Today’s plans call for an early start. We must drive to the vehicle at Rough Fork, move it a short distance to Pretty Hollow Gap, then head up NC Highway 284 to the Mt. Sterling trailhead. Wildlife is abundant this morning — turkeys, grouse, a barred owl, a hawk, a squirrel, and chipmunks scurrying across the road, which may account for the hawk and owl stakeouts. We hike a half mile up Mt. Sterling Trail to the Long Bunk junction. The trail begins at 4200 feet, weaving among the ridges radiating off Mount Sterling for 3.6 miles. The day is warmer, and tucked into the mountainside, the breezes are few.
Long Bunk descends through lovely, rich cove forests. Sugar Maple, Red Oak, Silverbell, Bitternut Hickory, White Basswood, Alternate-leaved Dogwood, and Cucumber Magnolia populate the slopes. American Chestnut sprouts are frequent. A large chestnut log with distinctive grain lies beside the trail. It is covered with mosses including Hypnum and Atrichum and supports a stunning variety of plants. Newly sprouted Red Maple seedlings, young Yellow Birch saplings, and a small Eastern Hemlock are growing on top of the log. Fancy Fern and Downy Rattlesnake Plantain have made it their home as well. No doubt there are additional plants and other organisms rooted literally and figuratively in this venerable old nurse log.
Blue Ridge Catchfly (Silene ovata) is in flower on Long Bunk. This plant occurs rarely in the park. Flower petals are deeply dissected into eight segments. Nearby Showy Gentian (Gentiana decora) is mostly in bud, but features a few tubular white flowers lined in soft blue. The flowers appear closed, but the corolla tip is pleated. Bees muscle their way inside to get the nectar. Appalachian Bunchflower (Melanthium parviflorum), a consistent presence on many of the trails we hike this week, arches long, branched panicles lined with small green flowers. In many instances the basal and lower stem foliage is gone, but a few have tattered leaves remaining.
Whorled Aster (Aster acuminatus, Oclemena acuminata) is ever present too and one of the easier fall asters to identify. Its narrowly elliptical leaves form a compact spiral around the stem below the cluster of white flowers. Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), related to the beautiful red Cardinal Flower, is equally beautiful just not as attention grabbing from afar. The vivid blue-purple flowers have striped throats.
Red Squirrels, often called Boomers, are quite active. They chitter and chatter loudly with rapid-fire ‘chips’ as we walk by. It’s almost like they are cussing us out. I turn around a couple of times to spot the little motormouths. Each time it goes totally silent as I scan the trees, and the moment I turn back to resume walking, it lets out another staccato blast to have the final word.
Clarence and Mary are quite a bit ahead of me and come across grouse and a large, beautiful doe. Far behind, I enter a narrow cove and hear something crashing just below the trail. Peering through the undergrowth, I get a quick glimpse of black fur about 40 yards away moving downslope. I stand quietly and listen for any companions. A moment later I hear more sounds across the cove and a yearling-sized bear steps down from the trail ahead and follows the first one into the valley.
I am smitten by fungi; they are fascinating. Their endless forms, shapes, sizes, and colors make identification an exciting challenge. Their ecological roles in breaking down organic compounds and assisting plants in the uptake of water and nutrients are critical. I’ve just begun to explore the world of mushrooms, and one interesting aspect is the number of creatures large and small that use them. I’ve found various insects and ants hiding in the gills, and today I find two tiny larvae eating the stem of a yellow mushroom. What fun!
The Saturday Fern Foray is on Long Bunk, and the selection of ferns is typical for a rich mid-elevation trail — Christmas Fern, New York Fern, Rattlesnake Fern, Common Grape Fern, Brittle Fern, Silvery Glade Fern, Ebony Spleenwort, Southern Lady Fern, Ground Cedar, and Fancy Fern among others. A population of Appalachian Rockcap Fern grows up the side of an old maple tree. Pat Cox says Bluntlobe Grape Fern (Botrychium oneidense), a Special Concern species in Tennessee and rare in the park too, is supposed to be on Long Bunk. Positive identification is extremely difficult among these fall Grape Ferns — B. dissectum, B. biternatum, and B. oneidense grade into each other visually. Some experts question whether the species differentiations are really necessary. Ferns have undergone dramatic reclassification in recent years. DNA studies have revealed some surprising genetic relationships and families have been restructured. This usually leads to changes in nomenclature. The Grape Ferns are now in the genus Sceptridium. Only the Moonworts remain in Botrychium.
I’ve never labored under the impression that few things escape my notice, in truth I’m quite convinced of the opposite. During the Fern Foray with several plant lovers’ eyes scanning the trail, stray sunbeams reveal a colorful patch of Pinesap, a fungus feeding parasitic plant, emerging from the forest floor. Pat finds Featherbells in flower and Running Strawberry-Bush (Euonymus obovatus) in fruit. Similar to Hearts-a-bustin’, the plant trails along the ground with leaves that are wider near the tip.
Yet again, we have hiked the trail in the opposite direction from the guidebook. The elevation change is slight enough (just over 1100 feet) to make either way enjoyable. The trail is in good shape with little erosion and few rocky sections. The Hannah Cemetery appears on the left just before Long Bunk ends at Little Cataloochee. Spiky clumps of Adam’s Needle (Yucca filamentosa) grow outside the old wire fence.