Friday, June 29, 2007

The Legendary Big Five-Oh.

Well, I turned 50-years-old yesterday (June 28). Had my complete physical today and got a clean bill of health, (pending results of blood work). And I feel good. I’ve only gained back ten of the forty or so pounds I lost last year, so it’ll be easy to lose those. Last week, I hiked one of the toughest trails in the eastern USA, and did it without any trouble, so that’s a good sign for an old codger.

Strangely, I’m more physically active now than I have been since my high school days. I assume it’s partly due to the fact that I make more money and I have more vacation time than at any point in my life since those days of my youth. Every month finds me camping and hiking and traveling all over Appalachia where I bushwhack to waterfalls and bag various peaks that intrigue me.

My writing career is going pretty good. I’ve got a very cool deal in the works and I’m hard at work on my latest novel which has suddenly turned the corner so that I was able to work out a nagging problem with the plot. All in all, I have to say that the World is treating me pretty good right now. Yes, there are the obvious political and ecological nightmares that I have to acknowledge each day. But, for now, I find contentment in searching out the world of Nature that yet exists and celebrating that world by immersing myself in it.

So far, Fifty feel pretty darned good.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Black Mountains have it in for me.

Western North Carolina is home to the Black Mountains, the highest range in the eastern USA. They top out at Mount Mitchell—6,684 feet above sea level (2037 meters for all of you outside the USA). I visit the range two or three times a year, and go on extended hikes there as often as I can overnighters if I can arrange the necessary time for that.

Over the years, the roughest hikes I’ve taken in the southeastern US have been those I’ve found in this compact range of peaks. Before this past week, the toughest of these trails had been the Black Mountain Crest Trail, which traverses the spine of the range over approximately 13 miles from the base of Celo Knob to the summit of Mitchell. It’s a tortuous route of ups and downs taking you steeply to the very mountaintops and down into deep gaps over and over, hitting a number of the tallest peaks.

But I’d heard that one of the side trails connecting to the Crest Trail was notorious for its difficulty. Setting up a base camp with my fiberglass travel trailer at the Black Mountain Campground (operated by the National Forest Service) in the shadow of Mount Mitchell, I decided to finally see just how tough the Woody Ridge Trail truly is. Early on Monday, June 18, I drove out of the campground and headed for SR1155 a few miles away. After one wrong turn (the map I had showed the trailhead on SR1157, which was wrong) I found the trail at the back of a parking area on the dead end of SR1156.

Loading my pack, I headed up the trail, happy to see the familiar signposts used on trails in the Pisgah National Forest. I do a lot of hiking in wilderness areas where trails are relatively unmaintained and not signed at all, and lacking a certain sense of direction, I’m always happy to see the NFS signage. In quick order I entered a very deep and healthy cove hardwood forest, left behind the stream at the trailhead, and began to climb.

At first, I figured the stories about the difficulty of Woody Ridge were overblown. It was steep, but nothing like I’d heard. The first ¾ of a mile or so were merely a steady uphill slog through a classic southern hardwood forest. The goings was quite pleasant and I was enjoying the woods, wondering what all the fuss was about concerning this trail.

At about a mile the trail met up with a logging road and took a sharp left turn up the ridgeline. Soon after this, I began to learn why the trail had its well-deserved reputation. After passing through a strange and very pleasant section that goes through an extended patch of grasses beneath tall hardwoods, the trail suddenly begins to tackle the steep ridgeline straight-on. There are none of the familiar switchbacks of most Appalachian trailways. You go forward and up, pushing and sometimes having to grasp nearby trees and rhododendron shrubs to continue higher up the peak.

The trail map I had listed the Woody Ridge Trail at 2.2 miles in length. Trying to figure my pace, I soon realized that not only had this map gotten the trailhead wrong, but also the distance of the trail. There was no way this was a mere 2.2 miles. After a couple of hours of constant uphill, some of it tough scrambling over expanses of exposed rock and the twisted root systems of hemlock trees (dying, of course, from hwa), I was nowhere near the summit. Once again, the Blacks were proving to be home to yet another of the toughest trails I have hiked.

Knowing at this point that the map wasn’t right on distances, I realized that I was going to have a longer day than I had thought when I’d started. This wasn’t a problem, as I had loaded about a gallon of water into my daypack, along with the emergency essentials I always take when I hit the trail. A longer day was not going to be a problem. But at 50 years of age, these steep slopes were taking a toll on my old lungs and legs. I pushed on.

Finally, I broke out of the changing forest (it had gone from strictly hardwoods to a mix of dying hemlocks interspersed with oaks and some spruce) onto an exposed ridge. I thought that I must certainly be getting close to the summit, and so climbed out onto a high boulder to get a better look at the heights before me. And I realized I was still a good 1,000 feet from the top. Putting my shoulders into the mountain, I headed on and up, stopping from time to time to catch my breath, wipe the sweat from my brow, and halting now and again to catch my breath.

Once again, the Black Mountains were kicking my ass.

Finally, after passing into the spruce-fir regions of the range, I was near the summit of Horse Rock, the destination I’d set for the day, and the peak nearest Celo Knob. I came out onto a cliff face where I dropped my pack as the only other hiker I’d meet that day arrived with two dogs to join me on the cliff. I chatted for a bit with the young guy—a local who lived at the base of the mountain—and to feed cookies to one of his friendly mutts. He soon headed back down, and I had the cliffs to myself as I rested and waited while cramps traveled the insides of my legs, doing their best to twist me into pretzel of pain. But I just lay there and kept my legs straight, enduring the pain and waiting for the cramps to pass while I drank down water and ate a few cookies and tried to get some minerals back into my system.

The stroll to the very top of Horse Rock was relatively easy from that point, with the exception of having to pick my way through the confusing maze of a spruce forest. There is nothing as confusing to me as having to find my way through a maze of spruce trees. Every trunk looks the same, and the uniformity of the trees and the rusty lay of old needles on the ground produces a daunting sameness that can get you lost in a hurry. I always move slowly and deliberately in these kinds of woods, having gotten lost in this forest type no less than three times in my life.

I then headed back down the mountain, and the Woody Ridge Trail reminded me every step of the way why it has its reputation. I steadied myself on steep slopes with my hiking staff, and halted my downward gait by grasping the odd rock and tree and shrub as I went down and down. Once more I was passing through forest zones, this
time in reverse order. Out of the spruce-fir region and into hemlocks and then hemlock/poplar mix and finally into the familiar and beautiful cove hardwood stands.

At about 4,000 feet or so above sea level, I made my mistake. Gazing up at the big trees, I missed the right turn on Woody Ridge Trail and instead took a logging road in error. It was only as I reached the intersection of this logging road with another that I knew I’d taken a wrong turn and would have to turn back and climb at least a thousand feet back to the intersection. Looking back up the steep slope I just couldn’t bring myself to climb back up the mountain to where I’d made the mistake. I looked at the intersection of old logging roads and saw one that led sharply to the right and figured that would take me back to a point close to where I’d left my truck.

Heading that way I continued to descend the mountain, passing out of National Forest lands and onto what must have been private property, for the forests gave way to a vast expanse of mountainside that had been recently logged to the bare ground. All around me were tree stumps and twisted snags of trees cut and run over by bulldozers and flatbed trucks. I headed into a deep valley and after picking my way down what appeared to be a graveled drive, I found myself in the parking lot of a small Baptist church. Stopping to drink down some of my dwindling supply of water, I pushed on and came to SR1154 and knew I had to take a right to 80S and then another right to SR1155 and then back to my truck.

The four-mile hike along the highways was rough. In the full sun I soon depleted my water and by the time I made my truck, I was feeling totally exhausted and dehydrated. I had four bottles of water waiting in the cab, and soon had emptied those. I sat for a while in the cab of my truck, running my AC full blast and doing my best to cool off. As soon as I felt able, I put my truck into gear and headed back to my campsite at the Black Mountain Campground.

The trails of the Black Mountains almost always get me in ways I don’t expect. I’ve been lost in them twice, have leg cramps almost every time I go, and yet I know I’ll go back. I reckon I just like a challenge.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Cat Karma?

Almost every writer I know has at least one cat. We had three. Cinnamon, our oldest, died after 20 years. Callie, our youngest, vanished one day. We don't know what happened to her. Sophie, our middle cat, and weirdest cat, grew very happy with being the only cat in the household. She loves it, in fact. Always quirky, she came into her own once she was Lady and High Mistress of the home.

Last week, a young stray cat showed up at our door. A very sweet cat that was obviously accustomed to lots of attention. She's quite affectionate. As she was hungry and rather disheveled, we bathed her and fed her and set her up a place in the garage. We don't want the cats mixing until we've had a chance to take her to the vet for shots and a checkup.

At any rate, Sophie is NOT HAPPY with the arrival of the new cat (we've named her Molly). Every time she sees Molly through the front door or the garage door, she puffs up and hisses. Hopefully, she'll be a lot friendlier once Molly is settled in for good.

For now, though, Sophie is not the happy cat. We've mentioned the concept of karma to her, but she's having none of that.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Life is short.

Life is short. The wilderness beckons. The hemlocks are dying. As I approach the age of 50, I struggle to see as much of Nature as I can before She fades.

Friday, June 08, 2007

The Hemlocks are Breathing their Last.

Well, I knew the day was coming.

In western North Carolina, and especially in the Great Smoky Mountains and points north and south, it’s all but over.

The hemlock trees are all but history in those areas. What we call “hwa”, the hemlock wooly adelgid, has pretty much run its destructive course and all but a handful of hemlock groves are now completely dead or barely hanging on.

As I said, I’ve know for some years that this day was coming, but it doesn’t make it any easier to take. I feel very sad about this, but also extremely angry. Our government could have taken steps to save these trees and their accompanying ecosystems from destruction, but it was more concerned with committing mass murder in Iraq than in preserving two species of tree.

The Carolina hemlock and the eastern hemlock species are likely doomed to extinction, much as we saw the demise of the American chestnut tree. Yes, there are banks of seed and groves planted far away to serve as a source of new genetic material if the day arrives when the adelgid on these shores has breathed its sap-sucking last.

But all it would have taken is the application of an available adelgicide on our hemlock groves to save at least some of them until biologists could come up with a solution to put a stop to the invasive insects that have destroyed our southern and eastern groves of hemlocks. But more hideous priorities took the monetary pie into which we might have dipped.

And so it goes. Mankind has its twisted priorities.

Dead hemlocks along the Cherohala Skyway. (Photo by Will Blozan)

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The descent into Scot's Gulf.

Scot’s Gulf
James R. Smith

and Young Man River
to part the thighs
of Mother Earth
And, O!
Clear pools, home to
and from yielding stone
there is fertile ground,
poplars and
And oaks and pines and
thistles and laurel
and trillium

The wilderness beckons.

Cold, clear pools.

A carpet of green ferns along the forest floor.

Virgin Falls, from a cave, down the cliff, and back to the netherworld.

The old forests clothe the yielding slopes.

And, along the way, one is never alone...

...never alone...

...never alone.