The 2014 review won’t take long! It’s been one slim year for hiking. No A.T. miles, and 57.8 park miles. Only 35.9 were new with eight completed trails and one partial. Stats to date: 554.9 miles (67%) and 109 trails (73%) with 893.9 total miles. Partials remaining include Beech Gap, Hyatt Ridge, Lakeshore, and Gregory Bald trails. I planned a four-day, three-night backpacking hike on trails along Forney Creek and Ridge in mid-October which had to be canceled at the last minute due to bad weather. Severe storms and high water would have made the trip a nightmare.
The paucity of hikes isn’t for lack of interest, just unfortunate timing. The loss of my beloved Pickles and bad weather precluded the few open windows I had this year for hiking. I may not have hit the trails that much, however, I did indulge an appetite for natural history knowledge. A two-week course, Macro Fungi of the Southern Appalachians, at Highlands Biological Station (NC) in August and two college courses, Field Botany and Natural History of Vegetation in Tennessee, at Austin Peay State University this fall, were informative, challenging, and fun.
This extra education will provide new insights while on trail, because in 2015, I’ve got plans. If all goes well, I’ll hike 268 miles on the A.T. from Hot Springs, NC, to Atkins, VA, closing the gap through upper East Tennessee and giving me 858 continuous miles from Springer Mountain to Rockfish Gap. I’d love to complete at least two multi-day backpacking trips in the Smokies too. There’s another Highlands course I’m keen to take as well. We’ll see what 2015 delivers.
In the meantime, here is an account of Cades Cove Campground’s Pine Oak Nature Trail from July 11, 2014. I participated in a fungi bioblitz for Discover Life in America and spent the night there. This blog does not discriminate against Quiet Walkways or campground nature trails, so enjoy a bit of Smokies summer in December.
Pine Oak Nature Trail, a one-mile loop, slips up, over, and down a small wooded hill then follows a feeder branch of Cooper Creek (itself a feeder branch of Abrams Creek) back to the beginning. From the road circumnavigating Section C of the campground, Pine Oak steps into flat woods stripped of most understory plants, a shady landscape of leaf litter and tree trunks. A few flowering Rosebay Rhododendrons and an occasional sprig of Pipsissewa join scattered seedlings of Eastern White Pine and Chestnut Oak.
The road and campsites are visible, yet the trees’ dense shade offers an immediate sense of separation. To reinforce that notion a noise at the base of a snag reveals a Pileated Woodpecker poking at the tree half-heartedly, eyeballing the results, and making another lazy stab or two. No skull-jarring thrums, no crazy laughter, just a quizzical red-crested male whiling the evening. He flies to two other tall snags with the same lackadaisical air.
The trail leads straight back about 20 yards to the loop intersection and an arrow sign pointing left. Following directions like a good hiker, the trail soon curves right and approaches the base of the low hill where it appears to climb steeply about 20 feet as a mud path zig-zagging up through trees. Stop and look to the right for the actual trail skirting the hill’s base before moderately curving upward on terraced steps. Avoid the steep off-trail climb, as it just contributes to already evident erosion. I missed the real trail and scrambled up that dirt path wondering why on earth the park hadn’t mapped out an easier route. Park officials should put another arrow sign at this juncture for the unobservant and slow-to-catch-on among us.
Between Anthony Creek and the Cooper Branch feeder stream are three low hills southeast of the campground, apparent remnants of Ledbetter Ridge descending from Russell Field. Behind them are the camp’s water tanks. Pine Oak Nature Trail rises 150 feet to the summit (2,000 ft) of the southwestern most hill. As I climb, the leaf strewn ground disappears under a widespread layer of Bear Huckleberry (Gaylussacia ursina) with fruits in various stages of maturity. On the hill’s crest, a few Hairy Blueberry plants (Vaccinium hirsutum) join the huckleberries. Leaf undersides and stems are quite hairy. Even the fruits, both green and ripe, sport sparse hairs.
Another noise prompts me to look for my redheaded friend, but I find a bear cub ambling just down slope. At the sound of my camera click, the little guy rears up on its hind legs to stare at me. Another cub and their mother are close behind, but neither takes notice of me or the first cub’s reaction. All three quietly disappear in the undergrowth.
When I checked in at the camp office, I was warned of bear activity in the area and practically swore an oath and my firstborn to store all food and odorous items. It’s quite a year for bears in the park. The population is robust and threatens to outstrip food supplies. Ruminating a math question of sorts, I wonder how many tiny Bear Huckleberry fruits it would take to satisfy three hungry black bears tonight?
Serving as something of an arboretum, the trail features attractive markers identifying different tree (or large shrub) species at intervals. Each small sign notes the common and scientific names, a cultural or natural history fact, and a drawing of significant identifying features, such as leaf, flower, fruit, or bark. Interesting facts tell of traditional Cherokee uses (Virginia Pine to scent soap) or settler usage (Eastern White Pine to build churches and mills) and cover everything from tea for coughs (Shortleaf Pine needles) to birch beer (Sweet Birch). Some note plant distribution, wildlife value, or flowering time. There are signs for 15 species including Black Gum, Mountain Laurel, American Beech, Sourwood, Tulip Poplar, Chestnut Oak, Rosebay Rhododendron, Eastern Hemlock, Fraser Magnolia, Pignut Hickory, and American Holly.
After descending the hill, the trail wends along the creek through the deep shade of rhododendrons. Three short footlogs assist passage across the shallow trickles of water. A scarce fern in the park, Netted Chain Fern (Woodwardia areolata), grows on the creek bank at the first crossing.
Standing at the third bridge making notes, a racket in the dense undergrowth on the opposite side of the creek draws my attention. I can just make out what appears to be a black furry face staring at me through a narrow gap in the foliage. It huffs loudly twice. I don’t need a third warning. In a couple of minutes I’m back in the open understory flat woods and head for my campsite wondering if there are enough Bear Huckleberry fruits for four hungry bears!
That night the young couple camping next to me hunch over their fire ring for nearly two hours struggling to light a fire. Nearby campers offer advice, and another camper whose struggles exceed those of the young couple ask them for advice! It’s 10:00 p.m., and I’m almost asleep when bright orange flickers signal their success, of sorts. It still takes much work to keep the flames up, but they are now roasting hot dogs!