Saturday, October 22, 2011

Dolly Sods, Part II

After I'd bagged Blackbird Knob, I headed back toward the trailhead to pick out another hike. What I was hoping to do was do some bushwhacking just straight across country in the really high section of the Wilderness. I'd seen this area before, during summer, and figured that it would be very simple and relatively easy to just set off across the heath and make a beeline for whatever point I wanted to hit.

With that tactic in mind I drove to the part of the area called Bear Rocks to park my truck, gather my stuff, and make off for another hike.

The place was really crowded. By the time I got to Bear Rocks there was probably a hundred people at that spot. Everyone from Japanese tourists with multi-thousand dollar camera rigs to locals out for a jaunt in the sun after three solid days of rain. But one thing about the Sods--it might be crowded on the road, but just walk off that track a hundred yards and you might as well be on the Moon. So it was that easy for me to escape the crowds by turning my back on the road, finding a rough path through the blueberry bushes and just striking out.

The point I'd picked out by sight was a mass of rocks off to the northwest. I'd seen them before when I'd been there years earlier and figured they'd be a great spot to take some photos. The thing was, it was hard to gauge the distance because it's hard to get a feel when there are so few trees growing near your goal. So I decided to head off and see if I could make it.

Right away, I discovered that this was going to be a whole lot tougher than I'd figured. First of all, the low-growing shrubs are made of very tough stuff. They grab at your boots and legs and put a stop to much forward motion. I was just going to have to slow down. And then, I discovered another, more difficult barrier:

I'd have to cross the feature for which the entire wilderness is named, and that is pretty much not a good idea.

Dolly Sods Wilderness is actually a vast, shallow valley situated on one of the widest, highest, and most uniform plateaus in eastern North America. The ridges that surround it rise to over 4400 feet, but the valley itself lies anywhere from 3500 to 4000 feet. And that makes it the biggest high elevation valley in the East. And in that valley are many bogs, called "sods" by the locals. And at the high end of the valley is the biggest bog of all:
Dolly Sods.

When you try to walk out onto it, you see it for what it really is. And that's a very shallow lake overlain with a soaking carpet of living plant matter. You can make your way around the edges of it--it's something like what it would be like to walk across a water bed. I'd experienced the same sensation before when walking on some of the floating islands in the Okefenokee Swamp in south Georgia. But I saw right off that there was absolutely no way I could walk across Dolly Sods. First of all, you'd get soaking wet, and as the winds were howling at what I estimate to be around 40 t0 50 miles per hour, that was not a good idea. In addition, the sods are a very fragile environment and I did not want to plant my footprints all over it.

I did, however, want to get some good photos of the bog. So I rock hopped to a big boulder that lay out in the bog itself and got down on my knees, and then my stomach, to take some unique shots.

After that, I made my way carefully back onto the heath and once more tried to make it to the jumble of boulders far away on the horizon.

And soon after that I realized there was no way I was going to be able to make that hike and return to my truck in a reasonable amount of time. The going was just way the hell too rough. In that case, I decided, I'd head for the cliff edge where the mountain plunged down into the deeper valley to the east and see how much progress I could make by going that way. As I did, I realized that trying to push through the heath was a no-win situation, so I opted for finding ribs of talus and jutting boulders and using those as my thoroughfare. It was, it turned out, the best way to move, and I was able to reach the cliff edge in short order.

By that time I was pretty tired and was--for the first time that day--hungry. I found a secluded spot on the cliffs behind a stand of red spruce trees that shielded me from the wind and I had a banana nut muffin and a container of water. It was a good lunch and I just sat there for a long time enjoying the views. Far to the north I could see a big wind farm on the Allegheney Front. Some people complain about the big turbines on the ridges, but while they do break the natural pattern of the mountains, I see them as a possible cure to the burning of fossil fuels that is poisoning the Earth to death. Thus, I don't mind the wind farms. Let them do their work.

After heading up and down the cliff for a while, taking photos, I realized that there was no way I'd make my original goal. And, anyway, I was missing Carole and decided that I'd rather spend the rest of the day in her company than struggling to reach that jumbled pile of bleached rock in the distance. Gathering up my stuff, I turned and headed back toward the truck, back toward the crowds, back toward the road that would take me to my wife.

I arrive at the edge of the Sods. It's not a field. It's more like a lake. Don't try to hike across it.

I got down on my belly on the big boulder out in the bog and nabbed this shot.

You can see the water pooling up all through the bog.

The wind was really roaring.

This was one of the "trails" I tried to follow cross country. It didn't work that well.

This, however, was a far better way to move. I could pretty much move at a good speed across these massive talus fields that appear all over the high country.

If you click on this photo you can see the huge jumble of rock on the horizon that was initially my goal.

Instead, though, I ended up on the cliff wall to the north of Bear Rocks.

This is a telephoto shot of the wind farm off in the distance.

And this was my lunch spot. I had those spruce trees to shield me from the wind (which was coming in from the west).

Tortured terrain.

These were not really trails, but they served the same purpose.

When you look closely at the boulders you can see that they're a conglomerate and not solid, at all. When they break down, the rocks form into a mass of the tiny particles that are here cemented together.

This was the direction I had to move to return to my truck. Be sure to click on this image to see it in a much larger format.

And the road that forms the the eastern border of Dolly Sods Wilderness. Since it lies at the top edge of the plateau, it's one of the straightest roads you'll see in the high country.


MarkGelbart said...

Those photos are spectacular. They look just like scenes from what I imagine the Pleistocene looked like.

HemlockMan said...

It's very cold up there. The southernmost grove or aspens in the USA is located in Dolly Sods. Along one of the trails I hiked, although I missed seeing them because they'd already shed their leaves.

Kent Tankersley said...

When I was still living in Georgia a friend of mine used to talk about Dolly Sods. Now I know why she praised the place so much.

HemlockMan said...

In a lot of ways, Kent, you and your fellow Finns would feel right at home. The open nature of the plateau, the bogs, the evergreens, the brisk winds scouring the landscape.

It's one of the more striking wilderness areas I've explored in the eastern USA. I want to head back as soon as possible.

Kent Tankersley said...

I think you're right. Your description of trying to hike across the bog reminded me of lots of places in the woods here.