Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Hiking Harriman

Hiking flat boulder slabs on the Appalachian Trail in Harriman State Park
Some days ago, I decided I would pay Harriman State Park a visit. This park contains over 46,000 acres of wooded hiking trails, literally dozens of pristine lakes, stone shelters for overnight camping, and well, a schmoozy lodge if you're lookin' for that sort of thing. Several long distance trails pass through the heart of this park: the Appalachian Trail (2,175 miles), the Long Path (356 miles), and the Shawangunk Ridge Trail (71 miles). When I was on my thru-hike this was one of my most favorite sections, primarily for the open woods and for striding across the large flat boulder slabs just below the thin black soil supporting the grassy forest floor.

Heath Aster (Aster pilosus)
I parked at a small parking lot on Arden Valley Road off of Route 17 in New York, clearly marked by a large park service sign for Harriman State Park. I planned on a 26 mile round trip, with a night's stay at West Mountain Shelter. I pulled my trekking poles from the trunk, stashed my car keys, and hoisted my surprisingly weighted pack. While thru-hiking through here, I remembered being alarmed by how even the fast flowing Fitzgerald Falls just a little ways south had turned bone dry because it was late in the summer and a dry year at that. Well, it has been drier than dry ever since I returned home from my trek on the MST, so I made sure to be fully prepared for a possibly dry hike with 4 liters of water. The rest of my weight was food. You see, the beauty of going out for just an overnight, is that you can pack all kinds of delicious heavy foods you wouldn't dare bring on an extended hike: a can of dolmas saturated in olive oil, an instant meal of already hydrated saag paneer, a couple fresh peaches, aged cheddar cheese and sesame seed bagels. Already thinking about what I would eat first, I hopped on the AT going north, that being a slender corridor through a field of tall grasses and wildflowers, some of which can be seen above and below.

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) - I am uncertain what species of Goldenrod, however if I had to take a guess, I would say Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) because of the cone-shaped flower arrangement rather than stems reaching like tree branches and how the bracts of each flower were non-spreading.
Speariment (Mentha spicata) 
Once past the field, the trail moved into shaded spacious woods and uphill over large rocks easy for stepping and skipping. Towering White Oaks (Quercus alba), Black Birch (Betula lenta), and the occasional smooth trunked American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) spread their branches wide, while Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis) shed shreds of its papery bark all over the forest floor. Both Black and Yellow Birch seedlings sprung abundantly from this floor and shared their space with clusters of Canada Mayflower (Maiathemum canadense).

Black Birch (Betula alleghaniensis) seedlings - these youngin's had some of the most wintergreen flavor I have ever tasted from a Black Birch
Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum  canadense)
Within less than a mile, I traveled into the land of the giant boulders and tall grasses. This is the landscape that I most associate with Harriman State Park. The trees lessen and it looks as if a wandering giant literally scattered a handful of rocks at his feet. These boulders sit amidst a sea of Hay Fern (Dennstaedtia) already rich with spores on their undersides. Island Pond can be seen in the distance from this higher elevation as well. This pond is a "glacially made pothole"
(nynjctbotany.org) and reaches 126 feet at its greatest depths.

Island Pond through the trees

The spores of Hay Fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula)

Hiking another mile, I reached the infamous Lemon Squeezer. This is a jumble of boulders larger than houses that happen to have been pushed together just so thousands of years ago to create the perfect hiker's obstacle course. Don't try and get through here with a pack too wide, or else you may get wedged until these rocks are forced to shift again!

Entrance to the Lemon Squeezer
Clawing my way through the narrowest portion of the Lemon Squeezer
After shimmying, squeezing, and pushing my way through, I made my way further uphill and over more boulders however many of these lay flush with the soil, making for a lovely smooth hiking path. The sun was bright here with all these glacial rocks cutting through the thin soil leaving none for the trees to dig their roots into and therefore little shade.

The AT headed north toward Fingerboard Shelter over smooth rock slabs
This terrain persists past the Fingerboard Shelter and for a good couple miles past that, however eventually the boulders diminish leading the hiker through thicker woods full of more mixed hardwoods, White Pine (Pinus strobus), Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) and enough Blueberry Bushes to feed not only a village but a village of Black Bear. I kept my eyes peeled as this would be perfect habitat for this fella, but saw only a few fearless White-tailed deer enjoying the greenery. If walking observantly, all along the trail one can also spy evidence of old mining operations. I have read that the Garfield Mine was located not far from this area, so perhaps these leftover caves and craters, as well as old roads, and rock heaps were a part of this particular iron-ore excavation.

Signs of the industry once in these hills - iron ore mining - do any of my historian friends want to chime in on what this may be?
Much to my pleasure, 7 miles in, I reached a trickling stream just before crossing Seven Lakes Drive. So, I was able to refill the liter and a half I'd already drank and take a little break. While walking upstream to make sure that this stream wasn't flowing straight out of a beaver dam, as its possible source looked awfully marshy, I stumbled upon the regal Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis).

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) - Streamside is this plant's most likely home and is often but just a blotch of red spotted from across the way until the curious hiker rock hops her way over for closer inspection. Notice this plant is a relative to Lobelia inflata, a plant that has been noted in recent posts.
With the pack again fully filled, I made my way up, up, up, over scree covered trail and up more happenstance rock steps and after some miles found myself walking the edge of this cliff with views of the Catskill Mountains in the distance as well as what would soon be my view for the night, a sure sign I wasn't far from my destination. The late afternoon sun shone bright, and although my pack was water laden, I was glad I'd had a chance to refill with temps in the high 80's and humidity hanging thick in the air.

Walking cliffside along the AT, with a view of the Hudson River in the distance.
But of course, why would the Appalachian Trail take you up, up, up and keep you there? No, this is not the nature of this particular path. It instead dropped me straight down to the Palisades Parkway. Yes, that's right...the hiker must hold her breath and dash across this high-speed thoroughfare to continue on her way north. Let me tell you, after spending an afternoon in the quiet of the woods, to be thrust onto this road is quite the sensory overload. These folks are headed to and from NYC just to give you an idea of the energy of this road. However, pretty cool to think that I could in theory just detour, pack and all, and be hiking the concrete jungle in merely a day and a half.

Crossing the Palisades Parkway, notice the sign "NYC 34 miles"
Once safely across, I had just one more mile to my destination and so back up I went, climbing my way towards West Mountain Shelter. The sun was now dipping low on the horizon and my toes were bruised from banging against the tips of shoes from all the ascents and descents. I was eager to get to camp...plus in the back of my mind I was thinking about that visitor center that I knew was just a half mile down the parkway that housed a vending machine full of ice cold soda that I had passed up due to the dwindling daylight. It was time for the day to be done.

En route to West Mountain Shelter with late day views of the Catskill Mountain Range

In my last mile however, I still noticed now ripe autumn berries of Partridge Berry (Mitchella repens) as well as the Violet (Viola spp.) leaves I now would pass up being that they are so late in the season. I also couldn't ignore the purple hue of the Sedge grasses, the yellowing of the Beech leaves and the strokes of deep red on the Blueberry bushes. Although the day had been hot, it would be a cool night atop the mountain with the coming of autumn just around the bend.

Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens)
Finally, I reached the top of the ridge and then turned off the AT to walk the last 0.6 miles of the day to West Mountain Shelter following a blue blazed trail. The trail rolled up and down, around boulders, and through the trees, until finally I glimpsed the roof of the shelter.

West Mountain Shelter - 0.6 miles off the AT but well worth the hike
West Mountain Shelter sits on an enormous slab and overlooks the Hudson River, the small town of Fort Montgomery, and the lights of New York City on the horizon. When I was last here I was with hiking partners at the time, a couple who went by the names of Moxie and Tecumseh (each 60+ years old), and a couple from France that happened to be spending the night there. I remember well the man telling me about his European hiking adventures to places I can't even remember the names because their names had no place to stick in my head when he told me them. However I remember listening to him speak of these beautiful far away places, while also being in the comfort of friends and watching the tiny boats push their way across the water below leaving blurred streaks of white froth behind them, and later that night all the lights of the city twinkling in the distance. It felt like magic, the coming together of these people, their stories, our surroundings.

Night time view from West Mountain Shelter with the moon high in the sky
However, on this night, I had the shelter all to myself and I had hoped that I would. I wanted to have the opportunity to soak up this place, this time, in absolute solitude. And that I did. I ate dinner with the setting sun and simply sat and watched the skies turned pink, then purple, and finally deep blue and the lights began flicker and shine in the blackness. The moon rose high and I headed to my tent that I set up in the grass to the edge of the shelter. Unfortunately, this shelter has aged in the 7 years since I last saw it. It was littered with trash and the slats in the floor were broken and rotted. Ah well. The view was the same and the magic was certainly still here. I drifted off to sleep that night to the sounds of a far off owl, a singing whippoorwill, and a symphony of cicadas humming, crickets chirping, with the low hum of the Palisades Parkway below.

The view from West Mountain Shelter

I awoke at sunrise and upon exiting my tent, was greeted by a buck in velvet, as shocked to see me as I was too see him. I had coffee and a bagel and gazed at the clouds slowly lifting from the water below and the sky brightening and then began my 13 miles back to Arden Valley Road. I was back to my car by noon. I had began my trip the day before at noon as well, I'd say that was a splendid 24 hour escape.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Counting Chestnuts

Castanea dentata
On Monday, I had the pleasure of joining Mike and Kieu Manes for a day of American Chestnut (Castanea dentata)counting. I had sparked up a conversation with Mike at the Festival of Wood when I spied his NY/NJ Appalachian Trail Conference shirt. We talked about the AT, MST, the book, and then about the American Chestnut when I learned that he and his wife were involved not only with the Appalachian Mountain Club and local AT conferences but with the American Chestnut Foundation. I soon met Kieu who was excited to see Pennywort featured in my book, which she is familiar with from her native home, Vietnam. In Vietnam, Pennywort juice is a well known drink called nuac rau ma. It is made from Centella asiatica, a different plant from the species of Hydrocotyle described in my book, but still closely related. Anyhow, the three of us soon found ourselves making plans to share some plant knowledge.

Kieu and her measuring device, an important tool used when counting the Chestnuts.
Mike measuring the distance of an American Chestnut from the Appalachian Trail
So on Monday morning we met at Fox Gap on the Appalachian Trail, which sits just outside of Stroudsburg, PA on Route 191. Mike and Kieu presented me with an American Chestnut counting kit and gave me instructions of just what we'd be doing. We were to walk the AT slowly, headed south towards Wolf Rocks, and record each American Chestnut that we saw along the way that stood at least 3 feet high and within 15 feet of the trail. We could admire the others but this is a mission   called the AT MEGA Transect Chestnut Project, in which the AMC is teaming up with the American Chestnut Foundation to find out just how many trees are surviving on the AT. However if we spotted a tree which had trunk that was 13 inches or more in diameter, we were then to make special note of it, and get up close and personal recording as much as we could about it.

Note the orange bumps on the trunk of the tree - this is evidence of the blight (Cryphonectia parasitica) that infects and kills the American Chestnut.
Why spend the whole day counting American Chestnut trees? Because they are a nearly extinct species. Nearly 25% of all trees in the Appalachian Mountains and from the Piedmont west to Ohio River Valley, its once thriving habitat, were at one time American Chestnut. In Pennsylvania, the American Chestnut was even more prolific, comprising 30% of all hardwoods. This tree was prized for its rot-resistant, tannin-rich wood, which was also straight-grained and grew rapidly, easily reaching over 90 feet in height and nearly 10 feet in diameter. Not only was the lumber excellent for building, but its tannins were used for tanning leather, and the nuts of course were a commodity as well, reportedly more delicious than those of the European Chestnut (Castanea sativa) which we enjoy today.

It was in 1904 at what is now considered the Bronx Zoo, that the blight was first discovered. This fungus, believed to have originated from Asia and accidentally transported here on infected lumber, is now dubbed the American Chestnut blight, however it's scientific name is Cryphonectia parasitica. Within 50 years, nearly 4 billion trees had been killed and this is the state in which we find the species today.  New American Chestnut trees will sprout from old roots as well as from seed, however, in almost all instances, the tree will inevitably be destroyed by the blight which enters through natural fissures in the bark which form on the tree with age or through other points of entry such as a snapped or severed twig. Once inside, it spreads through the vascular cambium, killing the this tissue and surrounding tissue, and it becomes impossible for the tree to transport nutrients. It is incredibly rare for a tree to survive beyond 20 years of age. 

The blight enters through naturally occurring fissures in the bark of older trees (fissures can be seen to the left, orange blight to the right) 
There are however small populations of healthy American Chestnuts out west that survive as well as in Michigan and dappled throughout its original habitat in the Appalachian Mountains. Those out west and in Michigan are a result of pioneers carrying the seeds and planting them for eventual lumber harvest or as a food source. The surviving populations are a result of fortunate isolation, protecting them from the spreading fungus.

Kieu walking Wolf Rocks on the AT
However, I think recording nearly 170 American Chestnut within less than 2 miles of trail is pretty darn good. This count does not include all the smaller saplings we saw and those that stood more than 15 feet from the trail. A good number of these 170 were clearly infected with blight and it is most likely that the younger ones that were not yet showing evidence of infection were already infected or will be in due time. We saw none that were 13 inches in circumference, however we did see several that were rather tall and slender with a beautiful spread of green leafy branches.

I imagine I have hiked blindly by many more American Chestnuts than I have ever known. Down south, I'd often pass a tree that I suspected to be American, however I knew it was just as likely to be a Chinese Chestnut (Castanea mollissima) which bears close resemblance at first glance. However, up here in the northeast, our woods possess very few Chinese Chestnuts. I imagine they would be found at old homesites but they have not naturalized here as they have down south. European Chestnuts would also have to be planted to be found within our woods. Therefore up here, if you spot what looks like an American Chestnut, it is a strong likelihood that it indeed what you have! That is as long as you pay attention to a few key features.

A typical looking American Chestnut Leaf

The leaves are alternate, longer than they are wide and have a tendency to droop. The margins (outer edge of leaf) are toothed, with each tooth appearing sharply hooked. The bases are V-shaped and the apexes (leaf tips) come to long sharp points. The tops of leaves will be a dull green in color with light green undersides and free of hair. Chinese Chestnut leaves are more oval shaped with rounded bases and shorter pointed apexes. Chinese Chestnut teeth will also be less sharp and not hooked, the undersides of leaves whitish with fine hairs.

Chestnut Oak Leaf (Quercus montana)
The more likely tree one could confuse with American Chestnut is a Chestnut Oak (Quercus montana), which is also a member of the Beech family (Fagaceae). However the margin of a Chestnut Oak leaf will have rounded teeth or lobes and will not bear sharply pointed apexes.

An American Beech leaf
Another possibly lookalike would be the American Beech (Fagus grandifolia). However you can see that the teeth are not as sharply hooked along the margin and that the apex is more short-pointed. Overall the American Beech leaf is also more oval shaped and less elongated.

There are of course other members of the Beech family that could also look similar such as the Allegheny Chinkapin (Castanea pumila), but those leaves will be glossier on top and bearing white hairs on underside. The teeth along the margins will be short and non-hooked. This tree is also less likely to be found as far north as northeast Pennsylvania.

The American Chestnut Foundation has been hard at work breeding Chinese Chestnuts which have a natural resistance to the blight, with American Chestnuts to build up the American Chestnut's resistance. The chestnuts that survive are then bred again with another American Chestnut, therefore increasing the percentage of American Chestnut genetics within the tree as well as the resistance. The foundation presently has a line of chestnuts that are 94% American. They are calling these their Restoration Chestnuts. With these efforts, perhaps one day future generations will again be able to look out over a vista such as this and see the tops of American Chestnuts.

The view from Wolf Rocks
 To learn more about the American Chestnut Foundation, check out their website at www.acf.org. And to my Asheville folks...do you know that this foundation's headquarters is located on Merrimon in Asheville? Thank you so much Mike and Kieu for sharing your knowledge with me! I can now spot an American Chestnut more than 15 feet away and clustered amongst many other trees! Keep sharing. What an awesome day.

Mike and Kieu Manes - American Chestnut extraordinaires

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Traversing Milford By Trail

A small gravel portion of the Cliff Trail
What better thing to do after dropping your car off at the shop for the day, than to taking the day to appreciate your own two feet? I could have just walked the two miles home or called for a ride, but without a car, I'd be left with little means to do anything productive. I decided I'd rather be grateful for a day to do nothing but amble in the woods.

From the center of town I made my way to the edge following Route 206, passing the closed down steel Blue Bridge on Mott Street and over the more modern concrete bridge over the Sawkill Stream. Here the road widens and traffic increases, as one will eventually travel into Delaware Water Gap or Sussex County, New Jersey depending on whether you go left or right at the fork. Within minutes, I reached the entrance to the Milford Cemetery on my right. This is an access point to the Milford Knob Trail. Once at the Knob, one can overlook the entire town of Milford speckled with church steeples, a picturesque grid of tiny roads, and the tops of green bushy trees. The Knob will however have to be the topic of another post, because in this case I used this trail only to lead me to another.

Follow the winding roads through the manicured green lawns of the Milford Cemetery up, up, up and you can reach this gated entrance to the trail. On this day, I followed the trail just a 0.2 mile in and then turned left on the Quarry Trail. This is a more gradual 0.5 m ascent up to the Cliff Trail. The Milford Knob Trail will take you straight up, to the overlook, and then left across the top of the ridge on the Cliff Trail. Perpetually covered in a bed of leaves that will only get thicker come fall, The Quarry Trail takes you alongside the mountain past Eastern Hemlock, various Oaks, and Birch. Green grass sheltering Violet leaves and Chickweed, as well as Blackberry brambles line its edges. Once intersecting with the Cliff Trail, I turned left and followed the narrow alternate trail which takes you right up to the edge of the cliff and to the first overlook.

An colorful overlook along the Cliff Trail
I was quite pleased to see that the wooden fencing here had been artfully decorated. Unfortunately kids will be kids, and this fence had formerly been decorated with all kinds of creative lude depictions and suggestions - I have no beef with "Katie luvs Billy 4-eva", I mean none, go 'head sing your love from the mountain tops, but the rest of it, come on kiddies, let's have some decency. Well it appears someone came up with a some spray paint and has illustrated Milford's embrace of the LGBT population. Right on- this is productive grafitti. Plus, it's kinda pretty.

Looking towards the Delaware Water Gap at the Riverview Overlook on the Cliff Trail
However, just beyond this fence, is where the real beauty lies. There are several designated overlooks along the 2.8 mile Cliff Trail, however at just about any point one can wander to the edge and behold the sweeping landscape below, made up of rocky cliff, farmland, the McDade Trail, the Delaware River, and the Kittatinny Ridge.

Looking back towards town along the Cliff Trail
On this day I followed the Cliff Trail down to its terminus at Raymondskill Falls. Raymondskill Falls are majestic falls surrounded with its own set of easy designated trails as well as bushwacked meandering sidetrails... however it is heavily frequented with tourists. Thus, why bother with all that, when I can enjoy somewhat lesser visited falls and on a weekday morning, probably completely uninhabited by the city folk. And so doubling back less than a 0.1 mile on the Cliff Trail, I turned left, following the yellow blazes of Hacker's Trail.

A portion of Hacker's Trail
The first 0.5m of Hacker's Trail looks almost identical to the way in which one has just come down off the Cliff Trail, but worry not, you are indeed on a different trail. Upon reaching the intersection with the Logger's Path and turning left, continuing to follow Hacker's Trail (turning right would lead you back to the Cliff Trail), the landscape changes. I was dropped yet further down, nearly to the moss-covered rocky banks of Raymondskill Creek. Here I passed rich woods of White Pine and Eastern Hemlock, as well as more Birch. The trail is more difficult to follow as it is less popular to head towards the real gem of this trail from this end. However, traveling in this direction, one is afforded side trails to the creek where tiny cascades follow over big black smooth rocks forming surprisingly deep pools along the way. I couldn't reach bottom in one pool I took a dip in the other day, although it looked unassuming at no more than 10 feet in circumference. When the creek is low, I have also walked the sun-dappled flat rocks that cradle the edges of creek all the way to the larger falls.

Hacker's Falls
Within just 0.6 m, I reached Hacker's Falls. I used to come here as a kid with my friends and swim the day away and many kids still do just the same. Although I have never dared, the craggy cliffs offer excellent cliff-jumping spots. But if you decide to go for it, make sure you know what you're doing as so many folks have gotten injured here jumping from these cliffs, the park service decided to close down the road that used to bring you to a trail that was a shorter walk to the falls.

The swimming hole at the base of Hacker's Falls
However, on this day, just as I had hoped, there wasn't another soul here, and so perfect for a dip and time to quite literally smell the flowers. Now I do apologize ahead of time, but I failed to bring my camera on this trek and so all these photos were taken with my phone. My phone is terrible for up-close shots, and so no flower faces. But along the rocks lining the far edge of the swimming hole I found a variety of Violet (Viola spp.) leaves, flowering Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and Blackberry (Rubus spp.)vines, as well as several showy Cardinal Flowers (Lobelia cardinalis). If you check out the scientific name, you can see that this too is a Lobelia, and thus related to Lobelia inflata. However whereas Lobelia inflata is rather unassuming with its tiny blue flowers and modest stature, Lobelia cardinalis can reach up to 5 feet tall (although these were only about 3 feet tall), and bears a spike of scarlet flowers each 1-1 1/2 inch long. It is a flower first spotted as a flash of red across a creek or narrow river. 

The other find was more Water Pennywort (Hydrocotyle americana), funny how once you identify a plant it simply seems to pop out at you everywhere you go, in the places you've probably overlooked it a hundred times before. I also had the pleasure of meeting Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia). This flower required my literally hanging onto the craggy cliffs to get a better look as it only grew atop the rock itself, making a home in the shallow soil collected there and the spray of the waterfall. The leaves of Harebell are so slender they barely look like leaves, but rather more like needles or tough grass. From what I understand, Harebell does bare larger heart-shaped basal leaves, however they are absent by the time it flowers.

On the Buchanan Trail
After playing around here for a long while, it was time to head back towards civilization. So, hopping back on Hacker's Trail, I headed for the Buchanan Trail which intersects within 0.5 m. This is the more heavily used route to reach the falls. However, before reaching the Buchanan Trail, take note that the falls are actually on a short side trail off of Hackers Trail, so within just 0.1 m, expect to reach an intersection with Hacker's Trail and turn right. Follow this 0.5 m and then turn left onto the orange-blazed Buchanan Trail which leads through sandy woods and past a meadow of Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Red Clover (Trifolium pratense), Goldrod (Solidago spp.), Daisies (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum), and Thistle (Circium spp.)  The Buchanan Trail will then lead 0.4 m to the parking area at Cliff Park off of Route 2001. Once here, I felt I had appreciated my feet enough and so called home for a ride. Although, I wouldn't want to wish my car into the shop again anytime soon, what a perfect way to spend the day.

Check out this link for a map of this area: http://www.nps.gov/dewa/planyourvisit/upload/mapCLIFFPARK.pdf

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Fresh Trail in the Milford Experimental Forest

Freshly cut trail in the Milford Experimental Forest
During the Festival of Wood two weekends ago I had the pleasure of getting to know and then sharing freshy cut trail within the Milford Experimental Forest. The house in which I grew up and am presently residing sits just outside the boundary of this 1,200 acre wood on Schocopee Road. If you've been following my blogs for the last few years, you have probably already seen mention of this land on numerous occasions. These are the woods in which I first came to love the out of doors, its plants, its animals, and the feeling of the dirt on my skin.

The Sawkill Stream leaving the swamp that can be found at the connecting point of the two main trails in the Milford Experimental Forest
There are, however, few trails through these woods. I usually always followed the course of the Sawkill Stream to keep direction or simply wandered off the gravel road that dissects the property and hoped for the best, either running into the stream or a familiar jumble of rocks or a sideways bending tree that told me where I was. The gas pipeline, as unromantic as that sounds, has always been one established "trail" that could be followed through here as well as a four-wheeler trail that ran alongside it that wasn't officially maintained until about 15 years ago, when Peter Pinchot opened the land up to public use. Before this, it was exclusive property of the Pinchot family, although Peter was always generous with allowing his neighbors to enjoy the land, neverminding my friends and I camping and exploring as we wished, my mother and I taking walks with the dogs, and giving my father permission to hunt turkey.

A rock cairn marking the trail
And so now, there is a second true trail. This new trail does not yet have a name but I think it needs one. Being that at its one terminus are experimental plantings of American Chestnut saplings, I am unofficially deeming it: The Chestnut Trail. A group of volunteers led by Robert Remillard have been hard at work on this trail since last year and the work is evident. What is most pleasing to me is that this trail now connects with the first established trail by simply doing an easy rock-hop over the stream through the swamp. I now have a perfect 2.6 mile trail running loop, with just a short .07 miles of that on gravel road. The Chestnut Trail is also where I led the plant walk during the weekend festival.

Thank you to the families that attended the plant walk - the children were an absolute delight, so attentive and inquisitive! Also ,thank you to those that visited the Conservancy table and purchased books!

And although I know these woods well, I have even met a new plant face along this trail...

Water Pennywort (Hydrocotyle Americana)
I have been familiar with the coastal Pennywort (Hydrocotyle) species, Marsh Pennywort (H.umbellata) and Large-Leaf Pennywort (H.bonariensis) since my first hike on the MST, but never had I met Water Pennywort (H.americana). It is easily identified as a Pennywort with its roundish leaf bearing scalloped margins, tiny star-shaped flowers that grow from the leaf axils, and by the way in which the plant creeps. However, what does distinguish it from coastal Pennywort is that the leaf stem does not attach directly to the center of the underside of leaf, but rather attaches at its heart-shaped base. Also dissimilar, are its numerous leaves arranged alternately along the stem. Coastal Pennywort, although spreading by runners, bears only basal leaves.

Water Pennywort (Hydrocotyle Americana) growing plentiful amongst various Violets (Viola spp.), False Nettle (Pilea pumila), Rough Bedstraw (Galium asprellum), Northern Willow Herb (Epilobium glandulosum), and Wood Sorrel (Oxalis spp.)
This Pennywort likes to grow with its roots in the water or moist soil. I found it along a shallow creek atop which had been laid several flat rocks for walking. This little nook is one of the richest habitats I've found along this new trail. Unfortunately, I have researched every plant book I have and done several google searches and can find no record of it being used as food...however also no record of it being poisonous. Therefore, I may just have to nibble a little bit of leaf and see how it goes. If this is an edible green growing abundantly from the pristine waters, I can't let it go to waste!

Indian Tobacco (Lobelia inflata) flower
Another intriguing plant that has made its home here is Indian Tobacco (Lobelia inflata).
It was once used widely in herbal medicine as a deobstruant (the action of breaking up stagnation/obstructions) and has the unique ability to enhance the actions of other herbs. It also has a history of use by Native Americans as a purgative. Lobeline opens the lungs and respiratory system allowing for deeper breathing, relaxes the nervous system, and can also induce vomiting therefore acting as a detox. When the leaves are chewed it has a similar taste to tobacco and a relaxing effect, therefore it could be used as a tobacco substitute.

The inflated seed pods of Indian Tobacco (Lobelia inflata)
The whole flowering plant may be used as medicine, although the seeds are the most potent. Contraindications are "feeling spacy" or nausea, the latter which can be prevented by taking as tincture as opposed to a tea. As a tincture, use only small amounts (5-15 drops) to treat illness. If this dosage does not affect the individual, then this medicine simply may not be what's needed.

Star Chickweed (Stellaria pubera)
And of course, how could I not mention the abundance of Star Chickweed (Stellaria pubera)! To find this delicious edible, you may have to venture left at the fork, heading towards a deer exclosure, just as the Chestnut Trail begins. Here there are abundant communities of this little flower to be found growing in the tall grasses. It seemed so long since I had seen Chickweed in flower, however not yet close enough to Fall to be expecting a second flowering, so I was rather excited to find these healthy beauties. The entire above-ground-parts are edible (leaves, stems, and flowers). Try them tucked into sandwiches and wraps or tossed in salads. They are light and crisp and easy to identify with their opposite leaves, 5 deeply cleft white petals (giving the appearance of 10), and black-tipped conspicuous stamen.


Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Festival of Wood

Cinquefoil (Potentilla spp.) is an incredibly abundant plant and known for both its astringency and anti-inflammatory properties. Make a strong tea of its leaves using equal parts herb and water and use as a soak for poison ivy!
Grey Towers Festival of Wood
Saturday, August 2nd, 10am - 5pm
Sunday, August 3rd, 10am -4pm
Vendors, Exhibits, and Music - Admission is Free
Wild Edible/Medicinal Plant Walk led by yours truly at the Milford Experimental Forest
Saturday, August 2nd, 10am -1:00 pm
Free, but pre-registration required (see below for link)

Come learn about your local wild medicinal and edible plants at this weekend's Festival of Wood at Grey Towers! I know that all of our local northeasterners are familiar with Grey Towers, but for those who are from out of town, this is the historical estate once belonging to Gifford Pinchot. Gifford Pinchot is considered the Father of Conservation. The home itself looks like a small castle and will be open for tours, but the grounds, in my opinion are even more lovely.

Here is the link for more info on Grey Towers and the Festival of Wood: http://greytowers.org/calendarofevents.html

There will be a host of artists showing their wares made of wood, local music and food, as well as information available from a variety of forest sustaining non-profits. You can find me at the Delaware Highland Conservancy table with my recently published book, A Guide to the Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Mountains to Sea Trail available for purchase. Remember although this trail is down south, most all of these plants thrive here in Pennsylvania as well! I will be also be leading a wild edible/medicinal plant walk at the Milford Experimental Forest on Schocopee Road. Pre-registration is required for the walk, so please fill out a quick form at this link to join in the fun: http://delawarehighlands.org/component/rsevents/event/82-familytreeseries?Itemid=619

I hope to see y'all there!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

MST Thru-hike 2014 Complete!

Atop Clingman's! The route that I traveled runs over those mountains, and more mountains, and more mountains, across foothills and farmland, through palms and sand, all the way to the sea.
Yesterday on July 23rd, I took my final steps up to Clingman's Dome, the highest peak in the Great Smokey Mountains at 6643 feet elevation, and second highest mountain east of the Mississippi. Beginning on May 3rd at Jockey's Ridge, atop an ever-shifting sand dune on the Outer Banks of NC, I traveled through salt spray and sand, past tobacco fields and cows and tractors, over beach, gravel, asphalt, rock, and trail, and finally following ridgeline and creek into the misty mountains of Appalachia. Now, after nearly 1200 miles, my trek is complete!

Hiking the Bodie Dike Trail on Hatteras Island
Walking through the ever-present melding of civilization and natural landscape in the Piedmont
Atop the rocky ridgeline heading further west and deeper into the Mountains
Although I had hiked this trail in 2011, headed eastbound, I had the opportunity to travel the new Cape Fear Arch Route through the Coastal Plain, hike miles and miles of new trail and designated greenway through the Piedmont, and enter into the Smokey Mountains via the new River Valley Route. It was a thrill to suddenly come upon the beloved places I remembered, but so often I found myself in awe at the views never before seen, challenged by the route not yet mapped, and meeting people I never would have known were it not for the trail meandering through their little town.

Giving some love to my two favorite trails: The MST and AT. Here at Clingman's Dome is where they meet. It's fitting that I finish on the trail on which I first discovered my love for long distance hiking.
I am truly grateful to have had the privilege to walk this trail, get to know its twists and turns, it lowlands and highlands, its plants and trees and critters, its generous people, cities and hollers all the better. I've had some folks ask me..."What was the best part?" or "What great insight did you have?" I've learned from previous hikes that these questions are too big to answer in the moment or even in a simple blog post. A thru-hike and the insights that it offers are a process. The insights bleed into every part of your life, the way you interact with your natural environment, with people, with society...and continue to affect the way in which you move through the world long after it is done. I encourage anyone who has ever considered a thru-hike, of course along the MST, but along any long distance trail, to DO IT. The time will never magically present itself. You have to carve it out. And it's time well spent. It is raw and real and what it means to truly live.

My morning summit atop Clingman's Dome
Okay, so to give you the scoop on the last couple of days and the last couple of steps leading up to the summit. Leaving Sylva I walked 20 miles by road before hitting trail again in the Smokies. I walked through the tiny town of Dillsboro and then along the winding 4-lane Rt. 74, and finally along country roads that led me past small swaths of mountain farmland and up steep hills along the edge of the Cherokee Reservation. The Tuckaseegee River was a constant at my side and the mountains grew larger on the horizon with every step I took. 

Deep Creek in the Smokey Mountains
I spent one quiet night by myself at a campsite along Deep Creek and then spent most of the whole next day walking along beside its moss lined and rock strewn mountain waters. I made sure to take one last dip while taking a break for lunch and although it was incredibly refreshing, it was so frigid, I promptly lost feeling in all my fingers and toes. Then it was 2000 feet up Fork Ridge Trail to the Mt. Collins Shelter. Here I had a dear friend and hiking partner meeting me for my last miles as well as a slew of awesome fellow hikers to join in my final night on the trail. FreeWil and I hiked together for a good portion of New England on the AT in 2008, we also summited Katahdin together. It would be a treat to have his company on yet another summit. And as for the crowd at the shelter, I couldn't have asked for a better group of folks- among them were AT alum Mr. Blunt, several hardcore section-hikers, Kirk with his avid-reader son and monkey-limbed nephew, and a painter of rhodo thickets, essentially a good festive crowd to share in whiskey and laughter and stories.

In the morning, I had just 3.5 miles to go to the summit. FreeWil and I took our time, climbing the last 1000 feet to the top. The fragrant Fir and Spruce were ever-present and the trail was fairly easy with large rocks to hop and dry brown dirt framed by moss and ferns on either side. Once at the top, however, as you can see, the summit was socked in by fog. It lent its own atmosphere to the finish, but I desperately wanted to see some views and simply hang about in the sun at the base of the tower. FreeWil and I took a couple of photos and then it promptly started to rain a cold, steady rain. We retreated to the visitor center a half mile down to await another friend's arrival.

The Great Robino and I at the top!
 By 2:00 in the afternoon, my dear friend, Robin arrived to join in the celebration and had apparently brought the sun bottled up with her which she promptly released atop the dome, parting the clouds and bringing warm sun for the rest of the afternoon. Robin also was responsible for delivering the proper summit attire. You see, you simply can't finish a long trail in the grubby clothes you have worn the entire hike, you must be certain to be dressed for the occasion. And so, what is more fitting for a two-time thru-hike on the MST than a pair of zebra-print galoshes, a gold rain jacket, red feather earrings, and a silver scarf?

The Botanical Hiker atop Clingman's Dome
FreeWil and I made a point to get a pic in while the sun was actually shining. I lent him bling (notice silver scarf) for the photo...

FreeWil and I at the top
Now please, don't let me paint the picture that we had Clingman's Dome all to ourselves. Hardly. There must have been hundreds of people that came and went from that Dome that day. It detracts a bit from the special moment for sure, but once The Botanical Hiker was on the scene in style, the onlookers actually became a integral part of the experience. It was a trip to have a complete stranger give me hug and congratulate me. As I walked the catwalk of the observation tower, Robin took a moment to explain to a passerby "Pardon my friend, she is a celebrity!" To which the passerby replied, "She looks like she's from New York!" To which I, in New Yorker frankness replied, "I am!"

Posing with the final (or first)  MST sign - behind me you can see the tower. This is a nearly 50 foot tower with a long winding ramp leading to the top. It is really rather space-age for the top of a mountain, but it affords those who visit to see the mountains for miles in all directions

View from atop Clingmans Dome

And so now, I head back to New York to family and friends and woods that I have missed. I have a couple of book events I'll be attending to there, but then it will be time for a relocation. That location is yet to be determined, but I am on the fence between moving further into upstate NY in preparation for another long trail or back to sweet Asheville to immerse myself in the MST and these mountains I also consider home awhile longer.

The blog will be continuing, as I will post more events having to do with not only, A Guide to the Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Mountains to Sea Trail, but future plant walks and classes, herbal and hiking endeavors. It will also continue to be an educational source for learning about your local plants and trails.
Thank you all for supporting me in this journey! You make the trail what it is! And it's been one helluva trek!!!

Hiking on....