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 And to my Asheville 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:

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:

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:

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....

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Final Asheville Event

I love the hell outta this trail!
Please join me for my final thru-hiking book event! This will not only be a presentation about my recently published, A Guide to the Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Mountains to Sea Trail, but a celebration of my completion of my 2014 thru-hike of the Mountains to Sea Trail from the Outer Banks to Clingman's Dome. And I have just the venue...not only is Black Dome an outfitters, but they have a bar serving the finest microbrews in the Asheville area! Come learn about the trail, the book, and enjoy a cold one!

A Guide to the Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Mountains to Sea Trail Presentation and Thru-hike Celebration at Black Dome Mountain Sports, 140 Tunnel Rd, Asheville NC 28805
Thursday, July 24th at 6pm
Hope to see you there!

Clingman's Here I Come!

View from atop Chestnut Ridge
This was one of the very last views I can remember seeing...which was this past Wednesday morning. I have hiked through some incredibly special parts of the trail and did manage to capture some of the plant life, however as for trail and scenery shots, eh not so much. My views have been blankets of clouds, which do lend a majestic atmosphere to a mountaintop nonetheless and the trail has been a splish-splashing wet rock, green moss, deep mud kind of experience, all with too much rain to take out the camera. The plant photos I managed to catch before the rain began!

The Middle Prong Wilderness making up just 8 miles of the MST, but sandwiched between Pisgah National Forest and the Nantahala National Forest, offering the hiker a seamless wilderness experience
 To catch y'all up, I left Asheville and hiked gradually up on easy well-graded trails towards Mount Pisgah. The first day out of Asheville was hot and humid and actually rather stifling, the first I'd had on the trail since the east, but by the second day after gaining a over 2000 feet elevation and reaching over 5700 feet at Pisgah's summit, the cool weather set in. I'm talkin' true mountain air, the kind that makes your lungs expand, makes each step feel a lil' stronger, and that smell of what I call the "cotton-candy" pine. I have yet to figure out just which one it is, but breathe deep and be mindful next time you're at that elevation, you're bound to catch just a passing waft of its sweet smelling sap.

RipeWineberries (Rubus phoenicolasuis) - notice the very hairy sepals and the leftover yellow receptacle - this is characteristic of Wineberries. The entire plant is wooly, with the stems often being covered in a red wool and the undersides of the leaves in a thick white wool. The berries are considered raspberries and are hollow when plucked, leaving the receptacle behind. Leaflets number just 3, with the terminal leaflet being the largest.
Along the way, I had the pleasure of eating my first Wineberries of the season that seemed to be blushing red everywhere I looked. In fact, I notice lots of berries and plants already going to seed. For us, it still seems the height of the season, but for many of the plants they are already preparing to for fall. I saw this in the flowering Wood Nettle (Laportea Canadensis), bright red Trillium berries (Trillium spp.), and Clintonia (Clintonia spp.).

Trillium (Trillium spp.) berry of a Trillium's single large flower - these berries are NOT edible and will produce gastric upset if consumed. Trilliums are a rare and habitat sensitive plant, so best to simply admire them anyhow.
Oh and I also must mention, I had this handsome man as my hiking companion on the first day out of Asheville. He hiked 19 miles, keeping up the whole time (well most of the time), and drinking and bathing in every stream we passed...

Me and Harvey. Harvey is usually Rachel's main squeeze, but I got to enjoy his company on this day!
It was the night leaving Mount Pisgah that the rain first began. Although I had to don cold wet clothes every morning, at least I was offered a reprieve throughout the majority of each day... that is for a couple of days. After reaching Mount Pisgah, I enjoyed a subtle downhill to Chestnut Ridge and then another gradual descent to Yellowstone Prong and Graveyard Fields. This area lies just outside of the Shining Rock Wilderness and is astoundingly beautiful, known for its Red Spruce (Picea rubens), Fraser and Balsam Fir (Abies fraseri and Abies balsamea) trees. A popular swimming spot known as Skinny Dip Falls lies here, tumbling between the boulders of the Yellowstone Prong. And lucky me, I had some ladies meet me at those falls...

Me and my two lovely ladies from Asheville, Robin and Rachel - they actually managed to jump into those ice cold waters! I, on the other hand, was still cold from the soaking rain that had dumped on me the night before, and so enjoyed being wrapped in my thermal, basking in a single sunbeam, and eating all the goodies they brought to share with me!
I quickly ascended from the 5000 mountain valley of Graveyard Fields to the mountaintops surrounding Black Balsam and Sam Knob, at least one of these bearing a name, Silvermine Bald. The views were breath-taking and the air was again cool and crisp. On this night, I had the pleasure of camping in an open high-canopy pine woods on a bed of dark red needles. On the ridge I could see the colors put off by the setting sun, the night was void of sound, and in the morning I was awoken by a the song of a single bird.

Heading towards camp in the diminishing light near Black Balsam
As I left here in the morning, I headed into the thick wood woods of the Middle Prong Wilderness, one of my most favorite portions of the MST. The best way that I can describe this area is as a mountain-top garden. It is not at all orderly like a garden but the way that the trail is cut through the thin black soil, exposing the, most often, flat slabs of rock below, leaving the trail to be framed by bright green moss and blooms of white lichen, gives the suggestion of a definite pathway through the plants. The curling bark of Yellow Birch (Betula allegheniensis) lies strewn about as does fallen clumps of Usnea (Usnea spp.) and as always in these high elevation woods, the Rhododendron and Mountain Laurel creep in from all sides. Through all of this are many skinny trickling streams, with waters so clear that you can see perfectly all the different shades of brown and gray and cream one could ever imagine in the pebbles that make up the stream floors.

Usnea aka Old Man's Beard (Usnea spp.) - this is a potent medicine, possessing antibiotic, anti-viral, anti-fungal properties. It was historically used to pack soldier's wounds when modern medicines were not available in the field. It is now largely used by herbalists as a general antibiotic and more specifically in use against urinary tract infections. Making a tea of it will extract some of its constituents but making an alcohol tincture is more effective.
It was in the Middle Prong Wilderness that I had the pleasure of meeting Becca Day and her friends Claire and Debbie. I met Becca by running into her on the trail and asking her with great trepidation, "Is this the MST?" To which she replied, "Yeah!" Oh thank God. Because this is a designated wilderness area, there are few blazes and many side trails where hikers have wondered off and gotten lost, therefore I was doing my damnedest to stay on track. After learning I was thruhiking Becca happened to offer up her home when I came through Balsam Gap in the next day or two. Well...let's just say I took Becca up on that offer after hiking in a torrential downpour the next morning for 3 hours at 5000 feet over steep rocky trail and across the tops of blowing wind balds. Okay, so maybe after I realized my hands were so cold I couldn't tie my own shoes and in a dumb-handed frenzy threw my tent down on the side of the trail, ripped off my wet clothes, got inside tried not to get anything else wet, put on every article of dried clothing I had, got inside my sleeping bag, and then proceeded to eat half my food bag, fall asleep with head on said food bag, and wake up to the rain still pouring down...I called Becca...asking her to meet me 7 miles before Balsam Gap. Becca, thank you, you were a true Trail Angel! Oh yeah, and then Becca, her husband, and I all ate Mexican and drank Angry Orchard. Does it get any better than that?

A snail - I saw so many of these guys, I had to be careful not to crush them underfoot- at least they have been enjoying the rain!
And so it not only rained all day that day, but I started off in the early morning the following day in more rain. I spent the first half of the day descending, hiking at a lower, and therefore warmer elevation and had some good body heat built up by the time I again had to ascend to Waterrock Knob. Let me tell ya, I was quite the sight, walking up the side of the Blue Ridge Parkway in tiny shorts and rain jacket with the hood pulled as tight around my head as possible dripping wet in the rain and thick fog, passing drivers probably thought me an apparition. Through that fog I simply followed the enormous rock faces on one side, all with streaming waterfalls, and the dark green pines lining the cliffs on the other. And good news, hikers, Waterrock Knob Visitor Center at the summit is OPEN! And they have a fireplace. Upon reaching here, I promptly threw down my wet gear and plopped down on the floor in front of that fire and ate a snickers.

The sign telling me Clingman's is only getting closer!
And now I have officially begun the River Valley Route! This route descends from the mountains after summiting Black Rock and Yellowface Bald, which I did yesterday evening, to the Tuckaseegee River. Here I will follow roads for about 20 miles into the Great Smokey Mountains. Two days of hiking here, and I'm at Clingman's Dome. All I can say is, "Clingman's, I'm comin' for ya!" This is one of two alternate routes to avoid walking on the parkways. The other route goes largely through the Smokies with this route has been described as the less rugged of the two...well, do not hit those woods on the other side of Waterrock Knob and expect a nice easy walk in Pinnacle Park. Blackrock and the West Fork Trail that leads you over it's summit is incredibly rugged with much boulder scrambling and then a descent of over 700 feet in 0.5 mile. This small section was also some of the most beautiful trail I've seen along the MST yet, so also definitely a portion to be experienced.

The countryside of Sylva, a little town along the edge of the Tuckaseegee River and that sits at the base of the Waterrock Knob, Black Rock, Yellowface, and Pinnacle.
And so after raining all night long last night, I awoke this morning to mere mist and could just feel that the sun would be coming out. Seven miles later, as I entered the town of Sylva, the sun was so bright my eyes were mere slits and the sun so hot I wondered what on earth I was doing with that Mount Mitchell fleece in my pack. Sylva is the definition of mountain town and I have so far thoroughly enjoyed its amenities: City Lights Bookstore and Café, the Economy Inn, and later, a brew at the Innovator Brewery. Delicious little eateries also abound here.

Tomorrow...into the SMOKIES! I will do one small post following this one with an announcement for my final book event in Asheville at Black Dome, but my next full post will be upon COMPLETION!

I must leave you with the photo of one more friend that I met during an actually beautiful, fall-like, crisp day in the Middle Prong Wilderness...

Speckles, the Spiritual Llama. I want nothing more than to leave it at this, but I'll give you the backstory. Speckles is part of a team of llamas that are part of an organization called Challenge Adventure. The kids that were on this trip informed me of this particular llama's name and his role amongst the other llamas. After I learned this, I felt rather honored I'd had the opportunity to pet him.