In May, Mary and I hiked most of Cataloochee Divide Trail, but I still have the 1.8 mile section from McKee Branch to Hemphill Bald to complete. This part is next to Purchase Knob, the beautiful summer home donated to the park and now used for research and education. Mary, her visiting nephew Clark, Clarence, and I are participating in the weekend Fern Foray and have the good fortune to stay at Purchase with the other Fern Frondlers. Cataloochee Divide is just a short walk out the back door, and in minutes we are at the McKee Branch junction on a beautiful sunny morning.
It’s an easy hike along the Divide following the boundary of the park. The Swag, a private lodge, is perched at the top of the ridge overlooking Maggie Valley. Adirondack chairs and a rustic gazebo complete with hammock await Swag guests. The lodge doesn’t mind park hikers stopping by to enjoy the view. Clarence is intrigued with the gazebo and requests a few photos. I’m using the macro lens today and must walk to the opposite side of the clearing to fit the entire structure in the picture frame.
Pink Turtlehead, Florida Blue Lettuce, Pale Jewelweed, White Snakeroot, and Dodder are in flower along with various Asters and Goldenrods. Attached to a small tree branch on the ground is an interesting fungus, Carbon Balls (Daldinia concentrica). The sporocarp (fungus fruiting body) is a hard, globular structure about two inches across with a scurfy, reddish-brown surface. Either side of the tree branch and the ground adjacent are covered in sooty black spores ejected from the fruiting body. Carbon Balls are brittle and easily broken. There are visible concentric bands inside, and they look like a chunk of charcoal. The common name is a perfect fit.
Something drops out of a tree and lands at Clarence’s feet. It’s a Banded Tussock Moth caterpillar locked in a fierce battle with a wasp. One might think the caterpillar would be the loser, but it is the wasp that backs off to lick wounds. It moves spastically and erratically for a moment or two, tumbling along the ground as if in sharp discomfort. The caterpillar calmly crawls away. It has lost quite a few hairs and is nearly bald of the long tufts typically surrounding its head but otherwise seems unruffled.
Horses use Cataloochee Divide and during wet weather, the trail can get very muddy and miry. Boards have been laid along one edge for hikers to avoid the muck without trampling the forest. This morning a chipmunk dashes in front of us and dives under one of these boards. Clarence taps the board with his hiking pole as we pass. The little rodent sticks its head out once we’re safely past and heatedly scolds us for rudely harassing park wildlife! Juncos are flitting about foraging for bugs and seeds.
Arriving at the end of Cataloochee Divide, Mary wants to take Clark up to Hemphill Bald. Clarence and I opt to turn around. Back at the McKee Branch junction, we turn right and walk down to the John Love Franklin Cabin on the Purchase Knob tract. We sit a spell on the front porch benches and enjoy the peaceful surroundings.
After lunch, the four of us walk to the top of Purchase Knob, the small prominence east of the house from which the entire property derives its name. The way up is not maintained, and this late in the season, finding the true path versus game trails is hit or miss. We miss — big time. The lower part is open meadow and full of tall herbaceous plants and brambles. Wading through a wall of foliage, we are snagged and tripped numerous times. Rocky openings give us a bit of relief from the battle but do not lead to a decent path. What they do lead to, though, is a few Stiff Gentians (Gentianella quinquefolia) in full flower, and what is likely to be the less common Ground Cedar (Diphasiastrum tristachyum).
We can see where we want to go, and absent any clear options to easily accomplish the goal, we carefully bushwhack our way past Wood Nettles to reach the forested top at 5,086 feet. From there, the path down is easy to see…at least for a while. When we hit the open lower slopes, we are again mired in the lush culmination of a full growing season but have better luck working our way out.
At one time, the previous property owners raised firs commercially for Christmas trees. A few are scattered about the Knob, their deep green branch tips standing in stark relief to the assortment of pale, gray-green lichens thickly coating the rest of each tree. In the open meadows Pipevine Swallowtails, Tiger Swallowtails, and Great Spangled Fritillaries nectar on goldenrods and asters. Horse Nettle, Wild Bergamot, and nonnative Queen Anne’s Lace are in flower, and Ragweed is spewing pollen everywhere.
A bit bloodied from the journey to the Knob, we return to the house to clean up and await our fellow Fern Frondlers.