Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Fire On the Mountain: Blessing or Curse?

Over the last week, I've sat helplessly in my office and at Town Hall, watching as one of my favorite mountains burns.  It's hard to describe the feelings as you try to imagine why anyone would be so careless as to light a campfire, toss a cigarette, or dare I say intentionally set a fire, knowing that conditions for fire are at their highest.  The fact is we don't know the actual cause of the fire or when exactly it will end.  We do know that it was started by humans and not by a natural ignition source such as lightning.  My heart goes out to all the people who have been evacuated from their homes, their lives placed in limbo as they wait to see whether their home will still be standing.  I can't imagine what you are going through.  My heart equally goes out to the men and women who are working this fire, trying to bring under control this force of nature that seems so unwilling to be abated.  A huge heartfelt thank you goes out to them and all the volunteers who are working so tirelessly to support the firefighters as they work.  The Hickory Nut Gorge communities always come together when it matters.

The afternoon of November 10, fire burns below the south-facing cliffs of  Rumbling Bald.
A NC Forest Service helicoptor taking water to the fire.
The point of my post moving forward is not to diminish any aspect of what our firefighters are doing fighting this fire or to give any kind of kudos to the starters of this fire, but rather to talk about the importance of fire within the natural world and why the Party Rock Fire, despite the costs, may be the best thing that could have happened to the mountain in a long time.  As a quick disclaimer, I am not a fire ecologist, so there are many aspects of fire ecology that you will not find in this post.  I am merely trying to paint a picture of something good, even though appearances might suggest otherwise.  If I say something that is not correct, I would ask that my professional colleagues weigh-in and help with the educational process.

Consider that it has been 100 years since Hickory Nut Gorge has experienced such a super disaster.  The last super disaster was the Great Flood of 1916.  How ironic that 100-years later we would be seeing another great disaster that would be due to the lack of water rather than an overabundance.  But is this fire truly a disaster in an ecological sense?  On the surface it appears so given the huge deployment of resources, manpower, and cost, without such we would likely see the loss of homes and lives.  That would truly be a disaster in terms of human impact.  The 1916 flood was certainly a disaster as both homes and lives were lost.  But was the flood a disaster in an ecological sense? An ecological disaster is something that occurs that changes the overall makeup of the affected ecological community.  An example might be the decimation of the bat population by white nose syndrome.  The overall impacts of an introduced fungus have shown to be widespread and hard-hitting, affecting more than one species and causing mass die-off.  Loss of bats has a trickle down affect as other species are impacted by the loss; a true ecological disaster if it played out without some type of intervention.  I try to think of events such as floods and fires as giant reset buttons because a lot of times they tend to re-balance things.

Let's take a moment to look at the dynamics of a forest.  What is a forest?  If we think of a forest as trees we are only partly right.  A forest is a dynamic community of living things as well as specific abiotic factors that are necessary for biological function such as water, air, and soil (I'm being basic here).  Our regional forests are part of a specific biome known as the eastern deciduous forest or temperate deciduous forest, named for the dominance of deciduous tree species.  Within the larger biome, the forests are split into specific natural communities that are dominated by specific species.  For instance, a montane oak-hickory forest would be dominated by certain oak and hickory trees and would have other plant and animal species that would be ecologically connected to those specific tree species.  Each ecological community has specific abiotic factors that affect species makeup within that community such as aspect (direction a slope faces), proximity to water, soil depth, presence of rock, soil pH, dependence on disturbance, etc.

Oh, wait a minute!  Did you catch that last item?  Dependence on disturbance...what does that mean?
As I said earlier, a forest is a dynamic community.  Nothing about nature is constant.  It is always changing.  A natural community, with no corrective change mechanism would develop into a different natural community with time due to a process known as ecological succession.  Take for instance the American prairie (what's left of it anyway).  If you take away the primary disturbance mechanisms (fire, large grazers, etc.), the grasslands start to grow trees and within a few years the prairie grasses give way to shrubs and more trees until the original natural community becomes something totally different.  Disturbance is what maintains the species makeup of our natural communities and provides some semblance of equilibrium, albeit equilibrium does not truly exist in nature.

So what are the disturbance mechanisms?  Disturbance is caused by animals, particularly large grazing animals such as deer, elk, and bison.  Glaciers have caused large-scale disturbance on a global scale, moving species around and influencing species makeup in various ecosystems.  Floods move species around, provide important sediments to riparian zones, and provide saturation for species that like to "have their feet wet."  Fire is a disturbance mechanism that stabilizes certain communities by burning up intolerant species and providing the mechanism for germination in others.  Pine savannas, grasslands, and chaparral require fire in order to maintain their species diversity.  Wind in eastern forests blows over large trees in mature forests, providing light gaps to allow for regeneration.  Even humans are a disturbance mechanism.  Human activity, in the proper context, provides necessary disturbance that allows many species to thrive and often helps maintain the stability of natural communities.

Many ecologists believe that the historical fire regime in southern Appalachian forests is approximately every 30-35 years; basically a generation.  Fire history in the southern Appalachians, is not well-known but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that these deciduous forests are meant to burn, based on the overall species makeup and their ability to tolerate fire.  Fires in the east are not like West Coast fires.  The fires don't burn as hot because they generally lack the volatile fuels that are found on the West Coast.  Generally, we have higher humidity and less constant wind, all important factors that dictate the intensity of a fire.  East Coast fires are generally ground fires, consuming leaf litter and woody debris, only becoming crown fires when there's something to get the fire into the canopy such as dead trees, vines, or hot burning shrubs such as rhododendrons and mountain laurel, but even then crown fires are extremely rare.  In a properly managed Appalachian forest, fire tolerant species such as oaks and hickories would dominate the canopy.  These species have thick bark that protects the vascular tissue of the tree from disease and damage, such as what might occur during a forest fire.  Certain species of pine are adapted to tolerate fire for the purposes of seed germination, so fire is important for regeneration and reproduction.

Fire, as it burns through decaying debris and leaf litter, contributes significant amounts of carbon back into the soil.  Carbon is a basic element that makes up all living things and that all living things require to live, so the quick input of carbon is extremely beneficial, resulting in rapid regeneration of disturbance-requiring species and enhancement of dominant species.

A low intensity fire removes significant litter and woody debris buildup that can restrict the growth of certain plant species, providing the disturbance those plants need to thrive.  Such fires also have the added benefit of removing fire-intolerant early successional and understory plants that would naturally compete with late successional and climax species that are meant to be keystone species for their particular natural communities.  Consider that red maples have become a dominant species in oak forests.  Maples are not fire tolerant.  Their bark is slick and thin and does not easily resist fire.  Maples are becoming dominant in traditional oak forests because of fire suppression and the way we manage forests with today's logging practices.  Maples grow considerably faster than oaks and can live a fairly long time, so they are actually competitors of oak trees, but they have considerably less value in terms of what they provide in the overall ecosystem so their place is meant to be successional and thus under a normal fire regime would theoretically suffer more loss than the more fire tolerant, dominant species.  As I write this, my brain is hearing the song, "The Trees" by Rush which oddly enough discusses conflict between oaks and maples, but I digress.

So, having said all that, let's take this particular fire in context and look at the pre-fire scenario.  It has been a very long time, more than 60 years (at least two human generations) since the Rumbling Bald Mountain area has experienced a fire of this magnitude.  Sure there have been occasional, small flare-ups that have burnt a few acres here and there, but nothing on the magnitude of hundreds or even thousands of acres.  The largest fires seen in the valley over the last ten years were the Double H Fire that burned part of Chimney Rock Mountain in 2008 and The Judes' Gap Fire that burned much of World's Edge and Cane Creek Mountain in 2011.  The former was started by a lightning strike under similar drought conditions that we have today.  The latter was the result of human idiocy, as is often the case.

Leading up to this fire, the forest had significant leaf litter and woody debris buildup.  Thanks to decomposition, there was not two generations' worth of litter and debris, but the buildup was still significant, compounded in some locations by the loss of one of our most important tree species, the eastern hemlock.  The skeletons of these once majestic trees have long been a concern for forest managers because of the fire hazard they create in a place that is long overdue for a significant fire event.  A lot of the fuel sources are Virginia pines that blew over in the the Blizzard of '93 or in other similar storm events.  Pine is full of resin that crystallizes when the trees die.  The crystallized turpentine is extremely volatile and long-burning, adding to the fire potential.  So we have the first necessary ingredient to set up the event...fuel.

Wildfires require perfect conditions to become monsters.  Every ten years or so, western North Carolina experiences moderate to severe drought.  If you don't believe me check the climatalogical record for our area.  These droughts vary in intensity, but they typically run in ten year cycles.  The current drought we find ourselves in may only be the beginning of things to come.  Climatologists believe that our area will be seeing more frequent drought with intermittent breaks of extreme rainfall, thanks to the global climate change phenomenon, and their prediction seems to be holding true.  Right now, we are approximately ten inches below our average annual rainfall and getting worse with each passing day.  This time of year is also when our humidity further decreases so all of the fuel in the forest is exceptionally dry.  The soil is dry.  Seepages and normally wet areas on the mountain are dry.  Let's face's a tinderbox out there!  Humidity is what keeps fuel moist and less apt to burn, affecting the level of volatility.  There we have our second ingredient (or lack thereof) humidity.

Fire can't burn without air.  Fires are intensified by high winds.  Wind pushes fire in lots of directions.  It blows hot embers and sparks around that can easily cross fire lines and start new fires.  A fire with no wind is much easier to control.  In Hickory Nut Gorge, wind is a problem, particularly this time of year as cold fronts begin to push across the continent in our direction, bringing with them increased northwest winds.  Because of the shape of the valley, winds tend to be funneled down the Gorge almost like a river of air.  Those winds when they come into contact with warmer air masses trapped in the valley floor tend to spin and eddy, creating a vortex effect that pushes air up the sides of the mountains.  Fire tends to run uphill anyway, so the updrafts created from wind tend to further drive the fire onto the higher peaks as well as quicken its pace on flat ground.  So our third ingredient is wind.

Another ingredient we can throw into the mix is terrain.  This fire is running through some very steep and rugged terrain, adding to the difficulty of gaining control.  It's this same terrain that made logging certain areas of the Gorge very difficult back in the years leading up to the Great 1916 Flood.  In those remote areas there's a lot of fuel, mostly consisting of really old trees, dead trees, windthrown trees, and large woody debris.  Those areas are going to burn hot because of the amount of biomass.  The terrain's steepness and aspect influence wind direction, providing avenues for moving fire to other parts of the forest such as through ravines and along bluff edges where plants tend to be a little more flammable.  Gorge fires are among the most difficult to fight, simply because of the terrain.

The fifth and last ingredient is ignition source.  If we look at the place where this fire started, it becomes really easy to see how this fire has gotten as big as it is.  Party Rock is a granite dome on the south-facing eastern end of Rumbling Bald.  I hate the name because it gives homage to a history of what I consider to be human stupidity.  Not trying to be self-righteous but I have never felt that partying is a very intelligent way to spend one's time.  The site is called Party Rock because sometime in the past, someone in a likely drunken stupor decided to paint PARTY, in big letters, on the rock face.  A stupid act in itself.  For many years people have been going up on the mountain to camp and "party," occasionally building campfires, throwing out cigarettes, and more or less trashing the place.  In more recent years, the property, which included the north side of Rumbling Bald Mountain, parts of the south side of the mountain, and Party Rock,  was acquired by the Nature Conservancy in an effort to protect its ecological value.  TNC then turned around and sold it to NC State Parks.  The conservation efforts have led to decreased human activity and impact to the sensitive ecological community up there, but some traditions never completely die.  Party Rock is a dry place, even when there's not a drought.  All of the plant species are highly drought tolerant species, particularly on the rock face where it gets blistering hot in the summertime.  As you slide up the slope and into the woods, the granite dome gives way to a beautiful grassy, glade-like area that is chock full of all kinds of interesting species, including fire-dependent table mountain pine.  It may be a little foolish to say this, but to an ecologist, because of the naturally droughty conditions and the species makeup, the site almost screams, "Light me!"  These granite domes are perfect natural fire communities because they are exposed and often get struck by lightning, which does occasionally trigger low intensity fires that usually self-control because of humidity and natural fire breaks provided by the wide, exposed rock faces.  Obviously, in the case of this fire, lightning was not an issue.  A campfire, improperly extinguished cigarette, or (God forbid) arson are the only possible causes.  In such a fire-tolerant/dependent area, it doesn't take much to get an inferno raging.  Compound that with the already dry conditions of the surrounding forest, all it took was some flying embers or hot debris rolling down the rock face and burning around the rock perimeter to turn this blaze into what may end up being a 6,000 plus-acre fire.
The dome of Party Rock consists of frequent spikemoss mats, grasses , and stunted trees.
The view's not half bad either.
So the burning question (I know...bad pun) is what happens to the forest now?  Additionally, what are the positives and negatives?  Some have even asked what happens to all the wildlife and how are they coping?  Some of the answers I will offer up may be offensive to some readers, and that's okay because I'm a big boy and can handle criticism if I'm being too blunt, but I don't believe in sugar-coating things for the sake of not offending someone, especially if I'm speaking the truth. Some of my answers may be speculative, but are based on facts and knowledge of what has occurred and what we know about fire in our part of the country.

Something that must be said here is that nature is not the warm, fuzzy world or entity (Mother Nature) that has so often been portrayed by Disney and Hollywood; an image that has shaped generations of nature lovers to the detriment of the natural world.  I don't believe in "Mother Nature" because mothers are nourishing and loving, and the natural world is none of those.  The natural world, outside of our human perspective is a cruel, chaotic place that is always in motion and change is a constant part of it.  Death is a part of life as is growth and renewal.  The natural world is about survival at any cost, and those who don't or can't adapt to change in the environment don't survive, and we would do well to remember that.  We cannot try to associate our human emotions and feelings to other living things, because we live contradictory to nature and our survival and coping mechanisms are different from other living things.  One of my favorite short books that explains this in very simple terms is There's a Hair in My Dirt: A Worm's Story by Gary Larson, author of the comic strip The Far Side.  It's a hilarious book that sheds a great deal of light on ecological interactions and the part human's play.  I encourage you to check it out.

Now that you know where I stand regarding the emotional aspect of natural events, let's explore the good things about this fire.  As I've already said, our forests here in Hickory Nut Gorge have been overdue for a good burn.  All the right conditions were in place.  All the pictures on social media showing raging flames and glowing rims of fire (many of which were taken at night to capture the glow and enhanced through post-processing) paint a picture of utter disaster and catastrophe.  A picture is worth a thousand words if you're looking for a great story, but what if the picture tells the wrong story?  The thing is we're not seeing mass forest devastation.  We're not seeing burning conflagrations that decimate acres and acres of tall trees.  This fire is behaving as it should under the extreme circumstances we currently have, as a typical ground fire in the eastern deciduous forest.  Sure it's big and no one alive from this area has ever seen anything on this scale in this part of the country, but it's behaving as you would expect under the conditions that are present.  It is removing vast amounts of fuel from the ground.  It is taking out standing dead snags that pose hazards to other living trees.  The fire is opening up ground and providing a medium for regeneration.
Notice how clean the forest floor is after being burned.
Consider that Hickory Nut Gorge is one of the few places in North Carolina where the federally endangered white irisette (Sisyrinchium dichotomum) grows.  White irisette, while not necessarily a fire-dependent species, is a disturbance dependent plant and does not grow where there is thick leaf litter or undergrowth.  Newly exposed ground will offer a place for white irisette to set seed and should allow populations to increase in size.  Other rare plant species such as sweet pinesap (Monotropsis odorata) will likely see similar benefits due to the reduction of competing plants and removal of leaf litter.
White irisette (Sisyrinchium dichotomum)
Expect to see an explosion of new seedlings, particularly hardshell nut species such as hickories, whose nuts have thick hulls that don't burn easily.  Even acorns, scarified by heat, will germinate and cover the forest floor with tiny oak seedlings.  Fire tolerant table mountain pine and shortleaf pine will replace thinner barked, hot-burning Virginia pine, creating a more diverse forest community.  Hopefully many of the early successional species will take a backseat to the species that are meant to dominate the forest.

Here's an interesting bit of information.  Would you believe that the forest is already recovering?  If you look at the mountain in the areas where fire has already burned from a vantage point such as the Lake Lure Beach, you will not see a charred moonscape.  You see a covering of fall color.  Red, yellow, and orange can be found in every area of the mountain.  The full canopy remains in place and it's impossible to tell there was a fire except where you see smoke.  Already, leaves are dropping off the trees (that's what they do in autumn) and covering the ash-covered, charred ground, providing a protective insulating layer that will lock the freed carbon into the soil and reduce erosion (in the off-chance that it rains between now and next year) as the forest heals.  Areas where the fire burned hotter, may take a little longer to show signs of recovery, but by spring of next year it will be hard to find signs of a catastrophic fire unless you know what to look for.
Notice the leaves are already covering the burned ground.  Fall color still abounds.
The affect on trees, particularly larger trees appears to be minimal.  There are a few with scorched bark, but when I explored some of the already burned area, I saw very few exposed root crowns which means most of these trees should be in good shape.  Because the trees were already drought stressed and it's fall, sap levels are down which keeps trees from heating up on the inside, boiling the sap, and ultimately killing the trees.  The thicker barked trees are well-protected from fire.  There is some smoke damage in the understory where heat and smoke has cooked leaves on lower branches, but most will recover by dropping dead branches and compartmentalizing any damaged areas.  Trees have a remarkable way of coping with fire.  This is not to say that there will be trees that won't die.  There will be some mortality, but you will have to be in the woods to see it, not viewing the forest from viewpoints, and many of the trees that die will re-sprout and regenerate from their root crowns.  By spring, expect a green covering that will be no different from any other year.  Fall colors next year, if we get some rain in the next few months, should be awesome thanks to the added nutrients that will be taken up by the trees.  My prediction is that spring wildflowers will be awesome due to the carbon input and the reduced duff and litter layer.  After the Double H and Judes' Gap fires, the following year you couldn't even tell that those areas burned unless you knew what to look for.  That should be reassuring to those who are worried about the beauty of our area.  We aren't turning into a moonscape, and remember that not everything has burned.  Fires jump from place to place based on where the wind takes them, so there will be patches of forest that just simply did not burn.

Here you can see the scorched trunks of trees as the fire ran rapidly through the forest.
The ground under almost everything in this picture has burned, yet the beauty remains.
Of course with everything, there are always negative aspects as well.  The biggest negative I see with this fire is the exceptional number of exotic invasive species that will try to colonize the area, particularly areas where fire intensity was greatest.  In places where fire gets really hot, it impacts the soil to a degree that native species can't easily colonize,  making it easier for more adaptable invasive species to occupy those spaces quickly.  Fire always creates a surge in invasive species.  After the Double H Fire in 2008, the southeastern side of Chimney Rock Mountain saw a huge surge in princesstree stems, requiring significant resources to remove.  Kudzu patches scattered within the burned area will be burned back to nothing, but will be back with a vengeance.  Tree-of-heaven populations impacted will vigorously return.  Invasive species will be a management issue for land managers for years to come, and it's important that they be managed or we risk losing the integrity of the affected natural communities.

Another negative I see has more to do with the sheer size of the fire.  There's a reason why prescribed burns are done on a small scale.  It's a whole lot easier to manage resources on small areas than large areas.  Land management after the fire is going to involve making sure burned areas aren't suffering extensive erosion.  There will also be new fuel that will build-up due to mortality of trees and shrubs.  Because it covers such a large area, it will be difficult to pay particularly close attention to resource management issues when they arise, because many of them will not be known about due to the remoteness of many of the sites.

Of course, from a human standpoint, there are a lot of negatives based on the lost economic opportunities, inconveniences and disruption of our every day lives, the sheer number of man hours required to contain the fire, and the belief that our beautiful area will never be the same again.  That negative perception and narrative needs to be turned around so that people understand the benefits, despite the losses, and that the ecological and aesthetical impacts will be minimal.

As far as the impact to wildlife, it's a bit of a toss-up question.  Are wildlife species affected?  Certainly, but to what degree.  Even while the fire was raging, firefighters were seeing deer and turkey foraging in both burned and unburned areas.  A forest service guy told me that he watched an owl in a tree, hanging out in the smoke.  The owl had his eyes on a rabbit that was wondering around just outside the fire line.  The man said he never saw where the rabbit went, but as far as he knew the owl didn't get him.  The point is, fire is something that wildlife instinctively know how to deal with.  Large critters are very mobile, so they can move to escape the fire.  A lot of their food, normally covered by leaf litter, is now exposed, making it easier to find.  Most animals are opportunistic when it comes to home selection, so they aren't really refugees.  Some larger animals such as coyote and bears may struggle a little bit as they wait on some of their prey animals to return to the area and may take opportunities to find easier meals in our backyards, but they will cope and they will survive.  Those that don't...well, that's the cruelty of nature.  Nature is an impartial judge if you want to think of it in those terms.  Smaller animals such as reptiles and amphibians find refuge in holes in the ground, cracks in rocks, and in trees, well above the heat of the fire.  Birds of course will just fly away, but will come back.  Most ground nesting migratory birds have already left for the winter anyway, so they will not be impacted.  Some animals do succumb to smoke inhalation, but it's not a wide-scale problem, anymore than it is for us humans who suffer from all the smoke in the air right now.  Do these events cause stress, absolutely, but again the ability to cope with stress is a survival mechanism.

For those wondering what to do if you see "abandoned" wildlife, particularly bear cubs and deer fawns.  Please leave them alone.  Their mothers are probably actively looking for them and you cannot provide those animals with the things they need.  If you see an injured animal, call the NC Wildlife Resources Commission and follow their directions, but otherwise leave the animals alone.  DO NOT FEED wildlife!  You will be creating a problem for yourself and others.

I've already written way more than I intended, but I feel it's important to reassure people that things that often seem bad often work out for the overall good.  If anything can be taken away from this post, it should be these things:
         1)  Fire is good for the forest.  It needed to burn and will be healthier because of it.
         2)  Within a very short time, recovery and regeneration will take place.  In fact, it's already
         3)  Impacts to our furry and feathered friends, while very real and stressful, are survivable and
              will have no lasting affects.
         4)  Our beautiful mountains will still be beautiful after this is all said and done and the smoke 
              clears.  It will not be a moonscape, nor will it look like a bomb went off. 

I hope anyone reading this finds it informative and reassuring.  Now go and tell a firefighter how much you appreciate them.

For more photos of the Party Rock Fire check out my photo album on Flickr by clicking the link:

Until Next Time!

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Meandering Down the French Broad River

Generally, most of my adventures and writings relate to Hickory Nut Gorge, but occasionally I like to get out of my comfort zone and go somewhere I've never been but always wanted to go.  Recently, I was talking to my brother Sidney who lives in Brevard, North Carolina and preaches at Morningside Baptist Church.  We were discussing his recent purchase of two kayaks (one for him and one for my sister-in-law) and how much outdoor activity there is in and around Brevard.  I told him that I needed to take a day off and head his way and go kayaking down the French Broad River.  We talked about some dates and got a general plan together and finally settled on a date that would work for both of us.

On Thursday, June 30, 2016, I headed up to Brevard with my kayak strapped to the roof of my truck.  I was looking forward to the trip as I have been interested in this ancient river for a long time.  The French Broad is one of the oldest rivers in the United States and drains a large portion of western North Carolina (most of what's west of the Eastern Continental Divide).  Once neglected, polluted, and more or less considered unimportant, the French Broad, thanks to concerned citizens, has made a proper comeback and is now something that people who live in its basin are very proud of.  The French Broad offers everything from swimming holes to fishing holes.  Now considered a "blue trail" or river trail, an adventurous soul can float for 132 miles through everything from flat water to Class IV rapids.

When Sidney and I talked about taking this adventure, we discussed two options: the first was to put in at Hap Simpson Riverfront Park and float down to Pisgah Forest Road Access, a roughly two-hour paddle; the second and more interesting option was to put in at the Headwaters and float down to Hap Simpson Park.  Sidney thought it would only take us about 4 hours to complete this trip and somehow came up with a distance of 11 miles from Point A to Point B.  Now understand, Sidney had not paddled this second option and this little tidbit of information will play a major part in this story as we go along, so stay tuned.

I am a prepper by nature.  I typically research everything and usually before I begin any adventure I try to find out as much as I can about the places I'm going.  I usually have a mental itinerary and keep notes and lists of things, including maps (I love maps and yes, I can read them).  This time, for some crazy reason, I did absolutely zero research.  I don't know if I just didn't have time, was on mental overload, or just got a wild hair to be spontaneous.  Whatever the reason, I was clueless about this trip and was placing my trust in my younger brother as the "local expert" who would vehemently argue that he is not an expert nor ever claimed to be regarding this adventure.

I arrived at Sidney's house around 9:45 and we began sorting gear and loading the kayaks onto Cynthia's (my sister-in-law) vehicle.  We had decided that Cynthia could take us to the put-in and then just pick us up when we reached our destination, keeping us from having to take two vehicles.  As we discussed the options, I came to find out that Sidney had not actually done Option 2 but he seemed to believe it was doable and that we could see what the river conditions were like at the Headwaters Outfitter and decide for sure once we knew what we were up against.  So we loaded up and headed up the road to Rosman, stopping in at the Headwaters Outfitter where we asked about the river conditions and level of difficulty (again, if I had done my homework, I would have already known the answer), but I failed to ask about the distance and time it would take to reach our planned destination.  By now you can probably see where this is going.  They told us that the best place for us to put in would be at Champion Park, where there was a pretty easy path to walk down and put the boats in the water.  Champion Park is at mile marker one on the river trail.

There was a nice kiosk at the river access, but what I was seeing on the map gave me an awful uneasy feeling.  There was a whole lot of blue between Champion Park and Hap Simpson Riverfront Park that looked a whole lot longer than 11 miles.  We looked at the scale on the map which was totally wrong and contemplated what we were getting into.  Sidney confidently said we could do this so I said, "Let's do it!"  There are two favorite last phrases that all rednecks in this world know:  "Hey y'all watch this!" and "Let's do it!"  I am guilty of saying both and every time I live to regret it (but it makes for great tales around the campfire).

With confidence and a positive attitude we put our boats in the water.  It was a little shallow and our boats were already scrubbing the bottom, but the outfitter folks said that we shouldn't have a whole lot of trouble.  After a few scrubs and bumps, we were off.  The river was as calm as a lake.  The current was barely noticeable, forcing us to paddle some distance before we came to our first little riffle that could give us a little speed.
The beginning of our adventure.  This is what the river looked like most of the way.
As we paddled along we chatted about various things.  We saw a broad-winged hawk fly out of a tree.  All around we could hear the sounds of kingfishers and redwing blackbirds.  A huge osprey launched itself from a tall tree and flew down the river.  We moved slowly along, occasionally seeing fish jump as they snatched bugs off the surface.  Sometimes we would see a rather large trout cruising by and we hoped to get a glimpse of a mighty muskellunge (or muskie as most anglers refer to them).  The water was clear and cold, with lots of nice stony sections in the upper reaches of the stream.  We saw several downed trees in the water and talked about how wonderful the smallmouth fishing probably was but we didn't bring anything to catch them with.  Clearly, we were men on a mission and fishing was not part of that mission, although if I go back, it will be. 

As we floated along at a leisurely pace, I commented to Sidney that our other brothers, Cameron and Richard, and our nephew Austin would have enjoyed this trip, except we can't get Richard in a kayak.  We've got to work on that boy!  Austin is a really good fisherman and I'm getting closer to getting him convinced that he needs a kayak.  Such river trips are always more fun with several people, and when we all get together, we have a grand time, swapping stories, memories, and flat-out lies (mostly lies that others have told).
The rocky bottom was perfect for trout fishing.
 We crept up on a great blue heron that immediately flew downriver like a big pteradactyl once it realized that we were not a natural part of the river.  The French Broad supposedly has one of the largest blue heron populations in the whole state.  In fact, we got a good laugh at one particular heron that always seemed to stay ahead of us.  We would get close and he would fly about 100 yards downstream.  This went on for several minutes.  Our friend met another heron and the two flew a little farther down the river together before disappearing entirely around a bend.

The current was steady, but not swift.  Western North Carolina has been experiencing drought for a couple of years now so the volume of water that was in the river was a little lower than normal.  The farther we went, the more slack the current became.  As I said, the French Broad is an ancient river, with big wide floodplains that are the result of eons of erosion and sedimentation.  Those floodplains are the water storage areas when the French Broad tends to get a little rowdy, which happens every now and then.  According to Wikipedia, the river begins at an elevation of 3,440 feet and over its entire course drops a total of 2,375 feet as it makes its way 218 miles through western North Carolina into Tennessee to join the Holston River and become the Tennessee.  Most of the elevation loss is northwest of Asheville in Madison County where the river is swift, voluminous and choked with whitewater.  It then slacks off again before entering Douglas Reservoir in Tennessee.  The entire basin is 5,124 square miles.  As we paddled along we saw debris from past floods all around us.  The most recent flood, which occurred last spring, left debris in the trees as high as 12 feet above the current water level.  That's pretty amazing.

By hour two, my back was starting to hurt a little (actually a lot) and I needed a stretch break so we found a nice little point bar in a slight bend in the river that we pulled up on and grabbed a quick snack.  We walked around to get the kinks out of our backs and get the blood flowing in our hind-ends again.

We pushed off and got headed back downstream.  The river was beginning to change.  The number of gravel bars was decreasing and the river bottom was becoming more sandy.  We would see occasional rocks and submerged boulders, but not like what we saw farther up river.  We were surrounded on either side by farmland.  For years farming practices in the French Broad Basin have contributed significantly to sedimentation in the river, covering many of the gravel beds.  Those same practices have increased bank erosion and stormwater volumes, causing significant morphological changes in the river bed which results in more damage when big floods occur.
Sidney taking the lead for a stretch.
We passed three ladies who were tubing, but they were the only humans on the river with us and they pulled out way upstream from our final destination.  The river is an important resource for the people who live on it, particularly farmers who depend on it for agricultural uses, but recreation and quality of life are important too.  Occasionally we would see chairs or picnic tables at the top of the banks.  A lot of "No Trespassing" signs were posted on trees lining the river.  We paddled by three local fellows who were watching on the bank who seemed nice enough.  We exchanged pleasantries and kept on moving.  Sidney pointed out after we were well past the gentlemen that they were smoking marijuana.  I had to laugh as images of Deliverance popped into my head and I said as much to Sidney.  The French Broad is certainly a juncture of two different cultures: one that is local, redneck, and truly Southern Appalachian; another that is yuppie, non-local, sophisticated, and sometimes disdainful of Appalachian culture.  The interesting thing is, this cross-cultural mixture works together pretty well.  The river brings people with lifestyle differences to a place of agreement: that the river is an important resource.  They may not agree on the best way to protect it and what the best use is, but they will all agree that the river is better than it used to be because people care about it.

The river was moving pretty well here as we approached a bridge.
By hour three, we had gone about 8 miles, and I was beginning to have some doubts about the true length of this trip.  The river had almost totally slacked up and we were having to work.  It was like paddling across Lake Lure on a day with no boats.  That's how flat the water was.  Boulders had been replaced by significant numbers of fallen trees and driftwood that created interesting obstacles and were kind of fun to paddle around.  We also saw several places where the river was undergoing rehabilitation and bio-engineering practices such as j-hooks and rock vanes had been installed in the river bed.  The banks had been planted with native grasses and shrubs such as silky dogwood and elderberry.

By hour four and river mile marker 11, Sidney said that we probably ought to see where we were in relation to our destination.  I pulled out my phone and was shocked at the long blue line that we still had to cover if we wanted to reach Hap Simpson Park.  The funny thing was, we had just missed a takeout (that was not marked as a public takeout by the way), the Island Ford River Access.  That would have ended our trip at a good stopping place but we didn't realize it until we were already a mile or so down river.

We were paddling like mad to get down the river.  Sidney was supposed to be conducting a class that evening and we were already past the time frame that we had given ourselves to be on the river.  We pulled out on a sandbar to stretch and Sidney called Cynthia to let her know our progress.  He told her to meet us at Hap Simpson in 30 minutes.  I looked at the map on my phone and I told him we still had a ways to go.  Ever the optimist, Sidney kept saying, "We're almost there!" and "Oh, we'll make it."  We had no choice but to grit our teeth and keep paddling.  We had moved beyond the level of doing this for fun.  We were now working to get off the river as soon as possible because storm clouds were starting to build.
A place to stretch the aching back.
Looking upstream from our rest stop.  A small creek flows into the river here.
Sidney is a bi-vocational pastor, like a lot of pastors who preach at smaller churches.  I told him he probably ought to call his earthly boss and tell him he wasn't going to make his appointment.  He agreed and made the call.  In the meantime, I called Cynthia, who had already been waiting about an hour since we called her, to give her an update and tell her just to go back to the house and we would call her when we got off the river.  I could tell she was worried.  She said the sky was getting really black and that we needed to hurry.  About that time, I heard a cracking sound.  About 100 yards downstream, I saw a huge maple tree falling into the river.  I didn't do anything for Cynthia's anxiety as I gave her the play-by-play.  I told her I was going to have to get off the phone because it looked like we were going to have to portage around the tree.  I quit paddling and let Sidney catch up and we assessed the situation.  As we got closer to the fallen tree, we found that it hadn't entirely blocked the river, so we were able to get around the end of it without having to get out of our boats.  The path was only about four feet wide, but still better than what it could have been.  In all my times in the outdoors I have never witnessed anything like that, and I am quite thankful that we weren't under that tree when it decided to let go.

Onward we went, passing through an occasional riffle to break up the monotony and agony of continuous stroking.  We ran into a herd of cows cooling off in the river.  Once they spotted us, they beat a hasty retreat to get out, apparently not too used to seeing blue kayaks floating down the river.  We were beat, and at this point were just paddling to get off the river.  I nearly tipped my boat over laughing at Sidney when he said, "If I heard banjo music, I don't think I could paddle any faster.  I'd just have to give them what they wanted."  He was right of course.  My arms and shoulders were so tired, I knew that if I stopped I would not be able to continue.  I had quit taking photos by this time.

Sidney asked me if I needed a break and I said I did.  We got out on a quicksand-like sandbar that smelled like cow excrement to stretch our backs and shake our arms out a little.  All of a sudden there was a pop of lightning, immediately followed by a deafening crash of thunder.  There is no greater motivation to paddle faster than the knowledge that you are about to get electrocuted.  We jumped in our boats and took off.  Call it a second wind if you will.  My arms were a well-oiled machine.  I settled into a rhythm of long strong strokes that easily pushed me through the slow-moving water.  We hit a couple of faster spots to give us some relief and noticed that we had finally come parallel to Highway 276.  We were getting closer.

We knew that we had roughly about two miles left to paddle to reach Hap Simpson, but before we committed to that last haul, opportunity showed up.  Call it divine intervention or sheer luck.  Call it whatever you want.  Up ahead we saw some canoes that were tied up to a dock.  Sidney suggested that we see if there was anyone around and get off the river as the sky continued to darken.  We pulled up to the rocky shore and a nice lady came walking down an access trail.  I asked her if she would mind if we pulled our boats out and have someone pick us up.  She said she didn't mind.  Her group was camping at the site and offered to help us get our boats and gear up to the road.  How nice!  We had pulled out at a site owned by Down to Earth Outfitters at river mile 18.  Sidney called Cynthia to tell her where we were and how to get there.

We were completely and utterly exhausted.  We waited about ten minutes for Cynthia to get there and I made the comment to Sidney that just in that period of time, my arms and shoulders had already stiffened to the point that if we had to have paddled the remaining distance, I don't know if I could have done it.  He agreed and said that he would sleep well that night.  Cynthia arrived and we loaded our gear, thus ending our adventure (or misadventure as it were).  We headed back to Sidney's house where we re-sorted our gear and loaded my kayak back onto my truck as it began to rain.  At least it waited until we got off the river.  As I headed back down the road towards home, I passed through frequent downpours, a reminder of how fortunate we were to not be on the river during a storm.

What a fantastic day!  Granted, it didn't go exactly as planned and we didn't quite make it all the way to our planned destination, and certainly the last few miles of river would have surely been more exciting if we hadn't been so tired, but it was time well spent with my brother.  We had a good time, had great conversation and we knocked out 17 miles of slow-moving river in one day.  Pretty good for a couple of amateurs.  Would I do it again?  Maybe.  I would probably start earlier, knowing what I know now, and I would certainly familiarize myself with the takeouts before I go again, but would that be as adventurous?  One lesson I learned on this little trip is that sometimes being spontaneous creates the best opportunity for a true adventure.

Until Next Time!

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

My New Favorite Trail: The Bearwallow Mountain Trail

I run into a lot of people who know about my history and work in Hickory Nut Gorge and often I hear the comment, "Well, I guess you've seen about all there is to see up there."  Truly I have been to a lot of places in Hickory Nut Gorge, either by road or on foot, but I can certainly not claim to have seen it all.  In fact any opportunity to visit a place I have not yet seen in Hickory Nut Gorge is certainly not worth passing up, especially when there are still species out there that need to be documented and photographed.

On June 1,2016, I had spent my entire morning doing a botanical inventory for a property owner in Buncombe County.  Having worked part of the Memorial Day weekend and with a busy work schedule facing me towards the end of the week at my real job, my day off was spent fulfilling an obligation to conduct this botanical survey.  After a half day of climbing and crawling through rhododendron thicket, I was certainly ready for a break, so I drove down Highway 9 back down to Chimney Rock and grabbed a quick bite at the Old Rock Cafe and contemplated how I would spend the rest of the afternoon.

There were several species that I had managed to photo-document earlier in the day, but there were still a few that I wanted to try to find.  Initially I decided to go to the Bat Cave Preserve because I knew I would find what I was looking for there, but then I thought, "Well, you know, I have never been to the top of Bearwallow Mountain.  I should go up there."

I am almost ashamed to say that in the twenty-four years I've worked in Hickory Nut Gorge, I have never visited its second highest peak.  Only recently has Bearwallow Mountain really fallen under my radar as "legally" accessible after Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy recently acquired a public right-of-way and constructed a trail up the mountain.  I had always heard that there was some cool stuff up there and the view was really spectacular, so on this particular day I decided that I needed to put a new destination under my belt.

I hit the road hydrated and with a full belly, headed up Highway 74A to Gerton, took the left onto Bearwallow Road and drove to the Eastern Continental Divide, where I parked my car at the small parking lot on the side of the road.  As an aside, this is also the location for the trailhead of the Trombatore Trail, another recently built trail that I have on my to-do list.

I crossed the road and squeezed through the narrow space between the gate and the fence post and made my way over to the trailhead.  I saw the trailhead kiosk but didn't read it because my eye was immediately drawn to purple on the forest floor.  I was happy to discover Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum) in flower. 
Eastern Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum)
This was the first time I had seen this species in flower so I was pretty excited.  Another one to add to my ever growing list of Hickory Nut Gorge wildflower photos.  Without a backward glance I began my hike along a well maintained path, occasionally broken up by rock steps and a couple of switchbacks.  As I made my way through the first set of switchbacks, I saw some huge eastern columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) with the largest flowers that I have ever seen on that species.  There were also several nice spiderwort plants (Tradescantia sp.) that were a deep lavender.  I also saw (for the first time in flower) waxyleaf meadow rue (Thalictrum revolutum), common throughout the Gorge, but seemingly never in bloom when I find it.  As I moved up the trail, it was clear that elevation makes quite a difference in determining species and bloom time.  Many things that were blooming above 3,000 feet were already finished at the lower elevations in the lower Gorge. 

Eastern Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)

Spiderwort (Tradescantia sp.)
Waxyleaf Meadow Rue (Thalictrum revolutum)

I moved into a long, fairly flat section of trail where the forest began to open up with several large but weather-stunted oak and hickory trees, occasional patches of shrubs such as flame azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum) and mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), and an herb layer that consisted mostly of ferns and other acid soil-loving plants.  As I moved along, the forest seemed almost ethereal in some ways, as clouds began to move in and the distant rumbles of thunder could be heard.  I began to realize I needed to pick up my pace.

Nice, flat trail.

A forest floor covered with ferns and low shrubs.
Flame Azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum)
One rather disturbing thing I saw was that almost all the flame azaleas that I encountered were severely impacted by azalea gall.  The galls are caused by a fungus (Exobasidium vacinii) which can cause severe damage to affected plants and spread to other azaleas if not controlled.  There were some though that were unaffected and were still in flower.
Azalea gall (Exobasidium vacinii)
 At a slight bend in the trail I came to a place where I was treated with my first sighting of Catawba rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense).  Catawba rhododendron, while generally common in the higher elevations of North Carolina, is occasionally found on north-facing slopes at lower elevations.  I've seen it on the north side of Little Pisgah Mountain where I guess it would be considered out of the Gorge (That side of the mountain drains into the French Broad Basin as opposed to the Broad Basin), and I've seen a very small population on the north side of Rumbling Bald along the spine of the mountain.  I found that the farther I moved up the mountain, the more there was as I crossed the 4,000 feet elevation mark.
Catawba Rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense)
Northwest view framed by Catawba rhododendron.

I continued working my way up the path which had begun to steepen, increasing in difficulty with the addition of a series of log and rock steps that worked their way up the last leg of the trail.  Passing by a couple of large boulder formations, the trail came out into a flower-filled meadow.  I could see the summit ahead with its numerous radio towers and the historic fire tower that has stood atop the mountain for several generations, the trail intersecting with the dirt road that allows vehicle access to the top of the mountain.
The trail near the summit, surrounded by Catawba rhododendron.

Approaching the summit of Bearwallow Mountain.
Looking northwest across the ragwort-covered meadow.
 As I came to the road to finish my trip to the summit, angry clouds began to surround the mountain.  Off to the south, a rain squall was visible.  The wind began to pick up and a sudden chill went through me as the sweat evaporated from my skin.  As thunder rolled, I began to realize that I was probably not in a very good place.  The whole top of the mountain is pretty much devoid of trees.  The tallest structures are all made of steel and probably get hit by lightning pretty often during storms.  Not wanting to become a human lightning rod, but at the same time not wanting to miss any photographic opportunities, I quickly crossed the summit over to the forested east-facing side of the mountain for a view of Hickory Nut Gorge.  From my vantage point, I could only make out a few prominent features due to a rain squall that was pushing through the lower Gorge.
Storm clouds and a rain squall to the south.
Rain in the lower Hickory Nut Gorge.  Lake Lure can barely be seen.
Another Catawba rhododendron bush.
 I snapped off several photos of the angry clouds and some Catawba rhododendron and quickly made my way back over the summit to the dirt road to begin my descent.  By this time, the rain squall I had seen to the south had moved east, but another much closer squall had begun to form just off the south side of the mountain.  I could see the rain bands just over the trees.  Some grazing cattle at the west end of the meadow had begun to move from the high point down to a lower part of the meadow, both interested in me as well as probably understanding that a storm was coming, and they weren't exactly in a safe place either.  
Looking across the grassy expanse of the summit ridge as the wind picks up.
Rain coming down just beyond the trees.
As the clouds thickened and the thunder boomed , I snapped off a few parting shots and began to quickly descend the mountain, with drops of rain beginning to patter around me.  About a third of the way down the trail, I met a nice family on their way up the mountain.  Not wanting to sound too worrisome, I felt obliged to at the very least caution these "greenhorns" from Florida that things were getting a little gnarly up on the top and they might want to wait a little while before continuing their ascent and see what the weather was going to do.  Whether they followed my advice or not, I don't know.  My guess is they kept going, taking the gamble that they would be okay.  I didn't hear about any lightning strike tragedies in the news so I'm guessing they made it out alright.
Heading back down the trail as raindrops begin to fall.
Anyway, I continued on down the mountain, stopping only to get a sip of water and pack my camera for the inevitable rain shower that was closing in.  As I walked, I continued to kick myself for waiting so long to visit such a wonderful and unique place.  The Bearwallow Mountain Trail in so many ways reminds me of the Craggy Gardens trails on the Blue Ridge Parkway, passing through weathered woods with grasses and ferns covering the forest floor, with the occasional lily or trillium peeking out; lichens hanging off gnarled trees; and then the payoff with scattered rhododendron and exquisite views.  
The unusual Lungwort Lichen (Lobaria pulmonaria)
A field of ferns along the trail.
Patches of Catawba rhododendron.
I am so glad I took the opportunity to visit this wonderful place.  Hickory Nut Gorge still holds many secrets for me, and I relish the challenge of finding new species that I have either not seen or have not been documented for the Hickory Nut Gorge area.  Not only did I add species to my photographic list, I climbed the second highest peak in Hickory Nut Gorge, and I now have a new favorite trail.

Until Next Time!

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Flower of the Month: May

Hickory Nut Gorge is one of the most amazing places in the spring as wildflowers come alive at the different elevations and within all the little nooks and crannies.  I always go back down memory lane to my time at Chimney Rock Park when I spent days chasing down certain plants (not that they run very fast) to photograph them before their short bloom time expired.  When I worked at the Park, we had a wildflower brochure that was written by a good friend of mine and my chief mentor, Elizabeth Feil, who was the Park's botanist back when I first started working at CRP.  My goal was to photograph every plant in that brochure, and I pretty much did that, but it was all done with print and slide film, as the digital era had not yet begun.  When I left the Park, I didn't leave my wildflower passion behind me, but rather embarked on a new photographic journey in the digital age with expanded goals.  Among those goals is to photograph as many flowering plants in Hickory Nut Gorge as I can.  That goal will help me to embark on some other projects that will one day see the light of day, but that's a story for another time.  I am obviously still chasing flowers.  The reason you stopped by the blog (hopefully) is to see what the Flower of the Month pick is for the month of May.

This month's pick was hard for me, as May has so many wonderful flowering species.  A recent adventure was what actually led me to my decision.  One plant that I have been trying to get new photos of is bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana).  I have several slides of it that have been digitized but none of the images are as clean as I would like.  I pulled out my old CRP Wildflowers brochure (yes, I keep one handy) to see if I had missed the dates and unfortunately I was too late.  However that search brought me to the realization that there was another plant that I needed new photos of that was just beginning to flower, but would also require some quick action on my part to catch before the bloom time was over.  The plant I'm talking about is Indian paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea).

Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea)
Indian paintbrush (as a genus) is perhaps better known as a prairie species of the American west, where it puts on a stunning display in conjunction with other grassland species.  In Hickory Nut Gorge it's a little less well known and a whole lot harder to find, but no less stunning.  One place to look for it is above the bridge between the Sky Lounge and the Chimney, inside Chimney Rock State Park.  It sporadically grows among the Biltmore sedge (Carex biltmoreana) clumps on the usually damp rock faces and ledges that surround the steep ravine that the bridge spans.  Another place I have seen it is actually on private property adjoining CRSP, growing in a seep at the top of a granite dome along with divided-leaf ragwort (Packera millefolium).  The third location, and perhaps the easiest to get to if you are looking for a nice drive, is on the upper south-facing slope of Sugarloaf Mountain where it grows in the boggy, grassy soils that border the road.

Indian paintbrush growing along with divided-leaf ragwort (Packera millefolium).
Indian paintbrush is named for the scarlet-colored bracts that surround the nondescript greenish-yellow flowers.  The plants literally look like they have been dipped in a red-orange paint bucket.  Individual plants are usually no more than a couple of feet tall.  The stems are deep purple.  Plants are very pubescent with hairs along the stem, leaves, bracts, and flowers.  In Hickory Nut Gorge it will be found growing on open sites, in thin, moist soils along margins of rock slabs or granite domes, and will usually be associated with grasses and sedges. 

For a long time Indian paintbrush was classified in the Figwort Family (Scrophulariaceae) due to many characteristics it shares with other members of that family, but more recently it has been moved into the Broomrape Family (Orobanchaceae), along with some other genera such as Aureolaria and Agalinis.  The move of these genera is due to the hemi-parasitic nature of these plants.  All members of the Broomrape Family are root parasites.  Several members of this family of plants lack chlorophyll and are incapable of photosynthesis, making it necessary for them to parasitize other plants. Indian paintbrush has chlorophyll and is actually capable of surviving on its own without a host, but it really thrives when it can attach itself to a host plant, particularly grasses which is what it is most often associated with.  On the Chimney Rock Mountain sites, it is likely parasitizing Biltmore sedge, as that seems to be the most numerous plant in the areas where Indian paintbrush is growing.  On the Sugarloaf Mountain site, the plants are surrounded by grasses and many other species, so there are a plethora of possible host plants.

The flowers are the greenish-yellow parts above the showy bracts.
I was so excited that I was able to catch so many plants in flower, and I'm quite certain that if I had waited for another opportunity, I would not have been so well rewarded.  Timing is everything and sometimes a little luck doesn't hurt either.  

I'm sure people get tired of me saying it, but Hickory Nut Gorge is truly a botanical wonder.  I never tire of exploring it and seeing those wonderful things that make it so special.  I have no idea what next month's flower will be, but I can tell you that it will be every bit as awesome as Indian paintbrush is for May.

Until Next Time!