The weather today could not have been more splendid – all day long. Clear blue skies, warm temps, and a light breeze. Asheville had predicted rain, hail and strong winds. Whew!
The trail began in a thick Red Spruce and Hemlock forest, filled with various mosses, lycopodium, and lichen. Many of the Hemlocks were in sad shape due to a little aphid called the Wooly Adelgid. This little guy injects toxins into the twig tips that cause the tree to both loose its needles in greater numbers and makes it difficult for it to sprout new tips. If you've ever seen soapy looking stuff on hemlock needles, this is most likely what it was. However, I also spotted many that did indeed have nice fresh light green tips, and though I was tempted to pinch them off and nibble, I let them be. Lining the edges of the narrow, eroded and rocky trail, were patches of Carolina Spring Beauty. These are edible as well, both above ground parts (flower, stem, and leaves), as well as the root which from what I hear is potato-like and can be prepared as such. I have only nibbled the above ground parts, which are deelish- crisp and light. However these should only be enjoyed where they are in abundance. Creeping Bluets also appeared in soft blue bursts along the trail. Above ground parts are edible in these little guys as well, just pinch off at base and pop(!) in your mouth.
The sun shone in between the trees and there were many opportunities in which the trail rounded a bend just right and the woods opened up to reveal the layers upon layers of mountains in the distance, cloaked in haze. Now and again the aroma of sweet drying pine wafted up from the forest floor and I was in heaven.
Leaving the AT, I crossed Clingman's Dome Rd and continued onto the Fork Ridge Trail. I was greeted on either side by thick patches of Mayapple and Virginia Waterleaf, interspersed with enormous- headed Dandelion. Here the trail went gradually downhill (and con't to do so the entire rest of the day, easy on the lungs and quads, hard on the soles of the feet and shoulders). The woods completely changed here. Now fewer Hemlock and Spruce and more Yellow Birch and Cherry that were just beginning to leaf, and flowering Hobble Bush and Raspberries. The Spring Beauties became much thicker as did the Bluets and the unfurling papery fiddleheads were easier to spy without all the drying pine needles and moss. The Trout Lily flowers were open and nodding, their speckled orange petals folded back. There were several kinds of Trillium, which I continued to see on and off throughout the day – Painted, Wake Robin, and Large Flowering. Star Chickweed also joined the show, as did Meadow Rue, various Toothworts (still in flower!), the tiniest little white violets I have ever seen in my life- I believe these were Sweet White Violet, Indian Cucumber, various lilies unknown to me, Dutchman's Breeches (w/o the breeches), and the periodic Buckeye sapling.
While in this much more green and moist (little drops literally kept falling from the tree tops and though the ground was dry, all the plants appeared freshly misted), I saw my first Miami Mist. I have never seen such a thing in my life. It is a little white flower with five petals that are fringed on the tips, the leaves are lobed and tiny, without stalks (at least those that are closest to the flower). While taking a moment to figure out what the heck I was looking at, I heard some very noisy rustling up on the embankment beside me. Basically at this point the trail had been winding around the outside contour of the mountain, so there was a steep embankment on my right and a steep slope to my left. I went very quiet and knew, right away, this was no squirrel. After a few minutes of staring into the woods hoping to catch a glimpse of whatever creature this was, I took a look down at the trail for clues. I immediately saw the evidence of Wild Boar- torn up vegetation, deep holes, and broken roots. These guys wreak havoc in the Smokies. And though I've heard them at night, snorting and such, I'd never seen one- until that moment. I caught a glimpse of his tail whipping back and forth through the leaves and also his blackish-brown fur. I then decided it was time to hike on and as I did, I gave him a start too, as he let out a big snort and rustled further down the trail, unfortunately in the same direction I was headed. However, he was soon immersed in his rooting and I hiked on.
As I wound around the mtn, the weather alternated from hot and humid and sunny to shaded and cool and breezy. Continuing to drop in elevation, I soon found myself amongst towering maples and oaks and thick rhododendron. I began to get concerned at this point, as the trail was getting very overgrown and I hadn't seen a single white dot marking my way since I crossed the road. Finally, I took a look at the map, and saw that I must surely still be on the trail, as there was none other to be on. So I kept walking.
Soon I could hear the rushing creek below, where I thought my campsite must be (Deep Creek Campsite). At this lower elevation a mixture of hardy upper elevation plants as well as common “weeds” began to appear: blueberry bushes (w/o flowers or berries lined the trail as well as galax, cinquefoil, parasitic squaw root, cranesbill, and Marsh Blue Violet, as well as tall Canadian Violets (good for nibbling, with a minty aftertaste). I also saw Wild Geranium, Dutchman's Pipe, Smilax (more nibbles), Wild Yam, and Pedicularis, and the first Sassafras of the trip.
Finally at 6pm, I rolled into camp, more than ready to be done. But just before the campsite, I had to ford a small ice cold stream. So off came the sneakers and on went the crocs. Cold water never felt so good. The site is nice and open in a small clearing and all I can hear is the rushing of Deep Creek.
I am all alone, but I can hear the voices of friends and family in my head as I prepare dinner, set up camp, and stare off into woods. I have taken to talking to myself a lot this afternoon and even more this evening, which is unusual for me. But, I suppose as long as I keep my monologues confined to the trail, I should be alright, right?