My last day in the mountains is also the Fern Foray. As luck would have it, I can participate in the Foray and complete a new trail too. Our group of six Frondlers is set to survey the ferns along Huskey Gap Trail. There are four first-timers and two old-timers. It takes a few tries to get our system running smoothly, but we complete 17 plots over two miles and finish at the Sugarland Mountain junction.
Huskey Gap Trail should be on everyone’s must-hike list. Yes, it is all uphill those first two miles (1300 feet), but YES, it climbs through a Cove Forest as rich as any I’ve seen. When Bloodroot is in flower, Huskey Gap is the place to be. The round, lobed leaves of this wildflower appear regularly. Crested Iris, Wild Ginger, Sharp-lobed Liverleaf, Wood Anemone, Alternate-leaved Dogwood, Astilbe, and Yellowwood provide a sample of the diversity. There are some impressively large trees on Huskey Gap, including a White Basswood with multiple suckers, each a full-sized trunk, enlarging its overall girth to enormous proportions.
Black Cohosh is in flower here. So is Thin-leaf Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum montanum). Many of the plants’ foliage are chewed to smithereens. Leaf-eating insects have had a field day on Huskey Gap. An area this rich is prime bear habitat. Mary has hiked Huskey on several occasions and always seen a bear or two. Today is no different. Those in the front of our group catch sight of the park’s signature mammal before it darts into the forest.
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is in fruit near the trailhead. This shrub loves rich, moist habitats and is one of my favorite plants. Tiny yellow flowers are unisexual and occur on separate plants in early spring. Female shrubs bear fruits that mature to a shiny red, are high in fat, and ripen at peak migration. Birds love them. It is also a host plant for Spicebush Swallowtails. Related to Sassafras, all parts of the shrub are aromatic – the fruit has been used as a substitute for allspice, and a tea can be brewed from the twigs.
With eyes peeled for all things ferny, our group records 15 species officially, and I find two more after the survey is over. The trail is very liberally sprinkled with Rattlesnake Fern, Broad Beech Fern, Christmas Fern, and Marginal Wood Fern. We also see Maidenhair, Hayscented, New York, Silvery Glade, Ebony Spleenwort, Fragile, Fancy, Appalachian Rockcap, Southern Lady, and Walking Ferns. Shining Clubmoss is there too. Just a short way from where we stopped our survey, as I’m headed down the other half of Huskey Gap, I see Bracken Fern and a new species for me, Diphasiastrum tristachyum, a ground cedar found in drier, more exposed sites such as heath balds, rock ledges, or south-facing trailsides.
One of our Frondlers, an intern with Discover Life in America, finds a tiny salamander in one of the seeps. He thinks it could be a Dusky, but the little guy is just too small to say for sure. Twice we find a bird’s nest in the trail. Near the top as the diversity decreases and acidity increases, Teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens) and Pipsissewa (Chimaphila maculata) are in flower. On the back side of Huskey (2.1 miles from the Gap at Sugarland to Little River), Flowering Raspberry is just about finished and all blossoms are faded and tattered. Starry Campion, however, is in fine shape.
Just before Campsite #21 the trail levels around a clearing that was the homestead of Ben Parton. Turk’s Cap Lilies are sporting fat buds ready to pop. The guidebook mentions a beautiful wooded glade with Tulip Poplars and Sugar Maples. What it doesn’t mention is the open glade’s solid carpet of New York Fern. Gerry Middleton calls it a “Fern Holler.” I call it stunning. Gerry’s friend Sid remarks how pretty it will be in autumn. This is one place I’m coming back to in October.
From the glade, it is only 0.3 mile to the Little River Trail junction and 2.8 miles to Elkmont. As we walk down Little River, a Red-eyed Vireo is belting out phrases so fast he can barely catch his breath. He sounds like an over-caffeinated, double-parked preacher. It’s exhausting just listening to him.