Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Winter Time in Hickory Nut Gorge

Winter time in the Gorge is one of those unique times where you often have to be at the right place at the right time for the special shot you are looking for.  For instance, I usually don't do a lot of waterfall shots in winter time because the light is often not ideal and there's not a lot of green to give contrast to the grays and browns that tend to dominate the woods.  On occasion, it is possible to get some interesting shots.  I was driving down the Gorge this week and thought I might try a shot or two of the Rocky Broad in a particularly turbulent section, just to see what it might yield.  The result was sort of cool.

The lighting sort of created an almost cartoony effect, which I found to be quite interesting.
Sometimes the silky effect (blur) on water can be over-used to a degree, but it is a technique I have been working hard to try and master and in these shots, at least from my amateurist point-of-view, it worked for what I was trying to do.  Sometimes shots create themselves.

I have been fortunate at other times to be able to get some shots that probably few have ever had the opportunity to even attempt, again because I was simply at the right place at the right time.
A snowy morning at Eagle Rock

Snow-covered Outcroppings at Chimney Rock State Park.

Rainbow Falls in the winter time.

The rare shot of Chimney Rock Mountain covered in snow and ice.
 Even though Hickory Nut Gorge is most famous for its river, its falls, its rocks and its wildflowers, there's something about the winter that creates a unique perspective of the Gorge.  If I don't get to post anything else before Christmas, I hope everybody has a Merry Christmas and a happy New Year.  If these pictures don't get you in the holiday spirit, perhaps this little cartoon will.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Problem With Exotic Plant Species

         As a naturalist, I often get questions about what people should plant in their yards.  They might ask me, “Well do you think hostas would work well here?” or they might say, “Oh I just love wisteria, it is so beautiful.  Will it grow in my yard?”  When I say that I wouldn’t plant either one, they look at me like I have bugs crawling out of my ears.  It’s not that I don’t think these plants aren’t nice, but I personally prefer native plants.  Oh and by the way, wisteria is a non-native invasive unless you just happen to find the native variety.  So many of our native species are so under-appreciated because they often aren't as showy as most ornamentals (hence the name), butmore often than not they are a better alternative than something exotic (non-native to this region) which can often be more of a problem than anything else.
A kudzu monoculture.  This is why they call it "the vine that ate the South".
            Let’s think about it for a minute and study a plant we all know:  kudzu.  I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked the question, “What is that plant that grows everywhere and climbs up in the trees?”  Some will even comment on how beautiful it is.  You can usually tell who isn’t from around here if they don’t know what kudzu is.  Kudzu was originally brought to this country from Asia in the late 1800’s and displayed as an ornamental at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876.  It was later used as a forage crop and an erosion control plant along highway and railroad rights-of-way in the wake of the dust bowl.  No one would have ever imagined that such a useful plant would launch a takeover south of the Mason Dixon line that would rival Sherman’s March during the Civil War (or War of Northern Aggression if you are a true southern patriot).  Because kudzu comes from a latitude and climate similar to ours, it is well suited to grow here.  In its natural environment, it is not nearly so invasive and has natural predators and other limiting factors which prevent it from covering the world.   That is not the case here.  In our little part of the world, kudzu has no natural predators, at least none that can effectively keep it in check without destroying native species in the process.  This is not to say that things don’t feed on it because they do, but there is not enough consumption to control its growth.  Kudzu, to its credit, is high in protein.  In fact, among legumes it has among the highest protein potential.  Its root is high in starch and the flowers are a great source of sugar, hence kudzu jelly.  In Japan, kudzu is eaten in many different forms and is also used to make paper and other things.  So one might argue, “Well if it has all these good qualities, why is it so bad?”  The answer is that it inhibits biodiversity.  When kudzu becomes established to the point that it begins to climb trees, it begins to eliminate species in the area in which it grows.  Plants that were in the understory, from small trees to wildflower species, are suddenly cut off from their light source.  All the many vines as they blanket the ground and eventually climb into the treetops, take root and suck up the nutrient supply from the ground, depriving the native species of their underground food supply.  If a plant can’t photosynthesize because of no light, and if it can’t get nutrients from the ground, the plant dies.  This means whatever benefits from that plant is also affected, whether it’s another plant, or an animal.  This causes a dramatic change to that ecological community, limiting biodiversity and creating a monoculture of a non-native species.  This is the impact of invasive exotics.
The flower of kudzu (Pueraria montana)
            Now I’m certainly not saying that all exotics are bad because they are certainly not all invasive.  Look at the number of foods that we grow and eat.  Many of these are not native to our area.  What I am saying is that caution should be taken anytime an exotic species is planted, particularly ornamental species.  As climate change is occurring, many plants that have been held in check by our mild climate, could some day become a problem.  Many plants, under optimal conditions show a remarkable ability to adapt to subtle changes in their environment, particularly when predation is low or non-existent.  Kudzu is a perfect example.  Kudzu used to be limited to the southern states but it is slowly adapting and is now found as far north as southern New York, so it is no respecter of geographical boundaries.

            In an area as rich in biodiversity as Hickory Nut Gorge, the control of exotic invasives is very important.  Of course the threat that is receiving the most attention right now is the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, which is not a plant (it’s a bug), but it severely impacts an important plant species, the hemlock.  But, the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid is a newcomer, and while its impact is tragic, there are other exotic, invasive species out there that are changing our ecosystem and are not getting the attention that they should be.  
Hemlock Woolly Adelgid (Adelges tsugae)
           Take for instance, oriental bittersweet: this stuff has practically taken over the Asheville area and is quickly spreading out from there.  Every year there are more infestations of this plant in the Gorge.  Up north, this plant is like kudzu.  Down south, it could potentially be worse than kudzu, for several reasons:  (1) It’s a climber, like kudzu; (2) it has a nasty talent for lying dormant until a tree blows over or some type of disturbance creates a light gap; (3) unlike kudzu, over 90% of its seeds are viable and will likely germinate under favorable conditions; (4) it is a whole lot harder to kill; (5) unlike kudzu, people like bittersweet because it has pretty berries in the winter time; and on, and on, and on. 
Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus)
 Japanese knotweed is becoming more and more prevalent along stream banks.  Tree-of-heaven (more like “hell”) and princesstree are growing up in cutovers and powerline rights-of-way.  These are pests that have been here a long time but have escaped our attention because the results are much slower than those of something like hemlock woolly adelgid, however, the results and impact are the same and failure to manage these pests (because eradication is often not an option), will result in further impact to our native species and the stability of their ecological communities.
Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica)
Tree-of-heaven (Ailanthus altissima)
Princesstree (Paulownia tomentosa)
Some advantages to going native are:  (1) less maintenance; (2) less watering; (3) less predation from deer, woodchucks, and muskrats; (4) you can choose a plant pallet for four seasons; (5) you can still attract hummingbirds and butterflies.  I could probably think of some more but I’m rather limited in space in this column.

The point to all my ramblings is that there is more to taking care of our environment than clean water and clean air.  The things we plant also have a great impact on our natural environment and we have to be careful about what we introduce.  We don’t know what the impact may be in the future.

To see some other exotic invasives that are impacting our natural communities, click on the link:
Exotic Invasive Species of Hickory Nut Gorge

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Southern Impression

Not everything I write has pictures.  You have to use your imagination a little.  This post is meant to be somewhat humorous, and if you know me, you will be able to appreciate it even more.  if you don't know me personally, well then perhaps you will have a greater impression of who southern folks are and what we're about.  This is a re-write of an article I wrote for The Mountain Breeze a few years ago.

Most folks who know me, and I mean really know me, know that I am pretty proud of the fact that I am a native Rutherford Countian, North Carolinian, and bona-fide Southerner.  I believe in saying what you mean and meaning what you say, and I generally say it with an appreciable accent (some things you just can’t get rid of, not that I’ve ever really tried of course).  Most of the time in my little column in The Mountain Breeze I try to write about nature or environmental related topics, but I felt this time a change of pace might be nice.  Sometimes it’s nice to sit back and reflect on what makes a person tick, and a lot of times, looking at where we come from can provide a huge insight into who we are as people and why we feel the way we do about things.  Even the way we talk makes impressions on people (often inaccurately).  Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about.

            When my wife and I got married, we honeymooned in Maui.  What an experience!  We embraced the Hawaiian culture while we were there and had a wonderful time, but a funny thing happened to us before we came home.  We were sitting in the airport in Maui, waiting to catch a flight over to Honolulu where we would get on another plane to come back to the continental U.S.  There were a lot of students in the airport.  Apparently schools in Hawaii do field trips to different islands (how fun would that be) and this particular group of middle school students had come over to Maui for the day to learn about the island.  Anyway, Chasitty and I were just sitting there talking while we waited to board the plane and I noticed this young lady kept watching us very closely and appeared to be eavesdropping.  Well, I just kind of casually smiled at her, sort of acknowledging that I knew she was listening to us (I didn’t care, as we weren’t discussing top secret information or anything).  At that point, she interrupted our conversation and said, “Excuse me, but I was wondering where you are from?”  I told her we were from North Carolina.  She replied, “You mean on the mainland?”  I said yes and explained that we were in Hawaii for our honeymoon.  She said, “I have never heard anyone talk the way you do.”  Of course I laughed.  She then commented that we must be rich since we came from so far away, to which I commented that if she was referring to financial wealth then I hated to burst her bubble.  She said that most of the mainlanders that visit are typically pretty wealthy, which I am sure is probably the case, however it was very interesting to see how a perception could be made based on my accent and use (or misuse depending on how you look at it) of the English language.

            My accent is something that I cannot escape.  When I worked at Chimney Rock Park, the World Botanic Congress had its annual meeting at the Grove Park Inn.  One of their scheduled field trips was to the Park.  This was a pretty prestigious thing as botanists and researchers from all over the world were attending this conference.  Anyway, my job was to give a slide presentation and guided hike for the attendees.  World-renowned botanist and curator of the Missouri Botanical Garden, Dr. Peter Raven was on the field trip  and was standing in the back of the room as I proceeded to give my presentation.  Dr. Raven is also a close friend of the Morse Family, the former owners of Chimney Rock Park.  As my southern drawl was very apparent to folks, I warned them as I began my presentation that they would have to excuse my pronunciation of the Latin names of the plants that we would be seeing because I speak Southern Latin.  Lu Morse, who was standing in the back of the room with Dr. Raven, was drinking a bottle of water and nearly drowned as he tried to keep water from spurting out of his mouth.  Dr. Raven thought it was hilarious as did the rest of our international guests.  It certainly helped ease the tension of speaking to world-renowned botanists.

            On a ski trip to Quebec, Canada I got an opportunity to impress a French-speaking Quebecois shopkeeper.  I was doing my best to blend into the French-Canadian culture so as not to come off with the “ugly American” attitude that we are so often guilty of.  Our little group was trying to speak French where we could and to try to be mannerly and so forth.  Well, my French is virtually non-existent and I was learning phrases on the fly.  We were in this shop and I saw some Inuit moccasins that I really liked and decided to buy.  I was trying to ask the store owner how much the moccasins were in French.  He gave me the price in English and smiled at me.  So I said, “Merci,” and he asked me (in English) where we were from.  Tired of abusing the French language, the southern came forth as I explained we were from North Carolina down in the southern U.S.  He laughed, and said that he knew I didn’t sound like anyone else that he had met from the U.S.  He was very interested in North Carolina, particularly the geography so I had a good time explaining to him what western North Carolina was like and so forth.  He and I both came away with a wonderful experience of cultural enlightenment.

            Another time at Chimney Rock, I was working in the “Booth” at the tunnel entrance.  This was before my days as Park Naturalist.  My best friend Justin, who also worked at the Park, was running the elevator and had just brought a couple of young ladies from Michigan down.  They were apparently going on and on about the way Justin talked.  Without missing a beat, Justin tells them, “You think I talk funny, you ought to hear that short, stubby fellow at the end of the tunnel!”  He then hollered down the tunnel, “TALK FOR ‘EM CLINT!”  So, what did I do?  I did what any other southern gentleman would do.  I gave the best southern impression that I could by giving them what they wanted:  an earful of southernism.

            One of the great things about living in the South is all of the great “sayin’s” and colloquialisms that are part of the everyday lexicon.  The southern dialect is almost poetic in nature due to the phrasing and the use of simile and metaphor in our speech.  We can always come up with something to compare something else to.  Unfortunately, much of this is being lost as new generations come along, losing touch with southern heritage, or were never in touch to begin with.  I can remember all my life, spending time with the older generations and hearing stories and “sayin’s” that have become part of my own vocabulary.  My Pa-Paw Calhoun was probably one of the most colorful individuals that I have ever known and the number of “sayin’s” that have come from his mouth I can’t begin to count.  We sat down one summer, my dad and brothers and I, and we wrote down some of the things that Pa-Paw has said over the years, and we just absolutely cracked up.  It was funny, partly because you would have to be from the South to appreciate them, but you would have also had to lived on a farm to understand them as well.  I find myself using a lot of those same “sayin’s” and it’s a part of my southern heritage that I hope to never lose and to pass down to my children and grandchildren, especially since cultural dilution is becoming more prevalent in our society today. 

            Of course I couldn’t conclude this article without sharing some of my personal favorite “sayin’s” and providing some explanation as to what they mean for those of you who may not understand.  Here we go (it’s like a Top Ten List of Southern Sayin’s):

1)      “Show ‘em where Tony hit the wedge!”  In other words, prove to everybody that you can do it.
2)      “Get on it like ugly got on ape!” or “Dive on it like a dog on a bone!”  Same meaning for both.  Whatever you do, do it with enthusiasm.
3)      “He’s wanderin’ around like a blind dog in a meathouse!” or “He don’t know if he’s comin’ or goin’!”  Best description would be that someone is confused about something.
4)      “He tore out like Fisick’s house cat!”  In other words he left in a hurry.  “He hit Bush River!”  is another one with a similar meaning.
5)      “Tight as Dick’s hat band!”  This could refer to something that won’t come loose like a bolt or a screw.  Or could refer to a person who doesn’t like to spend money.
6)      “Hot and dry; spittin’ up dust!” or “Dry as a powder house!”  Usually these expressions refer to the weather or if you’ve been working hard and you’re feeling a little dehydrated.
7)      “The wind blowed it out!”  Pa-Paw would say this if he was cutting wood and for one reason or other his chainsaw would quit running.
8)      “I could eat the hind-end out of a rag doll!”  This one’s a tad off-colored but funny to me.  This is a simple reference to being absolutely “starved-to-death.”
9)      “It came a real side-swarper”  In other words, it came a bad storm.  “Side-swarper” can be substituted for “gully-washer” or “toad-strangler.”
10)  “That’s good for what ails ye!”  Refers to anything that tastes good.  Usually referring to a dessert such as ice cream.

I hope you have found my meanderings and ponderings as entertaining to read as I did writing them.  Until next time!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Deerhair Bulrush

Deerhair bulrush (Trichophorum cespitosum) is a species native to Hickory Nut Gorge that you might say doesn't quite belong here.  A member of the Sedge Family (Cyperaceae), it is named for the hair like tufts at the tips of each grass-like stem.  The tufts are actually the flowers of the plant.  Deerhair bulrush is what we call a disjunct species; a remnant of an age gone Ice Age in fact.

In its typical range, deerhair bulrush occurs in boreal and polar regions, mainly in bogs in the Canadian and Old World tundra.  It occurs in rocky areas above timberline in the boreal zone of the U.S. and Canada, but it is also found right here in good ol' North Carolina.  Above 5,000 feet, North Carolina forests are boreal, dominated by red spruce and fir.  During the last Ice Age, all of the Southern Appalachians forests were most likely boreal forests and composed of species that are more typical of that ecological community.  As the global temperature warmed after the Ice Age, the forests of the Southern Appalachians began to change as new species came to dominate and certain ecological communities were pushed into stronghold areas where they could continue to persist.  This is why there are still hold out pockets of boreal forest still found in North Carolina and Tennessee.  This boreal community is where you would typically find deerhair bulrush.  It tends to be found in places like Grandfather Mountain, the Black Mountains, Devils Courthouse; places that still mimic the conditions of the former age.  So we might ask ourselves, why do we have it in Hickory Nut Gorge?

Deerhair bulrush, while preferring to be associated with relic species like itself, in some places it got left behind, so to speak.  Those areas tend to be steep, wet, north-facing slopes at lower elevations, typically around 1,100 feet above sea level.  In those areas, the boreal forest is gone.  Trees such as spruce and fir, because of their size could not be supported on steep rock faces which are meant for smaller species, even though the microclimate would likely support them.  These steep rocky areas, because of their north-facing aspect, close proximity to water (either from seepage or spray from waterfalls) provide ideal conditions for survival.  One of the things these areas have in common with colder climates is the presence of ice in the winter time.  On north-facing slopes of Hickory Nut Gorge, once ice forms and builds up, it's there until spring.  This long-term presence of ice lowers the temperature in the immediate area creating a distinct microclimate that allows deerhair bulrush to thrive.  Deerhair bulrush was first discovered in Hickory Nut Gorge up on Sugarloaf Mountain.  It was later found in Chimney Rock State Park in several seepage and spray areas such as Nature's Showerbath and Groundhog Slide on the now closed Cliff Trail, and at the base of Hickory Nut Falls in the spray zone.  In fact, up until the mid-90's, Chimney Rock State Park was the lowest known location in terms of elevation for deerhair bulrush, until it was discovered at a slightly lower elevation in Table Rock State Park in South Carolina, growing in a spray area near a waterfall.

Deerhair bulrush, because it is a relic of a former time, makes for an interesting study case.  It provides some insight into what conditions may have been like in North Carolina during the last Ice Age.  Its presence also helps us to understand the effects of global climate change, a naturally occurring phenomenon (I'll leave the political debate to those who debate such things) and what the impact may be for not only this, but other species as well. 
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Monday, December 9, 2013

Wondrous Witch-hazel

 Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is a fairly common shrub of the eastern United States.  It is a very fascinating shrub.  Witch-hazel is a deciduous shrub that grows to around 6 meters in height.  It gets the distinction of being our latest blooming plant.  Flowering begins around early November and extends into mid- to late-December.  It is readily visible due to its bright yellow, string-like petals which contrast strongly with the drab color of the forest after the leaves of other species have fallen to the ground.  After flowering, the witch-hazel fruit will take nearly a year to mature.  Once mature the fruit explode, ejecting seeds up to 30 feet away.  Witch-hazel has a long history of medicinal uses dating back to Native Americans who boiled the stems of the shrub and used the extracted oils as an astringent for swelling and inflammation.  The bark and leaves also have medicinal properties.  Today, witch-hazel is still a popular astringent and the chemical components are used in various products used in skin care and to treat various skin ailments.  It has been used as a skin tightener and is a common component in over-the-counter hemorrhoid medications.  Witch-hazel likely got its name from the fact that early American colonists used the twigs for divining rods, a recognized tool of those who practiced "witch-craft."  I always enjoy seeing witch-hazel as it marks the end of the flowering season and the beginning of winter.  Get out in the woods and look for it and may you never look at a tube of Preparation H the same way again.
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Friday, December 6, 2013

Pictures of Buffalo Creek Park Trail

 The entrance to what will be the Type II mountain bike and hiking trail at Buffalo creek Park.

This is a nice long flat section at the top of a fairly tough climb.  This provides a nice respite before heading into the next long series of switchbacks.

 This straightaway is the last flat section for a while as it gives up to a moderate climb through a series of switchbacks.

Here, the trail begins to flatten out as the climb lessens.  This is probably a good place to take a breather.

Might as well take in the view of Lake Lure, as seen from the north.

The view of Youngs Mountain is not too bad either.

I affectionately call the large boulder in this photo Green Salamander Rock as this was the first place where green salamanders were found on the property.  Last time I checked, there was one hiding in a crack.

An area of boulders along the upper side of the trail.

The trail gently meanders through the woods at this point, steadily going up and down.  This marks the approximate halfway point on the loop.

This marks the start of a long series of switchbacks that head down the ridge (or up depending on which direction you decide to ride).

You can sort of look to the right of the photo and see how much elevation you give up if you were to go straight down the hill.

Another view of the trail.

Construction Underway At Buffalo Creek Park

If you haven't heard of Buffalo Creek Park, this is a new addition to the Town of Lake Lure.  The 200-acre property was obtained with the help of Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy and grant assistance from the NC Parks and Recreation Trust Fund.  The goal of the new park is to provide a unique mountain biking experience in the Hickory Nut Gorge.  At present Hickory Nut Gorge has numerous hiking experiences but until now there has been no place for mountain bikers to enjoy this wonderful area.  Of course the trails will provide a wonderful hiking experience as well, but it is the hope that mountain bikers will flock to the new trail once construction is completed. 

Construction on the trail began on October 7th and is currently ongoing.  To date, approximately 2.25 miles of trail have been completed out of a planned 5 miles, and that's just Phase 1 of the project.  The trail is being constructed by renowned trail building company, Trail Dynamics, who have had great success in building trails throughout North Carolina and other states as well.

The quality of work has been amazing thus far with great attention being placed on proper drainage and erosion control.  Trail Dynamics uses a low impact approach in order to minimize damage to the natural community, leaving as small a footprint as possible.  This approach is important because the property provides important habitat for green salamanders, which make their homes in the crevices of boulders that are scattered throughout the forest of Buffalo Creek Park. We are hoping to see the loop completed sometime in January.  Until then, I will tease with pictures.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

As a naturalist and local adventurer for pretty much all of my adult life, I thought it might be good if I could start publishing some of those adventures before I get too old to remember them.  I've spent all of my working career in the Hickory Nut Gorge area, championing the ecological significance of one of my favorite places on earth.  Most of my adventures have taken place in Hickory Nut Gorge and I am very happy to be able to share those here. 

I have also compiled a large number of articles and essays that I have written that will be posted here.  The site is currently under construction so please pardon the mess.