and various Asters in flower. Sweetshrub, Teaberry, Hearts-a-bustin’, and Yellow Passionflower are fruiting, as well as a very large American Chestnut. There are several of the big, spiny-husked nuts on the ground from a 50-foot-plus tree with a healthy crown full of foliage.
The trunk is partially hidden in a Rhododendron thicket, but what we can see appears unscathed by blight, and we estimate the diameter at 10 inches. Other interesting plants include Indian Grass, Little Bluestem, Appalachian Sunflower, Curtiss’ Milkwort, Stiff-leaved Aster, and Downy Lobelia.
Near a shallow excavation, lay 10 white leathery shells, each with a large hole where a little lizard emerged to begin an adventure-filled life in the Smokies. Those ever-present Chestnut Oak acorns keep us on our toes, lest we wind up on our butts. However, as Meredith opined, “Anybody that looks at plants and birds is going to fall on her butt sometime.” We do look beyond the life at hand and admire views of the Smokies crest from Bote Mountain Trail. Occasionally, we walk near leafy bowers of grapevines draped over trees and shrubs that provide safe, shady habitats for wildlife as well as food. Meredith notes several such places on the mountainsides opposite us. They are surprisingly easy to discern within the tapestry of green.
Finley Cane will take us back to the car. Its nearly level topography is easy to traverse, and the 2.8 miles are finished in a flash. I hiked Finley Cane last February in 6 inches of snow and am glad to make a return visit to note plants that would not have been visible in winter. Touted as a wet trail good for mushrooms and salamanders, it is quite dry today. I find few fungi and don’t search for any salamanders. The flora is quite rich with Silverbells, Maidenhair Fern, Bloodroot, Blue Cohosh, lots of Spicebush, and Cucumber Magnolia. There is a large patch of Heartleaf Ginger (Hexastylis arifolia) with nicely mottled leaves. A fresh horse hitch and some trail work in especially mucky areas appear to be recent additions. At the trail’s end on Laurel Creek Road, there are several clumps of Beechdrops. The only real rain we get is a small shower driving home!