Returning to day two of my trip, I’ve completed Pretty Hollow Gap Trail and the northeast section of Mount Sterling Ridge Trail. After a quick lunch at the gap, I head down the northwest side of the ridge on Swallow Fork Trail. Swallow Fork descends 2,200 feet in four miles from Pretty Hollow Gap to Big Creek Trail in Walnut Bottom.
The trail’s lower part follows an old logging railroad bed, and the CCC’s construction to the gap in the mid-30s continued that pitch with little variation. The smooth surface has few impediments and no evidence of horse use, much less abuse. Walking up Swallow Fork would still provide serious exercise, but walking down is the proverbial ‘stroll in the park,’ a marvelous change from this morning’s trails.
Shrubs Wild Hydrangea and Rosebay Rhododendron are still in flower near the gap. A flower of Indian Pipe is turning its face toward the sky. This action indicates it has been pollinated and is preparing to set seed. The flower still looks fresh.
Further down are attractive rosettes of Rattlesnake-plantain. For some reason, I can never recall the exact difference between the two species Downy R-p (Goodyera pubescens) and Dwarf R-p (G. repens). The first is common in low to mid-elevations often seen in decent-sized patches. It is taller (6 to 20 inches) with a large white stripe running along the center vein of each leaf and a network of thin white veins patterning the rest of the leaf tissue. Dwarf R-p occurs infrequently in scattered locales at mid to high elevations. This species is smaller (4-8 inches) with no central white stripe and fainter overall veining pattern.
These distinctions blur and blend in my mind leaving me frustratingly confused every time I see a plant following a long absence. Today is no exception. Tingling with excitement, I am convinced I’ve finally found the smaller species. Wrong.
Someone must have been clearing the trail this morning, running a swing blade through and decapitating the flower stalks. I place a still fresh stalk of buds next to the foliage to photograph. I wish a couple of those buds were open! The flat circle of leaves and tall upright stalk make this plant a challenge to photograph intact and keep everything in focus and plainly visible.
Several beautiful mushrooms are on display. There are three different species of Amanita. Two are easy to identify through their field characters. Yellow Patches (Amanita flavaconia) has a bright yellow-orange cap with thick yellow warts (the remains of its universal veil), a yellow stem, and a skirt. Powdery Amanita (Amanita farinosa) is gray with a coating of fine granular powder, also the remains of its universal veil, and a striate margin on the cap.
The third species is most likely Coker’s Amanita (Amanita cokeri), a white to ivory mushroom with conical warts on the cap, a skirt, and a swollen base. The two young fruiting bodies haven’t developed enough just yet to clearly show the first two characteristics. It is possible, given the wart coloration and enlarged base, that these could be Carrot-foot Amanitas (Amanita daucipes). All of these Amanitas are mycorrhizal, forming mutually beneficial relationships with trees through their roots and the fungi’s underground hyphae.
I have frequently seen a thick-fleshed, purplish brown bolete while hiking in the Smokies. Thanks to my field trips with the Cumberland Mycological Society, I believe I’ve been seeing Tylopilus plumbeoviolaceus and am pleased to find some excellent specimens on Swallow Fork. I run across two massive mushrooms of purplish coloration, both victims of the trail-clearing swing blade. Their stalks are huge, over an inch in diameter, and are several inches tall. The caps are poorly developed, and I cannot identify them but suspect they may be a species of Tylopilus too. I photograph them with my boot and hiking stick in the pictures for scale.
While intent on mushrooms and mistaken Goodyera, I’m caught off guard by the swift movement of a large salamander. The dark amphibian snuggles against a large stick in the trail and pauses there long enough for me get a few photos. None are great. I can’t get that head in focus. It has distinctive red cheeks, and my first thought is Jordan’s Salamander. I did get his back half in focus and the larger hind legs suggest an Imitator Salamander (Desmognathus imitator) when researching it at home.
I meet a family of four hiking up Swallow Fork to camp at Mt. Sterling I suppose. The teenager in front asks wearily how much further to the top. I’m terrible at estimating distances, a task made more difficult by the amount of time I’ve spent photographing. “You’re at least half way,” I say with a smile. He grimaces.
Even though I’m going downhill, the lower half drags out for me too. There are four big stream crossings, and only one of them is bridged, the stream for which the trail is named. Two of the three rock hops are fairly substantial. Swallow Fork wanders around a flat area and finally drops to Big Creek Trail. Campsite #37 is 0.1 mile to the left just past a bridged crossing of Big Creek. Butterflies are puddling nearby.
Several sites are scattered to either side of the trail. I take what appears to be the only empty spot nestled at the base of a steep rise and next to a wet, swampy area that drains into Big Creek. The fire ring is full of half burned trash left by previous campers, and there is an unmistakable odor of human waste. There are no easy toilet locations without a long trek down the trail, thus people foul their own sleeping area. It is a damp and rather undesirable location, but I’m stuck here two nights.
After setting up my tent, I repair my chewed food stuff stack with Tenacious Tape and the plastic bag with duct tape, eat dinner, and prepare for tomorrow’s day hike. The sun sets behind the steep rise at the back of my site simulating twilight long before it arrives. Dampness from the swampy area induces a chill. With no comfortable place to sit, I retire to my tent early to write in my journal.