Posts Tagged ‘Grapefern’

Thunderhead Prong Quiet Walkway forks right from the Middle Prong trailhead, but the quiet walkway sign is visible a short distance up Middle Prong Trail.

Twelve of the 13 Quiet Walkways are found along the park’s two primary thoroughfares — Highway 441 and Little River Road. Thunderhead Prong Quiet Walkway is tucked far off the beaten path at the end of Tremont Road, where Lynn Camp Prong and Thunderhead Prong converge into Middle Prong Little River. It shares a trailhead with Middle Prong Trail, which forks left to follow a wide road beside Lynn Camp Prong. TPQW forks right along a narrower gravel path that follows Thunderhead Prong.

It’s always surprising to read about the small but thriving communities that grew around logging operations in the Smokies and the amenities they contained — doctor’s offices, stores, hotels, schools, post offices — and to stand in that same location today with nary a visual hint of any of it beyond an iron bridge or two and the gentle graded incline of a long-gone railroad. It takes real imagination to erase the now dominant forest and resurrect ghost structures within this narrow river valley.

Metal bridge over Thunderhead Prong

Tremont (also called Tarpaper Camp) was one of three such logging towns built by Little River Lumber Company. It began operation in 1926 as logging work shifted from Elkmont. Rail tracks mirrored the three streams and centered the little town with all buildings sited in close proximity. There were some actual houses, but many workers and their families lived in portable “car shacks” lining the tracks. The school building, serving triple-duty as a church and movie theater, was cleverly referred to as the “house of education, salvation, and damnation.” A two-story hotel had 22 rooms for company employees, and like Elkmont before it, briefly attracted the interest of outside resort goers as logging drew to a close in the late 1930s.

Thunderhead Prong

Once the decade of disturbance ended, Mother Nature wasted no time repairing the damage done. Now, 80 years after the last logs left the park, it takes a keen eye knowing just where to look to find evidence of this area’s industrial past. Lynn Camp and Thunderhead prongs’ ebullient confluence dominates the soundscape and entices hikers to explore each upstream.

Quiet Walkways are designated by small square signs inviting visitors to take “a short walk on this easy trail…as far as you like” and enjoy the “serene quiet of a protected woodland.” The sign here is positioned maybe 20 yards up Middle Prong Trail, well past the trail split for Thunderhead. National Geographic maps show TPQW following the split along Thunderhead Prong. Was MPT intended to serve as the QW or was the sign misplaced? It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve found a misplaced sign in the Smokies. Middle Prong Trail does have benches positioned in a couple of places on the lower reaches of the trail, a feature often associated with quiet walkways. However, no other QW follows an established park trail, and the Thunderhead Prong path, perfectly noted on the map, is well-traveled.

American Hornbeam grove

Regardless of the park’s intent, Thunderhead Prong Quiet Walkway is a wonderful and easy, one-way, 0.7-mile trail that terminates at the rushing, boulder-strewn bank of its namesake stream. Davis Ridge divides the two trails, their associated streams and watersheds, its last narrow finger providing immediate separation within a few yards of TPQW’s start, where several stalks of perfect Cranefly Orchids do their best to blend inconspicuously into the background.

The gravel path soon leads to a bridged crossing of Thunderhead Prong. A slim metal trough, lined on either side with rows of posts and cables, arches high over the stream on a concrete support that once served the railroad. On the other side, the trail follows Thunderhead Prong into a narrow valley squeezed between Defeat Ridge and Davis Ridge in a densely shaded acid cove forest and wends through two Hornbeam groves (Carpinus caroliniana).

The quiet walkway ends at the bank of Thunderhead Prong

Long Branch, a small feeder stream off Defeat Ridge, crosses the trail requiring a short rock hop. Past Long Branch, the valley opens a bit at the confluence with Sams Creek and a richer hardwood forest results with Carolina Silverbell, Alternate-Leaf Dogwood, and a more diverse herbaceous layer. A few side trails climb to a narrow bench on the right, and cursory inspections don’t reveal any hidden attractions.

The next encounter with Thunderhead Prong marks the quiet walkway’s end, perched above this natural sluice of clear mountain water racing through a gauntlet of sandstone boulders.

Skeletonized Grapfern with a small normal plant nearby

Grapefern (Sceptridium dissectum) is plentiful along Thunderhead Prong. Similar to spring’s Rattlesnake Fern (Botrypus virginianus), Grapefern produces two dissimilar fronds — one sterile, the other fertile. Unlike its relative, however, Grapefern’s two fronds emerge on separate stalks in mid to late summer. Once the fertile frond has released its spores, it will wither in autumn, but the sterile frond will remain through winter to photosynthesize on amenable sunny days.

Extra fertile fronds on a Grapefern

Grapefern has another interesting trait. Green leaf tissue on some of the sterile fronds is much more highly cut, nearly skeletonized, giving them a distinctive look quite different from the fern’s usual appearance. These two forms can occur side by side. Botanists now agree it’s the same species and have opted not to distinguish this morphological expression as a separate variety, though it is possible to find it referenced as Sceptridium [Botrichium] dissectum var. dissectum in older botanical sources.

One Grapefern on the trail is especially keen on distributing spores with two additional fertile heads forking from the frond’s stalk!

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