Wednesday Mary and I attend a presentation on the Spruce Fir Moss Spider (Microhexura montivaga) hosted by Discover Life in America at the park’s Twin Creeks Science and Education Center. Restricted to the Southern Appalachians of Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, this tiny tarantula lives under mats of mosses or liverworts on north-facing boulder outcrops above 5500 feet mainly in the Spruce Fir forests and sometimes in Northern Hardwoods forests. It is only 2.5 to 3.8 mm long and is thought to feed on Springtails (Subclass: Collembola). Young spiders take two to three years to reach reproductive maturity. They mate in the fall, lay eggs in June (the female carries the egg sac under her thorax), and spiderlings emerge in September. They weave little tubes of webbing between the back of the moss mat and the substrate, living as single individuals. It isn’t known how they seek out mates.
These little guys are very picky about their habitat, particularly moisture. It can’t be too wet or too dry. The Spruce Fir forest type, a remnant from the last glacial period, is under tremendous stress from air pollution, acid rain, Balsam Woolly Adelgid, drought, strong storms, and rising temperatures. Researchers are hoping to expand the spiders’ habitat by propagating their preferred mosses (Dicranodontium) and liverworts (Bazzania).
Mary and I spend part of the day walking around Elkmont investigating the old cabins and other structures slated for restoration and demolition. We also prepare for our upcoming hikes. That evening we return to Gatlinburg for a fantastic dinner at the little Mexican restaurant across from Mills Convention Center on Airport Rd. Thundershowers have been rumbling and threatening the general area off and on all day and as darkness falls so does the rain. Lightening and thunder take the night off, but the precipitation doesn’t. Showers come and go through the night, and the rain continues this morning as we get dressed, prepare breakfast, and strike camp.
Damp, but not defeated, we leave Mary’s car at Jakes Creek and drive mine to the end of Tremont Road. We are headed up Middle Prong and Greenbrier Ridge for an overnight at Derrick Knob on the Appalachian Trail and will return tomorrow via Miry Ridge and Jakes Creek. As we get started midmorning, the sky is overcast and dim but no rain is falling. We have a poncho or rain coat/rain pants, water shoes, pack covers, and a Go-Lite umbrella. I’ve got a dry sack for my camera and just enough room to squeeze it into my backpack. If Mother Nature insists on rain, we are prepared.
Middle Prong Trail looks a lot like Little River Trail – a flat, wide graveled roadway rising gently alongside a noisy mountain stream. Both trails are former railroad beds made and used by Little River Lumber Company to haul to market the Smokies’ giant trees, such as Tulip Poplar, Chestnut, and Basswood. The trail gradually rises 1300 feet in 4.1 miles becoming slightly steeper near the end. It begins at the confluence of Lynn Camp Prong and Thunderhead Prong. These two streams merge to form Middle Prong. The river snakes its way on a northwesterly course to meet Laurel Creek and Little River at the Townsend Wye while the trail heads in the opposite direction up Lynn Camp Prong.
Middle Prong presents few walking challenges and several scenic views of Lynn Camp Prong. A couple of well-placed benches invite a refreshing pause to reflect on the beauty. One bench is situated at a three-tiered waterfall created by the remnants of a splash dam. Before train transport, loggers would create a dam, load it with logs, and then break the dam (often with dynamite) to move the tree trunks down stream. It’s hard to sit in this spot and image such violent destruction.
About halfway up is a narrow side trail on the right leading to the rusting frame of an old car noted in the trails guidebook. You walk up and over a small rise, and there it is sitting in a small gully. It must attract many visitors as the ground around it is virtually bare from the foot traffic. A little further up the trail is a wide wooden bridge. Enough organic debris has collected in the far left corner to support growing plants, and there are accompanying signs of rot and decay.
We hear the slower song of the Blue-headed Vireo and find bright stands of red Bee Balm in flower. The flower buds of shrub Cinnamon-bark Clethra or Mountain Sweet Pepperbush (Clethra acuminata) will open soon. This relative of the garden favorite from the Coastal Plain, Summersweet or Sweet Pepperbush (C. alnifolia), has racemes of white flowers plus exfoliating, cinnamon red bark that peels in decorative patches. Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix) is in flower with its long-awned spikelets set at 90 degree angles from the stem. On such a damp day, we see plenty of snails exploring the trail, and I find a bright red Harvestman on Sweet Cicely foliage. There is a myth that Harvestmen (or Daddy Longlegs) are very poisonous, yet their fangs are too small to penetrate human skin. While Harvestmen are arachnids, they are not true spiders and do not have venom glands. Their “fangs” are merely grasping claws that are far too weak to break skin.
In two and a quarter hours, Mary and I have reached the junction with Lynn Camp Prong Trail and Greenbrier Ridge Trail. We have lunch here before continuing our journey.