It is still raining early Friday morning as Mary and I prepare for our overnight backpack. We chow down on a carb-loaded continental breakfast in preparation for the five mile hike along Big Fork Ridge and Caldwell Fork Trails to campsite #41. The weather forecast threatens a chance of more rain, but the radar promises relief. Fortunately for us, the radar is right. When we start Big Fork, rain is no longer a factor.
Big Fork Ridge trailhead is near the end of what is variably called Ranger Station, Cataloochee, or Rough Fork Road in the valley. We leave Mary’s car at Caldwell Fork. Mine is the only vehicle in the valley this damp morning. Not a single elk is in sight either, dashing hope for a photo. I still have a final opportunity tomorrow afternoon.
Mary and I “suit up” with full backpacks: tent, cookware and stove, water and water filter, sleeping bag and pad, food, first aid kit, night clothes, and a few personal items. Including my camera and one trekking pole, I’m hauling about 33 pounds, just under a third of my body weight. I’ve read that 20 to 25% is desirable, but what to ditch? I need what I’m carrying, most of which is as light as technology will allow, and honestly, there are things I would love to add, like my journal and binoculars. Fortunately, I have a great pack that distributes the weight well. We aren’t going far, and I’m confident in my gear and myself.
Big Fork Ridge Trail goes up and over Big Fork Ridge. Rising 800’ from the road to the crest (3,600’ elev.) then dropping 600’ to the junction at Caldwell Fork. At the beginning, the trail crosses Rough Fork Branch boisterous with last night’s rain. Just a few yards past the creek is a fortress-like enclosure where elk were acclimated when reintroduced to the park.
Except for Boogerman Trail, all the trails in Cataloochee are open to horses. With no disrespect to equines and those who love them, horses can do some real damage to trails. Water plus hooves equal churned muck. Add slope to that equation and deeply eroded ruts are the result. Horse poop, not a bad thing in and of itself, can harbor weed seeds. Nonnative plants like Red Clover and Bulbous Buttercup show up along the trails. A smartweed, perhaps Lady’s Thumb, is growing in large clusters at the beginning of Big Fork Ridge. I also see a small sprout of Japanese Honeysuckle Vine, a horribly invasive species. It pulls up easily…a little too easily. Someone had already pulled it and tossed it onto the ground where it was trying to root again. I drape it over a tree branch to ensure those roots die!
Millipedes are out in force today — the little, black with yellow markings, flat-backed species (order Polydesmida). They blindly crawl along nosing under leaves and sticks feeding on decaying plant material. Perhaps last night’s rain made the ground litter a bit more appetizing or a bit too wet. Whatever the stimulus, they are quite active. Millipedes have two pairs of legs per body segment, and it is fascinating to observe their locomotion. They exude hydrogen cyanide as a defense mechanism. Pick one up in your hand for a moment (they don’t bite or sting), then set it free and sniff your hand for the sweet smell of almonds.
Mary asks me about the shrub Bear Huckleberry. I spot some as we climb toward a little spur ridge where the trail makes a switchback and stop to show her the golden scales on the underside of the leaves. As she is checking this out, I glance up to see a small black face peering over the ridge. “Mary, a bear!” And in the blink of an eye, it’s gone. We approach the ridge cautiously, looking for any sign of an unhappy mother. We see and hear nothing. No further sightings the rest of the trip.
We do hear several birds singing this morning – Ovenbird, Hooded Warbler, and Black-capped Chickadee. Plants seem to appreciate the long drink of rain overnight. Whorled Loosestrife, in bud on the other trails, is in flower on Big Fork Ridge. Two evergreen species, Galax and Partridgeberry, are also opening fresh flowers from bud. Partridgeberry begins a new reproductive season with fresh pairs of small, white, hairy flowers while some of last season’s fruit, still in good shape, hangs on. The paired flowers share an ovary, and the bright red fruit winds up with two blossom end spots.
takes us two hours and 45 minutes to reach Caldwell Fork, and including a brief lunch break, another hour and 15 minutes to reach Campsite #41. We are the only people there so far and scout the best location. Our site is fairly flat and soft underfoot with few roots and a little fire ring. I pitch my tent under a lovely old Mountain Laurel in full flower. I can’t image a better spot for my first night in the forest. The Hubba goes up in flash, and most of my gear goes inside. I need to finish the remaining 1.4 miles of Caldwell Fork up to the Rough Fork junction. Water and rain gear are the only necessities (plus the camera). A lighter load will be most welcome. Mary takes it easy in camp while I cover the 2.8 miles up and back.
Late that afternoon, we filter water and prepare dinner – dehydrated meals that are quite good. Mary decides we should build a fire but can’t get it started. In my first aid kit, I have some emergency tender that does the trick. We gather small downed branches around the campsite and break them up. Since no one else has shown up, we raid a bit of stashed wood from adjacent fire rings. Soon we have a nice little campfire going. After dinner, Mary wants to visit the Big Poplars a short distance up the trail. I tend the fire until her return. She has grabbed a few more branches from the empty campsite on the other side of the trail, and we enjoy the fire until bedtime.
There is a primitive allure to fire that is hard to explain. It captivates and holds the eye, looking away is nearly impossible. So is leaving it alone. I poke, stir, and rearrange the fuel in our campfire, shifting and turning charred branches, provoking flames and smothering them, and wind up basically harassing the fire to death. When it is reduced to fading embers and ash and dusk is deepening into night, we turn in.
I brought the heavier down sleeping bag and spend a comfortable night deep in the Smokies snug in my tent under stars and the protective boughs of a flowering laurel.