Today we are backpacking a little over 12 miles to Campsite #76 at Kirkland Branch. We will stay there two nights, using it as a base from which to day hike tomorrow. To reach Lakeshore Trail, we must first climb 1.2 miles of Goldmine Loop. My pack is at least as heavy as it was on the A.T. last May, perhaps a bit more due to my tent.
Lakeshore Trail hovers around 2,000 feet in elevation for its entire length, especially since it was rerouted away from Jenkins Ridge. A profile of the first five miles shows greater variation (gentle 500-foot swings) before leveling out to a barely twitching flat line for the next 16. I guess it was this image that got me thinking I might be able to make 24 miles by starting early and taking advantage of a long summer day. If I can do well today carrying this weight, it will bode well for tomorrow with a much lighter pack. I’m off to a good start as we pass White Oak Branch Trail junction, Forney Creek Trail junction, and Campsite #74.
The Forney Creek Campsite (#74) is very large, sandwiched between two long arms of the trail in a hairpin turn. It is shaded by tall, limbed-up trees widely spaced, leaving the site quite exposed. The ground is hard-packed dirt with few sprigs of green anywhere, so it must get heavy use.
Just past the campsite and across Forney Creek bridge, the trail takes a sharp right that is very easy to miss given the visual distraction of a wide beaten path straight ahead and the nearly undetectable crease through dense foliage that is the actual trail. The wide path leads to the lake and an open, broadly level area, complete with a picnic table, easily accessed by boaters. There is a trail sign at the sharp turn. Trust the arrows pointing right and look closely. A faint trail leads into and up the heavily wooded hillside skirting Pilot Knob.
In several places, the trail widens and smooths into a graveled road for a short distance. Each of these roads runs from the lake’s edge to a nearby cemetery. The park service uses them once a year to shuttle families in vans to their ancestors graves for Decoration Day.
This area of the park is characterized by a hodge podge of smaller ridges radiating off Welch Ridge, a very big wrinkle in the landscape dropping south from Siler’s Bald on the Smokies crest, hooking westward, and petering out at the lake. Fontana’s water brushes the ankles of these little ridges, deeply probing stream coves, and dimpling around each supporting finger of land pushing up and back toward Welch Ridge.
Along most of the section we are hiking, Lakeshore Trail follows this general pattern too, weaving in and out of these finger ridges and cutting in deeply to navigate around the embayments. By itself, the serpentine nature of the trail is not that bad. However, the trail engineers decided to drop the trail down into the small coves and bring it back up to get out and around the ridges. You aren’t just weaving in and out, you’re undulating up and down at the same time. There are dozens of these fricking finger ridges! In his book, Ken describes this as “tiresome.” What an understatement! In and out, up and down, in and out, up and down…it is relentless.
Once again perception has caught me in its crosshairs. Forget that “flat line” in the Little Brown Book. Take a huge pair of pinking shears and cut across the profile. This will give you a better idea of what it is really like. By midday, I’m struggling. The four H’s are hitting me hard — heat, humidity, hills, and heavy (that 40-pound pack). Lack of sleep might be a wildcard factor too, I got far less of it last night than previous evenings. I’m drinking plenty of water, consuming high energy snacks, and eating good protein for lunch, yet my butt is dragging. Oh, Lord, just get me to Campsite #76 so I can die.
The trail poses other challenges. It is narrow and slanted in places. Some sections aren’t just overgrown with herbaceous plants as many trails are this time of year, they are full of tree saplings (Birches and Tulip Poplars) taller than I am. Lakeshore Trail could use some serious maintenance work.
This is the Smokies, though, and I still manage to find a few notables among the flora and fauna. Small Woodland Sunflower (Helianthus microcephalus) is waving cheerful yellow petals. There are several large areas of the low-growing Appalachian Hill Cane (Arundinaria appalachiana). Most of these patches are under two-feet tall. Cardinal Flower beckons passing hummingbirds. On the dry, exposed ridges, Whorled Tickseed is still flowering. Wild Potato Vine’s massive white flower dazzles like a searchlight. An Eyed Click Beetle (Alaus oculatus), imprinted with two large white rings on the pronotum (a hard plate covering the thorax), sits in the middle of the trail.
We lunch on a pleasant, flat ridge just past a large stand of Running Ground Cedar. Annual Partridge Pea’s (Chamaecrista nictitans) tiny yellow flowers and short sprays of Mimosa-like foliage are all around our lunch spot. One lone Thimbleweed flower brightens the now darkening afternoon. Thunder gets us up and moving again. We haven’t hit Chambers Creek yet and have at least another two maybe three miles to go. This stretch of the trail hugs a steep hillside perched high above the lake, affording some of the best views thus far. Too bad the afternoon is now dull and misty.
The rain beats us to Kirkland Branch. I lean on a big rock under my umbrella and a sheltering Hemlock until it begins to slacken. During the brief lull, we get the tarp put up over the fire ring, where there are some fine sitting logs, but we don’t get our tents up before the next round of hard rain. Hunkered under the tarp, I’m falling asleep, and Ken’s nursing a sore back. We sit there in total misery for an hour. When the storm finally ends, we put up tents, filter water, and cook dinner. Life is better now.
Just before Campsite #76, the trail turns to the right near the water’s edge and becomes a wide grassy path with a gentle, consistent grade. This is what remains of the old highway, NC 288. Looking to the left at that turn, you can see where the roadbed descends below the water level and disappears. Just after Campsite #76, two paths shoot off the trail in opposite directions. One heads steeply down to a shallow embayment. From that perspective, you can look back and see a stone retaining wall that supported the road on the left and a stone and concrete culvert accommodating the flow of a small stream under the road to the right.
On the opposite side of the trail, another old road runs uphill beside this small stream, intersecting yet another old road near homesites and Welch Cemetery, sometimes called Scott Anthony Cemetery. Lengths of pipe stuck in the ground behind each headstone hold small bouquets of blue plastic flowers. This area is hilly, but not prohibitively so. One could earn a modest living from this land. We wander around the area for a bit and return to camp at dusk. I collapse in my tent before dark and fall sound asleep.
The original plan for tomorrow was to day hike 12 miles to Hazel Creek and then return. Given my poor performance today, I am certain there will be no 24-mile day hike in my future. I tell Ken to stick to his schedule as planned, and I will simply go as far as I can and turn around. We’ll meet back in camp that evening. He rejects this offer, insisting that he’s happy doing whatever I want to do, bless him.
He has given me an advance peek at the Lakeshore Trail description in the soon-to-be-published, all-new edition of his hiking book. I read through this very detailed account and note that Chesquaw Branch, six miles out, has a small cascade, a terraced hillside, and a nearby cemetery. With this as our destination, I would have completed over half of Lakeshore Trail, established an easily recognizable point to approach from the opposite end of Lakeshore, and accomplished a full but not exhausting 12-mile day hike with an interesting midpoint to explore and eat lunch. Sounds perfect, and Ken agrees.
Lakeshore Trail continues to follow old NC 288, a wonderful respite from the up/down, in/out tedium of yesterday. The grass is overgrown and wet in much of the trail, but it is still easy going. At one point, a Tulip Poplar grows in the center of the road. It split into two trunks very early in life, and judging from its size, it must have germinated shortly after the highway was inundated and abandoned.
Past storms have left ample and obvious evidence of their passage. Several blowdowns completely block the trail along the 18 miles we cover. Each takes a moment or two to determine the best way forward. Some require crawling under, some demand a hard scramble up the bank to sidle behind dirt-clogged rootballs and yawning pits, and some dictate a slide downslope to battle through dead or dying branches and foliage. One particularly large blowdown involving several trees completely obliterates the trail through a small cove. On our way to Chesquaw Branch, we dive down and wade amid the carnage. On our way back to camp, we climb behind the wreckage and survey the scene from above.
Chesquaw Branch is a small stream, its cascade mere trickles of water flowing down a short slab of sandstone — no white water, just wet rock. A short distance past the stream, an old roadway slants off to the right and cuts around the base of a hillside that has been terraced in stone walls. These walls aren’t eye-catching, but a focused look will discern at least two lines of stone in giant steps up the slope. The road veers right and continues steeply up the hillside with Chesquaw Branch below. Mitchell Cemetery is at the top.
No one has been up this road in a long time. We fight past one downed tree after another, climbing over precariously wet mossy boulders, shuffling through deep leaf litter. It bears repeating that this old roadway is steep, with a capital ‘S’ Steep and is close to a half mile in length. The road seems to disappear into forest near the top. Ken is looking for it when I spot a clear path straight up through a dense rhododendron thicket to what appears to be an open level area. Here is Mitchell Cemetery, perched on a very small knob of land containing a handful of graves.
We eat lunch here. Mr. James “Jim” Wesley Mitchell, born on my birthday in 1863, provides a bench for Ken, and Mrs. Minnie Way Caster Mitchell proves a most gracious hostess for me. The old plastic flowers up here are very faded and have been scattered all around. Most graves still have a decent bouquet, but Miss Minnie’s is bare. Without vandalizing anyone else’s floral decoration, I gather the scattered, half buried flowers, shake off as much of the sandy dirt as I can, and assemble an arrangement in front of her headstone as a ‘thank you’ for her hospitality.
Flanking the headstone of Mr. Mitchell’s mother are two large Kidney-leaf Rosinweeds (Silphium compositum). Tall flower stalks, nearly bare and highly branched at the end, arch overhead, anchored to the ground with big clumps of wide, lobed basal leaves. Curtiss’ Milkwort, found on dry exposed sites, is flowering here too.
The weather cooperates all day but succumbs to early evening thundershowers after dinner. The rain isn’t heavy, so we sit under the tarp and chat until nightfall. With our remote location and cloudy skies, the night is pitch black. I can’t see my hand in front of my face. Turning slightly though, I think I see a faint light behind me. In the sea of inky black, there appears to be a pale, somewhat greenish glow near the ground. I’m not convinced it isn’t an optical illusion. When I stare right at it, it nearly fades away, but with my peripheral vision, it seems brighter. I put my hand out and move it back and forth to see if it will block the light. It does. Now I ask Ken if he sees it. He does and gets his headlamp to illuminate this mysterious source of illumination.
It is a clump of little mushrooms emerging from the cut end of a log. The caps are buff to tan colored. Very unremarkable and unassuming in appearance, they are surprisingly easy to identify. Not many fungi glow in the dark. This is Bitter Oyster (Panellus stipticus), a common saprobic mushroom (feeding on decaying organic matter). It favors logs, stumps and fallen branches of hardwood trees, particularly oak, birch, maple, and hickory among others. Under the right conditions, when fresh and actively growing, it will produce a “cold light” visible in total darkness.
Living organisms, such as fireflies, bacteria, or fungi, that produce light are bioluminescent. This quality is a chemical reaction requiring two components — a pigment called luciferin and an enzyme called luciferase. In the presence of this enzyme, luciferin will oxidize and the associated energy is released as light emissions.
Bioluminescent fungi are better known as “foxfire.” The origin of the term foxfire is attributed to Middle English from the mid-fifteenth century. References to an eerie glow at night go all the way back to Aristotle. According to an online source, the cause of this glow was not accurately identified as a fungus until the early nineteenth century, when glowing mine shaft supports were carefully examined. Here in the Southern Appalachians, the idea of foxfire captures the spirit of this region and its people, inspiring the popular series of Foxfire books detailing the difficult yet magical simplicity of their lives.
The glow from Bitter Oyster is so faint, it would never have been visible in the presence of any other light. It is pure serendipity that the wet weather, late summer, dead wood, and dark night coalesce into this feeble emission of “cold light” just inches from me in a 522,000-acre national park. How’s that for good luck?
The next morning we strike camp and head out, retracing our steps from two days ago. It is with trepidation that I heft my pack and begin walking. Will I struggle as badly today? The answer is a definite no. A lighter pack (the food is in my belly now), knowledge of the trail’s personality, and good sleep appear to make a world of difference. I feel strong and gain confidence with each step. To make things even better, the sun comes out transforming a gray, dreary morning into a gorgeous summer day. It is still up/down, in/out in endless repetition, I’m still carrying substantial weight, and after 12 miles, that tunnel looks beautiful. However, I’ve ended on a positive note and can drive home in satisfaction.