Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Curtis Creek-Mackey Mountain Old Growth

This hike started with a search on the Internet. I wasn't hunting specifically for this hike, but for information on old growth trees in western North Carolina. I stumbled upon a report by ENTS member Josh Kelly that was accompanied with photographs of some very impressive trees. Further, the details in the article indicated that this forest was located near some trails I'd hiked before. Mr. Kelly was kind enough to provide me with some good information regarding the exact location of some of these groves, so I sent the details on to my hiking friend Andy Kunkle and we made plans to take a look.

This forest is located in an historically significant spot. The Curtis Creek area of western North Carolina is the very first section of our nation's National Forest system. Today, this particular bit of that system of regulated forest has within its borders about 8,500 acres of contiguous old growth forest. These days, here in the east, that's a very significant amount. Most people visiting this section of the Pisgah National Forest never see these old trees, because access is by foot only and the undisturbed sections are well away from road access. In fact, you won't even find established trails leading into these groves, so bushwhacking is the only way.

Andy and I found the spot near the Curtis Creek Campground where Josh's directions indicated we should begin. In short order we found the drainage of the unnamed tributary and began our hike. We were looking for a waterfall, above which the more significant trees would be located. As bushwhacking goes, this was pretty easy. The slopes are steep, but the forest is largely open, with a high canopy and not a lot of undergrowth to bar the way. The worst of the troubles are the many dead hemlock trees which can be irritating to negotiate.

Quickly, we found that the slopes of the drainage were extremely steep and in many cases our best bet was to use the stream itself as our main access. This was easy enough, but eventually we came to some cliffs and found that we had to enter the forest and climb above these to continue higher up the sides of Laurel Knob. This also was not a huge problem, save for the fact that we began to encounter large patches of stinging nettles and brambles which zapped our calves. In quick order, the thorns had torn at the exposed flesh of my calves and my legs were a bloody mess. Oh, well, just part of off-trail hiking.

We came to some of the cascades that Josh told us to look for, and as we passed by them and moved above the most impressive of these, we began to see the big trees we'd come to find.

I was very impressed with this forest. Most of the big trees here are Yellow (or Tulip) poplars. These are not the biggest poplars I've ever seen--the Great Smoky Mountains and the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest hold those positions. However, to have a forest like this so close to home was eye-opening. The higher we climbed up the slopes, the more big trees we found. Every time I figured we'd seen the best that the forest had to offer, the more extensive the grove seemed to be. We ended up spending about six hours exploring this old growth forest, so we'll return at the next opportunity to see more of it. We examined our topo map and figured how best to enter the grove next time so that we'll be able to explore the drainage from higher up the mountain and work our way down.

I am looking forward to that trip.

Andy Kunkle and I pause at a particularly impressive poplar for a self-portrait.

Exfoliation as we move through the drainage.

Sometimes the best option for us was to use the unnamed creek as our principle route.

Andy and Boone rest in the midst of the big trees.

At one point I headed off up the heights while Andy waited behind. I could see big trees above us so I had to check them out. I had to keep stopping to take photographs of these big, old forest giants that seemed to be everywhere I looked.

The depth and richness of the soil impressed me. This is a spot where merely the weight of my foot dug a furrow in the forest floor. The darkness and complexity of the earth forms the basis of this rich ecosystem.

Another tree as I climbed the slope of a ridge. Big trees wherever I cast my gaze.

One of the more photogenic sections of the waterfall, which we decided to name "Stinging Nettle Cascades" in honor of the vicious plant that made the hike a bit more memorable.

Mother Nature reminds us of how puny we are.

I used this downed hemlock as a bridge across the unnamed creek.

Fire pink.

I stopped to photograph this bit of fungi doing its part to break down a long-dead tree trunk.

What a grand forest! Andy dwarfed by huge poplars.

Andy and Boone standing at a huge, partially hollow poplar tree.

While this forest is indeed beautiful, I kept seeing reminders that it's supposed to be a Hemlock-Poplar forest. In this area, all of the mature hemlocks are dead. You see their standing corpses everywhere. So this forest--amazing as it is you have to realize that it's missing a major component.


Wandering Sage said...

great photos!

HemlockMan said...

Thanks! I had a great time hiking among those big trees.