A busy morning is planned. We get our packs ready, drop my car at Mary’s house, turn in our cabin key, and eat a huge, calorie-rich breakfast at Pancake Pantry in Gatlinburg. Susan and Allen are driving us back up the mountain to Newfound Gap. Just outside the city limits there are two young thru-hikers we met briefly on the trail thumbing a ride up too. We have just enough room to squeeze them in. A paving project on the Tennessee side of Highway 441 delays us a good 30 minutes. When we arrive at Newfound Gap, we pick up where we left off yesterday both on and off trail. A lady stops Clarence and me to take our pictures by the AT sign! She joins us and holds my hiking poles. Being a mascot is fun but demanding and time consuming. We finally hit the trail at 1:04 p.m. to hike three miles and climb 900 feet in elevation.
We are not alone. This little stretch of the AT is heavily used. The proximity to a major thoroughfare, a historical monument, ample parking, and bathrooms tempts people of all ages and physical conditions to take a least a few steps along the famous trail. Some are looking to spend an easy-access, minimal-effort night in the mountains at Icewater Spring. Some are heading a mile past the shelter to Charlie’s Bunion for magnificent views. Some are just joyously experiencing a tiny bit of a big trail with an impressive reputation.
Visitors get a true taste of mountain hiking since the trail ascends fairly steeply at the beginning. Parts of the trail are very rocky with large boulders; other sections follow smoother ridge lines. There are two trail junctions in this stretch. At 1.7 miles Sweat Heifer Trail drops into North Carolina, and at 2.7 miles The Boulevard Trail follows another ridge line (The Boulevard) into Tennessee and Mt. LeConte.
It takes us 90 minutes to reach Icewater Spring Shelter with our packs fully loaded for five days. A gentleman from Georgia with a British accent is there. He is simply enjoying a night or two in the Smokies. Two more men, father and son, and a thru-hiking couple we met at Mollies Ridge, “Raincatcher” and “Bear Bait,” arrive. So does “Packman.” Miraculously, we had seen him at Newfound Gap and already given him his fresh supplies.
When the little brown Smokies trail guide was first published, Icewater Spring Shelter was noted as “larger and newer than most in the park” with “a comfortable front porch and compost privy.” That was 18 years ago. Today, this always busy shelter shows its age and constant use in unflattering ways. Old style shed dormer windows are discolored and filthy allowing little interior light. Front benches are perched above a loose stone retaining wall wrapped in place with a rough length of chain-link fencing. Other rocks are strewn below in an ankle-twisting jumble rendering that approach risky and undesirable. The left side of the upper platform is warped into a rather dramatic slant toward the center. Sleepers there would be fighting gravity all night. A pile of large logs in overgrown weeds clutters the right side.
However, most overnight guests don’t stay at Icewater Spring for its design or comfort. The main attraction is the view, and in this department, Icewater has no peer. The shelter is sited on a small spur jutting southeast whose terrain drops steeply to provide a long vista to the east overlooking Richland Mountain and a deep notch to the southwest. Directly in front of the shelter a game trail meanders down into the surrounding vegetation. Camera in hand, I go exploring here and near the spring.
Icewater Spring runs directly across the AT a short distance down trail from the shelter. A long metal pipe facilitates collection, and a row of set stones channels water to the opposite side. Names like Icewater Spring and Cold Spring Knob celebrate the delightful refreshment inherent in clear mountain water which maintains the annual mean temperature of its environment. Clear and refreshing notwithstanding, all spring water must be filtered to ensure a delightful outcome.
Since Siler’s Bald, we’ve been hiking at or above 5,000 feet, sometimes well above. The Spruce-Fir plant community is found at these elevations. Thousands of years ago during the last glacial advance, Spruce, Fir, and Jack Pine covered the Mid-South and Atlantic coast. As the climate warmed these conifers retreated to their current boreal range, but some merely moved up slope along the Appalachian Mountain chain to replace alpine tundra at the highest elevations.
The remnant boreal forest consists of several species normally found much further north. Characterized today by two conifers Red Spruce (Picea rubens) and Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri), it is also host to Bluebead Lily, Mountain Wood Fern, Whorled Aster, Rugel’s Ragwort, Pygmy Salamander, Northern Flying Squirrel, Winter Wren, Red Crossbill, and the Spruce-Fir Moss Spider (see blog entry “Middle Prong Trail, June 23, 2011” posted July 14, 2011) among other species, some quite specific to this unique community. Our fir, close kin to the Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea) found primarily in Canada, is a Southern Appalachian endemic.
The Fraser Fir, first described by 18th century Scottish botanist John Fraser, features soft-textured bundles of flat needles, shiny dark green above with two white lines below. The cones stand erect clustered together at the tree’s top and near branch ends. It can handle the raw exposure of high peaks, whereas Red Spruce prefers moist, protected spots.
This community and the Fraser Fir in particular have suffered many hardships the last few decades. Acid rain at the end of the 20th century, climate change at the start of the 21st, and an exotic pest threaten their very existence. A tiny European insect, the Balsam Woolly Adelgid (BWA) was first spotted in the 1960s. By 1990, nearly 70% of the park’s firs were gone, tapered silver snags, a grim reminder of the once dark, cool forest along the Smokies crest. In that year, the park began an intensive monitoring program repeated each decade to document the state of these fir stands, regeneration of the species, and the effect of tree loss on the other flora.
BWA, similar in many ways to the current scourge Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, feeds on the tree’s sap. Rather than pierce at the base of the needle as HWAs do, BWAs feed through the bark. They may attack the smaller branches or the main trunk. On Fraser Firs, they typically attack the bole, a much more deadly infestation. A substance in the adelgids’ saliva stimulates an “allergic” type reaction, spurring abnormal cell growth that results in swelling of sapwood tissue and inhibition of water flow in the tree.
The “crawling” phase of BWAs is when they can transfer from tree to tree on wind currents or bird feet, and in this phase they pierce the bark and remain there for life producing waxy white threads for protection against predation. The ‘crawlers’ search for rough patches and crevices in the bark to set up shop. These conditions are most favorable on firs 15 to 20 years old. The smooth bark of young saplings is not conducive to this behavior. Thus, there are healthy stands of young trees.
There is good news. In twenty years of monitoring data, the park discovered adelgid populations are declining. Native predators and parasites are helping here. Some naturally resistant trees have been found. As long as young trees can reach fruiting age before infestations kill them, there will be a seed source for regeneration. Fraser Fir and Red Spruce create “seedling banks” on the deeply shaded forest floor beneath. These small trees exist quietly, growing very slowly until an opening allows sufficient light to spur rapid growth. Around Icewater Spring, seedlings of Red Spruce and Fraser fir await their turn.
While roaming the shelter’s forest environs, the sky has darkened and thunder warns me to return. An impressive storm cloud rolls over the crest and billows into North Carolina, dropping heavy rain and temperatures. From our vantage point, I can record the storm’s progress. Once past, the skies clear, but persistent low clouds obscure the valleys below us.
Four thru-hikers arrive early evening and string hammocks in the Spruce-Fir forest behind the shelter. “Packman,” still complaining with his cold, builds a fire in the shelter fireplace. He uses the teepee technique of the architect from Derrick Knob, and soon has a warming, cheerful blaze around which the men gather to talk and laugh. “Raincatcher,” Mary and I curl comfortably in our sleeping bags and watch the flames.