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Posts Tagged ‘False Coral’

Fire scars in Sugarlands Valley, late June 2017

I’m in the Smokies to check off my final North Carolina trails in the park and stop at overlooks on Hwy. 441 to photograph the fire scars. Late June’s lush foliage in Sugarlands Valley and mountain coves serves to highlight the scorched ridges, their exposed rocks shining like bleached bones in the summer sun. Close examination of photos does not disclose any hint of green among the black tree stumps, though there may be pine seedlings hard at work crafting the oak/pine forest’s next chapter.

Two nights at Smokemont allow me to meet two friends for a day hike and bushwhack along Breakneck Ridge to the Three Forks area of Raven Fork. Confident that we have sufficient direction to reach our goal, we strike out along the ridge following periodic orange ties that we’ve been told will keep us on track. Either we followed the wrong flagging tape or some prankster moved all the tags. They lead us way off course down a southern ridge line opposite from our intended destination. Between a gps unit and my map and compass, we determine our true location and have a devil of a time fighting our way back to Breakneck and Hyatt Ridge Trail.

Rhodo hells and downed trees sap every ounce of energy, yet my companions are good friends, and we still have fun despite failing in our endeavor. Their humor helps me keep mine in the face of exhaustion. A lazy winter and too-busy spring gave me perfect excuses to shun exercise. Now I’m seriously out of condition, suffering weak legs and breathless lungs. Scheduling a difficult bushwhack before my trail hikes is not the best idea I’ve had.

Forney Creek at the Bear Creek Trail junction

Returning to Smokemont around 7:00 p.m., Susan Stahl has arrived. She is joining me for the trail hikes. I eat, prepare for tomorrow, and hit the sack long before dark. Both nights have been downright cold following passage of a frontal system. I sleep fully clothed in a 40º down bag. We leave camp around 7:00 a.m. and drive to Bryson City.

This trip has two sections. The first involves one overnight at Campsite #75, Poplar Flats, in order to finish 1.5 miles on Forney Ridge Trail and notch Bear Creek and Whiteoak Branch trails. At Bryson City, we drive the “Road to Nowhere” to the tunnel trailhead on Lakeshore and begin our hike at 8:30.

Piece of iron with a drowned Katydid

We’re the only ones entering the dark void, eyes intent on the hemisphere of light in the distance. Susan’s never experienced the tunnel. I tell her about the unique acoustics akin to a whispering gallery. We stop midway and become perfectly still. I emit one sound and begin counting. It takes a full 10 seconds for the echo to fully decay into silence. A cool fact, but not the most interesting phenomenon.

We both notice an unusual optical illusion. Standing at the tunnel entrance, the far opening looks relatively close and remains so for a few yards. A short way into the tunnel, however, the far opening becomes smaller and appears to recede with every step. It’s a bit disconcerting. This phenomenon continues until somewhere past the halfway mark when the opening’s size stabilizes then slowly, and reassuringly, begins to enlarge.

False Coral fungi

The first couple of miles on Lakeshore show signs of trail work. The dirt path is smooth and wide, yet it still drives me crazy—up/down, in/out with every little finger ridge. It’s 3.0 miles to the Forney Creek Trail junction at Campsite #74. Forney Creek begins along a wide gravel road unremarkable in every sense. It serves as access to cemeteries isolated by the lake impoundment over 70 years ago. We reach the Bear Creek Trail junction at 10:00, switching from one old road to another.

Like so many of the park’s easy graded trails, Bear Creek follows a lumber rail bed. It crosses both Forney Creek and its own creek on wooden bridges wide enough for vehicles and snuggles alongside Welch Branch until the wider road ends. Here a short wooden footbridge spans the small branch and connects to a narrow path winding around the hillside, likely to a cemetery.

Racemed Milkwort flowers resemble miniature Gaywings

Bear Creek Trail turns on itself in a sharp switchback and begins a steady yet moderate grade, looping the base of Jumpup Ridge for 2.8 miles to Campsite #75. This lower section follows the course of its creek, which is far downslope at first. Halfway to camp, the trail and creek level out in a valley, the former crossing the latter twice on wide wooden bridges. Close proximity to the creek encourages low-growing Doghobble flanking both sides of the trail to swing long branches over the path.

A large chunk of iron from some implement of the past, sits by the trail collecting rain. A dead katydid floats in the water. Lots of fresh fungi line the trail too: Coral Mushroom (Ramaria formosa), False Coral (Tremellodendron schweinitzii), Black Trumpet (Craterellus fallax), and Loaded Lepidella (Amanita onusta).

Horsefly-weed

The noisy rush of Bear Creek accompanies us to the campsite. Susan and I arrive at noon and eat lunch. Before continuing the trail to its junction on Welch Ridge, we divest our packs of most camping gear and hang it on the food cables. Lighter packs donned and ready to go, we are startled to see five horses and riders step through camp and head up trail. They’re doing a loop — Lakeshore, Bear Creek, Welch Ridge, Jonas Creek, Forney Creek, Whiteoak Branch, Lakeshore.

From Poplar Flats Campsite, the trail turns upslope to begin a 3.1-mile climb 2,150 feet to Welch Ridge. Susan and I take it slow, slow enough that I can still yap nonstop as we hike. Overall, upper Bear Creek is an enjoyable trail. We only encountered one deeply eroded section in sandy soil. In areas of drier soil with more exposure south or west, we find an open canopy with Toothed Whitetop Aster (Seriocarpus asteroides), Racemed Milkwort (Polygala polygama), Horsefly-weed (Baptisia tinctoria), and Whorled Tickseed. The milkwort has tiny purple flowers resembling Gaywings in miniature.

Forney Creek Trail eaves the old roadbed.

Flowering plants in the shaded understory include Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata), Whorled Loosestrife, Pipsissewa, and Summer Bluets. Crested Iris foliage is a common sight. Fire Pink glows at higher elevation.

A little more than halfway up, the trail crosses over Jumpup Ridge at a wide level spot with an open grassy understory. It would be a great place to rest or eat lunch. Further up, the trail levels briefly where Bald Ridge strikes off to the east. Susan rests here while I complete the climb to Welch Ridge, arriving at 4:00 p.m. and immediately heading back down. My feet are hurting from the abuse they suffered the day before on difficult Breakneck Ridge. I sit down and remove boots and socks to give these barking dogs a 20-minute break. They appreciate the consideration and the ibuprofen. Susan already has her tent up when I hit camp at 6:00.

Dry fern draw on Whiteoak Branch Trail

It’s great having a good water source so close to camp, but Bear Creek is a hearty stream, singing loud and strong. I can barely hear the Wood Thrush’s lullaby at dusk. The weather cooperates with moderating temperatures. I don’t need a jacket or socks to stay warm tonight.

Next morning we leave for Forney Creek by 7:30. The floating kadydid is gone, a midnight snack for someone.

Forney Creek Trail north of the Bear Creek junction continues the wide old road, but it isn’t in as good condition as the first 0.4 mile. Whiteoak Branch is 1.1 miles away with a scant 200-foot elevation gain in between. As with sections north of this stretch however, the trail opts to strike up the steeper slope bordering the creek for a while leaving behind the overgrown roadway below. The path isn’t in terrible shape, I am, each step an unaccustomed strain on legs and lungs.

Teaberry

Whiteoak Branch Trail begins where Whiteoak Branch feeds into Forney Creek. The stream drains a draw between finger ridges running west from Forney Ridge including Whiteoak Ridge to the north. The 1.8-mile trail makes a low arc threading its way among broken ends of the southern finger ridges as they peter out. There are small dry draws with carpets of ferns. The trail is in very good shape, and hopefully sections with sandy soil and that lovely brick red soil are designed well enough to minimize erosion from horse traffic. Rosebay Rhododendron is in full flower this time of year, as it Teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens). Rattlesnake Plantain is in bud. WBT crosses Gray Wolf Creek in an easy rock hop and skirts a flat valley before ending at Lakeshore.

Our day is far from over. Susan and I drive back to Smokemont, after an ice cream break in Cherokee, to clean up (I wash my hair) and prepare our packs for the second half of our trip. We’re off to Clingmans Dome for a three-day loop hike that includes the dome bypass trail, Welch Ridge, Cold Spring Gap and completes Hazel Creek.

 

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