The final Fern Foray of the year is Labor Day weekend, and I am headed up early to notch a few more trails. Along with my indispensable 2011 hiking companion Mary, Clarence makes a return appearance for his first hikes of the year. Our first day is ambitious — 13.2 miles — Hemphill Bald Trail from Poll’s Gap at Balsam Mountain to its junction with Caldwell Fork then follow Caldwell to the trailhead near Cataloochee Campground. This distance will be a personal best for me.
The weather is magnificent, particularly at the higher elevations of Hemphill. Cool breezes on a sunny, mild day make the first five miles quite enjoyable, especially compared to the hot, dry weather each of us has suffered through this summer. Hemphill Bald Trail gently rises and falls between 5000 and 5500 feet for 5.4 miles riding Cataloochee Divide and the park boundary most of the way. The final three miles descend from the ridge into the stream valley below.
At the start we see evidence of hog rooting. A few places are extensively disturbed. The ground is so churned little to no herbaceous growth is visible under the trees. Within the first mile, however, the damage disappears.
Multi-stemmed clusters of Beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana) are widespread along the trail. Most are just beginning to flower. Even in their prime, Beechdrops are easy to overlook. Short, slender purplish-brown stems with small, tubular purplish brown flowers blend all too well into the shaded forest floor. The upper flowers are male, producing pollen; the lower flowers are female, developing seeds. A root parasite on Beech trees, Beechdrops are sometimes called Cancer Drops, Clapwort, and Virginia Broomrape. Wow, I definitely understand the preference for “Beechdrops,” which sounds cute and sweet in comparison!
As we walk along the rail fence boundary, the land adjoining the park varies from forest to open woodland to treeless meadow. Hemphill Bald itself is part of Cataloochee Ranch, private property owned and operated by the Alexander family since 1939. Within the last couple of decades, 300 acres were placed under a conservation easement with the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy to protect the open, undeveloped nature of the land. Cows munch contentedly on the high pasture grasses. A wide variety of butterflies and birds are attracted to the diverse natural resources found in the rich edge community where meadow transitions to forest. A small fenced plot with a shade tree, large stone table, and sitting logs invite hikers to stop for lunch and enjoy the bucolic scenery. Mary, Clarence, and I accept that invitation.
Late-flowering members of the Aster family are ever present — White Wood Asters (Eurybia species), Blue Wood Aster, Goldenrods, Whorled Aster (Aster acuminatus), Lion’s Foot (Prenanthes), and vast numbers of White Snakeroot (Ageratina) with its bright clusters of small, snowy flowers. Tall Bellflower enjoys the brighter light of the edge community. Hog Peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata) is in rare flower near the trail’s end.
Weedy Bitter Dock (Rumex obtusifolius) is visually interesting upon close examination; its red seed surrounded by fringed tissue. Mountain or Filmy Angelica (Angelica triquinata) is also much more captivating in fruit than flower; each large, flattened seed resembling a bi-wing airplane. Jack-in-the-pulpit fruit turns out to be Prester-John (Arisaema quinatum). The lower pair of leaflets are deeply lobed imparting a five-leaved look. Mary spots a particularly colorful cluster of Solomon’s Plume fruit.
Moths, both flying adults and their juvenile, leaf-chomping caterpillars, are out. I find a hairy yellow and black Spotted Tussock Moth caterpillar and manage to snap a picture of the Pale Beauty Moth (Campaea perlata) flitting through the forest.
Late summer and fall is fungi time. The dry weather has put an ironic ‘damper’ on the mushrooms. I do see quite a few fresh Gem-studded Puffballs (Lycoperdon perlatum) along the trail, and Mary points out a large, super cool, toothed fungus growing on a broken tree snag. It is Hericium americanum. No common name is given, but it is related to another species called Satyr’s Beard or Lion’s Mane. I think Frozen Waterfall would be a particularly apt common name for this species.
Walking out Caldwell Fork, the trail of many stream crossings, we encounter a broken footbridge. It is split in two a third of the way across. The broken ends are about 18 inches apart, each resting on a large rock with water spilling between. We contemplate the options: a rock hop is not practical, removing boots and socks to wade across is not appealing, but the broken bridge seems quite stable. Clarence is our guinea pig. He carefully works his way down the first log section, steps onto the rock, and works his way up the other log section. Mary and I follow successfully.
We reach Clarence’s truck at the trailhead in 8 hours and 42 minutes. I’m the slow one, and it isn’t just photographs to blame. Mary and Clarence both chide my lunch choice of cheese, crackers, grapes, and carrots. They say I did not take in enough calories to power me for 13 plus miles. I’m too exhausted to argue. Plenty of water, Nuun electrolytes, and a Gu gel apparently can’t replace the missing fuel. Now I must consider what I eat the night before a big hike and what I take with me for the day. Distance itself is not my sole limiting factor.