Derrick Knob is situated in a small clearing with grasses and other herbaceous plants surrounded by forest. This area is called Big Chestnut Bald. If there were Chestnut trees here a century ago, they are long gone now. Other tree species have taken their place, reducing the bald to this puny opening. I don’t know what kind of management the shelter’s immediate environs receive, but I’d bet this little space would quickly succumb to forest as well without some work to deter woody species.
Today’s hike will carry us over fairly easy terrain for 7.3 miles, riding the ridge with a gradual trend upward 1,100 feet. Leaving Derrick Knob, we make a short steep descent to Sam’s Gap and the junction with Greenbrier Ridge Trail. We skirt to the right of Mt. Davis, named for one of the park’s early champions, pass over a tiny blip called Hemlock Knob, and walk toward Cold Spring Knob. For most of this two-plus mile section, the trail is heading northeast. At the knob (5,220’), it swings east, goes past Miry Ridge Trail junction, and turns southeast for nearly two miles.
This angular notch northward in the Smokies crest circumnavigates the drainage for Proctor Creek, named for a thriving community far downstream near present-day Fontana Lake. Several smaller branches carve into the crest’s steep slopes and gather in Proctor Creek before it joins Hazel Creek at a broad, level area 2,000 feet below the crest. Ritter Lumber Company, owner of a huge sawmill in Proctor, NC, had a logging camp there in the early 1900s. Settlers George and Matilda Brooks had a peach orchard there too.
The ridge is densely populated with Beech trees and a lush ground cover of fine sedges similar to Spence Field. In the middle of all these Beeches and sedges stands a very large Silverbell with its distinctive flaky bark. Walking by a downed log, we flush a little Junco from its nest, and I get a photograph of her clutch of four brown-spotted eggs.
We haven’t seen a bear yet, but we’ve come across gastrointestinal evidence of their presence. A spectacularly large pile of fairly recent bear pooh right on the trail deserves documentation with Clarence’s walking stick in the picture for scale. The contents appear to be primarily foliage-based, but Blackberry bushes are flowering with the promise of fruity bear pooh later in the year.
Past the Proctor drainage, the trail heads due east over Siler’s Bald to Double Spring Gap and beyond. We arrive at Siler’s Bald Shelter at noon and stop for lunch. This shelter shows its age and screams for an upgrade. Dumpy and dirty, it has neither privy nor skylight. Tucked into the darkened stone structure, the lower sleeping platform is barely raised off the ground and has little head room. The upper platform is far more spacious and very easy to access. There is little doubt where people would elect to sleep given a choice. The site is level with an open grassy area for thru-hiker tents.
The actual bald is past the shelter and features a mix of grasses, brambles, and shrubs. Forest is beginning to reassert itself here too. The high point of Siler’s Bald (5,607‘) is designated by a USGS marker set into a rock painted with chuckle-inducing AT blazes and arrows. They indicate a strong right turn from our direction and a strong left turn from the other, such that the arrows are pointing straight at each other. Stare at it long enough and you get cross-eyed. The marks make sense upon reflection, but the first impulse is to laugh.
I find newly emerging fiddleheads of Cinnamon Fern on Siler’s Bald. At this stage of development, the fronds are covered with a dense layer of long brown fuzzy hairs. Small birds, including hummingbirds, gather this fuzz to line their nests.
Welch Ridge Trail follows the upper half of Welch Ridge to Siler’s Bald and at the last minute sidles to its junction with the AT just below the summit. On this part of the AT, we aren’t just ridge walking, it’s knife-edge walking, hog-back walking. Dubbed The Narrows, this stretch of the state line drops away steeply to either side and angled rocks protrude from the center of the trail. Steeply sheer ridges, particularly those with sharp jutting rocks, are sometimes called hog backs. This is a picture perfect example. A protective canopy of Beech trees and friendly ferns at our feet spare us any vertiginous sensations. A stream, Narrows Branch, drains the Tennessee side.
Nearing the end of our day’s journey, there is a fine view into North Carolina where we can see Suli Knob on Suli Ridge. Through the haze, a faint glint of far distant Fontana Lake is visible above the knob. Suli is a Cherokee word meaning vulture or buzzard.
We arrive at Double Spring Gap at 1:30 p.m. and set shoes, socks, and sweaty tops to dry in the sun. Thunderstorms threaten during the afternoon but keep their distance. The shelter here is a pleasant contrast to that of Siler’s Bald. A clear skylight floods the interior with light. The lower sleeping platform is closer to the ground here as well, but thanks to the light, there isn’t a dungeon feel about it. There are ample benches. The privy is a level walk of about 40 yards to one side. It is rather nasty, and bees are swarming all around the hole. They don’t bother me, but I am careful to look before I sit.
As implied in the name, Double Spring has two water sources. One is about 15 yards in front of the shelter in North Carolina down a short, steep trail. The spring flows south to the Tuckaseegee River. It is piped to make water collection quick and easy.
The Tennessee spring is in back of the shelter about 15 yards. It is flat, widely spreading, and marshy, making water collection more difficult. However, it is deeply shaded under spruce trees and quite beautiful. This water flows north to the Little River. One hundred miles west, waters from both springs come together in the Tennessee River.
Around the shelter are large clumps of American False Hellebore and Green-headed Coneflower foliage. Yellow Rocket, an introduced mustard from Eurasia, is in flower. The open area in front of the shelter is surrounded by young Beech trees, whose emergence from dormancy is so fresh the yellow green leaves still sport downy white hairs. In the center of this opening are a few young Yellow Buckeyes holding aloft erect clusters of pale yellow flowers.
While photographing a Buttercup, I notice a flying insect that appears to have died face first in the blossom. It isn’t moving and looks to be in an awkward position. The body is mostly grayish with long hairs, and the abdomen is swollen and pinkish with embedded gray stripes. There are others of its kind hanging on to the foliage. A bit later I find more of these insects, many more, clasping the edges of Beech leaves. Some look very lifeless, desiccated, and gray, but others are plump and brown. Their abdomens are bright white (rather than pink) with brown stripes.
Beech leaves (but not Yellow Buckeye) are full of them. Some leaves have three or more clutching the leaf edges near the tip. Their legs are bent in a solid clamp on the underside of the leaf. As a gardener, I’ve often noticed bees sitting perfectly still on a flower at dusk, and I’ve just read that researchers have confirmed flies sleep at night. They will land on the tips of leaves to snooze until morning. They even show signs of grogginess and disorientation when deprived of rest.
Despite much searching, I have not been able thus far to identify this fly. It does appear to have just two wings and is likely a Diptera, but none of my photos show obvious halteres. If I am able to put a name on this curious little fly and illuminate its behavior and color change, I will share it in a future blog post.
“Packman” pulls into Double Spring still puny with his cold. Discovering our plans to stay in Gatlinburg the next night, he asks if we might pick up some cold medication for him. He’ll meet us at Icewater Spring the following day. We are happy to oblige. Then he asks if we could stop by NOC and pick up a small fuel canister — no, make it a large canister. Then he asks if we could get him some breakfast food — oatmeal packs would be good, with raisins, please. As other items come to mind, I grab a pencil and paper to write down his ever growing shopping list.
Long after dark when everyone is asleep or well on their way, late comers arrive. The beams of their headlamps flash through the dark shelter like search lights as they fix a bit of food and prepare for bed. They were quite loud at first, but soon moderate their voices to a more considerate level.