Sunday, April 05, 2015

Alpine Illusion

Sometimes when I show people some of the photos I've taken here in the east, they think the pictures were made in western states. This is because of the practice of clear-cutting and fire in our eastern mountains during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Although it's hard to understand, if you'd come to the southern Appalachians around 1920 or so, you would have found almost no mature forests. Instead, from horizon to horizon all you would have found were shattered lands--all of the forests had been felled. And when I say "all", that's what I mean. Rare were the spots where the timber companies had not been. And when they passed, they left nothing but stumps, poorly cut roads, and rail beds for the ever-present narrow gauge steam engines that were invaluable for the harvest of timber.

Often, when the timber companies had left, the land was allowed to fester. Summers would come, often with drought. The acreage would become tinder-dry and all it would take is a single spark or a lightning strike and fire would be set. Since what had been forest was now just a litter of shattered stumps and broken limbs and underbrush, the fires would rage unopposed across the landscape. If the droughts were severe enough--and they often were--then even the top soil would burn away, all the way down to bare rock and mineral soil. When rains finally did come--and they often did so in sudden cloudbursts to break the droughts--what little soil remained was washed down into the creeks and rivers to briefly foul the waterways before being carried along to the lowlands.

After all of this destruction, the forests would struggle to recover. On the tallest peaks and in the highest valleys the young trees had to contend with little in the way of organic soil and with the cold winters and harsh winds that rake the southern high country. Some shrubs and grasses would take root, but trees struggled to regain lost territory.

This is why, more than 100 years after the rape of the southern high country by the timber and land companies the forests are still fighting for restoration. This is why those places appear to be alpine environments, which they resemble but do not match ecologically.

One of the best examples of the false alpine environment in the South is the area known as Grayson Highlands in southwest Virginia. 5,000-foot peaks covered in mainly rocks, scrub, and grasslands.

I need to head back to this area. It offers great terrain for hiking.

Not far from Grayson Highlands (and considered part of it) is First Peak. Almost all grass and shrubs and heavily eroded because of its popularity with the horseback riding crowd. Steer clear of this particular spot unless you enjoy hiking in muck.

One of my favorite false alpine peaks--Sam Knob.

In West Virginia the best example of this setting is in the Dolly Sods Wilderness. What looks to be at this point a field is, in fact, a vast wetland. Impossible to hike, it's actually a sea of soggy peat and rare plants.

Another view in Dolly Sods. You can understand why it's so very popular with hikers and backpackers.

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